This category covers things that relate to the experience of consciousness. It deals with the aspects of thinking that people become aware of because they directed their attention onto them, their attention was drawn to them, or because they just came to mind as a result of some underlying mental process.
I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.
Let’s get this straight, human beings have no idea why they feel the way they do or why they think the things they think. And to be fair it isn’t their fault because exactly no one understands the complexities of consciousness and how a thought moves from being electrical impulses in certain parts of the brain to being a thought in awareness.
Most people never think about thinking or consciousness. Most people never consider the processes that are involved with influencing thought. Most people assume that they are their consciousness and that they are in control of the machine.
But this isn’t the case. Consciousness, like understanding language, walking, feeling hungry, etc…. is just one of a multitude of mental processes that is occurring in the brain. Consciousness is, in fact, another unconscious thought process. All we are aware of is the outcome of the process not the process itself. This distinction isn’t all that important, it matters only when we consider that almost all of our thinking, almost all of the things we would consider thoughts, happen independent of our awareness of them.
Consciousness is built upon a rich infrastructure of unconscious thought.
Recent studies in fMRI machines indicate that when given yes / no questions, the subjects brain reveals the answer BEFORE the subject consciously becomes aware of it. There are distinct “yes” and “no” activity patterns that can be measured BEFORE the subject consciously knows the answer to the question. There is a lag of up to half a second between when the brain activity signals an answer and when the person finds themselves saying the answer or becomes consciously aware of the answer. Half a second is a very long time, particularly when dealing with the human brain, an organ of billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections. The amount of processing that occurs during that period of time makes it appear to be an eternity as opposed to an instant.
When we imagine a simple yes / no question like “are you in an MRI machine?” fully unpacking the question reveals that it isn’t at all simple. Some of the examples of things that need to be sorted out, understood and factored into the decision making matrix are: what is an MRI machine, what is meant by you, what is a machine, what is meant by in, what is three dimensional space, what is a question, what type of question is this and how do I respond to that type of question. But before that can happen, parts of the brain that are responsible for processing the electrical impulses that come from ears need to sense, encode, process and convert to workable units of information that represent the question. This information has to be pattern matched to the long term memory about language. It goes on and on like this depending in how granular you want to go.
The subject in the MRI machine has no awareness of any of this happening. The machine operator may be able to see the activity moving around the brain, with some parts get brighter as they perform their function, but it all happens so quickly that in real time they don’t see much of anything. Slowed down and compared to other scans and detailed picture will begin to emerge. But not as it happens and not without the help of computers that process billions of cycles a second to help render an image that has meaning to the investigators.
All of that brain activity to say “yes” when asked whether they are in an MRI machine. It’s mind blowing to consider what must happen when faced with a tougher question. “What are the four most common things that you buy at the supermarket?” or “in what ways does elementary school resemble a capitalistic economy?” likely trigger 100s of billions of nerve impulses. We cannot even pretend to know what’s going on in our brains. Maybe, if we work at it, we can create enough mindfulness to have a decent idea what we are conscious of from moment to moment. We may even develop the ability to know what we are feeling from moment to moment or to develop the distinction to know when we are taking actions that serve a confirmation bias. But most people never consider that they are having thoughts and that they have the ability to think about thinking let alone choose to think about a though that pops up.
Personally, I find all of this reassuring because it shines a light on what we can do and what we cannot do.
Sure, we cannot know the answer to a question before the brain answers the question as being consciously aware of an answer is the last part of the process. We can, however, direct our attention onto things, maybe not completely, but we do have influence over the machine that is our brain. We can’t stop it from going where it’s going, but we can nudge it towards particular things. We may have some agency in determining what sensory information we seek out. And we do seem to have the ability to insert thoughts onto the white board that is our working memory and manipulate these ideas; in essence, creating that which does not exist, and push this vapour into the inner workings of the brain to generate output that is based on experience, long-term memory and our world view. We can rehearse and improve at things that are not happening, we can test run different scenarios and most impressively do the impossible by creating something that doesn’t exist.
Given all of this, I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.
The world is very complicated… Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.
I lived in residence when I attended the University of Ottawa during my first year. The school is bilingual, French and English, and it is located in the down town of Canada’s capital city. As such, it offers a unique opportunity that no other school in the country can – proximity to the political establishment and to the government industrial complex. This means access to most aspect of the government along with exposure to a wide selection of people (diplomats and embassy workers) from many other countries. It would be a common occurrence to ride the bus during the evening rush hour and be surrounded by people who do not look or speak the same way I do. As a consequence of this high level of diversity, a lot of international students would attend the University.
This aspect of the city was great, particularly for anyone living in residence, because first year international students were offered a room on campus. I got to meet and spend time with people from places that I had never thought about before. This type of exposure, particularly during this phase of my life had a profound impact on my concept of what a person was or could be. I was just one of billions of people and while we all kind of looked and behaved in the same sort of way, it was clear that the thoughts that people have are wide and varied. There were patterns though, which is a powerful piece of information to have access to as one transitions from high school teenager to university adult.
We were all there to figure things out and most of the people on our floor spent a lot of time talking, particularly later in the evening when our critical faculties were drained from a long day of consuming lectures and text book material. The most fruitful conversations tended to unfold on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings because these were the days when we were operationally the furthest away from the weekend and the negative effects that alcohol has on the quality of discourse. Our heads were clear, people listened and heard, and the only thing we really needed to do was study, so everyone seemed to put in the extra effort to keep the conversations flowing in order to reassign the work to tomorrow. The entire thing was a formula for insight – time, bright clear minds, and an incentive to continue probing; so we could avoid doing any direct work.
During one of these late night chats, I said something that was accidentally wise. But because it was an accident, I did not have the presence of mind to deliberately have a good conscious think about it every day. It remained in my brain doing stuff, but I didn’t pay attention to it enough to maximize the impact it would have and to allow it to fully shape the direction of my thinking. This is the nature accidental wisdom, without the hard work to reflect on and create an impression of value, we do not treat it as well as we should and after not too long, it more or less leaves us.
The concept I brought up was “personal relativity” and it was in response to the topic of regret. We had been talking about grad weekend, and one of the girls mentioned that she didn’t talk to her date any more. He had wanted to move their relationship to the next level while she was fine with taking things slow and pacing the upward trajectory so as to leave some things undone for a later time. His desire was to have sex after the formal at the hotel room they had rented, while she wanted something much less intimate. They didn’t have sex and their relationship did not make it through the summer. This had left her a little heart broken and wondering if her decision to wait had been worth it or if it had been the wrong thing to do.
She was a second year student, so she was about 18 months past the grad weekend and around 16 months post break-up. The time had given her plenty of opportunity to reframe things in a way that made them easier to deal with, and the fact that he no longer spoke to her served to validate her decision as the right one. As she was unpacking the situation and kind of outlined how things had evolved, I felt the need to tell her that no matter what she had done, there would always be a time when it was viewed as the right thing to have had happen and a time when it would be viewed as having been the wrong thing. The reality didn’t actually matter because there was not a right or wrong thing in it given the shift in her thinking about it. All we have is one opportunity to do what we think is best, and that is based on what we know at the moment in time when we have to make that decision.
Sure, they could have slept together and stayed together forever. Maybe the only reason the relationship ended was because she were not ready and he was; although that doesn’t really make a lot of sense because a life long partnership will not end simply because one partner wants to have sex and the other partner does not. But this doesn’t actually matter given the amount of time between prom night, the eventual break-up, and the evening when we are having the conversation.
Sure, they could have slept together and still broken-up towards the end of the summer, on the same day that they broke-up in reality. While it feels like this version of reality would validate the correctness of her decision to wait, it doesn’t matter in exactly the same way and amount as the “do it and live happily ever after” scenario.
The truth is, and it is always true, that life runs in one direction and there are no chance to redo any of it. Even if we get to repeat an experience, it isn’t the same experience no matter how close to the same it might appear. Materially, the world chances from instant to instant, so the notion that a mulligan is a redo is inherently flawed. What seems like a second chance at something is actually the first chance at something else, something that is very similar to the thing that was done before.
There was a moment when everyone was considering what I had said and it was clear that something was happening inside their heads. It wasn’t so much that a light was going on or that they suddenly had access to an insight that they had been struggling to surface, it was more like they had realized something very sad yet promising about their existential experience of life. The decisions we make are, so long as we take proper care to consider the known and the possible unknown information, always going to be correct. Any post hoc evaluation that considers information that we did not have access to at the time, and could not have reasonably imagined, is an evaluation about a future present (relative to when the decision was made) or a past present (relative to when the evaluation is being made) and does NOTHING to alter quality of the decision that was actually made. Even if future present or past present seem kind of confusing, the fact that there are two or three unique moments in time being combined in order for an evaluation to occur is a nonstarter. Relative to the moment in time when you chose, your decision was logical, sound, and valid. Relative to any time in the future, your decision cannot be viewed through the same lens and any value judgments about it are meaningless and inherently flawed.
This is sad because it sets up a situation in which every decision we can make will be viewed as wrong. It is promising because it gives us permission to leave the past behind and learn from the outcome of the choices we make. It is this promising aspect of it that I wish I had been able to constantly keep in mind. The knowledge that a mistake was made should cause a little pain, but only enough to serve as an incentive to learn from and a disincentive to repeat the mistake. It should never turn into regret or manifest as a generalization about ones tendency to make mistakes. And under no circumstance should it ever be internalized as an identity statement.
The world is very complicated and there is too much to know for any one person to know everything. We are going to be mostly clueless about most things and possible know a lot about one or two subjects. So long as there are at least a few people to know each thing who are capable of sharing or teaching it to others, the massive blind spots each one of us have are not necessarily going to cause much of an issue. Problems arise when we don’t seek out, listen to and hear, or adjust our course based on the things that those who know tell us. Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.
Personal relativity is not a way to banish negative emotions from your life, nor is it an easy justification for being careless. It is simply a way to highlight the complexities of being alive, of managing your way through life knowing that you exist in an information void, and of giving yourself permission to be more charitable when your fallible nature contributes to a stumble. The concept of time is hard enough to wrap your head around, so it makes no sense to assume that your understanding of its experience is accurate.
Regret is built on the belief that you should have done differently, while assuming that you could have done differently. Personal relativity is built on the fact that you did what was correct at a very specific moment in time with all of the information you had access to. Just because the future present reveals something that would have altered your decision does not change anything about the past.
Each one of us has a perspective that is unique – we are the centre of ALL of our experiences and are therefore the centre of the universe. But so is everyone else. Personal relativity captures this aspect of experience while also including time as another dimension. So just as you will never know the experience of being someone else, you will never know the experience of simultaneously being yourself at two different moments in time.
Be mindful of what is going on, of what you know that is relevant, of what might possibly be known by others that is relevant, of what is not yet known by anyone that might be relevant, and of what is possible but has not yet happened that might be relevant. Once you have primed your brain with as much of this information as you can, trust it to make a logical and rational decision knowing full well that something may pop-up one day that seems to reframe your action as a mistake.
So you get clear on what you are doing in the moment and notice the “I am” verb / adverb pairing. Realize that this specific action is taken by a specific type of person, or a person who has a specific identity. Your brain knows this intuitively, so by stating the verb, unconscious thought processes are triggered about the noun that embodies the specific verb.
“I am” statements reveal state or identity. Given that state is a transitory thing, what you are now is likely going to change fairly quickly. Also, by declaring your state it becomes obvious what action needs to be taken to change it. “I am hungry” or “I am cold” are two examples of states which, if unpleasant, have very simple solutions, eat or put on a sweater or jacket.
Identity is not transitory. It changes less often and has a number of properties / characteristics / behaviours that tend to be expressed / displayed and remain fixed. “I am a smoker” is an identity statement and predictably a smoker will smoke. They’ll likely buy cigarettes, have smoking rituals, have friends who smoke and display and experience a level of discomfort when they are unable to smoke when they want to. Their identity will impact their state.
“I am an X smoker” or “I am a non smoker” are also identity statements and they fall on the smoking continuum. An X smoker may still have cravings for nicotine and these cravings may have triggers; usually the behaviours or activities the person displayed or took part in when they used to smoke. Not smoking is deliberate and requires mindful effort. A non smoker doesn’t have these cravings and if they do, they do not pack the same punch. Not smoking is effortless for them because they identify as a non smoker.
What is critical to consider when it comes to identity are the congruent behaviours that accompany an identity, given that it is impossible for someone to behave in a way that goes against an identity. A non smoker cannot smoke so if someone has a cigarette, they are some type of smoker – an occasional or social smoker for example. You can also be a smoker who doesn’t smoke or who currently doesn’t smoke because you choose not to. But if you identify as a smoker who chooses not to smoke, you are simply choosing not to smoke right now.
The power of identity is revealed when we understand and clearly and honestly define our identity as something for which particular negative behaviours are in-congruent; or for which particular positive behaviours are congruent. Given that in-congruent actions cannot be taken and congruent actions can, any shift in identity will be accompanied by a change in behaviour.
If a smoker changes their identity to become an X smoker or non smoker, they will stop smoking. The same applies when an identity shifts to say I am a healthy eater. Healthy eaters consume more of certain foods and eliminate other types; added are vegetables, gone are sugars, trans-fat and high calorie low nutrient liquids.
