“...muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone...” The Way of Zen, Alan Watts
There is an art to stilling and quieting the mind that we are losing in today’s busy world. The overuse of screens and over stimulation of constant feedback to your brain are showing already to have negative consequences for our sanity, peace of mind and self control.
You may recall in my last column for Outside the Box here in the Daily Press, that I mentioned a new diagnoses, “Virtual Autism.” This is autism that is caused exclusively by too much screen time in children. Remove the screens, the autism disappears. It was discovered in a children’s hospital. The kids are ill, bored and lonely. What better time to keep their mind occupied? But the consequences were disastrous.
Today we as adults are struggling with the same addiction and struggle; needing to unplug and allow our brains to reset and refresh. Many people today struggle with anxiety and depression at levels that our starving, freezing ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and likely there is a good argument to be made for the idea that without “real” problems our brain will obsess over potential problems. That has to have some merit. We all recognize that the entitled, “soft” person is often more prone to self obsession than the person who is actually struggling with a difficulty. But, that is not the area I’m focused on today.
Yes, giving yourself challenges is wise, and an excellent book if you’re interested in the idea is, “What doesn’t kill us,” by Scott Carney. Carney is a journalists who documents his experience with Wim Hof, the famous “Ice man.” The importance of struggle and challenge are an important part of the book, but I want to focus on the other issue Carney learned in his time with Wim.
Wim has demonstrated the ability to control his body temperature, to survive frostbite and death by controlling his mind. In his TED talks, articles and the book, Hof explains how he uses his thoughts to control his body temperature. By that, I want to remind you — his will dictates to his mind. He chooses what his mind thinks about, what it focuses on, what it feels. His soul, his will — is running the machine.
This idea, (that your soul is in charge of your life and body) was common knowledge just a couple generations ago. That we were spiritual beings was a given. However, the philosophy of materialism gained traction over time, becoming if we are honest, a new faith system. Materialism recognizes only the mechanical, tangible world. And, there are numerous benefits to this philosophy; most noticeably in medicine. Under materialism, people were treating the physical issues with meaningful physical solutions. Materialism boiled a person down to an engine of sorts. Pistons replaced by a circulatory system and nervous system, food and mitochondria for gas and batteries. And in place of a driver, a brain.
The challenge for materialism has always been that the brain doesn’t ever function like a machine. It grows and changes at will. If you decided today that you would focus on being more grateful or humble you will be a different person next year than you are today. That is because your brain’s emotional centers will rewire based on how you choose to think. If every time someone cuts you off in traffic you yell and flip them off … your brain will increase the wiring for rage and anger. Each time you fight that impulse and instead ignore the frustration your brain increases the pathways that are less aggressive. This is a known, testable process. You can become a talented pianist if you choose to focus on piano practice, you can become kind if you choose to focus on being kind. The point is, you choose. And you — are not a testable, definable, materialistic thing.
You — are not chemicals washing over nerves, or hormones dancing across dendrites. You make the choices … and no one knows who “you” are, or where “you” are, or what “you” are. No one knows where “you” go when you die, or when you sleep. There’s no one who knows where “you” go when under anesthesia. Just that when we put the right chemicals into your body we can put on the brakes enough and you will leave … and when we take the brakes off … you’ll show up at the controls again.
You — your consciousness … your soul. It’s still an issue… and it’s probably time for religion to start making a comeback in treating many issues, from anxiety, depression, ADHD, or anger management. There are thousands of years of human history where we focused on the spiritual that we can draw upon.
One of my favorites spiritual practices is yoga. Yoga is a physical practice that was born from a spiritual practice. A physical meditation - a full body prayer. In yoga the goal, as a Hindu, was to put the spiritual firmly in the driver’s seat and to clarify where the car ends and the driver begins. When in yoga you are expected to hold difficult, uncomfortable poses for far longer than you wish to. As you hold that pose and your body tries to convince you to quit, but your soul chooses to stay … over and over. Your soul decides to fight instincts and make an unnatural choice. Puting the soul in firm control and helping the spirit to grow strong.
Meditation is also an eastern belief, common to Taoism and Buddhism. This one is even more intense — it requires having your mind ... watch itself. How crazy is that? Training your thoughts, learning to experience them as an outside observer. The statistics on how healing meditation can be for our brains is impressive. People who meditate rate far higher in happiness and self-control than the average population. They are such a far cry from the mental place of those getting autism from screen time. People who mediate have a consciousness that can be so calm, so in absolute control of their own brains, like Wim Hof, they don’t die when they should freeze to death.
Prayer is the spiritual practice that most of us are most familiar with. Prayer is nothing greater than a conversation with the creator of the universe. Whatever everything is, was and will be - whatever is ultimate truth, ultimate love, ultimate good, all that is reality, time, matter and soul. Whatever that is — you sit down, and have a chat. You discuss your fears and needs and hopes and frustrations. And what anyone who has prayed can tell you, sometimes it feels like you’re talking to a wall. And it’s ok. It’s healing to say all of that stuff out loud and get it off your chest. But sometimes, when you tell ultimate reality what your dealing with - ultimate reality talks back. And that can change everything.
“Do not pray for easier lives, pray to be stronger men.” John F. Kennedy.
Twyla Righter is a native of Western Colorado. She is the mother of three children bent on world domination (they have pie charts) and a proud CASA advocate. She writes two columns for the Press as well as authoring the definitive guide to a horrible pregnancy: “About That Pregnancy Glow.” Righter’s “Outside the box” column appears every other Friday in the Montrose Daily Press.