According to research by the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at USC, yesterday I thought an average of 70000 thoughts (some percentage of which could be classified as clinically insane!). I’m going to be thinking in the ballpark of the same number of thoughts today. Probably tomorrow as well. And the day after that. Which is generally okay. Except for one problem: roughly 63000 of those thoughts I think tomorrow will be the same ones I’m thinking today, and yesterday, and the day before. But there’s a good reason for such thinking: It doesn’t send my stress hormones soaring. Much of the way I think and the content of the actual thoughts I think is all about Job One as far as my brain is concerned: regulating physical and emotional arousal, in other words – stress management.
Non-Averse to the New
Many people live their whole lives with neural neophilia under tight wraps. Neophilia simply means “love of the new.” Neural neophilia is a phrase I newly made up, since I do my best to embrace neophilia. In my lexicon it means two things: 1. Using my brain to deliberately think new thoughts (often inspired by reading a lot and being exposed to new thoughts from others. I choose reading because it’s easier to manage my brain’s and body’s arousal states with a book than it often is with other people; plus, books get edited); and 2. Growing new brain cells and making new brain cell connections.
Consider this: most of who I am is the result of what I think, how I act, and how I feel day in and day out. If I think the same 70,000 thoughts every day, I’m going to be more similar than different after a decade or two than if I only thought 50,000 or 40,000 of the same thoughts every day. How I change and grow is closely connected both to how I think and to how able I am in managing the stress of new thoughts passing through the slipstream of my mind.
Einstein once sagely suggested that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In addition to the need for upgrading the quality of our thinking, I would suggest that we need to upgrade the quantity of our thinking by increasing the number of new thoughts we think every day. We need to become increasingly comfortable with thinking outside our adrenals. Let me repeat that: We need to become increasingly comfortable with thinking outside our adrenals.
The Other People Problem
Just as some new thoughts are much more hyperarousing than others – for example, the thought of being invited to give a TED Talk – so are some people. “High maintenance” people in our lives tend to be the ones that we have difficulty keeping our brain and body in a steady state of equilibrium around. “Low maintenance” people are the ones we generally consider to be “our tribe.” But consider this: How will we ever change and grow into the gem of a person some think we are destined to become and attain “the Pearl of Great Price?” Could those people who tend to push our buttons possibly be offering us a gift? The burnishing gift of growth and development, of thinking new thoughts, of feeling new pheelings and behaving in new ways?
Except for the fact that I can’t easily manage the flood of stress hormones generated by my adrenals around HMers, my sense is that many of them have at least a few admirable qualities. I’m mostly blind to what those qualities might be when my adrenaline levels have stormed the battlefield of body and mind and my cortisol levels are doing everything they can to restore those hormones back to manageable levels. This is generally when I need to call for reinforcements. This is when I need members of my tribe to have my back. And this is often why tribes and communities (spiritual, corporate and otherwise) can be a great aid in shuttling us along in our development. Not only is there safety in numbers, but numbers help us distribute Maintenance Requirements.
In this vein, there’s a teaching story I heard long ago attributed to the wisdom teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. Seems that while Gurdjieff was away in Europe, a group of students in his American community got together and bribed another student, who rubbed most everyone the wrong way, to move to another state. When Gurdjieff returned and inquired after the missing student, he quickly uncovered the conspiracy. Immediately, he went to visit the student in his new environs and offered him twice the bribe to return to his former place in the American community. Gurdjieff understood that this student was precisely the “sand in the oyster” – the abrasive personality that would serve to polish his students in their spiritual unfolding.
One central challenge, of course, is that we can’t spend the bulk of our waking life around abrasive, High Maintenance people lest they take an ongoing and unremitting toll on our body and brain. Because High Maintenance people flood our system with stress hormones in amounts large enough to adversely affect brain and body organ function, we need to be mindful and judicious about how much time we can expose our bodies and brains to them. That’s one wise requirement for Supreme Self-Care.
Think about the people in your own current circle. Can you discern which of the people in it might provide you with just the right amount of irritation and/or abrasion to turn you into a shining gem of a human being with a neural neophilic foundation robust enough to joyfully think 10 or 20 thousand outrageous new thoughts today? Perhaps you might start by looking with newly appreciative eyes at the person laying next to you in bed!