“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Attributed to Karl Rove, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush
Last week we talked about taking a scientific attitude towards our experiences. What if what is true matters? That is what we are asking. There is a frightening degree of disconnect today between the events unfolding in the physical environment and how we are currently thinking and talking about them. It has been the position of Mindful Ecology that the human psyche is a highly complex phenomenon doing the best it can under the evolutionary conditions from which it arose, but this complexity leaves it prone to harmful distortions. It can be profoundly gullible and at times simply mistaken in just those things it believes with the most certainty. Through training the mind can come to recognize its characteristic weaknesses and account for them. This attitude embraces the old fashion idea that there is a real world outside our senses and that our minds are, of necessity, made to conform themselves to that reality. These essays often refer to the ‘molecular world’ in order to stress that the organization and construction of our environment is not malleable to human opinion.
We are all members of what Karl Rove dismissively referred to as the “reality based community” whether we like it or not. Mr. Rove’s point was that this community had become no more than a special interest, one among many (and not one those needing to get elected would have to pay much attention to). The work of mind training using cognitive therapy techniques in the context of ecological concern has this single goal: to remove one’s confusion on this point – the molecular world is not malleable to human opinion. In An Inconvenient Sequel Al Gore states towards the end of the film, “I am not confused.” He explains he has carefully thought long and hard about the issues of climate change. As a result of this process he is no longer in doubt as to what is real, or what is right and what is not right about how we approach these issues and the challenges they bring. This is what Mindful Ecology is about. It is offered as a way of talking about the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes a growing awareness of ecological realities brings about in people who are willing to suffer to know the truth. The suffering is not the end in itself, arriving at the place where confusion has been conquered for oneself, that is the point.
There are no short cuts to that place of peaceful assurance. No magical prayers or incantations, no mass media campaign or TED talk, no pill, and no single super-special book is going to get you there. You are. It doesn’t work any other way.
I am not big on sharing reams and reams of data. There are many others making the important evidence available. This Mindful Ecology work is not aiming to convert the deniers of climate change, the sixth extinction, ocean acidification, desertification, and the other clear environmental signals. If it could it would ask such people to learn to sit quietly and listen to what their bodies are telling them but no, working with deniers is not where my interests lay. I leave that job to others much more competent and trust to the overarching direction of history in which fakes and fantasies, be they of utopias or distopias, crash and burn. I see the idea of Mindful Ecology being most useful for those who have already been called by the earth’s pain and understand something is very wrong in the relationship between humankind and the one planet we call our home.
In the 1970s when the Limits to Growth stated in no uncertain terms that Homo Colossus had to change or die, it was reasonable to believe we were being called to make radical changes. Business as usual was clearly suicidal and so we expected our societies would alter their trajectories. From the perspective of today, here on the cusp of those Limits to Growth curves, it has become obvious that this is not going to happen. Perhaps this is not what we were being called to do by the powerful signal of earth’s pain. Perhaps this was not a signal to take up yet another political cause, forming yet another special interest and lobbying for environmentalists to get our particular slice of the pie. Maybe this was something much, much larger in the grand scheme of things.
Einstein nailed it when he observed that with the development of the nuclear bomb humankind’s technical capacity had outrun its moral capacity. He pondered darkly about how this was a formula for collective suicide if the balance was not restored. The signal of earth’s pain could be just that initiatory threshold being offered to our kind. Just under the headlines we are seething to use those nuclear weapons, get the nightmare out of the closet and see just how bad WWIII is really going to be. At the same time the collapse of ecological stability is accelerating. The outcome of this in history is anyone’s guess. The outcome in the psychological realm is also anybody’s guess. I’m suggesting that these psychological changes may prove to be the deciding factor in the long run, assuming there is a long run. It is not inconceivable that we are heading into a new barbarism or even our own extinction. I do not think this is the case but it is not inconceivable given the evidence at hand today. Wouldn’t we all like to see a few centuries hence?
By sitting with the love of earth in my breast, the topsy-turvy world where bullies pretend to be holy men was overcome. The emperor of that reality making empire Karl Rove went on about – that emperor is naked as a jaybird, that emperor has no clothes. This is a very important political lesson just now. I do not think anyone who touches this ground of being found by following a love for the earth is going to miss the same experience. It is waiting for us out there in the reality of the molecular world and it is not going anywhere for a long, long time. It involves a correct recognition of the place the creature’s place within creation, where the contained is within the container. This is an ecological insight. Ecology is the study of living things in their environment. Creating a relationship between one’s own soul and the world-soul brings liberty to the inner Atlas, that part of us that learns of the ecological crisis and tries to carry the world on our shoulders. Children of the empire, we have inherited its hubris. Turning away from empire on the outside involves turning away from its hubris on the inside.
