The Two Discriminations
The human mind is awesome. Humans can create wonderful, glorious things. We have the ability to think abstractly and intuitively- we can imagine things and possibilities far beyond what is here at the moment. Language, our verbal world, gives us the means to communicate, contemplate, compare, evaluate—all the stuff you need to do to write a note to your friend, daydream about life on other planets, or design a chicken coop. Love, music, art, science, engineering, mathematics, space travel, gourmet food- awesome. As best we know, no other species on earth does anything like this.
Language makes us capable of amazing accomplishments- until it doesn’t.
Human minds structured by language can also wreak enormous havoc on ourselves and on others. Our minds can talk us into suicide, murder, betrayal, addiction, emotional abuse, isolation, rape, paranoia, war, genocide, global devastation, and lots of other dubious choices that create pain and suffering for ourselves and for others. As best we know, no other species on earth does anything like this, either.
This is pretty important to deconstruct: Humans are the only creatures we know of that commit suicide. What’s up with that? We commit suicide when we are stuck in the grip of something we are experiencing in our minds and we can think of no path that will lead to a solution we like. The mind, stalemated by its own logic, talks us into death, seeing suicide as the only workable option. Suicide seems logical and obvious. We have a lot of reasons we should die.
But, reasons are not causes. Reasons people commit suicide are not the causes of their death. For example, after Bob shot himself in the head and died, the police found a note at the scene that said “I can’t take it anymore. I am sorry I caused everyone so much trouble. I can’t imagine living one more day like this- I have no hope.” When his survivors talked about Bob’s suicide, they said stuff like Bob died because he just couldn’t take it anymore- Bob had no hope. People took Bob’s suicide note literally. They, like Bob, believed he died for the reasons he thought. But that’s not quite how reality actually works.
Bob did not die because he thought he couldn’t take it. A thought can’t kill anything. Bob died because he shot himself in the head. A self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head was the cause of Bob’s death.
This is an important point. Bob’s mind was predicting a miserable future. A more accurate thing for the mind to have said would have been something like I really do not like my life- this seems unworkable. I feel stuck. At the moment I do not see how anything could ever change. When I imagine living more years feeling like this I feel sad and miserable right now. I really do not want to have a future filled with misery like the future my mind is predicting now. To prevent any possibility of feeling the misery I imagine I will feel in the future, I will kill myself today with a gun.
Bob chose to avoid what his mind predicted–imagined–thought would happen in his hypothetical future. He acted strictly on his unpleasant mental experiencing.
I can’t imagine living one more day like this- I have no hope. Do you see/hear this sentence and can you step back from it and see it for what it is? I cannot imagine living one more day like this – This phrase is not about what is physical and real and happening now, in this moment. This phrase is ‘only’ a passing thought about how the mind is not generating any predictions for my future that I want. My awesome abstract reasoning problem-solving creative intuitive human brain is unable to calculate any desirable outcomes. Oh dear. I cannot solve the math problem called The Life I Should Be Living, the math problem that I myself created. Therefore, logically, it is time for me to die.
I have no hope- What the heck is hope, really? We all know what hope feels like, we know hope when we have hope and we can recognize when we are hopeless. If we lose our dog, sometimes the dog can be found, sometimes not. However if, instead of a dog, we lose hope, no search and rescue team can find hope for us. We cannot go out in the woods and find a pound of hope, but we can go into the woods where we might find a pound of edible wild mushrooms. We can produce a liter of moonshine in our barn but we cannot produce a liter of hope in the finest lab in the world. I can’t stumble across an undiscovered cave full of ancient hope but I might find an unexplored cave full of ancient pottery.
Do you think birds or clouds have hope? Rocks? Why do we stand alone as the only species on this planet that has hope? Hope is a uniquely human thing; a product of how the human mind and language work together, for better or worse. So is suicide, philosophy, tennis, and political assassination. Only creatures that have abstract language who can visualize stuff that is not currently in existence can create those sorts of things. Only humans can imagine hell.
Bob thought he would have a painful bleak future full of suffering. He chose to leave this life so that he would not have to experience that future. Would Bob’s future really have turned out as Bob’s mind had imagined? Since Bob is dead now, no one, including Bob, can ever really know.
