Make the song of your life one you want to hear

It's sometimes stunning when you look back at your life and really try to think through the twists and the turns that lead to the present.  That feeling is even worse for addicts, which is why many just don't do that type of introspection.  I mean, what's the point?  The past is the past, we can't change it, there's no sense dragging up old hurts, etc. etc.

Of course as a historian I take a different view.  Our past provides a rich context for our present, both in individual terms as well as at the systems level.  Really making a strong accounting of the past is one of the fabled 12 steps, and one of the few that I strongly agree with.  Making restitution or salving the hurts we caused may not be possible, but it is always better to know rather than not know.

Often people find that they repeat the same mistakes.  The brain is a great recognizer and creator of patterns, and thanks to neural plasticity those patterns can swiftly be cemented in our behavior.  Picture someone sitting in the wreck of yet another ill-chosen course, saying to themselves, I know this wasn't what I set out to do, but I ended up here anyway.  How?  Why?

You might ask, is this hopeless?  How do we get out? There are many techniques and actions we can take to work on these tendencies.  But none of them will work without the first searching review of the spirit.  Doing this can be hard, but that's most things in life worth doing. Self-knowledge alone will not cure these thought errors; a lawyer or philosopher would say it was a necessary but not sufficient condition.  We have to gain and use that knowledge to address the underlying causes and let the healing begin.

A good starting point is keeping a journal.  This used to be a habit among the upper classes (for whom paper and pen and candle and literacy were just a part of life, not a luxury) but our behaviors have shifted over the centuries.  Many people now have an extraordinarily broad record of their surface life, spread over many platforms.  But it's an oft noted consequence of social media that people are presenting a hollow façade, the life they wish they were or think they should be living.  A journal, ideally, presents the private space necessary to weigh the pressures of the spirit.  Depth is necessary for us to really see the patterns of our thoughts.

If you do have journals or essays or letters, review them for what you say and what you don't say.  We begin to lose our "selves" in the written materials a few years out, in that we can no longer fully recall the experience of writing it.  At least that's my experience.  Once this happens, it's easier to read the documents as documents, rather than as a metacognitive experience.  As you read, those patterns of thought and behavior may begin to emerge that you didn't even realize were there, stretching through the years.

Once you identify patterns that you don't like (or that you do!) consider the causes motivating those actions and thoughts.  Look past the justifications, the denials, the chaff and flak your former self put out in defense.  Think deeply about why you do things and think things, not merely on the surface but as far back and down as you can.  What are the roots that produce the visible expression of consciousness?  What are the root causes of "I"?

Returning to the idea of neural plasticity, behaviors and ideas become engrained on the surface of consciousness like grooves on a record, and like a record, the more a certain track is played, the groove gets deeper.  Eventually the song becomes unrecognizable, and the needle wears through the disc.  We can buy new records, but we can't buy new brains.  Whither then?

When a record hits a track we don’t like, we can pick up the needle and skip it.  It's the same with consciousness, which can be conceptualized as a sequence of attentive states.  What we're paying attention to is what we're experiencing in a given moment, and the more we pay attention to something, the larger it is in our mental landscape.  This is how we can make "mountains out of molehills". 

But refocusing the attention is not as easy as picking up the arm on the record player, at first.  Most of us aren't in the practice of directing our minds, and we're open to whatever stimulus flashes before us.  This has deep evolutionary roots and is the default for neurotypical people.  But it doesn't have to stay that way.  The mind is a muscle like any other, and just as our capacity to lift heavier and heavier weights can be developed by exercise, so too can our control over our attention.

In Buddhist thought, the unfocused attention is sometimes called the "monkey mind", because it scampers to and fro without plan or direction.  To escape from that unhappy state, the devout person can practice meditation, which is a tool for exercising and training the consciousness, among other things.  Meditation has a place in many world religious traditions, including Christian monasticism, and is the basis of a "prayerful state".  Engaging in a meditative practice can reap both physical and emotional benefits, and after a while, it begins to let us see ourselves for who we truly are, rather than the mask we present to the world.

At our default setting, our minds are like a monkey dragging the needle all over the record, and that constitutes our past and our present.  In learning to control the attention, we can direct the formation of new habits, and take the lead in the impression of our consciousness.  This is how we can de develop the strength to pick up the attention and place it where we want it to be, and how we can step outside the patterns that can seem to rule our lives against our will.  Coupling that practice with the self-knowledge gained through rigorous introspection puts us on the path to a balanced life.