Your brain is the most complex structure in the known universe
Within our skulls resides the single most complex system in the known universe and the majority of us never learn how to use it. Our brains are comprised of about 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion connections, about 15 functional areas (depending on how you look at it) and yet no one helps us learn how to use it.
It is my opinion that we should be provided (free of charge) owner’s manuals for our brains. I also feel that basic high school curriculum should also include intensive training on how to work with our own brains. Learning to be aware of and have control over our own thought processes is one of the greatest tools we can have at our disposal.
But today I am not going to talk much about the brain, I am going to talk about the mind that lives within it.
Knowing how to work with your mind is much more important than understanding all of the technical aspects of your brain.
As an example; you don’t need to be a great automotive mechanic in order to be a great driver. In fact knowing how to operate the systems within your car is much more important to driving success than knowing the technical details. You could be the best mechanic in the world but if you don’t know how to operate the brakes, gas pedal and steering controls and signals you will still won’t know how to drive.
Think of this post as a introductory guide on how to operate your brain rather than a detailed discription of how your brain works.
Your thoughts have physical power
As hokey as it sounds your thoughts have great power over your body but in case you need convincing I have a demonstration.
This is no trick and requires no sleight of hand. It is just a simple demonstration of the power of your thoughts, you can also demonstrate it on your friends.
Imagine that you have half of a cold, ripe lemon in your hand. Close your eyes and picture that lemon, see it’s color, feel its weight and smell the lemony fragrance. Squeeze the lemon and imagine the cold juice running between your fingers.
Now envision putting that lemon to your mouth and taking a massive bite, imagine its sour taste blasting through your mouth and overwhelming your taste buds. If you try hard enough I bet you can actually taste the sourness.
If you really worked at imagining the image your mouth is probably flooding with saliva. I know my mouth waters every time I read this part of the post.
Such is the power of your mind over your body.
Remembering traumatic experiences can bring about many of the same physical symptoms as the original incident. This includes the release of chemicals such as cortisol, and adrenaline. These chemicals cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of stress.
Remembering happy and joyful situations also reawakens many of the same sensations and causes your body to release chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. which help you feel relaxed and happy.
The big take away here is that you need to be mindful of your thoughts and when you catch yourself having negative thoughts immediately turn your thinking to more positive things.
The power of your subconscious thoughts can work for you or against you.
The vast majority of people have no idea how to use the power of their subconscious minds. The truly sad part is that the great power that is at our fingertips is always working, but if we don’t know how to use our subconscious mind it can easily work against us.
We all know people who struggle with fears and habits that negatively impact their lives. These people might never travel because they are afraid of flying, these people are always lonely because they are crippled by a fear of rejection, these people are morbidly obese because they cannot create an appropriate relationship with food and these people are unhappy because they can’t figure out what to do with their lives. There are also those people who don’t do much because they are stuck in a rut and don’t know what to do anyway.
People who don’t know how to work with their own minds suffer, and the people around them suffer just as much. Issues like obesity, depression, anxiety and loneliness are not individual concerns. They are family issues and they are community issues.
But there are a select few people who have learned to work with their subconscious minds and thoughts, these are the people who do great things in life, they have the success and balance that the rest of the world envies.
“If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world” – Paulo Coelho
The secret to working with your subconscious mind is to consciously give it direction. Try mindfulness meditation, positive affirmations and creative visualization.
There is one single element that outweighs all others
At the heart of all of our habits and actions there is only one driver;
All people are hard-wired to move away from pain and toward pleasure.
You will instinctively move away from things that you find painful and uncomfortable and you will move toward things you enjoy. You didn’t choose this response and you probably are not even aware of it but you were hard-wired this way; we all were.
For thousands of years our aversion to pain served mankind well. Physical pain was an indicator that something was wrong and we needed to do something about it.
In modern society we don’t deal with much physical pain any more, we deal with emotional and mental pain. However our subconscious minds are unable to distinguish mental pain from physical pain, nor can they tell the difference between imagined pain from real pain. As a result we avoid things we perceive as painful and we gravitate toward the things that we think will cause us pleasure.
