Raising the Mind (and Defeating Self-Sabotage)
Have you ever been hit with something so profound, a huge swath of your previous learnings suddenly fell into place?
Have you ever found a theory that puts everything it touches into context?
An evolutionary biologist and orthodox Christian, Theodosius Dobzhansky, once wrote an essay titled: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”.
I feel like I’ve learned a similar theory, but for human emotion, and happiness.
David Hawkins on Emotion
Dr David Hawkins, recently deceased, was an authority on the topic of spiritual growth and Enlightenment. I’ll focus more on his practical advice, however, which offers a level of power over your emotions that not even the stoics could hope for.
How to Reclaim Power over How You Feel
The stoics (and many self-development “gurus”) claim that you can control how you respond to things by simply “choosing” something different. This is only a half-truth.
We cannot just “choose” to not be emotional. This leads to bottling up.
“Bottling up” can mean either emotional suppression (conscious) or repression (subconscious).
Here’s why bottling up emotion is a very real problem:
Emotions just want to be felt.
When we judge a feeling and deny it’s “right” to be felt, we end up clinging to it. It is never released, and shows up in other ways in our lives.
If we learn to just let go, and feel a bad feeling, with gratitude, then it finally leaves us alone, as Louis C.K. discovered…
Like Louis said, because we don’t want to feel that first little bit of sad, we never feel completely sad or completely happy.
So the secret to having power over your emotions (unfortunately) is simply having the courage to feel them.
That’s all they want.
Why You Can’t Solve Emotionality with Thoughts
Stoic philosophy can lead to stubbornness, where you force yourself to respond logically while judging your emotionality and pushing it down.
While we do have a Will and the power to choose, it’s not possible to get your thoughts underneath your emotion. Your emotional centre is literally underneath your logical cortex, and closer to your brain stem.
Your thoughts arise from your emotions.
Think of someone you hate. How easy is it to think about that person (about what they did, what you should say to them, why they’re wrong, etc)? For most of us, it’s hard not to, if not impossible.
A single suppressed emotion can give rise to thousands of thoughts.
You could try to snip off an unwanted thought, but three more will immediately take its place. It’s tough to chop through the base of a tree, but that’ll kill it a lot surer than trying to prune it to death.
Hawkins found, with both him and his patients, that it’s often difficult to remember an emotion after you’ve truly let go of it, for the simple reason that you stop thinking about it. Once it has been surrendered, the vast mass of thoughts that used to accompany it evaporate… never to return.
The “Scale of Consciousness”
Hawkins was quite different to other recent “spiritual teachers” like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. Hawkins’ approach was as scientific as one can be with this sort of stuff.
He even put a numerical scale to the subjective experience of consciousness that people have.
The scale runs from a hair’s breadth from death at 01 (deep shame and self-loathing, the lowest you can be without literally losing the will the live) to the highest state humanly possible at 1,000.
If you’re any bit as rationally-inclined as me, your bullsh*t “woo-woo” radar will be going off already. Just trust me — this theory is transformative.
And it’s certainly just a theory. Hawkins himself occasionally reminded his audiences and readers that his scale is purely arbitrary. It’s superimposed upon the phenomenon of consciousness just as the scale of Fahrenheit is superimposed upon the phenomenon of temperature.
There’s only so far we can go down this rabbit hole in one article, and I want to keep this useful for the skeptic.
So let’s get practical…
The Mechanism of Letting Go
Have you ever snapped your attention onto a creepy sound in the night, only to notice it was just a cat or something, and then laugh?
That tension is of course from fear, on the lower end of the scale. You realised the source of that feeling wasn’t real. Suddenly the whole thing became ridiculous, and you let it go. It felt good.
Think about the last time you made up with your significant other. Unless you love to harbour sourness, making up feels incredible. That’s because both of you decide to let go of the anger and pride the argument came from, and a happiness radiates out from the space.
A big part of Hawkins’ teachings is that it’s possible to let anything go. Deeper things simply take more time, and are more difficult to part with.
I read his book Letting Go: The Pathway to Surrender, about 18 months ago now. I started using the technique on shallow feelings that I didn’t want.
The results were immediate and wonderful…
1. Social anxiety
The first time I used letting go to improve my social life, I was out with a group of people I considered a little “above” me in the scheme of things.
I wanted them to like me, but I noticed I wasn’t being my most sociable self.
I identified the anxiety, accepted the possibility that I’ll put my foot in my mouth and earn their contempt, and felt a pleasant tingling sensation run down my scalp and back.
Immediately I started cracking jokes and joining in.
2. Childish anger
Once, while I was visiting my family, I woke up late and didn’t do some important task I had on my list.
The family had planned a day-trip and the specific time had passed me by until 30 minutes beforehand when my mum came in to inform me.