The way our Western tradition ancestors would of said it is that ‘it is not me, it is He in me which is greater’ that does great things and in which we can trustingly put our hope. That greater is what we are called to have a relationship with. When the mind is not lost in fantasy but has properly aligned reason and imagination, it can relax. It can enjoy life’s journey, loving and laughing even under the darkening skies. This is how I understand faith. It is a term describing a psychic condition in which a person believes, from deep down in the basement of their mind where the heart of character is found, that this earthly experience is basically good. Faith is born from years of saturation in the evidence, not a willful disregard for what is really real or a quick fix magic spell disguised as a prayer for a broken soul.
There are elements in play out here in the molecular world – and in its reflection in the world of the psyche – much larger than the philosophies of the age are yet accounting for. Everywhere people are groping for this larger picture of how we human beings might fit into the deep time and deep space our knowledge has revealed. We have learned all about the trauma god, how our abuses of one another ripple across the human family generation after generation. We have come to know how hate and anger is cheap and easy, just as the bully is the lowest form of character. Now that we understand something of these causes and effects of suffering and compassion, it is interesting to ask how far our new self-knowledge might take our future cultural evolution. It is unknown how far into virtue societies organized around respect for the earth and other sentient beings might go. Imagine how differently we might be dealing with the ecological crisis if the fundamental virtue of our society was extending validation to other individuals, instead of trying to out-compete them at every turn. While that might seem an impossible daydream to the average American raised on the gospel of Ayn Rand, it has in fact been the norm for cultures other than ours many times in the past. This means there is no unbridgeable gulf between where we are today and where this type of a tomorrow could lead us. Our leaders will not lead us there but we might get there one person at a time.
Those convinced they are entitled to their empire dreams born of hubris will be washed away by the river of time as the Limits to Growth curves start to really bite; if, that is, truth matters. Those who would risk the future of our species for quarterly profits, though they are all loud and screaming now, will not have the last word; if, that is, truth matters. It is not just that our oil based community infrastructure will crash on the rock of renewable energy’s lesser capacity, though it will. There is also an undeniable moral dimension to these things as well. As Pope Francis has recently reiterated very publicly, the brunt of the pain of these ecological disasters is born by the poor. In contemplation consider it this way: the cars we in the developed world drive hurt the poorest of the poor. That too is real. We have been trained not to care but we can undo that training if we choose.
The conscience of the species is being pricked. It is the Abraham moment of our times. Will we kill our children, sacrificing them on the altar of strange gods like the GDP, or will we listen to our conscience and refuse to go along with such bloody, murderous plans? Mindful Ecology is not an exercise of spiritual one-upmanship allowing us virtuous tree huggers to pole vault over the unwashed masses. It is a means of understanding just the opposite: how interdependence is the reality of the human family’s emotional and cognitive experience just as much as it is our physical truth. We are all in this together. This is neither a feel-good bumper sticker slogan nor a kind of New Thought mysticism. It is just the way it is, relationships are at the core of our being. As Joanna Macy once said, ‘if you really understand this, that we are all in this together – it should scare the hell out of you.’
Life is much better once the hell is out of you.
Somehow we have to retain perspective so that while we speak truth to power and fight the good fight, we do not ourselves become only more cruel and bitter. We also need to “ramble out yonder and explore forests, climb mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for awhile and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space,” as Edward Abby taught us. Shed tears for the earth, spit out curses on the blindness torturing her, but do not forget the silly human race is not as powerful and almighty as it likes to think it is. Do not forget that all existence is a gift. It is most honorable to pay tribute to that gift with our own happiness. Each person is asked to unfold their own character, to fully show up in their own lives, only this way can you take your place around the feast table with the rest of us. We can encourage each other in this. In acts of loving kindness and in the laughing smile the whole great work of the universe seems to come to fruition. We are here to enjoy the garden. Sometimes it seems that the Western world is so enmeshed in the ideas and images of the biblical Book of Revelation that it has forgotten Genesis 1: that it is a good creation and we humans are a natural part of it; that earth is in fact a garden paradise for eyes that see the wilderness aright.
