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.
…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.
So what? 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.
The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.
Seven years ago I wrote the post Almost 6 Months Later which contained some thoughts about the things that had happened in the six months following my fathers death. I believed that at that point I had moved most of the way through the grief process. 90 months later, I am certain that the process doesn’t ever have an end point. Instead, we get better at dealing with it as life moves on and our brain adjusts to create a new normal.
I am not sad and I do not believe that this is a pessimistic view. The fact is that we never stop developing and adapting to the stimulation we bring into our brains, so there is no reason to believe that adjusting to the death of a loved one ever stops. Our brains grow from the beginning of life and probably continue to grow for a few minutes after we take our last breath. They are complex organic computers that spawn and prune connections between billions of neurons to form long term memories and create processes that allow it to handle the world more effectively the next time the world brings it the same type of stimulation. They are never still and the only time they ever go dark is when we die.
In the original post, I spoke about someone who I met whose father had been given the diagnosis of a very slowly developing cancer. She was upset and having a tough time processing the news while her dad was very matter of fact about it. He was well into his eighties and didn’t really care all that much. He was old, had lived a complete life, and since he wasn’t actually running out of runway, he didn’t think it was worth the energy to worry about or to consider the diagnosis. He felt that there was as good a chance that old age would take care of things before the cancer did and since he wasn’t worrying about old age, it didn’t make any sense to deal with the fact that the doctor had told him that he had cancer.
A year later, Heather’s father was diagnosed with a few different types of cancer – no one was sure where the original tumor had been, but it had metastasized to the point that it was in his bones, throat, and possibly his brain. They said possibly because while he did have a brain tumor, it didn’t seem to grow at all between the scans; unlike the other tumors that ate his spine and began to close over his throat. Unlike my dad, who stood to gain very little from treatment, her dad was able to under go radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation worked wonders on his throat, opening it up again and allowing him to eat and drink anything he wanted, which he did. The chemo was less well tolerated, and he stopped it a few weeks in because of the side effects. After the tumors, the skin is the next place to begin to show the side effects of the chemicals – most of the chemotherapy medication that has traditionally been used in treating cancer works by killing tissue. It is reasonably specific in so far as it will primarily target the type of cell that makes-up the tumor, but it is not perfect and is not isolated to JUST the tumor cells. With chemotherapy there will be collateral damage and with him it began to take a toll on the skin of his lips and neck. Given that he was never going to be cured, he made the decision to stop the treatment and put an end to these awful side effects. He was close to seventy and had more or less made his peace with the life he had lived. He died the following July.
While at the time of my dads death, I was unable to find anything good about it; the possible exception being that since his GBM wasn’t painful, he got to enjoy the final 6 weeks of life as much as anyone can enjoy any six week period. The post I wrote six month later, I made mention to feeling useful to my friend because of what I had just experienced. With the sad news about Heather’s dad, I was able to be even more useful. This was a good thing, and it did, in a way, give my dads death a little more meaning or value. It wasn’t that I knew what Heather, her sister, and the rest of the family were going through, I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly know what their experience was like. But I did have experience with the process. So while I lacked the specific knowledge of what they were going through, she had someone to talk to about the feelings she was having and the thoughts that were popping into her mind with someone who was a little further along in the grieving process. I was able to talk to the very odd sensations and feelings that accompany your loved one seeming to improve with whatever treatment they receive and how there are feelings of disbelief that there is actually something wrong.
This is like an emotional time bomb that makes normal living close to impossible. No matter how good you feel, there’s a monkey on your back that at some point in the future something very crappy is going to happen. When you feel bad about what is going on, there is the thought that you need to cheer-up and enjoy your remaining time together. No matter what you are feeling, a thought pops into mind to tell you that you should feel something else. It’s a destabilizing experience, as though you are gas lighting yourself, and over time you begin to not trust how you feel or to simply allow yourself to experience whatever is occurring from moment to moment from any place other than the certain future when your loved one has died.
Her dad, just like mine, did his best to address this thing by encouraging his children and the rest of the family to go about their life’s as well as they could. There wasn’t any point in cycling on the future because it was going to happen when it was time. Until then it was just something to deal with later. On his advice, Heather and I took a trip to Mexico, our first big trip together. I don’t recall any specific moments of overwhelming sadness and the trip was a lot of fun.
Years later, Heather and I both have moments when we think about our dads. Speaking to my moments, I don’t get sad anymore, although there can be times when I wake-up feeling stunned that my dad is gone. These I know are just the emotional chemicals that my brain has released in response to some mental process that my brain has drawn a connection between and thoughts about my dad not being there. There have been a number of times in my past when I had these feelings, and they seemed to link-up to conscious thoughts relating to something that always was but was now no longer. Adjusting to dramatic change is tough and the brain isn’t very good at doing it all at once. It needs a lot of time and stimulation to eventually land in a place that doesn’t feel painful or register as loss, but is just a feeling of “offness.”
Of course, I have done a lot of stuff in the meantime that has had a big impact on how I approach the experience of being alive. There is no doubt in my mind that how I handled my father’s death served as another example of how some of my ways of operating were not helpful or were contributing to the level of difficulty I was having living from day to day. I accept this, and realize that dealing with death is not something that we are taught or that most people have much experience with. Improvements in healthcare, food availability, sanitation, safety regulations, and vaccinations have boosted life expectancy, meaning that the initial experience with the death of a loved one do not occur until much later in life. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is great that people are living longer. Being alive is at least something, so the fact that more than twenty years have been added to the average life span in North America means twenty more years of that something. But on the other hand, it means that, statistically speaking, the first exposure to the death of a loved one is going to occur twenty years later than it would have before.
The significance of this delay is best understood when considering the compounding effect of experience over time. Someone who has been writing for twenty years is going to be much better at it than someone who has been writing for five years. In the case of physically writing, the fifteen extra years will give them much better physical control over their hand and finger movements, allowing them to become an expert in terms of handwriting. In the case of writing words that capture ideas, those extra years of practice will mean that the brain will have adapted more completely to whatever the mental stimulation that brings those ideas to consciousness and then to paper represented. This is much more to the point. The grief process is long, possible permanent, and it does represent one of the more significant things that a human being will have to deal with.
Death is real, it’s a thing that happens, but it is less significant than the experience of grief would have you believe. My view of it has changed over time, as I mature and my brain works its way through the grief processes that have been triggered in my life. When you are in it, it feels awful. You are almost incapable of thinking about it in real terms, and will instead deal with the abstract aspects of it. This is not good or bad, it’s just what happens with most people. But it is not a pure reflection of reality.
Consider it from a materialistic point of view. People are bags of molecules but a “person” is a rich narrative understanding that is a collection of things. My dad married my mom and they had two children. This is a biological thing and it can be measured. But the relationship that I had with him cannot be so easily understood. He did do a lot of stuff to change the physical environment that I lived in – he worked to make money so that we had food, shelter and clothing – he took physical actions in the world to make sure that the family was safe, secure and mostly free of worry, and he talked to me to teach me things and to alter some of my decisions or actions – the ideas that he had were captured by the air flow that left his lungs and passed over his vocal chords allowing these ideas to be generated in my head when that air vibrated my eardrums, creating the electrical activity that my brain converted into the understanding of the words from which the ideas were created. That is no small feat. Make no mistake about it, my dad did a lot for me and he did almost all of it through the same methods that human beings have been using throughout their entire history.
My present understanding has nothing to do with trying to diminish anything about the important role he played and that all parents and caregivers play. But when you detach from the whole thing and break it down into the material or objective reality, it all becomes so much less than the story we are living when we are gripped tightly by the hand of grief.
When my dad died, I lost my father, yes, but he had already completed 98 percent of the “father” things that he had the potential and willingness to do. From this point of view, his death makes almost no difference to my playing the role of “son.” The role I get to play is not the same as it would have been had he not died in 2012, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only one thing happens, so there is only an alternative experience or outcome when we take the time to think about it. Any notion about what it would have been like if he had continued to live for another twenty years is immaterial. It can only exist as a thought and even then, it can only exist in the brain of the person who is thinking it. This is vastly different from the 98 percent of the things that he did that contributed to his playing the role of father. Some physical matter was impacted by those actions and that makes these actions real and of material consequence.
Sure, we can make an argument that, by him dying, he was no longer able to take action and that therefore is a material difference. This is true, but we’d be hard pressed to say with complete certainty what those actions were. Okay, I have every reason to believe the family would have continued to enjoy Sunday dinners, so his passing very likely marked the end of them; or at least him eating dinner with us. But the truth is that this is only the most probable outcome. Something else could have happened that put an end to the Sunday dinners. We’ll never know, and that is the point of it. While someone is alive, we can say with certainty the material impact that their actions have on the world – what molecules they put in motion, which ones they stopped moving or prevented from moving, and which ones they impacted to change their direction and velocity. When they are dead, or did not exist, we can only engage in a game of speculation about how they would have impacted the physical universe.
The initial phases of grief are awful, not because the person is dead and they are no longer impacting the physical world in a way that make their loved ones feel good which is perceived as bad. The intensity of the early part of the grief process is magnitudes larger than that. The reason, I believe, why it starts off at such a high level is because their death is interpreted as the loss of EVERY SINGLE possible impact they could have had on the physical world. It has very little or nothing to do with the present moment. The genesis of the feelings is an unconscious and automatic loop that has the brain cycling on all of the future possibilities that are now off the table. This happens fairly quickly, and unless the person has the ability to clear negative emotion faster than the brain creates it, they can find themselves getting overwhelmed.
The feelings the person is having are real. The chemicals that cause the body to experience the emotion can be measured and the increased brain activity in the areas that are responsible for processing negative emotion can be observed with an fMRI machine. BUT since these changes will not occur in the bodies of people who did not know the deceased person, their cause is purely perceptual and the result of specific mental activity in the brain of the bereaved. So while death is real, and the emotional response to a death of a loved one is real, this response does not have a direct physical cause. It is an abstract interpretative reaction that is triggered in the brains of almost all human beings and many animals. It is a part of the genetic code that evolved over millions of years and is a deeply seeded part of our operating system.
Now given that it is a natural and genetically coded process, we are innately equipped to handle it. It is a mechanism that evolved because it improved our fitness in terms of survival and reproductive success. This is the problem we are running into now, because as life expectancy grows, the necessary experiences that trigger and shape gene expression are delayed. This delay is at least twenty years – given that life expectancy has grown by this amount over the last century – but it is almost certainly longer. Regardless of the time frame, every previous generation of human beings lived much shorter lives and had to deal with infant mortality rates that were in the double digits. This means that exposure to the early death of a loved one was a way of life not so long ago, and it was a fact of life for every ancestor (prehuman) in our evolutionary past; even if they were not capable of relating to someone as a “loved one” many of their species died young ensuring that those who survived long enough to reproduce had figured out how to get back on their feet again.