We can be pretty certain, however, that Bob prevented himself from having any more horrible days. His suffering was finally over. What we can also be pretty certain of is that Bob eliminated the possibility of ever having any better days, too. Nothing wonderful that Bob could not predict can ever happen for Bob now that he is dead.
Over the course of my career I have worked with many people who were contemplating suicide. Sadly, a few of them have actually killed themselves. Most, however, have chosen to live. Almost all of them who chose to live later at some point told me that they were really glad they were still alive. Meaningful, wonderful experiences that they could have never imagined while they were suicidal had happened to them. Life was workable enough for them now.
A fun thing to contemplate: How much of your life as it is today would have been accurately predicted by the mind you had 5 years ago?
So a human mind is a wonderful thing when it works well for us. It can create hell for ourselves and others when it slides into doom and gloom thinking. To live a more mentally healthy life, we need to step back from the mind and get a broader picture.
Here’s how to expand your perspective and loosen the grip of the problem-solving mind. There are two discriminations, two fundamental processes, which we need to engage in order to get build more meaningful lives.
1. We practice discriminating, i.e., noticing the difference, between our 5-senses experiencing (seeing, hearing, etc.) and our mental experiencing (thinking, feeling, predicting, explaining, imagining, etc.). What is up in my mind versus what do I actually perceive with my 5 senses?
2. We practice noticing the difference between moving toward our values, a more meaningful life, and moving away from unwanted mental experiencing, away from the unpleasant stuff happening in our minds. What is it going to get me, how will it limit me, or damage me if I do what I am noticing my mind recommending just this moment? Do I want to do something different than what the mind is recommending? Is there a possibility of something happening that I would like better if I go against what the mind is saying? Where do I want my life to go? Who or what is important?
After noticing the two discriminations, we do something. We choose some sort of action.
Mindfully informed or mindlessly reactive, we are continuously moving in some manner into the next moment. Consciously or unconsciously, we are selecting and taking the next action. We are creating our lives in each moment. We can create better lives when we notice where we are going in the present moment and choose to do something that moves us toward the important stuff.
Instead of moving toward important stuff, we often blindly obey the mind. When we see someone attractive, we naturally want to move toward that person. However, if the mind predicts that something unpleasant could occur like fear, rejection, humiliation, etc., we might not approach the person. Shutting down the possibility of experiencing the predicted unpleasant stuff makes us feel better for a moment. It also, of course, shuts down the option of connecting with the attractive person.
Here’s a story of a man blindly reacting to mental experiencing that ended tragically.
I read a news item about a combat veteran, we’ll call him Stan, who mistakenly killed a child on Halloween. The child had knocked loudly on Stan’s front door while trick-or-treating. Stan’s mind was startled by the sudden unexpected loud noise. In the urban combat in Iraq that Stan had experienced, loud door knocking meant something intense was about to happen. Stan’s mind automatically and instantly imagined that something similar was happening. The mind also automatically and instantly remembered what to do to stay safe- eliminate the threat. Stan got his rifle and fired several shots through the wooden front door, killing the child on the other side.
Stan did not take a moment to check out what was really happening because in combat a moment of hesitation could get you killed. But Stan was no longer in combat; he just reacted as if he were in combat. It was a reflexive, automatic reaction. Mental experiencing is a reaction to the context of the present moment. It is an idea about what might be happening.
The tragedy would not have occurred had Stan noticed that his mind (mental experiencing) was imagining-projecting a combat scenario. The loud door knocking had reminded his mind of the door knocking in Iraq- no problem there, his mind was working as it is wired to work. But Stan’s eyes, ears etc (5 senses experiencing) had not actually verified anything here and now that was a factual threat. Stan did not discriminate between the physical facts of the situation and his mind’s prediction. He, tragically, instantly, reacted in the present moment based on his mental experiencing, which he had learned from surviving fierce urban combat in a war zone. Stan’s automatic reactions saved his life in combat many times- that would make it, for Stan, the “right choice”-had he actually been fighting to survive in combat. This time, unfortunately, his mental experiencing produced a terrible miscalculation. Things did not work well for anyone involved that Halloween.
