12/15 2018

Changing the Past Tristan Johns

Our brains seem to be designed with a focus on the present. We don't need to know the future (we like to guess), and we don't need to remember all of our past (we fill in and forget many details), but the present is something our brains want to feel certain about. This is an important characteristic when attempting to improve our handle on the brain. Just like any tool, learning to use the brain properly is more important than flat-out using it. Now I'm not talking about improving specific brain functions, such as mathematics or reading, but more of an improvement on the general operations. You could think of this general operation similarly to weather conditions. Different conditions ebb and flow, sometimes heavy rain, lightning, and sometimes sunshine. By improving our understanding of these mental states, we can better prepare ourselves for the transition between "weather conditions".

I'd like to look at how the brain deals with change, and how we can best adapt the brain to handle change. As mentioned previously, our focus is on the present. We have little preparation when it comes to many new events, and we must react to them in the moment. And once we have responded to the event, our reaction is essentially set in stone. It is clear our time of action is always in the now. We have to react to events on the fly and accept that once it is over that is what happened. We can't change the events or responses after the fact. This may leave us unsatisfied, or desiring more. This desire is essentially useless if it is only manifested as regret and anguish for past events. Even if we can't change the past, there is one thing left for us that we can change; the brain. The brain is the thing that does the reacting, and even if we missed a chance in the past, there will be more events to respond to. By improving on the quality of our mental state, we are honing our ability to respond to future events.

When I say "mental state" or "neural weather conditions", I'm basically talking about the thoughts one has when at rest. We are often not conscious to all the thinking that our brains do in the moment. That'd be simply overwhelming. It appears necessary to have idle "unconscious thinking", but I believe it's just as necessary to grow an awareness of this idle thinking. For example, we may see something (an event) that rubs us the wrong way. We don't acknowledge the thought when it happens (because we're busy reacting), so the rest of our day is spent walking around in this fog of negative thinking. The thought was not properly acknowledged, and so it loops in the back of our minds, even if the event is no longer relevant. This type of loop or halting problem can leech our motivation and attitude, which is critical to all of our functions. How dare we let a tiny fight at work ruin our night with family? From this we can see that understanding and improving our mental state can affect nearly our entire lives.

With the importance of cultivating our mental state established, how are we to go about it? I am not going to be addressing specific practices in this article. There are simply too many (possible) effective methods that have been developed over time, and I would surely fail at explaining them all perfectly. Instead, I would like to emphasize the importance of long-term persistence in re-visitation of whatever method you employ. Philosophy particularly is something to be lived instead of consumed and forgotten. It's a day to day act, that when applied through contemplation or virtue will slowly change your perspective, and therefore subconscious thoughts and behavior. Many other things can do the same thing, such as meditation and exercise.

The important part is to make it a consistent part of your lifestyle. Think of it like a muscle, and try to get to know it. Learn the cycles you go through and strive to be better by addressing what you can improve and learn how to improve it consistently. This is the only thing we can do in the present if we are to prevent the past from repeating.

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