I was reflecting back on a recent post, The Biggest Problem Facing Mankind, and a few more thoughts popped up that expand the topic. When I thought about what I had written, I concluded that it’s not so much that our feelings determine our actions as how we act on our reactions to our feelings. With most of us, our feelings are something deep-seated, something from earliest childhood that are likely inherent in our nature. Feelings of fear, anger, joy are universal. We all have them, some strong, some weak to non-existent. We share these deepest feelings with other animals and the brain uses them to generate automatic reactions that benefit our survival. When fear hits, we’re ready to fight or flee. Perhaps it’s a feeling of something like curiosity that has us begin our journey of thinking. Our wee-baby-self wonders about things, about everything and that leads us to mimic and ultimately to talk, walk and learn as human beings.
Something is going on in the brain as this happens, chemical reactions, neural pathways formed, I don’t have the knowledge to say much more about this. What we practice over and over becomes what we’re good at. Back at this wee stage we practice talking and walking and quickly we master it. Soon we can do it automatically. The metaphor that I like for describing this is that we carve grooves into our mind. As we travel again and again through these grooves, we deepen them until they are habit.
It was this habitual way of being that I’ve been thinking about. I was reminded of the expression, “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man”. It seems to be uncertain who first uttered these words, but the message is unchanging. Those earliest lessons last forever. Perhaps the grooves worn into the mind become permanent and cannot be eradicated. I know from personal experience that my three sisters and I carved deep grooves into our minds when we were all younger than seven, typical behaviours that had me tease and bully them and them do the same in kind. Today, with the four of us all in our seventies, we can revert to being toddlers in an instant and be teasing each other without noticing – and finding our tempers boiling yet again. Sound familiar? I find myself saying things to them that I wouldn’t say to anyone else. Without doubt what I am doing is harm, something that I am morally committed not to do. Now, in our defence we do tend to catch ourselves early in these childish behaviours and stop any escalation of our reactions, but it still happens as those well-worn grooves take over.
What I’ve taken on recently is to expand that process of “catching” myself. A friend put me on to a book, The Presence Process, by Michael Brown, that addresses our human tendency to act from reactions and instead learn to master responding consciously in a more constructive manner. Perhaps this is the best we can do, learn new ways of acting in place of those harmful reactions.
An example of this responding rather than reacting from the well-worn grooves in my life is my road rage reaction. I’m sure I picked this up from Dad at a very early age. We never drove on a road that wasn’t crowded with assholes. “Signal, you asshole!” “The light’s green asshole, you can go now!” I can understand how a five-year-old could acquire such judgements as easily as I learned to be careful with hot cocoa. If Dad said those things, they must be true. These days I practice catching myself when something triggers me when I’m driving. The response I use to bring me peace is simply saying to myself, “It wasn’t personal.” I think that’s the best I can do, catch the anger in its earliest moment and bring up a conscious choice that soothes the beast.
I’m not sure that anyone has ever claimed to have a method by which we can eradicate undesired practices from the brain. Perhaps it can’t be done. Meanwhile it’s up to each of us to take on whatever mind technologies we find that help us in becoming masterful at doing what’s right rather than doing what’s harmful.
Isn’t that what a thinking being would do?