Maybe a more concise way to phrase this would be to suggest that only recently and only within our species, that death has become increasingly more abstract as our direct exposure to it has been delayed for decades. The positive is that we are living longer, the negative is that for many of us, our first exposure to it comes well after our brains have fully developed. While this may seem like a bonus it isn’t because children and adults do not process stimulation and information in the same way. The prefrontal cortex of a child is much less well developed than that of an adult meaning the younger a person is, the lower their capacity for thinking about the future and for generating timelines. As a consequence, children do not have the same grief experience as adults.
So returning to the compounding effect of experience over time comment, it’s very easy to imagine a child 2000 years ago having their first experience with death and grief at age 10. It means something to them, but it cannot mean the same thing as it does to their 30 year old father because they do not have the same hardware. However, the child has the experience and the process runs its course. Meaning that, over time, their brain processes and reprocesses it, and as their brain fully matures, they have been working through the experience for 10 or more years. And they have probably had other death experiences that influence and play their part on the grief process. By the time they are 30, they will have a level of resilience that is the result of wisdom and NOT the result of willpower or wishful thinking. They know it sucks but they know that in time they will feel better because they will have gone through it a few times and have become aware and desensitized to it.
Even when their brain is fully formed and capable of peak levels of abstract thought, their life experience will have populated their long term memory with sensory information that reflects the truth about death. When compared to their contemporary counterparts, their reactions will not be the same in terms of magnitude and may actually differ completely in terms of content.
My first exposure with the death of a loved one was when I was 21. There is no comparing this to the second experience I had almost 20 years later. Yes, there was sadness and a sense of despair, but there was also a wisdom of knowing that I didn’t need to think about it all of the time and that I was actually free to NOT think about it if I didn’t want to. The first month was tough the second time round, but things were only as bad as they could be for a couple of weeks, and even then this was only when I thought about it; or when I was not able to NOT think about it.
And that is really the value of what I went through. I knew what it was all about in terms of the human experience of grief and its innate emotional experience. It’s intense and rough at the beginning as the brain works its way through the list of EVERYTHING that is lost, but then it calms down and starts to get a grip. Over the weeks and months it narrows its assessment to what might have been lost and focuses on what was actually lost. What begins as thousands becomes 4 or 5 things that you can honestly say are gone because you know you would have done them. For example, I miss talking to my dad about things. He was curious and kind, and he had a lot of life experience that helped to provide perspective about what those things actually meant or what they meant 20 years ago when they happened, and 40 years ago when they happened. I miss his laugh, not because it was a particularly good one, although it was, but because when you hear someone laughing like that, you know with absolute certainty that they are in the moment and it is a great moment to be in. And I kind of would have like for him to meet Heather because she’s awesome and he was awesome and I think they would have become good friends. But none of that stuff is worth crying about and even if it does make me sad from time to time, it does not make me death date +2 days sad.
Which is the point of all of it. Had I known what I would miss and be sad about and focused only on that stuff, I would have had a much easier time with it and would have been a lot more use to my mother, brother and sister in-law, and whoever else was negatively impacted by his passing. But technological progress has liberated us from having to have the experiences that make human beings effective grievers. We have the genes to make us good at it, we just don’t have the experiences to bring about their expression.
At this point in my life I do not think much about the future deaths of the people that I love. It is something that I am capable of doing but choose not to because it makes me feel lousy. I know I will be subjected to grief again unless I’m the first one to go, so I’ll deal with it when it comes along. What I do know is that most of what the older people say about death and how to navigate through the first couple of months after the loss of a loved one is solid advice. Look after your health as well as you can. Do your best to stay nourished. Take the time to do the things that you know work for you. Put in the effort to reestablish your sleep schedule as soon as you can. And go easy on yourself, no matter how you feel. It is fine to not think about it, just as it is fine to take some time to bawl your eyes out. Over time, you will feel better and adjust. The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.
This sounded familiar to me because when I started practicing [meditation], I had the same belief that it would fix things. After years of practice I had come to accept that it did not fix anything. In fact, it does not do much of anything OTHER than make you more aware of what is going on from moment to moment. What will be will be, you just seem to feel it more intensely
If someone was to ask me about that time I said something wise I would tell them about the last full day of my third mediation retreat. But of course I would, because that was a moment when there was no doubt that the words that came out of my mouth were demonstrably truth, wise, and an act of complete compassion.
The retreats that I go on last for 10 days and are silent from 8 PM on the evening before the first day until 9:30 AM on day ten. Basically you meditate as much as possible from 4:30 AM until 9 PM, day after day after day. There are people around you, but you don’t talk to them and instructors recommend that you do not even look at other people, at least not in the eyes. It is just hours on end of you and your mind sitting quietly with your eyes closed, noticing the sensations of being alive. Vegetarian food is made available two times a day, at 6:30 AM and 11:30 AM, and there is a video discourse every night at 7 PM. There are four group sittings each day, three hour long ones at 8:30 AM, 2:30 PM, and 6 PM, and a shorter one from 8:30 to 9 PM. The rest of the time is spend mediating, resting, or looking after personal hygiene or laundry.
It can be remarkably boring, extremely intense, profoundly insightful, or a flat neutral experience. There is nothing to distract you, no phones, no TV, no music, and nothing to read. It is all you all of the time and this reveals the nature of your mind with untempered clarity.
I LOVE it and I HATE it and no matter how many times I go, the experience is never the same but always follows the same sort of pattern. It is kind of like walking along a forest trail at different times of the year. The route or path is the same but the journey is always different depending upon the season.
My wisest moment arrived at around 11:35 AM on day 10. This is the final day and at 9:30 AM the silent portion of the retreat ends. We are allowed to talk to other people if we like and it is presented as an opportunity to slowly re-integrate ourselves into the real world by communicating with the other participants. At this moment in time, each of us have more in common with each other than almost everyone else in the world. By ramping up our conversations with each other, we are in a better position to reengage the world the following morning when we leave the center.
I have no opinion about the accuracy of this and tend to find the elimination of silence to be jarring and unpleasant. As happy as I am to have the retreat wind down, the contrast between silence and people talking is almost too much for me to handle. But so is life from time to time, so maybe that is the point of it.
There tend to be three types of people who go to these retreats. The first are psychonauts. These are the people who have found out about mediation, think it is cool, and relish in the thought of completing a retreat as though it is a badge of honor or an accomplishment of something. The second are the mindful-curious. These are the people who have, for some reason, started to consider the possibility that consciousness is not the thing that they thought it was. They are not sure what it is, but they are interested in finding the true nature of the mind and what existence is all about. The final group is the psychology skewed. These people have, for one reason or another, an internal operating system that doesn’t serve them as well as it could. They are not necessarily, or even likely, to suffer from a psychological pathology that is chemical in nature or for which they need to be medicated. They just engage the world, their mind, and their brain in a way that to some degree less than optimal. This causes them existential difficulties in so far as their life is tougher than it needs to be or is lived with a sense that they are living slight out of phase with the real world.
I am a member of this final group, and I rediscovered mediation when I noticed the thought that life was tougher than it needed to be. I’ll eventually write more about the specifics, but generally speaking, I have a tendency towards feeling anxious and would have labeled my prevailing thought patterns to be those of something approximating generalized anxiety disorder.
The flavor of the conversations you have on day ten will be determined the group that you belong to and your group affiliation will be obvious based on the level and nature of the energy you give off once you begin talking again. Basically it will be one of three things – “I made it” pride, “I realized” curiosity, or “I am like this” acceptance.
I was talking to a guy from the third group on our way back from lunch when he mentioned that he was going to ask the instructor a question at the end of the next group sitting. I asked him if we was willing to tell me what he was going to ask and he mentioned that it was about anxiety. Specifically, when he was younger, about fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with anxiety because he was having panic attacks at school. The solution was medication to be taken when an attack was starting. It worked in so far as it treated the acute nature of the attacks but it didn’t stop them from occuring. As he got older, they occurred less and less frequently and he hadn’t experienced one in five years since he had graduated from university and started working. However, earlier that morning he had experienced what felt like the start of one during the group sitting. This was a concern because he thought he was cured, so he wanted to ask the instructor how long he would have to meditate for before he would be cured. He believed that after developing and continuing a practice for a few months or years that the brain would clear itself up and he would never have anxiety again.
This sounded familiar to me because when I started practicing, I had the same belief that it would fix things. After years of practice I had come to accept that it did not fix anything. In fact, it does not do much of anything OTHER than make you more aware of what is going on from moment to moment. What will be will be, you just seem to feel it more intensely. You still get angry, you just realize that you are angry sooner and feel the anger more. You still get sad, you just realize it sooner and feel it more profoundly. Mediation helps me because these two things work together to more quickly move me through whatever emotional experience that I am having. The end result is that I feel more and suffer less, which is a positive. I am still the same as I ever was, the same code is running, I’m just a little more in tune with what I am experiencing from moment to moment and this awareness gives me the clarity to not get so wrapped up in it. I react less and more often choose to respond by doing nothing.
So I asked him what he thought the instructor was going to say and then what did he hope they would say? I don’t recall the exact words that he used, but the essence of how he replied was a single answer to both questions. That it is normal right now and that everything will go away completely within a couple of months, and maybe as long as a year.
I try to do things that reduce suffering in other beings, and baring that, I try to avoid doing things that will cause suffering. I did not know how the instructor would answer the question, but I knew how I would answer it, so I asked him if he wanted to know what I thought the instructor might say. He said sure, so I answered. Be aware that by answering the question I was trying to reduce his suffering in the long run but knew full well that the action I was taking had the potential of causing it in the short term.
“I used to want the same thing, but I come to realize that it is never going away. I am prone to experience moments of intense and almost overwhelming anxiety and went on my first retreat because I was almost certain that there was a better way to experience life. And I was right and I was also wrong. The fact of the matter the anxiety is still there and it is probably always going to be, but it doesn’t mean what it used to. It used to be something that I wanted to get rid of, so I’d resist it and approach it as a problem to solve. Maybe there were times when I was able to make it go away, but I always feared that it would come back again. I wanted to be free of it so I could just go about living my life the way I believe everyone else does.”
I paused for a moment to make sure he was still with me and started-up again when I realized that he was.
“But what meditation has taught me is that there isn’t anything wrong with me and there is no reason to actually want to get rid of the anxiety for ever. Most of the time it is just a drag, but some of the time it is actually helpful, so I know my life wouldn’t be the same if it never came back. It’s natural and normal for me, so there is no point in battling with it or labeling myself as defective or less than other people. We are all equally worthless, sentences to live out our live on this planet in the middle of more or less no where. The universe is just so big that my anxiety and your panic attacks can’t actually mean anything in a cosmic scale.”
