Altered State, or Altered Trait?

An image from Sam Harris (he’s got an excellent guided meditation app that has been a big help for me) has been stuck in my thinking recently: most of us, most of the time, are just flailing around in the windstorm of our thoughts.

Pulled every which way, with no real rhyme or reason, we can often feel utterly out of control, even when we’re trying really hard to be in control.

I know this feeling well. That particular “brain-pinch” when I imagine that through the power of my own willful thoughts I will somehow change my reality. The utterly egotistical stance that somehow my thinky-thinky will take charge and fix it all.

Of course, the notion is false, and I have plenty of evidence that shows me that it is.

Standing on stage, hearing a wrong note come from my trumpet bell, and thinking about how to fix it (even though it’s in the past…)

Setting up for a deadlift, and thinking that I can ensure “perfect form” (which really, is not even a possibility…).

Deep in conversation, and thinking about how to persuade or convince the person I’m talking to (which makes it more of an argument than a conversation anyway…).

Looking at my bank account, and thinking about how to save more (“If I just…”).

In each scenario, the active thinking part of my brain that I identify so strongly with--it really feels like me--ramps up. Seeking control, it jumps in heroically to “fix” the situation. And what starts as one little thread of a thought spawns another, and another, and another…

Pretty soon it’s a windstorm up in here, and I’m lost.

Which begs a question: what’s the alternative?

How do I make changes to my reality, without spinning out of control whenever I try to do it?

The answer, as I have come to realize for myself, lies in understanding the distinction between my states and my traits.

States, specifically mental states, capture your current experience. How do you feel, in this moment? What’s happening in your head, right now? What feel like your needs and wants, aversions and obstacles, this very second?

Traits describe bigger-picture truths: who are you, most of the time? How do you feel, most of the time? What do you do with your time, most of the time?

Explored with some remove, traits clearly describe the parts of reality that we want to change. Getting stronger, being a better listener, performing better (in any realm) all point to trait-change: a slow, progressive shift in who you are.

In comparison, it seems obvious that what we feel moment by moment (our states) really shouldn’t dictate the kinds of changes we want to make. It’s just common sense that the random windstorm (shitstorm?) inside our heads shouldn’t be the decider of our life trajectory, right?

And yet, so often, it is.

The sensations of our consciousness--the thoughts, feelings, smells, emotions, sounds, etc--are so overwhelming, so real, that they demand priority. They rip us from any foundation or principle that we may have chosen and direct us toward the whim of the moment.

And they push us to do anything we can to alter our state.

They push us to say something we don’t mean, but feels good flying out of our mouths. They push us to drink, and smoke, and eat to excess; to change our inner chemistry in some enjoyable way. They push us to stay glued to the slow-drip media IV that is streaming TV, because it’s easier than anything else we can think of.

At the end of the day, these fleeting mental states and our efforts at short-term distraction from the less-than-pleasant ones distill down to not much more than a cycle. A cycle that, over time, becomes part of who you are: a trait.

Altering those traits, on the other hand, is a different game. A longer game, and one that must be able to weather the storm in our heads.

More on that next week.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend! Go find your gold…

-Coach Will