The crazy thing is that the majority of the pain and pleasure is all in our minds. The thought of standing on a cliff makes many people sick, other people enjoy it, the thought of speaking in front of a huge crowd scares some people and excites others. The majority of excitement and fear exists only in our minds and unfortunately most of us are way better imagining the negative than the positive consequences of our behaviours.
Most people spend a lot of energy reacting to imaginary pain that never comes to pass.
Five hundred years ago, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened”.
For a more scientific overview of the relationship between pleasure and pain check out this link to an article from Columbia University.
But the real problem with pain isn’t the unnecessary discomfort that comes from constant worry. The real problem is that we often associate pain and discomfort with the things that are good for us; we associate studying with effort, exercise with hard work and a diet with starvation. We also associate pleasure with the things that are bad for us, such as alcohol, junk food and a sedentary life style.
As I said earlier avoiding imagined pain has huge impact on our lives. We imagine the terrible consequences of a plane crash so we avoid flying. We imagine the pain of public embarrassment so we avoid public speaking, we imagine the pain of rejection so we never ask that attractive person at the health club out on a date. Instead we trade our quality of life for a television screen and a box of cookies.
In fact people are extremely good at trading small pleasures in the present for huge pain later in life.
Examples of these behaviours include indulging in a bad diet today that results in obesity and illness in the future, poor spending habits in the present that result in a lack of a retirement fund later on in life and smoking today that causes multiple illnesses at a later time.
The list goes on and on but one thing is clear; if you want to realise success on the far side of fifty you have to learn how to change your relationship with both pleasure and pain. You need to understand how your moment to moment decisions are effected by pleasure and pain and use that to your advantage.
Tony Robbins has been quoted as saying;
“The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.”
To see a great YouTube video from Tony about Pain and Pleasure click here.
Learn to work with your brain (the true secret to success)
Our subconscious mind has no ability to distinguish imagination from reality. That is why reliving a negative experience that happened years ago still brings up the same physical reactions and emotions that you felt at the time. That is also why vividly imagining some negative future event can also bring about negative physical and emotional reactions.
Through years of practice we all groove our imaginations to work for us or against us. As you have heard me say many times; your thoughts create neural pathways and the more we think those thoughts the stronger those neural pathways become. People who have grooved their ability to relive past negative experiences can actually strengthen those pathways so much that they can become crippled by them. Similarly people who have grooved their ability to catastrophize future events are also crippled by their imaginations.
They have taught themselves to focus on, and avoid, potential pain rather than possible pleasure. This life limiting approach can be harmful to the extreme.
However you can take control of how your subconscious views pleasure and pain and use it to your advantage. Although it is rarely talked about I believe all very high performers have learned this skill. Marines call this “learning to embrace the suck” which is simply another way of learning to pull pleasure from pain.
Case in point; I love to climb mountains and yet the process of climbing a mountain is difficult and painful. I carry a heavy back pack and my legs burn like fire on the steep uphill climbs. I often get nicks, cuts, scratches and blisters. I am usually physically and mentally exhausted by the time I reach the summit.
Yet I love climbing. I have learned to enjoy pushing through the pain. In fact the more it hurts the better I like it. I have learned to control the discomfort rather than letting the discomfort control me.
As I climb I imagine the view at the top, I imagine the feeling of accomplishment, I can taste the fresh mountain air and feel the exhilaration. While I climb I ignore the pain and focus on the pleasures of the moment, the trees, the wind, the wild life and the joyous feeling I get from simply being in nature. During the tough patches there is always something to feel great about.
I have learned to turn pain into pleasure. I have learned to embrace the suck.
I use this same mentality in all aspects of my life. Writing blogs and books takes effort, preparing to give key-note speeches is work, coaching clients through difficult times can be exhausting and I have learned to love it all. I employ constant positive self talk to maintain my motivation and output.
The secret to success is learning to control your relationships with pleasure and pain. You can learn to use your primal reactions the major drivers of your life to your best possible advantage.
Now that I have explained why you need change your relationship with pain and pleasure, I will explain how to do it.
How to use your subconscious to create more success in your life.