I pause again and notice that the wheels are starting to spin a little faster in his head.
“I still get anxious. Probably just as often as I used to. It kind of feels worse now than it did before, but there is a big difference now. Now I know that it is going to pass, just like everything else. It is temporary and if I wait long enough it will go away. And you know what, then I’ll be glad it is gone. It’s kind of like the opposite of feeling happy. Happiness doesn’t mean that same thing that it used to any more because I know that it will pass and when it does I will no longer be happy. But just like the anxiety, it will probably come back in the future and I can be happy again, for a moment before it leaves.”
This pause was different, at least what I noticed was different. There was a look of pain in his eyes, and his face wore that heavy weight of the world look. This was the suffering I had anticipate causing.
“All I can do is choose what I pay attention to. That’s it. I can’t control what my brain and body do from moment to moment, at least in terms of a anxiety showing up. But I can choose to be completely happy when happiness rolls in and enjoy it for what it is, just as I can choose to notice what anxiety actually feels like. When I’m anxious I can direct my attention to the sensations on my body and notice what the moments of anxiousness actually feel like, and if I feel them all over, it it feels the same on different spots, and if my noticing the sensations of anxiety change how my brain deals with. I’m free to pay attention to it, to ignore it, or to play around with it and try to think about what it reminds me of. If I needed to act, I would have acted. Since I didn’t, there is no survival trigger for the anxiety so it doesn’t matter very much.”
He was still with me.
“But it isn’t going to disappear, or it might. I hasn’t for me, and I haven’t read or heard from anyone who has eliminated it from their life entirely through meditation. But by paying attention to it as an experience in the moment as it is happening, as opposed to treating it as a problem to solve, it starts to mean something else and this I have found to be a lot easier to deal with. But it isn’t going anywhere and meditation isn’t going to fix you because there is nothing wrong with you. You just get anxious from time to time and you have convinced yourself that it is bad. It isn’t good or bad, it’s just an experience you have from time to time. Be curious about it and teach yourself to notice what it is actually like as an experience as opposed to giving it power by making it into something it isn’t.”
There was a little back and forth, but not much that seemed to matter. I had crushed his dream that mediation was a solution to this problem and obliterated the hope that he was one day going to be free of panic attacks and anxiety in general.
A few hours later, after the afternoon group sitting, I asked him what the instructor had said and he told me he didn’t ask. When I asked why, he said that during the sitting, the anxiety started to fire-up again and he choose to just notice it as an experience as opposed to react to it as a problem. It hadn’t been all that bad. In fact, it was just something that was happening that wouldn’t be happening for very long. It wasn’t that it disappeared instantly, it just seemed to shrink in significance and became the rushing sensation that was his experience of anxiety. I thought this was great, but when he continued, I realized the wisdom of what I had shared.
“If it isn’t going to go away, I’m going to be living in fear that it is going to show up. And that thought is actually one that kind of begins to trigger it. That is unreasonable. I’m either going to be having panic attacks or living in a state of fear that I’m going to be having one. So if I just accept that they will show up from time to time and really make the effort to uncover whether or not they are a problem, I’ll at least know if I need to do something more about them. If that last sit is anything to go on, they are just kind of shittie, like the feeling you get after running up some stairs or trying to catch a train that you’re late for. My heart was going faster than normal, but I was free to direct my mind onto whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to pay attention to it. This didn’t make it go away, but it made it just a thing that was happening.”
I smiled and replied with “that’s cool, and kind of a powerful insight eh?”
The retreat ended the next day and I drove home with the radio off, happy that it was over and excited to be seeing my girlfriend again.
In the days and weeks, and months that followed, as I continued to practice, anxiety still continued to show up, and I think it will always play a role in my life. Most of the time I’m able to just label it by saying “there’s anxiety” and it fades away. Other times it gets a grip and I have a moment of wondering if I ever didn’t feel it or if it will ever go away, but then I catch myself and start to pay attention to the sensation it triggers, or the sensation that triggers it. I notice just how similar it is to excitement, or too much coffee, or to the moments after a tough working set in the gym that causes my heart rate to fly. The key is that after all of the mediation, I’m able to notice when it rolls in and make the decision to do something about it if doing something will help or to just let it be.
I am not cured, and I have very little reason to believe that I ever will be, because there is nothing to be cured from. This is how my brain operates. I’m just free to choose my approach, so by deciding to view myself as normal, and to act with curiosity when it comes along. Because it is going to come along and realizing this fact was a moment of wisdom.
The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger.
People are full of crap. Some know they are, these people are bullshitters. They are motivated by the need or a desire to be believed. They don’t care about the truth one way or the other and will only tell it when doing so helps them to get other people to believe them.
Most people do not believe that they are full of crap and will say with complete honesty that they are truth seekers and that they do not lie. I have no reason to disbelieve them when they say this, and there is a lot of evidence that indicates that they ARE telling the truth and that they work in earnest to seek out and consume things that they believe are true.
“On Bullshit” is a 2005 essay written by Harry G. Frankfurt that covers some of this very effectively. The truth teller and the liar both have an important relationship with the truth. Both know what it is and act in predictable ways when dealing with it. The truth teller will take the steps that are required to uncover the truth and to always say and do things according to it. The liar will take very similar steps to uncover it and will then say things that are untrue and will allow other people to believe things that are not true. Liars do not always lie though, which makes life a little more challenging. However, if someone knowingly tells a lie, it is reasonable to conclude that they will do so in the future and to withdraw unconditional trust for them and to stop viewing them through the most charitable lenses.
Truth tellers will always tell the truth as they know it. This is not the same thing as always telling the objective truth because that would imply that they know what that is. While this fact complicates things considerably, it is no reason to completely give-up on people and withdraw from society. We just need to be aware that uncovering objective reality is hard work, and it may not even be possible some of the time. Life is very complicated and there is a lot to learn. Sometimes we need to believe things that we do not know and do our best with what we have. This is a part of the reason why honest people will speak untruths and it is why we need to be charitable towards others who do not actively set about to mislead us.
However, there are limits to this. Someone who shows a lack of willingness or ability to learn from their mistakes, or remains completely committed to their views when evidence to the contrary has been shared with them, are acting in a way that is at least to some degree dishonest. Updating world views is hard work but this effort is necessary in order to move forward in life with a better internal representation of the objective external world. Anybody who does not put in the work to adapt to their experiences should be demoted and assumed to be less than honest. Let’s call these people the truth impervious.
The transition zone between the truth impervious and the truth teller is not a clear line, and it probably shouldn’t be. In general, we want people to be very quick in updating their world view when presented with new information. The blurred line is the result of differing thresholds for what constitutes evidence of new information. The size of the blurred line is occupied by the truth resistant.
When we are young, the line is fairly well defined. We accept everything as truth and store all of it into long term memory. This maximizes our ability to learn in terms of speed and quantity while making us more susceptible to dishonest players who try to gain from getting us to believe lies or untruths. This is the reason why it is critical to tell children the truth as much as possible and to limit the lies that you are willing to tell them. There is a cost to every lie and it is the child, or the adult they will become, who will pay that cost. It’s probably fine to tell them certain cultural fairy tales in terms of holidays about rabbits, eggs and gifts, but it may not be. It is also better to avoid answering a question choosing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not actually sure” than to make something up. Again, telling the truth is the best course of action, but sometimes it might not be appropriate to relate this information to them too soon. So long as the withholding of information is done to prevent too early an exposure and not as a way to make your life easier there may be some downstream benefit to doing it.
But there reaches a point when the only thing that gets shared is the truth, and this point will be more or less the moment when the truth impervious and the truth resistant begin to cleave themselves off from the honest. This occurs because the person as learned a massive amount of information and is now in a position to listen more critically and to interrogate what they hear / experience against what they have stored in long term memory. They will still continue to update their world view, but they will start to become more responsible for making the decision on what to do when something goes against it. This is a big leap forward in terms of shoring up their understanding of things as they will already have developed a general case for a lot of common knowledge. The ability to identify when something doesn’t match the general case is of upmost importance in generating an advanced or expert level of skill.
It goes something like this: an experience doesn’t match their internal view of reality, but since they have crossed into the realm of critical analysis, they take a moment of pause when they identify the error / in-congruence. It’s a moment of inflection in so far as they think “what do I not know and need to know as a result of what has just happened” or “this doesn’t match my world view and is therefore wrong and needs to be ignored.” Of these two thoughts, younger people tend to favor the first while people who are older will drift towards the second. Those who are honest and in the second group will, after enough experience, change their approach and open-up to letting in new information. The challenge is in getting to the threshold amount in so far as there is a disincentive to seeking out information that does not support our present world view. It is both work and experientially painful – while not in the same ballpark as getting hit with a baseball, the brain does not release reward chemicals when consuming information or having experiences that do not match the patterns we have stored in our long term memory. This is a critical fact that makes life much more difficult for some people than it needs to be. The essence however is that for people who lean towards viewing as false anything that is not compatible with what they know to be true UNTIL they get enough information to justify changing their world view, are honest people but will initially present as truth impervious in that they will not learn from experience and will seem to view things are wrong without any evidence other than what they have stored in their heads.
You will know that it is a truth impervious person when they do not seek out evidence to support the accuracy of the new information they were exposed to and remain unmoved by evidence that is presented to them. Honest people may have a threshold for triggering change and they will change their behavior when presented with evidence. They may not update their world view, but they will not flat out deny reality. When they actually hear the evidence, it will be clear that their brain has started to process it and is beginning to answer the question “what do I not know that would make this information correct?” They will be curious as they consider what it is that they do not know.
So this is what we are left with:
Bullshitters, liars, the truth impervious, the truth resistant and the honest.
You’ll stay away from bullshitters and keep liars at arm’s length. The truth impervious will, over time, reveal themselves as unchanging and allow you to keep them at whatever distance makes the most sense. They are not the same as the other two – those who do not care about truth and those who know what it is but are willing to avoid it to get something they want or need – because they are simply just not letting in anything that doesn’t map directly onto what they know. They are useful and are only dangerous when you mistakenly believe that they are truth resistant.
The truth resistant and the honest are who you will seek out, identify, and choose to surround yourself with; assuming that you are either one of these types of people. This is the method for creating the most ease in your life and that will give you the greatest number of opportunities to learn, grow, contribute, and succeed. It is definitely worth putting in the work to find as many of these people as you can and to take the steps necessary to remain as one yourself.
