The previous post unpacked a diagram that attempted to look at some of the inner dynamics of the mind, as I see them. Although there were other inner forces that it didn’t look at such as the idea that will is a spiritual force rather than simply a product of the brain, it was still a fairly complex picture. We examined the idea of reflection or disidentification as a powerful means of experiencing the true nature of our minds. Now its the turn of a different idea: how the mind can change the brain. At the top of this post is a model of one aspect of that: at the bottom is a reminder of the diagram we are working from.
Changing the Brain
The other part of the power of Transactional Analysis (TA) comes from something else, something that is made more easily possible by the power of reflection but can be achieved without it. While TA has its own idea of what needs to be substituted for the bad habits we want to supplant, the focus now is on the underlying dynamic of the mind-brain interaction which makes it possible for TA, or any other system for that matter, to bring about enduring change if we deliberately persist with it long enough.
Every time I pull myself up short from implementing Oscar Wilde’s advice that the best way of getting rid of temptation is to give in to it, my brain changes as a result of the combined effects of focused attention and the exercise of deliberate choice. Even the habits of a lifetime can be changed in this way if the effort is repeated often enough. Admittedly that can mean repeating the change thousands of times. It’s rather as though there are cart tracks which constant travel has carved deep into the brain: the wheels of the cart of our attention and thought constantly slip back into these ruts and it requires great effort to steer our cart out of them over and over again until other more constructive ruts have been laid down.
You may have already become aware that the diagram barely does justice to the unevenness of the contest here. It’s as though we are trying to listen to Handel‘s Messiah on an old-fashioned valve radio with a poor signal in the middle of a full-volume Black Sabbath concert. How can we boost the Messiah and muffle Black Sabbath?
Well, obviously we have to be clear that this is what we want to do at the deepest and most important level of our being, otherwise Black Sabbath will win every time. Then we have to recognise, as soon as we hear the first chord, that Black Sabbath is the music we have decided we do not want to listen to anymore. All too often we notice too late that we’re listening again and have moved nearer to the speakers drawn by fascination and habit. That gives Handel very little chance of ever being heard.
If we catch ourselves listening to Black Sabbath just as we are entering the O2 arena again (sorry about the anachronism – it just seemed the best short hand) we have more chance of moving towards the exit or finding a relatively quiet place and tuning into Handel. In terms of our old habit, we have to spot it as early as possible, stop it as fast as possible and swap it. You have to have a clear plan of the right thing to do instead. Doing nothing would be like not switching on the valve radio and failing to put anything else in place of Black Sabbath. Yet again Black Sabbath would win very time.
It is very hard indeed to follow this game plan with a long standing habit. It’s rather like learning to think in a new language, but it will work if we persist. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy makes it very clear that we have to be prepared to face discomfort, even painful experiences, along this path to constructive change: choosing discomfort over ease is something modern minds are not programmed to do. That may be the first hurdle we have to overcome. Also when we do slip back into the old habits, as we inevitably will, we need to remind ourselves that we are in this for the long haul: lapses are bound to happen but they don’t mean we have failed.
If we do manage to persist, it’s as though eventually we are able to upgrade our valve radio to a state of the art sound system leaving Black Sabbath with at best a couple of acoustic guitars and no microphone.
If we are dealing with a sudden temptation it may be enough to press the pause button before acting. This gives time for the most powerful part of the impulse to subside, for a process of reflection to take place and for us to do the right thing instead or act out the impulse more constructively. If acting on impulse is our pattern, then the same game plan as with tuning into the Messiah applies. We need to spot the impulse early, stop it in its tracks and put something more constructive in its place, over and over again before the habit of acting on impulse fades away and becomes something we can choose to do sometimes when it’s appropriate.
So the essence underlying the effectiveness of TA, and of many other therapies that claim to be unique for quite other reasons, is this two-fold pattern-breaking power: reflective disidentification and the deliberately chosen replacement of the destructive pattern of behaviour with a better one. If, for example, we pursue the roots of our present conduct in the mind’s archaeology at the expense of using what we have learned to help us to distance ourselves from our habitual patterns and to replace them systematically with something more consistent with our highest values, then we will be mummified along with the remains we are exploring – the Freudian pun is intentional. Insight on its own often achieves nothing. Persistent action is also required as is the creative distance that comes from recognising that we are not the contents of our consciousness. We can choose to turn the mirror of our minds towards something completely different if we wish.
It’s probably obvious, but I’ll say it anyway before moving on, that reflection and disidentification as habitual practices (along with meditation, mindfulness etc), though special in their focus, achieve their transformative effects because they exploit the brain’s potential for neuroplasticity in exactly the same way as these other pattern-breaking techniques I have just described.
Whispers of the Spirit
It will also be obvious that I have focused primarily on internal dynamics and processes. I am well aware that external factors such as culture, religion, community and family all impact upon behaviour in significant ways. However, for the kinds of enduring changes in the brain that we have been dealing with here to take place, we have to feel we have freely chosen to act as we do, not done so as a result of irresistible external pressure. Work on cognitive dissonance indicates that the more you pay someone to argue against their own beliefs (i.e. the higher the perceived external pressure) the less likely someone is to change their mind. I suspect that those who have an extrinsic motivation (eg the desire to be accepted socially) to practice a religion, the less likely it is that their conformist behaviour will lead to inner transformation.
And this is where the last skill of all comes in and is so important if we are to experience ourselves as following an inner guide towards the highest possible values. It is something which seldom gets a mention in mainstream psychotherapy even now: tuning in to the whispers of the spirit rather than to the amplified ravings of our reptilian brain or the plausible rationalisations of our frontal lobes. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expresses perfectly the nature of and need for this skill that can take us a lifetime to acquire:
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.
It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.
(Paris Talks: page 174)
I didn’t begin meditating for another four years after my work in mental health began and I didn’t read those words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá until I became a Bahá’í, two more years at least further down the road. It seems you simply can’t rush this sort of thing.
I am aware that I may have packed too much into these posts for easy digestion and may have to come back to some of the themes to unpack them further, but I felt such a strong desire to catch these ideas on the wing before they flew away that I thought it best to write the posts anyway. And it looks as though flowcharts don’t quite do the reality of all this justice after all. Maybe they help a bit though.