Blame, judgment and anger – and the divisiveness they spawn – have become pervasive narrative … with friends, family, co-workers and media (social and “news”). I take no issue here with what anyone thinks (except, perhaps, the idea that having the right to think it makes it true). I’m curious about the mental processes that lead us to our conclusions, and to our perception of their truth.
We came by divisiveness “honestly;” thinking is a complex process. Best we know, human consciousness is unique as an evolutionary adaptation. It’s an amazing combination of protective mechanism (which holds the question: what’s wrong?) and creative genius (which holds the question: what’s possible?). Without the protective, or unconscious, mind, we’d feel unsafe on the earth and be incapable of trusting others. Without the creative, or conscious, mind, we’d not be able to wonder, ponder, invent, comprehend, solve, or change the course of our lives. (I’ve met a lot of polar bears, but never one who got tired of catching seals and went out looking for a better job.)
The unconscious mind runs continuously. It has to … to protect us from danger; tigers can show up at any time. The conscious mind runs when we invoke it – to create, to solve a problem, to figure stuff out, to make choices. In simpler (i.e., perhaps ancient) times, the ‘two minds’ may have found balance: check for tigers, then go find food.
But we’ve got a problem today, one evolution perhaps didn’t count on. Over time, the unconscious has become “acculturated” … to view life’s growing complexity, uncertainty and chaos as a safety threat. So it kicks into gear to defend (just doing its job.) But the unconscious isn’t rational; it cannot assess truth. It sees repetition as validity. By misidentifying repeated thoughts as fears, it has made us easy prey for false danger signals. Our continued exposure to uncertainty is heard by the unconscious as having the danger value of a tiger. This has put the unconscious on overload. Self-trust withers; we keep our world small by believing more strongly in our limitations than in our potential. Evolution uniquely endowed us with a conscious mind to overcome all this, but – unconsciously – we’ve chosen not to use it!
Because safety is more crucial to survival than creative genius, we could live in the unconscious mind full-time. And the unconscious doesn’t care if dangers are only thoughts (stay busy, life should be easier, I hate uncertainty, avoid mistakes, look good). The point: if we’re reacting (unconsciously), we can’t be thinking (consciously). The more we react, the less we think. So, despite the limitless power held by the conscious (thinking, rational) mind, it’s not available when we need it most. And to get us into more trouble, we miss the fact this is happening (awareness like this is up to the conscious mind, which isn’t “on”); so, we’re led to believe we are thinking! Why wouldn’t we? It’s all we know. My mind is full; it’s filled with thoughts; obviously, they’re my thoughts; therefore, I must be thinking. We may even deny this could apply to us. It does.
Research supports this idea. Our minds are full – we have about 70,000 thoughts each day; yet only 5% of them are conscious. The question now becomes, “what about the other 95%?” What’s going on in our minds? Well, a lot more than we “think.”
While we’re usually pretty convinced of, and maybe even attached to, what we think, rarely are we even aware there is a “way” we think – the how – the process by which we arrived at the thoughts we now hold as true. How we think is part of our context – that invisible yet pervasive framework that envelops, and – without our awareness – impacts all we think, say and do. Context is made up of our beliefs, assumptions, experiences and old lessons. Like the air we breathe, it’s always there, affecting every aspect of our lives, yet we’re mostly clueless of either its existence or its impact. Lost as we are in what we think, we’re unaware just how we came to think it.
Our thinking environment, or context, is a product of both society and human consciousness. Here’s my view of the forces (societal and personal) that create it, along with some perspective of how it can lead us astray. You might ponder each one as its own thread, then follow the fabric those threads weave to create our (and your) world:
· The issues we face are growingly complex – health care, privacy, climate, education, economy, environment. Resolutions touch every aspect of culture and society – science, law, business, ethics, economics, politics
· There’s no right answer, or even complete truth, to any of them; we simply can’t know it all. Besides, “truth” isn’t static; it changes under the scrutiny of new understanding (it’s how we learn)
· Having come to see uncertainty as a threat, we’re drawn to the “perceived safety of the known.” So we (unknowingly) live in the unconscious mind, allowing it to defend us from all these dangers
· To the unconscious, compelling falsehood feels safer than complex, incomplete truth … making often-repeated, forcefully-presented misinformation seems very appealing … even as “truth.”
