Operating the Creature You Inhabit

William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the ...Read More

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle – they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

– Alfred North Whitehead

Consider a time when you were driving your automotive vehicle along a familiar route, and you were so absorbed in your thoughts-planning some future activity or ruminating on a current concern-that you didn’t notice passing a certain landmark along the way, or the music from the vehicle’s sound system, or the feel of the steering wheel in your hands. Even though your conscious mind was so completely preoccupied that you didn’t notice all these things, a part of you was driving the vehicle and operating it perfectly safely.

Since your conscious mind was preoccupied with its thoughts, who was operating the vehicle? It must be a part of you of which you are not conscious. This unconscious, experiential processing system is capable of guiding complex performance while making little demand on your finite conscious resources [see Two Minds]. Indeed, most of the time you are not consciously operating the bio-psycho-social vehicle you inhabit, because your attention is focused elsewhere, or not at all.

By contrast, “mindful driving” means being fully present in each moment, consciously aware of sights, sounds, thoughts, and bodily sensations as they arise, so you can respond intentionally rather than follow the path of least resistance. When mindful, you can act in accord with your interests and principles despite the influence of local stressors and temptations that would promote relapse.

The Karma of repeatedly exercising the behavioral sequence that leads to incentive use is that it gets progressively stronger until it becomes autonomous. Once that happens it requires willful effort to interrupt the sequence of events leading to incentive use.

The Path of Least Resistance

The path of least resistance describes the predictable, cause-and-effect sequence of events that a biological creature would follow if it did not have an operator aware of its core motivation, or if the operator was asleep at the wheel. Getting this creature to follow an intended path in the face of local conditions that would promote incentive use requires an operator capable of exerting will to override these local forces.

Real life demands substantial cognitive resources. Investing these dear resources to intentionally guide behavior at each moment is not a realistic strategy. Will has its greatest impact when exercised during the critical moments of a crisis. From my perspective as the therapist rooting for good outcome, I want an operator who appreciates the client’s core motivation in the driver’s seat at these critical moments. If only I could follow my clients around and alert them-in a kindly, non-judgmental way-when they are in a high-risk situation, so they could wake up and operate the vehicle mindfully. Of course, there will be no external voice to tip you off.

A major part of the passage from dependence to self-determination is developing the capability to shift from the perspective of the biological creature, which must obey cause-and-effect principles (such as the PIG), to the perspective of the operator (who has a particular destination and route in mind).

The metaphor of the operator and the creature is a bit misleading, because it implies a separation between the two. In fact, the state of the creature affects the motivation, perception and other state-dependent attributes of the operator. The ability to operate the creature requires an appreciation of this recursive relationship. Perhaps the primary responsibility of the operator is to protect the creature from strong emotional states and other local conditions that would compromise the operator’s abilities.

Getting a mortal creature-driven by desires and fears-to act as intended requires the power to override these primitive motivations. Exercising will, like exercising muscle power through resistance training, is a discipline that demands some dedication and patience. Thought experiments, available at no charge, provide opportunities to exercise the faculties required to override the influence of local conditions and behave as intended.

These exercises share the commonality of inviting you to experience a particular phenomenon by getting you to focus your attention on a particular stimulus. Your ability to experience phenomena intentionally depends upon your faculties of concentration and imagination. Like muscles, these faculties grow stronger with exercise and atrophy with disuse.

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