I often describe the brain to my martial arts students as a “do-not-get-killed device.” Our brains are designed to keep us safe. Your brain is not a fan of ambiguity, uncertainty, and chaos. Instead, your brain seeks out coherence, structure, and order. In other words, its default setting is to think that it is far better to be safe, than sorry.
This may have been all and well for our ancestors on the Savannah, when real life and death dangers were present and around every corner. Yet as we all know, most of our daily struggles in the modern world, while still being a struggle, will likely not lead to ending our life. Unknowingly, we retreat daily to our habits, things that make us feel comfortable, safe, and less stressed out. We seek out our patterns, even when some of these patterns are not in our best interest.
As noted by poet, author and naturalist Diane Ackerman:
“Pattern pleases us, rewards a mind seduced and yet exhausted by complexity. We crave pattern, and find it all around us, in petals, sand dunes, pine cones, contrails. Our buildings, our symphonies, our clothing, our societies — all declare patterns. Even our actions: habits, rules, codes of honor, sports, traditions — we have many names for patterns of conduct. They reassure us that life is orderly.”
However, deep down, and from our own personal experience, we know this not to be true ― life after all is less than orderly. We just think it is, because we often mistake a series of consequences for fact. In doing so, we have a tendency to suffer from confirmation bias, interpreting our experiences in ways that confirm our existing beliefs, expectations, or hypotheses. But if we look closer, we also recognize, that we may only be seeing what we want to see, or believe what we want to believe, because that is how we want it to be. The brain then further plays its own magic trick on us, by using coincidences to create what we believe is predictable patterns.
The problem of course, is when things don’t end up going our way, we then have a really hard time dealing with the chaos. Our brain immediately alerts us to danger (mostly imagined), and then seeks to return us to our status quo, to what it remembers as safe — even though, we can clearly see that our current behaviors are unhelpful. The consequence is that we then view our internal experiences of unease with suspicion.
All Has The Potential For Growth, It Depends on Interpretation
Rollo May an existential psychologist, noted, that anxiety is really the doorway to creativity. In other words, emotions that often get labelled as unhelpful, are likely the very thing we need in order to get unstuck. I realize that this flies in the face of conventional wisdom — and in the pervasive Pollyanna thinking society we now find ourselves in, where the goal is to be positive all of the time — it does seem that anything deemed as distressing isn’t good for us. But as May points out, this isn’t often the case.
For example, mistakes are only mistakes when they arise, but also have the capacity to generate new meaning that ultimately becomes a success. In the words of Joseph Campbell,
“Blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep — as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.”
Being tenacious in the face of overwhelming odds, is really a form of aggressive energy that has been molded into an unstoppable asset. Fear is not something to run from, but rather a primer for our best work — because fear turned into action, allows us to do our best work with a sense of urgency that makes us feel invincible.
But the opposite is also true: Each one of these expressions of emotional energy could be put to work to undermine our liberty and destroy us. Mistakes seen as debilitating failure, may ensure that we never try again, and hence we never realize our full potential. Anger in the face of overwhelming odds, may make us play the victim game, which then ensures we never succeed. Fear seen as inadequacy, may halt us from ever achieving our goals.
As Stoic Philosopher, Seneca suggests,
“You have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.”
At the heart of his argument is to develop a stable mind in the midst of life’s chaos. This starts with the whole hearted recognition, that in moments of adversity, that our brain will try and get us to go back to familiarity. We need to fight it, confront it, and as Victor Frankl suggests, apply our human freedom of choosing our own attitude in any given set of circumstances.
For instance, if you start from the position that there is no such thing as a good or bad emotion, you are then able to see the potential that otherwise would be hidden from you. To live an exceptional life then, may simply come down to one’s ability to do so on one’s own terms, steered by your own volition and choosing to respond to every difficulty not as fated to disaster, but an advantage in becoming more.
In other words, it’s about overriding that inherent do not get killed default setting in your brain, by demanding that it approaches difficult situations you encounter, not from a problem mindset, but rather a workable one. Simply tell your Crocodile brain that it doesn’t get to choose how you respond to an obstacle, but you do. This is the first step in the realization that as bad as something might seem, every situation is workable, if you simply change how you relate to it.
As Stoic Philosopher, Seneca, in Letters from a Stoic further suggests,
“For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”