Changing Your Minds
September 1, 2019, Labor Day
A Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
Over the past several months I have used this pulpit to explain my understanding of the human mind and how it affects us as persons. My professional goal both as a Community Minister and as a Consulting Hypnotist is to help people use the power of their minds to take control of their lives.
I believe it imperative that we do this because all around us are social forces that seek to shape what we feel and do using rhetoric, emotional appeals and illogical arguments that only seem plausible until you analyze them. The goal of all this is to make us tame. I don’t like tame.
Over the past months I have spoken about Conscious and Unconscious Autosuggestion and the Collective Unconsciousness - a theoretical storehouse of wisdom and imagery that we all access simply in virtue of being human.
People have asked me if I might say a bit more about these things, and that’s silly. I’m a Unitarian Universalist Minister. We’re always happy to say more about anything you can imagine. The hard part is getting ministers to shut up.
I do promise that this sermon will end my series of psychological preaching and I will return to more spiritual and practical subjects in the future.
I am just back from the Convention of the National Guild of Hypnotists. It is the largest hypnotism convention in the world with thousands of practitioners from all over attending. While my work is primarily medical hypnotism (scientifically based hypnosis focus on health and well-being) I’ve noticed that a lot of my most prosperous colleagues are doing what they call “success coaching” these days. Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but they sell highly priced programs to help people become more successful and prosperous.
It must work. While I drive around in a nice car, a couple of these folks showed up at the convention driving gleaming Dodge Vipers to demonstrate their success, their love of horsepower and doubts about their virility.
I’ve been a hypnotist for more than thirty years, and an officer of the National Guild of Hypnotists for most of that time. Therefore, I know all of those people well. I decided to take a look at what they were teaching their customers and clients about how to be prosperous and successful.
While each of my colleagues had their own particular style or techniques, what they were teaching was basically ways that a person could use to take control over their emotional life and to stop overthinking. Some expressed this is terms that were spiritual or metaphysical, others adopted the language of politics or sales.
As I am a scientific guy I noticed that most of these techniques really involved taking control of one’s brain chemistry - because that is where our emotional life comes from. That’s what I am talking about today. How you can choose to do things that will affect how you feel and behave in service to your life goals by taking control of your brain chemistry.
Your Have Three Minds
Basically, as hypnotists think of it, you have three minds. Two are packed into your cranium while the third comes to you either from your genetics or perhaps from an awareness of an energetic world that we can feel but not explain.
The first mind is your Conscious Mind. This is what you think of as your personality and personal narrative.
The second is your Subconscious Mind, and it is where you store all the habits you have of thought, feeling and behavior. It doesn’t really think in the way your Conscious Mind does. Instead, it functions more as a machine that reacts to certain inputs.
In the morning when I am getting ready to shave I stand in front of my mirror and my subconscious activates a program that tells me how hot the water should be, what side of my face to start shaving on first, how many times I swirl my shaving brush in the lather and many other small things that result in a smooth shave without nicks or other problems.
While all this is happing my conscious mind is doing other things - contemplating my schedule for that day, wondering about what I heard on the morning news, etc. My Subconscious Mind controls my body while my Conscious Mind is otherwise occupied.
We also are believed to have a third mind. This one is what some call the Collective Unconscious, although a new term is becoming popular - the Superconscious Mind. The notion is that all of us are also interconnected by a common field of information about what it means to be human. Purportedly, if we become sensitive to the intuitions and nudges that come from our Superconscious Mind, we get an advantage that others do not have.
So there are three minds: the Conscious, the Subconscious and the Superconscious. As you can’t change whatever larger wisdom your Superconsciousness provides to you, today I am talking about how you can change your Subconscious Mind so that it makes you happier.
As I’ve said before (quoting time management guru David Allen), “Your brain doesn’t have a brain. You have to be smarter than your brain.” The physical organ of the human brain does evolve, but to judge from skull size and shape it has not changed much in a very long time. It is not well suited to the pressures of modern life and it has very definite limitations. But you can do something about that.
What We Feel and Do
How we feel will affect how we behave.
The problem is that the rules about how we feel about things are laid down early in our brain. We don’t choose those rules - they come from the experiences we have and the environment we find ourselves in.
We understand how this happens. The micro-electricity that causes our nerves to program flows more readily among neurons that are coated with a substance called myelin. Myelin is hugely important to insulate the nerves from each other. Diseases like multiple sclerosis are called “de-myelinizing” diseases because they attack the myelin coating and cause the nerves in the brain and spinal column to short out.
