Hi. Stren #82 provides knowledge essential to develop “thought control.” Equivalent terms include mental freedom, self-mastery, becoming one’s own person, and super-maturity.
In a three-part stren and elsewhere, I have named the three masters that direct our life’s experience:
- Master nature: what we inherit from our genes; the wisdom of billions of years of evolution
- Master nurture: what we are taught after birth; the prescriptions of our parents and community
- Self-mastery: the control we exert over our own lives, if and to what degree we emancipate our self from nature and our nurturers’ prescriptions
Despite our wishes, our influence over others and the way the world treats us is quite limited. Yet, we have immense say in what matters most, the quality of our own life’s experience. Observation of many happy, enthusiastic persons in the face of the worst imaginable life’s circumstances convinces me that we each maintain the capacity to feel good and do good. There is a way! I have learned that self-mastery requires distinguishing “thoughts,” “thinking” and our special kind of “reflective thinking” from one another. We control our power of imagination and interpretation most effectively through accurate labeling.
When we are born, our genes have already written an elaborate script for our life’s experience, with contributions from generations past we shall never know. Master nature, “speaking” through our genes, demands that we replicate the life cycle. Thus, our first directive, to guarantee the continuation of the gene pattern, is to survive long enough to reproduce.
A comparison of our level of thinking with other earthlings is very instructive. In one celled and very primitive organisms, reproduction merely requires splitting itself. Behavioral patterns such as movement towards heat and light are inherited. Birth, reproduction, and death are regulated true to nature’s dictates. Little more is required for survival beyond what nature provides. Thinking and consciousness are not a consideration.
Creatures with greater complexity have specialized organs to take care of specific functions: the means to take in food, eliminate wastes, and so on. Reproduction involves more than simple division. Progressively, we see that a network of nerves and a central nervous system develops to coordinate the new functions and to better serve the needs for survival and reproduction. More complex earthlings have a mass of cells to coordinate their nerve network, the organ we call “the brain.” Increasingly complex organisms are noted not only by the greater size and complexity of their brain, but also additional collections of cells with distinct functions, i.e., a “newer brain.” An examination of our human brain indicates that it is not one unit but a series of seven connected segments. It is noteworthy that the seventh and latest, observed in the most complex earthlings, is growing in size and complexity more rapidly than any other specialized organ. The cortical brain contains areas for speech, control of voluntary muscle, and functions we rely on for willful action. This growing edge of the nervous system is our means to attain freedom from nature and nurture. (A Catholic priest/theologian/scientist, Tielhard De Chardin, has added a religious perspective to this observation, suggesting that evolution is moving us closer to the image of God.)
While this central nerve system is initially wired to coordinate the activities of the organism’s different parts, a primitive level of mental awareness occurs at some stage of the brain’s increasing complexity. We call this new function “consciousness.” The ability to be conscious of our environment and to consider better ways to insure that the life cycle will be completed provides great advantages. It is difficult to identify a point in the growth in size and function of the brain at which earthlings add mental awareness. I hypothesize that the inception of conscious awareness consisted of an image being presented of something that is needed, followed by processing that results in an adaptation to the challenge presented. The image received is called a “thought,” and the mental processing of the image is called “thinking.” The progressive development of the cortex continues to add new sophistication to our problem-solving capabilities … the ability to manipulate conscious images and learn from mistakes. Humankind’s advanced cerebral cortex has the capacity to consider its needs and resolve them. “Mistakes” can be rehearsed in the mind and corrected before action is taken. We call this process “cognitive rehearsal” or “no-trial learning.”
As complexity increases, it takes longer for a creature to reproduce. Instead of being fully prepared to deal with the demands of its environment at birth, a set of directions we call “learning” is required. To accommodate this learning process, elaborate specialized organs have developed that sense what is outside of our physical self and transmit the expectations our environment and nurturers make upon us. These sense organs are wired to our consciousness; their messages are in addition to the message from within. The customary “human” skills for eating, walking, talking, sanitary habits, the three r’s , etc. are absent at birth; our nurturers considerably embellish what nature provides. From birth, we are regularly confronted with a multitude of prescriptions, “shoulds” from our outside world. Humans exceed all other earthlings by far in the amount of learning and nurturance required to complete the life cycle.