When considering this deeper, we are wise to look at it from a linguistic perspective, specifically how we use the words in terms of the parts of speech.
The word that follows “I am” can either be a noun / pronoun or a verb / adverb. Depending on which is used, there will be a natural and likely unverbalized assumption made. When the next word is a verb / adverb, the natural assumption will be a noun. When the next word is a noun, a list of verbs will bubble up. This is where the power lies given that most of our thinking is unconscious. Anything we can do to trigger empowering thoughts, either conscious or unconscious, will move our life in the direction we want it to go.
The first thing we need to do is be very clear on what exactly is happening in the present moment. This is always going to be a verb because we are always going to be doing something. Even if you are sitting there doing nothing, you are still sitting, sitting is something, and doing nothing, and nothing is in most cases actually something. So you get clear on what you are doing in the moment and notice the “I am” verb / adverb pairing. Realize that this specific action is taken by a specific type of person, or a person who has a specific identity. Your brain knows this intuitively, so by stating the verb, unconscious thought processes are triggered about the noun that embodies the specific verb. Whether or not you ever become consciously aware of this noun, the identify statement exists and fires a lot of mental activity in your brain about all the things associated with that identity. This cognitive cascade lights-up many areas of your brain and moves data / information around. This stimulation does what all stimulation does, it promotes the formation of actual tissue to support future similar thoughts. By thinking something once, it becomes easier to think it in the future, which makes thinking it in the future even easier, and so on.
The moment we are clear in what exactly is happening in the present moment marks a vital inflection point. If what is happening is what we want / need to be happening, we don’t necessarily need to do anything. We’re going to be fine now and in the future if we leave things on autopilot and let the unconscious thinking proceed naturally. We can however, improve future outcomes by bringing into consciousness the noun that naturally flows from the verb. By paying attention to the noun and noticing the cognitive cascade, we increase the amount of stimulation and promote greater tissue growth. Greater tissue growth increases the likelihood that we’ll be the verb in the future and the empowering pattern continues and grows.
If what is happening is not what we want or need to be happening, our better future depends on us doing something about it because if we do nothing different, we’re going to lay down the tissue that makes doing the same thing more likely in the future, which makes more of the same a great probability.
To change course we have a few options. The simplest is to stop doing the verb that isn’t helping and start doing the verbs that will. Remember that action is the only thing that shapes the clay of life. If you are the kind of rare person who doesn’t need to know why things are the way they are and can just get after doing the things, bringing forth the noun that you want / need to be and cultivating mindfulness will be sufficient to move you towards greatness. There is a particular noun that you are wanting to be, just be the verb that this noun embodies.
If the simplest way of direct action is not who you are, you will need to give a voice to the noun that comes up as a result becoming clear on what is happening in the present moment. Doing this has a down side in that you continue, at least for one more rep, to lay down the tissues that are the consequential effect of these thoughts. This notwithstanding , shinning a light on the noun and consciously forming an “I am” implied identity statement creates a mental white board in working memory to examine your action, the identity you may hold of yourself that facilitates the action and what cognitive distortions may be occurring that would yield such an identity – it allows you to talk back to the thought and interrupt the pattern. More importantly, it creates the space for you to insert a different identity with a conditional / explanatory verb used to help maintain congruence. For example, “I am a healthy eater who didn’t bring a lunch and decided to eat a doughnut.” This reframe if very different from the “I am eating a doughnut” followed by the unconscious automatic implied condition reaction “therefore I am a poor eater” that accompanies mindless action.
More consequentially, you are not giving yourself a pass and simply creating a similar future. You are taking responsibility for eating the doughnut while outlining the solution to prevent the same action in the future – bringing you lunch. And it is this paying attention to a new action that will go a long way in manifesting that specific future. Remember, attention increase stimulation which increases tissue growth.
The key to this is to be aware that the verb becomes the noun. If you like the noun, maintain the verb. If you don’t like the noun, change the verb. If you can’t change the verb, deliberately and consciously choose the right noun that congruently produces the appropriate verb. Check in often and repeat as often as is needed to lay down the neural pathways that make the verb and noun indistinguishable from each-other and who you are.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being…. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
A few years ago many aspects of life became very clear to me when I started to notice that I had absolutely no idea why I would spontaneously think a particular thought. Unless I had been thinking about, working on, or paying attention to something very specific, there was a good chance that some of the things that would enter my mind would have next to nothing to do with any of my other recent thoughts. This was very obvious during my daily meditation sessions when I would be concentrating on the sensation of my breath on the area of skin above my upper lip and around the openings to my nostrils or during the body scans. For anyone who has never spend much time meditating, the moments of mental stillness are few and far between and the practice is generally the act of noticing that your attention has wandered and then returning it to whatever it was that you are trying to pay attention to.
I practice vipassana which is just one of a number of different approaches to cultivating mindfulness. It is not the best or worst, it is not good or bad, it is not right or wrong. It is just an action that someone can take that will help their brain develop a new skill that will eventually find its way into all areas of their life. While I do not practice and have never practised transcendental meditation, or formally any other types, all of them share a number of properties and methods that yield similar outcomes. By consistently practising the deliberate focus of our attention, over time we cultivate the skill of being able to control our attention, to know when it has wandered, and to gain awareness into what is currently going on in our mind.
It isn’t easy for me and it can be very boring and it tends to require a lot of mental effort. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not innately run the code that allows them to easily pay attention to one thing. Our DNA was formed over millions of years when our ancestors did had to constantly be on the lookout for some predator that was looking for a meal. As a consequence, those who were able to notice the threats sooner gained an evolutionary fitness advantage. Over time this trait was passed along to the point at which practically all members of the species had it. This does not mean that we are not able to pay deep and unwavering attention to something, it just means that we need to have a big incentive to do so.
It is a matter of death on one side and novel experience on the other, and avoiding death tends to win. The fact that death as a consequence to our not paying attention to a potential threat is not as much of a factor in modern life does nothing to alter the DNA or gene expression that was so critical to our survival. We default to a wandering mind and our attention is very squirrel-like in its ability and tendency to notice the smallest changes from moment to moment. This is a feature and not a bug, even if it is mostly an antiquated feature.
This is where meditation comes in as it serves to teach and help the brain learn the skill of focused and sustained attention. Once developed, it gives us another tool to use that can help shift our mental functioning away from that of a prey creature and towards that of an apex predator. The old behavioural pattern or trait will remain and it will be activated whenever the brain perceives a threat, but our actions will no longer be unconsciously compelled to notice every little change. It doesn’t always work that way and even life long meditators experience moments when their mind bounces around and they feel almost powerless to stop it.
That is evolution for ya. It is particularly effective at cultivating traits that become our baseline or default way of operating which are tremendously sticky.
Anyway, after years of daily practice and a number of residential silent retreats, I could no longer deny that there was a lot of thoughts occurring on beneath the level of consciousness and when there was nothing going on to keep them out, sometimes they would find their way into my awareness. Over time, and with practice, this doesn’t happen as often and I have become better at noticing as thoughts emerge and letting them go before they hook my mind.
The key thing I take from this, and what I’m talking about now, is the fact that when we practice consistently and over a long enough period of time, our brain will create the code that allows us to maintain a very intense focus on something even when there is a lot of other stuff occurring. This new process can and will eventually become automatic, and once it has, the brain will be able to integrate it into its operating system to allow it to run in parallel with many other processes. The outcome will be an ability to pay complete attention to one thing while simultaneously running the threat detector baseline process that will automatically shift our attention onto something that absolutely needs to be addressed. This gives our brain the paradoxical capacity to be aware of what is important while paying full attention to something that isn’t.
The above video contains the audio of the mission control loop from STS 93, which was the 95th launch of a Space Shuttle. During liftoff, a gold pin that had been used to close off one of two liquid oxygen ports in the engine became dislodged. Once free, it hit the inside of the engine bell resulting in damage to three cooling tubes and causing a slight hydrogen leak – the engine nozzles were cooled by the liquid hydrogen fuel flowing through small embedded tubes before being released into the combustion chamber. It was a potentially catastrophic event that alarmed the mission control engineers.
They would need to quickly assess the data and make the call on whether or not to abort the launch. This was something that had never been done before and it was very risky given that the space craft would need to reach an abort height and speed to ensure that it would make it to one of the abort landing sites in Europe or Africa. Unlike traditional rockets that had an abort engine to pull the capsule away from the rest of the craft and allowing for a safe water (for the US) or land (for the Russians) landing, the Space Shuttle had nothing like this. An abort BEFORE the minimum speed and altitude meant the astronauts would have to climb out an escape hatch and parachute to safety.
When you play the video, do not watch it and try to listen to it using head phones. What you will hear is the audio lifted from the flight directors loop. This audio is cleaner than the original and yet it is still very muddy and chaotic. There are moments when three or four people are speaking at once and it can be very hard to decipher much of anything. Keep in mind that the primary mission control engineers, their back-ups, and their support teams are all listening to the same loop and each person is listening to hear any information that is relevant to their specific role. If they missed something, the odds of them making an error increased dramatically.
Errors in space flight, particularly during the take off phase, can mean death. There is a heck of a lot on the line and computer code can only handle the things it is programmed to handle. When things go sideways into the unknown, unanticipated, or the uncoded, human beings are needed to process the relevant information, share the output, and then make quick decisions. This is why the flight director loops are open for all the engineers to hear and for the primary mission control engineers to talk. You never know when what you know is the thing that someone else needs in order to solve a problem, so everyone gets to hear what everyone else is saying.
This approach has a near perfect track record in terms of preventing death and accidents. Neither Space Shuttle accident had anything to do with the immediate actions taken by the mission control team and there was nothing that they could have done in real time to change the outcome. The same is true for the fire on Apollo One. Even the potential issue associated with the thruster malfunction on Gemini eight had already been solved by mission control when CAPCOM told them to disconnect from the agena target vehicle in the event they had any difficulties while out of radio contact.
Before you listen to the clip again, consider the complexity of what is being asked of each of the flight controllers. On the surface level, they need to have a lot of knowledge about their role, all that can go wrong, how to address these problems, and how to identify when something IS a problem that needs to be addressed. But on a deeper level, they need to cultivate the skill of focused attention and then use it to hear the information that they need in order to do their job correctly. They need to listen to everything but only hear the things that are important to them even when it is coming from a team member who isn’t a part of their specific group. At the deepest level, while they are doing their jobs and listening to hear what matters to them, they must also have a level of mindfulness to notice when their brain has tracked in on a hunch or gut instinct. Finally, they have to do all of this while the lives of people they know are on the line, something that tends not to favour logic and rational thinking.
Most of these things are skills that no one is born with. Each person needed to put in the time and practice to provide their brains with the stimulation to force the adaptation that results in the unconscious capabilities in skills that are novel and arbitrary. And yet all of them are able to do it.
The human brain doesn’t care what sensory information it is tasked to handle, it simply goes about figuring out how to deal with it and then begins to grow the tissue to support or control this process. It only needs consistent practice and recovery over time and will do the rest. We have the easy part, we just need to pay attention and put in the work. The tough part of determining which neurons need to connect to which other neurons in order to create competeney and to allow for parallel processing is taken care of by the brain.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being, including the mission control flight engineers. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
If you doubt this, spend some time listening to the flight director loops that are available on YouTube and you will be pleased and delighted to notice just how quickly you get good at hearing what each of three people is saying simultaneously. Better yet, pick a skill that you want to have and then pay very close attention while you practice it every day for 15 minutes over a twelve week period of time. In a couple of months you will be better at it and you will be, in fact, completely powerless to NOT improve.
It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.
There is a video that my YouTube app continues to suggest to me called “Don’t Talk To The Police.” I recently cleared my search and watch history so the app has no idea that I have already watched the video. To the best of my recollection, the video is basically a criminal defence lawyer giving a lecture to a university class in which he relates his experience and knowledge about the nature of conversations between law enforcement personnel and members of the public. His view is that NO ONE but a lawyer should talk to the police and in the event that someone is a lawyer, they should keep their mouth closed and let their lawyer do the talking. What is extra funny about the video, at least as I am remembering it now, is the presenters comments to a second speaker who will follow him, a member of law enforcement, in which they both agree that you should not talk to the police.
The lawyers view is that the police have a job to do, one that is potentially very dangerous and challenging. They have been tasked with enforcing the law and identifying people to charge with crimes. For the overwhelming majority of the public, the police satisfy these tasks by playing a crime prevention role and the administration of traffic tickets for moving violations. For the civilians who get pulled over, it can be slightly intimidating and unnerving. This isn’t a big surprise given that getting a traffic ticket can be expensive and can increase the cost of our mandatory insurance. Driving however is a privilege and since the government has a monopoly on violence and a responsibility to keep all citizens safe, we agree to certain things whenever we make the decision to drive. As such, if we are driving a motor vehicle and a police officer pulls us over we must show them our licence, vehicle ownership, and proof of insurance. In the event a driver doesn’t have a licence on them, they MUST reveal their name. Other than these three items, we have no obligation to say anything else. They can ask us any number of questions and we are free to refuse to answer them, just as we are free to say anything we want.
HOWEVER, choosing to remain silent or refusing to answer their questions, while not an indication of anything subversive, can lead to a more complicated interaction and a less desirable outcome. E.g. if they were considering just giving you a warning, refusing to answer their questions may serve only to ensure that they give you a ticket. If, in the very unlikely case you do happen to match a person of interest who they are looking for, not answering their questions does nothing to eliminate you as being the person of interest.
