Does this sound familiar? You consciously decide to have a snack and you go ahead and have one. You then decide to put on a laundry, and you go down to the laundry room to do it. It then occurs to you that it’s a good idea to get married to your partner, and you arrange to do so. And by the way, it’s time to buy a house, and off you go and look for houses. Finally, you decide to watch some TV and there you go, watching it. This is more or less how your day unfolds, just with many more decisions you believe having consciously made. But is that really what goes on?
Far from it. Here is the real story: The complex organism that you are unconsciously decides somehow that its time to have a snack. That unconscious decision is made ‘without you’ on the basis of complex previous conditionings your organism developed over your life time to ensure survival, and it is made before you even have the faintest idea that you want to have a snack. Your organism then creates the conscious illusion that it is you who decided it is snack time, and you proceed going to the kitchen. By the way, after you had your snack you erroneously think you wanted, you feel bad because you ate some junk food and are trying to lose weight. The same process unfolds with the laundry, your decision to get married, to buy a house, watch TV and all the other decisions you make that day. In short, you are more of a zombie than you ever thought and your autopilot is having a field day.
Every living creature is an energy processing mechanism, whose biological processes and functions are highly sophisticated calculations that ensure it creates copies of itself and survives. This is called an algorithm. An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. A cooking recipe is such an example: You follow the instructions and always get the same result. Biological algorithms (animals) calculate probabilities and undergo constant quality control by natural selection (evolution). Humans are no exception. They are algorithms ensuring propagation and survival. Sensations, emotions and thoughts are the calculations that ensure the organism produces copies of itself. Over 90% of our decisions, big and small, are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires. For most of what you need to survive and have kids, you don’t need to be there. Your organism draws on millions of years of evolutionary experience to get you through this life just fine without you. What you believe to be ‘your self’ making conscious decisions like a CEO of a corporation, is mostly a constructed illusion that for the most part is as controlled by the algorithm as anything else. By the time you believe you are making a decision, your organism has already made it for you, long before the illusion that you consciously made it is created.
The problem is that life is not easy, and many of us have gone through rough childhoods and other life traumas. All our organism is concerned about is survival, not the good life. The decisions it therefore makes are based on whatever ways it has learned to survive as best it can. The mechanisms used to survive become entrenched as energy and information flow patterns that define the organism’s decision-making, and although they were adequate to survive, most of the time they fall short when it comes to making attuned, contextual and wise decisions. Because the experience of making conscious decisions is largely illusory, and therefore our ability to modify the decision-making process when necessary inaccessible, we live lives that often flow in the exact opposite direction than we would wish for. This state of affairs can take the form of the following question: “Why do I wish so badly to get married and have children, yet keep engaging in destructive relationships that go nowhere?”
Give yourself the gift of close observation during a typical day of your choice, and each time you decide to do something, ask yourself who made the decision. You will soon realize that by the time you believe you had the thought of doing whatever you think you decided to do, the thought was already there a split second before you consciously became aware of it and decided to act on it. And even closer observation will reveal after the fact that you had already sensed complex somatic and emotional experiences in your body you were utterly unaware of. In other words, the decision to act was made by your organism, not you, prior to you having the illusion of making it. The brain cleverly attributes an organismic decision it has already made to you, but after the fact! We can go so far as to discover that you, the self, is a construction after the fact that occurs as part of the organism’s attempt at making sense of life.
If you now panic or fall into disbelief, questioning what you thought was your free will, I can confirm that as far as we can tell, free will is overrated. We are more autopilot automatons, deluded about being conscious, than you would ever believe, and that is the bad news. Sorry, I should say this is in many ways good news, in that evolution made sure our mechanisms for survival and decision-making are out of our hands, because if they were, we would make a terrible mess of them and would not have survived past the ape stage. But yes, it is also bad news, because like the civilization of the Easter Island, we are heading straight towards the cliff of extinction, both individually in our lives and collectively on our planet, without the ability of doing anything about it. Evolution, as you can see, has its limitations. Longterm, our species is likely to fail to adapt to its own genius, like the apprentice sorcerer and many other species before us. I sound like a prophet of doom – or am I wrong?
