Let the reprogramming begin!
Everyone prefers happiness over suffering, but it can be difficult to steer our emotions and moods toward a happier state. According to evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Paul Gilbert, we are burdened with a significant challenge he refers to as a "tricky brain!"
Why tricky? In his captivating book, Mindful Compassion, Dr. Gilbert explains that our brains have been shaped by evolution, which is not the most intelligent designer. We could have a better brain if evolution were able to reorganize it (like rebuilding a software program from scratch), but evolution doesn't work that way. It can only build newer brain functions on top of old, patching and extend things over time.
It makes sense that over millions of years, our brains have become somewhat unwieldy and unstable. The "old brain" continues reacting to jarring stimuli as if it were life-and-death, and a saber-tooth tiger was about to attack you from behind. Instead of the reality – you lost your keys and are about to be late for an important meeting.
It's like we have two brains – old brain and new brain. The old brain runs emotions, which guide our motives (social and otherwise) to help us get what we need and depend on for survival. Old brain mechanisms, on the other hand, evolved functions that (for example) direct the body to deal with threats, take shelter, find food, and seek out a sexual partner.
In the last million years, our brains have evolved in profound ways. With a growing neocortex, we became able to think, reason, and plan, enabling us to cooperate and communicate. However, this new brain isn't foolproof or even 100% advantageous. Because of these abilities for thought and self-awareness, we become burdened with habits of ruminating, comparing, self-criticism and judgment—coupled with emotional by-products like anxiety, vindictiveness or depression. Unlike other animals, humans can anticipate the possibility of starving to death or obsess on a fearful experience. As they say in 12-step meeting, "stinkin thinkin" can get us stuck in a loop until we find a way to intervene.
The two brains are linked and intertwined. The old brain can hijack the new brain, where all of its thinking and planning becomes enlisted by the survival fears of the old brain. Our thinking can become linked or looped into a stream of threat-fueled anxiety, anger, or worry.
As always, 80% of the solution lies in understanding the problem. We can have a better relationship with ourselves when we stop judging ourselves and develop compassion for ourselves. We need to accept the fact that our brains are replete with conflicting ideas, emotions, and desires. It's tricky!
In "Mindful Compassion," Dr. Gilbert teaches how to break self-destructive thinking cycles, reorganize the mind, and keep it on track for positive and constructive action. (My podcast talk with him is definitely worth a listen.)
For the sake of self-compassion—which, as Dr. Gilbert explains, is a healing balm for our suffering—it's important to remember that your brain's conflicted nature is not your fault! Likewise, we are not responsible for our family system or society. So, let's have compassion for ourselves around those aspects, too! The great news is we can learn to rewire our tricky brain by combining the skill of mindfulness and the power of self-compassion.
Paul O'Brien left an executive position in high-tech to invent a new category of multimedia software in 1989, which evolved to eventually become the world's largest astrology and divination website in 2003. He is the author of three books. Paul is a sought-after speaker, visionary, entrepreneur, author, and founder of the Divination Foundation.
Paul's newest book Great Decisions, Perfect Timing: Cultivating Intuitive Intelligence (release Feb 2015) is an autobiographical, part how-to manual for intuitive decision-making and part holistic philosophy. (courtesy of Divination.com)