So far we have seen that a mind always reacts in the way that according to its own calculations will allow it to avoid stress and help it to get closer to happiness. These reactions depend on what the mind is currently experiencing and its belief in what would be the best response to the present experience .
What is a belief and how does it arise?
A belief is a habit that determines how a mind will respond to a given situation. It is a response to a current condition that according to the mind’s calculations is most optimal at the moment.
The belief is based on a memory of the following sequence:
an experience -> reaction to the experience ->resulting state of mind.
Every experience triggers a mental reaction, and this reaction leads to a certain mental state. Each sequence imprints in the memory. If a certain sequence is repeated many times, the trace left in the mind goes deeper. If a reaction to a certain experience results in a positive mental state, and this sequence happens a certain number of times, the mark left in the mind is deep enough to become a preferred course of action, a habit. We can say that the reaction has trod a habitual path in the mind. This will be the course of action that the mind will choose whenever it encounters a certain type of experience. It will become a habit, a habitual reaction to an event, the belief that this type of reaction to this type of event is optimal.
Habits or beliefs are reflected in the neural structure of the brain. There are habits we are born with, that we have inherited from the animal kingdom, such as fear of heights or fear of sudden loud sounds. Basically they are built into the brain. They are like wide highways leading from a certain input (sudden loud noise) to a certain output (fear). There are also beliefs that we acquire as we grow up. We could compare them to smaller paved roads. Finally, there are habits that we acquired recently. We could compare these to paths trodden in grass.
A driver trying to get from Warsaw to Poznań in a shortest possible time will choose a new route only when he is convinced that the road he currently knows is jammed, or when he is certain that a new one would be much faster than the old one. Likewise, the mind will react in a habitual way (in other words, will choose a previously tested reaction) until it experiences a positive effect resulting from a new type of reaction, or if it directly experiences a negative effect of choosing the habitual response.
So, in order to change a habitual reaction (a belief), the mind needs first to intellectually recognize that the present reaction is not beneficial for it. Secondly, it must experience, directly, that this type of reaction is causing it harm. Therefore, both: appropriate information and awareness of its functioning are essential. If either of these two elements is missing, the mind will not have sufficient information to change the habit.
So far, in our reflections on the emergence of mental tension, we’ve noticed that the mind is firmly convinced that generating a “pushing away” energy against unpleasant mental states will bring about a positive result. In other words, the “pushing away” reaction has trodden and hardened a wide path in the mind. Obviously, this action does not translate into a positive mind state, but the habit has gotten so strong that, from the mind’s perspective, this type of reaction seems to be the only sensible one. This means that the habit must have developed under conditions that were different from the current ones, and its activation must have produced positive outcomes in the past. Let us consider how this could have happened.
How did your mind come to a belief that “pushing away” mental impressions is beneficial?
To understand why “pushing away” mental impressions seems beneficial, let’s try to understand how an emotional response occurs in the body. The body is constantly exposed to countless sensations. The mind, on a conscious and unconscious level, makes a constant evaluation of the potential impact of these sensations on the state of the body. On the basis of this assessment, it decides how the body should react to the experience.
For example: the mind recognizes a loud sound, judges that the source of the sound may possibly be a threat, this evaluation causes an immediate emotional response in the body in order to prepare the body to avoid the danger. Emotion automatically translates into body movement (fleeing or fighting the sound source). As a result of this action, the sound source is removed or neutralized. The emotion slowly fades away (the adrenal glands stop secreting norepinephrine, the heart rate slows down, the blood pressure drops) and the body returns to its neutral state.
In early childhood, the main reactions of the mind were associated with the occurrence of emotions in the body that immediately modified its actions.
If a child experiences hunger, he or she does not like it, and an emotion of stress arises in the body. This emotion translates directly into a change in the state of the body, namely crying. The mother, seeing this, feeds the baby. The feeling of hunger disappears, the mind is satisfied, the emotion dies out. Mind relaxes and the child falls asleep. This situation repeats itself many times and… perpetuates the habit.
If we look at the animal world and our life up to the age of say somewhere around 6, it seems that the emergence of emotions related to the preparation of the body to avoid an unpleasant state was automatically translated into a specific physical action. This was resulting in a change of the conditions and consequent subsidence of the emotions. Hence the already deep habit was strengthening even more.
If a mind feels uncomfortable – it changes the position of the body; if it is hungry – by changing the expression on its face, it sends signals to its mother to feed him; if it feels the pain associated with a burn – moves the body away from a harmful object and sends alarming signals to its parent. If a child’s mind feels that another mind (of another preschooler) is threatening its well-being, it immediately confronts or runs away from the colleague. All of these responses are very similar to the responses of animal’s mind. And they all bring an immediate discharge of the emotional energy.
When an animal hears a sudden loud noise, an emotion of stress immediately arises in its body, preparing it to defend itself. At the same time, the animal’s mind assesses the situation and decides whether it has to act or not. If not, the emotion dies out and the body returns to its neutral state.
However, as we mature, our mind slowly learns not to translate much of this emotional energy into a physical activity. If an adult slightly burns himself, usually he doesn’t scream out loud for help. If she hits her head on a cupboard, she usually (but not always) doesn’t attack the cupboard with fury. If he feels threatened by a competitor at work, he does not physically attack him.
This is the main trait and the drama of a well-behaving adult. He/she does not translate emotions into acting the way a child or animal would do it. This does not mean that the emotions do not arise in the body. However, many of them are left not being translated into a physical action. The body gets prepared to act in order to defend itself or conquer, but the action never comes, the emotion gets never released. And this can be the cause of great deal of suffering (stress) in the adult’s mind.
Oftentimes, the suffering associated with emotional tension is so intense that the mind slowly becomes less sensitive to these states, ceasing to feel them over time. In other words, the mind begins to slowly withdraw consciousness from those parts of the body that are involved in the emotional response.Unfortunately, it has to pay a very high price for it. Just like the emotions of stress, fear or anxiety are specific states of the body, the emotions of joy, happiness or love are other states of the same body. Withdrawing awareness from these body parts (stomach, heart etc) closes the possibility of experiencing positive feelings that are rooted in the states of the same body parts.
We are getting closer and closer to understanding why the mind reacts with mental tension to unpleasant sensations. The mind has a deep-seated habit of causing an emotional response to remove the unpleasant experience by the body. If, however, this is physically impossible (no sound or mental state can be caught), the emotion remains unloaded in the body and is felt by the mind as a tension.
But why does the mind not change its habit when it results in stress?
The mind doesn’t recognize the connection between a habitual reaction and a resulting mental state. It is only aware of an experience it is responding to, and the resulting mental state. The mechanics of the reaction itself stay beyond the scope of its consciousness. Consequently, the mind does not take into account a very important element that is determining the state of the body.
The result of such a habit is a vicious circle into which the mind falls. The mind experiences a negative state, dislikes it, and begins preparation of the body to physically remove the unpleasant mental state. However, for obvious reasons, this is doomed to failure. The newly generated emotion adds to the tension already present, and increases the level of stress experienced by the mind. This triggers another reaction and even more determination to physically remove the painful mental state. And this increases the mental tension even more. The cycle repeats itself over and over again. How do you break this painful habit?