Pick Your Pieces - Chapter 5
Habits of thought exist as biological structures in your brain. Unfortunately, some of these biological structures impede your ability. Assume, with effort, that you can reshape these impediments into something else. You can turn them into new biological structures that increase your ability—so much so that the formerly “impossible” becomes automatic, effortless.
When a circuit produces harmful desires, the circuit itself is harmful. Limited to the perspective that created it, the harmful circuit will always entice you with exaggerated visions of “reward.” It doesn’t know how to do anything else. It isn’t capable of presenting an accurate corresponding vision of costs, because that perspective was never included in its original structure. It’s designed to press the desire button in your nervous system, nothing more. You can’t expect it to calculate accurately.
When you thoughtlessly embrace the desire and chase the miscalculated reward, the circuit becomes stronger. However, if you honestly scrutinize the reward long enough, the miscalculation becomes more obvious. The desire, and the circuit, become weaker.
Regardless of what you choose, never forget that “you” are not the circuits that create desire (healthy or otherwise). You are the one who decides whether to embrace and strengthen them or reject and weaken them. You are the one who decides whether or not to calculate accurately.
If you currently earn an average middleclass salary, and I offer you a job that pays $8,000 per day, there’s a good chance you’ll be interested. But if I explain later that the job requires special equipment, and that you must rent the equipment from me at a cost of $18,000 per day, you'd quickly realize I wasn't offering you anything of value. In fact, you’d be insulted. (Worse than asking you to work for free, I’m asking you to pay me an extra $10,000 when the workday is over.)
This touches on the importance of accurately calculating rewards and costs. It’s painfully obvious in an example like the one I’ve just given, but it’s much more difficult when it comes to calculating the value of bad habits. That’s because bad habits pay their greatest rewards in the beginning. They offer an immediate, short-lived benefit. However, bad habits come with inescapable costs. The costs are small at first, but they’re not short lived; they accumulate and compound over time. Before long, the persistent and growing costs dwarf any value derived from the fleeting reward. But by then, our behavior is completely automated. It requires a conscious effort to recalculate before we can see the obvious truth: The habit has generated a loss. If we maintain the habit, the loss will only grow.
As you redirect energy into a newly created mental circuit, the paths leading to it grow wider; the circuit becomes stronger. Before long, your mind will access it effortlessly. Meanwhile, old circuits that you’ve been diverting energy away from will begin to weaken; their pathways will be “pruned” and disappear. The formerly connected neurons in the unwanted circuit will now be free to engage in more productive activity.
Identify and decommission the machinery that produces poison within you. Identify and decommission the structures in your mind that impede your progress. How? By no longer employing them and by creating new structures to take their place.
In the simplest terms, it’s about rewiring your default reaction; that’s it. If you’re lucky, it will happen in a flash of deep insight, and no other effort will be necessary, but don’t count on that. It often requires many repetitions to build or replace the circuits in your mind.
As you weaken the unhealthy circuits in your mind, their enticements become less convincing. You finally see them for what they are: nothing more than an invitation to suffer.
Self-directed rewiring boils down to identifying counterproductive circuits and consciously directing your nervous system to “disconnect” them. Once the connections are pruned, your brain can put those neurons to more productive use.
Establish powerful primary circuits in your brain, circuits that are built on healthy principles. This will create a conflict whenever unhealthy circuits attempt to take root or sway your thinking in the wrong direction.
This isn’t about avoiding reality; it’s about altering the way you habitually react to life. It’s about choosing whether or not you’ll continue “adding harm” unnecessarily, whether you’ll find ways to develop strength under difficult circumstances or use circumstances as an excuse to engage in self-destructive thinking and behavior.
Your mental activity literally shapes the physical connections in your brain. When your brain changes, you change. It’s your job to decide which type of change you want. (Change for better or change for worse?)
The role of the “observer” is to notice negative reactions within the body. When the observer notices negative energy, you can then trace the energy back to its source (the inner narrative or mental image that prompted it). This is how you discover, and begin the process of eliminating, unhealthy circuits in your mind.
Self-destructive habits are driven by positive associations. If you’d like to create the desire to abstain, you need to get honest. You need to create negative associations that more accurately reflect the destructive reality of the habit. When your negative associations become dominant, abstinence requires no special effort. It becomes as natural as abstaining from anything else that you find unappealing.
When you observe an unwanted response, label the circuit that created it. “That’s the circuit that always wants me to worry. ...That’s the circuit that wants me to be a slave to ‘X’. …That’s the circuit that wants me to be outraged. …That’s the circuit that wants me to feel bad about myself.”
