Voices in My Head

I want to sit down and write this post. At the same I really don’t feel like it at the moment, I’d much rather go on watching…Dr.Who, I’m afraid. But I do really want to write these Heresy posts. After all, that was why I started this blog.

Is this inconsistent of me? Yes, it is. We humans are inconsistent. All the time. But for some reason, we’ve learnt to pretend we are consistent. I’m sure psychologists have a name for it. It’s also held up to us as some kind of value and we tend to be embarrassed about being inconsistent.

When we look at it closely, though, there is absolutely no reason why we should be consistent. Our minds are made of millions and millions of brain circuits, which are more or less independent of one another. It is inevitable that conflicting emotions, desires, fears, and needs  coexist in my brain and pull me in different directions all the time.

The point I want to make today is that we need to listen to these conflicting thoughts. It is not a good idea to sweep any of them under the carpet. We don’t need to act on all of them, indeed we cannot, as there are far too many. But give them some space, allow them to be there. Each thought is a part of me, I want to honour every one. They do not all go together: I want to accept, that I cannot follow all of them.

Peace and quiet

If I consider each of these impulses as an interested party, and let each of them have their say, they also listen to each other. Then maybe an amicable agreement can be reached among them about what I am actually going to do. This may sound slightly loony, but I believe it is a better way of making choices, than by filtering the impulses, i.e. suppressing some at the start, or by sitting in judgement over them: which are worthy, unworthy, important, or not.

I cannot follow all impulses, but when I do act, I act as one physical human being, and I carry all the “dissenting” brain circuits with me. So if any one of them feels too unhappy about what I’m doing, chances are that they’ll let me know. Dealing gently with them to start with – giving them space and allowing sadness over the fact that I cannot act on all of them –  can minimise how badly the “dissenting circuits”, and therefore I, feel.

So no: I am not calling myself lazy because I want to go on watching Dr. Who. Or a spoilsport for wanting to get some writing done. I simply have different needs: one for relaxation and fun, one for putting some ideas down in writing, maybe gaining some clarity for myself. They are all good, all part of me. And I am quite happy with the compromise of jotting down a draft now, and doing a drawing and some polishing tomorrow.

No unhappy circuits for now. Let’s see how the doctor is getting on.

P.S. If I accept the thoughts, all of them, then I just may get the internal chatter to quiet down a bit. If I start censoring, I’m only going to get into an argument with myself – and that’s a sure lose-lose.

Responsibility vs. Blame

I’ve argued before that we are pulled in many different ways by our feelings and needs, and that we do not consciously choose our actions. Also, believing that somebody deliberately chose to act badly is what triggers anger, hatred and blame.

– Heresy n°2 –

Everyone is always doing their best.

While I characterise it as a heresy, it’s not exactly a new idea. Many people reject it because thy are afraid that if noone is to blame for their actions, we will lose any kind of morality, and the basis for social order. In one sense this is true: our current societies are based on blame, and that does go out the window. At the same time we can easily replace it with something better: responsibility.

Blaming is about looking backward, about judging and finding a guilty party. Responsibility looks forward: it is our common responsibility to find a way of living together in peace. Blame is divisive, responsibility binds us together.

Consequences

Adopting Heresy n°2 means we can think in terms of incentives and deterrents. These don’t depend on free will: if an action is connected to a cost or benefit, this becomes a factor in the unconscious decision making process, and influences our behaviour. And we can think about influencing behaviour much more clearly without the fog of concepts like blameworthiness, and just deserts.

Have you ever found yourself defending your own behaviour, although, in your heart of hearts, you were unhappy with it yourself? When we play the blame-game, we are automatically creating opposition. When we say “you are a bad person” to someone, it’s not really surprising that they push back. Suppose instead we say: “I understand you had a good reason to act as you did, at the same time I really don’t like what you did, maybe you aren’t completely happy with it either?” Then maybe together with that person we can find ways to help them act differently in the future, or to prevent the negative consequences of such actions.

