Interview with Jaime Pineda, author of Controlling Mental Chaos: Harnessing the Power of the Creative Mind

Interview with Jaime Pineda, author of Controlling Mental Chaos

What is Controlling Mental Chaos: Harnessing the Power of the Creative Mind about and why did you write it?

This is a self-help book that represents the fusion of my interests in neuroscience, psychology, and contemplative practices. It is a personal perspective on what causes most human mental suffering — the uncontrolled mind — and how to address it straightforwardly. During my 30-year professional career in studying the brain and mind, I accumulated a lifetime of insights that I wished to share with others to overcome the mental problems we all experience. My personal attempts to resolve such problems, and the discovery of means to do it, provided the motivation for writing this book.

Can you say more about the book?

Worry, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed by life, seeing no way out are symptoms of what some have called the singular psychological disorder that afflicts humans. When the effects of this uncontrolled mind persist, psychopathology arises. Scientists and clinicians know that such a mind forms the basis for physical and psychological disorders, including autoimmune and emotional disorders like depression, anxiety, heart problems, addictive behaviors, and schizophrenia. 

Yet, science and contemplative practices are converging on the idea that we are born with an extraordinarily original and creative mind. This is a mind that responds to the environment and interacts with life in remarkable, exquisite, and ingenious ways. It is as if we enter the world with exceptional talents and skills. This creative mind adapts, recovers, and survives the most horrendous of circumstances. The paradox is how humans can exhibit both a remarkable and positive creative mind and a negative uncontrolled mind. 

In this book, I describe studies that point to the idea that the uncontrolled and creative minds are similar brain dynamics. They are like identical twins who grow up in two different environments. In one environment, the uncontrolled mind, a product of our rational, thinking mind, lives primarily recollecting the memory-based past and the expectation-based future to solve problems. When the mind encounters the past and future, it can, and often does, get snagged in error-correcting mode and malfunctioning. Extended periods of this produce havoc.  

In the other environment, the creative mind lives primarily in the present. In this space, there is an engagement of what is often called “witnessing” attention, which disconnects from autobiographical processes, connects us to more direct sensory experience, bypasses our conditioned ego mind, and engages the creative energy of the mind. 

The solution to the dysfunctional, uncontrolled mind is not to get rid of it, but to place it in the proper environment or context. We can do this by training the mind and guiding the dynamics back to their natural and original state—to deal with the challenges of living in the present moment. When we do that, the monkey mind returns to its innate, creative nature. 

3. You are a scientist and a Professor of Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Can you talk about any of the research or science behind mindfulness? Any clinical findings you find particularly interesting?

This book describes how an uncontrolled mind causes suffering, consumes a large part of our life, and affects our mood and behavior. It also clarifies that the rational, thinking mind is inadequate to solve these problems, so finding an alternative way is key. Here, the alternative solution is to develop what many call “witnessing attention,” the capacity to witness what is happening inside and outside of you with a non-judging, “let it be” attitude. 

I present two integrated ways, including exercises, to help you get there. One way involves recognizing that the problems exist in how our own mind works and that the best way to take care of this is to develop a loving, self-caring attitude. You must first learn to accept and love your mind as it is. Insights from “self-parenting” become the means to prepare the ground for the transformation to follow. And this transformation involves bringing the mind into the present moment. This effect is immediate. When functioning in the present, the uncontrolled mind becomes the creative, original mind. But this is only the beginning of the journey, for it can be so much more. 

The most fascinating research I encountered relevant to this involves the temporal relationship between thoughts and time. The challenge in this effort is to understand how the timeless, non-memory-based processing of the nonconscious mind interacts with time-dependent, memory-based thinking of conscious awareness. Recognizing the connection helped me clarify the role the mind plays in autopiloting, daydreaming, and mind wandering. Scientists suggest that periods of self-reflection, which occur naturally during autopiloting, yield concerns about the future. Studies have shown that autobiographical thinking permeates mind wandering, which refers in part to the personal ability to simulate the future, allow for prospective thinking, and make predictions. Focusing on the present moment changes the focus on past and future events and directly transforms the uncontrolled mind’s maladaptive behavior. Awareness of the moment means being grounded on what is happening now, the contingencies of this moment, and not focused on memories of the past or predictions about the future. The research says that it disconnects us from autobiographical processes and puts the decontextualized actions of the uncontrolled mind in the proper frame to foster the creative mind.

