Know your Machine
Join me for this exploration of the complexity of your machine, how to navigate, and what verbiage shifts will support the process.
There is a lot more to our actions than what appears on the surface. We are driven by our habits, experience, intentions, assumptions, beliefs, and chemical makeup. I can easily confuse myself when I allow my wheels to wildly spin, second-guessing, and playing devil's advocate as I decide what actions to take and what direction to head in. And when I act from emotions, or react to stress, or make decisions when I am unsettled, I witness the dysfunction that arises when I operate from impulse rather than respond with deliberate and conscious discernment.
I struggled for years trying to learn how to trust my "gut." I still need to pause and test out whether I am being driven by fear or am being guided by something bigger than the habitual buzz of mind-chatter.
What is intuition? Do we have a connection to a higher power or higher self that offers hints, feelings, or guidance? How is this different from our mind-chatter? Which voice do we listen to?
I have struggled with these questions for a while now. I grew up with a self-sabotage self-talk habit, and often was drawn to act and speak in ways that harmed myself or others. My intuition, if there is such a thing, was lost behind the loud chaos in my mind. I went from being a confident and courageous girl into a fearful and depressed teenager. My un-becoming into adulthood has been a process of re-finding my voice, and learning how to harness my power, passion, and trust, to create a direction of intention and purpose.
What began as strategic goals and challenges, morphed into intentional living with a flow and trust in my own inner-knowing. But how did I get to this place? What have I learned? How can you find your unique intuitive knowing versus getting trapped in the mind-chatter?
A good place to start
In Daniel Kahneman’s book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", he educates us on the power of heuristics. Heuristics are short-cuts in our mental search for understanding, and can often be misunderstood as intuition, or objective truth. Kahneman says, “the technical definition of a heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as ‘eureka’.”
One of the most common is the Availability Heuristic, which is the reliance on information that comes to mind with ease when contemplating a topic or decision. Because of a recent experience, strongly charged past experience or a story you have heard, the way you perceive things will be colored and filtered through what examples come readily to your mind.
For example, as you think about what to eat for lunch, your mind will generate ideas based on what you have eaten recently and what is readily available in the fridge. Or, when you are deciding whether to sign up for a self-development course that will be an investment of time and money, part of your decision process will be based on your most recent experience with investments, time commitments, and registered courses. Although these experiences might have nothing to do with what your mind and body actually needs, it will skew your perception of what you consider to be important and relevant facts. Basically, we learn from our limited experience, so the examples we come up with will be aligned with what we know, which is not always the same as what is "true" or what is needed. Common sense right?
Kahneman says, “My intuitive impression could be due entirely to journalists’ choices of topics and to my reliance on the availability heuristic…The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”
There are also Affect Heuristics, “…where judgements and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning” (Kahneman). How often have you made a decision based on a feeling of repulsion or attraction without a reasonable explanation either way? I know I have. We don’t like feeling uncomfortable or uncertain. But the reality of our existence is that there is a lot of uncertainty.
For example, a few days ago I was invited to go to the movie theater with some of my siblings and my mom. I became overwhelmed with anxiety when I considered meeting up for this movie date. Had I simply reacted from that sensation, I would have either refused the invitation and struggled with guilt and confusion, or I would have shown up steeped in anxiety and surely would have experienced a stressful situation. But I have learned that my physiology is constantly reacting to various stimuli, and my basic affect is not necessarily aligned with reality. So I sat with the sensation. I tracked the anxiety and noticed the fluttering in my chest. It then began to increase and rise up into my throat, and I had a few moments of noticing extreme tension in my throat. I stayed with it and kept breathing, holding space for the sensation. And within a few moments, it completely subsided, leaving me in an open and neutral state. It was at that point that I was able to check in with myself and make a decision aligned with what I truly desire rather than what I have been habituated into feeling based on past experiences.
What I truly want is connection, healthy relationships with my family members, and the ability to lead by example in positive and powerful ways. So I accepted the invitation and was able to show up and be with my family with presence and acceptance. Had I ignored, avoided, or made that initial sensation of anxiety mean something more than simple physiological reactions based on my past, I would have missed out on a beautiful opportunity to continue retraining my relationship with those I love most.
We are inundated with sensation and stimuli every second. And while some things feel good as they come with bursts of happy chemicals, as soon as our happy chemicals simmer down, we are back into a state of searching for threats to our existence. Although this is not happening consciously, we feel the uneasiness that this search creates and we often look to explain it by our immediate surroundings or upcoming decisions or use the “ego” as an immediate scapegoat (more on that below).
