Don’t believe everything you think

Calling BS on the mind’s stories

I was talking to a friend the other day who’d found that recently he just wasn’t interested in his meditation practice. He’d found that he was watching the breath, but his mind was constantly telling him there were other, more interesting, things that he could be doing — that the breath was boring. The mind is always doing things like this: making up plausible stories that “make sense” of our experience. But the trouble is that these stories often are neither true, nor helpful.

An illustration of how arbitrary and untrue our mind’s stories are can be found in some fascinating brain studies. In treating some epileptic patients, it was once common for doctors to sever the corpus callosum, or band of tissue connecting the left and right brains. This means that the two sides of the brain, which have different functions, cannot communicate with each other, and each functions independently. It’s possible to present words or images to the left visual field, and only that side of the brain will respond: the right brain quite literally sees nothing, and vice versa.

We’re often not aware of our motivations, and so we make up stories that “explain” why we feel the way we do

In one intriguing experiment, split-brain subjects were presented with two cognitive tests simultaneously — one to each side of the brain. They were presented with a picture and asked to point to an object that went with that picture. Both sides of the brain performed perfectly: when the left hemisphere is shown a chicken foot, the right hand pointed to a chicken, and the right hemisphere, shown a snow scene, led to the left hand pointing to a shovel. The subject now has to explain — using his left hemisphere — why he made his choice. The response — “I saw a claw and I picked the chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel” — makes no sense at all and is in fact a fiction, because there was no causal connection at all between the actions of the left and right brains, which were acting in an uncoordinated way.

In other experiments the word “Laugh” was flashed to the left field of vision (the right hemisphere), and the subject laughed. When asked, “Why are you laughing?”, the subject said, “Oh…you guys are really something.” The right brain laughs because it’s seen the word “laugh”. The left brain hasn’t seen the word, but knows that the subject has in fact laughed. And the left brain comes up with a plausible-sounding reason for why the laughing occurred, not knowing the real reason.

Often we don’t recognize cause and effect in our own minds. Life is very complex, and so is the mind.

This may sound a long way from our day-to-day experience, but it’s not. We’re often not aware of our motivations, and so we make up stories that “explain” why we feel the way we do, and why we act the way we do. We also make up stories about why other act the way they do since we almost never know for sure what their motivations are. Other people are to ourselves as the left and right brains are in a split-brain patient. If fact often we are to ourselves as the left and right brains are in a split-brain patient.

Often we don’t recognize cause and effect in our own minds. Life is very complex, and so is the mind. Figuring out exactly why, for example, we’re in a bad mood can be beyond us. I remember once on a long and intensive meditation retreat, wondering exactly that; I was in an uncharacteristically (for a retreat) irritable mood and couldn’t figure out why. Eventually it occurred to me that this might be the result of having fantasized the day before about eating ice cream — I was in a remote place where such things weren’t available, and I’d been on retreat so long that small things like that could have a big effect on my mind. I don’t know if that was the actual cause, although the bad mood evaporated as soon as I made the connection. But until I’d figured out a likely cause I had plenty of stories rattling around in my brain, focusing on the faults (real or imagined) of myself, other people, and the retreat center. All of those stories were nothing more than fictions, but they seemed to make sense of that particular situation.

To adopt a skeptical attitude towards the stories we tell ourselves is the single most important skill in meditation

In the case of my friend, he was hearing the story over and over that his breath was simply not interesting, and that he should go off and do something more interesting. But interest is a state of mind, and not something that’s inherent in the object we’re paying attention to. It’s not, in other words, that the breath is either interesting or uninteresting, but that we’re either interested in it at some given time or not interested. And that’s something that’s in our control. I’ve found, for example, that when I’m a bit bored in my meditation practice I can simply say to myself, “That’s interesting…” and suddenly I find something in my experience that I’m fascinated by. If he just sticks with the practice he’ll almost certainly find that he finds ways to take an interest in the breath again. If he gives in to the thoughts he’s hearing he’ll miss out on a lot of personal growth.

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Another example I saw recently was someone who was convinced that another person had shown him disrespect. The action in question was incredibly minor and could have been explained in any number of ways, but he was convinced that he knew the other person’s thought processes and motivations. Of course he couldn’t possibly know, not being equipped with psychic powers. But a lot of us do this kind of “mindreading” and we cause ourselves and others a great deal of suffering when we do.

We can stand back from our stories and realize that they are stories

The important thing is to adopt a skeptical attitude towards the stories we tell ourselves. I see this, in fact, as being the single most important skill in meditation. Instead, for example, of being caught up in thinking angrily about something, or craving something, or doubting ourselves, we can stand back from the stories and realize that they are stories. It’s not always easy to do. For example in the middle of writing this article I suddenly thought “Hey, I must check my email” and then predictably I got distracted and wasted 20 minutes surfing the internet. I hadn’t been on the ball enough to realize that this was just another story and that I didn’t have to check my email — there was no reason it couldn’t wait. It’s all too easy to believe the BS that the mind throws our way, and it’s important to keep our BS-detectors at the ready so that we don’t create unnecessary problems for ourselves.

This isn’t to say that every thought it unhelpful and misleading. That’s far from being the case. So how do we tell which thoughts are BS and which are not? It can take a lot of practice. One key guideline is to look at the kind of emotion being expressed in the thought. If the thought is fueled by doubt, ill will, craving, or anxiety, there’s a good chance it’s neither a very accurate nor a very helpful one. Thoughts that are calmer and more compassionate are more likely to be useful.

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent article especially after a day fighting work place distraction and stressful thoughts. Thank you.

  • Great article, thank you Bodhipaksa.

  • Great post; thanks! I was just talking with a friend about the split brain research, and was about to go do some lit review on the subject when I saw this. If you have a moment, can you give some citations for the studies you mention?

  • I didn’t keep a record of all the sources I consulted, Joel, but here’s one site that was useful.

  • I’ve heard of that experiment!

    Also, this is a really interesting article and I think you’re spot on about this. I think the thing about lies is that they’re often quite subtle: You can tell yourself something that isn’t true and believe it so its often not very hard to be dishonest with yourself and others when its not like there’s a physical object to ground a mutual experience or “prove” something to be true or false right there in the scenario. I think this comes into pathological lying where people almost seem to believe that the stories they make up are true; this is what makes some liars so convincing. Its just an extreme extension of this kind of behaviour and thought pattern which we all have to a certain degree.

    To expand on this I think that a lot of anxiety or stress can actually be fuelled firstly by stories of how painful certain things we fear happening in the future and secondly the belief that we can somehow avoid them. There’s actually intention involved in this kind of “story” and its hard to let go of because there’s actually a want involved, a kind of desired results. Its like how people use stress and dread to motivate themselves to do things like study for exams – They fear failure so much it makes them study or work desperately in a way they may not otherwise do. It is harmful, but I’ve seen plenty of kids do it, especially A students who have no realistic chance of failure. I myself actually have used that kind of stress to study, not realising that calmly learning without caring so much about my grades may have been just as effective. I still feel the effect of this story sometimes: Like if I relax and just do my work I won’t be as diligent and will fail.

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