If you want to learn to work with your brain you need to know there are three basic elements involved with our internal communications; the pictures we make in our minds, the words we say to ourselves and the emotions we attach to those pictures and those words.
It all starts with becoming aware of our inner dialog. Think about a goal that you have been trying to achieve and review your inner dialog about it. What are the pictures, words and emotions you attach to that goal. Are they positive or negative? Are they limiting or freeing? Are they helping or hurting your progress?
If you associate pain with achieving your goal you will have a difficult time achieving it. If you think of going on a diet as deprivation and starvation you will have to rely on sheer willpower to accomplish your goal. But will power always runs out. There is a limit to the strength of our willpower and when our willpower runs out we give in to temptation.
Sticking to the diet analogy, temptation is always there, always waiting. Temptation is patient and relentless. The snacks are in the cupboard; all we have to do is go get them. When willpower runs out all we have to do is walk to the cupboard and indulge yourself (knowing that you will have to live with the guilt afterward).
But if you use the pictures in your head and the words you say to yourself to attach pain to eating the snacks you get a different result. Instead of attaching pain to not having that tasty snack waiting in the cupboard imagine the pain that you will get if you eat it. Feel the guilt and the shame, vividly imagine the long-term results if you continue eating the unhealthy foods, think about being confined to a wheel chairs, afflicted with diabetes or stricken with heart disease. Vividly associate pain and discomfort to the eating the junk food.
You must also learn to attach pleasure to eating a healthy, wholesome diet. Think of yourself as lean, fit, sexy and healthy. Imagine the great taste of fresh fruit and vegetables. Imagine the pride you will feel when people comment about how great you look!! Some people use the saying; “nothings tastes as good as thin feels”.
Use your words, your pictures and your emotions to attach pleasure to the things you want in your life and pain to the things you don’t in your life.
It is critical that you learn to feel the pleasure and the pain right now and make it as real as you can possibly imagine.
You can learn to use the pictures you make in your head, the words to say to yourself and the emotions attached to those pictures and words to control your relationship with pleasure and pain. If you can control that relationship you can literally accomplish anything that you choose to.
As a final quick story I would like to tell you about a lady I worked with who I will call Jan. She was told by her Doctor that if she didn’t change her diet and get some exercise she would be in for serious health issues (she was already a diabetic). The problem is that her Doctor told her what to do, not how to do it. She tried going to a personal trainer who was very knowledgeable about exercise but was not well acquainted with the science of motivation.
The problem was that Jan hated working out. She hated the stress, strain and sweat and she was very self-conscious about going to a gym. Without help Jan was going to be in a lot of trouble, so I agreed to provide some assistance.
First we looked at things that Jan enjoyed doing. It turns out that she liked being outside and she loved flowers. Coincidently the building she worked in was very close to a public garden so Jan agreed to start walking through the garden at lunch time. This got her some physical activity and began teaching her to attach something she liked (flowers and gardens) to something she didn’t like (working out).
After a week or so of success we decided to take it to the gym. To make that transition easier we did two things;
When Jan went in to the gym alone she would listen to outdoor sounds on her headphones. The sounds of birds, waves and wind allowed her to continue to associate something she liked with working out. The sounds that Jan heard through her headphones reminded her to attach positive words, pictures and emotions to her work outs.
Jan also agreed to say hello to one person in the gym every day. As she got to know the people around her Jan became less and less self-conscious and began to enjoy working out a little more every day. I did not do these things for Jan, she did them all for herself. As a coach one of my key roles is to create independence in my clients.
Jan’s internal dialog slowly shifted from one of “I hate working out” to “working out isn’t so bad” and with time and effort she will get to “I love working out.” When she gets to the “I love working out” stage she will require zero willpower to keep going, in fact she will become a role model for others and an advocate for exercise.
As a conclusion to the story I wish I could say that Jan lost all of her weight, cured all of her illness and is now running marathons, but I can’t. She still has a long way to go in her life but she now has the tools that she needs in order to get there.
So my friends; what is your relationship with pleasure and pain? Are you using it to your advantage or is it working against you?
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As always thanks for reading and have a great week.