A couple of months ago, not long before the parliamentary elections in the UK, my wife made an interesting observation. "Based on my Facebook feed," she pointed out, "Labour are going to win this election by a landslide."
When I looked through her feed, I could see what she meant. Not only were there numerous posts and re-posts of news stories and blogs about how the UK was swinging back towards the left, even the ads and promoted stories seemed to indicate a new tide coming in British politics. Knowing a thing or two about confirmation bias and the nature of social media, I remained unconvinced.
When the election actually happened and the Conservatives regained a majority that seemed to catch many of the major news outlets (and pretty much all of her friends on Facebook) completely by surprise, my suspicions were confirmed. The problem with going to Facebook to see which way the winds of change are blowing is that your preferences determine the direction of the wind.
Without pretending to know anything about the details of how Facebook filters its news feeds, it's pretty clear that each time you 'Like' a post, you get to see more posts like the one you clicked on and less posts unlike it. Programs like Pandora and Stumble Upon use a similar algorithm to help users design their perfect radio stations that only play songs they really like and only see websites that reflect their personal interests.
So in effect, social media very effectively narrows our reality tunnels by including more and more "evidence" that confirms our pre-existing biases and less and less evidence that there are happy, successful people in the world who think differently than we do.
My point, as you have probably guessed, is nothing to do with the relative merits of social media. It's just that most of us are largely unaware that the mind works in exactly the same way. Each time we give our attention to a thought on its way through our heads, the associative algorithm of the mind will send more thoughts along like the one we're thinking about; each time a thought passes through which fails to hook our attention, it disappears back into the fertile void from which it came.
If you've ever been in an argument with a long-time friend or family member (and I'm assuming you have), you've experienced this for yourself. As soon as they do that thing they do that drives you nuts, you start to think about the last time they did it, then the time before that. Before long, the "Facebook feed of the mind" is showing you nothing but examples of the other person's history of malfeasance and your heroic stand against them and people like them throughout your life.
Missing entirely from the feed for the duration of this thought-storm are any examples of their kindness, intelligence, love; once the storm passes, the feed begins to gradually reintroduce memories of good times that not only remind you of why you love them but also give you compassion for their inevitable moments of lostness, confusion, and insecurity.
Similarly, when we are infatuated with a new child, toy, lover, or cause in the world, our inner news feed is filled with thoughts of how wonderful they are and how wonderful life with them will be on into our infinite future together. Then, when the infatuation settles down, the news feed starts to reintroduce thoughts to remind us that at least on this planet, there is no light without dark, no good without bad, and no left without right.
So what are we to do with a mind that often seems to have a mind of its own?
Here are two strategies popular in today's society followed by a much simpler but perhaps radical sounding alternative...
1. Positive thinking
The idea behind positive thinking as a strategy for happiness and success is straight forward. Since the mind works like a Facebook feed giving us more of what we "Like" with our attention, the more we attend to our positive thoughts and feelings and the less we worry about the negative ones, the more positive thoughts and feelings we will tend to have.
And that would be true, but for the fact that the act of dividing the world into positive and negative (not to mention "Like"s and "Dislike"s) creates the very duality that we are using "positive thinking" to overcome. It's difficult if not impossible to make one thing all good without making its opposite all bad -- and the devil is in the details of who decides which is which along the way.
Traditional mindfulness meditation encourages us to stay present to our physical body - perhaps by focusing on our breathing or footsteps in the present moment - while watching our thoughts float by like flotsam and jetsam in the river of our thinking. By staying attuned to what's coming up in our mental news feed without ever clicking on the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" buttons, we are able to remain sane even while our thinking is going crazy.
This allows us a calmer, wiser perspective on things, and coupled with loving-kindness meditations, prayer, and other practices designed to help us be compassionate towards all living beings including ourselves, we move through the world in a deliberate attempt to honor the Bodhisattva's vow -- that "for as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world."
But the core limitation of the practice of mindfulness is that you have to actually practice - and for the millions of people who are coming to mindfulness not to dispel the misery of the world so much as to be less stressed at work, the discipline of constant practice seems a steep price when a few beers after work and a prescription for Xanax seem to have roughly the same effect.
3. Listening beyond thought
There was a time when our son was in high school where we worried that he was becoming addicted to social media. After a few failed attempts at imposing external restrictions on his computer time, we decided to just watch and wait and see if something new would occur to either us or to him that might bring him back to life and away from his screen-induced stupor. To our delight and my surprise, one day he seemed completely back to his old self.
I left it a few days, but when he continued to not disappear into his devices I asked him what had changed. "Oh," he said casually as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I deleted my Facebook account."
Now, this is not a screed against social media -- I spend time and money online and on the whole enjoy keeping up with the lives of my friends and even my "friends". But what happened with my son points to a capacity in all of us that is always available but often overlooked.
When we allow the Facebook feed of our mind to do what it does without any attempt to direct it, control it, or even be particularly mindful of its content, a hidden algorithm emerges. Instead of getting more apparently positive or negative thinking, we start to get less thinking.
Those thoughts that do come through our inner news feed seem to be of a higher quality - wisdom from somewhere deep within our own consciousness. New insights and ideas occur to us, seemingly out of the blue, and we often know what to do without having any idea why. This innate capacity is a part of what I call "the principle of Mind" -- a fundamental pre-existing intelligence that can be seen throughout the natural world and appears in human beings as both common sense and deeper wisdom.
Here's how I wrote about it in The Inside-Out Revolution:
The principle of Mind seems to work through us in the direction of health and well-being. It's a sort of spiritual immune system that will bring a return to peace the moment we step out of the way. I wouldn't even think of trying to heal my own cut finger; I needn't try so hard to heal my wounded psyche.
The reason so few of us get to experience that power working in our life is that we're so busy trying to fix everything for ourselves. And ironically, like the pilot overworking the controls of a plane designed to right itself, our constant affirmations and interventions often get in the way of our mind's return to clarity and health.
We try so hard to remember to live by the wisdom and insights of others that we forget the source of that wisdom is inside us as well. Insights are the natural side-effects of living with a relatively quiet mind and a relatively beautiful feeling. Forget the words, stay with the feeling, and the insights will continue to unfold.
As you leave your mind to its own devices, neither trying to control it with your will, go unconscious to it with drugs or distraction, or become overly conscious of it through meditative practice, you will find yourself more and more in a state of mind that Tibetan Buddhists call "undistracted non-meditation" and we Westerners tend to call "flow", or being "in the zone."
And when you are in that zone, you find yourself in natural harmony with the flow of wisdom and well-being - and the Facebook feed of the mind continues quietly on in the background without creating any limitation or stress in your world.
For more by Michael Neill, click here.