Consciousness – Self Possession – Pausing To Think

Friday, April 11th, 2008 at 6:11 pm.
by pre.

B.F. Skinner was a behaviourist. He studied psychology, animals and humans, and he figured out that animals act mostly through reflex, and furthermore that those reflexes can be altered through associative learning. If you ring a bell every time you feed a dog, the dog will start to salivate at the sound of the bell. Since you and I are also animals, we can be sure this process works with us too.

However; we are a special class of animal. Yes, you and I do work through reflex. If I make you angry, you’ll lash out. If I make you happy and secure you’ll be more trusting and friendly. If you’re hungry, you’ll eat. This is true of every mammal you care to name. But it’s also true that you and I have a faculty that it would seem most animals live without: introspective self-conscious sentience. Self awareness. In short: Self possession. The ability to understand our reflexes. To notice them, manipulate them, to change them or override them.

Our next two essays will help you to understand this fact, suggest ways that you can use to train yourself to rely less on reflex and more on deliberate thought and considered opinion, and then help you to learn how to train your reflexes so that even if things are happening too quickly for self-conscious introspection, your reflexes will do what you’d want them to do anyway.

Next week, we’ll look at ways to change your reflexes, train your own knee-jerk responses when it’s useful to do so, but the truth is that usually this isn’t even needed. In the life of a modern western human being, most action can be deliberate, willed and conscious. Most of the time we act on reflex, but usually we actually have plenty of time to slow down, consider the options and act consciously instead, consider if our reflexes have become corrupted.

Both now and next week we’ll use the same three examples. Typical instances where people find their reflexes differ from the actions that they claim they would chose given a long and rational argument: (a)Giving up cigarettes, (b)dieting and (c)overcoming anger.

If these examples don’t fit your own life, and doubtless many of you have no trouble with those particular things, then I’m sure it’s not hard to pick something that will be more relevant to your personal experience. Some time when you find yourself in a situation where your instinct contradicts the action you know, rationally, you should be taking. Something like being offered a cigarette and knowing you should refuse, or thinking about having that second helping of pudding, or shouting and edging into someone’s face knowing that it’s pointless and counter-productive and only likely to lead to trouble.

In the first instance you need to recognise the situation. Realize that this is one of those times when you’re not acting properly. Your reflex is unprofitable. When you drag on yet another cigarette, eat that donut, or start clenching that punching fist again, you need to notice that this is not what you want.

The difficulty here, obviously, is that at the time you’re deciding you do want one more cigarette after all, or you’re holding someone by the throat, or you’re stuffing more food down your face than you should be doing, you’re not really thinking at all. Except perhaps with your guts. You’re just acting on instinct, like a bell-salivating dog.

However, this in itself can be your cue. If you recall such an event and notice how it feels, you can learn to see when it reoccurs, when you’re acting on instinct again, and use that feeling to remind you to think. You do this using the same methods we’ve been discussing for the last couple of months of course: practice, association and imagery. Every time you make this mistake, you have another example to use in your imagery. Another example you can play over in your mind, only changing the result. You need to imagine yourself not acting according to your gut this time but stopping and thinking.

In fact, you need to imagine yourself doing the second thing you’ll want to actually do in this situation. Once you’ve recognised that you’re being led by your instinct, against your own interests, you need to realize you can slow down. You don’t actually need to reply or react immediately. You can take your time. Realistically, in just about every occasion, a few breaths are not going to make much difference. You need to slow your brain down. Relax. So imagine yourself doing that. Daydream about it. Don’t concentrate on what you did wrong the last time you sucked heartily on that mild filtered smoke, licked the jam from that cake or punched that idiot in the face. Instead, fantasize that you stopped, drew a slow (smoke-free) breath, and then used your brain. Did that thing that separates us from the animals: act against your instinct because you know that your instinct is wrong.

Our usual meditation techniques are useful here. Listen to a breath or two, focus on thinking about nothing for a moment. Take a deep and slow, very slow, breath. Imagine yourself in that relaxed and happy place where there’s no pressure. Now. Start to think. What would you decide? What should you decide?

Finally, you need to know how to convince yourself to apply this plan more often. You’re in the middle of a reflex reaction. Just knowing what’s going on will help a great deal. Just understanding that your actions are on reflex, and that you can override it, will mean you’re more likely to over-ride it. But you can do more. You’ve already started to learn some self-hypnosis techniques by now. Try some visualisation. Slow down your mind, meditate, pause, then see yourself refusing that cigarette, throwing away that half-eaten meal, or calming down rather than escalating some violence.

As always, the key is to practice. Not necessarily in real life, but imagine yourself practising. Take one of our hypnosis-files and record a personal message over it. Start using that to give your brain your own instruction. If you hit upon a useful combination, post it to our forums. Share the experience. There’s only one person in the world who can make you stop acting on yuor broken instincts, and in fact that is why ‘you’, your higher function self-awareness, exists at all. To stop yourself making those stupid mistakes.

Next week, we’ll look into how you can go further than this, how you can not only learn not to rely on reflex action, but even train those reflexes when you DO have to rely on them.