A few months ago, after I had taken communion to a shut-in member in a convalescent hospital, I started back to my car parked in a remote parking lot. As I walked, I was suddenly confronted by a most terrifying sight. A pit bull, squared off, was staring menacingly at me from the middle of the roadway.
My heart raced. My first instinct was to turn and run away. Instead of bolting, the thought came to me: “Stand tall! Make yourself big! Breathe in deeply! Relax!” I gave in to these ethereal instructions…
I made direct eye contact with the dog. I took in several breaths, and mercifully the fear began to lose its grip.
Emboldened, I made my stand before the dog. I became suddenly calm, and decided not to deviate from the direct path to my car. Strangely, I had no crippling thoughts about what might happen to me next. Instead I was fully present to that moment, continuing to breathe in deeply and calmly. Neither the pit bull nor I moved for what seemed like an eternal moment. I was able to maintain my ground, breathing deeply, standing erect. I was fully present, taking in the whole scene, not fixating on the intimidating canine.
Then, the dog simply walked away…
Suspended and perplexed by the epiphany of this unexpected calm and silent outcome, I continued the trek to my car and reflected on what had just happened.
Since that fateful day, I have wondered about the origin of these very thoughts that impelled me not to run away from the most feared breed of dog in urban America. I suspect that those thoughts arose from a number of sources, not the least of which was Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” About the time of the incident described above, I had been watching Millan’s hit TV show on National Geographic, titled “The Dog Whisperer.” Though his philosophy is disputed by some, Millan believes that dogs are pack animals. As such, a dog’s anxiety is roiled in the absence of a stable pack leader, one who maintains the pack’s essential hierarchy.
According to Millan, most dog parents are unaware of this fundamental canine reality, namely that a dog is hardwired to both seek and maintain its position in a pack. Dog parents have no problem extending love and affection to their pets; however, they may overlook their dogs’ need for the vital discipline that must come from the human pack leader. This healthy pack-leader relationship is what a dog must have to feel secure in its world. Millan refers to this discipline structure as “Rules, boundaries, and limitations.”
Also, Millan points out that dog lovers are not aware of the energy behind the words with which they communicate to their animals. He explains that the ideal form of this energy from the human pack leader should always be “calm and assertive,” which when communicated through voice or actions, is most essential to getting a dog to respect the pet parent as the pack leader. According to Millan, rather than training the dogs, he “trains” people to better understand and care for their dogs in a more holistic way informed by love, affection and discipline—all facilitated through the calm assertion of the human pack leader.
Millan cautions that dog lovers must also be mindful of the energy behind the words directed at their pets. If such words are embedded in fear and anxiety, their dogs will sense this unstable psychic presentation. He teaches that a calm, confident, pet parent generates the optimal environment for a dog’s happiness. “It’s not the words you say,” Millan avers. “It’s the energy behind the words.”
It was with this calm assertive energy that I held my ground and communicated with that threatening pit bull…
The Hierarchy of Our Inner Thought Life
One can apply Cesar Millan’s philosophy to many instances of life where hierarchies matter. Parenting is one such example. Children require both love and discipline from a calm, assertive, benevolent hierarchy. The child who gets only love and no discipline becomes emotionally crippled, not prepared for the demands of adulthood. The child who receives only discipline and no love is equally crippled. It is wise parents who take the lead and provide their children with both love and discipline.
As with dogs and children, an even more important hierarchy is your own internal thought life. The point of this article is that when you fail to recognize the power of this internal thought hierarchy, you ignore it to your own peril.
The highest part of you is Spirit/Self. This is your true self. This is the self that you have lived with all your life. It functions to steer you in the right direction. It is the inner voice of profound intuition that is in contact with you and God. It wants the very best for you. Some call it conscience; others, the higher self. Reigning in the heart in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians call it Christ.
The True Self is confident. It is calm and assertive. The True Self is the Thought Whisperer, the power that desires to govern the inferior parts of the interior self in a calm, assertive manner. The more investment in this Self yields empowerment over the lesser parts of your interior life.
What are the lesser parts of your interior life that must be led by you?
They are your emotions.
Every great religion identifies your emotional life as the enemy within that you must seek to master. Your emotional life is the very source of confusion and deception. It is the darkness that needs both light and enlightenment. Your emotional life is the deposit of all your pain that seeps out when anxiety roils in your heart. Christians call it the flesh, the sinful nature, the false self. When it usurps the lead, it creates enmity, bitterness, rancor, hatred, addiction, compulsions of every type, and slavery. It is a deep well over which you have no power. You can never be free of it. These very feelings and emotions have their own life and they must run their course. To repress them and pretend that they do not exist is to invite other surreptitious ways by which they create chaos in your life.
Though you may never master the lower self of your interior life, you can certainly allow the Thought Whisperer to govern it.
The language of the Thought Whisperer is calm assertion. It is the way of intentionality. Every moment that presents itself offers you the choice to be led by the Thought Whisperer or to be led by your lower self.
