Meet Charlie. Charlie is our 8 month old feisty, little West highland Terrier. He was built to be active and cannot contain himself when he’s allowed to go for a walk. He pulls and strains on that lead, zig zagging around, sniffing at things, crossing this way and that. And heaven forbid if, on our forest walks, we come upon a small creature like a rodent or a rabbit – he will lock in and give chase like a dog possessed. There’s just no stopping him. Without training – it’s just what he does.
It struck me today that Charlie’s behaviour bears a striking resemblance to our human mind. It is always active, runs away with itself, flits around and locks in when we really just want it to slow down. But that’s it’s job – it’s simply a matter of evolution. Back when we were living in caves there were two imperatives – to fit in with the tribe and to keep an eye out for animals that can eat you! The mind needed to do these things to keep us alive. So the mind evolved to be a danger radar that looks for threats and compares itself to others to make sure we belong. While our external world has changed immensely over the centuries, our internal world has stuck to the plan – look for danger and compare to belong. Without training – it’s just what the mind does.
Unfortunately it is a recipe for increased suffering. The more our mind seeks danger, runs away, flits around and locks in – the more reactive we are with our selves, work colleagues and our loved ones.
But there is another way…
The first step is noticing what your mind is doing. Then, take a deep breath and pause. Consciously observe the mind’s chatter and establish whether your mind is being helpful or unhelpful. If it helping you to be who you want to be then follow it. If it’s not helping you to be who you want to be – then choose something else. Noticing, pausing and consciously choosing is a practical step towards greater psychological flexibility. A bit like training a dog to walk steadily on his lead. It takes time but it’s worth the effort!