Mental Action

Chapter 11
Struck Dumb

Though you can't remember your first months of life, there's one thing you know: you cried a lot. Adults spent many frustrating moments trying to figure out what you were crying about this time. When too hot, you cried; when too cold, you cried. Too wet, you cried; too dry, you cried. Too empty, cry; too full, cry. Frightened, cry; angry, cry. You had one response to unease, and you left it up to others to sort out the reasons for all that noise.

Once you developed the as-if method of sorting things out, one obvious application was to sort out your feelings. You had a powerful incentive. Being specific was a better way to get what you wanted. But you encountered a big obstacle. In order to sort out bad feelings, you have to feel them.

Psychological clichés about the difficulty of introspection have their origin in this simple fact. In order to sort out mental actions, you have to sort out the feelings that go along with them. Some of those feelings are bad. In order to sort out bad feelings, you have to feel them. Instead of learning how to sort out feelings, some kids learn to avoid sorting out feelings. They form a habit of evasion. Later, as adults, they find what seems an insurmountable wall hiding their mental processes. When they ask, "How did I come to that conclusion?" the answer is, "Somehow." So they say, "Well, that's just the way my mind works. I'm stuck with it." What does "stuck with it" really mean? It means stuck with being dumb.

Let's apply our analytical method: think of sorting out physical objects on a table. But this time the objects squirm and wriggle. Put spiders in one pile, worms in another pile, and snakes in a third pile. What? You decline? But that's evasion—refusing to sort things out.

Fortunately, abstract things don't bite. You can mentally sort out spiders and snakes without danger. The as-if method can insulate you as needed from the nastier aspects of the things you sort out—in all cases save one. That one case is your own inner feelings. To identify your own mental agony is to fully feel that agony.

What an irony! You decide that you would suffer less if you could figure things out better, so you set out to inspect your mental methods. Standing in your way is every scary emotion and painful feeling you've ever suppressed. You have a choice: go on suffering the bad feelings of the present, or go back and suffer through all the bad feelings you thought you escaped in the past. No wonder so many people ignore free will and pretend they have no control over the workings of the mind.

It is the fear of facing past emotional turmoil that makes some people incapable of introspection, and therefore resigned to being less smart than they want. They assume they are stuck—stuck dumb. Their minds step carefully through the minefield of reality, trying to avoid the snake pit called "fury", or the spider's nest called "hate". Worst of all is that horrid pulsating pile of unidentified evil impulses hoping to be sorted out so that they can get organized and take over. To confront an evil impulse is, supposedly, to fall under its sway. The mere threat is paralyzing; all mental processes are organized around keeping the beasts at bay.

Before we give up and resign ourselves to being stuck dumb, however, we should acknowledge that there do exist people who would sit down at our table in front of the squirming pile of critters, and nonchalantly reach in and grab a hairy leg and begin sorting spiders from worms from snakes. We see such people on television. They know how to handle spiders, how to pick up snakes, how to manage worms. They are familiar with such things; they understand the worth of such things; they are not repulsed or frightened.

Is it possible to confront emotions that way—without fear or revulsion? It is not only possible, it's normal.

Real children really do sort physical things out. As a child, you did enjoy doing that. One reason you enjoyed it was the play of emotions that went with it. Every object brought with it a feeling. The teddy bear made you feel one way; the box that pinched your finger made you feel another way. The completed model made you feel one way; the train that never worked made you feel another way. Sorting out playthings was an adventure, with peril and triumph, up feelings and down feelings. Had you known how, you would have enjoyed sorting out the emotions themselves, savoring each one as you went.

Children, however lack self-control. An impulse to hit produces an attempt to hit. They have to learn, painfully, that choice is possible. It is not self-evident that impulses to action present a choice rather than a command. Free will is not switched on at birth; it develops along with everything else as a child matures. Alas, while we are teaching our children how to tie shoes and button buttons, we often neglect to teach them about choice. We punish them for hitting, but neglect to tell them that the impulse to hit was not a command, but a choice. We inadvertently teach them that the impulse was wrong, instead of the action.

