The Ecosystem of the Mind
For as long as humans have been interacting with nature (which is to say, for all time), we’ve sought to bend and manipulate the ecosystem to our benefit. Things simply aren’t the way we need them to be, and armed with a pair of thumbs and some terrible ideas, we’ve always been up to the task.
Nature is, tragically, not having it. While we’ve done an admirable job of asserting our dominance, the unintended consequences of trying to control nature will probably involve us dying at some point.
Through our tragic comedy of errors versus nature, we can learn a valuable lesson about control: the harder we try to control something, the more out of control things become.
If we were to view the mind as nothing more than the ecosystem behind our eyes, we realize quickly that the same rules apply. Unfortunately, we’re prone to making the same fundamental mistakes. Our frenetic desire to control the nature both within and outside of us will often go terribly wrong.
Controlling an ecosystem
The late 1800s was an exciting time in America. The government seemed to have the land, but much remained mysterious and unexplored. Stories would be shared of a volatile region in the northwest, where the ground opened up to hell itself, sulphurous steam would rise from the forest floor, and explosions of boiling acid would erupt from the earth.
The Indigenous populations of the time did not see the “discovery” of Yellowstone as a huge deal. They’d used the land’s unique characteristics for thousands of years. The entire area is one giant volcano, so ample obsidian deposits made it a goldmine of tool making. The abundance of heat from the earth made warming and sanitizing more straightforward than starting fires all the time. For migrant hunters, Yellowstone was sweet.
Most documentation about the area talks about it as an uninhabitable hellscape until the great white heroes arrived in the 1860s. Conveniently leaving aside the fact that humans had spent time there alongside woolly mammoths, Yellowstone was categorized as “untamed” and desperately in need of taming.
And tame it they tried. Yellowstone itself thrived under multiple tribes of people for upwards of 11,000 years. However, once the white settlers arrived, it only took about 60 years for them to leave an indelible and profound scar on the land.
They didn’t necessarily mean to damage it; they just possessed that dangerous combination of ambition and ignorance necessary to make terrible mistakes. Preserving the land as a natural wonder was not a mistake, and was impressively forward-thinking for the time. That they at least tried to protect it as a natural wonder is commendable… it’s just that for the previous 11,000 years, it was already preserved as a natural wonder. Points for effort though, American government.
Scouts returned from their expeditions to report to the government that the stories were confirmed: the land was littered with fascinating geological formations unseen elsewhere in the country (and rare across the planet). Painters tasked with documenting the landscape returned with unfinished pieces, claiming that the beauty of the land was beyond the capabilities of human art.
As a result, it was decided that Yellowstone would be protected as the first National Park in the world so that future generations could explore and marvel at its beauty. It would remain untouched from development and kept as a gem. Of course, like all gems, it could perhaps use a bit of polish. Little did they realize that in trying to improve the land, they’d make devastating ecological mistakes.
Good animals and bad animals
One hundred years ago, there was such a thing as a “good” animal and a “bad” animal. Good animals were the majestic herbivores, and bad animals were the carnivores, mainly seen as godless killing machines. They ate the baby good animals, and it was all so unpleasant.
Don’t act so superior. You know you’re no better than me, reacting with horror during every David Attenborough special where a baby something is ripped to pieces by a monstrous other something. The people 100 years ago may have been wrong, but we can relate to them.
And so it was decided that the glory of Yellowstone would become a nature preserve for cool animals only. Wolves–profoundly uncool–were the primary targets, with the last wolf being eradicated in 1926. With the toothy pricks out of the way, majestic animals such as elk and deer were free to roam the land and do what they do best. And they did, which was a problem because two things elk and deer do really well is eat trees and bang.
With nothing to keep their populations in check, elk and deer ravaged the land, only stopping to make little elk and deer. That’s a lot of furry mouths to feed. Within a few generations, the forest system was in serious trouble. Every small tree was eaten so nothing could gain a foothold. The cycle of forests was disrupted as new growth couldn’t replace old growth.
As research continued, white people slowly came back to the wisdom that the Indigenous people figured out before humans even had a written language. Removing a piece from the Jenga Tower of nature can sometimes result in total collapse.
The return of the wolves
In the 1990s, a deal was struck with Alberta, Canada, to return wolves to Yellowstone. After 70 years without wolves, 41 were returned to the land. What would result is known in ecological circles as a trophic cascade: a series of events that travel through a food chain (and beyond).