How do you know the circuit wants to produce these states of being? Because the narrative it presents can only lead to that state. The circuit frames things in a way that can only generate a negative response; that’s its job. If we assume that you’re the manager of your mind, can you guess what your job is?
Just because your automatic mind offers a programmed response doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Why not practice rejecting some offers here and there? Start with little things, negotiate a bit, and see how much you can improve responses that aren’t very useful.
Negative emotions are almost always traceable to a negative inner narrative. (Your inner voice says something that you identify with, and your nervous system reacts accordingly.) For instance, if you feel like somebody is taking advantage of you, it’s reasonable to assume that your mind will create a negative narrative about the situation. Maybe something like: “She’s crazy if she thinks I am going to keep driving her all over town. I’m not her personal taxi service!” Or maybe your mind is complaining about some other issue: “I am never going to get this done. It’s taking forever!”
When you hear an inner narrative like this, pause for a moment. Think about the words. If you’re using the phrase “I am” in your statements, it indicates that you are fully identified with the statements and, by extension, fully identified with the negative response. But why would you choose to identify with either of these? Does it make sense? Not if you believe that “you” are more than the spontaneous narratives and reactions that erupt in your brain.
As discussed elsewhere in this book, most of our mental activity is driven by previously established mental programs. These programs automate our response to as many things as they can. If the programs are healthy, they will produce healthy narratives and emotions. But if the programs are unhealthy—if they specialize in generating anger, impatience, pessimism, or other destructive energies—they will generate negative narratives and emotions. Identifying with the healthy ones makes sense, but identifying with the unhealthy ones, not so much.
If you can accept that premise, it’ll enable you to notice problems and make changes when necessary. You’ll be able to create some distance between “you” (the observer) and the unthinking reaction by simply asking yourself, “Where did that come from?” Don’t be surprised if you hear an insightful reply, especially if you’ve accepted the idea of unhealthy programs waiting around for a chance to do their job. “That’s the program that loves to fill me with outrage,” or, “That’s the program that can’t wait to generate pessimism and make me feel bad about myself.”
Again, pausing to consider the words and/or asking, “Where did that come from?” creates some distance between you and the unthinking knee-jerk narrative that you were originally offered. In that space, you’ll realize that the first narrative is just one of an infinite number that you could choose from. If you want a more disturbing narrative that creates even more negative energy, you could easily whip one up. Or, if you’d prefer a less disturbing narrative, that’s an option too—something like, “She’s not going to be happy, but we’re gonna have to talk about this.” Or, “This is going to take longer than I thought. I’ve just got to calm down and be patient.”
General Reminders and Observations
In one way or another, we can improve ourselves until the day we die.
Unhealthy ego will say, “This is a good reason to be angry!” But is there ever a good reason to be angry? Unhealthy ego will justify itself. It will say, “This is a normal reaction!” But does that mean it’s a superior choice? When dealing with unhealthy ego, remember that it’s your responsibility to soften or reject its narratives.
Do, observe, and then determine the next step. This is the most peaceful way to get anything done.
Focus on things you can control; you’ll make progress and feel empowered.
Focus on things you can’t control; you’ll make yourself sick and feel helpless.
It's not uncommon for people to seek relief in activities that, ironically, lead them to greater suffering.
The more you feed an unhealthy desire, the more that desire feeds on you.
Think of sin as error. Not in the sense that you’ll suffer in hell for committing it, but in the sense that error creates suffering here and now. Not as a punishment, but in accordance with immutable laws of cause and effect.
Tearing others down creates the illusion of building yourself up, but the illusion doesn’t last, and unlike actually improving yourself, the illusion cannot make you stronger.
Any good coach, teacher, or mentor will tell their student where they’re weak. They point out inadequacies in order to help the other person become stronger. That is completely different than deriving joy from belittling people. If a person enjoys tearing others down, that feeds something unhealthy within them. It doesn’t lead anywhere good.
Ordinary people look for faults in others. Extraordinary people find and fix the faults within themselves. Don’t be ordinary. Your life, and the world, will be better for it.
When you provide hatred a place to express itself, it enters the world through you. When you provide insecurity a place to express itself, it enters the world through you. Fear, resentment, depression, lust—these harmful energies need a body to enter this world, and by providing that body (or by intentionally provoking these energies in others), we diminish ourselves and the world in the process.
How do people become blind to an obvious truth? What is the mental mechanism that impedes their ability to see? Answer: Rather than observe evidence with honest eyes, they begin sorting every observation according to its ability to confirm what they’ve already concluded. Evidence that supports their conclusions is eagerly accepted, while evidence that contradicts their conclusions (no matter how compelling) is rejected.
When unhealthy ego is sufficiently involved, ignoring facts becomes an act of self-preservation.