Most important of all, when we adopt the idea that everyone is always doing their best we can stop wrestling in our minds with what we think is going on in someone else’s head. Have you ever found yourself repeating an argument you had with someone? Have you ever found yourself wanting to “teach someone a lesson”, or to “show them how it feels”? This is all unpleasant, and it’s not about what really happened, but about what you think is going on inside the other person’s head. When you accept that that person did not choose to act as they did, you can let it go.

Personal slant

There are many ways of expressing Heresy n°2., e.g. “Everyone is acting the only way they can act in the situation as they see it.” I prefer my version “Everyone is always doing their best” because I find it emotionally more appealing. The positive slant makes it easier for me to feel compassion with someone whose actions are getting on my nerves. Of course, everyone is free to find their own way of putting it.

A final test

If you think: “Well that’s all very nice, but it’s not really true, is it?” try this test. Think of something bad that you’ve done, something you are really unhappy with in retrospect. Were you happy and relaxed that day? Was the sun shining, the sky blue, and did you decide to do something bad just for the hell of it?  Or were you under pressure, stressed out, exhausted, afraid, or hurt? Was this something you did because you saw no other way, or you just couldn’t help yourself?

I think you will find that at that moment, under those circumstances you did the best you could, however miserable that best may have been. Now, if you claim this compassion for yourself: how can you deny it to anyone else?

Good Samaritans?

Sun

We tend to see actions of others in terms of their characters. An action to us seems to prove someone is kind, or courageous, or selfish. We rarely stop to think about what situation the person is in.

Perhaps one of the most important experiments on human behaviour ever done is Darley & Batson 1973. It suggests that whether or not we help someone in need depends more on what that means to our current situation – in this case the test subjects were in a hurry – than whether or not we are “kind” or “helpful” people.

If we could stop judging people by their actions, and try instead to understand why they act as they do, it could be a whole new world. 

A glorious blaze
Trees are one of my favourite subjects.

To be, or not to be

Pink or purple?

Yesterday I wrote about the SEP article on existence. Today I’ll describe what I think it means to say something exists, and what that implies for “reality“.

All the world’s a stage

When we think about the world, we have an image in our minds, though it’s not necessarily visual. I think of this as our inner or mental stage. It can become a blasted heath, the banquet hall in Hogwarts, the office, or our dream holiday location: let’s call these different sets. When we imagine something or someone to be “there”, we add a placeholder or avatar on our stage to that particular set (e.g. “blasted heath”) with mental notes describing the properties we attribute to that object or person.

A placeholder for a chair may have notes like: can sit on this, stand on it to reach top shelf, take it apart and throw in fire (n.b. owner might not like this), best not collide with it, as may hurt.

Let us say something exists with these properties relative to a mental set if adding the mental placeholder and notes there leads to good results, i.e. accurate predictions and appropriate actions. If I walk into the chair, I’ll hurt myself, just as I thought, and hopefully avoid it in future.

Appropriate properties are needed for these predictions: if I believe the bugblatter beast makes a good meal for tourists, rather than of tourists, our poor hitchhiker may well get eaten.

Both properties and existence belong to their mental set. When Harry Potter grabs his broomstick (note: it flies!), I’ll know what to expect, even though I’m aware my own broomstick can’t do that. And I can talk about Harry Potter, although I know he’s a fictional character.

Say thy opinion

For some things, we all agree they exist in this sense.

I’ve never met anyone who chooses to sit down just beside the chair rather than on it. I’m not talking about metaphysical beliefs. You may believe the world is an illusion; you’ll still take care to sit in the place where-the-chair-isn’t. That’s because if you step out in front of the tram you don’t believe exists, or walk off the roof you believe is an illusion, even once, I’ll never meet you.

For other things, it’s not quite as clear.

I accept that protons, electrons, and photons exist in this sense because the predictions based on them seem fairly accurate to me. I’m not sure what a photon is exactly, as it’s one of these strange things that is sort-of-a-wave and sort-of-a-particle, but I’m happy to stick a mental toothpick in my stage set for the “real world” with notes like: flies around, lets me see things, best not worry about it too much.