Another shortcut in our thinking comes in the form of Intuitive Heuristics, which occur “…when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution” (Kahneman). For example, how often have you broken down a big decision into a list of pros and cons? We look to the parts that make up the big decision as a way to avoid the enormity of the decision as it is. We try so hard to make the “right choice” and will do everything within our power to analyze and look at the many factors. At the end of the day, the “right choice” is the one that provides more space, energy and opportunity, and that really is a matter of perspective and mindset.
My understanding of intuition is that it is guidance from what we have learned in past experiences, which is why it can lead us astray. Here is an anecdotal example: perhaps when you were younger your house was broken into while you were home. You saw the burglar, dressed all in black and face covered with a ski mask. Perhaps they saw you and ran off, leaving you terrified and scarred from this alarming experience. Whether you consciously realize or not, you may have "learned" that when you are alone, you are not safe. Or, perhaps people dressed all in black, or someone wearing a ski mask, is not to be trusted. So let’s say, ten years later, you meet a new potential business partner and not only are they dressed all in black, but you see a framed picture on the wall of this person at the ski hill wearing - you guessed it - a ski mask. Now, alarms might go off in your head, and because you don't remember the burglar incident - or you never consciously made the connection - your gut will do a flip and you might assume this is your intuition telling you to beware of this person. After more investigation, perhaps this person does end up being a poor choice for collaboration. So, do we call this a coincidence, serendipity, intuition, or a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s all a matter of perspective and you will believe whatever aligns with your perspective on life.
As you can see, we are complex creatures with complex minds. What I suggest, and personally subscribe to, "don't believe everything you think." Acknowledge your thoughts and emotions, but be wary of attaching or being swept away by the moment at hand. I view these intuitive musings and feelings as tools for exploration and discovery. It is a whisper to dig deeper, to stay open, to dance with the moment and play with possibilities. Intuition feels like flow, rhythm, and trust. It is not a magical flashlight that shines only on facts and objective truths. Nothing of value is that simple or stagnant. Intuition shines on the questions we should be asking, not the answers.
When we can create a state of calm, openness, and receptivity to our surroundings, we foster an inner-environment that can calculate decisions with ease, grounded in our direction of choice. This is why I find it so helpful to have clear goals, an intention for the day, and questions that I am curious to investigate. I view this as fuel for my intuitive heuristic power. I know I have insight and inspiration within me, and when I get out of my own way and embrace the uncertainty of life, these moments of creative genius seem to flow in with much greater consistency. And the more I clear out past traumas and see the patterns that are obstructing my growth, the more pure (and grounded in what I desire versus what I have experienced) my intuition becomes.
Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to our creative powers in her book Big Magic. She says, “we are all walking repositories of buried treasure.” When we can live our life driven by curiosity, rather than fear, we embody openness and discovery versus stagnancy and resistance. Intuition is found when we let go of our need for perfection. When we let the mess of trial and error be an important part of the process, we have more energy and awareness to notice opportunities.
I believe that to tap into a fluidity and inspiration of intuition, we must acknowledge how our habits and fear try to rule us. I do not trust the first thought that comes into my mind. I play with it. I converse with it. I ask myself questions that help me understand where I have been and what I am working towards. I talk it through with people I trust. I write about it. And after all of that, then I am ready to have an opinion or make a big decision. But when there is no time for investigation, I let my heuristical power take the lead and I acknowledge it for what it is. In the end, I am doing the best that I can, and that is all that matters.
System 1 and System 2
Relying on heuristics is not necessarily a bad way to operate. On the contrary, we save a lot of energy as heuristics are efficient in their problem solving skills. However, we also have the option to slow down and think things through more pragmatically and thoughtfully. Kahneman refers to these two Thinking Systems as System 1 and System 2. Upon further evaluation, it becomes clear that these two systems line up nicely with Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant and Rider metaphor, from his book "The Happiness Hypothesis".
System 1 is like the Elephant, also known as the reptilian brain and emotional brain. This system behaves instinctively, pulling information from experience and immediate surroundings to make decisions based on habit, survival and emotion. This system is always the first to react and houses enough strength to gain your attention regardless of whatever else is going on.
System 1 is the combination of the brainstem and the limbic system. The brainstem is the first to develop in our evolution, and it is where we gain our basic life functioning. As well, it is where we house the traumas too painful to be stored and remembered - not remembered but still in our system and effecting our body-budget (energy). This is also the home of the Autonomic Nervous System (Sympathetic NS - Fight or Flight; and Parasympathetic NS - Rest & Digest), which is our survival mechanisms. The cerebellum is part of the unconscious system, and is referred to as a "cook" because it takes in stimuli from above (conscious thought and deliberate action) or below (impulses and instinctive reactions) and discerns what is the relevant information to protect and prolong your survival - and discards the rest.