In all cases OTHER than being pulled over while driving, you have the right to say nothing to the police, to tell them that you do not answer questions or to request a lawyer to be present when they are questioning you. You maintain these rights forever and regardless of what the police may suggest. This is the essence of what the YouTube video is all about. Do not, under any circumstances, talk to the police or say more than you are legally required to say. You do not have to identify yourself, you do not have to explain what you are doing, where you are going or coming from, where you live or work, give a reason for being where you are, or identify any of the people you are with. In the event that they need to know these things, they will arrest you, take you to the police station, and allow you to connect with and bring-in your lawyer to do the talking for you. They cannot compel you to talk REGARDLESS of what they may try to do.
This is important. They are just doing their jobs, but since a big part of their job is to identify people to charge for crimes, it is safe to proceed under the assumption that they are trying to figure out what crime they can charge you with. This is such a big part of their job that the US has the Miranda warning that law enforcement personnel need to give to those they take into custody (those individuals who have been deprived of their right to liberty, which is the freedom to walk away at will). There is a script that most of us have heard dozens of times on Law And Order and on any number of crime shows, but a verbatim reading of the script is not actually a requirements. The law enforcement person must make the detained person aware of four things:
1) they have the right to remain silent 2) anything the suspect says can and may be used against them in a court of law 3) they have the right to have an attorney present before and during the questioning 4) if they cannot afford the services of an attorney, they have the right to have one appointed, at public expense and without cost to them, to represent them before and during the questioning
If they do not make a person aware of these things and proceed with questioning them, there is a near certain chance that any of the information they uncover will not be admissible in court. This may not matter if they are able to surface the information independently, but if the only source of the information is the non Mirandaized suspect, it cannot be introduced during a trial.
Related to the Miranda warning is the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment gives a number of rights to citizens of the US as they relate to crime procedures. There are a number of rights, but the relevant one here is that of the right to NOT incriminate oneself. When someone pleads the fifth, they are invoking the right to not answer a question that they believe may lead to self-incrimination. This is similar to the Miranda warning but is used in more formal situations such as criminal trials, depositions, and speaking in front of congress or other legislative bodies. The point of each is the same, there is a separation between the government and the individual citizens and while the government holds practically all of the power, the citizens must have the right to safely resist this power in a way that ensures they are not victimized by the government without having the opportunity to consent to it.
So back to talking, or not talking, to the police. Given that one of their main responsibilities is to identify people to charge with crimes, it makes sense for us to unpack this a little more. Crime is not always or mostly a zero sum type of thing. In some instances, there will be one victim for each perpetrator – think about a mugging or a common assault. But in most other cases there can be more than one perpetrator – a gang attack, criminal syndicate, or most white collar crimes. With the exception of Bernie Madoff, who by all accounts was the sole perpetrator of a ponzi scheme that netted millions of dollars, most white collar crimes involve groups of people who are aware of what is going on and many more who are wilfully ignorant to what is occurring. This means that it is possible for hundreds of people to be guilty of a crime even if there was only one victim and even if there was no victim. People can be guilty of conspiracy and “after the fact” crimes.
This being said, the police have a responsibility to assume that EVERYONE they interact with might have broken the law. This is most likely true given the number of laws that are on the books. The police do not need to be actively investigating a crime in order to arrest someone for it, all that is required is a substantial belief that a crime has been committed by the person to whom they are speaking OR sufficient evidence of guilt that there is a reasonable chance that the person would be convicted at the end of a trial. Note that the person who gets convicted does not necessarily need to be the person who committed the crime, nor does a crime actually need to have been committed. A reasonable belief or sufficient evidence of guilt are enough to garner first the charge and then subsequent finding of “guilty.”
This is the underlying reason why the lawyer was telling the law students to NEVER speak to the police. His motivation is not to be a jerk or to make the job of police more difficult, although it could be for the first point and absolutely does cause the second. The human brain is not a fully logical operator, and it does NOT take in and process ALL of the available information because there is just too much. It then uses this incomplete information to manufacture an on-the-fly meaning and to then make predictions about the future based on this meaning and the experience it has previously had. Further to this, once it makes a prediction, this is used in the process of manufacturing meaning. The consequence to any interpretation and prediction is the re-prioritization of what information is important and what can be ignored.
This entire process makes a lot of sense as it serve the primary goal of all living beings, which is to remain alive. This is a remarkable achievement given just how complicated the physical world is. But the world of law and order exists primarily on the brains of human beings. It is therefore more abstract than tangible, which renders the human brain inadequate for accurately addressing it in an error free way. Ideas are the currency of thinking. Since these are made-up of electrical activity within the brain, they can only exist when someone is thinking them. The brain has a finite capacity and a finite speed, so the complex ideas that contain “law and order” come into existence when they are triggered and will fade away quickly when they are no longer being activated. This is the very reason why we cannot trust our brains completely in the moment and the reason why the clarity of our thinking will always benefit from taking more time to process and assess more of the information AND have a willingness to see the things that are not deemed to be meaningful by our initial interpretation.
The willingness is critical because without it, if someone has a vested interest in seeing things a particular way they will see things that way. Any conflict of interest has the possibility of altering the meaning that a person puts onto something, which will then alter the predictions they make, altering what information they pay attention, further impacting the meaning. Things can and do speed off into the realm of untruth very quickly rendering the predictions inaccurate and changing the way a person thinks, and about what they think, so profoundly that their predictions seem completely accurate.
In the case of the video, the lawyer is speaking to the conflict of interest that the police have when interpreting meaning out of their conversations with people. Since crime is everywhere and since most drivers routinely break the law, there is a near certain chance that any time a police officer speaks to someone that they are speaking to someone who has broken the law. The overwhelming majority of the people and crime pairings are inconsequential in the grand scheme of life – rolling a stop sign, speeding while keeping-up with the flow of traffic, etc… – but they are crimes nonetheless. Ones that, had the cop been looking for someone to be committing them WHILE the person committed them, they would have intervened and issued a citation for the violation. The fact that they did not see it while it was occurring is irrelevant to the fact that the person did violate the law.
We would like to believe that the police have no incentive OTHER than upholding the law when they do their jobs, but this simply is not true. Some officers are tasked with investigating a particular type of crime and are less inclined to care about other types of crimes, but, when all is said and done, crime is crime and there is a belief that someones past is the best predictor of their future actions. While moving or parking violations are not necessarily gateway crimes for drug trafficking, armed robbery, or tax evasion, there is an all or nothing quality to crime that is a slippery slope. It implies that maybe the speeder WILL become a thug because they have already shown a propensity if not a predilection towards violating the law. Since the police have the responsibility of enforcing the law and since most adults who drive violate the law fairly consistently, any conversation an officer has with an adult is also a conversation with a potentially violent criminal.
Three things here:
The first is that I am not suggesting that this makes anything more than narrative sense. I’m guiding you down the path in such a way as to make the conclusion seem inevitable. The fact that it matches reality is why I am doing this.
The second is that I am NOT suggesting that people who work in law enforcement are unethical or are behaving in any way that is different from how most people behave. They are effectively identical to everyone else and are simply doing their jobs as well as they can. If you or I were tasked with doing their job, we would do it in the same way because that is what the job requires. The consequences for a false negative are too high, and there is, after all, a slow and more methodical second evaluation in the form of the court system. This means that false positives can be sorted our later.
The third is about the incentive a police officer might have when doing their job that can be best understood when laid out in a blown syllogism.
If no crime occurs THEN there is no need for a law enforcement agency THEREFORE the police MUST charge people with crime.
There are a few things wrong with this, but it is an overview of the approach that is used almost the world over. Those who work in law enforcement have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of a certain level of crime because without the crime, there is no need for a law enforcement agency.
Make no mistake about it, I have no problem with the police or with the desire to enforce the law in such a way as to allow people to live as safe a life as possible. I don’t have a problem with a law enforcement officer engaging me with a mindset that I am guilty of something and will talk myself into admitting to it if given a long enough time. Even though I am mindful to the rules of the road and the way in which I operate the cars that I drive, I likely commit at least one moving violation every time I get behind the wheel.
The problem I have is with talking to people who have already made-up their mind about the topic and are simply talking to me in an attempt to surface “proof” that they are correct. The video is used to illustrate the very natural tendency for people to uncover the things that they have an incentive to find, and it is much easier to appreciate this phenomenon when we examine the actions and behaviour of law enforcement personnel.
The fact of the matter is that EVERYONE operates the same way and will use conversation as the means to validate the predictions that they have already made. The only way to combat this biased information seeking behaviour is to limit what we say and to gain a more complete understanding of what we stand to lose when we keep talking.
Take a moment to think back on a real life crime show that included a part that had the interrogation of the prime suspect. When a lawyer is not present, the detectives work hard to get and keep the suspect talking because they know that very few people are capable of relating personal information and experiences without revealing some aspect of questionable behaviour. Once revealed, these details will be used as a wedge to cause their entirety of their story to unravel. We feel great when we believe that the person who is being interrogated is guilty. But we also feel good when the person looks a particular way or is from a particular geographic location. Having bad teeth or being from a country that is not as highly regarded as the US are not indications of guilt or criminal intent, but they are sufficient enough for us to manufacture meaning and make a prediction. So if we feel good when our “not based on anything” opinions are validated, imagine what can go wrong when the police form an opinion and set about getting the suspect to keep talking.
It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.
The filtering process itself is highly influenced by the information that is currently active in the brain and also by the information that is NOT filtered out.
Once a prediction is made, evidence that does not support the prediction or which invalidates it is filtered out. At this point, a cognitive error has occurred and the brain has moved into the realm of fiction.
Once the brain has created this fiction it is very good at asking the questions that reveal information that supports it. However, without information, the brain is mostly powerless at keeping the prediction alive. This means that saying nothing is a more effective way of maintaining the truth than trying to convince someone of it when they have made their mind up about it.
The sayings “their silence speaks volumes” and “if they had nothing to hide they would be willing to talk” are complete bullshit and they actually reveal a lot more about the mind set of someone who says them than of anyone who chooses to say nothing.
Uncomfortable silences benefit those who are seeking information MORE than anyone else, and they benefit those who are seeking biased or fictional information most of all.
If you take anything out of this post try to make sure that it is the following: the words we say change the world in ways that make taking them back impossible, so be sure to speak only when it is necessary, helpful, or true. Even then, always keep in mind that people tend to hear what they believe they will hear while filtering out most of the things that they do not believe they will hear or that they have an incentive to not hear.
NOTE: I am not a lawyer and this post is not intended to be nor is it actually legal advice. Any statements that can be interpreted as being legal advice should be interpreted as being statements about the nature of the human brain and of human behaviour. When in doubt, say less or nothing while seeking out the skilled professional in the area of concern. If someone is pressing you to talk or answer questions, they have a conflict of interest that will be served by getting you to say something. Do not give in to their desire until you have had the opportunity to fully assess the situation, uncover what you stand to lose, and involve the needed experts.
Someone once told me that I was the most cynical person they had ever met. I thanked them for the feedback, mentioned that they needed to get out more, and agreed with them that I was skeptical. They either didn’t notice this correction-agreement pairing or didn’t react to it; although I presume it was the former.
Cynicism and skepticism are not the same thing. While both are is “isms”, the locus of control for each is different. With cynicism, the individual is in control of the interpretation. No matter what other people do, the individual will remain in a negatively valianced state that has them default to the worst possible interpretation of things, one that is highly resistant to contradictory evidence. With skepticism, the individual tends towards an initial negative interpretation that is not sticky; it is a wait and see approach that moves in response to evidence pointing one way or the other. Skeptics have a locus of control that is external meaning other people get to determine whether the doubt continues based on their actions.
Back to me being called cynical for displaying skepticism. It was very clear right from the start what the person was trying to communicate and it had nothing to do with me being cynical or not, it had to do with them not liking the prediction I had made about the future based on my experience. It was one of my old bosses, who was speaking about the future actions of one of my peers. They were telling me that my peer was going to take care of something and as soon as they had, I would be able to move forward with a project that my boss was pressuring me to complete. When they mentioned that my peer would have things wrapped-up by the end of that business day, meaning I could get started that night working from home to make sure no deadlines were missed, I replied with “I’ll try to get started this evening, but I’m not going to do any work on it if what they deliver is not accurate.” This was met with a reply of “oh my God, you are so cynical.”
Why was my comment an indication of skepticism vs. cynicism?
Evidence, and very specific evidence. My peer had a track record of not delivering the work that was needed in order for me to pick-up the baton, do my part, and then hand off the complete project to the sales team.
A peer not being up to speed on the requirements or them lacking the ability to perform their tasks is not something that I necessarily have a problem with. Life is tough, most jobs are composed of a multitude of tasks that are novel and only meaningful in a very tight context. It is going to take people a few tries to get it right, and a bunch more to get good enough at it so as to be a contributing member of a team. So long as the person approaches things without any arrogance, I am fine with their below average performance and bug-filled work because I know they are open to feedback and will make the effort to alter their specific actions to improve the quality of their results as they move forward. There will be incremental improvement as they take in more information and adjust their approach in response.
