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Finding Wise Mind


To be human is to experience pain. Things beyond our immediate control happen every day. We experience pain.  Pain is transient; it doesn’t last forever. Suffering also is inevitable but it is different. Suffering happens when we think about the pain, when we don’t get what we want or want things to be different, when we don’t accept the reality of what is.

Thinking About Pain Leads to Suffering

Despite six surgeries starting when I was 20 years old, I have chronic pain in my left knee from an accident when I was 15 years old. It has dramatically changed my life in ways I would never have chosen.

There are times I have felt self-pity, wondering “why me?”  To this day, I feel shame and guilt at times for letting the accident happen, wondering how I could have made the split-second choice that changed the course of my life. I wonder what my life would have been like without the accident. As a mother, I feel guilty I wasn’t able get on the floor to play with my children when they were little.  There have been moments when I used it as an excuse to avoid exercise. I have blamed weight gain on limited mobility.  I believe my recurrent depression could be related. I fear the pain will increase as I age.  All too often, I have let these thoughts define me.

When I am clear-minded enough to notice, I recognize that the pain varies from day to day, even from moment to moment, depending on a host of factors, some I can control and some out of my control.  There are moments, even days and weeks, when I have little or no pain at all.  Other times, the pain is just there and once in a while it is excruciating.

Too often I am so busy thinking about the pain, I don’t notice the pain-free moments.  I have missed out on a lot of joy. This brain chatter – automatic, seemingly uncontrollable thoughts — exacerbate the physical pain and lead to unnecessary emotional pain.  And that is the cause of my suffering, not the pain itself.  In other words, pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

This same cycle of pain and suffering can start with a job loss, eviction, the death of a loved one, divorce, a child leaving home, violence, addiction, sickness, car accident, mental illness and many other situations.

So What Do Pain and Suffering Have To Do With Wise Mind?

Glad you asked.  Wise mind (aka the middle path) exists at the intersection of two dialectics:

  • being mind and doing mind (aka acceptance and change)
  • emotional mind and logical mind (aka reasonable mind). (I personally never use the DBT term “reasonable mind” because it implies that reason is somehow “better than” emotion. It isn’t!)

Pain is an external trigger, out of your control, at least in the immediate moment.  Suffering happens when you are out of your wise mind at one extreme or the other on one or both dialectics.

  • when emotion mind is “out of control”
  • when logical mind becomes rigid and you judge yourself and others for what they “should” be doing but aren’t
  • when doing mind thinks in overdrive or sidetracks you in mindless activity – driven doing, obsessive thinking.
  • when being mind lives in the moment without goals or direction

Emotion and Logic Mind at Their Extremes Cause Suffering

When you are functioning at the extreme of emotion mind (turquoise), you are emotionally out of control.  You may be hyper-aroused — enraged, yelling, sobbing or having panic attacks — or hypo-aroused – shutdown, dissociated, numb, withdrawn or avoidant.  Either way, you are out of control.  You are not thinking clearly. You are not responding to the pain thoughtfully out of wise mind. You are reacting to the pain by acting out or shutting down.

In the extremes of logic mind (purple), you become so rigid and rule-bound that you focus on what should be instead of what is.  You become judgmental of yourself, others and the environment.  You blame and find fault, nit-picking every detail. You may be defensive and argumentative, disputing “the facts” as you see them and defending the rightness of your logic.  You are not thinking clearly in the extremes of logic mind any more than emotion mind.  You are reacting to the pain judgmentally and defensively instead of responding thoughtfully from wise mind.

Functioning at either extreme of the dialectic increases your suffering.  It is not that either extreme is better than the other.  Both extremes cause suffering equally.  As you will read later, wise mind draws on both logic mind and emotion mind to respond thoughtfully to the painful moments in our lives.

The Extremes of Being and Doing Mind Cause Suffering

At the extreme of doing mind (green), you live on automatic pilot.  You do things without even noticing that you’re doing them. You focus so intently on your goals that you miss what’s happening right here and now.  You tell yourself I’ll notice the sunset or go for a walk when I finish this project, find someone to love, graduate from college, have a baby, buy a house, and on and on.  Every time a goal is achieved, it’s replaced with another goal, almost always at the expense of being in this moment.