Again, closer observation, both scientifically and through meditation, reveals an interesting escape hatch. We may have precious little free will, but once the decision to act made by the algorithm has become conscious, we can decide how to proceed, or even whether to proceed or not. The moment we become conscious, we can participate in the modification of energy and information flow (EIF), and we have free won’t. For example, once we become conscious of the decision the organism has already made to have a snack, we can participate in how we go about it, in deciding what we might want to snack on, or whether we should have one in the first place. Thing is that by the time we become conscious of snack time, so much unconscious reality processing has already taken place, that we don’t have access anymore to where the decision comes from, and whether it is really snack time, or more appropriately grieving time displaced onto physical hunger and the illusion of hunger for food. By being so deeply unconscious and disconnected from the very energy and information flow processes that inform our decisions, we have already profoundly gotten in our own way! Why? Because in its unconscious EIF processing the organism uses old, well-worn decision paths that include old ways by which we used to participate in the regulation of EIF not relevant anymore today – we live in the present with irrelevant decision-making patterns from the past that cannot possibly do justice to the new demands of present circumstances.
But how do we get out of our own way and access free won’t, when everything moves so fast, and actions follow our decisions within split seconds? Evolution also gave us the gift of the middle prefrontal cortex (MPC), with which we can train ourselves to observe the very processes, by which we construct reality in the first place. Not only can we see the world as it appears to us, but with the MPC’s help we can learn to examine how we construct our experience of the world such as to make it appear to us the way it does, and thereby learn to use our access to consciousness and capacity for free won’t to its fullest. In other words, we can learn to examine our very mind, with which we create our experience of living. That kind of mind training is admittedly very hard and not for the fainthearted, but it leads to mindsight, the capacity to see more clearly how our mind works, and how we construct our reality.
What are the secret ingredients of this ‘getting-out-of-our-own-way’ skill and what kind of training does it entail? What is the core essence of what we need to learn as we tap into the dormant power of the MPC? Now that we understand the mechanism by which we become automatons, we can find the remedy to mitigate the zombie effect. We gain the power of choice the moment we become conscious. Even though our organism will (fortunately) continue its algorithmic task of keeping us alive come hell or high water, and use every available trick of the brain trade to create useful illusions for the purpose of survival, and even though we will always come relatively late to the unconscious neuroprocessing party pushing us to automatic decision-making, the moment we become conscious of what the algorithm is serving us, we can intervene.
We can STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe, only then Proceed) and start monitoring EIF more closely without giving into the impulse for immediate action, a technique for which Daniel Siegel uses the acronym YODA (You Observe And Decouple Automaticity). This is the first step in getting out of our own way! Through such monitoring of EIF we see more clearly what goes on inside the black box of automaticity, and we begin to disentangle the processes, by which our organism tries to make sense of reality and put useful mechanisms for living successfully in place. We begin to get wind of the upcoming party way before it has started and are able to join the planning committee. We can then participate in novel and creative ways in the modification of the EIF we have begun to monitor and gotten to know more deeply, thereby doing justice to the new demands of present circumstances, all the while respecting the wisdom of old patterns for their time, yet accepting their present obsoleteness. This is the second step in getting out of our own way, as you modify the EIF you have monitored and cease to perpetuate old conditionings that have lost their usefulness! Last but not least, with such deep knowledge and awareness of who and what we really are, with such deep respect for the limitations of our consciousness while simultaneously harnessing its immense untapped potential, we come to realize that we cannot possibly ever have or be in control of our organism, that we will never be able to push the river. Instead, with wisdom and humility we come to realize that by simply monitoring and modifying EIF as described, we can exert control in the way we surf the waves of life’s ocean. The open complex system that we are then spontaneously liberates itself from the grip of chronic chaos and rigidity, moving towards greater integration instead. This is the third step in getting out of our own way, when you relax in the realization that you cannot control the weather and the ocean’s moods, and begin to invest your precious energies into the training to become a skilled surfer instead. With experience you then learn to do less to gain more, until eventually technique becomes inbred in you, a way of being without effort. Monitoring, modifying and creating new EIF become second nature, and you can then surrender to the SAP of consciousness that integratively transforms without effort: Stillness, Alertness and Pleasure. This fourth step is the quintessence of virtuosity on your journey through the unbearable lightness of Being.
Even though I am admittedly quite skeptical regarding humanity’s capacity to survive in the long run, whether mindsight will ever save us from our own engendered demise, I shall not know. But what I do know, is that in the meantime, we can place ourselves on the right side of history, and do what we can to cultivate this precious mindsight skill for the benefit of as many fellow human beings as possible. For that, dear reader, please GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY!
Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.