The Mind’s Overseer and Mindful Habit Change

Excerpted from Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits and followed by a post from the author below.

The Mind’s Overseer

In a huge sound stage the famed composer and conductor John Williams was leading the London Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal of a movie soundtrack he had written. Sitting in the audience watching these world-class musicians play their part, each with utter precision, attentiveness and confidence, I was fascinated by how each contributed their portion of the whole piece right on cue.

It was fascinating, too, to see how the conductor coordinated each section of musicians: strings, percussion, horns — spotlighting this soloist, then calling on a group of instruments, then gathering the whole orchestra — like a dancer with 96 partners. Somehow he seemed both invisible yet majestic, knowing when to be still and when to guide, in a graceful flow. He’d lower his hand to reduce the volume, raise his arms to build the sound into a crescendo.

As I watched the conductor listen, attune, execute, it struck me that his performance illuminated a powerful truth: We all have our own inner conductor which plays a parallel role as the mind’s overseer, orchestrating the multifarious voices in our heads.

The area that houses the brain’s conductor lies just behind the forehead in the prefrontal zone of the neocortex (the thin sheaf of layers covering the top of the brain). The prefrontal cortex has more connections to other parts of the brain than does most any other neural zone, giving it a unique aerial overview — like John Williams up on his podium. This wiring lets the prefrontal cortex act as the brain’s chief executive or manager, something like the conductor of the thousands of instruments in the brain’s orchestra.

Fittingly the jobs done here are called “executive function;” the prefrontal area leads the rest of the brain, operating as the mind’s manager. Our mind’s overseer listens, attunes, knows what is needed, and guides us to act accordingly. It is the driver of wise choice.

The key steps in mind whispering roll together all these executive functions. Mind whispering integrates mindfulness with habit change, which adds the strength of awareness to the mechanics of shifting our modes of being for the better.

Our habits are automatic routines orchestrated by the basal ganglia, a primitive structure we share even with reptiles. By activating our prefrontal area we dredge up these long-buried habits into the light of attention where we can re-appraise them, understand their deficiencies, determine to change, and put that determination into action.

What may matter most is the prefrontal zone’s power to liberate ourselves from the habits of our past and find our way to a better future.

– Copyright Tara Bennett-Goleman. Adapted from Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013.

Mindful Habit Change

A while back I had the chance to do a week long meditation retreat at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, where the Buddhist tradition of insight mindfulness is practiced meticulously throughout the day. You have sitting and walking meditation sessions, and then integrate the practice with as many other activities throughout the day as possible.

When people arrive they are randomly assigned what’s called a “yogi job” to do during their stay, to keep the place running smoothly. To my dismay, I was given the job of collecting the garbage!

This gave me the opportunity to work with my immediate sense of aversion. Well, I’m really much better at arranging flowers, I thought, as my mind tried to wiggle out of my assigned task.

Then I remembered once when I studied Tea Ceremony at the Japanese Tea school in New York. After years of practice, one day when I arrived for my lesson I was given the job of washing down the tatami mats in the tea room. This is considered an honor for a tea student, and a chance to humble ourselves.

So I reframed how I thought about my job as a garbage collector: it was an opportunity to practice humility.

I quickly learned that at the Forest Refuge as much trash as possible is recycled. There were four carefully labeled bins for me to separate the garbage: one for plastics and metal, one for paper, one for compost, and one for trash. The cardboard was to be squashed flat for collection, as were the plastic and metal containers.

And because this was a mindfulness meditation retreat, everything is done with as much awareness as possible: lifting the trash, choosing the right container, making careful selections to put each piece of trash in the appropriate bin.

A simple aversion — I don’t like taking out the garbage — can clutter our minds with a flood of thoughts. We don’t see clearly amidst this inner clutter. As I emptied the trash — each bit into its appropriate bin — I noticed my mind emptying of its clutter of aversive thoughts.

A mental habit like aversion, if left unchecked, can proliferate into more negative thoughts cluttering the mind. If I hadn’t challenged my automatic thoughts about emptying the trash I would have missed the opportunity. Mindfulness made the difference.

I had thought this was going to be a yucky job. But challenging my kneejerk aversion cleared the way for inspiration about how to transform trash into something that could be useful again. Sorting and organizing the garbage had a clarifying effect on my mind.

That encounter with rethinking our garbage happened a while back, when such thoughtful recycling was novel — my own town was just beginning such a system. This change in my own kneejerk reaction motivated me to adapt our own trash collection at home so it fit the new ways our town was beginning to recycle.

When we mindlessly throw the same thing away and don’t consider the consequences of its afterlife, we create the world as we know it — and the environmental consequences of our complacent habits.

When we consider the life cycle of trash we can make wiser choices — to be more careful about what we consume in the first place, and be more aware of what happens to it and its wrappings and how we can best dispose of it.

Habits by their very nature are automatic and unconscious, a sign that they are being run by the basal ganglia at the bottom of the brain. The mind’s overseer, based in the prefrontal cortex, can bring the habit into the light of awareness, and take over from the centers for automatic habit in the lower brain.

This moment of mindfulness is the first, vital act in habit change. Once we’ve done this, we have a choice point that may not have existed before.

Mindfulness adds the power of the mind’s overseer, which can attune to the habit, see our choices, and choose wisely. It’s as though mindfulness sorts through the inner clutter of our mind — our habitual emotional habits — and sees which container they belong in: old, unuseful habit, or wisely chosen new one. It empties some in the mind’s trash bin.

This mental overseer is like the mind’s recycler: it identifies and classifies the stuff of the mind, sorting and discarding or changing as needed.

When you engage the overseer, you awaken the part of the mind that sees things more clearly. We need to empty our minds of clutter to give them our full attention.

The moment we bring such an unconscious habit into awareness the mind’s overseer, located in the prefrontal cortex, takes over from the centers for blind habit in the lower brain.

Each time we recycle – or change any habit — our brain subtly rewires itself in favor of the new habit. And if we repeat it enough times old grooves wear out and new, more positive habits take root. Brain scientists call this neuroplasticity.

This whole process can awaken a quality of what I’ve been calling “mindful habit change”: waking up and mindfully changing our complacent habits – whether the clutter of our mental patterns or the garbage in our lives.

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