Horse and Rider

Most of us would like our feelings to line up with our will. We want to “feel” like doing, what we “think” we want; short of that, we want more willpower to overcome the strong pull feeling exerts away from our goals. Experiencing inner wrangling and a lack of control over ourselves, we regularly see ourselves succumb to instant gratification — sabotaging our long-term intentions. This daily internal struggle blocks our efforts to direct our behavior in constructive ways. Our perceived “failures” can lead to a negative self-regard and a sense that we are powerless to change.

Internal strife suggests that we are not of one mind. We know this to be true, yet our inner executive resists the idea that his or her influence is not absolute. A true examination of our experience suggests that we are informed by many influences within us, which may or may not be moving in the same direction. They seem to glide in and out of the executive’s chair, and we often sense a fight in the board room as they scuffle for takeover. The mind is complicated, as is the brain, and whatever relationship these two have to one another, both have many components. To keep it simple, we have conscious aspects and subconscious aspects of mind. Our consciousness has the will, but our subconsciousness possesses the power.

Horse in ControlI think the metaphor of a horse and rider aptly symbolizes the subconscious and conscious mind. The rider has the will, but the horse provides the power. When a horse and rider are in sync with one another, they can accomplish amazing tasks. BuckingBroncoWhen not in sync, it gets ugly fast. What they are capable of achieving depends entirely upon the relationship that is forged between the two. This is a lifelong relationship, but the horse has the jump start.

The horse’s training begins immediately, but it is not the rider who early on wields the reins. The rider is slow to develop and is initially just along for the ride like a child on a pony ride. Training and support is dependent upon external sources, such as parents and other guardians. The horse has had significant training by the time it is even possible for the rider to exert any influence. Each horse and rider are unique: Some are bold, and some are timid; some have constructive training, and some do not. Along the way, they encounter circumstances that will interact with their training. The combinations are infinite and will shape their path through the terrain of life.

Yet, training and relationship building are ongoing — horses and riders can change. Improved relationships can be forged. We all need to become better horse whisperers, especially when there has been trauma or difficult circumstances. Our horse does not forget and will remember events unknown to its rider. Experiences can trigger a fight, flight or freeze reaction which the rider may not understand. Horses are powerful and cannot be forced. They need patience and compassion to build the trust and consistency, which will make them more responsive to their rider’s will.

It’s a lot like nuts and bolts – if the rider’s nuts, the horse bolts!  — Nicholas Evans


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Harnessing the Wind

classic-sailingThe sailor harnesses the wind but has no power over it. By manipulating the sails and the rudder, the sailor directs the boat to achieve what movement is possible within the imposed constraints. Unlike most of us, the sailor has no illusions concerning what can and cannot be controlled.

Our illusions stem from our conscious awareness (the executive suite) believing it is in charge and running the show — believing doesn’t make it so. Freeing ourselves from our illusions may not be fully possible, but the effort to notice them may be worthwhile and might make us more effective in our lives.

Thinking like the sailor and clarifying what we do and do not control might be a good first step. In our case, this is more complicated since some of the “wind, weather and tides” come from within the subconscious mind. Identifying our controllable sails and rudder can be confusing since the whole system can run on autopilot without conscious involvement (e.g., highway hypnosis). However, our conscious executive does have some controls, and these can be used to influence what is outside of our direct control.

The difference between control and influence can be illustrated by comparing how you slow your breathing (control) versus how you slow your heart rate (influence). The former is a direct experience; if asked how you did it you might be stumped … “I just did it.” The latter is indirect; if asked how you accomplished it, you could likely explain how you calmed your breathing, relaxed your muscles and visualized a peaceful scene. You are explaining how you used your direct controls to influence what is outside your direct control. It can be a subtle but important distinction that A → C (control) is different from A → B → C (influence) — especially as the chain extends.

When it comes to our mental life there are fewer aspects under direct conscious control than we may have realized. Many features of our mental and physical experience are actually only consciously “influenced.” For example, we often hear “control your emotions,” but technically speaking, we don’t have “control” of our emotions. While it might sound a bit more ponderous to ask one to influence their emotions, it would be more accurate.

Mental control is a powerful tool, but one that is highly inefficient because it draws considerable energy resources, and can really only do one thing at a time. When our conscious mind attempts to micromanage, performance always declines. Our system “wants” to conserve energy, and running on autopilot is far more efficient than using our executive controls. It helps to think of this in terms of the executive suite metaphor. While we need the executives, they are expensive; given that corporate CEO’s make on average 250 times what the average worker does, we need to conserve their use for specific, necessary tasks. This principle is well stated by the United States Chief Executive, President Barack Obama, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it.” And, I might add, it makes no sense for him to solve what someone else could solve. 

Our primary mental control is the ability to focus our attention. This is similar to using a flashlight in a dark room, because where we point the light dictates what will be in our awareness, what is not illuminated remains in darkness and subsequently out of the executive suite’s awareness. This ability to focus our awareness combined with our other mental controls such as analysis, problem solving, planning and language expression have built kingdoms and space stations. However, this combination also contributes to the perception that we can or should be able to control all of our thoughts, since these conscious activities do result in thoughts. While we can create and direct some thought, much of our thinking occurs outside of voluntary activity. Most of our inner dialogue is involuntary and is so familiar to our awareness that it becomes like background music.

A great deal happens outside the light of conscious awareness over which we are not wired to have direct control. Fortunately we have an autopilot mode and can do many things without conscious involvement — but not everything. With our voluntary control over our attentional spotlight, along with some important executive mental functions that also include directing our movement and breathing, we can influence a great deal. These meager resources allow us to yield significant influence and ultimately harness the wind … and maintain our illusion of control.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

The New Arrival

stork_baby_deliveryIt has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.  — Bertrand Russell (1950)

Our unconscious brain is an automatic and fast parallel processing system of interacting components oriented towards our survival and adaption in the world. The primary script is to avoid what is painful and to seek out what is pleasurable. Emotions at their fundamental level involve judgment about whether to approach or avoid. These basic impulses are reflected in our broader array of human emotions which developed in large part to the interpersonal world we live in. Our advanced brains are the accumulated product of a long, long history of life adapting to changing conditions. With time self-consciousness emerged, though it was a late arrival to the evolving brain. Like a newborn, it demanded a lot of attention and energy. This part of the brain, capable of executive functions like planning, troubleshooting and resisting temptation, came along to support and advance what was already in place. This means that the part of our self which we most identify with, the part that “feels” like it is in charge, is really just one of many modules that have advanced fitness. Given that it is the new arrival to the project, it is not primary and like our newborns (while it may sometimes seem otherwise) is not really in charge.

Our felt experience is that the “executive suite” of the brain is running things, but that is because this awareness has its office in the executive suite. Executives often “feel” like they are in charge, but in truth they can only be aware of a small part of what is happening in the organization. Every level of the organization deals with what it needs to and only goes up the “chain of command” when it needs to. President Barack Obama once said, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it.” The executive of an organization would quickly be overwhelmed if they had to deal with or approve every decision, and in truth, they would be clueless about many of those lower level decisions. The executives only hear from those close and only speak to those close. This means that the executive suite only hears about a small subset of information and is only capable of making certain types of decisions, those it is specialized to make.

This organization was not designed top down but it evolved bottom up. We did not begin as “rational animals” but evolved the capability to use reason. Most of what we do moment to moment is unconscious to us. “We” spend our time in our executive suite handling what is given to us from the vast organization “below” us. These activities keep us busy, help us feel vital to the organization and very self-important, but “we,” evolutionarily speaking, are just the new kid.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.