4. How did you get interested in mindfulness? Can you provide any examples from your life about how you use and apply it and how that has helped you?

As a newly minted neuroscientist in the 1990s, I embodied the optimism of youth that through science, I would find answers to all problems. In my case, I was certain neuroscience would teach me everything about how the brain worked. It was simply a matter of time and increased knowledge. Unfortunately, the vast panorama of unanswered questions remained relentlessly limitless. While I learned a lot, the most interesting questions remained unresolved. I became sensitive to the limits of what had been science’s potential to answer all my questions. The primary and most notable problem I saw was a lack of “holistic” comprehension. Science is good at uncovering unlimited amounts of independent bits of knowledge, but provides little or no sense of how it all fits together as a whole. 

Thus, for the last thirty years, I turned to contemplative practices as a bridge to a fuller understanding of mind. With consistent mindfulness meditation practice, I developed and fine-tuned the following traits, which are available to everyone:

Stillness: More than the absence of movement, stillness is an understanding that “life is perfect as it is” or, more prosaically, that “life is what it is.” It is the reality which is in front of us — a single outcome out of a set of infinite possibilities given the history and circumstances of each moment — and which I accept and do not need to change. 

No-mind: This comes from a Buddhist martial arts term, Mushin, that translates literally as no-mind. It refers to a mind that is not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and is open to everything. An unencumbered mind that lacks self-centeredness and flows unimpeded from moment to moment. Also associated with the term “beginner’s mind” and “compassionate mind.”

Joy: More than an emotion of delight, joy is a state of being and cherishing of the moment, feeling fulfilled, lacking nothing, and being content. A feeling that pervades my entire body, mind, and spirit.

Empathy, love, and compassion: This is my sense of responsibility for others. I feel what they feel and are moved to help relieve their suffering. These are the motivators and bonds that form a true intimacy with others.

5. What are some helpful mindfulness practices other people can incorporate into their life?

All of us are born dependent on parents and other caregivers for our physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Good health and well-being depend on a loving relationship with our primary caregivers. There is evidence that neglect, parental inconsistency and, most important, a lack of love, can lead to long-term mental health problems and a reduction in overall curiosity, creativity, and happiness. As we grow older, we can learn to compensate for this lack by self-parenting our own mind. 

Good parenting allows responsible and loving adults to raise model offspring while providing them with protection and care to ensure their healthy development. A similar benefit accrues when self-parenting our mind. Successful self-parenting allows us to accept and love the mind we have. It means being flexible enough to recognize new ideas and opportunities while accepting limitations. It requires creating a zone of safety in which we set boundaries for our mind to work and play. Feeling loved, protected, and nourished are key ingredients for this safety zone, and necessary to transform an unruly and undisciplined mind into one free from fear and in tune with its creative nature.

6. It is often easier for people to practice mindfulness when they are resting or relaxing. However, what are some tips for practicing mindfulness when we are facing highly stressful circumstances, whether that is an argument with a friend or spouse, going to work in an unsatisfying job, or facing any life challenge whether it be divorce, death, or new career?

Here are some suggested perspectives and strategies to adopt:

  1. Chaos and Creativity are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Know yourself. Understand that the basic confusion, underneath most psychological problems, is a plain, some would say “false,” distinction between our created sense of ego and the open nature we truly are. Integrating those viewpoints involves recognizing that mental chaos is uncontrolled creativity and creativity is controlled chaos. And that switching from one type of thinking to the other can be as easy as breathing or as difficult as changing your mind.

  1. You are Not Your Thoughts

Identify with your extraordinary, creative mind. Beyond the uncontrolled and chaotic thinking is a larger, calmer, and loving presence. From birth there has existed an amazing mind that ego-based thinking has obscured.

