August 9, 2011
In a recent post, The Functional Mind, I identified the three main roles of the mind; to identify, make associations, and store and retrieve information. This article more closely examines the process of making associations.
It is through the process of associating that some of our greatest human acheivments have been made. As I’ve mentioned, it is our ability to quickly make myriad associations between items and ideas that makes us uniqly human. It’s what sets us apart from other animals; allows us to develop complex ideas, forms, and items; and it’s also the process that often result in increases in anxiety. It’s the last point that is a concern in the Practice of Thoughtfulness.
As we learn and grow, we come to recognize many things. We categorize those things and often think in terms of groupings, i.e., people, places, politics, etc.. Give someone a single topic and they can probably talk for hours about it, linking one thing to another and traveling down myriad paths as they are re-minded of more and more things through the process of association.
It’s when the process of association happens without an awareness to our current needs, that it can cause anxiety.
When we make non-funcitonal associations, we risk causing ourselves anxiety due to regret and worry (feelings of disappointment about the past or fear about the future). Consider that when listening to someone telling you about something that is happening with them, you might be reminded of something that happened to you. You might then be moved to interject and start talking about it, telling the other person about it, sometimes as a way to show that you can relate and that you have empathy for them.
If the stories that we share are of a ‘positive’ nature, there’s usually no harm in being re-minded of them and re-minding others, but when they could cause us anxiety (reminding yourself and others of ‘negative things’ beyond your control), choosing to think about them becomes a non-purposeful activity and can even cause emotional and ultimately, physical harm to yourself and others.
An example of non-purposeful (and potentially harmful) associating, might look like this:
You receive a utility bill in the mail. You open it and look at the amount. You think about having to spend that money on something that you barely noticed using and you feel taken off guard by this ‘sudden’ expense. You lay the bill out on your desk and are reminded of all the other utility bills that you have received in the past. You go to your filing cabinet and get out all your old bills, laying them out on y our desk until it’s covered. You look at all those bills and think about all the money you’ve spent and how you could have used that money for others things that you enjoy. You figure out the total amount and feel a sense of dread as you consider how much you will spend in the future. It all seems so overwhelming. You feel anxious. You heart starts to pound in your chest and you feel flush. You can’t see a way out from under this burden.
What happend here?
Rather than taking the bill for what it is: an isolated expense for services rendered, you made an association between it and similar bills from the past. You thought about them all at once and envisioned all future bills as one item. You created a mountain of anguish just through the act of association.
Is it reasonable to go to your desk and bring out all your past bills when you receive a new one? Of course not. Why would you do that? But – Many of us do this with our thoughts. When we receive a story or thought about a particular idea or event, we go into the files of our mind and pull out everything that we can associate with that item, even if it will cause us anxiety! We drag up old files (memories) and lay them out in front of us (in our mind). We think about them as a group, rather than individually. We create a mountain of anxiety out of virtually unrelated items. This is unconscious association or what we call the state of being Over Associated.
Rather than over associating, consider the following as an alternative to the above:
You check your mail and find a utility bill, like you do every month. You don’t particularly enjoy having bills, but you know that they represent an exchange of energy between parties. As you pay the bill, you think about how wonderful it is to have water and power to use whenever you need it. You appreciate all the work that everyone at the utility company does to make sure that you have what you need. You remember how easy it made your life to have that water and power – as opposed to not having it. When you consider how much you did with those utilities, the amount you’re paying seems small in comparison.
In the second scenario, you never associated your bill with other bills. Instead, you thought about all the good things that you did with the services you received as a result of your relationship with the utility company. Rather than feeling punished, you felt like you got a great deal. You changed your perspective from being ‘anxiety-oriented’ to being ‘gratitude-oriented.’ Nothing about the situation of receiving a bill changed–only your perspective.
Remaining neutral, objective, and not over associating items or ideas is at the core of the Thoughtfulness Practice. When we take each event in our lives just as it is, without making a lot of unnecessary and non-functional associations, we spend more time in the here-and-now, and we have the opportunity to express gratitude for the many gifts we receive each and every day.
The next time you’re talking with someone, when you find yourself re-minded of something outside of the topic of the conversation (something that your mind associated with in the conversation), rather than focusing on it, simply observe your mind’s activity. Take note and stay focused on what the other person is saying to you. Rather than jumping to your own version of their story, ask them more questions about theirs. This will increase your conversational skills and shows true empathy and a desire to know what is being shared with you.
When you find yourself over associating (thinking about many things that are associated with something, without knowing why), simply take note and observe it as a process of the mind. Observe the way your mind jumps from one subject to another and stay attentive to what is happening in the moment, rather than thinking about the past or future. If your thoughts are causing you anxiety, identify that feeling in your body and invite it to expand into your understanding, rather than pushing it away.
When you are reminded of something that you would like to change, either take action in the moment or – if it’s not the right time for action, simply observe that you thought of it and return to the present. You can make a note to yourself to take care of it when you have time and are in a position to do something about it. Until then, remain in the present moment to create more Quality Life Time (QLT). Quality Life Time is created when we reduce the amount of past and future in our ‘beingness’ and focus our energy and attention on the present. Living in the present is the most effective way to reduce stress, anxiety and fully appreciate all that life has to offer – and it’s the only place that life happens.
The awareness and feeling of being alive is one of the greatest gifts we can enjoy. It doesn’t take any special training, money, or tools, and everyone can enjoy it where they are – right now.
What do you think? Share your comments below.