Now that we have time to pay attention to all the parts of our lives we are always meaning to pay attention to, maybe we are going to get good at being aware–mindful is the trendy term. A central kind of awareness has to do with developing a capacity to witness what our own minds are doing. Since the mind absorbs raw data from the environment, including our own internal physical experience, and since the mind digests data in order to find meaning like the stomach digests food in order to create the body and the energy to run the body, it is useful to recognize the meanings in our lives as constructions, not necessarily as accurate representations of some kind of external truth.
Once we can realize that our felt experience–the subjective reality of what it feels like to be me–is created by the interpretations of our minds, we can be more open to the contingent nature of our moment to moments. We can tolerate the possibility that other minds have different experiences and that even our own mind might be different at different times. Instead of clinging rigidly to some ultimate “truth,” we can see the fuzzy nature of reality.
One way we can become better at witnessing our own mind states is to see them in the levels described by Bruce Perry. We have the reactive, safety-seeking first layer. Then we have the physical sensations and reactions layer. Then we have the emotional layer. And then we have the reasoning, reflective layer. We can fairly easily figure out which part of our brain/mind is active at any moment. Are we feeling overwhelmed by fear due to feeling unsafe? Then we are in a reactive mind state. Are we distracted by physical sensations, like hunger or pain? Then we are in the physical mind state. Are we mostly paying attention to our feelings and reacting to them? Then we are in the emotional state. Or are we thoughtful, problem-solving, and reflective? Then we are in the reasoning state.
What is useful about being able to see these distinctions is that we can choose how to respond to what our mind is generating. If we feel unsafe, we can seek whatever will help us feel more safe (Structure, routines, stable relationships…). If we have physical distractions, we can take care of our body needs. If we are emotional, we can deal with our feelings in ways that work for us. And if we are in the reasoning mind, we can make decisions and solve problems. The thing is, it will be better for us to do the decision making when we know we are in the reasonable part of our minds. And it will be better for us to take care of other aspects of our experience depending on what state of mind we recognize. The neat thing is, we can get better at doing that, and that allows us to make the best use of our very very advanced brainpower.