Some people think they see things just because those things are there. These people don’t feel the need to allow for weird things like photons and say, “mmm, whatever” – like I do when the physicists start talking superstrings.

It’s when we consider supernatural entities, e.g. God, that things get complicated.

For some people, God is an integral part of their life. They agree you can’t touch him like a chair, but they “feel” him, talk to him etc. They have a God-placeholder in their world, with varying properties depending on their particular faith, and that works just fine for them.

Others cannot imagine a world with God in it. When they  try to put a God-placeholder on their mental stage, it leads to all kinds of contradictions, and is generally unpleasant – so they remove it, and are completely happy without it.

Airy nothing

As both mental worlds work well, I believe both views, both truths, are equally valid. Whether or not you believe God exists*, you can come to a working view of the world – though the two will be rather different. And questions about truth aside, you may like one of these worlds better than the other.

*Caveat: I am talking only about the claim that God exists, not about claims concerning creation or miracles.

Now, on my mental stage there isn’t a place for God.

In my view, people who believe that morality comes from God are in fact creating their own morality. They pick which Bible stories to use and which to ignore for deciding what is right or good. And then they attribute this to God because having a clear moral authority makes them feel more comfortable than believing they have to make things up as they go along. But this line of reasoning is in my head. On my mental stage. With the placeholders and properties I put there.

I assume that conversely, people who believe in God think I’ve somehow derived my morality from God and just don’t realise it. On their inner stage the set for “the real world” looks quite different from mine.

To conclude with truth

I wish we could all accept that there is no absolute truth, no final answer to questions about concepts and supernatural entities!

If people from all sides accepted this, maybe we could stop arguing about who is right, and try to find common ground. On how to live together, on how to make this world a better place. Regardless of whether we believe in another one. O brave new world.

***

The quotes: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06.

Next week I want to write on why hate hurts – a continuation of Heresy n°3.

Self Construction

Urban Construction

It’s difficult to believe in yourself
because the idea of self
is an artificial construction.
You are, in fact,
part of the glorious oneness
of the universe.

Russell Brand

In an internet discussion earlier this week, I mentioned that I’ve never understood the discussion on selfish / altruistic behaviour, as everything we do is selfish (in the sense that we do it because we want to) and we show so-called altruistic behaviour because we are social animals. Being a social animal carries or is correlated with immense evolutionary advantages, e.g. it is needed for the ability to learn: longer learning phase for an animal means longer immaturity and thus need for parental or group protection.

I was non-plussed when someone answered, we might as well question the concept of self. Well, of course we should!

We have (or are) bodies, and I can move my hand by thinking about it, but not yours. If you have a toothache I may empathize, but it’s different from having one myself.  So far, so good, but usually that’s not what we mean by self. It’s much more … ethereal? … my thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears etc.

These needn’t be constant. What I think today, may not be what I thought yesterday. Tomorrow’s  desires may not the the same as today’s. If up to now I always turned left, there is no reason why I today I cannot go right if I really want to. Even at one moment in time, I may want to go jogging to improve my fitness, yet also feel far too tired or comfortable to do this now. But these are independent brain circuits, so why should  they agree?

So why do I feel “me”?

We see ourselves from an inside perspective, with our thoughts and feelings, others from an outside perspective, which creates a divide.
We remember the past in that same way. I  believe people who suffer from (total) memory loss have problems “identifying” with their past selves. In a small way we all experience this when we come across evidence of our own past we have no recollection of. Annotations, say, in a book we don’t remember even reading, though we recognise our own handwriting.
And when we think the same thought many times, it burns itself into our brain, and it’s hard to think differently the next time – I think this is what “habits” actually are, well-worn brain paths.
Our culture also reinforces the idea of self. We are taught to think: A is lazy. B is to blame. You have to be consistent.

And here the construct becomes dangerous. It is true that A, B, and I are physical units, that act in one way or another. But while I may not have access to the inner perspective of A and B the way I do to mine, I do know it’s there. When we ignore the fact that each individual acts in a context, we become selfish and judgmental. This leads to a feeling of isolation and a fragmented society.