Even if it comes with great personal & professional costs, even if it proves them wrong, those who prioritize TRUTH are driven to find it. You'll notice the opposite in those who prioritize POWER. Truth is whatever they want it to be; whatever convinces you to believe & obey.
The brain, like other physical parts of the human body, is shaped by what it’s fed and how it’s used.
Results provide the most convincing argument.
Persistence, like water, can erode the most durable barriers over time.
Success in life depends less on what you encounter and more on how you respond to it.
Some people have no desire to help themselves. If you jump in to save them, they’ll only drag you down with them.
Express gratitude for what you have rather than resentment for what you don’t.
If rejection can be used as a weapon, so too can acceptance. Defend yourself.
Don’t embrace impulses that you cannot, in good conscience, act on.
It’s foolish to establish an irritated response to something that’s guaranteed to happen over and over again.
Appreciate recognition but know better than to crave it.
Strip away the mental errors and fill that space with something better.
Beware of the mongers (fear, hate, and resentment).
Don’t mistake the programming for the programmer. You are the latter.
As long as you learn from your mistakes, then what you’ve done was not a waste.
No matter who you are, no matter what you do, somebody (somewhere) will judge you negatively. Knowing this, it makes no sense to assign undue significance to the opinions of others.
You can’t stop somebody from suffering the consequences of bad choices. You can offer help or advice, but the solution to their troubles is ultimately up to them. You can’t do their work for them.
When you find yourself in an unwanted program/response, that is your greatest opportunity. Anything you do to prevent the program from running at full force will weaken it. From simply noticing and refusing to embrace it, to stopping it dead in its tracks with a firm redirect, disruption engages the rewiring process.
Status-dependent individuals tend to feel threatened when somebody steals their spotlight. It makes them feel inferior or diminished in some way. The truth, of course, is that they are not diminished; they are the same as they were five minutes prior to the encounter. It’s only their ego’s opinion of itself that has been momentarily downsized.
Note to self: There will always be unreasonable people. If you can’t come to terms with that, you might just be one of them.
Specifically on Fear, Guilt/Regret, and Selfishness
It’s been said that “there is no courage without fear.” This is untrue. If you know that you face danger, but you choose to move forward anyway, then you’ve demonstrated courage. Fear is unnecessary. It drains energy that can be put to more productive use.
You don’t need fear to understand risks and to adjust your behavior accordingly.
I know that if I jump naked off the Grand Canyon Skywalk, the odds of survival are practically zero. It doesn’t require “fear of death” to prevent me from giving it a try. The mere fact that I prefer “more life” to certain death is enough to inform my decision.
We ought to be aware of risk and plan accordingly; that’s the best anyone can do. Adding fear adds nothing of value.
Practically none of our fears come to pass, and of those that might, it will take more than fear for us to stop them.
Everything that you can do in a state of fear you can do in a state of heightened awareness. You can be aware of danger without fearing it.
In the absence of morality, fear can be useful. For instance, fear of getting caught might prevent you from stealing. In the absence of discernment, fear can be useful. It might prevent you from jumping into a cage with a lion. But morality and discernment should both come with maturity. So, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “In the absence of maturity, fear can be useful.”
Unhealthy ego is self-limiting at best, self-destructive at worst. As you begin to escape its influence, it’ll try to regain control any way it can. One of its favorite tactics is to lure you back with guilt and regret. Don’t fall for it. If an unpleasant past memory pops into your head, acknowledge the mistake, sincerely apologize in your heart to anyone you might have hurt, and move on. Don’t use the past as an excuse to engage in self-hate or ridicule. It benefits no one.
When the inner idiot wants you to hate yourself for coming up short or making a mistake, don’t hesitate to ask it some questions. “How long should I regret this? How long should I hate myself? Is 10 minutes long enough? 10 hours? 10 days? 10 years? What is the benefit? Will it change anything? Will it make me a better person, or will it simply waste time and energy that I could use to improve who I am and what I’m capable of?”
Feeling guilty today about errors corrected long ago is a waste of time and energy. It’s much better to invest that time and energy into identifying and correcting the errors that remain.
I won’t punish myself today for mistakes I made in the past because the person who made those mistakes is long dead. The moment I became strong enough, I killed him.
Nobody can change the mistakes in their past, but anyone can change the thinking that led to them. If you’ve righted your mind, you’ve righted the source of your wrongs. You’ve issued the most meaningful and enduring apology possible.
All human behavior is ultimately selfish because it seeks to satisfy prioritized desires. However, there’s a difference between ethical and unethical selfishness. Ethical selfishness seeks an informed/voluntary exchange of value. There’s no willingness to mislead, coerce, or cause harm in pursuit of desire. Unethical selfishness is the opposite. It contributes value only by accident, and it embraces deception, coercion, and even the harm of others.
