James Joyce was the first writer in history to try in his book, Ulysses, to capture the thoughts of one man – Mr Leopold Bloom, as he proceeds through one day. We can see from his writing that to capture thoughts is actually quite difficult. Thoughts can be fleeting and make no sense. They can be enquiring, rude or bland. What we all know, however, is that from the moment we wake up, off our mind goes and we think think think all day long. We think about the future and think about the past and think about the present or think about the multitude of things we make up that have nothing to do with the past, present or future. There is rarely a moment in the day when our thoughts are quiet. Trying to quieten the mind is something that Buddhist monks have been attempting for many years. After years of mindful practice, which involves trying to allow thoughts to pass gently out of the mind without focusing on them, no matter how many hours they spend doing this, the thinking part of our mind always finds a way to insert a suggestion here or a comment there. Over the years, I have concluded that it is better if we try to understand our minds and accept the way they are whilst, at the same time, recognising that to bring about change takes effort.
When trying to understand the brain, we must look to evolution for an explanation. As I have already spoken about in this series, our brains are hardwired for survival. However, the majority of our evolution took place over hunter-gather years and much of what helped them to survive, in terms of thoughts, is rather redundant today. Let us consider this together.
Firstly, if we study the types of thoughts that aid survival lets us consider two individuals. Person A sits under a tree contemplating the meaning of life, stopping occasionally to take some sustenance or exercise. Person B, thinks all day long about the future and what might go wrong. They consider all of the different possibilities and come up with a plan in order to overcome them. They also think about the past and criticise themselves for what has been in an attempt to do better in the future. We can see from these two extreme examples that evolution will favour person B because that type of thinking will help with survival. But, which person will be happier? Which less anxious? I would argue that person A will be much happier. You may question where they are going to get the food for their sustenance but as long as that is not a problem, they are more likely to enjoy their lives that person B who will be miserable and anxious.
An interesting point to remember here is this:
Your brain does not care whether you are happy or sad, it only cares if you survive. We have to make our own happiness.
Now this statement is easy to understand but far far more difficult to follow through with because hunter gather life style was around for about 200,000 years, the beginnings of agriculture started about 10,000 years ago and our industrial civilisation has been around for less than 300 years. So, the hunter-gather brain is the one that is what we are working with. Wishing we would all have happy clappy thoughts, is unfortunately not a useful task. We need to work at it on a daily basis. Many of my clients say that becoming well following mental illness is sometimes harder than just allowing our brains to be miserable or anxious and I really do get that.
In this next section, I am going to give you a few ideas about how we can begin to look at our thoughts and hopefully challenge some of the less useful ones and tell the really useless ones to get lost!