When we practice compassion and see ourselves as connected with each other, the divide between self and other narrows, or even disappears (for advanced learners).

Like all my heresies, these ideas are not new, and this particular one was beautifully expressed by John Donne in Meditation XVII.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Why Hate Hurts

Urban garden

A single flower can be my garden,
a single friend my world.
Leo Buscaglia

In Embracing fear I discussed the importance of accepting our emotions as they are. Yet our emotions do not come about entirely by chance.

Our reality is an inner stage representing the real world. We can see the glass as half-full or half-empty: one will tend to make us happy, the other anxious. I’m not talking about positive thinking, or trying to keep an unrealistically bright view of the world, but about thinking positively or looking on the bright side. Looking at the photo I can see a sorry excuse for a garden or someone’s personal little paradise – my choice.

This is especially important when we think about our relationships with others. The same interactions can be viewed in many different ways. Two people may have widely different ideas about their relationship with one another.

When I think about a person and our relationship, I am envisioning two little avatars on my own inner stage: a little “me” and a little “them”. All the thoughts and feelings I have about that person are messages in my brain, transmitters flooding my synapses, hormones coursing through my veins.

When I hate someone, I may do something to hurt or even kill them, but feeling the hatred makes me suffer, not them. By nourishing angry or hateful thoughts I am poisoning my own life. Why on earth would I want to do that? Conversely, when I feel kindness or compassion towards someone, endorphins flood my system.

Viewing our relationships with others through rose-tinted glasses would only create unrealistic expectations of their behaviour. But it’s a good idea to avoid nourishing grievances (Heresy n°2 helps) and to accept a share of the responsibility in a conflict. Not only can we then approach the other person more compassionately, we can also focus our attention the part in the relationship we have the power to change: our own. Denying responsibility always makes us powerless.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
Eph. 4:26 KJV

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
The Dalai Lama

Throughout history, spiritual teachers have advocated practicing compassion, tolerance,  forgiveness, and gratitude. Not because of any moral imperatives, not because we “should”, but because doing so will make us happier.

Why I Feel What You Feel

Watercolour from leaflet photo.

Emotions are the source of empathy and connection. We cannot read each others thoughts, but we can feel each others feelings. This can work in different ways.

1. Feeling and form

We show what we feel in our posture, our gestures and facial expressions, even our voice. This also works the other way round: smile and you will feel slightly more relaxed, let your spine droop and your morale will drop a little too. When we look at someone we unthinkingly mirror their general demeanor. Sometimes we can’t help smiling when someone smiles, or yawning when we hear someone yawn.

So we have a chain here. You feel, you express, I copy your expression (a tiny little bit), and I feel what you are feeling (at least a little bit).

Incidentally, this is what makes portraiture so difficult. Painting a face is not intrinsically more difficult than painting a tree, but we look at the result far more critically because so much brainpower is dedicated to “reading” each other’s faces.

2. Imagination, or “as if”

If you tell me, your neighbour has just won a major award, I can imagine he must be feeling happy and proud. If you tell me he’s just been fired from his job, you don’t need to tell me he’s upset.

We can put ourselves in another person’s situation, and imagine what we would be feeling if we were in their shoes. It’s not accurate, as in many situations our feelings can differ, but it gives us a starting point.

3. Knowledge

We can learn to interpret signals. I remember a teacher whose jerseys came in two colours: red and …mud-coloured. When he was happy, he wore red. When the mud-colour came out, we knew he was in a foul mood.

And we can interpret language, such as journals or blog-posts, to understand what the person writing them is feeling.

* * *

When we look into someone’s eyes, when we imagine their situation, we can feel what they are feeling. Not only every man’s death diminishes me, but every person’s – every creature’s – pain is in a way mine and their joy also. This is where our sense of connection, and of oneness comes from.

To my mind this is what makes us human. Not that it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – e.g. dogs and dolphins share this trait – and why would we want it to? Being fully human is also being part of the big animal family.

I do not think we are rational creatures, but regardless of that I’ve always rejected the tag of “thinking thing”. As sentient beings, I think we are far more than that.