Doing mind avoids emotions in busyness and mindless rumination.  At the extremes of doing mind, you have a tendency to live in your head — judging, reading others’ minds, making up stories to explain the inexplicable and interpreting reality in ways that have little or nothing to do with reality. You live in thoughts of the future and past.  It’s just brain chatter but you come to believe the stories your brain concocts. In fact, you may identify so strongly with your thoughts that they come to define you.

There are occasional moments when the brain-chatter stops — when you gasp in awe at the power of a raging mountain stream, exercise with an intensity that precludes thought and, if lucky, make love without thinking about it — but mostly, you live lost in thought at the extreme of doing mind.

At the extreme of being mind (blue), you drift aimlessly without goals or plans for the future. You can get so caught up in the moment that you have trouble committing to anything, much less getting to work on time or at all. You are curious about everything. You can sit by the side of a mountain stream for hours, fully present, noticing and being curious about every emotion, body sensation or urge that comes up.  But even monks and nuns who devote their lives to experiencing God in the moment have to clean toilets, sweep floors and cook meals a part of each day.

Oliver Burkeman, a reporter with The Guardian, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, writes about Eckhart Tolle’s years of living in extreme being mind.

“Tolle’s transformative experience, which happened in 1979, didn’t lead to instant global stardom: commercializing his insights was apparently the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, he embarked on a doctorate in Latin American literature at Cambridge. But it felt meaningless; he dropped out after a year.

”He spent the next two years in London, sleeping on friends’ sofas, and spending the days on park benches in Russell Square, or sheltering in the British Library. When money ran out, he took a temp job doing office admin for the Kennel Club. “Externally, one would have said ‘this person is completely lost’,” he says. “My mother was very upset, because in her view, I had thrown everything away. And from a logical point of view, that looked quite correct.”

“His father helped him pay for a flat, and he began to run small group teaching sessions in friends’ living-rooms. But there were many more years to come of what looked, from the outside, like drifting – including a long spell on the west coast of the United States, where he started to write The Power of Now.   It was first published in 1997, with a print run of 3,000 copies. (It would be 10 years and one Oprah endorsement later before Paris Hilton would be spotted carrying a copy on her way to jail.).”

Just as with emotion mind and logic mind, suffering increases at the extremes of doing mind and being mind.

Moving Toward The Center – Wise Mind

As you move closer to the center of the Venn diagram – closer to wise mind and synthesis of the opposite poles – you suffer less.  Toward the center of each dialectic (darkest blue), you find balance – the best of both extremes – wise mind.  Here are the positive attributes each pole brings to wise mind.

Doing Mind.  On the doing mind-being mind dialectic, doing mind specializes in thinking, planning, goal-setting and implementing plans.  Doing mind is not necessarily active.  It also includes thinking.  Whether activity or thinking, doing mind is focused on achieving goals. Doing mind is useful.  It gets things done.

Being Mind.  At the other pole of this dialectic, being mind specializes in curiosity about your mood, acceptance of what’s going on right now, and being present in the moment. It notices and accepts your experience without an agenda or judgment: It says, “Hmm … this experience is uncomfortable” It names the experience. “Oh yes, I’m feeling sad.”  It is curious about the sadness. “I wonder what that’s about?”  Being mind intentionally notices what is needed now – whether it is going for a walk, sitting with emotions or planning for the future. It is fully present in each moment.

Emotion Mind.  Our wants, needs and preferences come from emotional mind.  It is where passion arises – passion for ideas, hobbies and work. It enables us to love family and friends, spouses and children. It gives you empathy for others and compassion for yourself. Emotion mind gives purpose and meaning to life.  It motivates and lets you know what is important. Without emotion mind, you would be little more than a robot.

Logic Mind. At the other end of this dialectic, logical mind analyzes and makes sense out of complexity. It solves problems, collects data, investigates mysteries, considers options, fixes things, explores ideas and asks questions. It understands cause and effect and weighs probabilities.  It lays the groundwork to make informed decisions.

Wise Mind – Four Minds Working Together

When you are in wise mind, your four minds work together.  Your emotional mind says “I want to spend the day with my daughter.”  Logic mind explores possibilities, asks questions, gathers information and weighs options.  Doing mind coordinates with your daughter, makes informed decisions and plans the day’s activities.  When the day arrives, being mind is present with your daughter in the moment and accepts without judgment if it rains or your daughter is irritable.  Emotion mind feels love for your daughter and takes enjoyment in her presence with you.