I have come to believe that even in the worst case scenario of another human population bottleneck the human family will almost certainly pull through. Cold comfort for many perhaps, but it means I am not unseated by the daily bad news as I once had been. Storms or bombs, political, economic or social insanity, whatever might be the disaster du jour, they remain a long way from the extreme, yet not wholly improbable, event of our species experiencing another population bottleneck. For me this belief that we would pull through a population bottleneck is not just cold comfort. It was how I looked evil right in the eye and came away from the encounter stronger. We as a species might avoid this horror, or it might be just the lesson we need to establish a habit of encouraging our better natures instead of feeding our lower ones. Who knows? Who really knows? In that open question the defeatist attitude that worked as an inner destroyer of honest hope for the future lost its power over me.
I have come to believe that what makes life so precious is not that there are billions and billions of creatures but that everyone I come to know is uniquely individual. This is true of the animals in my life and so much more so for the people. As long as somewhere in the future of earth a boy and girl are still able to meet, fall in love, and carry on the work of nurturing the long childhood of our kind, as long as I know that is the future we are heading towards, I do not fear despair as I once did. It has a floor.
These firm convictions came by examining the sciences involved to the best of my ability and sitting with my own informed experience of being human long enough to listen a little to what the body’s deep wisdom is singing in its DNA song. Somewhere in that alchemy of earth and psyche there arose the diamond body, as it were, the thunderbolt chariot on which my waking awareness takes its seat. “I am not confused.” We prepare for this transformation of consciousness; we do not make it nor make it happen. What we are looking for in the silence is already in the nature of things. Our role is to train, train hard until we recognize where our efforts end, and then our open hand can freely choose to accept the gift that is offered. In gracious acceptance of existence, with a “yes” and “thank you,” we find our human nobility.
I’m not trying to set myself up as a model. Lord knows my master’s degree is in folly, not wisdom. But I do think it is important to talk about what can be talked about. People all over the earth are involved in these ideas of contemplation and mind training. People all over the earth are deeply hurt and confused by the ecological abuse of our earth. By doing the work, each and every one of us is directly handling the same raw material. If we use our voices to speak truth among each other, bit by bit we will work an integration of wisdom and folly more in line with our best intentions – both as individuals and as a species.
It is a blessing to be happy in our humanity.
Have you ever awoke thinking of yourself as a scientist? Not like a mad scientist out of a B-movie (at least not on a good morning!). No, not awakening with that kind of scientific spirit but one of burning curiosity and gratitude that one can learn. This scientific spirit is more Goethe than Newton. To mix references a bit, this view always senses there is a large ocean of the real far beyond that which we capture with our knowledge, confined as it is to the human shore. And that ocean beckons us to come play.
In the morning we are greeted with a fresh opportunity to gather experience and ponder it. Core questions of worth and meaning stand steady in this inner sanctum of our waking awareness once we have firmly set our intention, our will. What has life taught us so far about being wise and compassionate? What can we share with others that will make us happy and be of benefit to them as well? How can I be of service to the earth? To find the answers we can don the helmet of a humble scientist, one who touches nature gently and with respect.
We of the collapsing age get to learn aspects of the ecologically traumatized soul with a precise knowledge unprecedented in previous generations. Our minds encounter globalized suffering ecosystems tracked by satellite. Scientists of the psyche, contemplating ecology humbles us before both the immensity of cultural evolution and the guiding wisdom that has, so far, kept our species alive yet now seems threatened on every side. Those of us called to contemplative practice have an opportunity to aid the extroverted Western culture with our introversions but more than that, I believe, with our deep dive directly into the wound in the psyche that creates such blindness. I believe it just might be that in our practice we change the probabilities of what kind of future our species is going to experience.
For the scientist the future is open ended. There is no pre-determined conclusions to the countless life-stories in play throughout all sentient beings, all beings with psyche. Nor is the final fate of the non-sentient intelligences in our rocks and rivers, planets and galaxies understood well enough to be anything more than a start of a sketch of a possibility. But oh how we want to know the future! Do you know that some of the oldest writing we have discovered are the questions and answers of fortune telling recorded by ancient Chinese ancestors on turtle shell? ‘Will the king’s son live?’, ‘Will we win the war with our neighbors?’