The peer in question, however, was arrogant. They had a track record of handing off error filled work and reacting to my feedback with “interesting, I’ll try that next time” or, “well, if you were to think about for a second, you’d realize my approach is an improvement.” Both of which were followed by them doing nothing more at that moment and doing nothing different in the future. I was left to correct their mistakes and after a couple of these interactions, I knew full well that my job had expanded to include the new task of fixing their inaccurate work.
When they started, I was optimistic that they were the correct hire and that they had the right values in terms of doing the best work possible. That was not based on anything that had happened yet, just the hope that those in a position of making the hiring decision had the ability to identify the correct values and soft skills that would ultimately result in a competent coworker. Whether or not being able to generate hope is a bug or a feature of the human brain is an interesting side question, but I have found that it is a requirement when working with other people. You cannot approach things with certainty one way or the other because the human brain has tremendous capacity to learn new things, just as it has the capacity to decide that it knows all that is needed and then remain impervious to new information.
More often than not, people rise to the occasion and invest the effort to learn and improve. It takes effort, willingness, and the ability to tolerate being wrong for long enough choose to do something about it. While not everyone will do this, I have had ample opportunity to notice that many people will lean into the uncertainty (or the certainty that they are wrong) and advance their understanding of the situation. And it is only because of these experiences that I have been able to avoid cynicism. I have seen enough people take action to try and improve that I accept that the locus of control for other peoples ignorance resides outside of me. I KNOW that they CAN do it, I just do not know if they will. Most of my other peers did, the one in question did not.
With cynicism, the locus of control for taking the actions to address ones ignorance becomes secondary to the lack of hope or belief that anyone will take the actions that are needed; or the certainty that they will NOT take these actions. It is as though the cynical person adds something to the effect of “and yet they won’t” to the end of any sentence or statement that makes reference to someones ability to take the actions to move forward or advance their understanding. For example, “They have the ability the fix the problem, and yet they won’t.”
Doubling down in this, cynical people also employ a more robust version of the fundamental attribution error (FAE). When an outcome is bad, they attribute it to a characterlogical short-comings or flaw, which is a near text book definition of the FAE. What they add to it is their response to a positive outcome, which is to attribute situational or circumstantial causes to it vs. the unconscious assumption that the other person got it right because of talent, skill, or ability. When the outcome is bad, the other person is to blame, when the outcome is good, the other person was lucky. So no matter what happens, the other person is always going to be painted in the worst possible light.
NOTE: I have not suggested a second alternative, that the cynic has an internal locus of control for taking the actions to correct another persons ignorance, because that point of view is only embodied in people who believe that things can be different, which a cynic does not believe.
There is nothing at all wrong with being skeptical so long as you change your view when you encounter evidence that justifies changing your point of view. Skepticism is basically taking a “wait and see” approach, which is actually a very logical way to view things. People can, but will they?
I invite everyone to engage life with this or a more optimistic approach as it will help you achieve a lot more than taking the cynical view that “they can but won’t” or that “they can’t.” The reasons are twofold. The first is that it will allow you to change your mind and move forward based on reality vs. the application of a preconceived generalization that does not change. The second is that it communicates a very different message to other people. Cynics tend to broadcast their doubt in a way that influences the actions of other people leading to the very outcomes the cynic was predicting. Being skeptical does not broadcast doubt because there isn’t any. It tells the other person that they can, that you believe they can, but that actions need to be taken by them.
We can all laugh at how quaint and silly people were a hundred years ago, and feel somehow more evolved or superior given that we no longer believe that we should spend time having cow trials. But the fact that we’re not all completely sickened by the emotional and cognitive manipulation tactics used by the politicians is an indication that we still do not get it. The fact that they are allowed to continue to do it is PROOF that we do not get it.
Yes, it is true that if we do not like having other people trespass on our private property we are free to avoid people or to put up a bigger fence to keep them out. But that is actually more proof of the problem and not a solution.
Human beings are social creatures who default to believing what they hear. Our programming also dictates that we cannot ignore all other people. Social isolation used to be a death sentence. This means that we are running code that ensures the release of reward chemicals in response to the perception of anything that falls into the realm of social connection.
We can train ourselves to avoid others, but this takes time and will only occur after the default programming has been expressed. Making ME responsible for preventing others from committing property crimes on my property is victim blaming and doing so prevents us from taking advantage of the behaviour modification qualities that the punishment of social scorn facilitates.
This is a very simple and straight forward issue, one that more people should be talking about and that we should all be trying to put an end to.
When someone makes-up a story or when they present a biased point of view or narrative that will trigger outrage or fear, they are effectively attempting to reach inside the heads of other people and turn the taps that control the release of very powerful chemicals. Once opened, these chemicals hit the blood stream and move throughout the brain and body. The effect can be very profound. With a full sympathetic nervous system response, the prefrontal cortex ceases activity, knocking off-line a number of executive functions that are related to improved decision making. This makes the person temporarily less intelligent, which is a problem on it own, but so much worse when you realize that their body has been primed for intense aggressive movement.
A highly aroused poor decision maker is potentially much more dangerous than a person who is operating at their baseline state. In the same way as we are able to consider the role the brain tumour might have played on Charles Whitmans murder spree, we need to be able to consider the role fear or outrage have on diminishing the cognitive abilities of normally functioning people; those without any underlying pathology.
I am not directly suggesting that a politician who makes up a pizza-gate type story is responsible for firing the gun, but they are responsible for setting in motion the events that lead to an internal state of a person who then chooses to fire the gun. We will never know what would have happened had the pizza-gate story never been told but it is reasonable to conclude that the story did have an impact on the material world in that someone who had a predisposition to shoot a gun into a restaurant found a reason and an emotional state that would allow them to take violent action.
THIS is the sources of the problem. The words we use convey NOT only ideas that are automatically assumed to be true but they also trigger emotional reactions that are based on this automatic believing. When the triggered state is one that suppresses logical thinking and consideration of consequences, there will be blood on the hands of the speaker when the listeners fails to consider the totality of the circumstances and reacts.
For example, about a hundred years ago in the US, they had cow trials to determine the guilt or innocence of bulls that were being used to breed. The details are moderately interesting and remarkably crazy to contemporary thinkers, but at the time it seemed like a good thing to do. There was a court with a judge, a prosecutor and a defendant. Witnesses would give sworn testimony and the judge would make a determination, and sentence the guilty bulls to some sort of punishment. Usually it was a speedy death, but on occasion they were given a 30 day stay of execution to eat as much as they could so when the death sentence was carried out, they would provide more meat for the farmer to sort of make-up for the crime they committed.
I wish this was something that I was making-up.
We can all laugh at how quaint and silly people were a hundred years ago, and feel somehow more evolved or superior given that we no longer believe that we should spend time having cow trials. But the fact that we’re not all completely sickened by the emotional and cognitive manipulation tactics used by the politicians is an indication that we still do not get it. The fact that they are allowed to continue to do it is PROOF that we do not get it.
Would you hold a polar bear responsible for attacking a tourist who makes the bad decision of picking-up one of its cubs? No, you wouldn’t. The bear may get shoot in an attempt to save the persons life, but if the person gets away and the polar bear is not encroaching on any community it will be left alone to do bear things. Bears are bears and you cannot fault a bear for acting like a bear just as you cannot fault it for not acting like a human. All of its coding and all of its hardware are perfectly shaped and formed to be bear-like.
So while a person undergoing an amygdala hijack or full sympathetic nervous system response does not suddenly become a bear, they do become somewhat less of a human than they were before the response. They are also not entirely responsible for this slipping, and even less so when an external operator has deliberately engineered the situation to trigger the response.
The full force of the law should be directed towards the people who trespass against others. Their actions have consequences and they are not harmless nor victimless. They are consuming other people for their purposes and the outcome can have long last effects. Any thought that we have is also an experience, and any experience we have can be reinforced and therefore repeated. Any repeated experience can influence gene expression. Once genes are expressed, they can influence the future in powerful ways.
By choosing to suppress your critical faculties, they are using you in an attempt to shape the future in a way that helps them get what they want. But they are not getting your consent to alter your neurological functioning, it is just something that is done to you. They are effectively violating your body, breaking into your brain and implanting fake ideas that you are powerless to not respond to.
They are no longer concerned with surfacing the best ideas to make the world a better place. In fact, they are no longer concerned with ethics, morals, or virtue. It is all about labelling the other side as vile, disgusting, and dangerous in order to win. They are going to continue to do this until we treat them as the criminal trespassers they are. Until we do, it is only going to continue to get worse.
…the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
I can easily imagine that there is a saying that political operatives use behind closed doors that goes something like “don’t worry about the middle until the month before an election, then throw them a bone and they’ll fall into line.”
The reason why I have no trouble putting these words into the months of hypothetical people who work for very real political campaigns and politicians is because the political candidates and parties ACT like this. In Canada, a country that has a very limited campaign time and predetermined election dates, we have to listen to politicians throwing mud at each other and towards the supporters of their political rivals for close to 4 years, only to have them pivot and talk at the middle for 36 to 50 days as the campaign officially runs. The Canadian public vote on the third Monday of the forth October following the previous election and on the very next day everyone goes back to ignoring the middle while focusing their praise and efforts on either the left or the right, and their scorn on the other side.
I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, the behaviour of the political class or the fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadians, those who make-up the middle, allow this abuse to continue. It is like all those in the middle suffer from a collective Stockholm syndrome or from the disease of low expectations caused by the race to the bottom that has us hand-over our power the moment someone exceeds them.
There is another saying, stick with me here, that has a public life, one used by personal trainers, coaches and anyone who is responsible for directing the actions of other people that explains who is at fault.
“If you have a client who is doing something wrong, they are doing it because you coached them to do it or because you are letting them do it.”
So the reason why the politicians treat the majority of Canadians with complete contempt is because we have coached them to do it by letting them do it. It’s sad for them because they might actually want to do good for people, but we let them treat us poorly nearly all of the time and respond like trained animals when, come election time, they promise us something nice and shinny.
This last federal election in Canada, and the last midterm election in the US, have seen a change in the strategy that the political class employ to manipulate people into giving them a job or allowing them to keep the one they manipulated themselves into last time. Whereas they used to only buy our votes, they have added catastrophizing to the play book. This is very effective for two psychological reasons, a re-framing effect that capitalizes on our inability to process information effectively and an emotional hijack that triggers a reduction in, and possible elimination of, logical thinking.
The re-framing effect converts a cost into a loss. Previously, a vote for anyone other than them would cost you whatever it was that they were promising. Everyone accepted this fact and has more or less made their peace with it. In fact, we seem to be able to handle paying big costs so long as we get something of value out of it. For example, lets imagine that a person was carrying a $10 bill in their pocket and when they reach into their pocket they notice that it is gone. They have, for all intents and purposes, lost it. However, if they take some time to consider what has happened and decide that they will only carry money in their wallet which will be placed into a zipped-up pocket, they may be able to perceive the missing $10 as the cost of this lesson. They have paid $10 to ensure that they will never lose $20 or $50. The value of this lesson is at least $10 but may be $40. That is a 1:1 ratio or a 1:4 ratio. It sucks but it wasn’t a complete waste and in the long run, there is a chance that they will be better off for having learned this way vs. some other way.
From a psychological perspective, a loss of $10 is experienced as more painful than a $10 lesson. The reality is that re-framing a loss into a cost actually requires more energy in terms of having to think about “what did I learn?” The brain however does not view it this way and accepts what has happened as a fair or fair enough trade of one thing of value for something of approximate value.
By catastrophizing the outcome of voting for anyone OTHER than them, they are effectively telling people that a vote their opponents is going to destroy everything that is good in your life. So not only do you not get the thing, the cost, but you will NEVER get the thing and your remaining time on the planet is going to be much harder than you can possibly imagine, the loss of practically everything. The story they are telling is that a vote for someone else is both a cost and a loss, and this is enough to boost the psychological pain associated with simply thinking about doing so.
This catastrophizing is also very emotionally triggering. YOU are going to be responsible for destroying the world and eliminating the future of every young person that has the potential to exist. That’s a big cross to bare and arguably the worst thing that you could ever do, and you are going to do it simply by voting for the other guy. That makes you the worst person in the universe, something that you can avoid by voting for someone else.
Being emotionally triggered is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on which emotion has been triggered and the magnitude of the emotional response. Being happy is not the same thing as being sad, and being slightly angry is a very different state than being apoplectic, and each of these states has a different impact on the brain. The general rules of thumb are 1) the greater the magnitude of a response, the larger the impact on mental functioning and 2) emotions that have a negative valence have a greater impact on cognitive functioning than emotions that have a positive valence.
For example, someone who is slightly happy will show brain activity that is very close to their neutral baseline and they show very little impairment in cognitive test. Someone who is very happy will have a greater deviation from baseline both in terms of brain activity and performance. Someone who is slightly angry will show a moderate change in brain activity as well as performance when compared to their neutral baseline and to their slightly happy state. An extremely angry person will display a very large deviation from baseline, with certain areas of brain effectively being off-line; the dramatic alteration and decrease in brain activity will temporarily eliminate certain cognitive processes rendering the person operationally different from who their are at baseline.
