How to Free Yourself from Your Brain
On many fronts people feel the urge to change their lives–so why don’t they succeed? We live in therapeutic times. Advice surrounds us about achieving success. Yet when we set our minds to do something seemingly simple–losing weight, giving up a bad habit, acting nicer to people, and so on–something intervenes between the intention and the goal. This “something” exists in the relationship between the mind, which issues a desire or intention, and the brain, which is the physical apparatus for carrying out desires and intentions.
If you assume that the brain is the mind, which is the working assumption in 99% of neuroscience research, there is little room for solving the problem. It’s as if you hear a piece of music you don’t like on the radio, so you try to rearrange the radio’s parts. Obviously a mistake is being made there, but the relationship between mind and brain is subtler. It’s like a conversation between two people, where one person is dominant one moment and the other person is dominant the next. In the dialogue between mind and brain, most of the time the mind is automatically dominant. If you want to raise your arm, the brain sends the appropriate signals without obstacle of interference.
But sometimes the brain interjects its own feedback, and then the signals become confused. In the last post we discussed how brain-trained responses can make us virtual robots obeying old conditioning, habits, memories, and so on. The mind trains the brain to do X, and then without benefit of new training, the brain does X all the time. If you look at your own life, you can find endless examples of how brain-training limits your freedom of choice. For example,
– When you reject suggestions without giving them any thought.
– When your relationships repeat the same negative patterns.
– When you react to situations with anxiety, anger, or any negative emotion that comes up automatically.
– When you feel threatened by change.
– When old traumas rear their heads.
– When you’re stuck in your ways.
Being stuck in general will have some component of brain training to it, because the same pathways of habit, feeling, and thought are somehow imprinted in the nervous system. Explaining how this occurs is very tricky. Is it karma? It is the subconscious mind? Neither of those terms are actually viable explanations–they are just alternate ways to say that the mind finds itself blocked, stuck, or without freedom of choice. Yet the problem itself is obvious. We need to find a way to make the mind dominant in the mind-brain conversation. In the days of LP records, a needle could get stuck in the same groove, and to make the music go forward, you had to lift the needle. Being stuck in a mental groove is more challenging because mind and brain are so tangled and intertwined.
Some workable solutions have nonetheless emerged:
1. You can replace old brain training with new brain training. This occurs when people acquire better lifestyle habits in diet, exercise, and stress management, repeat the new ways over and over, and eventually make the new habits stick.
2. You can adopt a new way to relate to your brain. This happens when people take up meditation, for example, or other contemplative practices. These practices rely on the mind to stop warring with the brain. The new relationship is one of peaceful coexistence.
3. You can apply focused attention so that unconscious habits are brought into the light of awareness. This happens in mindfulness, for example, where you witness yourself during the day as if examining a situation without becoming involved.
4. You can seek therapeutic intervention, or perform the intervention on yourself. This happens in cognitive therapy, for example, where the therapist points out self-defeating thought patterns that can be changed for more positive, realistic ideas.
5. You can make self-awareness a primary goal, so that by knowing yourself completely, you untangle the hidden knots and obstacles that limit freedom of choice. This happens through examining your behavior and constantly asking “why do I do this?”
In one way or another, all of these tactics are both workable and self-limiting. The problem, to begin with, is that brain training is very stubborn and tends to persist despite our best efforts to undo it. In addition, most people find it next to impossible to know where mind ends and brain begins. If you say “I hate spinach,” are you being a robot obeying old triggers from your childhood, or are you expressing yourself as a person making a free choice? Being a biological robot sounds bad enough, but far more troubling is to expect that the robot has the power to fix itself.
For this reason, the Eastern spiritual tradition–which is also a profound tradition of thought, behavior and psychology–takes a different tack. It assumes that no one can step outside their own conditioning to the point of breaking free. We are inside our minds at all times, and the brain is interacting with the mind at every second. This is the setup in which change must occur. The only way to be free, then, is if freedom already exists. Beneath, behind, or beyond the working mind-body system, there has to be an entirely different state of awareness, one that is neither trained nor trainable, neither conflicted nor confused, neither involved or uninvolved.
In other words, this state of awareness must exist beyond the play of opposites, a play that keeps duality and separation constantly in motion. You cannot think your way to such a state, because the ego-self was created from the play of opposites. Every time you choose A over B, you are defining yourself by the choice you make. Some choices are major, as when you decide whom to marry; some choices are minor, like changing brands of detergent or hair color or shoes. but big or small, choosing between A and B keeps the choosing game going, and thus the brain gets trained to accept, record, remember, and install the choices that make you who you are today.
From this analysis, the Eastern tradition holds that there must be a state of choiceless awareness, for the simple reason that the chooser, the one making all of these big and small decisions, isn’t itself a choice. “to be or not to be” is definitely not the question. We all exist; we all have a self; we all participate in life. Thus the state of choiceless awareness is defined as the source of the mind, the starting or zero point that gives us our existence. Then the project of getting free is to realize that you are free to begin with.
This can sound like an empty insight, like Yahweh speaking to Moses form the burning bush, declaring “I am that I am.” The statement isn’t empty, however, because when you look into it, the “I” is a different identity, not the daily ego-personality with its unending demands, insecurities, fears, and hidden motivations but a self that precedes all of it. Yahweh is saying “I am existence,” with the implication that everything we call God-like (e.g., knowing everything, being everywhere, and having the power to bring anything about) is embedded in being and existing. The power to be precedes the power to become X, whatever X stands for.
In that light, choiceless awareness is problem-free, not by being passive and waiting on the corner while the world passes by, but by virtue of awareness interacting with itself. Instead of choosing new ways to act, think, and feel, we can shift our allegiance to a state of awareness where action, thought, and feeling automatically synchronize with what is needed. Thus all five ways of getting free of the brain and its inertia turn out to be right in their orientation, if not their results. They are all oriented toward consciousness in place of unconsciousness. Choiceless awareness is unique because it is complete. It recognizes that awareness is capable of dealing with life effortlessly, once we get out of the way.
So what does getting out of the way entail? An adequate answer would have to describe the whole spiritual path, but in capsule form, here are the steps derived from the world’s wisdom traditions.
1. Recognize the state of duality.
2. Find reasons for why you no longer want to be trapped in duality.
3. Find a teacher or teaching who convinces you that there is a better way.
4. Test the teaching on yourself, being neither too credulous nor too skeptical.
5. Keep in mind that expanded awareness is always the goal.
6. Shift your allegiance away from “I, me, and mine” toward a higher sense of self.
7. Hang loose and allow the process of higher consciousness to work its way through.
In the end, what makes this process so appealing is that you can devote yourself to steps to change that have been effective for centuries. The problem of how the mind relates to the brain doesn’t have to be answered–there’s little chance that neuroscience is going to do this any time soon. What’s necessary is to see how your own inner world can be expanded and liberated. The possibility is open to everyone, as it has been throughout humanity’s quest for freedom.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com