· The conscious mind can easily reason beyond this. It can handle ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity; and it can hold two polarities at the same time without having to make one of them wrong. But as uncertainty grows, the conscious mind has been relegated to the background by the unconscious … in its effort to protect us
· Despite their appeal, falsehoods, misinformation and deception are our true threats; yet, lost in defense mode, we miss this, too
· Confused, unaware and afraid to admit we don’t know, we’re then even less likely to adopt the critical thinking and self-awareness upon which the search for truth depends
· Enter social media (“news” too, it seems) – one-way streams of just about anything, with little accountability
· Enter advertising (social media and news) – where more viewers (dollars) takes precedence over accountability and truth
· With the unconscious in charge, we’re now unable to distinguish fact from fiction (yet we’re convinced we do)
· Unaware all this is happening, we’re drawn more to what goes viral (repeated) than to what’s true.
As long as we continue to remain unaware, we don’t know we are being manipulated … so we live in the illusion it creates – the illusion of safety, the illusion of certainty, the illusion of truth. Unknowingly, we become what we’re exposed to … a soup of unconsciousness, driven by internal fears and external pressures. So with perceived threats at every turn (and despite our innate capacity to forge a path beyond them), it’s easy to remain defensive, and thereby:
· deny conversations on how we think (which might just lead to resolution), and focus instead only on what we think (deflection)
· evade clarity, objectivity or critical thinking, and instead push “certainty” (distraction); one-way monologues make this easy
· appeal to herd mentality to reinforce the claim of certainty (no other choices exist; everyone believes this)
· stoke fear, which kicks the unconscious into gear, which, in turn, avoids (as scary) the conversations that could bring truth
· repeat the message with force, so we become addicted to hearing it (repetition screams “validity” to the unconscious)
· interpret what we see as reality, as opposed to “story” … a result of how our lack of consciousness colors our view
· pretend that opinion constitutes evidence … and, yelled loud enough, constitutes proof (anger is a very effective tool to do this)
· shame, blame, or intimidate people instead of the [admittedly more difficult] process of understanding their ideas
Yet through it all, we can’t imagine we’re not thinking consciously. As long as we remain attached to what we think, without willingness or curiosity to examine how we came to think it, we’re trapped in the blame, opinion and defensiveness so characteristic of today’s world. We experience the stress they create, yet misidentify the cause.
With “uncertainty as threat” running rampant, this explains … why we like to listen to people who agree with us … why we believe what makes us feel better instead of what’s (unsatisfyingly) true … why we often deny information that doesn’t fit what we already believe ... why we’re hooked more easily by drama than by facts ... why we like to think that we’ve thought everything through to the point of certainty … why we judge, blame and distance ourselves from what isn’t ourselves. It all feels “safer.” But it’s not. It’s the unconscious mind, reacting to “thoughts.” We miss that, too.
It’s tempting to think, “Well, come on, now; we’re smart enough to see through this nonsense … to know better … to think our way out of such irrational thoughts … to separate opinion from truth … to build self-trust so others can’t mess with our minds. Why don’t we stop, take a step back, and choose a new course?” Well, we are smart enough; and we would stop … if we could; but these are functions of the conscious mind, and we’re lost in the unconscious instead. And to the unconscious, it’s all hanging together nicely. And so it continues.
There must be a way to “catch the unconscious mind in the act,” the act of hijacking rational thought process and blocking our innate ability to make new choices. Turns out there’s only one ingredient missing in this recipe: conscious awareness. Simple, right? We get more conscious and become more aware. Except … why would we? We believe we already are. We believe we have “evidence” for our claims. We may even feel self-righteous in our justification. We think those who see and think clearly and objectively are trying to deny us our “rights.” We can’t imagine we’ve fallen for an illusion, and may outright deny this is so. Even if we could imagine it, we’d still pretend we’re right if only to not admit being wrong. Although both society’s messages and the unconscious mind lead us to the illusion of truth, that’s vastly different from truth. Ok, so maybe it’s not that simple.
If you’re lost in the illusion outlined above, it’s unlikely you’d know. So it’s unlikely you’d be reading this. But maybe you are. Or maybe there are cracks in the armor of your defensiveness. Or maybe the bucket of your opinions springs a leak. Or maybe you discover one thing you “knew” as true really isn’t. Or maybe a few of those you support head down a different road. Or maybe for ‘fun’ you explore a new information source. Maybe one day, you start asking a new question, like “what’s going on here, anyway?” And you follow the threads of your question back to the basics, perhaps holding your fixed beliefs and definitive conclusions in abeyance … just for long enough … to be with yourself for long enough ... to gain the true felt experience of what is objectively and non-judgmentally true inside your thinking ... in this moment.
