Saturday, February 26, 2011

Towards The Still Point 7

Living on Automatic Pilot

Santiago Calatrava's rotatable bridge, the Samuel Beckett, by night
So much of our lives are lived by sheer habit.  How often do we hear others say, "I am a creature of habit"?  Or perhaps you say it, too?  We do everything in the same old way, more than likely!  Indeed, we gain comfort from our repeated habits.  Another way of putting this is that we live on automatic pilot.  This is another way of acknowledging that we live unconsciously.  I suppose we have to do so very often if we are to maintain our sanity.  If we were to be conscious of everything we did we would be literally shattered.  On the other hand, to be totally unaware of things is to "throw in the towel" on personal choice and succumb to sheer monotony of life.  However, somewhere in the middle lies a balance, does it not? 

Now,  I don't wish to go off on a tangent here, but I wish momentarily to refer to Aristotle's theory of the mean:  The theory of the mean, which states that virtue is a point between two vices, is still influential in moral philosophy today. This theory of the mean is one of Aristotle's best-known pieces of ethical thinking. It can be found in his book The Nicomachean Ethics. It is at once strikingly simple and fiendishly difficult. In a nutshell, Aristotle said that virtues are a point of moderation between two opposite vices. For instance, the virtue of courage lies between the two vices of cowardice and recklessness. Recklessness is too much confidence and not enough fear, cowardice is too much fear and not enough confidence, courage is just the right amount of both. Some other examples that Aristotle laid out were temperance (or self-control), which lies between self-indulgence and a lack of sensitivity to your own needs, and modesty which is between bashfulness and vanity.  To my mind living mindfully lies at a STILL POINT somewhere between Total Unawareness (Total Unconsciousness) and Total Awareness (Total Consciousness).  On reflection these two extremes are impossibly in the pure sense of those terms, though we can veer towards either one.  Mindfulness for me is learning to have a tendency towards awareness, one which is balanced and which has no undercurrents of obsession.  Indeed mindfulness essentially brings balance with it as it presumes that we become aware of our own over-riding obsessions and prejudices when we work at it.  My apologies if these thoughts here are somewhat strained as I wish to underline what I mean by mindfulness and balance.

Getting beyond those Negative Automatic Thoughts

The Giants Causeway, Antrim
I cannot help referring here to what CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) refers to as Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs).  This is not simply because I have been doing a certificate course in REBT at the moment, but because I have long been aware of the negative tapes I play in my own mind, thankfully to a lesser extent these days, and to my constant teaching efforts to get students to change their negative tapes to positive ones.  This effort can be hard indeed as I am a Resource and Learning Support Teacher concerned with teaching academically weak students who have been on the receiving end of constant criticism over their ability or inability in various subjects over the years.  Before I even begin teaching them English or Maths,  I spend endless hours building up their self-confidence and belief in themselves.  I do this while I'm teaching X or Y or Z, and because I have small numbers in my classes I can stop the lesson and listen to their concerns and use various tips or tricks or strategies and tactics that I've learnt over the years from many teaching courses and from various courses in philosophy and psychology that I've done.

It's so easy to be negative, and so easy to be self-critical, simply because that is the way we have been brought up by both our families and from society at large.  And, needless to say the Media is constantly conspiring to convince us that we are not good enough.  No wonder we spontaneously think in a negative sense all the time.  Advertisements constantly tell us that our houses, our clothes, our cars or our domestic items are not the latest models, and hence are not good enough.  It's so easy then for individuals, and many of them high achievers, too, to believe that they are not good enough and will never be good enough in themselves.  Joe or Jane has this or that and they are this or that which I am not.  How dreadful and how tragic to see a young beautiful girl, or a young talented boy, become anorexic because they believe that they are ugly.  I'm working with a 16 year old boy who believes he is ugly.  These beliefs - irrational as they are - come from somewhere - mainly from the lies society sells as the truths of existence.   I am training him to learn to replace these NATs with Positive Thoughts.  I am loathe to call them PATs because Positive thoughts are not automatic unfortunately, but I have told him he must give himself pats on the back each morning like "I am as good as X or Y" or "I am OKAY", "I am as good looking as anyone else." etc until they become automatic PATs.  

And then school compounds these lies by telling students they are not good enough unless they reach certain standards.  Here, I believe that our school system, and most school systems in The Western World need to teach subjects such as Philosophy, Psychology and/or Personal Development alongside the more academic and physical pursuit subjects.  In this way we can encourage our students to be (i) more aware of the more obvious and even the more surreptitious and subliminal messages of The Media which reflects the superficial goals of society.  This is one sure way to decrease the phenomenon of suicide among our young people, especially our young men here in Ireland.  Then also (ii) we can encourage them to act more positively in their own lives without succumbing to depression or any other negative outcomes in their lives.

Even when I awoke this morning I have found myself engaging in negative thoughts like: (i) I should have done all that washing up and that ironing last night, (ii) I wasted my time looking at that late night film last evening, (iii) I have too much to do, (iv) I'm back at work on Monday, (v) I haven't applied for my tax repayments for my medical expenses for the past two years - I hate filling in all the forms, (v) I've been too lazy to get the immersion heater in the hot press fixed, and so on and so on.  To go on would be to bore the reader.  Yet, it is important to realise that this is a pattern of negative thinking.  I stopped myself in my tracks and said to myself: "So what?  I enjoyed that film last night as I really relaxed.  The world is not going to end because I have X, Y, Z still to do.  I will tackle them piecemeal after I have looked at the election results; read a little on Schopenhauer's philosophy which I love, looked at the TV to see the election results coming in now quite quickly; had my very late breakfast-cum-lunch etc.  Then, I still have two days to get all this work done, but it will be slowly and meditatively done after all, as I deeply believe in living mindfully.  Even writing these notes here is a mindful exercise for me.  That's the whole point of my blog actually.  It slowly emerged from my personal concerns and reading as a way of mindfully getting to grips which what human life means for one individual, one small minuscule dot in space, called Tim Quinlan.  So, it's my personal project, my life project to make meaning out of this chance conscious existence that I'm living - in a similar way to which Sartre talks about the project which each person's life is and that this is the only freedom we have.

Getting back in Control of Me = Getting back in Control of Life

Many years ago I learnt from the great psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Tony Humphreys that "all control is self control."  The only thing I can control in this life is my own life.  I can never control others, not even my pupils.  What I can do is inspire them to the self-control that I possess and in that way the class will become ordered.  Fear is not a good way to teach and never has been and never will be.  Getting back in control of me is another way of saying that I am not in control of life itself, insofar as I only know life through my own perceptions of it in the first place.  I will return now to Professor Paul Gilbert's inspiring text The Compassionate Mind (Constable, 2010) to conclude this timely post, where he argues:

Mindfulness can also be used to direct attention to specific elements and aspects of our lives.  We take control over what we attend to rather than allowing our attention to be directed to whatever emotions happen to be activated at the time.  So much of our lives are lived on automatic pilot; we're just floating along on the currents of feelings and shifting brain states as we engage in everyday life.  But suppose we actually chose to refocus our attention in a way that we want to.  Suppose we practise having a fresh focus to our attention through imagining ourselves as aliens, or we practise focusing and attending to things we enjoy, like and appreciate.  In this way we can start to take control over the patterns we want to be created in our brains.  This is one of the most exciting and important understandings of modern psychology. (Op. cit., pp.269-270)

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