More About Suffering: How Our Minds Help and Hurt Us
We humans are brilliant problem solvers.
If you look around you, chances are that what you see was an attempt by someone to solve a problem, come up with a better solution, or improve upon a situation. Research shows that the ability to master the environment, whether it be to learn how to make a fire, create a bow and arrow, or design a smart phone app, comes from our ability to think relationally. This means that we can draw connections between words in our minds and create new relationships. This may not seem like a big deal when you first consider it but here’s an example.
Let’s say I give you a list of words:
and I ask you to cook something for me.
It is highly likely that without much prompting, your mind gets to work. Perhaps, you think about boiling an egg and you quickly think through the process of heating water, dropping in the egg, etc. Or maybe you have more experience cooking and you consider how you might poach the egg instead of boiling it. Or perhaps you think about how you don't like eggs and you wonder how you can get someone else to cook the egg.
Our minds create relationships.
Here’s the important part of this – I just gave you a list of words, not the actual objects. A pattern of light on your computer screen that looks like this: egg actually triggers significant relationships in your brain to the sound “egg” and the oblong object that comes from a chicken. It also triggers memories of your experience with eggs, how you may have cooked them in the past, etc. Even if you’ve never cooked an egg, your mind can start coming up with possible solutions to how to cook one.
This is a simple example, but it is important. Our minds are marvelous problem solvers – we can think through possible solutions in our heads, test out different scenarios and identify a way forward to solve a problem, such as avoiding being attacked by a bear, building a fire in the woods, and cooking an egg, all by building mental relationships.
Our relational brains can cause suffering.
However, this ability to think relationally sometimes causes us suffering. Here’s another example:
Here are some more words, merely patterns of light on your computer screen:
World Trade Center
Chances are, your mind immediately related these patterns of lights on your computer screen to the sound of the words “nine…eleven…world trade center…” and also immediately related to memories and thoughts that were possibly sad, maybe upsetting, and even traumatic, depending on your experience. Patterns of light on your computer screen relate to words and sounds and memories that relate to other experiences which may be very negative for you.
This ability to relate words, thoughts, memories, and feelings, while helping us to problem solve and manage in the world, can get in the way of us living our valued lives.
How all this relating in our minds works in our daily lives.
Here’s one more example:
You receive an invitation to a party that is next weekend. Without even noticing it, your mind gets to work, “solving” problems and preparing for the party:
What will I wear?
Should I take a bus or drive to the party?
I wonder who will be there?
Should I bring a gift? Maybe a bottle of wine?
If, however, you have a history of social anxiety, your mind will also get to work, “solving” problems:
How will I talk to people?
What if I say something embarrassing?
What if I spill my drink on someone?
I hate parties. I'm always miserable.
What if people laugh at me?
Maybe staying home will be better.
You get the idea – the same mind that problem solves can get us caught up in suffering and prevent us from living our lives.
Something to try.
Beginning to notice that our mind's problem solving abilities aren't always helpful can take some practice. Noticing the "chatter" can help. Begin by taking a deep slow breath. Notice the thoughts in your head. Start to identify what your mind is saying in the moment about whatever is going on externally. You may start to notice this problem solving ability and the relationships your mind creates. You may also notice where this problem solving isn't helpful.
A big part of therapy is learning to have a different relationship with your thoughts and feelings: your entire internal experience. Part of this work is realizing that our wonderful brains serve us well in many circumstances, but can contribute to our suffering in others. Being able to step back and observe the mind at work, without getting tangled in what the mind is saying, is a significant part of the therapy. There are a variety of ways of doing this, most having to do with creating space to observe your internal experience and not getting tangled up in it.