Turning our thought addictions into thought practices

"All addictions are thought addictions," said John Beaulieu, one of my favorite instructors in our Sound Voice and Music Healing Certificate program. He is a former staff clinical psychologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, a concert pianist who studied with composer John Cage, and now runs a research lab and clinic as a practitioner of sound healing arts. [singlepic id=113 w=160 h=120 float=center]

He told us the story of one of B.F. Skinner's early experiments with rats and humans, which formed an image in my mind that has not left. Skinner built identical mazes for both rats and humans (sized proportionately), with cheese in the center of the rat maze, and a five dollar bill in the center of the human maze. Both rats and humans showed identical learning time in mastering the maze and getting their rewards - within one day all of the rats and all of the humans had successfully navigated to the center of the maze.

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However, an interesting difference revealed itself when Skinner took away the cheese and the five dollar bill the next day, and allowed the same rats and humans to run through the maze. At the end of that second day, only seventy percent of the rats were still running through the maze, but all of the humans kept running. After three days, only thirty percent of the rats were still interested in the maze, but nearly all the humans were still going at it. After a week, none of the rats would go through the maze. However, the majority of the humans kept showing up.

After a month, there were still a number of human participants showing up to run the maze, with no five dollar bill having been there since the first day. According to the story, after Skinner stopped the experiment and dismantled the human maze that had been set up in the basement of his laboratory, some participants broke into the building in an attempt to get to the maze.

I don't mean to draw any sweeping conclusions about All of Human Psychology or Existence from this description of one set of experiments. But the behavior of the humans was pretty striking. I think the Skinner experiments show us how easily our brains get attached to things, how quickly our brains make associations, and how our actions can be governed by associations made in the distant past, even if those associations don't accurately reflect the present reality. We have the tendency to live with our minds in the past (remembering what was there once before) or in the future (hoping that this time will be different from the past). We keep running through the maze of our habitual thought patterns. Until we "wake up" with awareness that there's no five dollar bill (or until the maze is taken away), we may not even realize we're in the maze. (Does this remind you of the movie The Matrix?)

What does this say about our human minds? I've written a couple of other blog posts musing on this subject, but for the purposes of explaining how life coaching works, I've come up with this model:

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The natural tendency of our brain is to form thoughts and associations with past learned experiences. Some of our thoughts are "painful" in that they are associated with a feeling we don't like having - such as fear, pain, or inadequacy. In response to that feeling we don't like, we each have a "repertoire" of strategies - or learned actions - for dealing with the feeling. We call these strategies either habits or coping mechanisms or addictions, depending on the degree to which they help or hurt our ability to function effectively. Each of our strategies is like a maze we've learned once before, when there was probably a five dollar bill waiting for us in the center. Having made the association, our brains recognize anything that might be like that maze, and, without thinking, we run down that familiar path, all the way to the center, only to find it empty.

I've grouped these habits and addictions into three main categories:

  1. Numb & Conquer the Feeling - "Mind over Matter" This strategy involves efforts directed at not feeling anything at all, or believing that there is a way to avoid the uncomfortable feeling altogether. One common example of this is workaholism. You know the type. Someone who finds ways to stay so "busy" that they are never alone, still, or silent long enough to identify, articulate, or even feel their feelings. Other examples include drugs that induce a state of calm (alcohol or anti-anxiety medication) or sleep (pain medication or sleeping pills). Some behaviors function like drugs, by producing a numbing effect on an uncomfortable feeling - like people-pleasing and conflict-avoidance. All of the behaviors in this category are based on an attempt to protect yourself from bad feelings by feeling nothing at all. Of course, it's a false sense of security, since you've also prevented yourself from feeling good.
  2. Immerse & Replace the Feeling - "Feel Good For Now" This involves replacing the unpleasant feeling with a better feeling, by engaging in activities that stimulate a "high". Some hobbies fulfill this need, by allowing a person to bypass all thinking and be immersed in the activity. Playing music, swinging a golf club, accumulating Friends on Facebook, organizing your DVD collection, renovating your kitchen - anything pursued with focus and passion (even an obsession) can temporarily replace a painful thought and feeling pattern. Emotional eating (for reasons other than actual hunger and need for nutritional sustenance), smoking, obsessive exercise, and other "activity addictions" may fall into this category too. The key is that while all the activities themselves produce a better feeling, it is temporary because the feeling is dependent on being in the activity. It's easy to imagine how the behaviors escalate in order to match the intensity or frequency of the painful feeling. The underlying painful thought and feeling have not been addressed in a real way, merely masked by the new activity and new feeling.
  3. Enabling Relationships - "Poor me!" We all have people we turn to when we're feeling sorry for ourselves. The question is, do you have the right balance between "Dr. Phil"s who will tell you like it is, and hand-holders who will coo at you reassuringly as you slurp noisily from your big bowl of pity? We all need a little of both, artfully timed and placed depending on the situation we're in. But if you've gravitated toward pity-party-hosts who help you remain bathed in your own stories of misery long after the actual pain has subsided, it might be time to reexamine your relationships. Same goes for people who ignore and/or condone any of your numbing and distracting behaviors described above.

As a coach, I actually don't focus on working with people on their habits and addictions, although chances are that they might come up in the process of uncovering a painful thought. In fact, if you're seeking life coaching, your strategies for coping with feelings have served you reasonably well in your life. You're just wondering if there's more, if there's a way to get a "tune up" and learn some more repertoire. I believe that through coaching, you have an opportunity to choose and practice a new underlying thinking pattern - to rearrange the maze - behind the habits. But only if you want to.

If you're interested in growth and greater self-empowerment through inner peace, you might want to consider the upper half of the diagram. Notice the dotted line across the middle of the page. What separates addictions and habits (which keep you running around the same maze, chasing the same five dollar bill) from practices (which lead to new learning and growth) is AWARENESS.

Coaching, as I see it, is a way to bring more awareness to your thinking. As you verbalize thoughts out loud, your coach can help identify painful ones, help you question how true they really are, and replace them with thoughts that are true for you, revealing a feeling that can lead you to act in more beneficial ways. While the truth might hurt at first, it's only by facing the truth that you can get to the real kind of better feeling - the kind that lasts, and can carry you, with the power of awareness, toward your own best life and the actions you truly desire.

If all a coach did were to illuminate where your most painful thinking is occurring, and help you replace those thoughts with truthful, better feeling ones, it would be life-changing.

However, it doesn't have to stop there.

I've found that verbal coaching as I describe above, combined with deliberate practice of things like meditation, yoga, or sounding, can have the added power of bypassing all thoughts and heightening awareness of your thoughts and feelings - both painful and non-painful. To reveal the music within you, the noise of painful thinking needs to be heard, and then its volume gently turned down, as you practice tuning into the true resonance of your soul.

Through these practices, the nature of mind is revealed as neutral emptiness, populated temporarily with thoughts that can be either grasped or let go. As you train in meditation as an observer of your own thoughts - recognizing your choice to either believe those thoughts or simply let them pass through the mind as visitors - you experience the joy and freedom of "no mind". Gradually, as your awareness gains strength through practice, and your thoughts become looser, more fluid, more flexible, you become aware of the impermanence of any given thought or feeling. You can choose, in any moment, to hold on or to let go, but in either case, it's temporary.

We can no more guarantee ourselves permanent peace than be doomed to permanent pain. As we gradually embrace our own power to observe each thought with awareness, we become a still point, less susceptible to the fluctuations in mood, outlook, or actions based on the influences of the mind. We connect to our hearts and our bodies. We become more attuned to the limitless possibilities of the ever-changing present moment, instead of attaching to past results or future expectations.

It's easier to remain running in the many familiar mazes from our past experience, chasing the five dollar bill that may never be there again. But with practice and awareness and play, we have access to our own center at any time, even while the world wanders around us.

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