What are the signs that you are being led by your higher self or lower self?
Matthew Williams, MD, author of the blog Mindfulness, MD, can enlighten us in distinguishing whether we are led by our Higher Self (a.k.a. Thought Whisperer) or our lower self. In an article titled “Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation, and Mindfulness,” Dr. Williams speaks of the “Default Mode Network (DMN).” It is the state of inattention to the world around you. He calls it the state of daydreaming, being generally ruminative about life. As believed, it is not typically a productive state; such inattention and mindlessness can produce a confluence of negative emotions. Dr. Williams connects this state with depression, denoting that people with mental illness are dominated by the Default Mode Network.
However, the DMN is not all bad. It serves the good; but like every good, it can be a virtue or a vice. The DMN is a virtue in so far as it allows us to review our lives and thereby change the course of our lives. According to Dr. Williams, this is a well-balanced use of the DMN. The DMN wreaks havoc, however, when it is relied upon to escape the pain of life through a preoccupation with one’s thoughts and feelings. Such preoccupation is the wheelhouse of anxiety. This is the realm of the lower self.
To positively balance the DMN, Dr. Williams explains the role of the “Task-Positive Network (TPN).” The TPN directs your attention to the external environment. Instead of being inattentive to the external world, the person led by the TPN is engaged. She is present. She is mindful of her internal bodily states and exerts her will informed by intentionality. When you are mindful of your body in your environment, when you are attentive to the smells of a spring walk, when you focus on your conversation with your beloved, then, according to Dr. Williams, your TPN made that possible.
At a retreat last Lent, I counseled a retreatant whose psychiatrist helped her to get out of the depths of depression by helping her to make one little change a day. His goal was to get her out of the house into the fresh air. He began by encouraging her on the first day to walk to the front door of her home. The next day, she was encouraged to open the door and stand in the doorway for just a moment. A few days later, she took a step outside. Then she walked to the driveway. The next day, she walked down the street. Now she is running marathons. Here was the TPN in operation.
One of the tools of the Thought Whisperer, your Higher Self, is indeed the Task-Positive Network. The TPN marshals the powers of intentionality, attentionality, and mindfulness.
Described here are two strategies to engage the TPN, one being a quick access and one that takes more time to cultivate…
Quick Access to the TPN:
There are many methods that may be used to take immediate control over negative, destructive thoughts—all have in common the sudden shifting of awareness, thus derailing the negative thoughts coming from the false, unconscious self.
To continue our Cesar Millan example, when a dog unconsciously reverts to bad behavior, Millan uses a strong vocal cue, “PHSSSTTT!!,” to achieve what he describes as snapping the dog’s mind out of the very state that produced the bad behavior. Through the pack leader’s role and authority, the dog is brought back to the present and out of the compulsion of mindlessness.
For a fuller context on the topic of quickly accessing the TPN, again we turn to Dr. Williams and his article hosted on Psychology Today‘s online site, “The Dangers of a Wandering Mind.” He provides two such methods which serve to instantly regain a state of mindfulness:
The next time that you are walking into work, briefly pause and complete the Five by Five exercise. The Five by Five exercise entails taking mental note of five items as perceived by each of your five senses. The exercise will purposefully engage you in focused thought and help you reconnect with your surroundings.
Another exercise is called the Take Ten. At some point during your day when you are feeling particularly distracted, I would challenge you to pause and take ten deep breaths. The power of this exercise is proportional to the amount of focus that you bring to your breathing. Focus on the cool sensation at the tip of your nose as you slowly inhale, the neutral point between your inhale and exhale, and the warmth upon exhale. (There are many more exercises that use mindfulness to engage focused thought, and I would recommend that the interested reader enter “mindfulness exercises” into his or her search engine of choice.)
Cultivating Fuller Engagement with the TPN Through Mindful Breathing:
Focused meditation on your breath, a practice historically employed through the ages by mystics, is the way the ancients employed the power of the TPN. Your intentional deep breaths funnel the powers of the TPN in any given moment, for your intentional breathing places you firmly in the moments of your life.
The telling metaphor of intentionality, attentionality, and mindfulness is the breath. It is the access to the Higher Self. Your breath invites the Thought Whisperer to lead the disparate parts of your lower self—your emotional self, your fragmented self, your historic self, your false self, your lower, your inferior self–that must be led. In the book of Job, Job says, “The breath (spirit) of God is in the mouth.” God, as the source of empowerment, is in the breath.
Besides Cesar Millan, it was the very breath (Spirit) of God that quelled my anxiety in face of that pit bull. Breath (Spirit) was the Thought Whisperer that gave me courage, empowerment and enlightenment.
Would to God that we so discipline ourselves in practices that develop our own Thought Whisperer so that we may better deal with the “pit bulls” of our thought lives.
“…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
2 Corinthians 10:5