As you can see, thoughts originate from many sources. Your conscious awareness is made up experiences which may include pictures, symbols, ideas, and feelings such as pain, heat, and so on. The sense organs and systems of our body are continually sending requests asking for service from our central processing system. The animal brain manages most, like digestion and breathing, physically and automatically, but some are referred to conscious awareness for special attention. Our conscious mental processes make contact with our experience by “thoughts” and “thinking.” Multiple thoughts and the elaboration of these thoughts, what we call “thinking,” go on in our mind, often at the same time: “Bladder full, need food, too cold, want some of this, more of that, right now.” “Eat your spinach.” “Pee in the toilet.” “Listen to your parents … because I say so.” “Vote Republican!” Yes, the demands are often beyond the capability of these higher processes and so absolutely contradictory that master nature or master nurture cannot be satisfied.
The network gets quite complicated but our amazing brain is usually up to the task. The constant flow of thoughts has been called the “stream of consciousness.” Sometimes it is more like an obstacle course - disjointed, bizarre, a jumbled mess of confusion. There may be multiple motion pictures displayed simultaneously on several screens. Messages need to be sorted and assigned a priority, and the orders need to be filled. These “thought”-messengers may enter consciousness from within, from our organs; and from without, through our senses. Thoughts commonly originate and can be categorized as directives from one of two sources, master nature (genes, instinct) and master nurture (our environment, habit).
Imagine watching a sports event, like football, in which the players on both teams and the referees all wore the same uniform. How difficult it would be to follow the action. Here is my definition for distinguishing “thoughts” from “thinking.”
Thoughts: a thought is an awareness that “pops into our mind” without being invited. It is a visitor offering a message to be considered.
Thinking: thinking is what our mental processing does with our thoughts. When we elaborate on our thoughts, we are thinking.
In the sports analogy, “thoughts” are the visiting team; “thinking” is the home team. Thoughts arrive without effort and are involuntary. They are messengers carrying information, often requests, from master nature or master nurture. Thinking is the active mental process to elaborate on and service the message. Keep in mind that master nature and master nurture each wire us to receive messages and process them, to engage in thoughts and thinking! They each “speak” in their native tongue, i.e., a characteristic language. They may use different symbols, images, vocabulary, and the like to convey their message.
Our brain is multilingual; it not only understands but has become proficient in at least two languages. From our birth, we have learned these languages, and we have almost always faithfully, with “blind” obedience, tried to please these two masters. This can and does lead to problems, because to please one often means disobeying the other. A point I wish to convey is that the service provided by conscious awareness, (thoughts, thinking, and the symbols of language needed for mental processing) initially develops to serve the demands of nature and nurture, long before the development of self-mastery.
Reflective thinking is our third and newer manner of specialized thinking; it provides our identity as humankind and enables us to master ourselves. Reflective thinking is the capacity to reflect on our thoughts and our thinking, i.e. to think about what is going on in our conscious mind. We are “conscious of our consciousness.” This ability to think about our thinking, manipulate it, and modify it, to create new solutions and innovate novel action is due to the size and complexity of the human brain and our ability to use words and symbols. This manner of thinking excels in “abstract” reasoning; abstract means “separate.” Originating from our highest mental function, rational thinking is insulated from the passion of our nature and nurturers. When I refer to self and the power we have for self-mastery, this is the portion of our conscious mental activity that is active. It is our capacity for reflective thinking that enlarges our personal identity, and offers us the opportunity to challenge the demands of our nature and nurture and set our own course. While other earthlings may have some degree of reflective thinking, they lack the opportunity for self-mastery because they also lack our capacity to use symbols, language, abstract thinking, speech, writing, and other tools available to humankind.
Reflective thinking, and our opportunity for self-mastery, requires many years to become fully developed. Studies on adult development suggest that it is difficult to become our own person before our late twenties. Many require longer. Some people’s mental activity and thinking are dictated predominately by their nature and nurturers throughout their entire life. Unlike sexual maturation, which usually begins with the automatic release of hormones at puberty, the maturation of our self is a voluntary, active, and willful process. Self-mastery is never absolute. The degree and quality of our self-management skills increases as we acquire wisdom and strens and develop a newer way of thinking (wow, a third language!).
I hope this stren will impress on you that years of repetition, “speaking,” and thinking in the languages of our early masters, nature and nurture, creates a habitual pattern of thinking that is difficult to change. We substantially increase the development of a newer way of thinking, of becoming our own person, and freeing our self from the control of our early masters, when we have a conscious understanding of the process of maturation, what is required, and how we can contribute. [See also the description of reflective-thinking in stren #83, Know Your Self.]
