Consciousness, operating systems, and why we struggle with change – Part 2

In my last post I talked about how the analogy of hardware and software and the files that run on that software can be a good way of understanding why it’s difficult for us to make change easily, or to integrate new ideas into our regular behaviours. In a nutshell, just like we need the right type of software to open, modify or get full access to certain types of files, our ability to comprehend, interpret and act on the information that’s presented to us on a daily basis is dependent on our internal ‘software’ – which, in turn, is the product of our experiences and training.

The real value in this analogy is realising that the way we deal with the world can be the result of a diminished feature set in our internal software. Our version might be buggy, out of date, or simply wrong, and this can result in our misinterpreting situations, getting trapped in thought loops, and experiencing inappropriate emotional responses  (and then getting stuck on the thought and feeling loops that result from the intensity of these emotions).

Buggy software can be recoded or updated. Likewise, we are more than capable of upgrading our internal software. A lot of what we do in psychotherapy is just this. There’s also another way…

Last time, I also mentioned that the hardware/software analogy can work well if we think of ourselves as the system admins in charge of this platform. This presents us with two options: either we don’t pay attention to what’s going on, and then assume that whatever happens is supposed to because it’s part of the system; or we can engage an inner ubergeek who keeps a close track on the system and its inputs and outputs, and then makes adjustments based on these observation. This version allows us to understand and allow for system bugs – because we know that they’re there. Once you’re aware of something, you can do something about it – otherwise, we let things happen by the expedient of not paying attention.

You’ve probably come across the notion of mindfulness in one form or another. There are lots of interpretations of mindfulness but, in essence, mindfulness is simply paying voluntary, focused attention to something – thoughts, feelings, experiences, sensations, situations – the key is being able to monitor what’s going on, and then choosing to do something about it (rather than letting everything churn away in the background, dumping outputs into your mind, and dragging you around cognitively and emotionally without your consent).

The key word here is choice. Being able to deliberately choose our behaviours is the endpoint of mindfulness, especially when that chosen behaviour is in line with what’s important to us. This brings up a side issue: most of us are blissfully unaware of our values, and actively work outside of what’s actually important to (and then worry why we get stressed, or feel empty or meaningless).

Your particular value set is unique to you – but humans share many core values, like connection to others, the need for meaningful work, challenge, novelty of experience, skills mastery, and recreation. Figuring out your values isn’t particularly hard – simply think about the things that are really important to you (hint: make it about things that you can do something about right now, like forming closer relationships, not about something you want, such as a new car). Once you’ve got a list, try gauging how important that value is to you (out of 10) and then how well you’re living your life in line with those values on a daily basis (again out of 10). The lower your score, the greater the likelihood that you’re out of touch with what’s meaningful to you. Next, sit down and come up with a few simple things you can do to live more directly in line with those values – make them simple, everyday actions…

Coming back to mindfulness and choice. If you know what’s important and meaningful to you, and you to choose to act in line with those values even when you’re overwhelmed by unpleasant thoughts and feelings, you are embodying mindfulness. Mindfulness in not about controlling or changing our thoughts and feelings, especially the distressing ones. Instead, it’s about recognising that they’re there, acknowledging them, and then choosing to act in a values-congruent way instead of the automatic (and often dysfunctional) ways you’d normally react.

Next time I’ll look at easy ways to learn mindfulness skills. For now, understanding that your ability to act like a system admin, keeping track of what’s going on in the hardware/software platform that is you, helps you to choose how to behave, despite buggy or out of date software, or file incompatibility. In other words, rather than assuming the system works and letting it get on with it – you can learn to monitor your experience of the world and choose to behave in line with a chosen set of actions despite the output of a buggy system…


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