You discover a hit and run dent on your rental scooter. Like every other risk-taking anarchist, you opted out of incidental insurance.
An unexpected thunderstorm on your walk to work and oh-shit-I-forgot-to-buy-a-new-umbrella.
A nudge to your dinner table spills a glass of cabernet on your pants. Gosh darn it, they were your grandma’s favourite pair, too!
What do all these have in common? Not much, at first glance, other than, of course, being a series of unfortunate incidences born out of the universe’s anus, conspired specifically to ruin your day. Chances are your ‘default voice’ inside your head–which deals with processing, thinking and reacting–is not too pleased.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
When faced with a negative incident out of our control, the natural human tendency is to react negatively. This is perfectly natural, and probably even healthy. However, what is not so natural and definitely less healthy is to ‘stick’ to that reaction and ruminate about it. Rumination is when we replay negative scenarios (past or anticipated) in our heads over and over again, going over the various aspects of it that are upsetting. Some of us are naturally more prone to this than others.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s break down any uncontrollable negative event into 2 distinct parts: the event and your reaction to it.
The first part is the event itself: it happened. It is now a permanent part of history. There is no going back. The second is our lingering reaction to it, the ‘rumination period,’ which ranges from a minor eye twinge to a relentless nasty self-talk for hours.
Most of us fail to realize that the second part—the reaction and ensuing rumination—lasts as long as we allow it to, is malleable, and with some extra effort, is entirely open to interpretation. Some of us know this intuitively, yet the majority of us fail to internalize this fact. It is far too easy to succumb to and press play on the default ‘broken tape recorder’ that is our brain. There has to be a better way.
The goal, then, is to go from this
So what to do about it all? Are we doomed to cave to the tyrannical demands of our brain and only start feeling better whenever the blob upstairs permits it?
Not so! Introducing our beloved friend: consciousness. Put simply, consciousness gives the brain the ability to think about itself.
Consciousness is our most precious gift. It acts as a filtering lens between ourselves and the outside world, allowing us to pause, reflect, and act based on agency, rather than whim. Consciousness grants us an unprecedented level of control over our fate and state of mind, even in spite of everything seeming awful and hopeless. In fact, people’s ability to overcome their naturally programmed reaction earns them special virtuous characteristics: when someone is labelled ‘courageous,’ they are likely overriding a fear-based genetic stimulus. Think of an outnumbered soldier valiantly storming into battle against all odds.
Seeing as a fruitfly shares an embarrassing 60% of our DNA, what distinguishes us largely from animals is our capacity for thought that is independent from external factors. We can override the hardwiring of our brains in response to stimulus (craving sugar, avoiding danger) using this mysterious force nature has bestowed upon us. By the way, we still have no idea where it came from.
And the best part about consciousness? Like your roommate’s peculiar ability to recite the Klingon alphabet, it’s trainable too. Our brain can be ‘exercised’ the way a physical muscle can. The good news is that to mature your consciousness you don’t need to rent a psychologist’s couch for $100/hour. The bad news is that, unlike 40 lb of shredded weight and a shrinking of 6 belt sizes, progress in mental ‘exercise’ is much more difficult to measure.
This is because habits, as we all know, are difficult to break, especially ones concerning conditioned reactions. This becomes especially more true as we age and our brain settles into comfortable and familiar patterns of thought. A voluntary effort to break away from this cycle and reinterpret circumstances, therefore, is essential for fulfilment.
Reclaim the Driver’s Seat
Life is difficult. Shit happens. Things go wrong. Adversity is inevitable in life and some would even say essential. But remember, my consciousness-wielding ape, you have all the power in the world to bend and reinterpret objective hardship into subjective bliss. I find that contextualizing my sorrows in a more rational space helps me accomplish just that. So please, the next time you’re about to find yourself ruminating and cede control to the tape recorder nested in your head, you should keep the following in mind:
The material world is fixed and doesn’t give a shit about you
You tugged on a table cloth and smashed a cup on the floor. The smashed glass was the predictable result of physical laws, like gravity and physics. Is it gravity’s fault? Are you really gonna get mad at gravity?
