🧠 What Controls Your Mind?

Do you think you control your feelings, thinking, and actions with your own free will? Do you think you see reality as it is or with distortions and illusions?


🧘 Try this experiment:

Sit still. Close your eyes. Focus only on your breathing for 10 minutes. Don’t think about anything else. Open your eyes when you’re done. How did you do? I bet it was difficult. You were just trying to sit still and observe your breath. That was all that was happening in reality. But your mind was probably not satisfied with that reality.

Your mind was busy with random thoughts. Your mind was like your nosy and chatty friends. It had a lot to say and didn’t let you focus quietly on your breath.

Becoming aware of what controls your mind is the first step to know yourself and gain control over your thoughts and your reactions to reality.

👁️ Three Major Sources of Interference with Reality

As you get older, cataracts can form in your eyes and your vision gets blurry. At some point, your ophthalmologist might suggest cataract surgery to get a new lens. But cataracts are not the only things that prevent you from seeing things clearly.

In his book, “The Evolving Self: a Psychology for the Third Millennium,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. discusses three major sources of interference that we have “inside” us that affects our ability to see clearly and act freely. To gain control over your own life, first, you need to be aware of these three sources. They are your genes, culture, and ego.

🧬 1. Your Genes Control You

Why do babies know how to cry when they are hungry? You might think you have total freedom in how you experience the world. But not quite. It’s limited and structured by your genes. Your genes tell you to follow the best strategies for survival that have been passed down from your ancestors.


👶 Innate Behaviors

Babies cry when they are hungry. They imitate adults around them. They do that even though you don’t teach them. It’s because they are born with preconfigured genetic instructions. Their genes tell them to imitate the behaviors of people around them no matter what.

Where did these genetic instructions come from? You inherited them from your parents. Your parents inherited them from their parents. These instructions have been passed on more or less unchanged for many millions of years from ancestor to ancestor.


🍨 Cravings and Impulses

Do you know why you gorge yourself with high-calorie food such as ice cream or cake even though you know that it’s not good for your health?

In his book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari, Ph.D. says that you do that because you inherited the genes from your ancestors who used to be foragers. When they were living in the savannas and forests, they didn’t have much food, let alone high-calorie sweets.

On rare occasions when they found something sweet like ripe fruits, the best strategy for them was to eat as much and as fast as possible on the spot. They didn’t want that treasured food to be taken by other animals and they didn’t have a refrigerator to store it for later.

Now most of us don’t live in a forest and we have plenty of food stored in our fridges. But our genes, which have not changed much for millions of years, still think we live in a forest. So we end up eating the whole pint of ice cream or a whole bag of potato chips.

Do you eat fast even when you aren’t hungry? Maybe your genes are telling you to do so even though nobody is going to take your food!


🧬 What’s the purpose of your genes?

The purpose of your genes is to protect you only for as long as is needed to produce viable offspring. This is true for all species. The octopus, the squid, and salmon all die soon after reproducing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says,

“lately evolutionary biologists have begun to argue that the individual person, as far as the genes are concerned, is only a vehicle for their own reproduction and further dissemination.”

“Genes are not our little helpers; it is we who are their servants.”

Unfortunately, your genes are selfish and only concerned about their agenda. But many of us don’t realize that we are being manipulated by our genes.


🤔 Pause and Think.

Can you get rid of your genes? You can’t; you were born with them. Also, it’s not to your advantage to get rid of the survival wisdom you’ve inherited over millions of years.

Then what can you do to gain some freedom from the tyranny of your genes?

Ask yourself, “Am I adding this extra salt because I’m exercising my free choice or being manipulated by my genes from the time when salt was scarce?” “Am I grabbing this can of soda because my genes tell me to consume as much sugar as possible?”


🌏 2. Your Culture Controls You

Your culture significantly influences how you think, feel, and act. In fact, it plays a major role in shaping who you are. You’ve learned particular ways of thinking and behaving from your culture.

While your culture provides you with a framework to navigate the world and survive, blindly adhering to its worldview can be disadvantageous. Doing so can limit your perspective and restrict your options.


👓 The Cultural Lens

Your culture creates a unique lens through which you view the world. This lens often feels like an accurate representation of reality, but it can be limiting when encountering different cultures.

I experienced this firsthand when I moved from Japan to the United States. In Japan, there was tremendous social pressure to behave in a certain way. Consequently, there were many things that “I could not do” or “I had to do.” I believed these actions held absolute value, but after moving to the US, I realized they were only of absolute value within the Japanese culture I was born into.

Blind adherence to your culture can lead to an “us versus them” mentality, fostering a sense of superiority and hostility towards others. This mindset can result in disharmony, discrimination, and even conflict.


🔍 Becoming Aware of Your Cultural Lens

Acknowledging the role of culture in your life is essential, but it’s also important to be aware of your cultural lens.

When you get a new prescription for your glasses, the optometrist asks you which lens is better, “1 or 2?” You can treat your cultural lens the same way.

Depending on whether I’m landing in New York or Tokyo, I put on a different lens in my mind. I chuckle to myself when I do that. I need a particular lens to navigate, but wearing a cultural lens blindly or intentionally makes a big difference in how I feel.

When I use to wear my “Japanese lens” blindly, I felt constricted. But when I wear it intentionally, I feel in control. It’s a great feeling.


😄 Adjusting Your Cultural Lens

Strive to be aware of your cultural lens and adjust it as needed. Recognize when you are blindly following cultural norms or consciously choosing to do so, and take control of how your lens influences your decisions. This awareness will allow you to embrace different perspectives and make more informed choices.


🤔 3. Your Ego Controls You

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that a recent development in human evolution, self-reflective consciousness, freed us from the total control of our genes and culture for the first time in human history. Although this was a welcome development, it created a thick new lens we now wear, that is, the illusions of an ego.

🛡️ Protecting the Ego

Once an ego is present, its most important goal becomes protecting it at all costs. How many people have been killed in wars due to human dictatorial egos?


👜 Possessions and Self-Worth

You might not start a war to satisfy your ego, but often your ego influences your actions. You might buy a handbag, clothes, car, or house to satisfy your ego even though you don’t need them.

The danger is that as you invest more psychic energy into these objects, you start to think that your worth depends on the sum of your possessions and it becomes difficult for you to separate your possessions from your self-worth. This can lead you to lose control of your own life.


🔧 Build an Ego That Serves You

It’s very challenging, if not impossible, not to have any ego. The best thing you can do is to build an ego that serves you. Knowing when enough is enough is the first step. Instead of letting your ego drive you endlessly, stop and reflect on your choices.

Before you buy a house, ask yourself, “Do I really need this huge house or is my ego making me buy this house?” “Do I really need this car or is my ego making me want this car?”

Letting your ego negatively affect you can destroy your life, and on a macro scale, even the earth.


🚦 Do This Now to Gain Control over Your Life

Periodically, pause and think. Am I thinking, feeling, acting the way I am now because of my free choice? Am I being manipulated by my not-so-friendly genes? Is my cultural lens making me see reality with distorted illusions? Is my ego making me act in this way?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says,

“People who lead a satisfying life, who are in tune with their past and with their future—in short, people whom we would call ‘happy’—are generally individuals who have lived their lives according to rules they themselves created.”


Realizing what controls you is the first step to know yourself, gain control over your life, and eventually live life with positive control you create for yourself.