The uncooperative mind

We all have personal goals, but we also have untamed minds. Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash

We are not orderly machines. If we were, we would simply receive inputs, process them predictably, and output a particular outcome. But that’s not what happens. There is chaos in our bones, and between the sensory perceptions we receive, and the actions we perform, there is a whole harvest of peculiarities. A lot of self-analysis and counselling is about understanding exactly how we are made, and how our unique selves translate what we see and hear into action.

I will often be speaking with a client who wants to get something done. Their wish may be to get a better job, to work more vocationally, to get thin, to reduce their anxiety, to improve their happiness, to find their identity, to improve their relationships, to write a book, to make money, to ‘achieve more’, or to find a sense of meaning and direction. Everyone’s aim will be a little different. But everyone has this in common: there is a discontent, something inside them nagging that things could be different.

From the perspective of a personal goal, the mind seems extremely uncooperative. We seem incapable of focusing in the simplest of ways. If you don’t believe me, then try to meditate for a few minutes. Most people find it extremely hard to maintain a steady, undisturbed focus of the mind. Thus, our society is full of incentives, designed to try to make us cooperate: wages act as a carrot towards working for others; laws act as a stick against hurting others.

If we don’t want to do exactly what our society wants, then we will have to find our own way of incentivising, or motivating, ourselves. This is difficult. We are born with a particular genetic code, and with a particular body and character, into a world with particular family and peers, and particular culture and society. If we are to master our own journey, we need to find a way of standing aside from all those influences, but also a way of remastering all those influences in a different way.

So my clients will be given the opportunity, firstly, to present themselves to me, and ultimately to themselves, as they are, warts and all. We will witness them exactly as they are, and our first rule will be acceptance of whatever we find (because if we deny it, then we can’t see it properly). Then, secondly, we can look at subtle ways to re-engage with the world in a different way. We play with long-lasting behaviours that have been taken for granted.

In the end, the uncooperative mind might win. We might prove unable to influence the deep genetic, unconscious, conditioned, culturally-influenced self. Alternatively, we may begin to work with the uncooperative mind in ways which entice it to play ball with us. We may learn to work with our genetic inheritance, to communicate with our unconscious, to break old habits and make new ones, to become critical of our own culture, and therefore more free.

We shouldn’t expect the process to be easy. It takes a long time to build enough trust, in ourselves and each other, to begin to make significant change. We may spend months, or even years, perplexed by our mind’s apparent unwillingness to budge. We may feel fixed into a prison of inability to change. But if we are persistent, then one day, sometimes when we are least expecting it, our mind may relent, and agree to embark on a journey together with our intention.

So never lose hope. Your mind may feel uncooperative, chaotic, wayward. Of course it does – like an unbroken horse, it is born of wild forces, and will not be tamed lightly. But with understanding, sympathy and kindness (as well as a good dose of self-discipline), it’s possible.