Last week I explained why our mind needs windows and why we must regularly throw those windows open. It is stuffy to the point of toxicity in that windowless room that is our mind.
That windowless room is also a place of remarkable pressure. Rarely does it feel like we can just stretch out on a beach chair and sun ourselves. Every so often it can feel that way: maybe when we’re holding a smiling baby, maybe when, for a moment, we surrender to the facts of existence and sigh, maybe when, on vacation, we are actually at the beach, sitting in a beach chair, with a cold drink in our hand. But those are the rare moments of mental relaxation. Most of the rest of the time what we experience in that room that is our mind is pressure, a pressure that makes us race even though we don’t want to, that makes us distract ourselves even though we know better, and that can cause us to harm ourselves and others.
We’ve created all sorts of names for that experience of pressure and none of them really captures our felt experience or paints a clear enough or true enough picture of what’s going on. Take the following example. Say that you’re married, off on a business trip, and attracted to someone in the hotel bar. We have words for that like “attraction” and “lust” and “sexual energy” and “instinct” but those words don’t capture the pressure put on us as our mind begins to do something that, without that pressure, it might well not want to do, namely prepare to betray our mate.
Take another example. You’re a teenager, you’ve had lots of unsettling and unpleasant experiences, and high school is something like hell. Your mind is a very dark and tumultuous place and, without really being able to explain to yourself why, you find that only cutting yourself with a razor blade helps you release that pressure. Probably you don’t exactly call it “pressure”—but if you did, and if you had a way to release that mind pressure in some way other than cutting yourself, can you see that you might gain the same relief in a better way? Cutting yourself is a too-literal safety valve: wouldn’t a figurative safety valve serve you better?
Take a third example. You’ve always had problems with keeping meaning afloat and recently life hasn’t been feeling very meaningful to you. Suddenly, out of nowhere, all the meaning drains out of your life. This is a horrible experience; and to deal with that terrible existential pressure you start on a pressurized ill-advised adventure—and become “manic.” Wouldn’t it be lovely to deal with that pressure in some other way and not have to rush off manically on a wild goose chase?
Forget for a moment about the exact content of our thoughts in those three situations—thoughts like, perhaps, “Wow, she is so sexy!”, “I hate my life so much!” or “I think I’ll build a boat by hand and sail around the world!” A cognitive therapist might want to focus on those words; but who will help you focus on the pressure you’re feeling? That must be you. Just as you must install windows in your mind and open them regularly, it is your job to install a safety valve that you know how to operate and that actually releases what for many of us is relentless and often intolerable pressure.
Your mind is a pressure cooker. Therefore you must create a release valve. That release valve might be as simple as creating and using a mantra like “releasing pressure now,” creating and using a more complicated ceremonial safety valve that involves letting the pressure out through your mouth with a “whoosh!”, or creating and using some unique and idiosyncratic strategy that you dream up. If you don’t create this release valve and if you don’t use it regularly, you will live under that pressure and do things to relieve that pressure that you don’t really want do, like betraying your loved ones, cutting yourself, or racing around in existential despair.
I hope that you see clearly what your second task is. Last week I advised you to add windows to your mind and regularly open them. That is your first task. Now I would like you to create a safety valve that allows you to release all that relentless, recurring mind pressure in smart, safe ways. When you can do that releasing you will likely cure your mania, your obsessive-compulsive disorder, your addictive behaviors, and all the other consequences that result from not releasing mind pressure soon enough or well enough. When you begin to do this, you will have taken another step on the path to self-mastery.
See if you can make personal sense of this metaphor of a safety valve and, if you can, do the brilliant thing of creating one right now.
This lesson is part of the Your Best Mind Ever series. In this groundbreaking program Dr. Eric Maisel teaches a brand new way to get a grip on our minds.