Second to develop after the brainstem, is the limbic system; the chemical and emotional brain. It is here that emotion is mediated, feelings surface, memory is stored, and habits are kept. While a lot is happening in the subconscious - approximately 40 million nerve impulses per second - there is no language here. It is all chemicals and feelings.
Our emotions are produced through the amygdala which works with the hippocampus, deciphering the cocktail of chemicals, predictions, and past experiences through external perceptions and internal thoughts.
System 2 is like the Rider; the Neocortex. It is deeply influenced by System 1 (the Elephant), but it also has the ability to slow down, assess the situation, and make a decision based on goals, delayed gratification and reason.
Sweet sweet consciousness. It is here we develop our SELF TALK; which is the breeding ground for our perceived identity, the inner-judge, the analyzer, our ability to express ourselves out loud as well as narrate our daily living. The neocortex is what makes us human above all other animals - the ability to plan, make decisions outside of habit, pay attention with discernment, express our creativity, and see choice and purpose beyond instant gratification.
All self-talk comes from our current programming. Our narrator is constantly assessing, telling stories and making meaning through aversions and pleasure, prediction and prediction-error, experience, family history, expectations and beliefs, attitudes, habits, needs, desires, and subconscious characters. This narrator works like a human Rider on top of a 6-ton Elephant.
Kahneman says, “When System 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything. System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.” And a side note here, “lazy” is more a sign of disembodiment and brain shutdown due to overwhelm and exhaustion.
“Mental activity creates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity”.
The first time I read this quote by Daniel Siegal (Mindsight), I stopped and re-read it about a dozen times. Siegal’s quote highlights the complex and intriguing nature of the brain: we are not simply reacting to our environment and we are not simply reacting to what we feed our brain through thoughts and actions. We are influenced top-down and bottom-up.
A new approach without the EGO
All of this prelude is to set us up for a new understanding and relationship with the all-too-common and outdated concept of the EGO.
“Knots untie once you detach from the stories, assumptions, and ego-panic that our compulsions or sensations bring to the surface” Daniel Siegal, Mindsight
What is this elusive “ego” that has been in stories in my mind for so many years? I hear about it daily in the way others describe their own and others behavior. Sometimes alter-ego, or the sneaky ego, or the spiritualized ego, ego dissolution, or the finger-pointing at the egostiscital person…we use “ego” to describe certain behavior - or perhaps blame - our own and others deviant, self-indulgent, boastful or “selfish” [another term that needs re-thinking and reclaiming] character traits.
But what does it do to us when we use this ego-concept in so much of our analysis of patterns and habits? What is a more complex yet aligned way of thinking? I’ll tell you what I am discovering.
Rather than pointing at or blaming the ego in ourselves or in others, or claiming the ego as real in general, I invite you to instead see the natural impulses of self-gratification or the aversion to what makes you uncomfortable as the Elephant seeking happy chemicals. This is not some archetypal character that you must overcome or be wary of, it is simply a malnourished “Elephant” seeking what feels good and avoiding what feels “bad”. And the more you nourish your mind and body, take care of your nervous system, and practice slowing down to cultivate that pause between reaction and response, the more control you have in how you show up and how you consistently feel. By alluding to this “ego” we are personifying our lack of balance as something we can’t control. You have way more power and control than you realize.
I hope this process has illuminated the complex and powerful machine you have the privilege of exploring and navigating. And next time someone says, “let go of the ego", I invite you to offer instead “there is no such thing as an ego, that is a cultural echo that is outdated. What you are noticing is a malnourished Elephant that needs love and attention.”
While it is vital that you focus on feeding your mind and body the nourishment it needs, it is just as vital to take time daily to calm your nervous system, unravel the habits and knots that you have inherited or repeated into habits, and create space for the pause so you can witness your impulsive and compulsive nature as a practice field for learning and growing into who you truly desire to be.
I leave you with these wise words from @samarakate on instagram:
"When the mind rapidly fluctuates it causes us to disconnect from the beat of our inner rhythm. A distortion of our inner hum. A disconnection from the rhythm of the cosmos. The channel between the heart and mind becomes twisted and we live from the static fuzziness of the mind where nothing is clear. Anxiety, stress, fear, holds over your way of being and creates a distorted life. Your rhythm is found in the present moment, within the waves of your breath, mindful movement, creativity, and the dance of balance.”
Keep up the bountiful work of cultivating the pause. Future you is applauding present you. It’s worth it. xoxox