There is much more to say about the world-soul introduced last week. In particular the role of animals was not even mentioned yet is a substantial part of earth’s sentience. I hope to circle around to this subject again but today we are going to shift gears a bit. We are on the hunt for some clarification around the relationships between truth, belief, character, fundamentalism, and mental agility. There is a tradition of mind training in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Today I’d like to introduce a bit of a western spin on the same idea.
Any statement made can be classified as belonging to a logical category. Some might belong to more than one category depending on how they are interpreted. I just mention this in passing but it can become a crucial key for proper understanding at times. These logical categories include:
True or False – It is 90 degrees outside right now.
More or Less Likely – It’s very likely the Larson C ice sheet will break off this year.
Meaningless – Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Indeterminate – The god who made this universe loves war.
The first step in this western mind training is to simply recognize that these different categories exist. It is like having a number of different tools on your cognitive tool belt so that there is a good chance the right one will be at hand when it is needed. Many people are confused, and many messages are deliberately designed to be confusing, about the type of truth claims that are possible. Keeping in mind this full spectrum of possibilities can aid us in our quest to minimize our ignorance.
Without awareness of this whole collection it is not possible to identify that which is the real mystery in our midst, that which many label god. In the typically complimentary way of the psyche, the only way to get a handle on just what the human mind can know is to become real clear about what it cannot. To see the mystery we need to remove the mystification. To that end its worth pointing out the important characteristic of the meaningless statement which is that it was designed by Noam Chomsky to be syntactically correct but semantically meaningless. A whole lot of messages over our airwaves amount to little more than this when analyzed. As a reminder those who need to strengthen their understanding of likelihood are encouraged to peek at the probability material on this site.
It is, however, the last category of indeterminate statements that is the interesting one which we are going to explore in this post. Be prepared for some rather dense psychological material and groping speculation.
People are free to assert any number of things for which the only proper response is “could be.” The rub is that very often the person making said statement believes in it as if it were as real as rocks. Other people doubting its veracity then become construed as threatening to their position. Why? I think the answer deals with a fundamental difference in the positions people take towards knowledge. Some people are certain they know the truth. Religious, scientific, psychological, whatever the field, these persons adhere to certainty. Their position is related to extroversion and the Western theological tradition of making positive statements about what god is. God is Love we are taught, God is X is the pattern. Certainly the term God however, if it means anything at all, points to that existential mystery at the heart of existing that far exceeds full human understanding. Granting that, whenever we assert God is X we should immediately add ‘and not X.’ If we say God is fair and just, for example, we stay real by adding but not as humans are fair and just. This is related to the apophatic Eastern theological traditions and introversion. This represents a different core psychological position persons can take towards truth. These people are not certain they know the truth but are quite certain about what they believe to be the truth, even while recognizing it is possible that they are mistaken.
Statements that can be true or false conclusively are the domain of deductive logic or direct observation. Inductive logic allows drawing generalized conclusions by reasoning along the lines of the most or least probable. The meaningless statements exist outside the bounds of logic and serve other masters than verbal truth such as deception or aesthetics or simply a poetic frolic with language engaged in for the fun of it. Which leaves us with the final category. There is something about the indeterminate category which causes a rather profound difference between how people approach the world and each other.
My suggestion is that their positions revolve around an individual’s understanding which is where the bits and bytes of knowledge are linked to what we human beings find meaningful. Though the knowledge is collective, the interpretation of it is resolutely individual. What something means to us is what we can only fully encounter by taking account of our dreams about it, how our perspective about it has changed over the long decades of a lifetime, and how this understanding of ours has ultimately affected our behavior. It takes all of this to account for what we find meaningful or not because it takes all of this to provide the details of our own stories which differ from anyone else’s.
Understanding gains this cognitive feature because it is built, at least in part (and often the most important part) by using symbols. Symbols turn their face to us but their backsides reach into the unplumbed depths. Mind’s interface with will, the source of the bodymind’s movements and desires, includes encounters with non-conceptual energies from the biological processes involved. We know what the flag means, for example, as a stand-in for a country, its people and their history. It is also well known how a country’s flag can move men and nations by emotions both noble and base. This nature of symbolism as the simultaneous cognitive and physiological expression of our individual understanding lends itself to the profound commitments we often see people making to them. In a person’s individual experience as it unfolded in a particular culture numerous events made impressions on their character, laying tracks in the bodymind. This is how our understanding grows using the currency of symbolism.