Please be clear, when we use words like “imagined, predicted, in the mind, story,” that we don’t mean that the events the mind is thinking about never happened or are impossible. Bob, the guy who committed suicide, had a very difficult life and he was really stuck in a lot of unworkability- he was miserable and was unable to see a way to get through it. And Stan, the combat vet, had really experienced horrific things- those memories were real and the coping skills he learned (shoot quickly!) had actually saved his life and the life of his friends at times.
But, a person’s mental experiencing is only a part of story of any moment- it is an incomplete picture.
Despite what the mind says, our lives are not actually created very much by what we experience mentally. Our lives are built mostly by what we actually do. Everything we do has a consequence of some sort. Thinking about being healthy later will not make you healthy now. Improving health is something that takes repeated actions over time. You have to focus on taking healthy actions now, today, which could actually move you toward improved health.
It is important to notice is if what we are actually doing is working for us or not. This is not as easy to do as it sounds. It takes some practice. We have to notice in what direction are our actions are leading. What kind of life are we actually building right now, with this action? Is it moving me toward something important, of value, (like health) or am I struggling to move away or getting upset about stuff that is only happening in my mind?
What do I notice in this moment about my mental experiencing? What sort of recommending, predicting, evaluating, do I notice it is doing? Will the mind’s advice help me or hinder me? If we do not notice that what we are doing is making our life worse, we will likely continue ineffective actions until we reach a point of unworkability, hitting bottom.
Thus we return to the two discriminations, two processes we need to notice, to get unstuck from our minds and build more meaningful lives.
1. We practice discriminating, i.e., noticing the difference, between our 5-senses experiencing and our mental experiencing.
2. We practice noticing the difference between moving toward our values, a more workable life, and moving away from unwanted mental experiencing, the stuff happening in our minds.
After we make the two discriminations, we then choose to do something that moves us toward whoever or whatever is important to us even in the face of unpleasant mental experiencing.
If we practice making these two mindful discriminations, we will generally become more effective- we will do more stuff that works better and we will do less stuff that doesn’t work too well.
People come to therapy wanting me to help them get rid of mental experiences they don’t like. They want to be less depressed, not anxious, not addicted, not angry, moody, etc. That’s understandable- those mental places are very unpleasant and, if we stay stuck in them, they usually result in ineffective lives.
Unfortunately, struggling to move away from unwanted negative mental experiencing doesn’t work very well. Often struggling to avoid stuff like anxiety or depression makes us even more stuck. Getting unstuck from the mind and moving on to do better things is what will help us have a better life.
Anxiety, depression, and addiction are some classic examples of how we get stuck. Often anxious people are anxious about becoming anxious- they are afraid of becoming afraid. Logically it will make sense, to the anxious person, to start to avoid anything that evokes more anxiety. Because we are smart and we can think abstractly about the future, we can begin to predict things that could make us anxious even though we have no experience with it. We can then start to avoid the things that we imagined might create anxiety. We can imagine ourselves into a mental prison of our own creation.
For example: I have talked with many people who are terrified of bees and wasps but who have never been stung. They have absolutely no 5 senses experience with getting stung but they have a lot of mental experiencing, imagining, about being stung. Often they go into a blind panic when they think they are encountering a bee. One woman fell into a big bush when a bug flew in front of her and was embarrassed because so many people saw her do it. A guy fell off of a hiking trail in the mountains when he panicked after encountering a bee. Neither person had any previous experience with being stung. They are afraid of experiencing what they think a sting would be like. They are reacting to their own mental experiencing of a sting that their mind has created.
Note- I know some people are severely allergic and a sting can be life-threatening. For them more vigilance about avoiding a sting is warranted. However, their avoidance comes from the wisdom gained by actual reality-based data; it does not arise from their anxious imagination.