This is going to require constant effort, a willingness and the ability to tolerate the discomfort of being wrong, and the willingness to seek out experiences and information that does not cause the release of any reward chemicals. This last one is the bigger challenge because as you already know, your brain releases reward chemicals when it makes correct guesses and when it matches patterns; reading something that confirms our world view is chemically rewarding and in no way punishing while reading something that doesn’t match our world view is not chemically rewarding and very likely to be punishing.
Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would do it, except for the fact that in the long run it might be better because it can make life easier and this will allow us to get more done. In the immediate time frame, it is not an innately rewarding experience. You can however condition your brain to release reward chemicals in response to learning. Making this link will serve to fuel your future quest for wisdom and truth. Doing this is relatively simple, but it requires a lot of hard work, particularly early in life, and this work can be perceived as punishment or sacrifice. If a love for learning was not instilled during childhood and adolescence, it can be developed later in life by re-framing the experience as a positive and a sound investment into your future or by learning how to pay absolute attention to the things you are learning. Suffering, that is a negative emotional experiences in the absence of physical pain, is the result of too much focus on yourself. When we pay attention to what we are learning or what is going on from moment to moment, we are no longer capable of paying attention to ourselves and this will eliminate whatever negative experience was occurring. This will serve as a reinforcement if for no other reason as the reduction in pain. Overtime, our brains learn the response and will begin to trigger it as a result of the learning.
So this is truth, learning, how to make life easier and therefore potentially better, and the categories of people in terms of their possible relationship with honestly.
The fact of the matter is that life is both work and very complicated. There is an incentive to avoid work and complexity because doing so helps to conserve energy, making it available for later in the event there is an emergency that we need to deal with. This makes sense when we consider where our species is coming from – the past when food scarcity was a reoccurring problem that killed off a lot of people each time it showed-up – but it has been much less of a concern over the last few thousand years as a result of the discovery of farming. However, the genes of our ancestors do not disappear in response to changes in the environment. They disappear either through mutation, meaning they code for something entirely different, or the individuals with those genes die before they are able to reproduce which might, over the long run, see them removed from the species IF the genes are not contained in the code of the individuals who do mate successfully. The conservation of energy genes however are ubiquitous across all species and all areas of the planet. They are not going anywhere meaning that for the foreseeable future human beings are going to default to conserving energy by any means possible and will only choose to spend it through an act of will OR in an attempt to receive a reward.
This creates an interesting situation when we factored into our understanding of the truth and learning. Sugar is sugar, and it is as useful for one specific aspect of metabolism as any other aspect of it. The brain doesn’t care HOW it saves energy, it is just coded to try and save it. Our brain uses about twenty percent of our basal metabolic energy and it is more or less on all of the time when we are awake. Heavy sessions of deep thought might theoretically burn more energy than a session of equal length involving us watching waves or sitting quietly in a darkened room but the evidence for this is inconclusive. What is clear is the increased cost of recovery from or adapting to the intense session of deep thought. When what is sensed, perceived and experienced is different from what is stored and represented in long term memory, assimilating this information will cost energy in terms of the organic cell growth of the new neural networks that contain the new and updated information. When the information that flows in is the same as the information that is already stored, nothing needs to happen.
This means that living beings have a survival incentive to avoid new information because adjusting to it will use energy that might be better spent elsewhere or held onto in the event it is needed for an emergency. Phrased another way, it is easier and cheaper in the short term to remain ignorant than it is to invest the effort to cultivate knowledge or wisdom. Any argument about medium and long term costs of this need to be tempered with the reality that the future is an abstract thing and therefore does not exist in any tangible way. Do not allow this fact to derail your understanding here because it is fairly trivial and has very little consequence to how the brain operates. The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger. The only way the future exists is when we have the part of the brain that is responsible for generating it and when that part of the brain is active; otherwise it just isn’t a thing that the brain has any awareness of or access to.
Narratively it is safe to say that learning as much as possible is an investment in the future but in practice this isn’t exactly the case. The body will adapt to EVERYTHING that it does in a way that will make doing it again a little bit easier. The improvement in capability and efficiency with each subsequent repetition will be small, but there is an improvement. The general rule of thumb is that each time you double the reps you do, you will become 20% more effective. Over time, if a skill is not practiced, no new tissue will be laid down to support it and this will result in skill decay as cellular turnover reduces the number of dedicated cells. This is why practice makes us better and is critical for maintaining high levels of skill fluency.
All of this is to say that if we are never going to do something again, it is cheaper for us to avoid doing it in the first place because this will allow us to avoid all of the metabolic costs associated with this 20% increase in efficiency. Since important things occur often and unimportant things occur very infrequently, unless it is an emergency or a life or death situation, we are statistically better off if we ignore something the first few times we are faced with it because this will prevent us from wasting energy on the insignificant and allow us to focus energy on what is important or save it for use later.
I like math and I love how useful statistics are at telling a very interesting story about what is going on, but statistics are NOT real life. They are an amalgamation of many individual stories that are themselves real life. Just because we are statistically better off doing something does not necessarily mean that we are individually better off doing it. Think about it this way, the mean is the average of all of the values. If we have to guess what any individual number is and have no other information to go on, our best option is to pick the mean value because half of the numbers will be larger and half of them will be smaller, and the mean is based on something – an average of ALL of the numbers – but not much more than that. Say we have 10 people who take a test that is scored between 1 and 10. The results have a person score each of the whole numbers between 1 and 10; one person gets 1, one person gets 2, one person gets 3, etc…. You are told nothing about the test, are told that the mean score is 5.5 out of 10 and are then asked to guess the score of person 7. You go with the mean which is about the best you can do, but are wrong because they scored 8. And guessing the mean will always be wrong because the test doesn’t give out half marks. In this case any whole number would will have a 1 in 10 chance of begin correct vs. 100% certainty of being incorrect.
This is how I think about learning from what happens. While there is energy to be saved by ignoring reality the first few times it presents itself, there is very little reason for me to worry about this energy. My body fat level puts me into the realm of being able to go without any food for at least 10 days before I might enter a danger zone in terms of starvation. There is no food scarcity where I live and, if I ever find myself in a position that the energy that was spent learning something actually makes a difference, that would be the least of my problems. I would argue that one of the major benefits of technology is the enhanced learning environment and potential that these technologies have created. I can “waste” energy learning things that don’t matter, doing things that do not enhance my chances of surviving, and adapting to novel or otherwise meaningless stimuli simply because of the work the previous 450 generations did to create a surplus of food, safety, security, and shelter. Whatever energy I save by waiting until something happens three or four times before dealing with it makes no difference in my life. I probably throw out enough food each day to pay attention to and learn from practically everything that comes along.
Of course my DNA, brain, and operating system do not consider my level of body fat or the richness of the food I waste when faced with new information. The default is to ignore, resist, and justify doing nothing. Which is fair and a big pain in the ass when it comes to the truth. There is a huge evolutionary drive for us to be right because being in that state means we do not have to do anything. There is nothing to learn when we are right because being right is an indication that we have already learned what it was to know. Great, except being right and wrong are only things that exist when you take the time to consider them. Other than what we have stored in our long term memories that we are able to access and bring to mind from moment to moment, the only things that are real are the things for which there is a stream of sensory data flowing in. Everything else doesn’t exist.
This is a type of conundrum because in order to assess something for accuracy or truth, it needs to exist and the only way it can exist is if the sensory data is allowed to enter into your brain. If it isn’t let in, the thing isn’t right or wrong, it’s so much less than that. The thing isn’t a thing at all.
There is a potential cost to letting the stuff in because if it doesn’t match what we have stored in our brains, we will need to spend energy to adapt to the new information. So this leaves us with a choice, do we ignore things and be certain to save the energy or do we pay attention to them and risk having to spend the energy? Of course, there’s a third choice which is to already know what it is we are paying attention to – or to be right about the things we are letting in.
Personally, I’m a fan of letting the stuff in and learning as much as possible, even when it may never be needed in the future. But I understand the drive of staying closed or of consuming only things that confirm a preexisting piece of knowledge. That doesn’t mean I agree with these approaches, nor does it mean that I respect the conservation efforts of people who engage in them.
The truth resistant are made-up of people who employ these tactics when dealing with reality. They’ll ignore reality for a while until they deem it time to let the new information in.
The truth impervious will also use these tactics, but they’ll rely on always “being right” when cherry picking what to let in to ensure that they never need to do anything differently. The remarkable thing about this is just how simple it can be to maintain rightness in the face of contradictory information so long as that information never makes it into the brain or when it accidentally leaks in, it is perceived in a particular way that ensures there is nothing new to learn.
If you are curious to see this in action, take a look at the web site https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/. This site deals with political biases and is an attempt to rank news sources as left bias, left leaning, least biased, right leaning and right bias. You are able to get a list of sources that match each of these categories, along with a few others, and read the sites write-up about the source.
What is most interesting is that on the page that contains the write-up, you can follow a link to the source site and read their articles for yourself. Not that big a deal, except when you start to really pay attention to what is going on in your brain and your body. We don’t simply consume information and feel nothing while doing it. Oh no, we do so much more. Whatever biases we have, whatever preconceived notions that exist inside our brains and whatever we know as the truth play a role in determining how we emotionally respond to things. When faced with erroneous information, we respond, when faced with correct information, we respond, when faced with ambiguous information, we respond. The unconscious parts of our brain that deal with complex information fire-up, do their thing, and trigger specific emotions based on their interpretation of the sensory stimuli.
If I was forced to say, I would suggest that I am a social liberal and have a slight right lean financially. I don’t think the government knows what it is doing most of the time, so I don’t believe it has a place in telling the citizens how to behave. If you are not harming other people and only engage in consensual interactions, the government should pay no attention to you. I’m a believer in public health care and some social programs, but I believe that people should work as much as they can to pay their own way unless they have a strong reason why they are not able to or have been able to get someone to consent to paying for them. I have very low expectations for politicians and I expect them to lie because I don’t think a completely honest person could effectively run a country.
All of this being said, I have a tendency to avoid news sources that have a right bias and notice that I feel off when I am consuming news that has a strong left bias. The right stuff seems like superficial nonsense and the left stuff seems too over the top and unreasonably fatalistic. The stuff in the middle lands better because it just seems like they are revealing a series of facts about things that happened. It is as though they are reporting the news as a kind of boring list of things that occurred and leave the rest of it up to me to figure out.
This is much closer to what the world is actually like. Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems in the moment. What a thing is will become clearer over the days and weeks that follow. Was it good or bad that such and such won an election? Well, it was both. Things will be different because of it, some of the things that were good will get better, some that were bad will get worse, some things will stay the same, other things will reverse valence.
But in the moment, it’s amazing, or awful. It feels like it matters more than anything else ever could or ever will. Which is true, given that the future only exists as brain activity in the present moment, but in a few minutes you’ll have moved off of it and onto something else that matters more than anything ever could or ever will.
