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The Enemy Within

‘I think, therefore I am’.

When Descartes made this famous statement, he was claiming proof of his existence, rather than making a random observation about what went on in his head. Leaving aside the existential issue, which could consume several volumes on its own and still remain unresolved, let’s examine the first part of the proposition;

‘I think.’

Neuroscience can now tell us some remarkable things about the brain. The reason we have so many invasive thoughts throughout the day is partly due to a system called the Default Mode Network (DMN), an area responsible for excessive rumination and internal chatter. Imagine trying to relax in the middle of the M1 at rush hour, when all you can hear is the sound of traffic, a constant and unending stream of interruptions you can do nothing about.

Unless you happen to be a Buddhist monk, or a top level meditator, chances are you’ll be pretty familiar with the DMN. It’s the tyrant and the overseer, the critical parent and the sadistic boss all rolled into one. It’s the reason wars start, and running battles are fought in the street. And it’s all down to the way we’ve been programmed for millions of years.

For better or worse, we are all a product of our genes. But natural selection didn’t intend our forebears to stroll out onto the grasslands admiring the scenery. Survival depended upon constant vigilance and an awareness of danger. If you were attacked and eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, you wouldn’t get to pass your genes on to the next generation, and therefore would have failed your life’s purpose.

Thankfully, most of us no longer live in such harsh conditions. However, in spite of radical advances in social welfare and technology, our 21st-century brains are still running prehistoric programmes. We look for threats when there are none, especially when we’re confronted with suspicious-looking strangers. Even at home when we should be relaxing, the mind throws up a barrage of complaints, petty resentments, and things we’ve forgotten to do.

Thanks to advances in science and psychology, we now know more about ourselves and our complex biology than at any other time in history. And yet the same issues continue to plague us.

Top of the list is …….


Some sociologists believe we’re moving closer towards a solution. The convergence of Eastern and Western philosophy offers a kind of hybrid therapy that we can all benefit from. Rather than commit to one specific practice, you can dip in to several and take out what you like. Yoga, T’ai Chi, mindfulness, chanting. All are designed to relieve the tired mind from its labours and instil a much-needed wave of tranquillity.

Everyone wants to be happy, but given what we know about human nature, is such a desire realistic? It seems that there are two conflicting systems in place here: one that appears to be mystical and other-worldly, and its rival, a blind and ruthless force that’s been driving us inexorably throughout the ages.

Buddhists believe that we’re living under an illusion. Our endless striving for material things and preoccupation with ourselves can only lead to suffering. And yet the whole of Western society has been predicated on just such an ideal. We spend hours fantasising about our spectacular rise to the top, and an equal number dreading the thought of failure.

According to the experts, we’re behaving exactly as we’re programmed to. Our prehistoric forebears did the same, soon learning that the best way to procure a mate was to advance your status and gain influence within the tribe. Happiness, presumably, wasn’t high on the agenda. Better to evolve a brain programmed exclusively for anticipating threats and seeing off potential rivals.

When you think about it, your thoughts are like a latter day version of the Tyrannosaurus Rex , played back on a continuous loop that keeps you on your toes night and day. They’re the posse in a cowboy movie, that ride into town, hitch their horses to the rail and barge into the saloon to find their next victim. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and defeat them by sheer force of will.

Positive thinking doesn’t work – at least not when it’s used to override the default setting. As soon as the gas bill arrives, or someone cuts you up in your car on the way to work, your primal instincts take over and you act accordingly. The smiley face dangling from your rear-view mirror becomes an insult, a symbol of ridicule to be dumped in the bin when you get home.

What can we do to minimise the damage? The first thing is to recognise that the 60,000 thoughts a day we have on average are not the ambassadors of truth we believe them to be. They are in fact skilful imposters, whose purpose is to keep us prepared in case that old T. Rex is just around the corner. We don’t have to follow their dictates, and, more importantly, we don’t have to listen to the lies they tell us about ourselves on a regular basis.

The fact is, your thoughts have no more power over you than you give them. This may seem counterintuitive when you’ve spent your entire life being controlled and terrorised by them, but it’s true. You can at any time take a well-earned break, and see how ridiculous and unfounded most of them are. Of course there are real dangers out there, and not every alarm is a false one, but you don’t have to spend the best part of your life on high alert because a thought told you to do so.

Whenever I want a humorous reminder of this simple truth, I think of that wonderful anecdote about the man on his deathbed, who said, ‘I’ve had a lot of trouble in my life, and most of it never happened.’

So the next time your head’s bombarding you with inane propaganda, sit back and observe the flow. Do it for 5-minutes, without being drawn in to the debate. The act of observing without judging is a powerful way of weakening the connection. Do this on a regular basis and you’ll discover a remarkable thing.

The movie keeps on running 24/7, but you don’t always have to be in it!

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