If we are healthy, all our our nerves are coated with myelin. However, myelin is more abundant in the nerves before the age of eight years and during puberty. That is why early childhood experiences, and the experiences we have during puberty are so formative.
So most of what we subconsciously think and feel was programmed in early childhood or in early puberty. That’s fine, except that the skills we need to navigate our increasingly complex world as adults are seldom the skills we learned on the playground or hanging around with teenage friends.
Right now stress-related mood disorders are epidemic because our neurological systems are overwhelmed.
As a psychologist buddy of mine puts it, “your brain evolved to keep you safe, not to make you happy.” He gave me a great example. Consider what it was like for one of your ancestors to be hunting a deer on some ancient landscape. Out of the corner of his or her eye he or she sees something. The ancestor isn’t sure if what has been seen is a big bush or a tiger. Every one of your ancestors who optimistically mistook the tiger for a bush became food for the tiger. Every one of your ancestors who pessimistically mistook the bush for a tiger lived to reproduce.
The result is that at this time in history your brain automatically assumes the worst. It learned that it is far better to mistake the bush for a tiger than a tiger for a bush.
The result is that your Subconscious Mind automatically assumes the worst about every situation. It doesn’t matter what you consciously think, your Subconscious Mind amplifies the negative, and a nervous system programed during the protected days of early childhood or the hormone-euphoria of puberty isn’t able to cope. As a result you overthink and exaggerate your worries, and we live in a society where antidepressant medications outsell aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen combined. That is why I like that short essay Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. He advises being calm, graceful and unworried.
Every day as I sit in meditation with those words I strive to adjust my behavior to do the things that will make me happy. That brings me closer to the Spirit of Life.
Are You Happy?
If you are unhappy about things in your life, your negative brain is responsible. Your negative brain is distracting you with false fears and exaggerated doubts. There are opportunities for you, that you do not perceive, because your negative Subconscious Mind doesn’t let you. It’s afraid that if it lets you feel more hopeful, you might mistake the tiger for a bush.
Your brain doesn’t have a brain. You have to be smarter than your brain. To be happy you need to find ways to allow your Conscious Mind to adjust your Subconscious Mind.
The brain chemistry that we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors involves specific chemicals: cortisol, DHEA, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. They don’t flow all the time. Rather, they are produced in spurts to motivate survival behavior. They are quickly absorbed and you have to do something to get more of them. But there are certain things you can do that will produce the brain chemicals you need to be happy.
Here’s the List
The brain releases a good feeling chemical (DHEA) when it detects something that is good for your survival. It releases a bad feeling chemical (Cortisol) when is detects something that is a threat. To do this, it depends on neural pathways you built in your youth.
Dopamine creates excitement when you anticipate a reward.
The problem is that you can get used to to any good thing and your brain stops producing dopamine with regard to it. It takes some new reward to trigger more. This is why you feel euphoria at the beginning of a new romantic relationship, but over time that euphoria fades.
Serotonin creates a calm, empowered feeling when you’ve gained some advantage.
This leads you to assert yourself. Members of a group, team or society often have to compete for resources or status.
A creature that never asserts itself is typically denied success. Therefore, our brain pushes each of us to compare our status to others, and gives us a good feeling when we realize we are in a position of strength.
Oxytocin makes you feel good when you feel supported and nurtured. When a friend reaches out, when a lover comforts or praises you or when a parent nurtures a child. It is there to encourage us to stay with the herd of our own kind, because leaving the herd behind makes us more ready prey.
Oxytocin is triggered by touch and trust, but it goes away quickly because the reality is that anyone who is close enough to touch you is also close enough to hurt you. Therefore, your brain keeps oxytocin under close control so you keep a healthy suspicion about others.
Endorphins are triggered by pain. They cover pain over with a feeling of excitement and that gives us the ability to run away from something that is hurting us. But it’s temporary. Pain has a protective function and the brain wants your body to feel it again as soon as possible in order to force you to protect your injury.
Usually, people do not intentionally hurt themselves in order to feel this exhilaration, although there are some exceptions: tattoos are a popular one these days. When you see someone who has covered themselves with skin art, part of the reason was the pleasure they felt as the artist’s needle moved.
