A User’s Guide to the Mind:
The Mind’s Steering Wheel
Everyone comes equipped with a mind. No one comes with a manual.
Fortunately, your mind works all on its own, performing everyday marvels without requiring any intervention from you. Only when our minds betray us do we wish we’d had a chance to read the instructions. How do you stop your mind from torturing you with critical judgments or obsessive rumination? How do you face down unsolvable problems and impossible decisions? How do you get free from limiting beliefs when you don’t know what beliefs are limiting you in the first place?
If you learn the ways of the mind, you can thwart its bad habits and transcend its infuriating limitations. But this is just the beginning. You can also learn to perform astonishing acts of intelligence: perceiving patterns, solving mysteries, creating worlds that have never existed, becoming smarter all the time. A User’s Guide to the Mind is a series of freestanding articles that provide instructions and insights into the workings of your very own mind. Here’s one of them . . .
Sometimes your mind takes you places you don’t want to go.
It wanders, lost, across mental wastelands. It drives around in circles, recycling the same thoughts over and over. It speeds down the road, careening and crashing into things, when all you want is for it to slow down so you can sleep.
When your own thoughts bring you suffering, you probably try to stop them. If only you could put your foot on the brake, you could stop your mind from driving you mad. Try as you might, though, the mind just keeps going. The brakes don’t seem to work.
The mind is a complex and wondrous vehicle, but it doesn’t behave how your car does. It has no brakes. It never stops.
The mind has no brakes. It only has a steering wheel. When your mind is out of control, you need to learn how to steer.
Two of our basic life motivations are to make good things happen, and to keep bad things from happening. Some people, according to psychologist E. Tory Higgins, are more driven by the first motivation, some people by the second. Promotion-focused individuals work to produce desirable outcomes. Prevention-focused individuals head off potentially painful outcomes.
Neither orientation (prevention or promotion) is better than the other. Both are needed, depending on your goal, and depending on the context.
When it comes to taking control of your mind, however, only one of these orientations can help. Try to prevent your mind from doing what it’s doing, and you’re stepping on the non-existent brakes. Try to promote more desirable kinds of thoughts instead, and you’re taking hold of the wheel.
You can tell your rowdy kids to stop jumping on the furniture, but it’ll only get you in trouble. They’ll make some even worse mischief and then just jump on it as soon as you’re not around to monitor them. All that energy has to go somewhere. Give them something else to jump on instead, and their energy gets channeled where you want it to go.
You can tell your rowdy mind to shut up and quiet down, but the voice telling it to quiet down is just making more noise. Give it something else to do instead, and all that mental energy can fuel more desirable kinds of thoughts.
The mind always needs a job to do. Try to fire it from its current position, and it’ll just sabotage the whole company. Transfer it to another department instead, and it will devote its ceaseless efforts toward a more worthy endeavor.
Once you understand how the vehicle works, it’s not hard to make the shift from prevention focus (trying to find the brakes), to promotion focus (turning the wheel). To get the difference, let’s consider four kinds of undesirable thought patterns:
- the endless repetition of obsessive thoughts
- the self-perpetuating futility of depressive thoughts
- the relentlessness of insomnia
- the noisy thoughts that interfere with meditation
In each of these cases, out-of-control thoughts cause suffering. In each of these cases, there’s a way to take the wheel and steer.
Sometimes a thought won’t leave you alone. It keeps pulling on your attention, demanding your energy. Maybe it’s your new love interest that you know could never work out. Maybe it’s the judgment you think everyone has about you. Maybe it’s the disaster you always fear is about to strike. Maybe it’s a choice you regret having made.
Pick one thing you find yourself obsessing over.
Now, go sit in the corner for five minutes and try not to think about it. Bring a pad of paper. Every time you find yourself thinking about the thing you’re not supposed to think about, make a tick mark on the paper.
You and I both know what’s going to happen if you do this experiment.
Try as you might, you’re going to think about the thing you’re trying not to think about. In fact, you’re going to think about it because you’re trying not to think about it. It’s what cognitive psychologist Daniel Wegner calls ironic mental process. The very effort to suppress the thought brings the thought to mind. It’s like trying to step on the brakes when there are no brakes to step on.
Some people temporarily suppress unwanted thoughts by distracting themselves. This is moving in the right direction, because it’s giving the mind a new job to do (promotion), instead of no job to do (prevention).
Unfortunately, distractions can only ever last so long. If you want to defeat obsessive thinking, your mind doesn’t need just any new job. It needs to understand why you’ve been obsessing.
Okay, this part might seem obvious. If you’re obsessed about something, it’s because that something is important to you, really important.
This next part, however, is less obvious. If you’re still obsessed, that means you don’t understand why the thing you’re obsessed about is so important to you. If you understood why, you would no longer be obsessed.