The idea of “noticing your thinking” sounds odd, and likely awkward. Becoming the audience in your own life story doesn’t come easily. That story itself tells you it’s scary. Society tells you compliance is safer than uniqueness. But maybe you’re ready. It feels intriguing and scary at the same time. Although you risk potential shattering of “the world as you’d made it up to be,” you feel drawn. It might just be your inner truth speaking; it might be your innate curiosity with something bigger; either way, it’s an opening to the conscious mind, an “invitation” to pull it out of its forced slumber. Then you may have this thought: it sure was easy accepting all I heard, but maybe trying to understand things will be far more satisfying than disagreeing with everything. Maybe my own truth, while often incomplete and uncertain, will hold more meaning and potential in my life than the dead-end streets of other people’s thinking.
By choosing time each day to observe your thoughts, consciously, not just participate in them, unconsciously, your thinking becomes marked by greater clarity and perspective … easily and naturally. (A participant runs down the road with the thoughts; the observer wants to know where they came from.) With practice, you see your need for safety and how your mind hijacks conscious thought, so you see how you may fall for deception, conspiracy, illusion. Two points:
· if you don’t see your thoughts, you become your thoughts
· listening for your thoughts is a powerful alternative to listening to them.
It takes committed, rational, open-minded practice to explore truth. Yet as you do – with work no more difficult than getting to know your thinking – you begin to develop self-trust. Where before you’d just go along with other people’s thinking (unconsciously, of course), you now realize you have your own thoughts; you begin to listen to them instead. As you do, you find yourself embracing two powerful tools for living your truth, authentically: critical thinking and dialogue.
“A bird sitting in a tree is not afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not on the branch but on its own wings.”
Critical thinking is an inner-focused process of connecting with life, rooted in conscious skepticism and awareness – not in the sense of denial, for that’s the realm of the unconscious, but in the sense of curiosity … by detaching from fixed beliefs and opinions, holding judgment in abeyance (maybe for a long time, until evidence is clear), and being willing to be changed by what is discovered. This is how we learn anything, from physics to consciousness.
Our world is too complex to know everything, but not too complex to embrace its mystery. There will always be room for doubt about something, but there needn’t be room for the unconscious to cast doubt on everything, plunging us back into fear.
Despite the power of critical thinking, it seems to have become a lost art. The rigor it invites is hard work. Critical thinking is no longer taught in schools. To use it leaves us an outcast in a world where a community of falsehood feels safer than standing alone in truth. I read recently that one state legislature denied a proposal to restore critical thinking to the public-school curriculum because it “denies parental authority and undermines fixed beliefs.” Give me a break!
Dialogue is an outer-focused process of relating to others. A dialogue is two-way conversation … conducted in an environment of respect (whether you agree or not), reciprocity, non-judgment, acceptance of “what is,” safety and trust (for yourself and others). … all with the intention to learn, and to create mutually satisfying outcomes. When the frame you create around your conversation is large enough to include your thinking and another’s, conflict falls away, naturally.
Together, critical thinking and dialogue tap into our innate curiosity and wonder … and our capacity to create a future that matters to us. Resolution to how we live together on this planet – peacefully and sustainably – requires collaborating across institutions, disciplines, and divides. It requires using the full range of our human capacities: personal integrity; respect and compassion for others; passionate, objective search for truth; critical thinking; dialogue; evidence-based decision making; acceptance of complexity and our inherent not-knowingness; shared belief in something bigger than ourselves; and concern for the world inherited by our grandchildren. (Note: none of these belong only to the privileged or the intellectual.)
“Truth” is an interesting phenomenon. It doesn’t care if you find it, like it, agree with it or believe it. Neither strong opinions, lazy minds, conspiracy theories or irresponsible reporting change it. It stands on its own; truth just is. It doesn’t need to yell. Moreover, truth can be elusive; it changes with new knowledge – which, though fascinating to the rational mind, drives the unconscious nuts. All of this means there are plenty of forces that will conspire to stop you; this is why choosing time each day for quiet reflection is crucial. Purposefully noticing habitual patterns interrupts habitual patterns, and thereby offers new perspectives.
Evolution (and all life on earth) will thank us for re-membering the gift of consciousness we inherited, and the limitless potential we are. It’s perhaps the only sustainable antidote to the path we’re on today – the evolutionary dead-end street of denying that potential through atrophy of conscious thought.
We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. – Carl Sagan
Four personally chosen capacities (available to all) seem to separate critical thinkers from those susceptible to deception:
Mindfulness: If you’re more “mindful” than “mind full,” you tend to be less reactive, giving drama fewer places to roost. Clear minds are not so attracted to nonsense.