Wise Mind Always in Motion

Like the man on the bolo in Cirque de Soleil, the point of balance between the seeming opposites is always shifting depending on the demands of the immediate situation. When emotion mind says “I want to spend time with my daughter this weekend.” Logic mind does its thing but when doing mind calls to coordinate my daughter isn’t available for weeks. I shift back into logic mind to analyze the problem and come up with possible solutions. Emotion mind is hurt. Doing mind wonders if my daughter is trying to avoid me. Logic mind checks the facts and assures doing mind that all is well.  It’s just a scheduling issue.

When we find a date, doing mind jumps back into setting goals, coordinating and making plans.  When the day arrives, being mind takes center stage while doing mind fades into the background, always ready at a moment’s notice.  When it rains, doing mind comes to the fore. When my daughter gets irritable, logic mind assures emotion mind that “it’s not about me.” Throughout the day, being mind strives to just take it all in and be present with my daughter.  In the course of the day, emotion mind feels a range of emotions from annoyance to love and contentment.

Just as the man on the bolo keeps his balance only in the moment, we humans only keep our balance between being and doing, emotion and logic – in the moment.  When we stray to one extreme or another, our suffering increases.  Wise mind brings us back to balance.

Suffering Increases When We Stray From The Center

In another version of the same example, doing mind kicks in when my daughter can’t spend time together this weekend.  I start worrying she doesn’t want to spend time with me, that I did something to make her angry, that underneath it all she hates me.  Logic mind says she “should” want to spend time with her mother and asks what’s wrong with her that she won’t make the time.  Emotional mind may start sobbing uncontrollably.  Doing mind writes an ugly email to my daughter, accusing her of all sorts of things and blaming her for ruining my weekend.  When daughter reacts in kind, emotion mind becomes enraged.  Doing mind remembers every time my daughter ever hurt me and worries that we’ll never be close again.  And so it goes.  The pain of disappointment that my daughter and I can’t spend time together this weekend has spun out of control into seemingly endless suffering.

How Do I Recognize Wise Mind?

It’s sometimes hard to recognize when we are (or are not) in wise mind.  Sometimes, the only way to recognize when we are in wise mind is by its qualities.  If the qualities are present, we’re most likely in wise mind.  If they are not, then most likely we are not.

So what are the qualities of wise mind?  First, it’s important to know wise mind represents our true self, the person we are meant to be.  It is not an idealized self against which we judge ourselves for falling short. Rather, it is our aspirational self –- the self we are striving to become but already are. Part of being in wise mind is the recognition that we are all works in progress, experimenting with how to live life as best we can.

As such, wise mind is kind and compassionate with ourselves and others. It is mindful – paying attention intentionally in the moment without judgment.  It is effective.  It does its homework and gets things done, mindful of self, others and the demands of the moment.  It accepts its thoughts, emotions and urges as mental events that do not define who we are.  It is confident without being boastful, decisive without being impulsive and self-aware without being self-absorbed.  It learns from situations gone awry, approaching each situation, good or bad, with curiosity, acceptance and validation.  It lives by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, paraphrased below.

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking this challenging world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that acceptance leads to freedom and truth.

Like a muscle, wise mind grows when we exercise it.  The more we use it, the more it grows.  In my view, the goal of all therapy is implicitly (if not explicitly) to grow our wise mind.  When we first start using wise mind, it may be difficult to access.  The more often we use it, the easier it becomes to access.

Wise Mind Accepts Our Humanity

In the end, we strive to live in wise mind as much as possible while accepting that we are human.  We inevitably fall off the bolo at times. Wise mind picks us up, dusts us off and puts us back in the game.  Sometimes we willfully move to one extreme or another.  Wise mind waits patiently until we notice there is an easier way.  Sometimes we will notice our willfulness early and sometimes we have to hit rock bottom first.  Whenever we notice, wise mind is always available to us.

In my view, there is one solid truth.  The further we are from wise mind, the more we suffer. The closer we are to wise mind, the less we suffer and the more we live in peace with ourselves, others and the world around us.

Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, sees clients at St. Louis DBT Wednesday through Friday.  She is currently taking individuals and couples as clients.

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