Emotions that are of a positive valence tend to impact critical thinking while emotions that are of a negative valence tend to impact logical thinking. The narrative practical implication of these alterations are that happy people are willing to take action, but they are more inclined to make mistakes that a level of skepticism or a second review would catch. In other words, they are less likely to feel “wrong” and will therefore move forward believing that they are right. Angry people are more likely to react in disproportionately large ways and are more inclined to take “final” actions or actions that permanently take care of the situation – they will be more aggressive than normal and will attack with the full force of their fight or flight abilities.
The underlying mechanism at play is not the same and for the purposes of winning elections via the introduction of losses, it is sufficient to understand that large negatively valenced emotions suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex which has the consequence of eliminating the future, removing the ability to regulate reactions, and to reduce logical thought. This is a survival response that is adaptive and has historically been very effective at keeping our species alive because in a life or death situation, the individual needs to take drastic action or else they will die. When time and intensity are of the essence, there is little time for rational thought because any delay might just prove to be fatal. It basically comes down to “do this or die” and since this part of our programming evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago when death was all around, it was both necessary and effective. However, modern life has effectively eliminated most of the actual life and death moments, meaning that nearly all of these reactions are out of place and are very likely to cause more harm than they prevent.
But the code that programs these processes and the hardware on which they run is exactly the same today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. This means that anyone who is able to trigger an emotional response in another persons brain has the ability to alter their thinking in very predictable ways.
Another important fact to consider is that negative things are more salient in our minds than positive things. In order to counter-act something that has a measurement of -1 in terms of negativity, the person will need to be simultaneously exposed to something that is a +2 in terms of positivist. This is why re-framing a loss as a cost makes the experience less negative. It is also why the “sunny ways” talk that was thrown around during the 2015 Canadian election wasn’t present in 2019 – it wouldn’t have worked because the tone of this most recent election was intensely negative and fear evoking.
So in summary, modern elections are about fear and anger because 1) these emotions reduce logical thinking, boost catastrophizing, and promote action of a specific type (getting people to the polling stations to vote for the candidate that will protect us from the object of fear or anger 2) you only need half as much of these emotions so they are more favourable from an economic stand point 3) the bypassing of critical analysis that positive states fuels is very narrow in terms of time frame and context – when a person is happy, you will be able to slip things past them but since they return to baseline very quickly, the door is only open for a short time and 4) negative emotions persist for a much longer time than positive emotions. All emotions are made up of matter in the form of neurotransmitters and hormones but negative emotions are composed of more physical material because they actually serve to fuel physical action. The entire body is involved with a fight or flight response, therefore these chemicals are released into the blood and circulate everywhere. It takes time for the body to remove them from the blood stream, particularly if no intense physical activity has occurred. The mass of happiness is much smaller, it serves very little survival purpose, and it is more psychological in nature meaning it is more or less only a brain experience. It requires much less clean-up and in fact it can be stopped almost immediately if something bad happens right in the middle of it. This is not the case with intense anger.
It is complicated. It is well understood but it is complicated. It is also very hard to be aware of as it is happening because the very thing that is responsible for noticing it happen is the same thing that it is happening to. So when you are happy, you are not well set-up to analyze what is going on because your critical faculties are dialed down. When you are angry, your brain has been hijacked and is only capable of focusing on survival. Outsiders can see it, and we can see it in ourselves after the fact, but as it is going on we are nearly powerless to do anything against it. This is why we have seen the addition of losses and catastrophizing to the political campaigns – they do predictable things and make us susceptible to manipulation, lies and bullshit.
Well, there’s a lot.
First off, we are being lied to by everyone and we can uncover the nature of the lie based on the emotion they are working to activate.
Those that are trying to make us feel happy are about to insert a thought into our brains that we would normally resist or at least vet for accuracy. For example, taxes will go down or the standard of living is going to improve for everyone. The realities here are that if taxes go down, services will be reduced OR deficits will increase OR the taxes for someone else will increase to make-up any shortfall, the standard of living does have, in the short term, a zero sum flavor and it doesn’t happen for everyone all at once – it starts with the rich and works its way down to the lower classes.
Those trying to make us angry or scared are trying to motivate us to take action to ensure that we survive. Ultimately the action is to vote for them, but it will also include vilifying the group they are talking about and updating our definition of them to include aversion, disgust and anything else that will move us away from them. The goal is to manipulate our world view to have us want to see the other group eliminated and to condition our nervous system to release negative emotion in response to thoughts or the mere mention of them.
Second, the re-framing of costs as losses is an economic manipulation in that creates an imaginary loss that then serves to trigger a negative emotional response. It makes something out of nothing and this something has a big impact on our nervous system and brain. Logically, we know that a vote for one person is the same as not voting for everyone else and that not voting for any particular person will probably cost us whatever it was they were promising. BUT when this is presented as loss and not cost, it increases the significance and is much more likely to trigger negative emotion, which will suppress logical thinking.
Finally, the story telling that uses catastrophizing IS triggering for fear and anger and it DOES suppress logical thinking. The moment we react, we no longer have the ability think about the future, which eliminates our innate capability to ask the question “what do they have to gain from making me feel angry or scared.”
In summary then, for most of the time the politicians ignore the people in the middle while trying to do things to make their base happy. When election time comes around, they begin to focus their attention towards the middle in an attempt to buy votes through promises of goods or services, take votes away for their opponents by presenting costs as losses, and to temporarily suppress cognitive abilities by manipulating blood flow to the prefrontal cortex via the release of emotional neurotransmitters and hormones.
Phrased another way, be concerned when they are talking and be very concerned when they are talking to you.
What is the significance of the middle having figured out how politicians manipulate them when they are not simply ignoring them? Society is very expensive and there is a constant demand for our limited resources. We are already giving a lot of them to the government and regardless of who is in power, not everyone gets the same value from the money they spend. The D’s or L’s will look after their base first and everyone else second while the R’s or C’s will look after their base first and everyone else second. But each side has a punching bag on the other side that they hammer to get money for their base or to generate votes. We flip flop back and forth between these two sides with things getting worse for one group and better for another, then reversing, all the while those in the middle get nothing new while paying disproportionately for the entire thing. When we say something about it, we get chastised, lied to, told that the solutions for our problems come from a different level of government, or, worst of all, get told that is it nuanced in a tone that reeks of condescension and from a person who is so smug that they do most of their talking with their eyes closed. They treat us like we are stupid, which may actually be true given that they do get voted into office over and over again.
Personally, I am glad this part of it is coming to an end, and the sooner the better. Politics is both boring and complicated, and for the very same reason. It’s so complicated that most people who talk about it do not know enough to have a good conversation making their opinions shallow, uninteresting, and therefore as valuable as those opinions spewed out by a partisan talking head.
This being said, it is going to be a lot worse before it begins improve unless something awful happens that serves as the catalyst to united people. World war one and two, the space race, the aftermath of 9/11 before the politicians decided it would be a good time to eat the public’s liberty and freedom, and the occasional sporting event, like the 2019 NBA final, that has one country align together for the metaphoric face off against another country.
The reason for this are very simple, human beings NEED an enemy and they will find it in their friends and family if there is no one else around to blame for life going the way life goes. We find it a lot easier to declare and demonize a new out group, like the liberals, the conservatives, the tree-huggers, the immigrants, the Apple fanboys, the whatevers…. But we are not fussy when it comes to filling the role of dangerous and vile enemy so when a real enemy does not exist we’ll find someone and set about re-framing everything in our life that bothers us as being somewhat causally related to them, even if that person is our neighbour or someone we have broken bread with.
As bad as this seems, the fact that we have started turning on our fellow citizens is actually a sign that things in the world have gotten a lot better in so far as most other people in the world do not spend much time or energy making our lives tough. Life is actually very good, void of serious conflicts, and our biggest threats are actually the known consequences of our own actions. Pollution, global warming, and the abundance of low cost, highly rewarding foods will shorten the lives and reduce its quality for more people than any of our enemies ever can, will or did.
This being said, the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
But lies are lies, and no matter how convincingly they are told sooner or later they will be discovered. The volume of them has increased so dramatically recently that anyone who consumes the news or talks to anyone is getting exposed to dozens of them a day, hundreds a week and thousands a year. With this amount of exposure and practice, it is nearly impossible to not get good at spotting them. And with the Internet available all of the time, EVERYTHING a politician says will remain on the record and at easy reach. We will identify the pattern, and as soon as we do, most of the automatic and unconscious click-whir power that the liars have will evaporate. They will be seen for what they are, other people who have a conflict of interest that serves to fuel their motivated reasoning and the ideas they push forward in spite of the fact that they are demonstrably false. While they are not all full of shit, none of them are full enough of diverse opinions and experiences to be seen as objective brokers of reality. They are just human beings who need a job and want the power and are so blinded by these desires that they will try to convince you that one idea is better than all others and any of the others will harm you, your children and all the other good people who believe what they do.
I’m not holding my breath for this to happen quickly, mostly because I cannot hold my breath for the next two to seven years. BUT there are promising signs that things are starting to change. Specifically the ugliness of the last US election, the last Canadian election, the awareness that Fox News and CNN are biased sources of whatever it is they are pumping out 24 / 7, along with the fact that violence has started to breakout at protests about some issues. All of these things are bad, but they are bad in a way that is both unsustainable and so outside of the normal human interaction dynamic that they stand as examples that something is not working. The volume just needs to get turned-up a little bit louder before the middle can no longer ignore what is going on, moving them to put their foot down and putting an end to the nonsense the fabulists are spewing in order to get whatever it is they are seeking.
It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts.
Last year I went to see my doctor for something. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was about specifically but as is the way with him, we chatted a little about life and how I was feeling about things. I answered his questions truthfully because that is what my role was, based on my most recent reading of the “Big Book Of Social Conventions” that doesn’t exist.
I remember now why I went to see him. It was to get a prescription renewed but it also had something to do with the fact that I had started to realize that life is tough and it remains kind of hard even though I am getting better at it. While I am not as physically fit as I used to be, I have no trouble putting in a full days labor if that is what the day calls for. The toughness that I was noticing was not of a physical nature – I think on some level the brain has come to terms with gravity, the mass of things, and the practical implications of the stuff Newton was ranting about after that apple hit him on the head. We have dealt with momentum, inertia, and the tendency for everything to try and drop into the center of the earth for so long that we just sort of accept that. Even if we concede the loss to physics, we still have to play the game and constantly hold things up.
The challenge that I was relating to him was more of the existential struggle that some measure of people will notice, think about, and share with their doctors. It is the struggle that I think those without children will become more aware of because there is nothing in their life that fills them with blind hope and dogmatic optimism about the future of the planet. My saying this as a lot to do with the feeling I get when I watch a parent interact with their child and celebrate the days tiny successes – like the drawing of a stick figure family that includes the correct number of people is a solid indication that the child’s intellectual horsepower will result in them curing some awful disease. They have to be optimistic because who really wants to be responsible for teaching a young person what the world is all about? Plus, they get to see first hand the magical power of the human brain taking in, making sense of, and then interacting with the real world. All of the little benchmarks in their child’s development are actually something truly remarkable. But having no children, my days are filled with interactions with once children who afford other people no reason to be optimistic that tomorrow will be any different than today or that their parents optimism was ever anything but misguided. I deal with grown-ups and if I was forced to describe us all in one word that word would be “average.”
Average is not very good, and it is certainly no reason to be optimistic about anything other than the continuation of mediocre. I am a data point in all of this so no part of me is honestly suggesting that my contribution to “average” is doing anything to lift the score. Life is not easy, talent is rare, and becoming good at something requires consistent and frequent hard work. Being average at something takes just slightly more effort than being utterly useless so it should not be surprising that the world just kind of sucks, mostly completely.
Now I have been aware of this fact for a long time; at least my brain has been aware of it simply because it has been the thing that has had to deal with it in much the same way as it has had to come to terms with gravity. The transformation recently has been that I have become consciously aware of this fact and it has started to grind me down and make me kind of realistic about today and the future. Today is going to be a lot like yesterday and tomorrow is going to be a lot like today. Very little changes other than the coat of paint, even if it seems like so much is changing. It is years of nothing, then a moment of shifting to the left, followed by more years of nothing. Repeat, but with the occasional jog to the right, or backwards, and a new iPhone that requires a different cable so your charging problem is back, rebranded but it’s the same problem you solved three years ago.
When I was talking to him, I didn’t take a moment to consider just how unsympathetic he could have been. He’s seen more than I have, and what he has seen is about as raw and unvarnished as anything can be. So while I was dealing with there being too many people in line or some store worker just hating me because they hate their job and me showing-up serves only to remind them that they are at work, he has been dealing with rot and decay, and the eventual end of each individual person. But he’s a grown-up, knows full well what the world is all about, and still asked me how I was doing.
I said something like life was kind of a drag and that if I had any advice to give it would be to not start it. This caused him to ask about self harm and I honestly replied “no, I’m going to see it through to a natural ending, whenever that is. It’s just that every day is more or less the same – wake-up, eat, go to work, work, eat, leave work, go to the store, shop for food, go home, make dinner, eat, watch some TV, feel like I’m wasting my life, feel stupid for feeling like I have it bad when I have it really good, go to bed, dream, wake-up and do it over again. It’s life, it’s what it is. It continues long after you get good at it and start to lose interest. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but that isn’t really how things go.”
He kind of laughed because he’s a doctor and it was a true statement. Maybe it was a little funny too, I don’t really know, but I know my life is easy compared to almost everyone else who is alive right now, and better than EVERYONE who had lived before 1950.
