“I think, therefore I am.” – Rene Descartes
I haven’t seen a study to prove this, but I am guessing that, like Descartes, western civilization sees the reasoning mind as the pinnacle of human evolution. In line with that broad assumption, I also postulate that most of western civilization distrusts emotions and intuition.
“Social psychologists created ‘information processing’ theories to explain everything from prejudice to friendship… social sciences were uniting under the idea that people are rational agents who set goals and pursue them intelligently.” – The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
The rational-mind model of human behavior is how I have thought most of my life. Not anymore. From my own experience, and after working with many men, it is apparent to me that what we desire and believe to be emotionally true is what our reasoning powers work to support.
For example, if the rational-mind model were true, why is the United States – with more diets books and programs to lose weight than any other nation – the fattest nation on earth? We clearly know better. This is just one of the more obvious contradictions to the theory. There are more.
After spending the last twenty years dealing with my own irrational behaviors (involving alcohol, sex, food, and just wasting time when I have a pressing deadline) and those of many others, I am convinced the intellect is a weak sister who gets her ass kicked whenever the wild beast below wants what it wants.
This paradigm was reinforced recently by Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. In it he concludes our intuitive or subconscious mind gives the orders, and our rational, thinking mind does its best to carry them out, justify our actions, and convince others of our righteousness (thus the title of his book). He uses the elephant and the rider metaphor and calls our rational mind a “press secretary.”
Our animal intuitive brain is the elephant, and our human thinking brain is the rider. Without the cooperation of the elephant, the rider is just a passenger on the back of something she has no control over. All of this is to make the case for making awareness of our emotional selves a priority. How we feel, what we desire, and what we believe are all vastly more powerful than what we think. If this is true, then what could be more vital to understanding our behavior than awareness of how we feel, what we desire, and what we believe? To my mind, nothing!
Bombs, pollution, over-population, and mass addiction to cheap food are all deadly by-products of our rational minds’ lack of control. It is as if we are on a runaway elephant heading to our own doom, all the while whipping him to run faster. Civilization is out of control.
But pointing out society’s flaws has never seemed to change much. I prefer the Gandhi approach. He suggested that we all “be the change we want to see.” So if it is to me, it is up to me. But how to do it?
To pull the elephant away from the edge of reason, we must first learn to communicate with the beast. This is the art and skill of emotional intelligence.
We must as individuals ask our inner animal who we really are, what we really want, and why. However, this communication cannot be in words, for the elephant has no language. The animal brain is sometimes known as the emotional brain for a reason – it operates on emotion. Therefore, to communicate with it, we need to use all of our senses, starting with our feelings.
When our feelings, thoughts, and actions line up we are in harmony.
To have any hope of living our lives consciously we need to become aware of what is driving us at the core. Here are a few suggestions:
Slow down; slow everything down.
Create routines that remind you to pay attention to your inner world.
Practice inhabiting your body: notice your limbs, torso, breath, and skin several times a day.
Learn to soothe anxiety with breath.
Make it a priority to feel your feelings.
Practice quietly noticing your feelings, body sensations, and thoughts without reacting to them; just notice them.
Too often the idea of being in touch with feelings is heard, especially by men, as “touchy-feely softness.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. It takes more courage to feel your feelings completely and not act on them than to face physical danger. Why do you think we avoid the practice?
Most people would rather face danger than their feelings. When feeling, slowing down, and facing feelings, anxiety, fear, sadness, and even joy can cause grown men to run away crying. It takes real courage to face and feel and not run or react. But this how you get the elephant’s attention and gain rapport.
Using emotions as a motivator is another way to enlist the help of your inner beast. Optimism, kindness, joy, and excitement in the service of a consciously thought-out goal will provide you an inner power that ignores obstacles and fear.
My hope is that we all slow down, get down on all fours, and be with the beast that has our lives in its care. Our proud human brains may balk at first, but after a good night’s sleep without the distraction of a noisy zoo begging for our attention, they will thank us.
To get acquainted with your elephant – your emotional mind – register for my new four-week on-line class, Moving Beyond Stuck (MBS). In MBS you will learn how to transform your negative habits into a Life Worth Living.