This is the reason why we need to consume information from all sides of an argument, particularly from the side that we do not align with. You may never change your mind about it, but it is important that you understand that there are people who believe things that you do not believe and that you know what these things are. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle between two polarized points of view. But you’ll only find it when you allow for the existence of the other pole. When you know with certainty that they are wrong, you close off to the truth and become a little less useful at being a human being.
A few years ago I found myself suffering from vertigo for a few weeks. It past, and since then it has returned a couple of times for a day or two. That first bout was intense and it complicated my life considerably. Fortunately it was just benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) which can be helped with some very specific head movements that help to reposition the otolith (crystal-like substances) to their normal position in the utricle (a part of the inner ear). Basically, to help with balance, spacial awareness and proper body orientation, the vestibular system in the ear contains crystals that move freely in the fluid. Given that the crystals have a higher density than the fluid, they sink causing them to stimulate hair cells. When the head moves, the crystals move, being pulled downward by gravity, resulting in them stimulating different hair cells. This way the brain always knows what way is down and it always knows what way the head is orientated relative to the pull of gravity.
With BPPV, the crystals become dislodged and move into one of the semicircular canals. As a consequence to this, the brain has extreme difficultly interpreting the information that is coming from the vestibular system because it is scrambled / ambiguous – whereas the crystals would normally stimulate a lot of hair cells in one area that corresponds to down, the absence of the crystal means there is less stimulation in a specific direction, and more stimulation in general. The brain assumes it is orientated in many directions at once, which isn’t possible, and this causes the symptoms of vertigo. While not exactly the same thing, about one third of people who experience weightlessness will suffer from a type of motion sickness that is believed to be caused by the elimination of down. The crystals float which isn’t necessarily a problem. However, when the person changes direction, the crystals impact the hair cells in a different way than normal – the force vectors are direct (straight) and not impacted by the pull of gravity (forward or back with a downward angle). The brain adapts to the change very quickly and the motion sickness disappears after a day or so.
Fortunately for me, the resetting movements seem to help. The nausea, which had been very strong the first week faded and just went away. What remained was an intense dizziness when I move my head suddenly, or when I would lie down or stand-up. I went to the doctor and he said that it would normally pass after a few weeks. If there was a virus going around that was causing it, my body would take care of it, and if it was BPPV the movements would take care of it. He didn’t know, but since there was no obvious pathology in terms of my ears being injured or infected, there wasn’t much anyone could do. Welcome to middle age was about all his smile said.
His answer was par for the course and about what I had expected. So as unsatisfying as I found it, I didn’t have any choice but to accept it, get back to life and wait for natural healing to occur. And of course this meant that I would be hyper aware of whatever was going on and whatever changes occurred until I was back to normal.
This was for me the most interesting part of it. Step one was to learn about what was causing the vertigo (the explanation outlined above). Step two was to learn about other ways the system might break down even when it was working fine (the zero G motion sickness stuff). The final step was to be curious how my brain would adapt to deal with what was going on. If the brain of an astronaut took a few days to adjust to the changes in sensory input coming from their vestibular system when “down” was eliminated, what was my brain going to do in response to the scrambled input it was getting? No matter how bad I felt or whatever interpretation I was giving to my experience, my brain was going to try and make sense of the input it was getting, simply because that is what brains do.
Since I wasn’t feeling nauseous any more, life was just more difficult. It would have been nice and of course I would have liked to not be dizzy anymore, but that wasn’t going to happen simply by wishing it away. There was a tiny chance that I would never return to normal, a thought that I didn’t like but had to entertain if I was going to be pragmatic about things. IF this was going to be the rest of my life, WHAT did I need to do to reduce the dizziness? Doing something about it was important for reasons other than the feeling it created, the bouts of dizziness were mentally draining. It takes a lot of effort to remain standing when it feels like you are tumbling through the air. The sensation doesn’t match reality and the amount of work that is required to reconcile the conflict and make the accurate determination that I was standing upright was exhausting. The exhaustion was a symptom of the work being done, and when all is said and done, it’s exactly what I needed my brain to do. It was now on me to help it out as much as I could.
A long time ago I watched a BBC program about the functional plasticity of the brain. It covered the Innsbruck Goggle Experiments of Theodor Erismann (1883–1961) and Ivo Kohler (1915–1985). In their studies, they gave the subjects glasses that flipped all of the visual information and made it upside down. The subjects were then asked to wear the glasses during all of their waking hours for the next few weeks as they went about their lives. As you would expect, that first few days were very challenging for the subjects. They had a lot of difficulty interacting with the world. While they were able to pick things up, they had a lot of problems moving their hands into the right position to grab the objects. Moving objects were nearly impossible to track at the beginning and were impossible for them to touch. Walking was extremely difficult and no one was allowed to drive.
But very quickly the subjects began to get the hang of it. After a few days writing became easier, they figured out how to locate and manipulate objects, and moving around stopped being a trial and error type experience. After 10 days, one of the participants was able to ride a bike without falling and without fear of running someone over or riding somewhere they didn’t want to go. It was remarkable to watch their progress and notice the daily improvement in acquiring functionality and then automating it after some period of time.
When the study was over and they were allowed to remove the goggles, they did not immediately return to normal. They found it difficult to interact with the world again, not nearly as tough as they had found it when they put on the goggles, but it wasn’t automatic and unconscious. But after about half an hour, things just seemed to pop into place and their pre-experiment proficiency was restored and everything seemed to return to normal.
In my own life I have experienced a similar type of thing, just a lot less intense or overwhelming. Any time I buy a new bike, my brain is forced to adjust to the new geometry and riding position. For the first few rides I am a little shaky and need to take it easy to make sure I don’t fall, but after a week or so it doesn’t feel odd and I have no difficulty maneuvering the bike on rough terrain and over logs. When I get back onto my old bike, it feels strange for a few minutes but I adjust to it very quickly.
There was no reason to believe that I would not be able to adjust to the miss signals that my ears were sending to my brain. All I would need to do was interact with the world for a period of time and my brain would do the rest. But I was in a hurry because I needed to get back to working at full speed and the vertigo had reduced my output significantly. I felt certain that there were a few ways to speed the process up and have a suspicion that my brain had already figured some of them out and was changing my behavior to take advantage of them.
The dizziness wasn’t there all of the time, and it was much less intense at night when I was in bed than during the day. Frankly, I don’t have any idea what dizziness is other than a physical sensation, but the fact that darkness seemed to reduce it is significant. Also significant is the fact that I have never felt dizzy when I have been dreaming. Even the weirdest floating and spinning dreams I have ever had did not have any impact on my sense of orientation. Dizziness then is caused when information from two separate sensory systems doesn’t reveal the same thing. When it’s dark, there is no visual information to conflict with the vestibular information and when I am dreaming, there is no vestibular information to conflict with the visual information. Putting it all together, I started closing my eyes when I felt dizzy and then began to close them before I moved my head too much. This took care of a lot of it. While it felt like I was moving a lot more than I was, I was able to make enough sense out of things to know where I was and where down most likely was.
The next piece of it came automatically, and it was unrelated to my present situation. I do the dishes at home and for some reason, when I’m moving about the sink, I keep one foot on the ground and kind of hook the other foot on the underside of the cupboard. I do this mainly when I need to reach away from the sink and don’t want to take a step. No idea why I do it but it’s a thing that I do, and carried over into other areas of my life. In the case of my vertigo, I found myself doing it even when I wasn’t reaching away. It seemed that I was it doing to to ground myself or to provide more sensory information to my brain to give it something else to work with since it could no longer rely on what was coming from the ear. Once I noticed that the foot information seemed to help, I started to use my hands and elbow to provide more clues. Normally I wouldn’t touch the work table when making panels, but I found that when I placed a free hand on it I instantly felt more certain about the position of my body. If I started to get dizzy when I was walking down a hallway, I would just need to reach out and touch the wall to stabilize things.
There was a certain level of deliberateness to all of these adjustmenta I was making, but it didn’t take very long before I automated doing them. I don’t like being dizzy or the sensation of tumbling when I’m not, so making these feelings evaporate very quickly acts as a strong incentive to reward the actions that eliminate the feeling. In a way, I was powerless to NOT do these things once I discovered that they did something that was positive or eliminated something that was negative.
These work-arounds are very effective, and they made the process of healing from whatever caused the vertigo a lot less challenging or dramatic. Close my eyes or touch something became my reactions to the feeling that I was about to get dizzy.
In a larger way, this whole thing tells a very interesting and important story about how we make sense of the world, deal with ambiguity, and go about adjusting to changes in how we received sensory information or adjust to changes in the quality / accuracy of that information.
First off, it’s just electrical impulses triggered by the stimulation of a sensory cell. The location of that cell, along with the part of the brain that initially receives the signal will determine a lot about the nature of the stimulation, but the brain is not dependent upon the specific signal coming from a specific location in order to make sense of the world. Particularly when it comes to body position. Sure, the first place it will get info from is the vestibular system in the ears. If these sense organs are there and functioning correctly, the information streaming in is very useful and rich. It tells us where down is, and therefore any direction. It tells us that we are moving, accelerating or decelerating, and it gives us an idea of where our head is in relation to any other part of our body that is sending in tactile information. It does this regardless of light condition.
But a lot of this information is available through different modalities. Just because the brain is used to getting it from the ear does not mean that it cannot process visual data to extract the same information. This won’t work in the dark, but when it is bright enough to see something that we are able to place spatially, the brain can take some time to reprocess the information to figure out where we are, what position we are in, and if we are moving. It isn’t perfect – recall any time you were on a stationary train and the train beside you begins to move, or a time when you were on a spinning ride, and everything else is spinning at different speeds – but it works very well under most circumstances. In fact, the brain relies on a combination of the two in order to get a more exact idea of where the body is and what it is doing.
The same applies to the tactile information that the brain is working with. While it isn’t nearly as effective at determining movement or direction, a guess can be made that we are moving when the skin that is facing the same direction begins to send in a signal that corresponds to there being a slight breeze. Orientation can be guessed by two simultaneous touches of something that is stationary because the brain knows where the tactile information is coming from and can compare it to an internal map of where those locations are. Orientation can also be predicted because gravity pulls the skin down, along with all of the tissue and fluids, so the brain is aware of a change in shape and will be able to predict down based on this.
Under normal circumstances, the brain takes it all in and ignores whatever it doesn’t need. Under challenging circumstances, it will do the best with what it has. When one modality is down, it will rely on the information provided by other modalities. And we are free to give it more information any time we like. So long as it is congruent with the interpretation the brain is making, it will be largely ignored. But when there isn’t sufficient information naturally, we can provide more by looking, touching, or hearing.