Even with only a relative handful of wolves in the area, the changes resulting from their presence were immense (as outlined in this video). Their very existence kept Elk from certain pinch-points where ambush was likely. The small trees could establish themselves in those areas, and small forests began to take shape. Once the trees returned, so did the animals that required them, such as beavers. Beavers could use the trees to dam rivers and create new ecosystems, which would, in turn, fill with other animals (tasty ones, at that), which led to a growth of predators that could eat them, such as birds and coyotes (who were already pretty jacked about the forests filling up with rabbits).
The new forests would produce berry bushes, and the wolves would leave elk carcasses around, so the local bear populations began to rise also. Beyond animals themselves, though, the wolves even began to reshape the river systems.
With vegetation returning to the river banks, they became more robust and less prone to collapse, so the water began to cut through the land differently. With erosion less of a factor, the rivers could become stronger and more direct.
Despite the damage caused by interference, how quickly the land recovered is almost inspirational. While not killing the planet in the first place would be a neat stretch goal, there is some hope in seeing that while it takes relatively little to screw up the whole system, it can also take relatively little to help bring it back.
The issue with control
The white settlers of Yellowstone had good intentions when they wanted to protect the land, but they still couldn’t help themselves. There were elements of that nature they couldn’t leave alone, and they thirsted to control it.
Control is a funny thing in that we crave it desperately, yet most evidence suggests that attaining it is mostly impossible. You can play the cosmic game of whack-a-mole all you want, but there’s always a driver distracted by a text message, an economic collapse, or a wee virus ready to have a go at your perfect little plans. It needn’t even be a disaster to throw you for a loop–ask anybody who’s ever started a business or a family how long it took for them to toss their binder of organization in the bin. There are thousands upon thousands of factors you can’t account for and thousands upon thousands of things you don’t know.
A world of random chaos is uncomfortable for us. One significant contributor to burnout and depression is the feeling that we lack control, which is concerning because we do. Humans like a plan, but we never get a complete one.
This desire for clarity and control can lead to a paradoxical problem in that the harder you attempt to exert effort to control, the more unstable things seem to get. Given that every day we deal with thousands of potential outcomes, and most of those are well beyond our influence, it makes sense that the more you try to wrangle, the more disappointment you’re likely to face.
This is precisely why it’s interesting how intent we seem to be in controlling our minds.
Controlling the ecosystem of the mind
Looking back on Yellowstone, of course its new stewards were going to have things blow up in their faces after removing the wolves. It all seems so obvious today that you can’t eliminate anything from an ecosystem and not have that ecosystem return fire in an unintended and devastating way.
And yet, every day, that’s precisely what many of us try to do with the ecosystem of our minds. Negativity, bad thoughts, and difficult feelings are just the wolves that live between our ears. They’re there, but goddamn do they ever get in the way. What if we could have cute, enjoyable thoughts all day long? Wouldn’t that be ideal? Wolves are just so… I don’t know… freaky. Surely, we can kill a few of them, right? Or all of them? Just brainstorming. Look, there are no bad ideas.
Turns out there are tons of bad ideas.
Good vibes only
Despite the point I’m attempting to get at here, I am a fierce optimist. Many of my friends will tell you to your face (as they have mine) that my optimism can be fiercely off-putting in certain situations. I have been accused–wrongly, I will argue–of being a “good vibes only” doofus.
“Good vibes only” is a movement to eliminate negativity and tune our frequencies to ones rich with opportunity and positivity. This isn’t on the surface a bad idea, but there is the issue of the pesky addition of “only.”
While well intended, the “good vibes only” mentality introduces more than a few problems. The first is that it’s impossible to truly attain. Disregarding bad vibes is like disregarding a thunderstorm. Try as you may, thunderstorms are largely not up to you. In fact, they barely consider your opinions at all.
Secondly, life can get mighty disappointing when the first problem comes to visit. It’s exhausting keeping a positive mindset spinning every day against the untiring and uninterested force of the universe. And if every pitfall demands you find a bright side, looking might as well become a full-time job.
