Our brains are excellent at keeping us alive. They keep all the functions of your body going and running harmoniously. They will tell you when you’re hungry, thirsty or if you need to go to the bathroom. They will alert you to dangers real or imagined.
But our brains are awful at making us happy. Let’s take the act of thinking. As a species, we tend to believe in the validity of our thoughts. After all, you’ve never been given any reason to think otherwise.
But is that true? In neuroscience, something called the Default Mode Network (DMN) is responsible for much of our thinking. DMN is the background noise of consciousness, the constant chatter of daydreams, mind-wandering, or just thinking about one’s self or others. Most of this chatter is harmless. It allows us to plan for our days, fantasize about vacations we want to take or people we have crushes on.
But what happens when you examine the granular details of the DMN. One of the great insights of meditation is seeing how random the DMN is. Buddhists call it “monkey mind,” because our minds are just wandering and jumping from tree branch to tree branch. In deep meditation, I have observed my thinking with an objectivity that is impossible in daily life and, it is far more arbitrary than one might think. My thinking is mostly a hodgepodge of scheduling anxiety for the future– what clients I need to see today, what should I make for dinner, what do I want to do this weekend will I or anyone I know get COVID and die–, random sexual thoughts, and feeling of shame about the past. It is hard to stay present on the breath or on the body, which is what meditation requires. I wish I could say my internal dialogue was coherent or that I am in control of thinking. But my experience tells me that I am not.
As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that my thinking isn’t who I am (I hesitate to make this a universal statement so I only speak for myself). In my estimation, my thinking brain is the seed of self-consciousness as it uses memory as a self-referential tool, creating a constant past and future self. (As I said above, my DMN seems to mostly concern the past and future, rarely the present). However, the past and future selves are illusory. They do not exist except in my own head. Even memories that can feel so real are just projections of our brains. (Have you remembered something than wondered if it really happened? How do we know?)
Thinking, of course, has an evolutionary purpose: survival. Considering the future– saving money, eating dinner, making sure we make our meetings or sleep enough– is about security and ensuring that we stay alive. Considering the past and our past shames is about survival too. Humans are social creatures. As Harry Harlow once said, “a lone monkey is a dead monkey.” Our brains are primed to reconsider all of our “mistakes,” about all the ways we have not been good enough and risked losing our social support network.
One can consider the “thinking self” the “actual self.” Most of us identify completely with our thoughts and believe that thinking is “me.” Descartes famously expressed, “Cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am.”), and the statement became one of the fundamentals of Western thought.
But there is another way to consider the self in a tradition that I am very familiar with, Buddhism. Buddhism begins with the Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth in Buddhism is life is dukkha. The word “dukkha” is often translated into “suffering” in English, which mostly conveys its original meaning. But I’ve heard others translate the word as “stress.” So one way to think of the first noble truth is life is stressful as hell. Let’s ignore the obvious pains and suffering of mortal life such as death and loss and consider the mundane stresses of existence. How about driving to work in traffic? Or taking the subway to work? As a New Yorker, who has taken thousands of subway commutes to work, my subway rides are often awful, painstaking experiences. The constant delays, the random guy throwing a fire extinguisher into a subway car I was on (yes, that happened), the near stabbings I’ve witnessed… not a ton of fun. Of course, most of the time things were fine. But every so often they were not.
Let’s consider the “thinking self” in this situation. What might my thoughts say during a stressful ride? Maybe something like “I fucking hate the MTA” or “I’m going to be late again, my boss is going to be mad,” or “I really need to leave earlier, what is wrong with me.” All those thoughts are valid ways to respond to a stressful situation. But maybe a better question is how useful are those thoughts?
In my experience, many of our thoughts are not useful. But as I discussed earlier, we don’t have control of how we think about a situation if left to our own devices. This is where self-awareness, acceptance letting go can come in. Self-awareness in this context means being aware of your thoughts and emotional reaction to a situation. Acceptance means accepting a situation just as it because you are powerless to change it at the moment, and letting go means to go of your anxiety and need for control at that moment.
None of this is easily done. Mindfulness is helpful as I’ve suggested elsewhere. Just noticing our breathing and our anxieties and then adding in a little self-compassion– the revolutionary idea of giving yourself a break when you feel not good enough– can be extremely helpful in dealing with anxiety and stress.
Just to be clear, it will not make your stress and anxiety go away. This is important to say because many people want a panacea for their “negative” feelings. Stress and anxiety are endemic to the human condition. There is nothing you can do to change that. But what you can do is learn to be just a bit more self-aware so you can let go of control just a tiny bit. Over time as you learn how to do this, you can find a sense of peace and equanimity.