The opposite it also true. When there is an in-congruence or ambiguity with the sensory information that is flowing in from the senses, we can eliminate it by stopping the data flow from one of the sources. When my ear was telling my brain that I was spinning but my eyes were saying that I was stationary, closing my eyes eliminated the conflict. It went with spinning, which wasn’t a problem because the sensation wasn’t very long lived. There were no crystals to be pulled down and trigger a massive stimulation of the hair cells, so the movement of the fluid that was the result of me turning my head stimulated all of them a little bit. The thickness of the fluid meant that the movement does not continue for very long. As soon as it stopped, my opening eyes would reveal information that was aligned with what the vestibular system was sending.
The worst of the vertigo faded away and hasn’t returned with the exception of a few moments when I haven’t been getting enough sleep or get a little run down. There moments are tough when compared to the day before when I didn’t have vertigo, but they are nothing in comparison to my first experiences with it. In fairness though, I’m not certain that I have ever returned to a vertigo free state. It seems likely that I have, but it is entirely possible that my brain just figured out how to process the sensory information my body generates in a way that allows it to make enough sense of the world to get by. Regardless, I’m grateful for having had the experience because of what adjusting to it forced to learn and figure-out. The human brain is fantastic at adjusting to whatever the world throws at it and adapts automatically and quickly in order to get the needed information from what source can provide it.
For reasons of survival, human beings cannot think logically when they are experiencing an emotional response; the prefrontal cortex is mostly deactivated and we are moved to action vs. thought. This is fantastic when immediate action is required but it creates a vulnerability when thought would serve you better. And let’s face it, there are not a lot of times in modern life that require immediate mindless action.
But that doesn’t mean that we can over-write or undo millions of years of evolution. When we perceive a threat – consciously or unconsciously – we are initially going to be motivated to run or fight.
And this is how we end up buying a lot of stuff that we don’t actually want. It’s rather remarkable actually. We go looking for something, a car for example, and the sales person shows up, friendly, happy and effectively building rapport. We’re guarded at first, we’ve bought a car before and we know the racket, but parts of our brain that function without our awareness are taking in and processing all the information. After some period of time we open-up simply because there is no actual threat. No one is going to harm us and our life is definitely not in jeopardy.
The sales person will find out what kind of car you are looking for, what your specific needs are and how much money you have to spend; they may not be so bold about finding out this information but you’ll give it to them because normal conversation flows in such a way that we tell people stuff. Effective sales people are going to uncover what they need to know in order to begin to trigger emotional reactions within us. And we give them the tools they need because the sales process is set-up like that.
I am one skeptical human being. Some would consider me to be paranoid and I agree, I am very aware of just how easily an emotional reaction can be triggered. I am not the mark I used to be, but I have had to work like hell to not become a part in this click wirr process. When I bought a car a few years ago the entire process was extremely unpleasant for me. I ended-up with a brutal headache and feeling very sick towards the end of it. I bought the exact car I went in to buy and actually paid a little less for it than I had planned. To an outsider it would have looked like a pleasant experience, a win:win for me and the sales person, and he was an extremely nice and good natured person. But I never let my guard down because I didn’t want to get taken.
When the gas water heater people make their rounds I try to get out of the conversation quickly. I don’t really want to waste their time because there is no way they are going to come into my house and I’ve found that when I do talk to them, the conversation degrades very quickly as I call them on the manipulative things they say. They try to use fear that the water heater that is in our house isn’t up to code; they can’t possibly know because they’ve never seen it. They try to tell me it will save money; modern water heaters are extremely efficient. They say that we are entitled to government grands; they don’t even know if we have a gas heater so they cannot know if we are entitled to anything. They say that they are with the gas company and are just in the neighborhood and would like to give our heater a free check-up; no successful company sends out its technicians unannounced and without a reason.
I can say this, they have been well trained to push the buttons that trigger emotional reactions, which will then lower resistance to what they are selling. Listening to them, it is easy to understand how people get sucked into long term contracts with the gas resellers they represent. This makes me angry because I don’t think it’s fair that people knock on your door and try to make you feel things just so you can buy stuff you don’t want. I suppose I could simply just close the door, but even though I have no respect for what they are doing, they are still human beings and deserve some respect.
And I think that’s the problem with emotional selling, it takes so much energy to combat that it ends up changing how we interact with other human beings and this makes the world a little worse of a place for everyone. These automatic reactions are the result of intensity, recency and an averaging of experiences.
Each one of us has a mental storage capacity that is enormous. We are capable of remembering hundreds of thousands of experiences, possibly millions, and when given enough time, we will be able to access most of them. A few of them will come to mind instantly, these will be the most recent and the ones that are the most intense for some reason, but almost all of the remainder will require a certain amount of deliberate mental. A system being set-up like this is very practical. When we need to make a decision very quickly, it limits the amount of information that comes to mind allowing us to filter through with ease and make a decision. We don’t get bogged down reviewing volumes of information, parsing out context, checking for relevance and reprocessing this for patterns and a relationship to other things that might be useful. The brain is capable of performing these tasks, it just doesn’t do it initially and it doesn’t do it very quickly. But when faced with a life or death situation, or when we need to determine IF something is a life or death situation, bringing to mind the most useful and revealing information that is relevant is the fastest and most effective way to do it.
Initially, three things will come to mind, one right after the other:
The first thing that comes to mind will be the contextually similar things that were accompanied by an extreme emotional reaction. There is a favoring of negative emotions over positive emotions here – things that scared us or made us angry – and the corresponding emotion will be triggered to some extent. Our consciousness will be filled with the memory and our body will be hit with some of the emotion. We will be, in a way, transported back that moment in time and this will ready us to respond to that specific stimuli in the event the present situation is a reasonable copy.
The second thing will be the most recent thing that was contextually similar – the context being determined by the last time we crossed the threshold into the physical / geographical space or a location – entering a room, getting into our car – or that is defined by a metaphoric meaning – going to work, talking to a spouse or sales person. Things that happened longer ago have less salience than the things that happened more recently, and the things that happened moments ago will take on a much greater portion of our awareness.
The final thing that comes to mind will be a sort of average of all of the situations that were close enough to the present situation in terms of context, language, emotional state, and a match on any other information that the brain deems as relevant. These will be thrown into a pot, mixed together and formed into a prototypical or representative case that called into mind in response to the sensory data that the present situation provides.
These three things impact the brain in slightly different ways and have different response curves. The emotional one will be first and if there is no negative component it will fade away very quickly. If there is a negative component, it will linger for longer, and if fear is the primary component, it will begin to shut down higher level cognitive processes as a fight or flight response takes over. There is a small window here in which the other two responses can mitigate the response and allow the emotional hijack to fade away. If recent experiences have shown the situation to be safe or if the average experience has been deemed to be safe, the hijack will be reduced.
This is why cognitive behavioral therapy or systematic desensitization is so effective at helping people gain a higher degree of control over their thoughts and reactions. Through repeated exposures that have a positive or neutral outcome, the brain begins to factor them into the average which will begin to lessen the severity of the response.
Assuming that there is no emotional hijack, the recency wave will peak next and fade away, quickly followed by a slow peaking average wave, which will remain for a lot longer before trailing off slowly. What ends up being perceived as reality will most often be a combination of the average and the sensory information. So long as a response is taken quickly, the process for this moment ends and there will be very little deeper searching of long term memories.
The average wave is interesting because it will be comprised of the things that happened more often and things that happened once or twice may not be included. If these single or infrequent happenings are critical for decision making, the person will need to hold off action for a while to give their brain the opportunity to activate these memories and bring them to mind.
This is the process that my brain goes through when there is a knock at the door and I see someone who is trying to sell me something when I open the door. They are not threatening, but I am on a heightened state of awareness because of what has happened before and fairly recently – someone just like them, in a context identical to this, tried to make me feel scared that there was something in my house that was no longer at up to code and could kill me. So without so much as a moments conscious thought, I’m already a little bit angry. When the average of all of the experiences like this fills my mind, I’m only slightly less annoyed and ready to tell them “no thank you” and “good bye.”
In general, these interactions are never as bad as the worst one was, they are fairly transactional once they say their bit and I reply to them based on how they are treating me. The only ones that are in anyway bad are the hot water tank people or the energy resellers, the telecom people are selling a service that they cannot match our present provider on, the political candidates and real estate brokers know that they won’t ever get my vote or my business if they are pushy or rude. And the religious people get thanked for their time and efforts as I politely say “I don’t feel like talking about it.”
At this point, the only door to door sales people that are able to trigger me into an emotional buy are the kids who are selling cookies or raising money for something, or who knock on the door asking to wash my car or shovel the snow from the driveway. They will get money almost every time and I have even paid them to not touch my car as an attempt to reinforce their entrepreneurial efforts.
What is most interesting to me is how Heather doesn’t have any problem listening to people try to sell her things or with their attempts to trigger an emotional response in order to get her commitment to buy. She actually enjoys it because she’s very aware of her internal state and feels it immediately when someone is trying to manipulate her. I’ve heard her complement sales people on their tactics, point out what they did and tell them “no thanks, I’m not buying anything from you.” All without any rage or obvious level of agitation, and even with some enthusiasm for having learned something new.
Heather and I are very different emotional operators. Historically I have been a much more empathetic person, with a tendency to feel emotions to a larger extent and for a much longer duration. She has as wide an emotional spectrum as me but is much more compassionate in terms of how she feels in response to the actions of other people and her perception of their immediate experience. I have only seen her angry once and I have never seen her behave in a way that would be viewed as inappropriate or out of place. The episode of anger was directed towards someone who was completely out of line and in desperate need of some social correction. The consequence of our differing ways of processing emotions is that, while I am more inclined to have a larger first response in terms of emotionality based on my previous experience before it fades to a more objective assessment of the immediate situation, her first response is very low or non existent in terms of emotion because her interpretations are well calibrated with reality. Someone trying to manipulate your emotion is only a threat IF they are successful and trigger a response. They have no power over you when you maintain control of your emotional state. Someone who is actually dangerous will not rely on slow methods to gain control, they will use force right from the very beginning.
The key to emotional selling or to combating emotional buying is logical thought because rationality helps people rank the importance of whatever is occurring. Sellers using these tactics are trying to gain the upper hand by creating a state that favors impulsive or rash decision making. An emotional hijack is the most effective way to do this, and it helps to complete a sale when the person is selling the solution to the proxy cause of the emotional response. Note, the cause of the response is the words / communication of the sales person and the proxy cause is the thing that they are talking about.