But the brain doesn’t work that way, which is a bug and not a feature if you were to ask me. It seems nearly powerless to hold in mind just how crappy things used to be and instead chooses to track in on just how crappy things are right now. While we should be smiling because we know NO ONE who died from lockjaw or from blood poisoning when the compound femur fracture they got when their horse threw them ended-up getting infected, we choose anger instead because our selfie from the Kiss concert only got 87 likes or because McDonald’s now serves some breakfast items all day.
Sure, we can force ourselves to think about the good stuff and to generate a sense of gratitude, but that requires effort and tends to earn us the label of Pollyanna.
He didn’t offer me any advice or criticism and just kind of nodded in agreement with what I was saying. It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts. Killing myself was never on the table as I’m not even unhappy that I am alive. It was as though he was just checking in to make sure that my sudden realization that the living of life is a very different experience than thinking about “life” had not been so destabilizing as to render me unwilling to keep at it. And once he got that confirmation, the potentially very serious health crisis evaporated and it was just two people in a room talking about the primary disincentive for stasis. Life has to suck most of the time or else we won’t do anything. Even when it doesn’t suck, we have to find things to complain about in order to create the motivation to do something different.
Of course, we didn’t talk about that part of it. He has a job to do and I have a role to play, and neither of these include tracking in on the fundamental reason why being chronically unsatisfied might be the only reason why our species has survived as long as it has. My role is to get my prescription renewed and to answer his questions as honestly as I can, and his job is to know what questions to ask and make an educated guess about how my life will unfold over the next six months based on the content of my answers.
And in fairness to him and to the medical profession in general, there isn’t anything that he can say about the topic. So long as I am fine with continuing my life, any realization that life is hard, thankless, and effectively exactly the same every day once you hit 35, is not grounds for concern. Just because I didn’t realize it before doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been this way forever. Their job is not to help me come to terms with being alive, it is to make sure I stay alive and to offer assistance and help when something starts to go wrong that can be corrected. Me waking up is not something going wrong, or that can or should be corrected.
This is the wisdom of his questions. People tell their doctors all kinds of stuff that they probably wouldn’t tell other people. My dispassionate soliloquy serves two purposes. The first is straight forward enough, it’s to let him get a handle on what is going through my mind at that moment in time to make sure there isn’t something serious bubbling just below the surface. The second is to give me the chance to say out loud what has been going through my mind recently in an attempt to make it more than just some thought. This second part is for me, and it’s a small piece of therapy because those things need to be said out loud in order to be understood and interrogated for accuracy and meaning.
By giving me the opportunity to say “life, I wouldn’t recommend it” the doctor is making sure that I listen to, hear, and process the bulk of these thoughts. So long as there is no pathology, he’s not going to be able to do much about it because he’s not an expert on me or my life. But by giving me a chance to say out loud and to another person my thoughts, he’s kind of forcing these ideas back into my brain to be reprocessed for meaning as they apply to me. While he didn’t ask the question “if what you are saying is true, is there something troubling about it or what do you find troubling about it?” these are the questions someone should consider because people talk about things that matter to them or things that they believe are important. I was reporting what I believed was significant to me at that moment in time, so I as trying to shine a light on the fact that my life had become less enjoyable and less significant than it had been. My pointing out that each day is more or less the same as yesterday or today, is an indication that my brain was no longer getting the stimulation it needed to ignore the fact that life can be really boring when you are not doing anything or are not doing enough things of value to distract you for the mundane nature of being alive. His questions are posed in an effort to get me to voice any dramatic contrasts I have been experiencing and to then try and figure out what has changed.
Related, but not exactly relevant here, is my tendency towards the thought “if I wasn’t alive I wouldn’t need to deal with this anymore.” This thought has come to my mind about five times in my life. At my absolute worst, when I was in the grips of a deep depression, I never thought about not being alive anymore. Death wasn’t a solution, I was just depressed and I made no judgment about the validity of the feelings I was having. Depression sucks, it taints everything a particularly dark color of pessimism that leaves you so certain that everything is going to suck that your motivation is capped at empty. Yet I never considered ending my life to get out of having to live another day of bedridden depression. It was as though I knew there wasn’t much that I could do about it and therefore felt no shame or responsibility for what was going on. Time, rest, a good diet, exercise, and medication would take care of things and I set about correcting the mental trajectory of my emotional system.
The five times I thought “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore” all surrounded decisions that I was making that were causing my life to be something that I wasn’t looking forward to. For example, I had a job managing a gym in a small town about 3 hours away from Milton (my home town). It wasn’t a bad job at all, it was actually a fairly good one. I had the support of my boss, my team knew that I believed in them, and work was about 95% great. In fact, I preferred being at work than living in the apartment that I rented; I was happy to wake-up in the morning because I got to go to work and sad as hell nine or ten hours later when it was time to call it a day. It was during one of these drives home that I heard myself think “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”
My problem was that I didn’t like the majority of my life. The 40 to 55 hours a week I spend at work were great, as was the 3 hour drive back to Milton and the time I spent there every other weekend. The rest of it was not all that enjoyable and as time moved along, I became more and more aware of just how little I was getting out of being alive. When I heard myself say “if I was dead…” it caused me to take a look at my life and to try and figure out how I could think something like that.
Well, for one thing, it is a factual statement. When you are dead you do not have to repeat yesterday and pretend that it is a new day. Ending life is a very extreme way to solve the problem of having to do something that you don’t want to do. It is very effective but has the side effective of being completely limiting in terms of future options.
This begs the question “was it life that I wanted to stop or was it what I was doing within my life that I wanted to stop?” given my tendency to never want to stop my life. Any time a thought about ending my life pops into my head it is ALWAYS going to be the second part of the question – because I was doing something in my life that I wanted to stop doing. But it will include something even more important, that I am the one who is choosing to do the thing that I want to stop doing. In the case of the job, I knew I needed to move on to a different opportunity and realized that doing so was going to cause some waves and consume a lot of energy. In two or three months everything would have come to pass, but the time between now and then would be tumultuous. The thought was basically an avoidance fantasy like “imagine how amazing it would be to not have to go through any of that stuff.” Whatever that stuff is, the choice I have to make is between going through it now or going through it later, and not whether or not I have to go through it at all. The eventual outcome is clear, I will have moved on, I just need to decide when that will be and announce the beginning of the end.
The other four times I have had this thought were very similar. They were about something that I was choosing to do, that was making me unhappy, and that I was free to stop doing the moment I call it as being over and I put in the effort to deal with the fall out of that decision. It is always better a few months later and never as bad as the worst case prediction before the choice is made.
Another property these experiences share is they are moments of decision between two bad options mainly because of what I chose before. When given the choice between a good option and a bad option I picked the bad option. From there the quality of the options dropped until we arrive at this bad thing and that bad thing. For a lot longer than I’d like to admit, I choose to do nothing, kicking the decision down the road raising the stakes a little higher.
This is like “The Book Of Questions” but instead of the one that is written by a normal person, it is written by a psycho or sociopath. The question “would you rather drown or burn to death?” is asked. Instead of learning something about yourself or gaining some insight about an action that you must take, your brain gets curious and you begin to wonder what life choices would have led you to a situation that has only “burn” or “drown” as the answers. There are a few back stories, and all of them begin with making a bad choice when when presented with a better option. And once it’s on, a series of bad choices lead you having to pick between two things that are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.
Fortunately it isn’t very much like the psychopath’s book of questions. The main similarity is that, at the core of it all, it is ME having been the one who made the choices that lead me to the moment. I am responsible for my place in life so I am therefore responsible for finding a new place or creating my peace with this one. My thought that it would be great to not be alive anymore was 100% caused by my brains unconscious realization that I caused it all to happen. The idea was manufactured by some mental process fantasizing about an existence that freed me of having to take responsibility for what was in order to navigate my way out of it and one that allowed me to continue to keep my head in the sand about what was actually going on. Once I learned what the thought indicated, I came to accept what was going on. The internal conscious reality instantly matched the internal unconscious reality, which had come to match external reality.
There’s a funny thing about life that all people share. The moment we accept things for how they are, much of the difficulty simply evaporates as we stop resisting or wasting effort trying to make them different and channel that effort onto dealing with the reality. When we see clearly, we stop pretending and get round to doing something about what we have seen. My doctor was right to make sure I was going to keep going and then say nothing more about it. He probably could have said something that reflect some of his wisdom, but he left the opening open for me to fill-in. “Yeah, life is tough, and you are going to have to figure it out because it is going to continue.”
He was also correct to laugh at my recommendation that no one should start life. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant, it just isn’t a recommendation that anyone can ever follow. I interpreted what he said as him saying “yes, it is better to not begin, but once begun, it is better to finish.”
Both parties are having a very similar experience although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me to click on the link. I am glad it did, because I got a lot out of reading the article as it reminded me about how far I have come in terms of getting clear on what the present moment is and what the experience of being in it is like. While I did have a challenge with the title, because it begs the question and therefore usurps a number of my brain cycles, I got a lot out of the mental journey caused by reading and reflecting on what the author wrote.
While I have a number of disagreements with what they say, I
think it is a good article. It is well written, it comes from the heart and
from the author’s experiences, and there is very little in it (possibly
nothing) that is distracting in terms of style, language, grammar, or sentence
structure. This final point is very critical because it allows the article to
stand on its own and to be a thing independent of the medium. The ideas that
the author puts forward are evaluated as objectively as they can be and it
seems like a lot of care was taken to remove most of the details that might
cause a subjective interpretation or trigger a cognitive bias. For example, I
had no idea the gender of the author until after I read the article and
revisited the page to do some follow-up review. Their gender is probably
important to them, but it is not relevant to those who consume the article.
This is something that I think I need to highlight more.
Ideas are good, bad, neutral, provocative, progressive, regressive,
transformational, ignorant, biased, inclusive, future-altering, creative, etc.
and, in an ideal world, they are consumed and interrogated based on their merits.
A good idea that you do not like remains a good idea, so ones opinion of the
idea should never factor into the critical evaluation of it. The best example
here, and one that may remain relevant in perpetuity, is Donald Trump. In this
case I am not actually making reference to the person. I am making reference to
the idea that is “Donald Trump.”
He does not conform to the stereotypical role of US
president or traditional western world leader. His presentation is something
closer to a mid-twentieth century union leader than a diplomat of a superpower.
There is a straight shooter quality to him that on first glance seems authentic
and trustworthy, but does not stand-up to any level of scrutiny. It is
authentic in so far as it is true that he is thinking the thing that he is
saying in and around the time that he says it, but there is no evidence or
proof that the thoughts existed before the moment or have much of a life
afterwards. There doesn’t seem to be any stacking of ideas that is building to
a grand theory or understanding of things. It is just a stream of ideas, one
after the other, and mostly non-sequiturs.
Which is why it is inappropriate to dismiss everything he
says out of hand or to accept everything he says instantly. There are a few
very good ideas in the totality of everything he communicates, just as there
are some absolutely awful things. Uncovering these things will only occur when
you take the time to divorce the message from the man and allow the idea to
stand alone. The problem here is that this takes a lot of effort and it is not
something that comes naturally or is even remotely palatable to do. It’s easier
to say “he’s a genius, MAGA!” or “he’s a dope who is ruining the country” and
then take this view into the evaluation of the next thing he communicates.
Like most things, the middle way is ideal, but it lacks all
of the power and energy that tribal reactions affords us. This is what I try to
do in-spite of the fact that it is draining and a lonely pursuit. Fewer people
operate this way now than at any time in our history and I have a feeling that
this approach will be effectively eliminated within a couple of decades. But
until then, I’m going to try to detach an idea from its creator and consume it
as though it came from someone who has a strong track record of putting forward
reasonable perspectives that are not dogmatically charged or partisan.
So given all of this, here are my thoughts on the article
title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” and the ideas that it puts forward.
The way the title reads is that “mindfulness” is a lot like
a dryer that hides a single sock, if you are in a great mood, diarrhea, if you
are feeling nothing much at all, or something between homelessness and cancer depending on just how down you are
Of course, when the page opens and the reader is greeted
with the article, the title is there, superimposed over a picture of someone’s
face, both of which are being joined by a subtitle that would, if not for the
first one, cause the brain to throw an error.
“Mindfulness promotes itself as value-neutral but it is
loaded with (troubling) assumptions about the self and the cosmos,” which
indicates that its creator is making much more troubling assumption than the
noun or verb “mindfulness” has, is, or will. Let’s also throw “can” into that
mix as well.
Before moving forward, I need to declare my conflict of
interest here. I am a fan of mindfulness meditation and a big believer in the
positive effects of disenchantment and its close relative disillusionment.
Phrased more crassly, the sooner someone takes their head out of their ass and
begins to see reality in more objective terms, the sooner they can start to do
more impressive things in the world and with their life. For example, a lot of
people have challenges realizing or learning that there is a boundary between
themselves and other people, meaning that everyone else has an experience of
reality that is theirs alone and rarely (never) is their perspective from your point
of view. This makes sense logically. So much sense that you may even think
“what a stupid and unnecessary statement to make,” which is exactly the point I
am making. From YOUR perspective it is unnecessary, so therefore it is
unnecessary. That doesn’t change the reality that until we learn to act
otherwise, our first impulse is always going to be to see things from our own
point of view followed by a castigation of anyone who is not aligned with it.
