Building The Mind To Think, Do, And Be Better
When I was a child I experienced nightmares on a regular basis. I can’t count the number of times I died in my dreams as a kid. When I would die there would be a joker-like figure who met me at the gates of wherever the afterlife was and told me I had just died. Almost like a video game, but I didn’t play video games. The nightmares ranged from spiders crawling all over me, a possessed vacuum that would suck out my voice box, ghosts, and all sorts of generally scary events. I hated going to sleep.
Around the age of 6 I thought this was garbage. I’d had enough. Why am I at the mercy of my mind? After all it’s my mind that is producing the dreams so I should be able to stop it. And that’s what I set out to do. Before going to sleep I’d watch my mind and where it took me. I observed it for a long time. As it started to take me to those dark places, while still awake but in bed, I would hijack my mind with happier thoughts. This was challenging. It was like I was having my first battles for the mind.
These happy thoughts usually revolved around sports; me playing in world cup soccer or winning Wimbledon. Those were my happy places. Sometimes my happy places weren’t enough. The dark side of my mind would try and draw me back over. I remember at times needing to “fuzz” my mind. Essentially make it blank. As a child I equated this to the salt and pepper fuzzing screen on a television with no aerial signal. This would work.
I still had nightmares but as I started on this journey they began to dwindle. Eventually I stopped dreaming all together. Or at least I stopped remembering the dreams. Every once in a while I’d have a nightmare come back but they’d be few and far in between. I’d started to learn that it was I who could control, or at least had the ability to steer, my mind. As I got older I also learned how to identify when I was dreaming and managed to wake myself up in the middle of a nightmare. Sometimes right before or as I was dying in a dream. Those were scary moments but I got through it.
The battle of the mind is one that never ends while living. After all, it’s the voice inside our head that never seem to shuts up. The mind is the “first principle”, ground zero, in solving all of our thought problems. A lot of people are afraid to confront their mind and treat it as something that can be changed. Perhaps they’re afraid of damaging it and would rather float down whatever river of thoughts it conjured up. Part of you is your mind. Your mind makes or at least interprets your thoughts. You are your thoughts. You think therefore you are.
“Your entire life runs on the software in your head. Why wouldn’t you obsess over optimizing it?” — Tim Urban
The mind and thinking are complex topics. To me thinking feels like a blend between the physical world and something beyond ourselves. There is no escaping the fact that your thinking is influenced by your body and environment. A traumatic brain injury, unfortunately, forever changes a person’s life and their ability to think. The brain is that vessel for the thoughts and it influences them. It’s a complex organ, which I understand less than zero percent.
Our environment shapes our thinking processes. We draw from previous experiences. The mind takes in stimulus from the body’s senses to learn about the environment and make behavioural decisions. A lot of the time I don’t think we’re aware of the stimulus the body is receiving. From that stimulus it can make unconscious decisions on our behalf. These commonly used thought patterns are developed and shaped over time. The more we use those patterns the stronger they become and can shift from being conscious choices to unconscious ones. We can also shift unconscious thought patterns to the conscious mind by becoming aware of them again.
My current mission is to post about thinking, doing, and being better while I’m busy figuring it out. The reason I start with thinking is because it leads into everything else. Your thinking influences your actions (doing) which ultimately determines who you are (being). Thinking is your being’s foundation. Thinking is living.
What does think better, do better, and be better even mean? I have an initial idea but I’m sure the concepts and meaning to me will evolve with time. Also, what this phrase ends up meaning to you will be different because you’re unique. Better is generally defined as an improvement where you are happy and satisfied with the changed result. In order to improve, change, and understand your thinking you must first bring objective awareness to your thoughts.
“We say that we want peace of mind but what we really want is peace from mind.” — Naval Ravikant
When I was around the age of 16 I came to the conclusion that “perspective is everything”. It had occurred to me that my perspective was my reasoning and that if I just changed it I could change me. And so I started to put this into practice. I called this “perspective is everything” epiphany part of my thought pillars growing up.
Perspective is the lens by which we look at the world. We believe ours is the most true because it’s our own. It’s our truth. We collectively see this every day in the actions of others and the thinking that results, almost automatically. Perspective acts like a mirror for you. By becoming aware of your perspectives you become aware of yourself. Start to challenge your automatic responses and work to see things for what they are.
This thought then lead to me realizing that expectations are a cause of unhappiness. If I don’t hold an expectation then I can’t be let down. It’s the let down that creates the negative feelings. Attachment to the expectation and then the separation from that expectation when it doesn’t occur causes the suffering. I remember telling my friend during a tennis practice about my idea that we shouldn’t have expectations on outcomes. Her reaction to the idea was that it was a sad way to live. It might have been my explanation of the concept but I thought it was a bit ironic.
The best people who can help you think better are the professionals. The experts who study psychology, cognitive behaviour therapy, and related areas are worth consulting. The best ones have thousands and thousands of hours of practice and experience. I have zero. Keep this in mind as you read through this piece. They will help you help yourself.