For example, the water heater guy is trying to get me to buy a new water heater by making me afraid that my present heater is no longer up to code and is therefore dangerous. He’s presenting the problem and the cure to something that is not a problem in need of a cure. The code change he was making reference to was an update to how gas pipes are labelled. There is nothing unsafe about anything. The ministry just made the determination that better labeling of gas lines would be more helpful. Of course I didn’t know this when he knocked on the door, but since our utility supplier hadn’t told us anything, I was confident there was no actual safety concern. When the sales guy told me my life was in danger I just replied with “good, if something happens you get to be right and I won’t ever have to talk to you again. Now get off my property and stop trying to scare people into buying crap from you.” This isn’t as good a response as what Heather would have had, but she asks me to answer the door because she gets a kick out of hearing what I say when someone’s efforts to make me afraid instead trigger anger.
The best approach is to take your time to allow your brain to surface as much information as it can and to allow whatever emotional response might be triggered to run its course and for your body and brain to return to baseline. This might mean not buying something at that moment in time and missing out on any first visit incentives. It might mean having to buy the product / service elsewhere. But doing it is going to mean that you will buy only the things that you want to buy and that these things will be YOUR choice. Your past will be used to shape your decision making – all of your past, not just the recent past or the experiences that were highly emotional – which will lead to better choices based on reality and actual need.
In December 2011 my family took a trip to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. The trip was taken just to cross-off a possibility from the short list of possible actions that is given to you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. The list was my dad’s, which means the cancer was his. GBM, the most common type of brain cancer. It was a primary tumor, it grew very quickly, and it was located in a part of the brain that made it difficult to operate on and there would be very serious damage to the surrounding tissue. Surgery could be performed but since there was no chance that they would be able to remove all of the tumor it would grow back, likely at the same speed it grew in the first place.
My dad was 67, which placed him on the do nothing side of the surgery decision matrix. He was remarkably healthy for a man of that age, still very lean, strong, and in possession of all of the markers of good health. Apart from the cancer he was in great shape. During the conversation with the oncologist he said that they would be willing to perform the surgery because it was low risk in so far as my dad would live through it. The decision was my dad’s to make, but only after sitting down with the treatment team of doctors who would look his case over and give their honest assessment of what should happen next.
What struck me at the time and what I still remember very clearly is the flatness of each one of the doctors. They were nice, seemed kind and were honest. At no point did I or my family get a sense that they were being anything other than truthful. There was stuff they could do. The surgeon said that there was no way to get rid of the entire tumor without leaving the brain as a complete mess, but he could de-bulk it and doing this would give my dad a little more time. The radiation doctors knew they could destroy a lot of the remaining tumor, and this would buy some more time. The oncologist wasn’t confident that there was anything more that could be done because the blood brain barrier prevents most chemo therapy drugs from entering the brain. While there were some experimental medications that showed promise, getting into a drug trial was unlikely given my dad’s age. We were free to source and buy the drugs elsewhere but he wouldn’t be able to offer any support or advice. The feeling we all got was that they would go to bat as hard as they could, in the event my dad decided that he was going to treat it.
My brother asked what it would look like if my dad decided to take whatever treatment options were available and each doctor spoke dispassionately as they gave their best guess. The radiation doctors said 5 treatments a week for 6 to 10 weeks. Possibly a few courses of them over the remaining time. The first week wouldn’t be too bad, but from there it would get tougher as the tumor cells died, along with any other tissues that were impacted. It would start like a cold, then move into the realm of a flu and effectively become the worst sickness he had ever had. A week or so after the final treatment the body would begin to show signs of recovery, and my dad would start to feel better. After a few weeks he would be back to feeling cold and flu free. They avoided saying back to normal because that was never going to happen because radiation was only going to be used if surgery was performed. Whatever version of my dads brain existed before he went under the knife would be gone forever, so the radiation was going to be destroying the tumor along with a portion of whatever brain tissue remained.
The surgeon went next. His version was more intense because his intervention involved gaining direct access to the tumor. The radiation was a beam generated by a machine that penetrated the flesh and bone; which is kind of like shining a flash light on something. Surgery involved cutting the skin, peeling back the scalp, sawing through the skull, cutting a path through the top layers of the brain to get access to the tumor and then cutting and burning away as much of the tumor as he could while trying to avoid cutting away viable tissue and damaging the thousands / millions of tiny pathways connecting different parts of the brain to one another. Once the debulking was complete, they’d close-up, join the piece of the skull that was removed to the rest of the skull using metal plates and screws, flip the scalp back and stitch it back together. There would be antibiotics to prevent infection, pain killers to help deal with the pain associated with cutting through the skull and scalp – there wouldn’t be any pain from the brain because it doesn’t have pain receptors – and a few days of recover in the hospital.
There was an enthusiasm in how he described what he would do, and I was confident that he would do it really well. But whatever sense of optimism his enthusiasm created crashed when he talked about the recovery.
“We have no idea what we will have to do once we get inside. We’ll do more imaging before we go in, but there is no way to know exactly what the tumor looks like, what other tissues it involves and how it will have grown between the scan and the day we do surgery.” He paused to let this sink in before continuing. “Given all of that, the tumor is still be there and it will grow again. And it is brain surgery. We’re cutting into your brain and we will be removing pieces of it. No matter how careful we are, and I am very good at this and our team is excellent, your brain is never going to be as it is right now.” Another pause and then, “even as the tumor continues to grow now, you are still you. You won’t be after surgery. Removing pieces of the brain changes who you are and we have no idea what that will actually mean until after surgery and about a month and a half of recovery. There is a chance that surgery and radiation will buy you another 9 months, maybe 11.” Looking at the oncologist, who nods, then back to my dad, “great, you’re healthy, maybe 15. But it isn’t you who will have them, it will be the post surgery version of you and there is no way to predict who that will be, what they will be like and what they will still be able to do.”
The next few moments were longer than any before or since. The silence hung in the air, most uncomfortably.
He was very good at his job though, and took a brave next step. “If I had a relative who was just like you, and this was their brain scan,” holding up the printed image of my dads tumor, “I’d help them get their affairs in order and then go and spend a month or so somewhere hot and sunny with them.”
The oncologist spoke next, not giving much time to let what the surgeon had just said sink in. “There were a couple of things they could do in terms of medication, but the powerful chemo therapy drugs that have a strong track record of destroying cancer sell couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so there wasn’t anything that he knew would work. We’re looking at surgery, radiation and whatever medication makes your remaining time easier.” And that was more or less that.
My dad decided against surgery and that was the end of it. There wasn’t going to be a cure so why bother with all the hassle of having to recover from brain surgery, maybe having to relearn how to walk or talk or think only to die in a few months anyway? Didn’t seem to him to be worth the inconvenience. He was still himself and would be until he died, so he got after enjoying whatever remained.
I haven’t been back to the Juravinski Cancer Centre and haven’t spent any time thinking about that day until about an hour ago when I reread the original post. What hit me was the paragraph about how we filled the half hour or so between the initial conversation with the oncologist and the group chat with the treatment team:
Some food at the cafeteria / lounge that had a piano but no singer. The family chats back and forth about stuff. I’m looking around and starting to feel strange because as I look at each group of people I’m trying to guess which one of them has cancer. If you haven’t played this game, you don’t really win when you guess correctly. There’s a table of 3 people, one is dying, the two that aren’t are going to be grieving their asses off soon. You can’t guess who is who without looking at their faces and when you do, you see a 21 year old son with his mom and grandmother, mom’s in a wheelchair because she has cancer. I felt rage deep inside that made me want to wreck something for what’s about to happen to this poor kid. I suddenly wonder what type of cancer killed the cafeteria singer and as I do, my eyes meet Des’ and he’s just seen the kids future too. I glace away towards my dad unwittingly winning another round of the stupid game my brain is playing.
I do not remember writing that nor do I remember thinking it. In fact, I have no recollection about that moment whatsoever. I can relate to it, it sounds very much like something that my brain would do and the words are almost identical to the ones I would use to describe such an experience.
I remember a conversation with my dad about art. I was sounding off about a painting being really expensive for just being a picture of something and he said “son, you have no idea what that picture actually represents, or what it represented at the time. Sure, it’s a picture of a scene, and to you and me it is a really good picture. It looks like what it is a picture of. But imagine that this was the first time someone did that, would that make it more important?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about and he knew it so he continued, “before that picture was painted, people didn’t paint pictures like that, they painted pictures like how they painted pictures. That artist saw that paintings didn’t look like real life and that real life didn’t look like the paintings and he changed that. He saw something that was always there but no one else had ever seen, and if they had, they had never painted it.” He could see that I was still kind of lost so he added, “art is a strange thing son, the artist who created that was the first to paint that way and he was probably laughed at for how bizarre it looked compared to everything else. But it was art because it captured something about reality that no one had ever captured before and after he did it, it could not be unseen.”
That is how I consider the paragraph I quoted above. I wasn’t the first person to have that experience, and I am probably not the first person to put it into words. But I feel good knowing that I captured a moment of humanity that is uncommon but likely experienced by everyone who sits in a cancer center, life on pause, waiting to hear from a team of doctors who are there to offer up their advice about what they can do in response to the cancer that has taken hold. It’s peaceful, still, and extremely short lived. Life starts up again as soon as we gather in the room, and this moment fades into the stew of memories that shape who we become, even if time causes us to forget that it happened.
The 1990 movie “Jacobs Ladder” is about an American soldier who has returned from Vietnam under some sketchy circumstances. As he tries to get his life in order and move forward he starts to experience a growing number of odd and unsettling things. These leave him shaken, and since some of them seem to be related to his time in the war, he grows more curious about what happened. As the movie progresses he starts to realize that his memory has some huge gaps in it and the continuity problems began on a specific day while his platoon was stationed somewhere in the Vietnam jungle. SKIP AHEAD three paragraphs if you have not seen the movie and want to avoid finding out why his life became so bizarre.
The climax of the film centers around what happened on that day. In an attempt to turn human beings into the ultimate fighting machines the Army scientist manufacture an LSD-like drug they call the ladder – the main effect of it is to trigger primal fear within the user. The rational is that fear is the source of all anger and if a soldier is angry, they will fight with more aggression – think about how a cornered wild animal seems to throw a switch that redirects their flight energy into fight energy that causes them to do a 180 and to violently attack whatever has cornered it. Something is going to die in the next few seconds and the cornered animal is going to do everything it can to make sure it isn’t it.
