Awareness of Our Awareness
Our thinking is perhaps the most involuntary, most instinctual function of being human. We think without thinking! This is because there are different centers of the brain. And if you do not learn to tell them where to get off, they will take over. The biggest problem we have in conducting ourselves is lacking “awareness of our awareness.” Why is this? We typically work from the wrong region of the brain.
That Sneaky Little Lizard Brain
There is an art to thinking clearly and managing our emotional process. The sneaky little part of the brain that usually takes over is something called the amygdala. This is the part that controls our survival instincts. It is present in all land animals. It can also be called the “lizard brain” because it is as much “brains” as these little guys are ever going to have. We have it too, but also so much more. The key thing with it is that it causes us to react to our world exactly as lizards do. When someone walks near a lizard, it just runs. The amygdala is designed for survival. When an oncoming car crosses into your lane, you want an amygdala.
Humans on the other hand also have a cortex like other land mammals. However we also have a prefrontal cortex, which is unique to humans. This is the executive brain where our best thinking takes place. Disciplined thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Instinctual thinking takes place in the amygdala. In your work and relationships, the amygdala is not so useful.
Thinking in the wrong Regions of the Brain
Here is the problem. When our anxiety goes up, we start doing most of our thinking in the amygdala. Unfortunately our anxiety goes up far more often for relationships and perceptions about our self than it does for having our life threatened. Our lives are not actually threatened all that often. But that does not keep the amygdala from butting in and acting like it.
Here is the bottom line: When we are struggling with who we are, our identity, and our story, the amygdala will still try to take over, rather than the thinking part of the brain. But here is a more important point. If we have embraced a bad story about self (I am a failure, people don’t like me, I won’t amount to much), it is the one we will habitually access and keep rehearsing. This means we will persistently keep imprinting a negative identity on our psyche rather than God’s view of us as , “child,” “son,” “daughter,” “beloved,” “adored,” “treasured,” and so on.
Disciplining the Mind is Disciplining the Man (or Woman)
The mind is where the battle against our sinful flesh is waged. Jesus taught that lust of the heart, jealousies, murders, and all sins originate in the heart of man (Matt. 15:18–20).
“But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”
Even if we do not commit these acts, God sees the darkness of such thoughts for what it is. The front of the battle line in our sanctification is the mind. Our thought life determines our behavior. And if this is true, then we must learn to intentionally determine our thoughts so that we can begin to determine our behavior.
The Power of “Thinking about our Thinking”
To change our thinking takes discipline. It will take reprograming the story we have told ourselves. This means it will not just take awareness. Changing our thinking will take awareness of our awareness. Lasting change will require the discipline of thinking about our thinking. My spiritual director says, “healthy people think about their thinking.” Only the human being with a prefrontal cortex has the capacity to look at self objectively and self examine with careful attention to thoughts, emotions, and impulses. The human has the capacity to personally self examine and assess in a way no other life form can.
Now I say we have the capacity to do this. However most of us never do. It takes a significant amount of disciplined awareness to be able to do this. A Change of mind will be hard fought for. But it is the only path to clear thinking and a more sanctified and emotionally healthy life.