Our thoughts are where all of our future progress will begin from. A lot of the time our thoughts get in our own way. For example, the “this is how I’ve done it and it’s who I am” mentality. Or the “well I went through it this way, so you have to go through it too”. No. No. No. This must stop. I don’t have a word for this kind of thinking but the phrase I like to use is legacy thinking. When there is a better way then that becomes the way. Let it go and get a move on.
Thinking better to me means that I’m doing it with an awareness of my perspective, attitude, and rationality. Not all my thoughts are this way, and that’s okay. Thoughts just pop up after all. The most important point to internalize is that you can change your thoughts. You are not stuck with them. It takes an active effort and for everyone it will be different, but you can do it.
“Thoughts become perception, perception becomes reality. Alter your thoughts, alter your reality.” — William James
Our thoughts can ultimately become our actions. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice and other times it feels like you had no choice at all. Someone says “what were you thinking?” to which you reply “I honestly don’t even know”. Sound familiar? Thinking better provides the path for doing better. After all, you eventually step into the consequences of your actions. Even 30 years down the line, good or bad.
There’s this mindset that if you have the option of doing better then you weren’t good enough before. Like there is something currently wrong or broken with you. People that generally experience this common feeling will protect against any change for the better. In fact, their perspective on doing better is that it’s simply not possible. They’ve reached their peak and choose to live there, rather than growing their mountain. For some this will never change. They already know it all, or so they think. They’ve found the “right” way and can settle into it now. Truth is everyone can do better but not everyone wants to and that’s okay.
There is not a definite peak. The peak is always one move ahead. I think this is discouraging to a lot of people. However, I find the idea that I’ll never be at my “peak” freeing and exciting. By taking on this perspective I’m able to make mistakes and keep growing as a person without feeling obligated to perfection. The view of looking at yourself as right or perfect traps you. There’s no room to grow from there. This can provide a false sense of comfort and stability to the person who believes it. That’s okay, however, there’s no doing better if you take this mindset.
Mindsets can change. I was privileged growing up to receive a few group sport psychology lessons when I was a teenager. We called it mental training. I learned more lessons in those 6 or so sessions about the mind that I could have imagined. It didn’t turn me into a star tennis player, I’m far from that. But it did introduce me to the many important principles of the mind that have spilled over into other areas of my life. The one that has always stuck with me is to focus on process, not outcome.
The way to doing better is the process of taking small positive actions everyday. Forget the outcome. You’re entitled to your labour, but not the fruits of your labour. Small actions are required. Doing better is built brick by brick, just like a house. The strength of your individual bricks is determined by the deliberate effort you put into your small actions. The bricks help you to bridge those larger gaps you have to jump over. Sort of like learning to swim. Eventually, you have to take the plunge and figure it out as you go. It does help if you’re supported. The actions need to be consistent. The power of compounding one percent better every day is underrated.
Are there specific actions that can be prescribed to do better? No, there aren’t. This is between you and you to decide. There is no answer for this outside of yourself but you can choose. Viktor Frankl is attributed to have said that between what happens to us and our response to it, there is a gap, and in that gap lies our whole experience of life. In that gap choose to think better so you can then do better, and ultimately be better.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
What on earth does this even mean? Well I don’t know exactly, but let’s dive into it.
The idea of “think better, do better, and be better” sort of just came to me when I was thinking about what I wanted to learn and create last year. Truth be told, this isn’t a niche topic and I could make content about anything. I probably will. But I also think the idea came from a poster that was in my grade 7 classroom. This poster must be more impactful than I originally thought because I still remember it to this day and exactly where it was in the classroom. It looked something like this:
Habits are actions we take repeatedly. Doing better isn’t something that is done once. It’s done consistently over time. In fact, it becomes easier with time. It’s your default state and who you are. The habits you form become your behaviours. Our actions eventually become who we are. Or at least how the world and ourselves may view us to be. So how can you be better? This is for you to decide.
I think deep down we care about who we are and how we’ll be remembered when we’re gone. Our legacy is the closest thing to impermanence that we have. The more of an impact that we create while living the more impermanent the idea of “the self” tends to be. If you’re looking for some direction on this I like to think that your purpose is for others and your passion is for yourself. Perhaps start there.
“To conquer oneself is a greater victory than to conquer thousands in a battle.” — Dalai Lama
Thanks for joining me on my journey posting about thinking better, doing better, and being better because I believe it to be of significant importance to the future. I’m still figuring it out and probably will never stop because there’s more to figure out than there is time. I used the word “building” in this post title because the process doesn’t happen over night. It’s built neuron by neuron over consistent commitment to being better.
I hope what you take away from this post isn’t prescriptive advice. There is no one way. Each individual’s perspective and experiences are different. You’ll have to find out what works for you and find your own way. What I do hope you take away from this is that your thoughts are worth examining, challenging, and refining. They lead to your actions and who you end up becoming. I wrote this post to learn and examine my life. It’s nothing that hasn’t been said before, but now I’ve said it in my way. Take it for what it is, just some thoughts.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates
I appreciate you.
Originally published at https://www.iammattholland.com on March 28, 2021.