The Good News
The good news about all this is that you can change the Subconscious programming that controls these chemicals if you put in some effort. My more prosperous colleagues charge their clients thousands of dollars to teach them how.
These tips are by no means exhaustive. But I do guarantee they will help. If you do them you will be happier. Each takes about 45 days of regular practice to become permanent. The payoff is huge.
If you want more excitement in your life, you need to encourage the production of dopamine. You do this by setting achieving goals. So you take baby steps. Set a goal that you know you could meet with your eyes closed. You are setting yourself up for a regular inoculation of dopamine.
Don’t have time to exercise for an hour? Set a goal to stretch for the five minutes of a commercial break. Celebrate achieving that goal. Keep giving yourself a dopamine hit.
Do you want to feel more calm and in control? You need to build a serotonin circuit by relentless focusing on the positive things about yourself, and not dwelling on the negative. Train your brain to feel good about what you have instead of what you lack.
Do you want to feel more appreciated and connected to others? You build a new oxytocin circuit by carefully trusting others in small ways, quickly dropping people you discover you can’t trust and focusing on those you can. You will quickly develop the willingness to trust others and trust your ability to appropriately select them.
Are you in pain and want that to diminish? Endorphin circuits are harder to program as you don’t usually want to go around inflicting pain on yourself in order to get high. But there are things you can do.
Exercise can help, but you quickly plateau and adjust. Think about the joggers and marathon runners you know who crave the “runner’s high” and keep having to compete in longer and longer races.
But there is one behavior that does trigger endorphins reliably - laughter. Spending time at a comedy club or with the Comedy Channel can bring your pain down.
So there you have it. A formula for coping with modern stress.
Set smaller, reasonable goals for yourself that you know you can meet, and celebrate each victory.
Focus on the positive instead of the negative. In our world today there are not that many tigers, no where near the amount your Subconscious Mind imagines.
Carefully trust others and quickly drop those discovered to be untrustworthy. Avoiding people to defend your emotional health is not weakness, it is wisdom. You will soon find yourself surrounded by good people and you will gain confidence that you can tell the good from the bad.
Laugh. Laugh long, hard and often. Take advantage of the opportunities for laughter that you can find.
What you end up with if you follow all of this advice is very much the life philosophy described in the essay Desiderata.
The Final Reason
There is a final reason why we each should take responsibility for managing our minds by giving our brain the experiences it needs to make us happy.
When our negative Subconscious Mind gets cluttered with negativity, our Conscious response is to deal with the fear that results by focusing on it. This results in toxic overthinking where we imagine everything is a tiger.
Overthinking is when instead of regarding something objectively, we anxiously ponder all of the thousand and one ways that things could go wrong until we’ve turned our brain chemistry into a toxic stew.
When I am working with my cancer patients I almost have a mantra, “Don’t get out ahead of the data.” There are a million things that could go wrong and most of them are not going to. But if you worry about them you distress yourself with imaginings and mental clutter.
He is a story about potatoes told by Steven Schuster that illustrates the self-defeating danger of overthinking.
It was a winter night and John decided that he really wanted some french fries. But it was late and all the stores were closed. But John really wanted french fries (dopamine - the anticipation of a reward).
John realized that he could make his own, but he did not have any potatoes. However, he remembered that his friend Tom was always up late and always had a well-stocked pantry.
So John bundled up for the winder cold and set out to walk the two blocks to Tom’s house. As John walked he began to think. In fact he began to overthink.
“Now, I can’t just show up and ask Tom for a potato as he’d think that I was only a friend because I wanted something from him. I’ll have to pretend I dropped by for a social visit.”
John began to think about all the things that he might say on a social visit. He recalled their their politics and religion were not in agreement, and he pondered different topics that he could raise.
Then, he wondered that Tom might be more well-read on those topics than John was, and that would make John feel inadequate and foolish.
Then, John remembered that Tom’s wife, Patricia, didn’t especially like John, and would resent him showing up at their door. “She could given him a hard time and be short tempered with my friend for the rest of the night.” and on, and on. Cortisol piling on cortisol.
By the time John came to Tom’s door he had worked himself up into a state of insecurity, self-doubt, anger and worry by all this overthinking. His brain chemistry had become a toxic stew. When Tom answered the door, John looked him straight in the eye and said “Damn your potatoes!” and walked off empty handed into the winter night.
Let’s not be like that.
And that’s my sermon.