One day the human being wakes up in the midst of all of this fully interconnected emergent phenomenon, this universe. We didn’t ask for it, it is just there. We soon learn the one thing we can know for certain about this being human in this universe is that one day we will die and go to sleep within it again. Between those two days of intimacy with silence and emptiness every sentient being’s life unfolds. Personality arises around an awareness of self and world that just IS, that is just a given. Every night personality submerges again into what is, for itself, the welcoming rest of silence and emptiness. Every morning personality awakes again to its awareness of self and world, always self and world, never just self, never just world. That awareness that manifests itself to us each moment is sustained atop chemical complexities we can scarcely imagine, heirs as we are to the evolutionary mysteries in the kingdom of the flesh. That awareness grows over the course of a lifetime as naturally as the limbs of the body do. The awareness grows by learning more and more about the self and the world. With experience a light of understanding arises, we see it shaping sentient being’s actions and reactions to the events of their autobiographies. Awareness drives us to make hypothesis and test them against the real world. We need to do this, we are compelled to do this because our hearts drive us to know what is real and discard the delusional. If love is real, how else could we find it? If others are real, how else could we find them? Our lives consist of our unique character in dynamic relationships with others and the elements around us, questing for wisdom. Our lives are the laboratory in which psyche and flesh consummate their union.
Seeing through these eyes we know we can never have all the answers but are perfectly happy trusting that which is giving what answers we have. Not that we really have a choice, there is no magic path to human omniscience. However, if we choose to believe that love is real then the fact that such delight can exist sets the heart at ease. There is a peace that comes when you figure out it is rational to trust that which exceeds your understanding, that ocean of the real beyond our human shore. Call it faith, a belief in the unseen, but it is not blind faith since it comes from your consideration of your own experience and what it directly teaches you to believe to be most probable. It is not a castle in the sky faith but something solid, there to greet you each morning. It brings a peace that is not threatened by the huge unknown and unknowable which beset us on all sides every moment of our lives. “I trust this is not all a meaningless nightmare but I sure do not know what it is all about.”
Fundamentalists are used to feeling like they have all the answers. Often illiterate or dogmatically one-sided in their studies, they confront the world’s history of ideas as foolishness compared to their own special brand of spiritual wisdom. This is not to disparage the very real wisdom that comes to anyone open to learning from life, regardless of whether or not they ever read a book. We, however, live in a literate culture. To bypass the study time required to become acquainted with our inheritance and then claim superiority because of it is due to what is basically an act of spiritual magic. They claim to know everything they need to know because they have special knowledge, a gnosis denied the unwashed masses: I said just the right words in converting to my personal lord and savior and now I’m always right in arguments about social values; I publically state, just right, ‘I know this church is true’ and now can do no wrong so lie for god whenever asked, I’ve said aloud ‘there is no god but Allah’ and now can destroy the infidels who refuse to repeat the same magic words etc. after sorry etc. All this is just intellectual dishonesty. To point this out is not to be an intellectual snob. I refuse to admit to any part of that double bind framework the fundamentalists try to force such conversations into. (‘Claim to be a fool and I’ll agree, claim to be wise and I’ll call you a fool in the ways of god.’ It really helps to learn to recognize these noxious things whenever they rear their ugly heads.)
It is better to wake up each morning clearly recognizing you do not know all the answers but knowing you do have a few. It is also good recognizing that it is in the nature of our partnership with the unknown that today you will discover more answers as your understanding grows. The point of any mind training is to increase the skill by which our ego allows the growth to occur without undue interference so that it benefits from the process. To increase any skill the craftsman learns to cherish their tools. In the search for truth our tool is the mind. Scientists recognize the mind plays tricks on us, easily persuading us to believe what we want to believe and to refuse to believe things we fear. We must remain watchful, ever on the lookout for confirmation biases and all sorts of other categories of cognitive dishonesties. These are the costs associated with thinking’s benefits, costs built into our fundamental cognitive techniques. The mind uses heuristics as short cuts by chunking information about what has been learned in the past that might apply to the present. Fine. Heuristics is one thing, running around the cage of cognitive dissonance and double binds is something else entirely. So science: it is a method of collecting evidence and pondering over what it means using the thinking apparatus we have as it actually is with all its strengths and weaknesses. In this way the scientist seeks to assign various bits of data their proper weight in the grand scheme of things. Contemplatives are scientists of the psyche in this sense. Nothing more but also nothing less. This humble science is the fruit of Faust Part 2, born having learned the hubris science of Mephistopheles in Part 1 did not deliver the goods.
