Friday, September 30, 2011


I talked to a man the other day about politics, psychology, several other subjects.  He was astute.  His mind took into account details as he pieced together why he believed things were the way he saw them.  When I argued a point, he would immediately see any weakness in my argument and point it out.  I could get away with nothing, to my own delight.

But then he talked about issues he was having with his wife.  His entire presentation changed.  She was "stubborn", "unreasonable".  He just knew she was having an affair, or at least thinking of one.  She was out late one night, and when he asked her where she had been, she just said "shopping".  What a weak excuse, he said!  Obviously she was cheating!

In short, this brilliant mind, which carefully watched every point he made as well as the ones I made, was now believing rumors and fears in his own mind, with no real evidence to back anything up.  His words were judgmental, the meanings were imprecise, and most of all, he seemed extraordinarily sure of things without any real basis for his beliefs.

I was astonished.  I had seen this man go from a very intelligent, careful, precise state of mind to a state of thought worthy of an emotional adolescent  - blind prejudices, unthoughtout hypotheses, poorly constructed accusations, simplistic thinking.  And within a few minutes, we were back on another excellent intellectual subject, all his facilities on board again.

What happened?  Clearly, the subject of his wife was an emotional subject, and his emotional involvement probably caused a lot of the imprecise and slanted thinking.  But what astounded me most was that this man, carrying a high value for intellectual integrity, slipped into and out of this state of degraded thinking with no indication that he realized he had done so.

Actually, this is so common an experience that we rarely blink an eye.  We just say to ourselves, oh, he's got energy there, he's triggered, he's emotional, and by that, we excuse his irrational diatribe against his wife.

There are several things wrong with this picture.  First, why did an intelligent man not notice how off base and biased his thinking was for those few minutes?  It is as if some Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde scene had just taken place - an alternate personality had taken over, and when it left, he seemed to have no sense his presentation had changed.

If people regularly went into some kind of emotional state that caused them to say, and potentially act, in ways that they might regret later, and did not realize that they were doing that, wouldn't that create havoc in the world?  But then there is already a lot of havoc in the world created by people carrying some strong emotion or conviction.  Could they also be unaware that they are in an altered state, one that they would be embarrassed by if they came out of it and looked objectively at how they had acted and spoken?

I have pondered this for years, and have learned to watch my own mind acutely as well as others.  What I have discovered is that I go through the same cycles.  In a state carrying some emotion, I come up with convictions that I would normally not be sure of, and the convictions become absolute.  Not only do I not question them, I get angry at anyone else who does.  I go into a defensive state where I am believing that my thoughts are right, simply because they are my thoughts.  And while I am in that state, I find it next to impossible to be able to notice what I am doing from an objective point of view.  When I come out of that state, relax, calm down, and start to review how I felt and spoke, I often see that I truly was in an altered state, and that in that state I usually create more harm than good.

This has become a basic principle of Awareness Philosophy.  When a particularly strong emotion comes up for us - a fear, a desire, an excitement, an anger - our brain starts operating in a different way, giving us different conclusions and beliefs than we would have had if we were calm.  When a story crosses our mind that has potent emotional energy with it (like beliefs about abortion, politics, or a philosophy that bears on some traumatic event in our life), our mind turns simplistic, and it seems to us the answer is obvious, and there seems to be only one answer, and anyone who disagrees is seems morally decrepit to our eyes.  We become amazingly simplistic and stubborn, as a religious or political fanatic would.  Our ability to reason, look at the gray areas, fairly consider other points of view, is temporarily gone.  Others say of us, "Oh, don't talk about X with them - it's a big trigger, and they will go off, and there's no talking with them after that."

What is fundamental about this altered state is our unawareness of it.  Noticing that we are in the state tends to interrupt the state itself, because we sometimes can see how silly we are being, and become embarrassed at our own absoluteness.

The Awareness Practice we do helps me notice these altered states as they are happening, and often I find myself being able to stop, rethink, and switch to a more grounded state where I can be more accurate about what is actually happening inside of me.  The result is that I feel I am more in touch with reality, even when emotions come up - I can more easily discern between what is "my stuff" and what is real.

No comments:

Post a Comment