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User's Manual for the Mind

By Robert Fritz



A few weeks ago we had a joint session of our Structural Consulting Certification Program (SCCP) and our Advanced Structural Consulting Program (ASCP) here in Vermont. The SCCP is a two-year training program for consultants, coaches, managers, and those in other helping professions that use structural thinking and structural consulting in their work. It is offered to our students who have already taken our Fundamentals of Structural Thinking course. The ASCP is the advanced group that has gone through the two-year SCCP training process and want to continue advancing their skills.

One of the major themes was how the mind works, and what it takes to achieve the proper discipline to understand the underlying structures that cause behavior in individuals, relationships, teams, and organizations.

And before you think this is another one of those "the power of the mind" rhapsodies, in fact, while the mind is capable of extraordinary things, it is also capable of some rather sloppy and ineffective things as well.

Of course, on the one hand, we have the deeper scientific studies such as neuroscience and brain research, areas that equate the physical makeup of the brain to its functions. So much is going on that is breathtaking research, forging truly new frontiers. This path is especially useful in understanding and perhaps curing or preventing Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the age-old "new age" idea that thought is creative, and the power of the mind is found in its ability to manifest your wishes. This is from the school of positive thinking, affirmations, programming the subconscious, belief forms reality, and on and on. Here the mind is thought of as a magical and mystical instrument that, if treated properly, will bring you anything from spiritual enlightenment to material wealth.

So when talking about the mind, there can be a lot of confusion about just what we're talking about.

Now, the discipline we were working with last month was different from the extremes on the continuum from pure science to pure mind over matter. It was to notice how the mind has a few very bad habits that make observing reality difficult.

One habit comes from the structural principle that structure (including the mind) seeks equilibrium. This principle is at the root of structural dynamics. Once you understand this principle you will begin to appreciate why structure, not only does determine behavior, but why it must determine behavior.

At its essence, equilibrium means that everything within a system or structure is equal to everything else. All contrasts are ended. If hot is contrasted with cold, the tendency of the structure is to combine hot and cold into one single temperature where everything everywhere is lukewarm. Another way to say this is that everything is of equal temperature. That is the goal of structure.

Of course, most things in the world are not equal. And the move to attempt to end differences or contrasts is why tension seeks resolution in any structure.

But, back to how the mind falls prey to this structural dynamic. There is a lot we don't know. I am sure this fact is not a surprise to any of us. But the mind is in the business of ending contrasts. One major contrast in our lives is between what we actually do know, and what we don't know.

Mostly, we know enough to get along fairly well. We can manage to feed ourselves, get where we want to go, understand road systems, use a GPS when we can't, etc. So, even though we don't know many things, it doesn't really matter as long as we know the things we need to know to accomplish our aims and be functional.

But the mind is not satisfied with the contrast between knowing and not knowing. That creates a state of non-equilibrium (a tension) that is unacceptable to the mind. The mind attempts to resolve the tension and establish equilibrium by a number of very bad habits. The first is, in light of not knowing something, the mind will fill in the space with speculation, concepts, theories, past experience in similar seeming situations, and so on.

If fact, it is hard to stop the mind from doing this. Even as you are reading these words, your mind is chomping at the bit, wanting to comment on the ideas.

What the structural consultants did during the workshop was to manage the mind, especially the verbal mind that wants to comment on everything. So one exercise was simply to watch the mind in action. Become aware of the inner chatter, what it was doing, why it was doing it, how much it was doing it, and just what the mind's tendency was.

Most people were shocked to see how their minds were running amuck. While they were supposed to be listening to someone else tell a story about something in his or her life, they watched as their minds were doing running commentary that jumped from subject to subject, from past, present and future, from theory to speculation about what really happened in the story. They thought they were listening. They only heard a small part of what was being said because their mind was doing a duet with the person speaking.

If I'm listening to music, it is hard to hear it if at the same time my mind is generating other music that interferes. Most people think they are good listeners. Most people, when tested, miss a large percentage of what's been said. They often miss information that contradicts their minds' impressions. They add information that is not true. They miss the differences between what might have been said and what their past experiences were.

The mind will do this until you actively get it to stop. But, you can train the mind. This training is from the tradition of the arts rather than from New Age or Eastern Traditions. In drawing classes, the student needs to train the mind to look and see exactly what is there. This level of observation is not natural. It is a discipline. And, of course, all disciplines are not natural. It is natural for your mind to "run its mouth," so to speak. It is not natural for it to be quiet while you observe something or other. It is natural for your mind to jump to conclusions. It is unnatural for your mind to hold onto a state of not knowing and not understanding, and be happy to do so until true understanding emerges.

One of the exercises the structural consultants did, and did more than once, was to pick some physical object a flower, a stone, a tree, a chair and observe it. That might seem pretty easy, until you have to do so without the mind's constant chatter. First they could do it for seconds on end, perhaps 10 to 20 seconds. With practice, they were able to extend that time.

This type of exercise is a bit like learning how to play scales in preparation for playing Mozart. After a few days, the structural consultants began to increase their level of awareness of what was around them. They were able to listen better and more accurately. And most importantly, they were able to process the information that came from their observations with more rigor and precision because their minds were not clamoring for quick resolutions based on the minds attempt to create equilibrium based or synthetic information.

I'm reminded of a passage in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, when Charles, the protagonist, hears the word Brideshead years after his youthful experiences there.

"'What's this place called?' He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that at its mere sound, the phantoms of those hunted late years had began to take flight."

2010 Robert Fritz


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Updated: 10/24/10