“Don’t freak out.” Such great advice. While we’re at it, let’s also “not get sick,” “not feel pain,” and “not die, ever.” And, please, someone tell the climate not to warm up.
Seriously, how do you not freak out? How exactly do you go about it? I mean, sometimes the world is just an unholy mess and it hurls real stinkers at you: you lose your job, you have an accident, you get seriously ill, a loved one dies. What do you do to “not freak out”? Is there anything you can do?
Well, yes. Actually, there is.
Let’s begin by taking a look at a human brain. You can think of a human brain as having two separate areas:
One is the observation deck. This is where you perceive the world. It’s where the outside world first registers in your brain:
The other is the control station. This is where the sensory inputs received at the observation deck turn into actions:
The observation deck and the control station have complementary functions. The observation deck is where inputs are perceived, while the control station is where outputs are generated. If someone insults you, that insult ends up being recognized at the observation deck. If you then shout back in anger, that’s buttons being pressed at the control station. It’s the same with hearing bad news (an input at the observation deck) and then breaking out in tears (an output at the control station); failing to reach a loved one by phone (input) and then becoming anxious (output); or feeling a wasp land on your nose (input) and then flailing with your arms in terror (output).
Both the observation deck and the control station are operated by your Primitive Self:
The Primitive Self is a mess. He has the temper of the Tasmanian Devil, the self-control of a leg-humping puppy, the sense of justice of an egomaniac, the wisdom of a newborn, and he’s more anxious than I would be on a camping trip to the zombie-infested world of The Walking Dead. But, unfortunately, he’s the one in charge of our emotions and reactions.
He’s the one standing on the observation deck watching for sensory inputs to see what’s going on out there in the world:
And he’s also the one pushing all the buttons at the control station, making you act in all sorts of self-defeating ways:
You might be asking who’s idea it was to put the Primitive Self in charge. Well, Evolution’s of course. She brought him on board millions of years ago. And back then he did a good enough job, keeping your ancestors alive long enough to reproduce. But nowadays he usually does more harm than good. And for better or worse, you’re stuck with him. Evolution hired him for life and you can’t talk to Evolution. She won’t listen and doesn’t care.
Maybe your Primitive Self is a good natured guy and you rarely freak out. That doesn’t mean your Primitive Self isn’t in control. It only means that he’s a bit more careful with the buttons he pushes. Instead of hammering down on the “shout” or “cry” button, he may just be pressing the “feel resentment” and “worry” buttons. That’s still not helpful.
Despite everything, there are two good things about the Primitive Self. First, he’s not completely irrational. It’s possible to reason with him before he gets to the control station and starts pushing buttons like a madman. Second, he can’t be at two places at the same time. It takes him a while to run from the observation deck to the control station:
It doesn’t take him long to get from one place to the other — maybe just a second or two — but with the right mental tools, it is enough time to intercept him, stop him in his tracks, and explain a few things to him before he moves on to screw up. And if he hears just the right words at the right time, he’ll operate the control station in a much more sensible way: no panic, no meltdown, no rage, no rash emotional overreactions. You’re calm and you don’t embarrass yourself.
So what are these mental tools? How do you seize the small time gap between the moment the Primitive Self perceives something and the moment he reacts to it? They are two. One is wisdom and the other is mindfulness.
Wisdom is an old wise man wearing a toga:
Let’s call him the Sage. The Sage’s job is to give good advice to the Primitive Self. If the Primitive Self hears the advice before reaching the control station, he’ll do a much better job there:
What the Sage says depends on the situation. Here are just a few examples of the sort of things he may tell the Primitive Self:
When your Primitive Self is afraid of death, the Sage might quote Seneca:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
When misfortune strikes, the Sage might recite Epictetus:
The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.
And when your Primitive Self is worried, the Sage might recall Marcus Aurelius’s advice:
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
— Marcus Aurelius
The above are just a couple of examples. The Sage has much more advice to dispense and would be happy to share it with the Primitive Self. The only problem is that the Sage is an old man. So he’s slow. Thus, at the end what usually ends up happening is that before the Sage has even had time to clear his throat, he sees the Primitive Self rush by, from the observation deck to the control station, and then push the buttons in a crazy frenzy. The Sage is usually just not quick enough to intercept the Primitive Self. That’s why, without any further help, the Sage mostly acts in hindsight, after the Primitive Self already made a mess. But you don’t need the Sage’s advice in hindsight. You need it at the right time, in that little time gap between perception and reaction. Luckily, the Sage works really well together with mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a Buddhist with a shaved head wearing an orange robe:
We’ll call him the Monk. The Monk is all about presence of mind and he’s there to stop the Primitive Self when he’s about to throw himself at the control station. He provides you with the necessary self-awareness to step in between the stimulus and the response. He’s what allows you to intercept the Primitive Self, stalling him just long enough for the Sage to gather his thoughts and hand out some guidance.
This, then, is what you have to do to prevent yourself from freaking out. You have to seize the small time gap between the moment you perceive something and the moment you react to it. And in that small time frame, you have to come up with some productive advice for yourself. To accomplish this, you need to build up an internal Monk and a Sage.
Building up an internal Monk and Sage is not easy. In fact, you’ll probably never acquire a perfect Monk and Sage. Still, even if your Monk sometimes fails to intercept the Primitive Self and even if your Sage is occasionally at a loss of words, it is still better than not having them at all.
To cultivate your Monk and Sage, you need a daily practice of mindfulness and a daily study of life philosophies such as Stoicism.
Do some meditation every day, even if it’s just for five minutes, and pay attention to what you’re doing and feeling as you go about your day.
Also, read daily about Stoicism and begin compiling your own collection of quotes and aphorisms. And explore other life philosophies as well.
And practice mindfulness and study life philosophies in a way that works for you in the long run. Like with physical exercise, it’s better to do a bit every day, at a pace you can sustain for the rest of your life, than to obsess for a few weeks and then give up.
With daily practice, at some point, the Sage and the Monk will be in the back of your mind all the time, ready to leap forward just when you need them —just when your Primitive Self is about to make a mess.
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