“I used to think my mind was my most important organ, until I noticed what was telling me that” – from Hayes, 2004
The mind was not evolved for us to feel happy, it evolved the way it did because that made us survive. Detecting threats is better than being happy when it comes to survival and therefore we are excellent at detecting threats or in the absence of threats, fantasising about them. A lot of mental illness as well as suffering in general arises when the mind get stuck and overly active in this function. When our minds becomes rigid we tend to believe whatever is presented at our mental theatre. If a thought appears in my mind that says that I am worthless, the rigid mind will fuse with the thought and make it my reality. ”I am worthless” instead of just ”I have a thought that I am worthless”. It doesn’t stop there. Thoughts affect emotions. The thought will make me feel bad, I might even feel worthless which serves to prove my thoughts right and make it more frequent. If the mind is rigid I will really identify with the feeling of being worthless. Soon my behaviours might start to reflect my beliefs and further prove my thoughts and emotions to be true.
Reality is vast and complex, in fact too complex for the mind to grasp to a full extent. Even so we often act as if we do understand the world around us. The mind will cast its judgement on basically anything. Bear in mind, this was also beneficial for our survival so even though this function according to Buddhism is the root to all suffering, we ought to be grateful and not hateful towards it. The mind will crave for things that are pleasurable and try to avoid that which is painful. This is important for survival but if we just follow the likes and dislikes of the mind we will be not only be exhausted but we would hardly ever finish anything. To fuse with the likes or dislikes of the mind is to be a slave to it. We might rather see the judgements as suggestions among other options. Surely if a splinter pierces your skin, you would probably want to take it out and it should of course be removed, this is a judgement based suggestion worth paying attention to. The pain is not optional though, but it will pass. At other times change is not possibly or desirable. If you for instance wish to finish a marathon, you can’t stop after 30 km when your glycogen storage is depleted, your thoughts beg you to stop and every step feels like your bones will crack. If you really wants to finish you must accept this pain as part of running, maybe drink some water, have an energy gel and just keep on running the last 12 km.
In order to make this choice and listen to other suggestions than quitting the race, you will need a certain amount of psychological flexibility. This is the key to successfully handle our powerful but sometimes dangerous mind. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) increased psychological flexibility is one of the main goals. An individual will in ACT clarify what values they have in life and look at what they can do to be more in line with those values. However, in order to even be able to choose, one must be present, awake, one needs to see what is really going on, inside as well as outside. Mindfulness practices will help you to look at the present moment, defuse from thoughts and with increased psychological flexibility the individual will be able to see if this moment and its endeavours are in the direction of values and to see what needs to be accepted and what can be changed. It is about seeing as much of the present moment as possible, not as we imagine it to be but as it is.
Being psychologically flexible includes the understanding that thoughts does not equal reality. Thoughts may of course convey important information and it’s probably wise to keep some attention on the content, but honestly, a lot of the thinking is more or less garbage. How many times did we try to solve a problem in our minds, going over the same thoughts again and again just to end up in the same place as we started, problem still being there. Letting go of thoughts require a certain amount of courage. Thoughts tend to promise some sort of control and letting go of that control is scary. ”I need to prepare for that.. If this happens I will do like that..”. There is of course nothing wrong with preparations and psychological flexibility might gives us enough space to realise when preparations are finished and we need to let go. Give yourselves some trust, dare to be in the moment, trust that you will be able to face life in whatever way it will present itself, even if we haven’t imagined that particular way yet.
Psychological flexibility is what we achieve when we practise moving towards what matters to us despite the fact that we have to face difficulties. It is about realising that difficulties is just part of the human experience along with all the joyful experiences. All of them are transient but unavoidable in the journey towards our goals.
This article was written by our Intern Fredrik Hedström