For understanding to grow it must change. Often, due to the nature of what we as individual’s find meaningful being anchored in our hearts, in our physiology, such maturing changes are painful and difficult. There is an unrest in the body that accompanies this dis-quite in the mind when a person’s understanding is shifting. Though we can learn through this experience to be more tolerant of ambiguity and the unknown, nothing wholly removes its sting.
We experience all of this internally. The face we show the world, the persona asserting our place, may or may not be affected by the process. Whether or not that will happen seems to be determined by a number of things, including the size of the shift in understanding taking place. A chemistry student learning about programmed cell death is likely altering the arrangement of her knowledge less than someone suddenly learning her trusted business partner is a crook and murderer. Still, it is not just a matter of how large the changes are. Some people handle torture and others cannot handle being without air conditioning, to be a bit flippant. An unknowable element of character, fate, destiny, or karma is also at play during these shifts in our understanding.
If the persona is affected the rest of the world will know. Public conversions of Republicans to Democrats or Independents are simple examples. Our reputations are on the line once the persona is involved. We don’t need our lives shared in TV coverage to feel that pressure as friends and family play the same role regardless. If we change our minds too radically we expose ourselves, revealing our most vulnerable spots. We state we were previously foolish but now, so we are claiming, we have become wise. Only the shameless can easily endure public exposure of their own personal foolishness when the subjects involved are essential to what things mean among us socially. So the persona is tempted to clamp down and this is the process that creates what has been called character armor. This armor is a physiological tenseness that never gets to relax; it is how we always have our guard up. If we allow this process of shifting understanding to go through to completion without clamping down, even though it hurts, we eventually arrive at a place of congruity between our inner understanding as our bodymind experiences it and the expression of such in the world. Such conditions promote flexibility and suppleness as both physiologically and cognitively we are able to tense or relax as needed. Recall the point made earlier about our own culture’s lack of contentment in the post about Emotional Systems.
My hypothesis is that the armoring approach leaves the persona rather high and dry. Full bodied expressions of will are not characteristic of such people. They often seem disconnectedly intellectual, religious, or whatnot: head in the clouds but no feet on the ground. Here is where the distinction between the core psychological positions seem to have their nexus. The weakened persona tries to compensate for its handicap by asserting certainty not in the beliefs it holds but in the object of those beliefs. By this trick the person(a) seems to remove themselves and be involved in no more than objective statements of fact.
The education with the most profound affects on our understanding, mind training if you will, involve dissolving the character armor. It is a liberation from an untenable position we were tensely holding onto in our ignorance. Seeing mistaken certainty is simultaneously seeing the nature of beliefs. Letting go of the certainty is reclaiming your individuality by recognizing the role of your story in the shaping of your understanding. I think this might be related to wisdom. Harry Wilber in Understandable Jung: The Personal Side of Jungian Psychology has a great sentence capturing what this is all about. The context is his coming to the end of the Jungian analysis all Jungian analysts must go through themselves before they are considered ready to help others. This is from the section entitled ‘Sooner or Later, You Will Have To Become Your Own Analyst.’
“The Wise Old Man I had been talking to
had become myself – wise man, old fool.”
Compassion opens the inner eye of conscience that lives in the depths, far beyond the conscience society’s mores and the persona use for guiding behavior. This is our innermost understanding we are talking about here. Through practice we learn to become certain about what we believe yet remain open to revising these beliefs. We recognize and honor that these beliefs are rooted in the deepest understanding we have about what it means to be a self aware mortal human being – due to the way we have experienced it. They embody our story, a story wonderfully and mysteriously unique from beginning to end. We recognize what is real and true about what is real and true for us. In our unknowing we allow all sentient beings the same freedom because we comprehend the inner world characteristics of the bodymind through our own experience of subjectivity and objectivity.