People call it a ‘panic attack.’ Some say they ‘freaked out.’ Others just call it ‘extremely anxious.’ But it’s all the same thing. These are tornadoes of thought. They suck up everything around them and they add it to the spin.
Today, as if things weren’t already very challenging, people are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. They are worried about the jobs and money, they are worried about their homes and schools, they are increasingly concerned about their health, their children’s health, and the health of others around them.
In the worst cases, people are feeling that society is actually coming apart.
We obviously cannot wish any of these things away. Just about the only reality we all share is formed by the things that are true for all of us. And just like we are all impacted by gravity, we are all subject to the basic laws of logic, and we are all affected by the basic limits of science.
As the Dalai Lama said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” Science and spirituality can co-exist. We may not know what happens after people die, but we do know a lot about what can kill us. And a virus we don’t believe in can still kill us.
We are all also subject to the social sciences relating to things like behavioural economics, or the brain science issues around cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and effects caused by things like the availability bias. None of us is immune to any of those influences.
Fortunately, we have studied ourselves extensively. And we are very certain that we are very fallible as individuals. Fortunately we are less fallible when working in groups, using systems that are designed to filter out our own thought-based mistakes. Using scientists for science is no different than using tech support for tech.
The requirement of a broad base of specialized knowledge is why, when it comes to highly specialized issues like medicine, our own thoughts are not very relevant. Most of our medical thoughts can often go unthunk in ways that would actually leave us better off than if we continued to think about things we know too little about.
When the details start to really matter, at that point we are wise to default to the thoughts of experts who are not offering opinions, as we laypeople are. They are offering conclusions, which are calculations based off of things they –and we, collectively– know with some certainty.
Precious few of us could figure out how to aim a rocket well enough to land a planetary rover exactly where we want it on Mars, but there are those who can do that calculation using certainties we have studied extensively. Likewise, there are people qualified to calculate what we should do during a pandemic, and these are our public health experts.
If we use these experts as intended, they are like parts of our own collective brain that specialize in some area of knowledge, just as the parts of our individual brains specialize based on what we’re doing.
The part of our brain that handles language does not stick its nose into the calculations made by the part of our brain that handles our sense of balance. Likewise, this means we can happily surrender our uninformed thinking to people who’s job it is to think about those subjects in greater detail than we could ever hope to.
It’s important to remember, experts do their thinking with a base of far greater knowledge than any of us has had the time to collect. And that means their answers are far more likely to be right. This means we can do less thinking and get better answers. It’s a double-win.
This also means that step one in stopping our thought-attacks is to ask how many of those thoughts even belong in our heads?
We have to see ourselves as ‘having‘ those attacks. To ‘have’ to is allow. We’re walking along a buffet and there’s all of these ideas. But we don’t take some of every single thing. We choose what we want to ‘have.’ We allow it. We possess it.
To ‘have’ a thought-based attack is nothing more than to wantonly allow the creation of fearful thoughts within us. But rather than recognizing them and dismissing them as the wild musings of a non-expert, our egos will tend to get possessive about our thoughts.
This is where things become dangerous because we will egotistically assume that we don’t want others to replace our thoughts with their thoughts –even if their thoughts are more informed or more comforting than ours.
At that point we can actually become resistant to any good news or ideas that disagree with our uninformed beliefs. We then start to identify with our thoughts so much that we think we become them.
This is particularly dangerous, because then when someone reasonably asks us to change our mind based on what our shared knowledge knows, we will resist the wisdom of our group because we see accepting those ideas as threatening to our identity.
We should never identify with our opinions, only our processes. If we know we’re fallible, the question becomes, what system are we using to identify and resolve our mistakes? When it comes to human health, the system we use is science.
Science and the good will of health authorities is what we all rely on every time we go to the hospital or take a pill and we’ve all done that with great confidence. There is no reason to stop now. If anything, we should be paying more attention than ever.
If anyone is overwhelmed with COVID-related thoughts right now, we can surrender any that are about what to do regarding our health. Public health officials the world over agree on what should be done. Once we’ve followed those recommendations, we can live knowing that we have handed the thinking over to the most qualified people do it.
The world is far too complex for any of us to be experts in everything. We all need the wisdom of others when dealing with their areas of expertise. And needing that advice is not a sign of weakness. Accepting it, and working together with others, is the basis of most of the strength in our social, psychological and spiritual lives.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.