Jan 14, 2013

Terrible Master

As we’re in the thick of the dark months, with seasonal affective disorder at the height of its power, I thought I’d use the blog to tuck in one of the most useful things I’ve heard in the last couple years. A quote. Just ten short words:

"The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master."

I've heard this quote attributed to bestselling author Robin Sharma (he mentions it in his book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari). I've heard it attributed to David Foster Wallace (more on that in a minute), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Yogi Bhajan (none of those are right). As best I can tell it is a proverb, likely an old Asian one, that's been brandished by anyone and everyone who discovers its power.

The idea is: don't let your mind push you around. Treat it like your minion! Put it to work to solve your math problems, crunch your numbers, parse your texts, do whatever it is you do for a living, and then when you get home at the end of the day... give it a rest. Because, sure, your brain can detect patterns in who seemed to squint at you at that dinner party, how that soured friendship and recent breakup means you're a people-repelling troll, how an unfriendly gas station attendant means humanity is doomed... but when it comes to the chaos of everyday life, these mental calculations aren't always relevant -- if you let your mind whir incessantly, it can lead you into mental sand traps.

In his 2005 Commencement Speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace made this point to graduating seniors: "the choice of what to think about," he reminded them, is essentially our greatest power. He argued that "the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it." Though haunted perhaps by his own difficulties in taming the terrible master, the speech is very much worth a read or listen.

Lastly, I recently came across a sort of example of how to convert the master into servant in the moment. In his essay "Altered States: Self Experiments in Chemistry," Oliver Sacks details a chapter of his life (in the 1960s) where he experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. At one point, toward the end of his druggie days, he started experiencing terrifying hallucinations (when he was not in fact on drugs, but in the throes of withdrawal from chloral hydrate). First his coffee turned green. Then he stepped onto the bus and saw the passengers alongside him all had huge egg-shaped heads. He was overcome with terror. He was sure he had lost it; he was about to scream or become catatonic, when suddenly... somehow, he ordered his brain to work. He writes: "The best way of doing this, I found, was to write, to describe the hallucination in clear, almost clinical detail, and, in so doing, become an observer, even an explorer, not a helpless victim, of the craziness inside me." He stopped his drug use shortly after. Here's a pdf of the essay.

Thanks for indulging a day of adage. We'll get back to science next week. In the meantime, if you have a quote or proverb, that, to your surprise, has stuck with you over the years, please share it.

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