Mca blog

The Misleading Mind

As a child I was fascinated by all living things. From ants to elephants, from microbes to dinosaurs, if it was or had been biologically alive, I was interested. So it was unusual for me to be frightened by a spider.

At about the age of 8, I was standing in our home’s backyard laundry where my parents also stored our school projects and paintings. I was deep in thought as I turned the pages of a school project I’d completely the year before, when I sensed something moving on the ground near me. I turned and saw a large spider, probably a Huntsman, that appeared to be running towards me, and in my surprise I screamed. My father came running to see what was wrong, saw the spider and trod on it. End of story.

Well, not quite the end of my story.

Now I know Huntsman spiders can grow quite large, in fact up to 15cm in leg span. But it’s quite likely the spider I saw was not one of these giants. Nevertheless, through the decades the spider in my memory has grown and is now suitable for entry into the Guinness Book of Records. Furthermore, the image I have in my memory is one of half a spider still running away on four legs after my father squashed the other half. As an adult I can reason that this is impossible, but the image in my memory remains. 

This is clearly a false memory that evolved from an actual event that was emotionally disturbing. It has been recalled many times over the years, and each time the neural pathways are retrieved they are also altered minutely. Over the years, this has caused the spider to grow in size and develop super-spider qualities. 

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself about your own emotional memories of injustices by friends or family or other difficult events? Are they completely true? Can you recall a time when you remembered an event one way and a friend or family member remembered it differently? Who was right? Both of you? Neither of you? 

Remember, altered memories are not in themselves a problem. They only become a problem if you live your life as if it were a reality, eg if I lived in fear of super-spiders, or if you stopped speaking to someone you care for because you think you remember a time they deliberately hurt you.

The future is also imaginary.  The catastrophe you think will happen or the hurt you believe someone will cause you starts in your imagination. If it’s not in the present, it’s not yet real and may never be.

One of my favourite movie quotes in recent times is from the movie Bridge of Spies, when lawyer James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) describes the nature of the serious trouble that has befallen his client, Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy (played by Mark Rylance). The scene goes as follows:

James Donovan:I have a mandate to serve you. Nobody else does. Quite frankly, everybody else has an interest in sending you to the electric chair.

Rudolf Abel: All right…

James Donovan: You don’t seem alarmed.

Rudolf Abel: (pauses to think)… Would it help?

I love that scene! Here was a man who knew his situation was at best, precarious, but he also understood that letting himself get dragged into internal narratives that included worry, fear and imagining a bleak future would not serve him. It’s not that he didn’t feel these emotions, but he chose not to get overwhelmed with unnecessary rumination and negative inner dialogue. He needed clarity of mind and worrying wouldn’t give him that. 

The line is repeated twice more in the movie, each time in slightly different context. But the message is clear. The act of worrying about the future won’t help to change a difficult situation in the present, so why waste your energy?

So what is true? If we can’t trust our recollection of the past or our imagination of the future what can we trust? The answer is in your body, specifically in the five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. Your body cannot exist anywhere other than in the present. Unlike your thoughts, your body cannot exist in the past or the future.

This idea of not getting carried away with difficult negative thoughts and emotions may be described via the following metaphor: Imagine a car pulling up outside your home and sounding the horn. You look out of the window to see a car with a driver inside. However, just because a car drives up to your house and honks its horn, doesn’t mean you have to leave your home, get in the car and go for a drive. You can be aware of the car and make a choice not to ignore it. After all, it’s possible the driver is actually there for someone else.

This is how it is with our demanding thoughts and strong emotions. If we can be the observer of our experience, we can notice the thought or emotion, acknowledge how it resonates in the body and choose to shift the focus, not be led away with it.

It’s really not that hard to shift your focus. You do it all the time naturally. Most of the time you will choose to shift your focus from what doesn’t interest you to what does. And fearful scenarios interest us most of all because we’ve been hard-wired to look for threats as a means of helping our species survive.  

But we still have choice. Try this exercise. 

  1. Sit in a comfortable chair and let your attention go to the sensation of your feet on the ground.
  2. Now shift your attention to your ears and the sounds in the room
  3. Move your attention to where your hands are resting, and the sensations in your fingers
  4. Shift your attention again, this time to your sense of smell
  5. Now focus on an object in your line of vision

Not too difficult. You see, you choose what you pay attention to. If you want to pay attention to nagging thoughts of worry and fear, go ahead. But remember this: whatever you focus on gets stronger. And whatever you practice is what you get better at. So if you want to be really good at anxiety, worry and fear, keep practicing.

Letting go of these negative emotions is not always easy, but awareness is the first step. Think about how worry and fear feel in your body. Where do you feel it the strongest? Is it in your chest, your belly, your head? Is it constrictive, turbulent, hot or cold? We are all unique so the feeling will be your unique feeling. 

Explore it, learn to recognise it when it first starts. By this, I don’t mean analyse the thoughts that are causing it. It’s thinking that got you into this unpleasantness in the first place. Rather, sense it in your body and recognise that this feeling is the early warning sign of oncoming catastrophisation or rumination. Once you recognise the feeling it will be easier to shift your attention to thoughts or actions that serve you better, safe feelings, present moment feelings, like the sensation of sun on your skin, or the connection points of your hands as you hold them together.

This is where meditation can be so helpful. Meditation teaches us how to better understand the sensations in the body and how to let go of thoughts. It trains the brain to move away from unhelpful thoughts of the past and the future and return to the present moment by focusing on the body. Your body is always in the present, it cannot be in the past or the future. So shifting your attention to the body means that your mental focus will move from past or future back to the present moment. 

To learn more, join us at our weekly Mindfulness Practice Group or ask us about our next Mindfulness course.

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