  1. Be Mindful and Pay Extra Attention

Consistent questioning and practicing of mindfulness meditation overcome deep-seated beliefs about yourself. As you go to work or to the store, or any of your routine stops, pay attention and notice how many other things you had not noticed before. Try to see something new every day on the same route. Ask yourself why you didn’t notice this “thing” before and why you are only noticing it now.

7. How can we apply mindfulness to meditation? Is meditation and mindfulness the same thing? How are they similar and how are they different?

Mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing. We can practice mindfulness without meditation. Meditation involves creating the conditions for wholesome mind states to arise and for unwholesome reactivity to diminish or not arise. It can occur while sitting, walking, and lying down. Mindfulness practice is as a lifestyle, a way of being. It is not something you do, but something you are. Mindfulness becomes more about being engaged with the present moment as it is, without needing to fix or change anything. Mindfulness is often presented as a complete practice, but actually, it is part of the eightfold path, one of the eight ways in which the Buddha described how one can live an ethical and full life. 

8. You talk about mindfulness helping us be in a flow state. Can you talk a little bit about flow state? What is it and how can it help us?

Flow overlaps with the idea of “no-mind.” It is the sense of being completely immersed and absorbed in an activity or task in which we lose a sense of space and time. The psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi described it as when “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

9. Do you think mindfulness also helps to facilitate serendipity or synchronicity? If so, how does that happen and any examples from your life?

Yes, synchronicity is something I believe in, although it’s based primarily on personal experiences. My autobiography, Piercing the Cloud, tells the story of many serendipity and synchronicity events that marked my life’s journey. They happened because I am, in fact, part of a greater unity, an interconnectedness of being. Whether it is called nondual awareness, oceanic feeling, or universal love, we have inadvertently placed such an experience out of reach and available only to mystics, saints, and special others. However, we are all born with this unique sense of being, only to forget it as our ego and individuality develop. We can overcome the dark curtain covering this sense of unity through meditation, prayer, inquiry, falling in love, paying attention, or with drugs. It appears to be remarkably recoverable. Increased experiences of serendipity and synchronicity are signs of an increased sense of unity.

10. What makes this book different from others dealing with similar topics?

It represents the fusion of both science and contemplative practices based on personal experience; Provides clear and direct connections to the lessons for changing thoughts and habits, with exercises the reader can carry out as they learn the concepts; Places an emphasis on recognizing that the uncontrolled and the creative mind represent two faces of the same coin (similar brain dynamics); Tries to demystify the creative process as something natural, precious, and an opportunity to be present in every moment of our life.

11. Can you explain what you mean by self-parenting?

The idea of self-parenting arises from the common experience most of us have, that there may be holes and empty spaces in the love and nurturing experience we had as children. To fill-in these gaps you undertake a process of accepting and loving the mind you have. It resembles an ongoing conversation in your mind between two or more voices and the manner and quality of that inner conversation that takes place between these two voices. The approach recognizes the problem of the uncontrolled mind as comparable to that of an unruly, disobedient, and undisciplined child. You then consciously choose the relationship you want to have with yourself, as if with a loving parent.

12. Can you explain what you mean by present-moment centering?

This refers to a more transformational means to move the mind from ego-based or self-centered thinking to one centered on creative living. It does not require intellectual means to address the problem. Rather, it involves the use of mindfulness, which refers to the bringing of one’s attention to the immediacy of the moment; holding thoughts in awareness nonjudgmentally, letting them be. When done correctly, present-moment centering stops anxious, unmanageable thoughts in their tracks.


Jaime A. Pineda, PhD is Professor of Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of many widely cited papers in animal and human cognitive and systems neuroscience, as well as two books of poetry on mind-brain relationships with an emphasis on spirituality, mysticism, environmentalism, and social activism. Learn more on the author’s website. His new book is Controlling Mental Chaos: Harnessing the Power of the Creative Mind.


Jaime A. Pineda, PhD is Professor of Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of many widely cited papers in animal and human cognitive and systems neuroscience, as well as two books of poetry on mind-brain relationships with an emphasis on spirituality, mysticism, environmentalism, and social activism. Learn more at  the author’s website. His new book is Controlling Mental Chaos: Harnessing the Power of the Creative Mind.