During the day in question, the soldier are hanging out, talking, eating, smoking, playing cards, etc…. You hear some helicopters flying over that one of the soldiers comments are not expected. Over the next few minutes everyone begins to start acting differently. A few of them run off screaming, one of them begins to look terrified, the rest of them just seem to go to pieces. There’s a fast forward and the main character is seen in the jungle holding his gun clearly looking for the enemy. Suddenly there is some action and he is stabbed. At the end of the film it is revealed that he was mortally wounded by another member of his platoon because the ladder worked so well that the soldiers were unable to perceive anything other than threat and viewed any other person as the enemy. There is no such thing as logic when you are completely overcome by a fight or flight response, so there was no way they were going to be able to discern their platoon mates from their actual enemy and everyone began to attack the first person they saw.
This is the problem with empathy and it is why our species is much better served by compassion.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” while compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” In a metaphoric way, empathy allows us to become another person by taking on their feelings, or our interpretation of what their feelings are. This is very different from compassion which has us remain as ourselves and experience our version of concern for someone else. There is no blurring of the boundaries between us and them, allowing us to remain in control and more rational about what we are experiencing or our interpretation of it. The risk of an amygdala or emotional hijack is much lower when compared to the risk level when an act of empathy triggers fear or anger.
The maintenance of boundaries is critical when dealing with challenges because detachment or separation from a situation is very important for objective problem solving. There is a tendency for the number of solution choices to drop dramatically the closer one gets to the events. A normally very pragmatic person can be left incapable of anything other than a “hulk smash” reaction to something when they are part of it while those on the outside will see many alternatives that do not involve the destruction or elimination of a “threat.” The passage of time will also have the same effect. The massive reaction today will probably seem over the top in a few hours or a day later when the person can see that they could have just said “thank you, I’m not interested” and closed the door.
Having too much empathy causes us to relate too much with one of the two parties in a conflict. This comes at the cost of being able to maintain the idea that the other party is an equal and therefore entitled to the same respect and rights that we are bestowing upon the person we are connecting with. This makes sense, we are actually feeling what we believe the person is feeling, which will trigger us to respond to the other person as though they are actually acting towards us. But there are two sides to everything so our hyper vigilant quest of complete understanding for one party causes their experience to take on a disproportionately large role in our understanding of the situation or conflict as a whole.
Of course, we are wrong with whatever it is we are feeling in terms of empathy because we are NOT the other person and we have very little understanding of the context that led to things being what they are. While it might be true that IF we found ourselves in that situation we WOULD feel a specific way, this should beg the question, would we ever find ourselves in the situation? There is a very good chance that somewhere along the way, before things got were they are now, we would have done something different that would have change the course and eliminated what is presently occurring from the list of future possibilities. The context piece of it is very important because it is rarely visible and therefore very hard to bring to mind, particularly when the amygdala has hijacked our brain.
Not all people who are suffering are victims; or at least not all people who are suffering are being victimized. This is a very important fact to consider, one that empathy doesn’t really allow for. Emotions are a strange thing in that it is a lot easier to be angry at someone else than it is to be angry at ourselves and the anger towards others will last a lot longer. The context provides important information about how each person arrived at this moment and it will clearly show the level of responsibility each person has for what is going on. Very often, the person who is suffering has made a series of bad decisions, one after the other, leaving them with the choice of this bad thing or that bad thing. When they had the opportunity to create a future that didn’t have this situation as one of the possible outcomes, they made a bad choice.
This can be a tough pill to swallow because it does land like victim blaming and dogmatically adhering to it does kind of remove compassion from the equation. It also seems like a very “right wing” view of the world, and it might be. And none of these things, even if they are all true, make this perspective incorrect. I’d argue that the moment someone sees themselves as the cause of their situation marks the beginning of their situation improving. There is no power in being a victim. Life is DONE to victims and their only choice is to put-up with it while feeling worse and worse. But the growing negative feelings only serve to hijack their logical thinking to an even greater degree, leading to fewer solutions and more “victimization.”
There are some real victims, people who have found themselves in bad situations with no good options through no fault of their own. People who would have done something else if they knew what as actually going on. These people need assistance, which is best fueled by compassion. Feeling pity or concern will allow you to remain helpful because you will not become overwhelmed with whatever feelings being empathetic causes to come to the surface.
This is the same approach that should be employed with dealing with people who are suffering as a result of their own poor or lazy decision making. In fact, empathy will only be counter productive with these people because it will cause you to miss critical clues about context that are needed to restore their sense of control and autonomy. Consider the case when someones computer crashes causing them to lose a lot of work. There are two ways to look at this situation. The first is to see the person as a victim of bad luck, and to empathize with them. You’ll feel disappointment and anger, and this will lead to a strong sense of bitterness. The second way is to see the person as having played a role in the situation through one or more of their actions. You can be compassionate towards them, it really sucks to see the screen go blue and know that the last few hours of your work has just disappeared. But you don’t need to live their negative feelings and cultivate a sense of bitterness that you’ll bring with you into the rest of the day. This isn’t helpful and will only do harm.
When you allow yourself to be compassionate, you will very quickly start to solve the problem and empower them with the responsibility of implementing the solution. In this case, a computer crash shouldn’t mean the loss of hours of work because everyone KNOWS that computers crash and should be taking the steps to preempt the consequences of this happening. Those who have not backed up or saved their work are completely responsible for whatever work is not available to them once the computer reboots. It isn’t Microsoft or Apples fault, nor is it the fault of the company that makes your computer. Operating systems are complex, powerful, and fallible. An individual transistor is simple, a collection of a billion of them isn’t. Complex things throw errors and you need to know this when working with something that is complex. There is a non zero chance that any complex thing will stop working in the next second so given enough seconds it IS going to break down. Save your work often, back-up you work often and back-up your back-ups often. If you choose not to do this, when the complex thing breaks down and you lose the last few hours of your work, it is gone because YOU made the choice to make the most of your bad luck.
This doesn’t mean that you laugh at the person who didn’t look after their work, but you shouldn’t ever empathize with them UNLESS you are willing to really feel what it is they should be feeling. Saying “stupid piece of crab” or “useless bloody operating systems” as you cultivate an anger that is directed towards a computer is entirely the wrong thing to feel when someone loses their work as a result of a computer crash. While that might be a pure expression of empathy, it isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. In this case, empathy should be having the rage sent inwards for NOT saving their work and backing things up. The expression of emotion onto something that is external is an effective way of not feeling the consequences of the truth, but it is a lousy way of making the future any better than the present.
And this is one of the main problems with empathy, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation and is based only superficially on the context and the history leading-up to the moment in question. It cannot be said that your feelings are wrong because they are what you are feeling, but it is fair to say that they are not appropriate when they are not based on all of the events that contribute to the situation. When someone doesn’t take responsibility for backing-up their work and the computer crashes, being compassionate towards them, by acknowledging their disappointment and maybe offering to help them look for any auto recovery versions of the work because you have a more clear head about things, is the only course of action that makes sense, and the only one that might possibly help them find the lost work.
The other area in which empathy is exceptionally problematic is in the realm of conflict. Specifically when it comes to taking sides, because it is impossible to take both sides of an argument at once. Human beings cannot be objective processors the moment they start to feel what they believe one of the sides in the conflict is feeling. In fact, the longer they stay in an empathetic state, the more subjective their interpretation and perceptions will be. If they spend long enough there, they will be able to manufacture hatred, rage, and complete contempt for those on the other side of the conflict; all while having very little access to the context and the history of the events that lead up to the escalation.
This does not mean that every conflict is justified, nor does it mean that no conflicts are justified. The second world war was absolutely needed to happen to stop the actions of those who started it. Hitler was awful, his ideas were wrong, and his solution to things wasn’t grounded in a version of reality that was shared by anyone. However, and I’m not making excuses here, when you take a look at what happened after the first world war, the second world war seems almost inevitable. How Germany was treated throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s was both the result of too much empathy for those who were effected by WW1 and a complete lack of compassion for the German people who didn’t have anything to do with starting the war. They were simply people who were trying to carve out lives for themselves in exactly the same way as the people from any other country that found itself involved in the war. When the ruling class starts a conflict and the entire country is made to pay for it afterwards, there is almost no way to avoid future conflicts because the population is eventually going to grow tired of the punitive measures they are forced to endure for something they had no hand in starting. This is why the end of most of the wars since WW1 have had the winning side provide finance and participate in the recovery efforts.
On a much smaller scale, empathizing too much with either side of a conflict is going to dramatically reduce your ability to actually be of service in terms of offering solutions or helping to broker peace. The other side will be bad, evil or untrustworthy, and this will fuel suspicion and animosity, which will trigger a greater emotional reaction and keep the cycle going.
As unappealing as it seems to the other side, having compassion for both groups is critical for cooling things off and putting an end to strife. It is a lot easier for outside parties to approach the issue with compassion vs. empathy BUT not impossible for those who are involved in it. When it happens, a strong characteristic of compassion alters the dynamic in a powerful way. Compassion, like empathy, humanizes the person we are relating to. But unlike empathy, compassion for the other is possible (thus ensuring the ongoing objectivity) and once it is triggered, it is nearly impossible to not approach the situation from a more objective and balanced point of view. When this occurs, the vilification of others becomes much more difficult and the notions of right and wrong evaporate to be replaced by differences in opinion based on different perspectives or access to different information. This will allow both sides to track into the specific challenges and the key players in the conflict. Hitler was accurately determined to be evil, along with a number of his supporting players, but the German people were not lumped into this bucket because of the objective assessment compassion allows.
The ladder in Jacobs Ladder was a fear creating drug. It eliminated the possibility for compassion or an objective assessment of what is going on because when fear is involved there is only “me,” “them,” and the rest. The rest is everyone and everything that presents no threat and is ignored into non existence. The only thing that comes to mind is the threat – them – and the only thing to do is to take massive action to run away or to destroy the threat.
Under normal circumstances we have the ability to expand this binary reaction dynamic by avoiding an empathic reaction and preventing ourselves from getting lost in the experience of feeling our perception of other peoples feelings. This will give us the clarity to see things for what they are and to consider the role each person played in creating the present situation. We will be able to care and relate to the people involved, but we’ll not get lost in blaming other people for things that they didn’t have very much to do with. This is much more helpful to the person who is suffering because we give them understanding but do not give them permission to remain locked in a less than ideal situation. In the end, showing compassion for others is an act of caring that can help to move them through something they do not like by reestablishing the link between their actions and the outcomes they are experiencing. It reveals to them that they have the power to change their circumstances simply because it prevents you from getting wrapped up in the emotions that crush objectivity and reduce clarity and options.
There is no drug called the ladder, but too much empathy might be a fairly good behavioral proxy. We all have the power to choose between compassion and empathy when faced with someone who is suffering, and if we really want to help them, we’ll take whatever steps we need to in order to show that we care for them. They’ll know that they are not alone while being certain that we are committed to helping them move past whatever the miserable experiences is they have found themselves in because we will be standing beside them and not, metaphorically, INSIDE of them.