The idea of the thought machine has been with me for years. I came up with this idea when I was a stationary engineer in a commercial office building. I view the thought machine as a little control room with switches and lights. I see this the same as the control room I worked in. Outside of the room is the plant with large machines that run the comfort cooling system of almost 1 million sq. ft. of office space. Inside the control room is a person who works the control boards and checks the systems.
This is the main control room. There are printouts and readings and lights flashing and charts. There is everything here that one would imagine a control room would look like. However, rather than switching machines and adjusting temperatures, the thought machine has different volume switches and faders that select what we hear and what we choose to listen to.
Since much of what I write about is written in a first-person perspective, namely me, I view the person in my thought machine as a man in a little uniform. This uniform is not unlike one of the uniforms I wore as a stationary engineer.
I worked in a roomful of comfort technology and building maintenance systems to monitor and control temperatures throughout the office spaces. In return, I would either warm or cool the spaces accordingly. I had buttons to push and fans to start. Safe to say, this is where I first thought about the relation to the control room and the thought machine.
I have seen others who have worked in machine rooms like this. I have seen the results of meltdowns and human errors. I have worked through major blackouts and loss of power. I have seen floods, fires and natural disasters. I have been present when the alarms went off and operators (such as myself) found themselves locked in a cognitive tunnel and focused only on the problem instead of understanding the solution.
I was present when a steam valve burst and live steam shot up in the air. The sound was loud and almost piercing to the ears. Fortunately, there was help by my side and no one was hurt. There were no severe damages to the surroundings and the repair was quick and simple. I mention this because had I not learned how to handle the challenge or make the repair, something awful could have happened.
Before entering the ideas of becoming a mental health professional, I was a worker in machine rooms like this. I have been part of central plants that manage the building systems. I have been seasoned over the years and trained through experience which is how I acquired my skills and problem solving abilities. Perhaps some of my training might not translate to other energy plants; but, experience teaches lessons that allow us to find a better sense of situational awareness. Experience teaches lessons and lessons build comfort. More accurately, nervous thinking leads to nervous responses and nervous responses lead to nervous outcomes.
Meanwhile, how is my experience in the machine room any different from life? How are my control and engine room experiences any different from understanding how to operate during one of life’s emergencies? Even if it is not me who can help or make the repair, I can still understand how to navigate through a problem and seek the appropriate help.
For example, there are times when all machines are working in proper order. There are times when our thought machine is unchallenged. The day is good. Nothing is happening. We are working, learning and living according to plan. The readouts show that nothing is wrong. Our temperature is good and all functions seem normal.
And then BAM!
An alarm goes off and the man in my mental control room looks to solve the emergency. Fortunately, I have some experience. I have learned to navigate my way through problems. I’ve learned to understand my surroundings and because this is true, the operator in my mental control room finds his way to adjust. Maybe he leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on the desk. Maybe he reads a paper (at least this is how I envision him) and maybe he has a Styrofoam cup of coffee next to him. And for the moment, the machines are back and running to their potential.
Now, here’s a question:
Have you ever had an old car?
Regardless of the answer, I’m sure the analogy will help you follow along.
I had an old car, which was in less than good condition. Maybe it was pretty once but the car wasn’t pretty when I had it. The trick with a car like this is the upkeep. If one item of the car needed maintenance, it was best to handle this as soon as possible. I say this because problems have a way of adding up and then eventually multiplying.
I had a “Check Engine” light on all the time. At first, I would look to solve this. However, the car was less than pretty and meanwhile, money was tight. Plus, everyone else in my social circle had new cars with great stereo systems. At my best, my car had a great heating system. The air conditioning didn’t work and the car would hardly pass inspection; however, it was still a car and having a car sure as hell beat walking or not having a car at all.
There were times when I was not emotionally at my best. And one thing went wrong with the car. And then two things and then three and then four. Eventually, I gave into the mindset that the car was going to die anyway. So, I might as well drive it into the ground, which I did.
I combine this lesson with the little man in my mental control room. I blend the lesson of my car and its mechanical troubles with the operator in my thought machine who at times found himself in the cognitive loop of emergencies. Because this was so, there was too much at once and the operator was unable to be aware of the resources around him.
All he saw were the alarms. All he saw was the digital readouts of problems, one after the next and due to a lack of preventative maintenance, the machines crashed. The emergencies became more frequent. Alarms flashed and jolted the little operator from his position of leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the desk. Emergencies happened and coffee went flying. (At least, that’s how I see it.)
Now, interestingly enough, I have a picture of this in my mind. I see this as I saw the control room that I once worked in at a central plant. You, on the other hand, did not have the same experiences as I did, which means your visualization of the control room is most likely different from mine.
I know what the color of the walls look like. I know about the gray panels on the electrical equipment. I know where the charts and graphs were. I know about the loud horn when the phone rang in the plant amongst the machines. This way the operator would know there was a call coming if they weren’t in the booth.
Now, here’s where I tie this to mindfulness and situational awareness. I have met engineers who can walk into an engine room and diagnose a problem simply by listening to the sound of a machine. They understood their surroundings. They knew what to look for and how to work on the systems. They learned why operators should use two wrenches when opening a pipe joint, to hold back and keep either side from breaking.
(By the way, that happened to me at my first plant. I wanted to work quickly and be impressive. Instead, I worked carelessly and broke an oil line that dumped all the oil from a steam turbine. The chief engineer literally hated me after this!)
There are times when we find ourselves in an alarm status. There are times when we are working on something, maybe we’re missing something or maybe we’re not thinking clearly. Life is happening and the little operator in our mental control room is looking to solve the problem. There are times when the world is going on and all we can hear is the alarm blaring in our head. It’s enough to keep us stuck in a mental trap. It’s enough to distract us from our best possible resources and solving the problem.
The alarm goes off and the operator in our control room is afraid the plant is going to explode. Or worse, he’s afraid the chief engineer will come over and yell and scream. There are times (like with me when I had the old car) and moments when our systems meltdown and all we can do is believe in the catastrophe. Nothing works. Everything sucks. Plus, look at everyone else and what they have.
The same as I learned how to navigate through the troubles in the central plant, I can also learn how to find myself situationally aware when problems arise in my personal life. I can learn to maintain my things and treat them as a priority instead of riding upon them until they melt down.
Mindfulness teaches us to be in the moment. Not in our head. In emergency mode, situational awareness teaches us to be aware of our surroundings.
In this application, I am using the understanding of situational awareness to better improve our operations and mental health. I use the idea of the thought machine to regulate our cognitive awareness and understand our different levels of alertness. We can either go from 0-100, which is like going from “No problem” to “HUGE PROBLEM” or we can learn to regulate and operate accordingly.
Our lessons in life start with introductions to which we learn, we implement and we indoctrinate our inspirations to acquire a sense of comfort and personal safety. Remember, the mind only wants comfort. The mind does not want trouble. The mind does not want the alarms and the operator in our mental machine room would rather sit back with their feet up on the desk, read the funny papers, drink a cup of coffee (or tea, depending upon the mood) and have all systems functioning normally.
That’s what this journal is about. This is about understanding the machine and learning to situationally work through problems without being caught in a cognitive trap that keeps us stuck.
When I was an operator in a central plant, my job was to keep the machines running, maintain them, operate them and troubleshoot them when a problem came up. This is something that took practice and experience. This is also something that showed me proof of what happens when we do not take care of our systems.
By the way, my old blue four-door Chevy is somewhat of a collector’s item now. I saw one online and it was for sale too. Same color, probably the same year (an 86, I think) and it was in perfect condition. I suppose this person understood the importance of proper maintenance. I’m sure the person in their mental control room appreciates it.