Here’s your mind’s new job: turning inward, understanding why you’re so fixated.
You’ve been orienting toward something outside yourself, toward the object of your obsession. Turn your thoughts inward, and you can discover the not-so-obvious reason for the obsession.
Say you’re regretting a choice you made, playing it over and over in your mind. When you made the choice, without ever intending to, you betrayed one of your core values. You keep replaying the events because part of you knows you might betray yourself again the next time. You’ve been so fixated on the events, and their consequences, that you haven’t exposed which of your values is screaming to be heard. Until you know which value of yours is driving you to keep replaying your regrettable choice, nothing will change. You won’t prioritize that value in the future. But you need to. You need to organize your life around your core values. Until you do, you’ll keep cycling through the same old memories.
Say you’re lost in persistent fantasies about someone you wish you could have, but never will. There’s something about this person that makes them so compelling. Whatever it is, it’s something you need more of in your life. You’re missing something, and you’ve been making the mistake of thinking that what you’re missing is that person, the one you’re hooked on. But it’s not really about them. It’s never really been about them. It’s about whatever qualities they represent for you. Until you identify what those qualities are, you won’t figure out how to get more of them in your life. But you need to. You need to cultivate those qualities in yourself, or you’ll never stop thinking about this impossible person.
It’s not obvious that you keep replaying a memory in order to live according to your core values. It’s not obvious that you’re fixated on an object-of-desire so that you’ll become more like them. To make these discoveries, you have to turn inward.
You’ve been driving around in circles looking for answers. They’re not out there. When you take the mind’s steering wheel and turn inward, you get closer and closer to the source.
No one wants to be depressed. It is, by definition, a bummer.
But depression’s worst feature may also be its greatest benefit. It forces you to think, and think, and think, and think.
Depression is designed to clear all distractions so you can ruminate all day long. It dampens motivation, and it dulls pleasure, leaving you nothing else to do but to try to solve the problem of why you’re depressed.
Psychologists Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson frame depression as an adaptation, not a pathology. You’re facing some complex life problem. Depression stops you in your tracks and won’t let you get on with your life until you solve it. To solve it, you’ll have to slowly, methodically analyze the situation. It might take a while. Depression sets you up to remain in analysis mode for as long as it takes.
Trying to stop the analytical thought process won’t do you any good. You need it, because some complex problem in your life, usually a problem of a social nature, requires a solution. And, anyway, your mind has no brakes, so halting analytical progress isn’t really an option.
Analysis is actually exactly what you need to solve your depression. As you may have noticed, however, analysis often leads nowhere. Whether or not your rumination guides you toward a solution, and out of depression, depends entirely on which way you steer it.
Obsessive thoughts fixate on something outside yourself, when what you really need to do is turn inward. Depressive thoughts do the opposite, driving your thoughts inward when what you really need is to explore the world outside.
There are two basic directions people take their depressive ruminations.
Some people turn inward. They try to figure out what went wrong so they can make sure such things never happen again – a prevention approach.
Some people turn outward. They try to figure out what they could do differently now to make things better – a promotion approach.
The solution to depression lies in only one of these directions.
Turning inward leads to analysis paralysis. You’re trying to solve a problem without enough data. The only way to get more data is to try new things and learn from them. But turning inward makes you risk averse. You’re unlikely to try new things, because you’re in prevention mode. You fear that taking risks will make things worse.
If instead you turn outward, you’ll speculate about what new outcomes could result from new ways of behaving. Eventually, you’ll have to go beyond speculating and actually do the experiment. Experimenting implies taking risks. Some risks will work out. Some won’t. All will help you get the missing data you need. Without the data, you’ll never unravel the complex life problem that depression is requiring you to solve.
Ruminating about what went wrong can only get you so far. You’ll just keep exploring the part of the map you’ve already traveled. Speculating about what could go right will expand your territory, take you out beyond the edge of what you already know.
It’s three o’clock in the morning. You have responsibilities tomorrow. You need to sleep, but your mind is racing. As much as you would like to, you can’t stop your thoughts. The mind, as we well know by now, doesn’t have brakes. Luckily, it does have gears.
Neurons never stop firing until you’re dead. In the meanwhile, the number of times per second they fire depends on your state of consciousness. Insomnia happens when you’re running too many cycles per second.
Furiously replaying the day’s events, or worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, is exactly the wrong kind of thinking pattern for sleep. You’ve got to downshift into a dreamier state of consciousness (from beta, to alpha, to theta) if you’re ever going to drift into dreamland.
Berating your busy mind for being so active just generates more activity. Trying to go to sleep is just the kind of goal-oriented mental process that keeps your mind buzzing.