It doesn’t need to be this way, you can train your brain to
table harsh judgment of dissention for later in favor of considering how the
world would have to be in order for someone to believe something OTHER than
what you believe. Here’s the rub, the world is actually much closer to that way
than the way you believe it is.
And it is this way for EVERYONE. We evolved to get it wrong
and we do, until we realize that we are wrong and take the steps to correct our
For me, mindfulness meditation represents the main step we
can take in order to correct our path. So it follows that “mindfulness” as a
noun and verb is making reference to some aspect of what we experience when we
practice mindfulness meditation. It allows us to notice what is actually going
on from moment to moment and in doing so, creates a juxtaposition between
reality and what we think is going on. This may or may not make sense to you on
any level, but once you spend any amount of time sitting still, with your eyes
and mouth closed, noticing the sensations of your breath on the area of skin above
your upper lip and in and around your nostrils, things will become more clear.
You are probably still not going to understand what I’m talking about, but
you’ll begin to grow more certain that I am actually talking about something
that is real, and not spewing a new age or metaphysical creation designed to
improve my position on some enlightenment hierarchy. And the more you practice,
the more in-focus these two things will become – reality and the experience of
reality that each one of us manufacture from moment to moment.
With that out of the way, let us move forward and deal with
the two main goals of what I’m writing here. They are to address the authors
concern and to then address my concern with how they went about addressing
The author has a long back ground with, at least in terms of
observational exposure to, meditation. And they admit that they were bored when
they went to the temple. They practiced a few techniques during university and
later served as a control group member in a large scale University of Cambridge
study about the effects of mindfulness. Read the original article, both to
validate my summary and to gain more insight into how the author is approaching
the subject. And I’ll add that it is a good piece of writing.
They found the practice of mindfulness, like many people do,
to be rather destabilizing. For one thing, it reveals a lot about the world
that we have never paid attention to, either because we learned to ignore it or
because we never took the time to notice it. Those in the first group find
mindfulness a lot easier to integrate and it tends not to rock their world
nearly as much. They can be curious and fascinated with all that is reveals
while never feeling like they are losing their grip. The second group, those
who never noticed the things in the first place, tend not to fare so well in
the short term. Initially their mind will be blown by all that they become
aware of and the automatic nature of perception and how the brain manufactures
ones experience of being alive. But this will usually give way to feelings of
loss, confusion, and detachment. Feeling this way sucks. It won’t make any
difference if the core lessons of impermanence are taking hold, the feelings
are real and experiencing them has a negative valence until they go away. Over
time though, things will stabilize as the brain updates the software and begins
to gain confidence in its predictive accuracy. At some point in the future,
everything will be assimilated and you will move forward with a new mental
process called “mindfulness” that can be called upon as needed, and which will
run in the background making sure that your perceptions are closer to reality
than they were before.
About this fact, consider what happens when someone in a
long term committed monogamous relationship cheats on their spouse / partner.
Initially nothing happens to their partner, the world is the way it was the day
before. It will continue to be this way until they find out about their
partners infidelity. Then all hell breaks loose. Personally, I don’t think
people should cheat when they are in committed relationships. It’s a shittie
thing to do and is an act of immense disrespect to yourself. BUT, if it happens
and you make the decision to tell your significant other about it, do it as
soon as possible. Do not wait any longer than is necessary because the longer
the gap, the greater the damage you will be causing to the other person.
Cheating on a partner is bad, but continuing along as though
nothing happened for years only to come clean about it later is pathologically
selfish and has the tendency of shattering the other person’s world view. The
reason is very simple, and it is exactly the same thing that happens with the
second group mentioned above – those who did not choose to ignore how the world
actually is because they never realized how the world actually is – it causes
them to question the past and to doubt their own judgment and their
experiences. If someone comes clean five years later, they are forcing their
partner to reprocess the last five years of their life before they can move
forward. Sure, they are not going to be completely stuck at ground zero, but a
very large portion of their mental energy will be redirected away from the day
to day tasks of living and onto assimilating the new information and updating
their long term memory as it applies to their relationship, their partner, and
their shared experiences.
Over time, they will probably get through it. The brain is
remarkably resilient and can process many different types of traumas. But the
energy expenditure required to adjust to the information that your partner
cheated is proportionate to the length of time between the act and when it came
Something very similar happens when someone takes up mindfulness
and starts to realize that how they have been experiencing the world is not
aligned with reality. It will be resisted and denied until it can no longer be
disregarded. Then will come the difficult tasks of reframing and reorganizing
everything you know about the world to accommodate the fact that there is, for
example, no self. A lot of stuff will need to get torn down and rebuilt, and
this will take time and mental effort, and probably a good diet and sufficient
rest / recovery. But it can happen so long as the person stays the course and
relinquishes their attachment to their old world view. Anyone who jumps ship
will find their swim back to their old reality to be less challenging than
continuing forward, but they will be returning to a different place than from
where they left and will likely be embittered about the subject as a whole.
My own experience with onboarding meditation was similar to
what the author experienced. But I was older when I started and was certain
that my world view was inaccurate which was leading to a drop in predictive
accuracy. My journey had me leaving behind something pretty crappy and while I
was not certain about the “goodness” of what I was choosing to move towards, life
had taught me that different is good when the normal has become difficult,
challenging, or painful. It needs to be said that I had already learned to
doubt the validity of what I knew, so as destabilizing as I found the
transition, it was no more so than the year leading up to the start of the
The author does a good job at shining a light on the lack of thoroughness in the on-boarding that many people have with mindfulness practices. There is no doubt that had she engaged the practice more when she was young and being dragged to the temple, she would have been guided with a lot more vigor and care than what many people experience presently in western societies. But that is the nature of things. More care is taken with younger people as well as in places where what is being taught is viewed as important or is a big part of the traditional culture. North America is new to mindfulness, and when coming from a tradition of capitalism with a side serving of violence, it is not surprising that the care is being taken to collect the money as opposed to guiding the people.
This is not the fault of mindfulness, as either a noun or a verb, and is should not surprise anyone that the “money over everything” view is muddying the waters. The thing is this, mindfulness is like any skill, it takes time to generate, it is going to be messy in the middle, and it cannot be done for us. It is the quintessential selfish undertaking that one could argue is impaired by other people and enhanced by temporary isolation. It is like committing law to long term memory or learning how to solve advanced calculus equations, a teacher or instructor can help along the process, but the individual needs to do the practice to stimulate the brain growth to support the new memories or the new way of thinking. To this end, it is a less than optimal capitalist venture since capitalism places experience or perceived value at the top of the service offering. You cannot do mindfulness for your customers, they have to do it themselves, so the only way to make money doing it is to offer something that is scalable. Which in this case means something that is incomplete, is useless crap, or is actually counter-productive and harmful.
The medium is the message here. Those who seek enlightenment
and the cultivation of the skill of mindfulness through a smart phone get smart
phone levels of enlightenment and mindfulness. Smart phones are tools to
trigger the release of dopamine through the activation of outrage, exposure to
novelty, and social validation / approval. Mindfulness is a tool to make you
aware of what is happening from moment to moment. While these things are not
the exact opposite of each other, they are reasonable close to being completely
dissimilar. Meditation, the primary way to cultivate the skill of mindfulness,
is as close to doing nothing as someone can do without being asleep. The mind
is very active, you are alert, but you are focusing so intensely simply because
you do not want to become distracted, outraged, etc. Cultivating mindfulness is
an act that inhibits the release of reward chemicals, so it offers no hook that
business people can use to capture you as a customer.
The author talks a lot about the concept of “no self” in a
way that makes it difficult to reconcile the truth of it with the experience of
being or having a self. I am not aligned with them here. Two things that seem
to be in contradiction can coexist simply because neither one of them actually
does. It is kind of like Schrödinger’s cat or the wave–particle duality in that
sometimes something is one thing while other times it is something else (meditation
and mindfulness have NOTHING to do with quantum mechanics and my use of QM
terms is only to describe the fact that sometimes we will need to look at
things differently in order to understand them more completely).
You are a physical being, a meat sack if you will. You are
made-up of matter, and that matter obeys laws of physics and chemistry, and
other subjects. Materialism applies to people just as it applies to rocks or
dogs. The difference is, as far as we know, rocks and dogs do not have a well-formed
narrative identity of themselves. To make reference to a rock having “no self”
seems redundant. It seems similarly so, although not necessarily completely so,
to say the same of a dog. But what is the different between these two things,
and then, from these two things and us? It seems to me that human beings have
reflective consciousness that gives them the ability to think about the world
and about things that are not there or are not presently happening. Rocks do
not have this ability and while a dog may be conscious and does have the
ability to learn, we get no sense that there is any depth to their
understanding of what they are or their uniqueness in terms of being a distinct
piece of life.
What this means is that as something is happening, it is
just a meaningless thing that is occurring – it is a collection of molecules
moving in a particular direction. So in order for it to mean something, the
observer will need to take a moment to reflect upon what is occurring, allowing
their brain to interpret the collection of molecules and their corresponding vectors
as being something. But this process is not an act of mindfulness in the purest
sense of the term. It is a result of reflection and by virtue of the fact that
any meaning is generated, the person is no longer living in the moment and is
instead living in a latency period between stimulus and response.
So when we are simply experiencing reality as it unfolds
from moment to moment, there is no self. When we are perceiving and
understanding what is unfolding from moment to moment, there is a self. It is
slightly confusing but not at all if there is a willingness to understand what
it is all about.
It just seems really out of place in modern life because
without reflection, modern life could not have come to be. But no self makes a
lot of sense and is more easily observed and appreciated when someone is
sitting in a forest meditating away from everything that has been manufacture.
Simplicity allows for the sustained existence of no self because it affords the
opportunity to do nothing other than take in whatever is occurring from moment
to moment, so basically what is steaming into the brain from the senses. Other
people and manufactured material objects make this task nearly impossible
because they create the need for rules. This causes complexity and moves the person
away from the role of observer and into role of reflector in order to generate
an understanding of what is going on.
Neuroscience has revealed a lot about the nature thinking, and one part that applies to no self / self duality is captured by the two self’s phenomena. Specifically, your brain operates with information in two ways. The first way, the no-self way, is about experience. This is what happens from moment to moment and it is what is lumped into the experience of “now.” The second way is about the remembering self, which is what your consciousness recalls about an experience. While it would be partially correct to refer to this as long term memory, given that long term memories do contribute to what we remember, it is not the entire story. The truth is that most of us do not actually remember most things very well and what comes to mind when we are thinking about the past is a combination of long term memories and things we make-up on the fly to fill-in the details or manufacture a more rich or complete narrative. The point here is not to suggest that neuroscience has uncovered evidence to support the truth about what the Buddhist teachers have been saying for centuries but to lend weight to the notion that sensation / experience is a different thing than perception / reflection / remembering. So given this, it makes sense that we should hold different views about two different things.
There is a Buddhist / Zen saying that goes something like
“before enlightenment work, after enlightenment work” that addresses the next
concern the author has about “mindfulness.”
They raise a very good point, but do not track in on the
source of the issue with any vigor or accuracy, when they state: “In claiming
to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness
oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.”
The first part of the sentence is more or less accurate, as
it would be if it was said about anything that is put forward as a panacea or
cure to everything that ails a person, culture, or society. The second part of
the sentence is less accurate. In fairness, they were writing an article and
not a text book, so there was probably a word count limit in place for them.
However, that does not negate the responsibility an author has for guarding
their words and to speak as clearly, accurately, and concisely as possible.
Their article is not a work of fiction so it is reasonable to assume that what
is written down is factual and represents the truth as the author knew it at
the time. Putting aside their right to have and voice an opinion, that sentence
journeys well into the realm of a statement of disinformation or a statement
that is demonstrably false.
The first thing is that mindfulness is a skill, so a noun or
verb, and makes no claim about its abilities to do anything – in exactly the same
way as reading is a skill and completely incapable of promoting its virtues.
Mindfulness needs boosters because mindfulness is not alive. The problem then
is not with anything that mindfulness itself is doing but with the claims that
are being made about it. In the event that this seems so obvious and therefore
unnecessary to mention, it is worth pointing out that racism is both a problem
and a part of our internal operating system. Many skills or behaviours that
human beings are capable of, that seem to lack any value in modern life, are
there because they served a valuable survival purpose at one point in time.
Racism is not good, but the ability to identify those who are not like us and
to treat those we are similar to had a place in our evolutionary past. It is an
antiquated thing, particularly given that every unique race has suffered MORE
at the hands of those who look like them than those who look different, but so
too is the appendix and a considerable amount of our DNA given that it doesn’t
seem to code for anything at all. Well the appendix used to do something and
those unnecessary genes used to code for something that promoted survival.
So the problem with mindfulness is that people who promote
it are making extraordinary claims about what it can do and how it will impact
the lives of anyone who uses it as an approach to life. The problem the author
is making reference to is the overstating or direct lying about the utility of mindfulness
made by the people who promote it. This is something that I agree with, but it
was not stated as directly as that in the article.
