When I was in college, I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit the Soviet Union. It was 1988, just before the dissolution of the Communist state. Among many discoveries and culture shocks was my acquisition of a book called The Mind Parasites. It was by an English author, Colin Wilson. The book was written in English but featured a long section in Russian. To me, it felt like a mysterious contraband. I puzzled over what the foreign letters meant, whether there was some insidious message buried therein.
The book told the story of, you guessed it, people possessed of mind parasites. The thing was that if they thought about the parasites, the parasites would know and would foil their plans. How to defeat an enemy that you can’t even think about? And why would the Soviets allow such a book? And why publish it in English? Was it some kind of mind-controlling Communist propaganda that would hypnotize me unawares? I’m sorry to say that I didn’t have the courage to find out.
Many years later, I discovered the writings of Don Miguel Ruiz and learned about the culture of the Toltecs, artists who lived in what is now Mexico and pre-dated the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan was Toltec. According to the Toltecs, we do indeed have a Parasite living inside our minds.
This Parasite survives by feeding off of fear. Manifesting as a voice inside the head, the Parasite serves up negative messages with the intent of limiting your actions and keeping you in a state of fear. It then thrives in the state of discord that it causes.
Don Miguel explains how this process works in Beyond Fear: “[The Parasite] creates a dream of fear, a nightmare, in order to control the brain which is a factory of emotions. The Parasite controls the production of those human emotions which are necessary for its survival. And at the same time, the brain stops producing the emotions it needs for the growth of the soul, which are the emotions that come from love.”
Don Miguel’s statements are backed up by brain science. The sensation of emotional feeling is created in the brain by neuropeptides docking with cell receptor sites. The more you experience a given feeling, the more cell receptor sites appropriate to that feeling will be available. If you experience a lot of guilt, your cells will start adapting themselves to absorb the abundance of guilt neuropeptides, but they will do so at the expense of other types of cells, such as those related to experiencing love.
See how pernicious that parasite is? Just like The Mind Parasites suggests, the parasite will resist efforts to root it out. It grows stronger the more it is indulged.
The Parasite manifests in two distinct voices in the mind: the Judge and the Victim. We are all familiar with these damaging voices within us. The Judge turns its criticism not only against the external world but also against oneself. It is demeaning and self-defeating and always seeks blame. The Victim is that aspect of ourselves which accepts the Judge’s blame and also takes on the negative energy projected by others. Indulging the Judge and the Victim only feeds the Parasite.
The Mastery of Awareness
The way to starve the Parasite is through the Mastery of Awareness. The Toltecs believe that all that we perceive is just a dream. When we perceive the world outside of us, we do so through the filter of our beliefs, values, and assumptions, and these, in turn, are rooted in our culture, our upbringing, our past experiences, and how we make sense of those experiences. The distorted sense of reality that we get once our perception passes through these filters is called “the dream.” Culture is nothing but a dream shared amongst a people.
The Mastery of Awareness is about waking up to the dream. The process of waking up begins with the insight that we are in fact dreaming. The next step in overcoming the Parasite is to declare war on it. In fact, the Toltecs thought of themselves as spiritual warriors.
The Toltec warrior fights the Parasite by waking up in the dream. Once you develop this advanced state of awareness, you can dream deliberately, or become what Allan Hardman describes as “a true artist of the spirit.”
One technique for doing this is to cultivate “non-believing,” or a healthy skepticism for knowledge. Remember that all of our ‘knowledge’ comes from the dream. It is rooted in belief, values, and assumptions. At one point, society ‘knew’ that the sun rotated around the earth. To believe otherwise was blasphemous. So, be skeptical, even of those things that seem like hard facts. Train this skepticism by constantly examining how you know what you know. Interrogate your knowledge to get at the beliefs, values, and assumptions that underlie it.
The Ladder of Inference
The ladder of inference, developed by Chris Argyris, is a useful tool for mastering awareness. The ladder is an analogy to help individuals understand the meanings, assumptions, and beliefs that they hold below the level of their awareness. The ladder is characterized by several rungs of increasing abstraction. This model can help us understand how we move from taking in what might seem to be objective information to taking action based on our unchallenged beliefs and assumptions.
At the first rung of the ladder, data is available for our observation. At the next rung, we select the data that we will observe. This is the first place where our filters come into play. We are choosing what to attend to. Next, we add meanings based on our beliefs, values, and assumptions. Based on the meanings we created, we formulate new assumptions. At the next rung of the ladder, we draw conclusions. Those conclusions then shape what we believe about the world. And then, finally, we take action based on those conclusions. Taking action then creates new data and the process begins again.
Try working through an example to see how your beliefs, values, and assumptions influence your behavior. Here’s a personal example to illustrate how the process works. Someone recently made a comment to me that I took as an insult. Just by interpreting the comment as an insult, I jumped up the ladder to the second rung: adding meaning to the information that I attended to. My assumption was that the person was rude or insensitive and then I drew the conclusion that she didn’t care about me. I decided that I didn’t want to be around her and I adopted the belief that I need to be more careful around people. The action that I took was to avoid her.
But in subsequent interactions with her, I got new data that suggested that my conclusions were hasty. She did seem to value me after all and I began to see that her comments may have been rooted in her fears or her culture. Now note, my new evaluation is simply another trip up the ladder of inference. I’m still adding all sorts of meaning into my experience.
The point of the Mastery of Awareness is to draw attention to these processes, which normally occur underneath the level of consciousness. In fact, in The Four Agreements, Don Miguel counsels not to make assumptions at all. You can see how dangerous they can be.
Love and Acceptance
Another way to combat the Parasite is through the use of love and acceptance. The more that you experience feelings of love, the more that you can drown out the brain’s production of fear. One of the miracles of the brain is its adaptability.
Gratitude lists are an excellent practice for this reason. You can cultivate feelings of love and acceptance by focusing each day on what is going well in your life. Make a list and reflect on it. Really feel the appreciation associated with each gratitude. Allow the positive feelings of gratitude to flood in. In this way, you can start to alter your brain chemistry and begin to starve the Parasite.
Just like those mind parasites in Colin Wilson’s book, the Parasite will fight back. It will grow louder at first. Realize that this is a good sign and keep up the fight.
So, your turn, how does the Parasite manifest in your brain? Share in the comments below.
Interested in learning more about how to silence the destructive voice of the Parasite? In my coaching practice, I help people to do just that. You can set up time for a free Discovery Session to explore the possibility of working together here. To learn more visit my website: kiraswanson.com.
Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses
Allan Hardman, Everything Toltec
Don Miguel Ruiz, Beyond Fear
Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
Colin Wilson, The Mind Parasites