Instead, you need to gently steer your mind into less logical, more metaphorical territory. The dreaming is the realm of stories and symbols and surreal images. To make the journey from one kind of thought pattern to another, you need to let your mind meander.
If you close your eyes right now, you’ll notice random patterns of light and color on the insides of your eyelids. Watch those patterns for a while as they light up and dart about, or shift and melt and merge. Like seeing animals in the drifting forms of clouds, you can form random images from these patterns.
There’s a woman with an umbrella. Is she underwater? Did a bus float by? Oh – now I’m on the bus. That must be my luggage.
One image leads to another, and eventually you’ve downshifted into dreamland. To make the shift, let your mind follow random images from one association to the next and the next. The mind has been leading, but it needs instead to follow. Remember that images can be heard and felt as well as seen (see The Sensuality of Thought). Also remember that the theatre of the mind is not like a television screen. The images can be moving all around you, not merely on a rectangle in front of you.
Following random imagery is only one practice for downshifting. There are many others. Imagine, for instance, that every thought is like a wave washing onto the shore. Notice the sound it makes as it recedes back into the ocean. No matter what sound the thought made as it came in, it will disintegrate into mental white noise on its way out. Let every new thought drift back out, and soon you’ll be drifting with them.
Thinking is not the problem. Dreaming is a kind of thinking as well. Let your mind keep on working. Just give it a more abstract job to do.
You sit down to meditate, but instead you just think about stuff. Your mind is busy, noisy. Like so many meditators, you’re trying to “quiet the mind”. As a reward for your efforts, you’re listening to noisy thoughts about how your mind should be more quiet. Unless you give the mind another job to do, it will just keep talking to you.
When you have insomnia, your mind is too busy for you to sleep. To sleep, you need to downshift into a dreamier state of consciousness. When you’re meditating, your mind may be too noisy for you to pay attention to anything but your thoughts. To meditate, you need to downshift into another state of consciousness as well, but you want to fall into wakefulness, not into dream.
When you wish to dream, your mind needs to stop leading and start following dreamlike associations and images. When you wish to meditate, your mind needs to be guided by a different aspect of your consciousness. It needs to follow the witness.
The mind is a kind of non-physical organ, but it’s not the only one. The mind is the organ of mental process: evaluating and explaining, interpreting and predicting, scheming, recognizing patterns, and drawing conclusions. The witness is the organ of conscious awareness: non-evaluatively observing the endless stream of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and sensations.
The mind generates foreground content. The witness observes from the background. If you want to meditate, you need to train the mind to do what the witness is doing.
When the witness and the mind are aligned, your mind stops generating content and simply observes. The witness travels ever-forward at a constant speed. The mind wants to drift and swerve and pass other vehicles. Meditation happens when you teach the mind to stay in it’s lane.
There are countless meditative traditions, and all include some practice for managing the mind’s tendency to keep generating content. Some practices give you something to think about. Occupy the mind with a prayer. Drown out all other thoughts with the drone of a mantra. Short circuit logical thinking with a Zen koan. None of these quiet the mind, per se. They just keep it from running amok by giving it a new job.
Other traditions train the mind to follow the witness.
Following the breath is one of the simplest practices. You might track all the subtle body sensations that accompany breathing: from the inhale through the exhale, and all the transitions between the two. You might focus on the feel of the air escaping your nose as you exhale. You’re training your attention to observe the stream of sensation.
You might note any moment when your awareness drifts from simple observation. If a thought occurs, you silently name it: “thought”. When a body sensation, such as discomfort, starts to pull on your attention, you say “sensation”. Whatever happens is just something else to observe.
Whichever observational practice you use, your mind will always eventually drift into another lane. When it does, gently steer it back. The more you can do this, the more the mind emulates the witness.
When the mind is in observational mode, it’s quieter because it’s not generating foreground content. It’s slipped into the background, directing all its mental energy to the great task of witnessing.
And, as it turns out, any witnessing practice is also of great benefit when obsessive thoughts are taking over, when depressive rumination has got you in its grip, when a busy mind is keeping you from sleeping. Staying in your lane, simple though it seems, is the best way to keep hold of the mind’s steering wheel.
Thinking, like behavior, is shaped by practice.
When you learn to drive for the first time, it’s overwhelming. You have to manipulate the wheel, pedals, and various levers while also paying attention to the road, other drivers, signs, mirrors, and your car’s instrument panel. With practice, it becomes easy, natural.
You may never have learned to drive your mind. It’s just been plotting it’s own course. It’s like the thing has a mind of it’s own, and it often steers you wrong.
Unlike a car, the mind has no brakes. You can’t prevent it from being a mind doing mind things. You can only promote more desirable mental activity.
Any practice for steering the mind: turning inward, turning outward, shifting gears, or staying in your lane, may be confusing at first. Just keep practicing, and steering the mind become as natural as driving.