I snapped at her, triggered by the anger at still being treated like the “baby” of the family and not being involved in plans. A few minutes later, I reflected that maybe I was projecting the anger I felt towards myself for my procrastination.
I started allowing the anger to “wear itself out” as we set off down the street. It gradually subsided, and I had a great day. By dinner I had forgotten about it so completely that I was a little shocked when I managed to recall it!
3. Overcoming “bullying”
I use air-quotes because the “bully” was the dog of a new flatmate. It had a troubled past, and didn’t like men. As luck would have it, we also met under stressful circumstances, so he got it in his canine brain that I was an enemy.
I started off handling it well, making an effort to help him relax. But when I returned to the flat after two or three weeks traveling and he was still barking fiercely at me, I lost all willingness to help.
I grew hateful, and felt righteously justified after I had tried to help for more than a month. I could not simply “let go” of the anxiety I felt when approaching my home, like I had in the other two examples. The feeling felt stickier, even though its source was objectively just as pointless.
Then I realised that I got a pleasure out of my hatred towards the dog.
Suddenly I was hit with the ludicrous nature of a fully grown man self-righteously gripping to vindictiveness towards a mere pet, and as a result doing nothing to improve this bad domestic situation.
Upon this realisation, both the anger and the anxiety evaporated, and I felt a familiar pleasant wave of tingling down my scalp and back. The emotion was gone, and I went with him and his owner on their next walkies. When we got home, he took the ball up to the feet of our other (male) flatmate — a heartwarming sign. As for my anxiety, it never came back as strongly, and when it did, it was easy to let go of. It had lost its “stickiness”.
The Tipping-Point Realisation: “I’m Getting Pleasure From This!”
It’s a hard thing to accept, but all negative positions bring with them a sort of gratification.
I was once told by someone very close to me that I love my problems.
She was right. And I’m not the only one.
It’s easy to see the pleasure you get out of Pride or Anger. These are both quite high on the scale. They’re still in the red zone, but they’re a world apart from the despair of Shame at the bottom.
It’s much harder to accept that even things like shame, self-loathing, guilt and hopelessness also give the ego a sick kind of pleasure.
Think of the ego as the animal brain. As someone trained in biology, I can more easily accept that the mind would be wired to feel drawn to any mental state that keeps you far away from doing something as evolutionarily disastrous as setting yourself on fire in non-violent protest…
…or simply choosing to be celibate. As far as your genes are concerned, both are equally terrible.
So the “need” to reproduce and acquire resources leads the ego to want our mental state high enough so we’re not a blubbering, self-hating wreck thinking about suicide. But it also doesn’t want us so high that we actually start to “love our enemies” or say “no” to taking advantage of a drunk chick.
This back-and-forth balancing act is why the lowest levels feel so terrible, and yet we somehow “love” the self-pity, the self-criticism, and the self-righteous judgmentalism that keep us there.
How I’m Using All This to Tackle Self-Sabotage
As we’ve covered, letting go of emotion is simple, and sometimes as easy as a passing thought. If you’re feeling a little social awkwardness, just think about making a bit of a boob of yourself, and accept that.
If you suffer from chronic social anxiety, however, it won’t be as easy as that. You’re dealing with a complex of multiple repressed and suppressed emotions.
For me, self-sabotage is my “big demon”. I believe it comes from repressed Shame (which I could only find by how it manifested in life, since it’s subconscious), and a lot of attachment to Apathy.
The “juice” I get from the apathy in particular is extremely difficult to let go of. I know logically that the satisfaction I get from rebelling against my goals is just as ridiculous as my past vindictiveness against the flatmate’s dog, but it’s much, much deeper. Letting go of it feels like giving up everything in life I’m used to. It’s fear of the unknown turned up to 11, because I’m not even sure I know who I will be if I truly give up apathy towards achievement.
Ultimately, even if my life sucks, I want it that way.
Removing compulsive self-sabotage, then, becomes a tremendous leap of faith.
A Memory of Ecstasy Keeps Me Going
At the start of this year (2016), I was flat broke. Surviving on potatoes and millet for 8 days straight, I was down to my last pennies (literally) before I got an advance on a freelance job and went out immediately for a burger.
Every day I woke at 5am and worked from 6 to 6 at least. I was sure so much work would break me, but instead, around day five I started to feel occasional shots of euphoria. Life felt wonderful, and the world looked beautiful and full of endless possibility.
I believe I felt myself move up from my current “level of consciousness” (Neutrality) to the next (Willingness). Unfortunately, I was not able to maintain it. Although I was forced to put all my self-sabotage to one side for a week by a very real and very serious external pressure, I hadn’t truly surrendered it. As soon as I had money for food and rent once again, I slipped back into neutral.
However, that feeling is still strong in my memory. It fuels my faith that it is possible to change your mental state.
It’s possible to raise yourself, but if you want it long-term, there’s a lot you’ll need to let go of…