Labeling the source of a thought as “nature,” “nurture,” or “self” does not provide an automatic value judgment. Frequently the urgings of our nature and nurture are in our best interests. Confirmed by our appraisal, we are wise to support and carry them out. However, we best do so using mature rational decision-making rather than acting with blind obedience. Nature and nurture are commonly at odds with one another, and their demands may no longer be applicable for our stage of life. Reasoned common sense decision-making regarding eating habits, how to dress, and sexual attitudes is usually preferable to maintaining the good/bad, right/wrong thinking commonly acquired from our early authorities. We are usually better served by judgments that involve some moderation and cooperation than by competition. In addition, the self of our reflective thinking will often be creative and may improve the means to obtain the ends sought by our early masters. We may also choose to plot a course for our self totally unknown to our nature or nurturers. Thus, skill in accurately connecting our thoughts and thinking to their appropriate master will be a valuable aid in sorting out, refining, and wisely acting on the many demands constantly before us. “Is this thinking carried on in the service of nature’s wants, nurture’s wants, or what I want?” “Who’s the boss?” “Who’s in the driver’s seat now?”
When thoughts pop into our mind, they don’t announce themselves as “master nature, your genes speaking,” or “master nurture, orders from your environment speaking.” They enter simply as generic “thoughts.” They often have more “local” identities, for example nature’s callings: stomach…”feed me”; bladder...”full, got to pee”; penis…”do something about my hard”; warrior…”he cut me off, kill the bastard” (the fight/flight instinct); impatience…”I want it now!”; or nurture’s calling: someone resembling one’s parents…”eat all your vegetables”; role models…”it doesn’t matter how you play the game as long as you win”; religious leaders…”Love thy neighbor”; critical events, such as a parent’s divorce/death…”you are the cause”; sometimes characters such as an angel, the devil, the voice of conscience…”no hanky panky!”; …and so on. I have heard many names people have given to the messengers and voices that appear in their consciousness; nature and nurture are infrequently named, even though they are the “parents” of most thoughts and thinking.
Several examples of “thoughts” and “thinking” as they might appear in mental processing are provided. Which originate from your genes? From your nurturers? From your self? Can you identify the source of the players in your own mental motion picture?
Example 1 Activating event: Your bladder is full
Thought: Signal goes off - a feeling of fullness, bladder full. “Need to pee.”
Thinking: “Must go to the bathroom.”
Reflective thinking (RT): “I’ll wait until I get to the restaurant.”
Example 2 You haven’t eaten in four hours:
Thought: “I need food; I want a fudge sundae.”
Thinking: “Sure would enjoy a sundae but I should be eating carrots.”
RT: “I’ll treat myself now and lighten up on my dinner.”
Example 3 The alarm goes off or someone calls out to you:
Thought: “Wake up.”
Thinking: “How much time do I have? Maybe I could get another ten minutes.”
RT: “I’d be wise to get up now!”
Example 4 Sometimes there isn’t a clear activating event; an “internal clock” goes off.
Thought: “Golly, I forgot to pick up bread and milk.”
Thinking: “I must stop and get it or I’m in trouble.”
RT: “I won’t bother, everyone will enjoy eating out.”
Example 5 You become aware your skin has a pimple (or wrinkles):
Thinking: “Oh my God, I’ve got to get rid of it right away.”
Thinking: “Did I do something I shouldn’t have done to deserve that?”
RT: “Not too pretty. How do I best handle this?”
Example 6 Driving
Thought: “This thing will easily do 100.”
Thinking: “Sure would be a gas. Hit the pedal!”
RT: “What if I get caught? That doesn’t fit into my plans.”
Example 7 Dinner has been served.
Thought: “You must eat your vegetables before you can have dessert!”
Thinking: “Maybe you could make me before, but I’m not a kid anymore.”
RT: “What is a good, healthy diet?”
It is common for multiple thoughts to pop into your mind.
Example 8 Your examiner informs you that you failed your driving test.
Thought 1: “Oh, shit!”
Thought 2: “The asshole (examiner) made a mistake.”
Thought 3: “As always, I’m a failure.”
Some possible elaborations:
1. “Let me figure out how to get even.”
2. “How am I going to explain this?”
3. “I’m such an idiot!” and other putdowns that go on and on.
4. “I didn’t hear right.”
5. “What do I need to do to get it right the next time?”
6. “I think I’m too nervous to learn to drive; I’ll manage without.”
You can come up with a number of additional possible responses.
I reiterate: accurate labeling provides the “handle” to make change. I encourage you to develop skill in identifying your thoughts and thinking and recognizing which master they are serving. It’s difficult to understand what’s going on if all the “players” are in the same uniform. You see, multiple thoughts commonly occur at one time, each demanding thinking time and action. If we are to use our energy wisely, we need to choose which voice(s) should receive our attention. Can you recognize where your thoughts come from? Who sends these messages? Is nature, nurture, or your self doing the speaking?
