Lobotomies and imaginary snakes

Snake by Parker Knight

It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.

This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.

We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.

It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.

This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.

In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.

The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.

Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.

And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.

We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.

Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.

But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.

The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.

This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.

It can also make us feel like shit.

The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.

The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.

It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.

Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.

This post riffs on ideas from Tara Brach, David McRaney and Seth Godin.

Beaster: The demon god of chocolate cravings

Painting of Mara tempting the Buddha by Tinlawin

I have a pretty wicked sweet tooth. I suspect I have about 20 of them. Not for long perhaps. Sweet teeth are like the suicide bombers of the dental realm – their core desire is incompatible with their continued existence. If they get what they want, they won’t be around for very long.

After eating anything savoury, particularly anything salty, my 20 foot soldiers of desire teeth kick into action and create a craving for sugar so strong that I’m often half way into some kind of chocolate monstrosity before I know what’s happened. If I do realise, I very rarely spit it out. I normally say “oh, well. It would be a shame to toss this out,” and so I jam the entire thing into my cake hole, muttering something about hungry kids in Africa and then my body downloads a few gigabytes of regret.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Resisting desire like this is tough. It’s self generating, and so fighting it tends to give it more power. When you suppress it, you’re not getting rid of it, you’re just packing it into a smaller space – making it more dense. More focussed. You’re spring loading your desire, and given any opportunity, it will break out with an explosive power directly proportional to the degree to which you tried to keep it down.

It seems really powerful, when you think about it like this. And it is. You suppress the feelings, at the cost of being eternally vigilant. You have to play a perfect game to keep them down, but they only have to leverage one opportunity, one moment of weakness and they’ve won.

But this power is really brittle. In only works in one direction. It only grows when you resist or run away from it.

This kind of power doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny and is absolutely devastated by a loving curiosity. Willingly get closer to it, examine it with curiosity, and before your eyes, it’s power will diminish.

In the buddhist mythology, this is known as “inviting Mara to tea”. It comes from the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, during which the Demon god Mara assaulted the Buddha with doubt, fear, lust and anger. Mara failed to corrupt the Buddha and left on the morning of his enlightenment, but would periodically return.

“Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”

Tara Brach

The story is a great illustration of the power of leaning into difficult feelings with a view to depriving them of they illusory power.

If you want some chocolate, if you have an itchy head, if you crave a cigarette, you have a couple of options:

  1. you can satisfy the craving by eating, scratching or smoking
  2. you can resist the craving or run away from it, in which case you’re spring loading it for a time when you’re not so strong, or
  3. you can invite Mara to tea, and sit down with the experience and examine it.

This last option is interesting because it tends to have the same effect as what you want from options 1 and 2, but without the negative consequences. The price that you pay in this case, is attention, effort and time. It requires your attention to realise what’s going on. It is a brief effort to stop and sit and turn the craving over in your mind. It will take a moment to watch all the power fall away.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t banish the craving forever. Like Mara, it will probably come back, but each time it does, it has to start from scratch. It doesn’t have any residual power from your last encounter.

It’s also worth noting, that this kind of metaphor or mythological framework is just as illusory as the power of desire. Mara doesn’t exist, and neither does the tea. But they are both helpful tools for dealing with powerful behavioural and chemical processes which happen in our body at a speed and scale which are difficult for us to fathom.

Sometimes it’s helpful to move the fight to a battleground where we have more options, where we’re more familiar. Since we’re creatures driven by story and narrative, mythological stories resonate with us pretty deeply. Hence Jesus et al.

So, back to the chocolate.

If you don’t want to contribute to the world’s alarming Diabetes statistics and but you’re staring down the barrel of 20 sweet teeth screaming at you for sugar, then all you need to do is step a little closer. Invite those teeth to tea, sit down for a second and look at what they want. Approach their demands with curiosity, turning them over in your mind and then watch them dissolve.

It’s surprisingly easy, the difficulty comes in remembering to do it. Mara moves quickly, riding in on a storm of fresh horses with the wind at her back. You have to be prepared to get out in front of her and just sit.

But I figure, if you’ve got time to smoke or eat chocolate, you’ve got time to have a cup of tea with an imaginary, demonic, manifestation of human desire for the purposes of combatting the impulses of invisible chemical forces at war in your brain. Right?


If you like this, please share it. It’s hugely appreciated.

The difference between acceptance and being a doormat

Much of our anxiety and suffering comes from the fact that the world isn’t what we want it to be.

We see situations and people which could be so much better and think, “if only they were different”.

When the reality of the world, collides and conflicts with our models and expectations, we experience cognitive dissonance. We realise that something is out of joint and either we, or the world (or both) will need to change if we’re to feel better.

Typically the world – and the billions of people in it – is so big and indifferent and external and out of our control, it doesn’t change (at least without a good deal of effort). So the burden of change naturally falls to us.

But surprisingly, changing our personal attitudes and beliefs is difficult as well. Often this is because we’ve emotionally invested so much into them that we feel like we’re losing when we let them go. We also often feel that by recognising the status quo for what it is and accepting it, that we’re in some way condoning it in a way which compromises our beliefs. That by accepting what we think is wrong, we’re being a doormat and letting our situation or peers walk right over us.

Neither of these are actually true, but treating them as if they are is our biggest barrier to moving forward.

When we experience conflict between what should be, and what is, we resist it. This resistance (as opposed to the other Resistance I like to write about), arises from our acknowledgement that something needs to change, and our fear that the burden of change might fall to us.

This is the behaviour which causes us to cling to old beliefs when we see compelling evidence to the contrary. This is the behaviour which causes us to avoid conflict with those who challenge our ideas. This is the behaviour which turns away from the waves instead of facing directly into them.

This resistance has a formidable stranglehold on our behaviour and can… well… make us act like a bit of a dick. But what we don’t often realise, is that it’s power is entirely illusory and self generated. It’s not an external force, it’s one that we ignite, fuel and perpetuate ourselves. And just as naturally as we can kindle this resistance, we can snuff it out.

Thankfully, the process for unplugging this resistance from its main power source is surprisingly simple – all you have to do is to recognise that it exists, look at it directly, and let it go.

Unfortunately, not everything which is simple, is easy. Skydiving is simple: fall out of a plane. Stand-up is simple: be funny on stage. Juggling is simple: don’t drop the balls. But that doesn’t mean that they’re easy.

Like these examples, letting go of resistance is simple, but not that easy. But also like these examples, it’s just a skill – and any skill can be mastered with practice.

It takes practice to identify resistance. It takes practice turning to face it. It takes practice to let it go. It’s not arduous practice, and it pays dividends – but the only way to get better at it, is to do it and do it and do it again.

The reason this practice is worthwhile, is that as soon as the resistance drops away, you can better see the situation for what it is. You’re not viewing it through the lens of your personal attachment, or existing beliefs, you’re seeing what the reality of what it is, in the here and now. And while you might not condone it, you might not like it, you can at least accept that this is the currently reality.

And as soon as you accept this, you’re in a much better place to respond to it skilfully. Now that you’ve looked at it dispassionately, you can decide if it’s even worthy of your future attention and effort – most of the time it’s not.

If you have any kind of meditation practice, then you’ve probably got some experience in letting this resistance go. If you don’t, then a good place to start is with headspace or Tara Brach – both of which are effective, accessible and free. Tara has also written an entire book on the subject.

Being a doormat is the result of emotional attachment limiting your options in a situation which isn’t going your way.

Acceptance is about stripping away your attachment to a situation and creating a better set of options for spending your precious time and attention in the future.