I’ve been stung many times in my life. I don’t like it, but it is not that horrible. Once I was stung several times when I accidentally disturbed a nest of wasps. That was pretty unpleasant. I got a little nauseated and I had a headache. I took some Benadryl and ibuprofen and all was well in an hour or so. I do not worry about being stung but I do not want to be stung. I have learned to respect the bugs that sting and I try to interact with them in ways that don’t trigger them into stinging me- I do what I need to do even while knowing I could somehow get stung at some point. If I happen to accidentally disturb a wasp and it acts aggressively toward me, I will definitely try to get out of the wasp’s way. But that is a real wasp and it seems to really be coming for me. My moving away from the wasp is reality based, it is not anxiety based.
I do not have to mentally construct a sting as a horrible event. I definitely do not need to run from a sting that only exists in my mind. Instead of fighting against or running away from whatever it is in our heads that we don’t want to experience, we need to accept that it is there and learn to flow with it. Flowing with the mind means first noticing what it is, not what it says it is. A sting is a sting, that’s all. Unpleasant, yes. Painful, yes. But, it is not the end of the world- it is just a sting- unless my mind makes it into something more.
Acceptance of our mental experience operates kind of like mental Aikido. Aikido is a martial art that teaches a person to flow with an attacker’s energy instead of fighting against it. Often a skilled Aikido practitioner can neutralize an attack using very little energy. Worrying or any other kind of mental stuckness is stressful- it uses a lot of energy and accomplishes little to nothing. But I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Just notice it, accept that the thoughts are there, and keep moving.
Most of us have a few things that are big triggers that will set off a cascade of unpleasant thoughts. If something in the mind like anger or anxiety is extreme, we might think it is solid reality, not just a thought, and we could get stuck in it for a while, acting and feeling as if it is real and happening right now.
When you notice that you are stuck in your mental experiencing, try to remember to drop into practicing the two discriminations.
Mental health is like physical health- flexibility is important. Mental rigidity limits our life. There are rarely any always/never situations. Reality requires us to adapt to whatever is happening in the specific moment. Our minds, however, like to draw conclusions about how life works and make rules about how to act to avoid any unpleasantness. We like to predict the future. We have ideas about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, about how things should go and about how other people should act. We want to know the right thing to do.
That’s not unreasonable for us to do unless it is not working for us. When our mental rules are working for us (reality is acting like we think it should) we won’t notice that we are guided almost totally by our thoughts about reality instead of being guided by our actual lived experiences. However, when we start to experience negative consequences, we usually will sit up and take notice. Something isn’t right with our world.
For example: If everyone in the world agreed to change the rules about traffic lights so that a green light meant stop and a red light meant go, traffic would flow just like it does now. If you did not know about the rule change or you forgot about it, you would soon notice that your old rule of “Green means go, red means stop” isn’t the way the world is working anymore. It isn’t the world that is wrong, it is that your old rule no longer fits the new way the world is actually working. In the case of a wrong rule about traffic, you would either adjust your behavior or you would likely cause a crash of some sort.
Many years ago I went on a vacation to England. At the time I was living in Germany. I drove from my home to the coast of Belgium, where I drove my car onto a ferry to be transported across the English Channel. When I drove off the ferry, there was no traffic around- I was the first car to leave the ferry. I rounded a corner in the parking area and came to a screeching halt- there was big truck headed straight for me, and he was in my lane!
Except that he wasn’t in my lane, I was in his lane. In England they drive on the other side of the road. I looked up at the driver, sheepishly, and he was laughing, shaking his head. I waved and mouthed an apology and crossed over into the left lane, which, in England, is the correct lane to drive in. My mental rule about how to automatically drive the best way was correct almost everywhere in the world. But my mental rule did not work in England. It took me a day or so before driving the English started feeling somewhat natural to me.
In any moment when you are noticing that you feel miserable, you might stop to see if you happen to be stuck in some sort of mental experiencing. You could have some mental rules that are not working for you. This doesn’t mean that every unpleasantness is just in your head and you can simply change your mind and be happy all the time- chronic migraines, for example, are very real and they are a difficult problem to live with. But certain kinds of misery are self-inflicted. We can change how we handle the self-inflicted stuff and that will help our lives work better. Practice the two discriminations and you will reduce your self-inflicted misery.
