Psychological Preoccupation: Breaking out from the Mental Merry-Go-Round

(This article first appeared at on 14 Feb 2013)


Psychological Preoccupation: Breaking out from the Mental Merry-Go-Round

If you feel like you’re mentally stuck in a rut, making the same life mistakes, feel like your life is unchangeable, want to be a better person but don’t know how, and generally feel like you’re suffering from any number of pains, strains and angst – don’t worry – because firstly, you are not alone and secondly, there’s a good reason for it.

 All too often we get consumed by the micro minutiae of every day living and end up losing sight of the bigger picture of our lives and their meaning. As Francis Chan said “Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” But is this scenario resolved by some simple practical adjustments? Change a schedule here, cancel an appointment there, take up yoga and you’re done? Problem solved? Or is it fair to assume that there is a deeper imbalance to our lives that we ignore – consciously or not?

The human condition is our humanity-wide insecurity with being unable to fundamentally understand and explain if we humans are worthwhile or not. This condition is the root cause of our collective angst and leaves us incredibly pre-occupied with forever trying to defy some unspoken, personal judgement we have imposed upon ourselves.

Our individual limitations, fears, dreams, aspirations, anxieties etc are an enormous psychological pre-occupation for us, regardless of our level of awareness of them. Whatever these elements are (and they are different for each of us), they pre-occupy us as we strive to achieve/avoid them. Dr Arthur Janov, the famous American psychotherapist describes more succinctly “It seems as though we are all missing something and scrambling to get what we’ve missed. We seem to simply want “more”. So many of us are searching for a way out and are lost and bewildered by the world. It seems that emotional deprivation has become a legacy transmitted from one generation to the next.” (page 14).

Not surprisingly, there’s a multitude of psychologists, philosophers, scientists from other disciplines and many others who have provided further insight into the reasons behind our pre-occupied state and how to manage it. For example, BF Skinner’s 1989 work The Origins of Cognitive Thought sheds some light:  “We can trace a small part of human behaviour, and a much larger part of the behaviour of other species, to natural selection and the evolution of the species, but the greater part of human behaviour must be traced to contingencies of reinforcement, especially to the very complex social contingencies we call cultures. Only when we take those histories into account can we explain why people behave as they do.”

The elder statesman of modern clinical psychology William James took a slightly different angle when he postulated “The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way……..We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” (Chapter 4, Habit).

But is this human psychological mania a condition that can be explained and ameliorated? Or is it an unchangeable fact that we will remain inherently troubled?

Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith provides the most insightful, holistic and compelling explanation (and resolution) for the human condition and the debilitating mental pre-occupation that it produces. Griffith suggests that the imperfection of human life and the anxiety that accompanies it is the outcome of the emergence of consciousness some two million years ago which resulted in the unavoidable clash between humans instinctive and intellectual selves. The tension involved with the irreconcilability of these two elements within each of us form the basis for much of the bizarre duality and deficiency of human life.

“This predicament or ‘condition’ of not being able to understand ourselves meant that the more we tried to understand ourselvesthat is, the more we tried to think about this obvious and most important question about human behaviour of why is it so imperfectthe more depressed our thoughts became. Clearly, to avoid becoming suicidally depressed, we learntand learnt very early on in our livesnot to allow our minds to go on that thought journey. We learnt to totally avoid the whole depressing subject of the human condition.” (Section 1:4, Freedom: Expanded Book 2).

So how is this relevant to you and me? The answer is that we each have lived our lives under the existence of the human condition and it is this condition that is the root cause of our own personal and humans’ collective mental pre-occupations. Griffith’s synopsis helps enormously in getting some perspective on human existence (including yours!) as it is the ultimate in holistic explanation. The other notable aspect of Griffiths work is that it is compassionate: “And what is so wonderful……is that the explanation is compassionate. It explains that there has been a good reason for why we humans have not been ideally behaved. It is an explanation that completely dignifies and redeems us. It reconciles the opposites of good and evil in our natures and in doing so makes us whole.” (Section 1:1, Freedom: Expanded Book 2). This goes a long way to removing any personal regret/shame/guilt associated with any introspection about our personal situations.

So as modern life gets progressively faster and humanity’s collective mental preoccupation intensifies – see if you can’t get back some control of your life from the craziness with a little perspective and understanding. The good news is that the potential is within us to improve our lives, to be better listeners, to be better lovers, to get out of the mental “ruts” we find ourselves in etc – we just have to have the presence of mind to make the first step. As Soren Kierkegard, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher, once said “There are two ways to be fooled: One is to believe what isn’t so; The other is to refuse to believe what is so”. We should strive to avoid suffering from either.




This Blog Post was written by Connor on March 1, 2013


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