Thirdly, energy cannot be created or destroyed. We may believe this fully in science class, but when it comes to blowing bad feelings into stardust, we get mighty overconfident. We can move uncomfortable feelings around with swift efficiency, but destroying them? Not really. Maybe you achieve relief, but that bubble of terrible has just travelled somewhere you’ll notice it less (well, for today at least).
Fourth, operating with a high degree of self-judgement is a sure way to fall flat on your ass. It’s tough to progress without an ounce of self-compassion, and as we learned in #2, if your job is to find the sweet side of every saltine, you’re going to spend a lot of time on Failure Island.
Fifth, consider that there might not even be bad vibes. Or good ones. There’s just vibes. Whether they’re good or bad is a personal call you make. There are vibes you want and vibes you don’t, and much like a wolf we don’t want in our forest, sometimes the vibes we don’t want are doing some critical work in the background.
Creating a healthy ecosystem
To create a healthy ecosystem in our minds is not unlike creating a healthy ecosystem beyond ourselves. We must let things be, regardless of how sharp their teeth may be.
It can suck hard to acknowledge that a healthy forest requires many things we’d rather not have. Uncomfortable feelings are–as the name lightly implies–uncomfortable, and it’s not uncommon to believe that a satisfying life is entirely comfortable.
Inviting the bullshit of life into our experience is certainly not easy, even when we acknowledge that it helps things grow. A lot of life is positively painful. People we love will die, our boss sucks a lot, Game of Thrones didn’t end the way you wanted. Existence is pain.
So, where do we begin? Where does one start when the goal is to actively invite the undesirable in?
Acknowledge the suck
It sounds perpetually silly, but sometimes where we need to start is by admitting something sucks. One trap chronic optimists fall into is believing that every step of this life needs to be fuel for the next conquest. Sometimes, life serves you a lesson wrapped in a challenge; sometimes, you open that challenge, looking for a lesson, and there’s nothing inside but more challenge.
Admitting something is painful can be freeing. You don’t have to work with it, manipulate it, or find the hidden meaning. It can just be a thing that blows and you’re not a failure for not being able to find the glorious centre, because there isn’t one.
We can build this muscle, but don’t start by trying to bench press a truck. If you’re exploring this idea, maybe don’t dive in on the weekend you lose a parent. Start with inconsequential things, like the person who cuts you off in traffic or your spouse loading the dishwasher incorrectly. The good news is you’ll have endless opportunities to practice because they always load that thing wrong.
The bad news is we often don’t try to build this muscle until we really need it, and that’s going to be tough. We prepare for the storm on the clear sunny days, and that can be something of a buzzkill.
Write it down
If you’ve ever had a friend brace you for the great travesty, they’re about to tell you only to find yourself confused by what the problem is, you know we tend to build things up in our minds. Different perspectives are excellent (and sometimes humbling when you’re the angry narrator who’s tied themselves in knots). They let us see that perhaps there’s more at play here, and we’re making mountains out of molehills.
Writing down our problems is an odd trick for being our own friend sometimes. Maybe we need to vent, or perhaps writing uses a different track than thinking in our brains. Sometimes, when we write down our troubles, we introduce a slight perspective shift, and a little voice can appear to say, “Is this really as bad as you think it is?”
Somebody I recently heard from who acts as a sponsor to recovering addicts said the first thing he asks whenever anybody comes to him in a moment of weakness is, “When’s the last time you went for a run?” Invariably, it will have been some time, so he asks them to go for a quick 20-30 minute jog and call him right back. The second phone call will often be slightly calmer than the first.
This isn’t a matter of ignoring your problems or feelings with exercise, but more about adjusting the battlefield the feelings are currently fighting on. The sadness in an environment of turmoil and an environment of endorphins are two very different feelings of sadness, even if they grew from the same problem.
All things are connected. Just as the wolves of Yellowstone were intimately connected to the flow of the rivers, so too are your thoughts related to your health.
In our consistent effort to do away with “bad” feelings and emotions, all we truly accomplish is creating an ecosystem out of balance. We want to feel good, and in turn, we end up with weak-ass river banks. Nature remains positively indifferent to your demands. As such, creating a healthy ecosystem is not done by inviting the comfortable and ignoring the uncomfortable. Nature’s goal is not to make you feel good; it’s balance. This is no different than the goal of your mind. Your mind is little more than a garden, forest, or national park situated somewhere between your ears. So consider that perhaps we shouldn’t try to kill parts of it.