I took another vacation, this time on a bicycle, to England a couple of years after the vacation I mentioned above. My friend Art had made a similar trip on his bike a couple of years earlier. I asked Art if he had any advice for me. I was expecting Art to give me advice about places to go, sights to see, equipment to bring, how to eat so I could ride all day, etc.
Instead, Art gave me some psychological advice. Art told me to accept the fact that I would get rained on a lot and I would, at times, get totally soaking wet. He was right. I got wet a lot on that trip. It rains a lot in England.
Getting wet, like getting stung, is just getting wet. But then, there’s what a mind might do with getting wet. Minds can come up with thoughts like I hate this! I can’t believe it is raining again! This is horrible- my vacation is ruined! What did I do to deserve this? God must hate me- I hate England and its sorry, nasty, cold rainy weather. Why did I ever come here? I am so stupid… And on and on. My mind did this on occasion on my rain-soaked trip. I am sure you, too, have been there, done that, on occasion. It is part of being human- it is how human minds work.
If I practice the two discriminations when I am getting wet, I notice both my mental experiencing and my sensory experiences. When I bring my awareness to my 5 senses experiencing, it loosens the grip of my mental experiencing. I probably won’t remain as stuck in the miserable thoughts that the mind is producing. When I notice the experiences coming in through my 5 senses, I might notice that getting wet makes some body parts colder, makes some clothing hang differently, requires me to be more aware of speed, traction, etc when I am cornering and braking, makes my eye glasses fog up, and so on. I can drop out of my mental experiencing and tune into my actual sensory life I am living in that very moment.
Art’s advice to accept the fact that I would get wet a lot was great advice- he helped me forge an attitude that helped me not make myself miserable. I did not fight (much) with the English weather. It was great advice that made my vacation much more pleasant.
Are you making yourself miserable? If so, please pause, practice the two discriminations, and do something that helps your life work better. Easier said than done. It takes a lot of practice. It doesn’t really ever get easier; you just get faster at dropping out of the mind and into your life.
Does this mean the mind has no value, that our thoughts and feelings are useless? Of course not. Thoughts are not the problem- it is the inflexibility in how we react to our mental experiencing that is the problem. When what we are doing makes our life worse or does not or cannot work, we should change what we are doing.
A client I worked with was going through a rough divorce- he was prevented from all contact with his wife and she wouldn’t let him see their kids. His business had folded. He was financially destitute and ended up living with a friend. A proud man, he felt hopeless, powerless, and humiliated. He was very depressed.
One day he arrived at my office and was obviously terrified. He was shaking and he had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look. I asked him what was going on.
He told me “My best friend from high school moved to Alaska years ago- I talk to him only 1 or 2 times a year- I really miss him, especially now, during this divorce!. (This was before the internet and before free long distance calling). Today the friend I am living with gave me a free round-trip plane ticket to Alaska so I could go visit.”
“Wow, that’s awesome, I said, thinking that this generous gift would boost his spirits.
He looked at me like I had just turned into Satan or something.
“You don’t understand, he told me “I can’t fly- I am terrified of flying, so there’s no way I can go!”
I found out that he had experienced a panic attack on an airliner 30 or so years earlier when he was a teen. Panic attacks are terrifying- if you have ever had one (I have) you know what I mean. No one ever wants to have another panic attack. So, just avoid what triggers your panic right? Well… He had done just that for decades and it had not been too big of a problem. Now he was up against a mental wall and he was paralyzed with fear.
So- let’s take a look at his mental experiencing.
“I can’t fly- I am terrified of flying, there’s no way I can go!”
His reasons sound intuitively plausible- most of us are acculturated to think in those terms. However, his explanations do not exactly overlap with how reality works. My client wasn’t actually afraid of flying. He was afraid of having another panic attack like the one he had experienced before. His mind had, quite naturally, paired flying and panic together.
His fear of having another panic attack in the future (mental experiencing) did not stop him from flying- remember, reasons aren’t causes. What stopped him from flying was that he did not do what it took to fly. To fly, he would need to do what we all must do to fly. Get to the airport on time, check the luggage, board the plane, sit down, fasten the seatbelt, and stay onboard until the plane lands. If he were to do did all of those things he would fly even if he were terrified. To fly, he had to manage his behavior, not his feelings
My client did not need to control or eliminate his fear in order to fly- he needed to learn to accept his fear while he did the stuff required to fly (plan a trip, buy tickets, etc.). Would it be more pleasant for him to fly without the fear? Absolutely. Did he have to be fearless to fly? Absolutely not.