Thoughts enter your conscious awareness with a purpose to be satisfied. Each thought, and the thinking that follows (i.e., the elaboration on the thought) is the agent of a specific master. Yet, when thoughts appear, they don’t identify which master has sent them. They don’t say: “I am your nature speaking.” They “look” alike; they are generic; they wear no uniform to clarify which team they represent. They do have an agenda for which they seek attention and action. Thoughts also tend to be quite rude. Thoughts have no concern that another is speaking; they often announce their elaborate agenda competitively with others. Confusion and muddy thinking are common unless order is imposed. I present this picture of the workings of our mental activity in the hope you will understand the importance of recognizing which master is the source of your thoughts and thinking. Properly labeling them is a worthy effort if you are to engage in wise action.
Example 9 Activating event: you get a paycheck
Thought: “I’ve got money!”
Thinking: 1. “How quickly can I get to the casino, have a ball? I deserve it.”
Thinking: 2. “I have to save it; there will come a ‘rainy day.’ Or I should give to charity.”
RT: 3. “We want to save to buy a house – to the bank. I think I can afford a bit of ‘mad money’ and also make a bit of a donation if I work this out.”
#1 is most likely nature ... please me now, little concern about the future; #2 is most likely nurture ... what we are taught we “should” do, a common “prescription;” #3 is most likely my self speaking ... a reasonable step in my best interest.
Example 10 We have multiple thinking responses to the same issue.
Someone you felt was a really good friend and confidant has betrayed you.
Response 1: You are preoccupied with ways to get even.
Response 2: You dwell on your inadequacies as a person and stay depressed.
Response 3: You conclude relationships mean pain and dedicate yourself to avoiding them.
Response 4: You plan to discuss your experience with others and see how they handled a similar situation.
Response 5: You are preoccupied in worry that your ex-friend is spreading rumors; it’s difficult to sleep; “will I lose my job?”
Response 6: You ask, “How can I best repair this situation now and plan for the future?”
There are multiple possible responses. Can you identify which master is doing the thinking in each of the above examples, or any other responses you might consider? Because the perspectives of thoughts, thinking, and reflective thinking often overlap, the distinction between the three may not be sharp, but they need not be – even the slightest hint is usually sufficient to apply wise self-management.
I have defined the thoughts and thinking as the expression of the wishes of our first two masters. Let’s now address the critical issue of this guide - the recognition, labeling, and development of self-mastery. Self-mastery is the emancipation of our self from dependence and blind obedience to our nature and nurture. It is the skill that opens the door to freeing our mind and taking charge of our own life, to “become our own person,” to act most wisely in our own interest including bringing about feeling good and doing good.
Now, a final point: Our masters usually don’t speak directly to our awareness but usually through some “messenger.” We may amuse our self when we can attach some person, event, or situation to the thoughts expressing their selves in our awareness. For example, the “should” prescriptive-type thoughts may sound strangely like mom, dad, a role model, a religious text, or even a mirror (“You are not the fairest of all.”). Nature’s thoughts may seem to come from a warrior-like individual, or some physical image representing our stomach, genitals, etc. Sometimes the messenger is clearly recognized; other times we need to be quite creative. As we define these specific characters, events, and other “influencers,” we might give the more important ones a seat on our Board of Directors. I believe creating an image of our Board is a valuable tool to better understand the process of self-mastery.
It becomes easier to manage our mental activity as we recognize that some of our “characters” speak for multiple issues. For example, a parent figure is advocating how we should look, what career we should take, how to deal with sexual feelings, and so on. You will also realize that each of our three masters, through their representatives, commonly speak to the same issue. For example, the “parent” character representing our nurture may speak to our safety and how to manage our sexual interests, while a representative of your nature also speaks to the same issues. However, their demands and method of satisfying them may be quite at odds.
Although I have compared our mental processing to a sports arena, I want to point out that our mind’s arena is somewhat different in that there are usually three teams on the playing field. Also, the rules for “winning” encourage the teams to cooperate when possible for their mutual advantage rather than compete to make one a winner and the other(s) a loser.
We deal with our life’s issues more effectively as we (our self) become more proficient in recognizing the characters in our consciousness, as our labeling and classification skills provide us a better understanding of our mental processes, and as we acquaint our self with our Board of Directors.
Advice: This stren, #82, Thoughts and Thinking, and strens Know Your Self (#83), Know Your Masters (#84), and Know Your Board of Directors (#85) will most effectively help you to a newer way of thinking when you can integrate these ideas. While the concepts are easy to understand, it will take considerable practice and patience to fully enjoy the practical benefits of their application.