If you now have trouble sorting out your own mental actions, that's where the problem is. Mental actions are real actions. They require effort, they make a difference. They involve the whole self, including the emotions. If you are convinced that bad emotions are evil, that nasty urges are irresistible, that anything felt must be expressed, that you are judged by your feelings instead of your actions—then, by now, you have built what you hope is an impenetrable wall screening off your mental actions from scrutiny.

The joke, however, is on you. The screen conceals your mental actions and inner feelings from you yourself, but not from others.

Mental actions are real. They take energy, and result in changes, just like any other actions. If you take the physical action of throwing a football, it might break a window next door. You could tell your neighbor that you didn't throw the ball, but you could not claim that the window is intact. Your physical action produced a change, and the change is evident to all. So are the changes produced by your mental actions. If, for example, you reflect on the other neighbor with the barking dog, you feel angry. Bio-chemical changes take place in your body. Your face flushes. Your muscles tighten. Your spouse says, "What are you mad at?"

If you say, "I'm not mad," you yourself might believe it. If you have the habit of not sorting out your mental states, then you don't identify what's happening. Your spouse, though, is not sorting out inner feelings, but outer reality. You are standing there, fists clenched, face flushed, breathing fast, saying, "I'm not mad." You might as well be claiming that a broken window is intact.

To conceal their dreaded emotions, many people go to great lengths. They learn how to convert fast breathing into asthma, flushed faces into acne, clenched muscles into high blood pressure. In other words, they run to the neighbor and say, "Did you feel that earthquake? Look! It broke your window!" Neighbors, therapists, and friends are not usually fooled.

When somebody says, "But I don't want to know how my mind works!" the easiest answer is, "Why not? Everybody else knows."

Anybody interested can learn to sort out your mental processes, your emotions, and your secret urges. They have only to observe your efforts at concealment. Real things do not become invisible because somebody orders them to. You may, at a high cost in effort, succeed in fooling others for a time. But you cannot count on it. You can only count on fooling yourself.

Is this bad news? No, it's good news. It means that psychotherapists can identify repression. It means that a habit of evasion can be changed. It means that friends can help you sort out your mental actions. It means that you can spend all the time you need learning how to handle spiders, snakes, and worms—and they'll be there when you get ready.

Should you get ready? Well, they'll be there in any case.

Your feelings—good and bad—have many useful functions. They can't take the place of the conceptual method, but they can energize it, enliven it, and ennoble it. They provide proof to you that your mental actions are real actions, with real consequences. They make sorting out your mental actions an exciting experience.

The secret of handling inner urges is to realize that they are not commands, but choices. Anger gets you ready for action, but you decide what the action is. An impulse to hit is a muscular event, but not a hit. The point of watching a horror movie is to be scared but not run away.

To accept being stuck dumb, you must believe that you are truly stuck. But the evidence keeps telling you otherwise. You find that others know your secrets. Your doctor calls your hypertension "psychogenic". Your spouse tells you to let out your feelings. Your friends kid you for "always dodging that subject." You begin to think that everybody can see what's wrong with your mind except you.

Well, of course. Just like everybody can see what's wrong with your tennis game except you. Just like everybody can hear what's wrong with your singing except you. Just like everybody can tell what's wrong with your sales presentation except you.

The habit of concealing from yourself your own actions is not a trivial inconvenience, but a life-threatening disaster. The only way anyone can "live with" an inability to introspect is to pretend that mental actions are not real. Doing that puts you in the position of letting your life be steered by a guidance system that is not even real to you, let alone controlled by you.

Introspection is a fancy word for a simple action: watching what you do. Any habit that makes it hard to watch what you do is a habit to be changed right now, no matter what it takes. The surrender that begins with stuck dumb leads to stuck deaf and stuck blind—and then stuck dead.

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