He was stuck in the dilemma we all get stuck in now and then: avoiding unwanted mental experiencing versus doing something that makes your life work better.
My client was terrified of the ideas his mind was generating about what could go wrong if he actually were to fly to Alaska. His mental experiencing was screaming at him Don’t go, you are crazy, you will panic again, you can’t do this, it could be horrible, you will never make it, you’ll puke, they’ll arrest you for throwing a fit on the plane…. The mind droned on and on, spewing out its doom-filled predictions regarding flying to Alaska.
Also, however, he loved his old friend and he thought it would be cool to see Alaska. He really wanted to move toward something important, toward the friendship he valued and toward the adventure of traveling.
But then he also wanted his mind to just stop talking about all the scary stuff. Of course, his mind refused to comply, as do they all. It continually bombarded him with intimidating predictions of doom and gloom.
If he were to choose to fly, he knew his mind would likely increase the scary predictions and he could get stuck in it and perhaps might feel even worse. If he were to choose not to fly, he knew his mind would stop the doom and gloom messages about flying. But, if he were to choose not to fly, he would not get to see his best friend and he would not get to go to Alaska. And, as extra incentive, he knew that if he did not fly his mind would criticize him a lot about that decision, too.
In counseling, using the two discriminations, we helped him learn to step back and disengage a bit from his mental experiencing, to see it from a slightly more open perspective. We helped him focus on doing the basic actions he could actually control that he would need to take that would make it possible for him to fly.
He eventually decided to risk it and make the trip to Alaska.
He was extremely nervous when he was dropped off at the terminal. Evidently some airport personnel noticed him because of his fearful behavior and questioned him about his anxiety. He just told them that he was nervous and they did not hassle him any further (but you can be sure that his mind hassled him the whole time!) He focused on noticing his 5 senses experiencing while doing all the little things you have to do to get through the airport to board the aircraft.
Nothing bad actually ever happened, thankfully. His mind, however, pitched a continual mental fit, but he just kept heading toward his goal, one small step at a time.
In the end, it worked out just fine for him. He successfully flew from Memphis to Alaska. He stayed with his old friend for two weeks.
As a matter of fact, he eventually moved to Alaska and built a cabin next door to his friend’s cabin. He sent me a lot of awesome pictures of the Northern Lights and of moose, bears, and other wildlife walking across his property. At one point he emailed me and told me he had been flying “a lot.” He had connected with an independently wealthy divorcee from Sweden who had immigrated to the USA. They flew together all over the world traveling for love and for fun. They eventually married.
Wow. Let’s review: When he first received the free ticket to Alaska, his mind had predicted unpleasantness like Don’t go, you are crazy, you will panic again, you can’t do this, it could be horrible, you will never make it, you’ll puke, they’ll arrest you for throwing a fit on the plane..
It never happened. (But, says the mind, it could have happened! The mind never stops, you just get better at not being bothered by it.) Had he given into his initial fears (mental experiencing) and had he not made that first trip to Alaska, he probably could not have had any of those amazing experiences.
Because he did what it took to make his life more workable, unforeseen opportunities presented themselves. His life had become a lot less narrow. It had become a lot more workable, a lot richer, and a lot more meaningful. His life was transformed not because he felt better; he felt better because he transformed his life by doing stuff that eventually built him a great life.
Your turn: How’s your life working for you? If you find yourself routinely stuck in mental misery and feel you are living a narrow unmeaningful life, this is a pragmatic solution: Practice making the two discriminations. You will likely end up living a more meaningful life. But you have to do it, not just think about it. Just do it. Start now. What remains of your life hangs in the balance.
Post script: Here’s a shortcut that many of my clients have found useful. To implement these ideas, simply remember “Notice, pause, choose.”
Notice the two discriminations.
Pause to calm down and get clear.
Choose a behavior that points toward something important in your life.