A massive comet is on its way to earth and will wipe out a 1/5th of the world population. The apathetic rock doesn’t give a shit about you nor your family. In fact, just to spite you, the rock decides to catch on fire on the way down to really cause a shitstorm. Tough luck.
The truth is that nature and natural phenomena aren’t conspiring against you. They’re just kinda doing their own thing. Harbouring even a smidgeon of resentment against these forces is comical and entirely illogical. With that said, it’s probably a good idea to pack up your possessions and seek shelter elsewhere if a massive tornado is coming your way.
Your brain is at best silly and at worst irrational
We are walking, fucking, eating, pissing, and shitting clumps of bonded matter. Have some humility, please. The necessity to do the former acts is controlled by your reptilian brain. Your brain is very good at doing reptilian things because we’ve been doing them for a while. Any higher level thinking like judgement and reflection come from our neocortex.
The neocortex is a recent addition to our evolutionary arsenal of brainstuff, and is therefore error-prone due to inexperience. We are prone to hundred’s of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Recognize your brain’s shortcomings and don’t be so hard on it—it’s slowly, reeeaaallly slowly getting used its job responsibilities. The mere act of recognizing these facts is symbolic enough, and will allow you to act modestly with greater frequency, and reflect honestly on your limitation as a human being.
Your ego is vulnerable, and wants to protect itself
Nothing likes to be cradled and protected like our precious ego. Lots of after-the-fact rumination occurs simply as the result of ego playing one of its favourite voice recordings. ‘What will people think of me?’ ‘I’m really not sure if I should wear this tonight’ ‘he’s so much more good-looking than me’ etc… These are entirely artificial and petty rationalizations that our brain likes to read back to us. They are often misguided, anchored in insecurities and fuelled from a fear of the unknown. Challenging the ridiculousness of this playback system and recognizing the fallibility of the ego is the key to liberation of the spirit.
The next time you find yourself feeling inhibited or insecure pause and dwell on the emotion that surfaces. I mean it, really truly focus on it. Observe it. Is it really you who’s thinking what you’re thinking? Or instead, is it a malicious little voice humming sweet, discouraging lullabies that are siphoning your ability to act authentically and process things rationally? Do yourself a favour and reality-check that awful babysitter, that good-for-nothing fragile ego, by recognizing its calling signs and refusing to appease it.
Misfortune is Relative
You just missed a train to a neighbouring city, and will be forced to wait an hour until the next one. A pity, truly, but does it in any way compare to not having a reliable source of income, shelter, food and wifi connection to read this post? You’ve just gotten out of a 5 year relationship with your high school sweetheart—I feel you, I promise—but rather than wallowing in despair, step back momentarily and take solace in the fact that you don’t have a custody battle ahead of you. It’s the healthier way.
It is an eternally useful exercise to frame your misfortunes in the context of other, greater, shittier circumstances that you’re privileged to not have experienced. Minimize your suffering by internalizing the ‘it could always be worse’ adage deep within your dome. Allow moments of loss to serve as a perfect moment of gratitude by reframing them to allow the recognition of the other lovely things that you do have in your life.
Waging war against your brain is worth the effort, I promise. I’m no yogi myself, and am still far from reaching perfect harmony with my brain, but I’ve definitely gotten better at it. Year by year, I find myself more resilient to the unpredictable whirlwind of external events in my life by focusing on a healthier internal perception of them. The above ‘mantras’ have served me well, and I hope they help some of you re-evaluate a negative circumstance in your life.
One last thing. My advice above rests on the assumption that you regularly perform basic maintenance on your body. I won’t spend too long talking about these because they’ve been covered to death, and I think they would detract from the focus of the article. Nevertheless, for a happier brain, please remember to breathe effectively, exercise regularly, sleep sufficiently and eat properly. Only once these basic pillars of health are satiated can one consider fiddling with deeply entrenched habits of thought. No one should expect any progress or success with developing their consciousness before the above basics are met. And once they are…
…life becomes less shitty 🙂