I recently read a devastating and beguiling book called Bewilderment by Richard Powers. The protagonist is a young boy who is undergoing neurofeedback therapy via an “empathy machine” where he is able to tap into the mind of his late mother. He attends sessions where he trains on her mind, increasingly adopting her best traits and tempering his spiky, impetuous personality. It seemed strange at first: the notion of training our minds… Why would we intentionally let our minds be shaped in ways that distance us from ourselves?
But the truth is far more uncomfortable: we are letting our minds be trained all the time. For many of us, they’re being trained by social media, by the 24-hour news cycle, by the unrelenting quest to win games of status and comparison. Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and philosopher, says “the quality of our minds dictates the quality of our lives.”
We spend so much time thinking about training our bodies over our lifetime through regular exercise, but we are largely blind to the ways we are unknowingly training our minds through our relationship to content, our relationship to technology, our relationship to the pace of our lives. Whether we know it or not, we are letting our minds be trained.
There is perhaps nothing more stirring than the realization that we have a choice of what we allow to train us: the people, spaces, ideas, and technologies. When we admit to ourselves that we are always training, it opens up the potential for us to make conscious, different choices.
It might just invite us out into the old-growth forests, or back into the studio with our dusty set of watercolors, or onto the blank page of our own journal, or into the poetry that seeks us out, even the parts of us that we’ve hidden all year long.