August 02, 2006
Last week we opened a discussion on some new understandings in the field of neuroscience relating to behavior and actual brain states. We were discussing the question of why it was so hard for us to change our behaviors, and how attempting such changes often feels like trying to swim upstream against a very strong current.
The explanation lies in the way our brains are organized, so that our beliefs and inclinations are actually resident in our brains as configurations of neurons that support those particular beliefs and inclinations. The mechanism that directs the growth and sustenance of those brain structures is attention, the deliberate focus upon the structures and the continued involvement to the point where our attention becomes automatic and habitual.
To be sure, this way of being is in so many ways helpful because it allows us to remain aware of and to be in the habit of doing many things that require constant repetition in our daily lives. So it is a good thing in that sense. It becomes problematic when the focus is on ways of being that stand in the way of our functioning as happy, productive people.
This is where various interventions can help. They all involve realigning our attention away from the problematic constructions and habits of our minds towards other more useful and positive ways of being. How do we do this? The first movement is to gather the deep motivation to change what we identify as problematic. In brief, we have to really want our happiness.
The second movement is to not become obsessed or upset with ourselves for being in the situation that we are in. This is critical. Why? Because the way the mind works is that when we discover that we are in the throes of some behavior or attitude that is counterproductive, we may become very upset with ourselves and begin to berate ourselves for being this way. While that seems a natural response, it is not very helpful and indeed, the more upset we are for being that unwanted way, the more actual attention we are giving to being that way. Paradoxically, that only feeds the very system, belief and state of mind that we want to get rid of.
So, hard as it seems, what is effective is to tolerate our own problematic ways in the sense of not becoming more upset about our having been that way or about actually being that way right in this moment. This actually breaks the all important attention link to what we experience as problematic. The next movement is to relocate our attention to something else. What? Well the choices are endless, but you have to dig into your own fund of experiences to find some neutral or better, some particularly positive way of being that you love to experience and place your attention on that.
Now this will require a constant moving of your attention away from the negative habit to a positive one. So initially, there is a great deal of work in constantly shifting focus. It's hard work, but worth it, because over time, you will find it getting easier and easier to accomplish this.
Is there more to this process, yes indeed and we will address it next week. Meanwhile, let me know what you think.
Frank Mosca Ph.D. is a licensed mental health counselor, marital and life coach, with practices in Hampton Bays and Garden City. Inquire about his putting minds in motion workshops by contacting him at email@example.com.