A few years ago, my friend Jim came to me and said how great he felt after spending time speaking with me. What I love most about my type of medical practice, it allows me time to act as an advisor, a motivator, a coach—more than an authoritative, all-knowing sort of doctor. However, although I can be this type of doctor, the work remains my patients’ responsibility. Jim felt great after our sessions, but he expressed frustration with the fact that his motivation quickly faded. He could not understand why we think the things we think and do the things we do. He went back into his life and his familiar patterns of self-sabotaging behaviours followed.
Why does this happen?
How come we feel really great and inspired after listening to a motivational speaker or after attending a spiritual service, but lose our inspiration quickly during the car ride home?
Why does a woman (or man) stay in an abusive relationship?
When we are relaxed, why does “feeling calm” cause disturbing, uncomfortable thoughts flash through our brain?
The Automatic Brain
To change any unwanted behaviour and not give credence to self-destruction thoughts, one must first understand something I discovered in an effort to answer these questions in myself. Jim and I decided, in order to help him, I would send a weekly motivational email. Soon my email message and mailing list became longer, which forced me to look deeply at my own psyche to come up with material.
What I found was something that we all possess—what I call the automatic brain (AB). This brain is the primitive part of us that has evolved little, over the 250,000 or so years Homo sapiens have walked on earth. Its sole purpose is to recognize danger, threat, or vulnerability and then generate the necessary thoughts and behaviour to fight or flee the danger.
Some people think this is the reptile (reptilian) brain, but it is not. The only similarity is with the automatic electro-chemical surge that occurs when danger triggers this brain.
The automatic brain has its antennae up 24/7, surveying the landscape for any signs of an impending threat. Anything it detects that could be in any way threatening or has the potential to make us vulnerable is enough to flip the switch—automatically—leading us to fight or flight behaviour and thoughts.
Danger, Threat, & Vulnerability
What our brain perceives as a danger, a threat, or situations that make us feel vulnerable, thus what ultimately flips the switch on (so-called danger triggers), I divide into two categories. The first is a danger that is a genetic imprint. That is, these are universal dangers that serve as triggers for all humans due to thousands of years of evolution. The second is the danger that we learn from life experience, primarily during childhood.
Genetically Imprinted Dangers (aka Human Nature)
Two of the most evident genetically imprinted dangers are the unknown and inferiority. Since the sole purpose of the AB is to protect our physical body, anything that we do not know is a potential threat. Where this shows itself is in situations that may be unfamiliar to us or out of our comfort zone. For example, in the case of Jim, going into a healthy lifestyle is very unfamiliar. Although his present lifestyle is unhealthy and actually harmful (i.e. more dangerous), it is still what his brain sees as familiar, therefore expected, known, and hence safer. AB does not think and only reacts. It reacts to my coaching and Jim’s approval of such a potential threat to the known and familiar.
By all means necessary includes this brain generating self-sabotaging thoughts. We see this same dynamic in abusive relationships. Even though there is much pain in the relationship, to the AB the unknown is far more dangerous.
Sounds crazy, right?
Well, this is what happens when we follow our primitive brain and explain it away as human nature. The other genetic danger I mentioned is of an inferior position or, what I like to call, being one-upped. A few years ago, I attended a wedding with a well-known celebrity. Sitting together, we had the opportunity to talk for the better part of the afternoon.
Throughout the conversation, he talked extensively of his world travels, other celebrities with whom he fellowshipped, and other upcoming appearances he would be making. It mattered little who I was, this was his primitive AB—automatically and unconsciously—working to one-up me. You see, being inferior to another is a grave danger, at least to our primitive brain. If we are not aware of this falsehood, it may impact why you may think and do certain things. This also explains envy. Envy is the fight reflex and stands in the way of us recognizing our own strengths because we are too concerned about those of our “enemy”.
There is no greater time in the development of our brain than the period from birth to adolescence. Though at birth, our AB comes chock full of genetically recognized dangers, during our initial years, it soaks up more information about what we will consider dangerous or threatening for the remainder of our lives. The big three learned danger triggers are in the areas of Money, Health, and Relationships. The AB, over thousands of years, has inputted data that food, clothing, and shelter are necessities for protection.
We need money for these things; hence, it is a primary target during the growth and development of the automatic brain. Health is more obvious. Ill health indicates vulnerability and issues related to it can be dangerous triggers. Relationships have to do with love. Primate studies have shown that without love, primates wither and approach death. Relationships can be an area ripe with all sorts of danger triggers learned during childhood.
How this affects our lives can be very insidious and unconscious. For example, what if growing up all you heard was, “those greedy business owners” or “blessed be the poor.”
So fast-forward now to you as an adult. You have a great idea for new business and start getting some incredible breaks. As time goes by, your enthusiasm may wane and you might develop some anxiety or melancholic moods. Your automatic brain filed away that owning a business is a bad thing and you fight and flee that which is right for you. Fighting or fleeing danger appears in behaviour and thoughts. It impacts why we think the things we think and do the things we do
Along with our AB, we possess a higher mind, which makes us uniquely human. As we begin to bring up to the level of awareness and consciousness the sabotaging mechanics of our primitive automatic brain, it allows us to connect with our mind.
With our minds, we can reach beyond the limits of our physical bodies. Our minds are the reason we think the things we think and do the things we do. We come in touch with our personal power, our inner guidance, and reveal an authentic, individual spirituality that is immune to limitation.