Deriving pleasure from helping others is an example of ethical selfishness. Deriving pleasure from harming others is an example of unethical selfishness. In both cases, the person is motivated by their own self-interest (pursuit of pleasure), but one achieves their desire in a way that’s mutually beneficial, and the other achieves their desire at the direct expense of somebody else.
Personal Notes, Experiences, Dreams, Meditations
When it comes to effortless abstinence from self-destructive thoughts, impulses, and behavior or effortless fidelity to constructive thoughts, impulses, and behaviors, I know from personal experience that both are inevitable when you successfully rewire the circuits in your mind.
Today, in a state of calm awareness, I revisited a familiar thought regarding self-destructive people: “It’s sad that they suffer unnecessarily.” Instantly, awareness corrected me: “Most of their suffering is not unnecessary. It is tied to the choices they have made and continue to make. Their suffering is only unnecessary in the sense that they can choose, and could have chosen, differently.”
February 16th, 2016: One of the most comforting meditations I’ve had in a long time. “If you truly believe in your heart that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, you can focus on your work with peace and conviction. You can do the work without the nagging distractions of ‘what if this?’ or ‘what about that? It doesn’t mean that you don’t want the work to be appreciated. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to ease the stress of your current financial position or even regain access to things that you’ve lost the ability to afford. It simply means that you need to get the work done, and, once you have (regardless of outcome), you will know that you’ve spent your time in the best way possible. The work provides the greatest reward.”
Note to self: I believe I’m here to choose between two paths: one that leads to the liberation of myself and others, or one that leads to enslavement. That’s it. I’ve made my choice, and I will live accordingly.
It’s not that I don’t sometimes feel pain, anger, stress, or any other negative emotions; it’s that I refuse to nurture them. I don’t embrace them and feed them energy. Instead, I observe them, acknowledge them, and then state the obvious: I can do better than that. If I choose the opposite response, I’m essentially “practicing” and strengthening those negative emotions. I’m wiring them deeper into my nervous system, making it easier to slip into them again in the future.
As I’ve strengthened my “observer,” I’ve noticed many programs running in the background of my mind that make no sense at all. Today, for the first time ever, I realized I’ve got a program that creates unjustifiable tension whenever I have to drive to an unfamiliar address. I mean, today’s road trip couldn’t have been any simpler to map out and follow, yet this “unfamiliar-destination” program jumped into action anyway. The background stress level might have been appropriate if there was a chance that I could drive 50 miles off course, be hours late, AND have no way of contacting the person waiting for me to pick them up. But there was no way that could happen. I literally only had to drive 10 minutes down the street and take a left on a road that I was pretty sure I knew the location of.
Again, as I’ve continued strengthening the observer, its ability to notice caustic background energy/programs has improved a lot. I probably created that negative “driving circuit” the first time I got lost looking for an address 35 years ago, and it’s been there (just beneath my conscious awareness) ever since.
Today, when the observer noticed the tension and calmly asked, “What the hell is that all about?” my conscious/rational mind looked at it and immediately identified how ridiculous it was. It then proceeded to offer an alternate/sane representation of the situation: “First of all, you’re probably not going to miss the turn. Second, even if you do, you might be five minutes late. Is it really that bad?” Instantly the irrational tension disappeared, and, best I can tell, it took the program that created the tension along with it.
Everything provides an opportunity to strengthen yourself in some way. Using another one of my crazy dreams as an example, last night I dreamt that lava was moving beneath asphalt in a parking lot. I was showing it to Teri (my wife) when the ground suddenly shifted between us and opened up. It threw me forward, and a wave of thick asphalt immediately folded over me. I was entombed. I knew I was done, and all I could say is “Oh shit, SHIT!” because Teri had seen the whole thing, and she couldn’t do anything to help me. I knew how panicked she had to be and how bad it would ultimately hurt her. Then I woke up.
Rather than dwell on the psychological pain I felt in the dream, I processed the experience like this: “Yes, you can unexpectedly die in an instant; things like that can happen. Nobody wants it, but if it happens, it’s just something we’ve got to be prepared for and deal with. Consider that dream your reminder to be grateful for every single day.”
Expanding on that just a bit, I regularly experience very disturbing things in my dreams. When I was younger, they’d bother me long after I woke up. Then, I learned to look at the dreams differently. I learned to look at them as an opportunity to “live through” something very disturbing, without actually having to live through it in real life. I learned to see the dreams as an opportunity to develop useful insights and strength that I could apply in the real world.