The second part of the sentence “mindfulness oversimplifies
the difficult business of understanding oneself” doesn’t hold up nearly as
well, even when translated or updated to reflect what is actually going on. I
believe that the author is intending to say “the skill of mindfulness is
presented as a simple way to understand yourself.” This is true and it is not a
problem. The fact is that human beings are biological machines whose brain
manufactures meaning out of electrical impulses that are triggered by
collisions between the body and molecules that are not a part of the body. The
tree we see is a collection of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. that is in tree
form. What we see is the light that bounces off of some of these molecules and
hits our retina. When we touch it, the molecules of our skin are repelled by
the molecules that make-up the tree, so this ends up stimulating receptors on
the skin that trigger electrical impulses to flow into the brain that cause the
sensation of touch. If we were to eat the tree, tree molecules would stimulate
taste receptors, if we were to smell it, tree molecules would stimulate olfactory
receptors, and when we hear the tree, receptors in our inner ear are simply
responding to air that is coming off of the tree and going into our ears.
I am not intending to be irreverent when I say that it is
“simply” anything, but our experience of a tree is so much less than any
narrative story we manufacture to capture the entirety of our knowledge about
trees. It is our brain that do all of the heavy lifting that allow us to
perceive things and to understand the world in reflective terms.
The fact of the matter is that most of what we know about
things is just a story we are telling ourselves and sharing with other people.
It is accurate in so far as it works in allowing us to navigate our way through
life with a lot of ease, but nearly all of it is just manufactured rules about
collections of molecules that human beings mostly agree on just so they do not
have to think about it anymore than they have to.
Considering and then assimilating this fact is alarming, at
least initially, but our brain will reconcile things very quickly and it will
allow us to go back to living life as though we didn’t gain the insight. From
an experiential point of view, the facts and the truth are of much less
consequence than the position and movement of the molecules that we bump into.
So no matter what we learn, life will return to normal quickly because it must
be lived by each one of us.
The skill of mindfulness is a way that anyone can gain
clarity into the nature of the world and, more importantly, the nature of our
social interactions and social conventions. It will allow someone to uncover what they are in terms of molecules
and what they are in terms of a narrative understanding, while giving them
great power to figure out what is important, what is real, and what is worth
pursuing. It isn’t going to fix anything EXCEPT the delusions someone may have
created about what is going on from moment to moment. It is not a cure for
clinical depression, it will not help someone grow taller or regrow their hair,
and it will not open up the doors to effortless success. But it can allow
someone to experience what is actually going on in the world, to gain a better
understanding of the difference between sadness and depression, it can help
someone accept the reality of their height or hair situation, and it can give
someone the clarity to figure out what actions they need to take in order to
find greatness and to then make the decision on whether or not they actually
Mindfulness, when practiced consistently, gives someone the
ability to separate the sensations from the perceptions and to then make the
decision to act in a way that makes the most sense to them in terms of these
sensations and perceptions. But that is all it is going to do. The reason some
people feel calmer when they practice it is because it dissolves the narrative,
for a short period of time, which will allow for whatever triggered emotions to
run their course before returning the person back to their baseline. There are
two ways to describe it, the first is the feeling you have right as you wake-up
in the morning without an alarm clock and when you have nowhere to go – your
mind is at ease and filled with next to nothing. It doesn’t last very long, but
while it does, it is still and peaceful and nothing is pulling it one way or
the other. The second is the feeling you have right after a very intense
workout as your heart rate and breathing return to normal. Physically you feel
fantastic and mentally you are overcome with a sense of wellness and indifference
to the world. Your mind has been parked into unflappable so you feel, for a
spell, like you are on vacation and weeks away from having to deal with the
real world again.
Now consider what you have just read and apply it to the
author’s statement: “to look for richer explanations about why you think and
feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual,
operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self,
as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from
Who we are is not a static thing, and a lot of what we may
choose to believe we are is subject to the present emotional state at the time
of perception. Before my long intense bike ride, I may be an angry co-worker
who doesn’t take the time to consider the ideas of other people before pushing
my own solution forward. At the end of the bike ride I’m more than capable of
working through their solution to actually see the merits of what they are
suggesting and realize that not only is it better than my idea, but it is the
only way forward. I would suggest that this insight occurs because the “self”
has disappeared affording me an objective perspective that is based on the
consideration of a more complete view of the available information. There is no
ego so there is no desire to be the problem solver, only a desire to have the
problem solved as effectively and as permanently as possible.
The tendency for people to see the world only from their own
perspective and to view this perspective as being more important or valuable is
a characteristic of something called disordered attachment. With the exception
of a few people, everyone has a bias towards their own point of view simply
because there is nothing so real in the universe as it. Every moment of our
waking life is experienced from inside ourselves and a good case can be made
that most of our dreams are also from our own unique point of view. “We” exist
somewhere right behind the eyes, nose and mouth, between the ears, and slightly
above our tongue and throat. All of our physical sensations have a “I” quality
insofar as they tend to originate on our skin, or at the boundary between “us”
and the rest of the world. It is reasonable that we would create and carry such
an inflated perspective given that there are only two things in the world and
that “we” are one of them; the other one is the rest of the world / universe.
But this isn’t the entire picture because EVERYONE has the
same sort of perspective and experience of being alive. When you are in a room
with nine other people, there are ten unique perspectives, each one as the sole
center of all experience. This means that no specific reality is more real than
any of the rest. As many people as there are on the planet, there are that many
versions of the real world running. So we are real, but we are not really real.
Disordered attachment is a type of psychological attachment
or dependence to something, someone or some activity. It is consider disordered
because it is out of proportion to reality or to the nature of things. The
solution I was forcing through, for example, is only held by me as the better
solution when I am attached to it and am therefore willing to dismiss the
merits of my co-workers solution. However, at the end of my intense bike ride
or at some point after around 5 minutes of meditation, my attachment has
evaporated because my emotional state has returned to baseline and I am more
able to see the world in objective terms. This can only be a good thing given
that a good idea is a good idea regardless of where it comes from. By
eliminating the disordered attachment, objective reality can come more clearly
into focus and the world can get better for all those who are relying on the
best possible results.
There are a slew of cognitive biases that have at their core
this type of disordered thinking / rationalization. The ego centric bias, the
Ikea bias, the fundamental attribution error, and conflicts of interest are
just a few of them that apply directly to the work situation I outlined. The
ego centric bias has someone rely too much on their own perspective and
experience, the Ikea bias has someone inflate the value of something that they
created well above the fair market value of similar items, the fundamental
attribution error has someone view their own decisions or actions as being
related to situational factors while viewing the decisions and actions of others
as being the result of character traits, and a conflict of interest is the
tendency for people to unconsciously act in ways that promote an outcome that
will benefit them all the while believing and feeling like they are acting
objectively. There are many more, but this list should be sufficient to provide
evidence that things are not as simple as they seem or even as we perceive them
However, intense exercise, a good night’s sleep, or a
mindfulness meditation session can go a long way in mitigating the impact of
being the center of ALL of your experiences simply because they put some
distance between the stimulus and the response. This time delay will allow any
emotional response to fade and it will reduce the perception of the magnitude
of any gain or loss.
This piece of it is rather peculiar. The “self” is something
to which things happen and this allows for the “self” to react to those things
in a way that seems like it is automatic and beyond any conscious control.
However, this is not the case for most things. With the exception of being
physically hit by something or getting physically ill, most of the stuff that
occurs doesn’t actually happen to anyone, or at least it does not actually
happen to us. We see or hear it, but our bodies are in no way implicated by
what happened. This means that the perception we have of events plays a much
bigger role in how we go about living our life than anything that actually
happens to us or our bodies. This leads to the situation that when something
occurs in the world but that only impacts us in terms of our perception or
narrative interpretation of it, we have a chemical response that causes us to
“feel” something BUT that reaction is not to anything that is real. If we think
about two co-workers putting forward different solutions to a specific problem,
not much is happening in a physical sense – some brain activity creates a
thought that is the solution, and other brain activity causes muscles to
contract in very specific ways that allow air to flow out of the lungs, passing
over the vocal chords to make a very specific sound that is the air vibration
equivalent to the thought. Both parties are having a very similar experience
although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that
are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will
have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other
person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same
way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it
exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and
belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
But this is only happening because each one is acting as
though they are something independent from the other and that the other is part
of everything else. While this may be narratively or perceptually correct, it
is not correct in terms of what is actually going on in the world. A detached
third party would simply listen to both ideas and give their opinion on which
one is the best because they are neither of the two self’s who have been tasked
with solving the problem. They get to be objective because both solutions are
coming from outside of them. Their ego does not factor into it as they get to
say “the best idea is this one” and get back to doing whatever it is they do.
They will probably feel that one of the answers is better, but they will not be
inclined to feel that their OWN idea is better simply because it came from
inside of them.
It is worth suggesting that this level of insight – to
notice that cognitive biases have a sensation and that I am as prone as
everyone else to be subjected to them – really only came to life for me when I
spent a lot of time meditating, noticing my thoughts and feelings arise and
pass away, and getting very clear that the next thing that I think about or the
next sensation that I have is most often a complete mystery to me. The most I
can do is to try and shape them by paying attention to very specific things,
but generally speaking, there is a very random nature to almost all of it.
Which brings us to the final concern the author raises.
“After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to
take responsibility for and analyse your feelings.”
I believe that the opposite is true, that we can only take
responsibility for and gain insight into our feelings through the practice of
mindfulness. Right where the author claims mindfulness impairs our ability to own
and understand our feelings is the point I believe that mindfulness facilitates
these things. I also believe that we are talking about the same phenome and may
actually believe more or less the same thing.
It seems that their conclusion here is based off of some of the other concerns they mention; which means that all that comes after may not be rooted in reality or fact. For example, if someone does not allow for the duality of self and no-self, they are powerless to draw any other conclusion that “mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings” because if there is no self, there can be no ownership of the feelings that are being experienced and nothing there to analyse them. But it there is only a self, the observation that thoughts and feelings just seem to flow out of our spontaneous brain activity becomes a lot tougher to notice or it must exist in a world to which it is incompatible. Both concepts are needed because there are times when we are a self and times when we are no self. The author has laid out their concerns with this part of it which has had the effect of limiting the moves they are able to make without appearing to contradict themselves or outline a paradox / problem.
I suppose I am more willing to allow for the coexistence of
mutually exclusive ideas because I am very confident that the experience we
have of being alive from moment to moment is not well enough understood to
limit any aspect or to allow us to say that “there is no self” or “there is
only a self.” There are times when it seems to be a self and other times when
there appears to be no self, so I’m going to hedge my bets by assuming that
they are both accurate while conceding that there is probably a more complete
theory or understanding that covers them both perfectly. Apart from this being
a safe move, given just how complex consciousness is, it has the added benefit of
allowing me to pick and choose the best or most effective stuff from whichever
side I happen to be considering. My goal here is to point out and highlight
what works and why it may be of value, as opposed to pointing out what doesn’t
work or the underlying historical problems with a technology such as
Cultivating the skill of mindfulness will go a very long way
in helping someone understand what feelings are and what they are not. It will
also give a person the ability to critically assess what is going on in terms
of their emotional reactions / responses. On the very surface level, knowing
that you are experiencing the sensations of anger moments before you have the
emotional experience of anger can be very helpful in determining the
appropriate course of action. Anger may be the right response, but it may be an
overreaction, and one with a big downside. On a deeper level, having a more
full experience and understanding of an emotional response will allow the
emotion to be all that it is and ONLY what it is. You can be sad because your
sports team lost, but you do not end-up devastated or left feeling aimless.
Most importantly is the fact that by gaining the ability to
see and feel emotions more accurately, you will begin to gain the insight into
what the whole thing is all about and how your brain will react to the things
that it believes are happening and the things that actually do. I would be
inclined to suggest that you cannot possibly have a cursory understanding of
your feelings or your motivations / action unless you are able to notice them
as sensations, experiences, and linguistic narrative expressions. Having access
to one or two of these things is not complete enough to be useful as each one
supplies a portion of the information. But when all three are available and
processed, we are able to create a more complete understanding of any situation
and move forward having made any decision from a place of being fully informed.
In summary then, the skill of mindfulness is an essential piece
of the equation that allows someone to figure out what is actually going on and
what actions need to be taken to ensure continued survival. Without it, we are moving
forward on autopilot, oblivious to the lack of depth in our understanding and
completely unaware of the impact our manufactured fiction is having on the
decisions we make. It allows you to figure out what is going on, what you did, and
why you did it along with illustrating the subjective and self-serving nature
of most of your perception.
Again, while I did not agree with much of what the author said, we simply have a different opinions. I see and understand the world differently than them and that is fine. They do point out some of the legitimate problems with the subject of mindfulness and how it is being introduced to the western masses. While most of these challenges are the consequence of the people who are involved and have nothing at all to do with the mental skill of mindfulness, generating awareness of these problems is a very good thing to do because it can go a long way in helping people avoid the pitfalls.
I liked the article in-spite of the fact that I did not not agree with much of it. Obviously, I believe that I can provide some of the missing insight and to help clear-up the authors concerns, but I have no problem if the author never changes their opinion. That is because their article was worth reading and forced me to dig in a little on some of the ideas or beliefs that I have about mindfulness in order to figure out what it was that I was not aligned with. At the end of the day that may have been the author’s goal – I know that it is one of mine when I write – and since the piece was well written, it allowed me to think about the subject very quickly and without having to decipher a hidden message.