I can’t recall a time when I didn’t believe I was capable of learning, growing and changing. At least that’s what I would say if you asked me. But if you gently invited me to say more, and I felt safe enough to drill down further into that belief, what you’d find out is that I actually do believe that about myself, but only to a point. There are certain possibilities for growth and change that I aspire to which I don’t currently believe I will ever really attain. For example, for more than 20 years I’ve been trying to get my weight below 200 pounds. I’ve researched physiology, I teach classes on the neuroscience of weight management, I’ve even co-presented daylong seminars with a nutritionist! And still, the 200 pound goal eludes me. 204 is the closest I’ve gotten recently.
I also don’t believe I will ever be able to recreate the financial wealth I enjoyed (and mismanaged) at an earlier time in my life. The short-term stressors of being wealthy were more than brain and body could manage at the time, especially since I have long been acutely aware of just how much fear, poverty and suffering the majority of humanity lives with. Why should I have and hoard so much more material wealth than most of the rest of the world? Having disproportionate wealth felt like a substantial karmic burden, somehow. I certainly didn’t feel free when I was rich. And I have exemplars like Buddha and Christ suggesting that money is a powerful trap one can easily fall into. It would be interesting to get a CPA’s account of how Christ and Buddha managed their finances.
The Secret Enemy
Disbelief in or compromised belief in my ability to change is The Secret Enemy. It’s one of four identified by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman in their recent book, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be A Whole Lot Happier. The other three enemies are Outer, Inner and Super-Secret. Outer Enemies are simply the people, institutions and situations that threaten or frustrate us, either consciously or unconsciously (as with neuroceptive experiences). The Inner Enemies are the emotions we feel in response to those external threats, like fear, hatred or anger. The Super-Secret Enemy is our negative inner self-judgment and self-loathing.
It’s dealing with the Super-Secret Enemy that I find so useful in my study of neuroscience. I’ll give you a recent example: last week I was outside repairing a storage shed. I was cutting asphalt shingles for the roof with a utility knife. On one cut I inadvertently had the tip of my index finger extending over the straight-edge and I ran the utility knife hard across it giving me a deep gash. While the cut was painful enough, I didn’t let The Super-Secret Enemy turn it into suffering by generating all kinds of negative judgments: “How could you be so stupid?” “When are you going to learn to pay attention to what you’re doing?” “You call yourself a craftsman?”
What I did is simply acknowledge that my brain was temporarily distracted – my neural networks had momentarily exceeded their capacity – and as a result I injured myself. Distractions happen. And they happen more, the older I get. If a finger injury is the worst that occasionally results when I’m distracted, I am indeed blessed.
The Astonishing Hypothesis
In his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Nobel Laureate Francis Crick has written, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” While I would argue there’s likely much more to the story, Crick’s perspective frequently matches my own. If I was in my “Right Mind” I can guarantee you I would not intentionally be slicing up my fingers. But Right Mind isn’t a constant. It’s mostly a product of a brain and body able to mindfully focus on a complex assortment of needs and stimuli in the moment. A brain operating with full sensory input awareness could have felt my finger hanging over the straight edge and my eyes could have seen it protruding into the cut line. But they didn’t. And the only compassionate response to a vulnerable, over-taxed brain, mind and body is kindness, flexibility and forgiveness. Always. And then The Super-Secret Enemy has no one to attack.