Curiosity: If your thirst for new learning is greater than your fear of the unknown, your world expands to fill the space you create by trusting your innate sense of wonder.
Courage: If, in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, your self-trust offers you more strength than the perceived safety of going along with others, you’re less susceptible to fear-based thoughts.
Worldview: If you see life as benevolent, you’re less likely to find comfort in illusion than if you see life as out to get you.
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
– Mark Twain
Suggested Practice: On the next page, there’s a suggested practice of self-reflection, which, if adopted as daily ritual, can shift forever your view ... of yourself, of others, of life and the world. The idea is simple: as you use your conscious mind to interrupt the incessant jabber of the unconscious mind, you see how your thoughts alone limit you. Noticing your thinking changes your thinking.
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A Guide to Getting to Know Your Thinking
Pick a time each day when you can be free from external distraction. Set a timer for 20 minutes, so you won’t be “thinking” about time.
Instructions: Show up … shut up … sit still … listen.
That’s it. What follows is a bit of perspective … to light your path … on what you’re likely to experience:
It won’t end up being quiet. Your head will be filled with thoughts. You will “hear” them … as “voices in your head.” The first, perhaps: “I don’t want to do this; it’s dumb.” That’s a thought … just the first one. Shut up. Keep listening.
They’re your (unconscious) thoughts. They’ve become so habituated you don’t even notice. Except that you unconsciously believe them, so you just “do as they say” (mess with stupid people, get excited about trash on TV, get angry with people who don’t know any better, pretend you know everything … even censor quiet reflection).
Your job here is to listen for them, not listen to them. They speak, you listen. No judgment. No response. If you notice you’re angry, that’s just a thought, too … a thought that you’re angry; it’s not a call to arms. Let thoughts pass, like clouds in a summer sky. Then notice the next thought (or cloud). Each step, you’re learning something.
Sometimes this works. You hear a thought, you get to know it, and it’s a good “show.” Other times, you may be lost in a single thought instead, and just follow it until you realize you aren’t watching your thoughts at all anymore; you’re just being angry at whoever those thoughts told you that you needed to choke.
Repeat each day … until the timer goes off. Resist judging, changing, fixing, comparing. Just notice; then let it go.
If you feel moved, write down what you notice about your thoughts. Over time, you might label recurring ones … like the judge thought (you @#&* do it wrong every time), like the saboteur thought (who the @#&* do you think you are to succeed), like the victim thought (why does this @#&* keep happening to me?), like the child thought (I don’t wanna @#&* do it, get someone else to do it), and like the possibility thought (hey, I can do any @#&* thing I want to do, it’s completely up to me, and I’m good).
They’re all just thoughts. But now you recognize them – consciously, perhaps for the first time. Conscious awareness changes everything – even though you “thought” you always were consciously aware. So, just as you’ve learned to recognize the voice of a loved one in a noisy room (with practice, listening), you learn to distinguish voices of your inner truth from voices of your habituated stories. That allows you to choose – to no longer give your power to thoughts that hold you back in life. You can start choosing to hear your possibility thoughts instead.
You might listen to that possibility thought a bit, the one that says you have the power to make your life how you want it to be. That thought. That’s the thought of the real you, and it’s underneath all the nonsense thoughts that occupy your mind all the time. One day you may decide to follow the thought of the real you. By the way, the other thoughts will always be there, yammering. But by coming to recognize them, you can choose to ignore those that deny your truth.
As you continue to do this – every day – you realize you have become the power within you. At that point, nobody can ever mess with you again, ever. You are free, you trust yourself, and you hold all the power. The funny thing is how your power came from your own awareness, not from the control, force, anger, or excitement you once thought so crucial to your success.
By now, your awareness recognizes your inner truth – why you’re here, your greatest potential, what brings you joy, where you find meaning, what really matters to you, why it matters. As you listen, you experience your life becoming your own. You trust yourself. You’re living authentically. The world’s nonsense blows by like a breeze; you no longer unconsciously absorb others’ nonsense just because they’re spouting it. (They still spout it, but because you now recognize it, you realize you don’t have to bite every air molecule of it; you choose to ignore it instead.) Because you’re no longer one of them. Because you decided to be youinstead.
Then … one day … you wake up and notice that you’re happy, for no [apparent] reason. And you may draw no connection at all between how great you feel and the fact that you’ve been doing this practice … or even that it was Brad who “made you do it.” So what? You’re happy, and you’re being you.