Being a scientist is how we are a student of the universe. Adults have completed their education and don their lab coats. The laboratory consists of this earth life, just as it is. In this life each of us will be challenged to find work so that our flesh may eat. The work will chafe our souls even as it refines them. It is foolish to deny the path of work for spirituality, as if they were not interdependently complimentary. In this life each of us will be challenged to find relationships with other human beings that are both trusting and intimate so that our souls may quench their thirst. In this quest too our souls will be refined, guided, tormented, and ultimately healed by the love we find in the ground of being. Healed? How? The wisdom of our ancestors is teaching us that there is a surprise hiding in the core of our DNA. We touch it when we open our hearts by respecting the best hopes and dreams of our ancestors, seeing how our own falling in love, maturing in love, being heart-broke by love, how all of it is the same and that for all it is equally beautiful. This timeless AHA! that has so inspired the psyche of humankind that it’s religious instinct became its deepest, what is it? I think it is simply a reconciliation. It is how peace is brought to the war of the elements: the war of the sexes, the war of flesh and fang, the war of the cold-hearted reptile and the warm-hearted mammal, and in the psyche this reconciliation manifests itself as faith, an end of the war of the mortal against the immortals. We need not be jealous of the gods like the Titans nor bewail our fate as do the Hungry Ghosts blinded by greed to the feast that is set out before them. It is a blessing to be happy in our humanity.
“He practiced rational emotive imagery at least once a day by imagining that people were really acting stupidly, letting himself feel very angry about this, and then working on feeling only disappointment and frustrated, but not angry, about their stupid behavior.”
Albert Ellis, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything
I care deeply about the destruction of the ocean. Since my earliest childhood, playing in the waves has been one of the ways I most treasure participating in the powerful natural forces of our earth. I have taught my wife to bodysurf. I have taught my children. I deeply want my children to be able to teach their children the same joy of splashing in and swimming with, instead of against, the great currents of our planet. I tell you this so that you can understand when I say it is important to me that the oceans do not die on my watch. When I consider that what my society is doing today is likely creating the ocean die-off time-bomb that will haunt my children’s children’s children, and on, and on, for longer than my heart can bare to think about, anger lives inside me. Then I remember that even an ocean die-off is unlikely to remove the act of bodysurfing from the planet. That sweet kiss of flesh and salt water in which an organic return encapsulates billions of years of hard earned evolution by choosing to come back and play, to laugh in the tides, that will remain. The anger is gone. I am deeply disappointed in the people around me. I am frustrated they do not see and value as I see and value. But somehow in correcting my view of the ocean die-off it also alters my view of my fellow human creatures. No one is deliberately setting out to do evil; that’s one for the comic books. Tough, but there it is.
I have transformed the anger into frustration. Anger is susceptible to rage and rage to violence. Shutting the door on anger I now deal instead with issues around how well I am able to tolerate this frustration and disappointment. Working on my frustration tolerance is no walk in the park, but I can do so with a peace denied my angry mind. The key to shutting the door on anger instead of repressing it was using my reason to reframe my understanding.
Flights of fancy, day dreams, artistic inspirations and many other states of mind use the non-rational and irrational productively. The bounds of reason are far too limited to capture all that the heart needs to communicate. Symbolism and metaphor fill our art and poetry, drama and literature to compliment our understanding. Comedy and humor, so often the balm of life, very often depends on cognitive errors like exaggeration for their effect. We are called, at times, to be our own poets, artists and comedians, so it is important in mind training that we do not try and control our ever changing thoughts too much. If we grasp at all this too tightly we just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Still, the art of cognitive training consists of catching the mind as it engages in irrational thoughts being passed off as rational – and firmly disputing those irrationalities. In our mind training, as in science, we are after more truth. We do not expect perfect or absolute truth. We do expect we can whittle away a bit at our own ignorance with work and practice. The key is to look for those thoughts that will not stand up to a rational analysis yet claim to be rational. These are the ones that are worth keeping an eye on. Their deceptive cloaks can make us feel as though we are being rational in the moments we are entertaining them. It is only when we step back and take a look at things more objectively that we recognize that what they are asserting is highly improbable, if not down-right hokey. Happiness, even sanity, depends on firmly disputing these cognitive errors.
The model of REBT teaches that when we are deeply disturbed we are telling ourselves something in a semi-divine imperative voice. We are lording over ourselves with a MUST. Which is giving you your greatest difficulty?
I must do well.
You must treat me well.
The world must treat me well.
We greatly prefer to do well and be treated well but we only hurt ourselves if we think we must be. That is nothing more than childishly magical thinking born of taking ego as divinity. Adults should recognize that human beings are fallible creatures and the world is an imperfect place. The sort of absolutism this kind of must-thinking represents is not at home in these conditions. It is not well adapted to reality so it can cause all sorts of trouble both for individuals and nations.
One of these variations of what Ellis calls MUSTerbation will likely be at the root of whatever it is that is disturbing you. These beliefs destroy peace of mind by judging your self-worth against unrealistic criteria. If you believe these types of things you have been set up to fail because these are really double binds. If these are your criteria for self-worth you just cannot win because even when you do well today, or someone treats you well today, or the world bestows its finest gifts upon you today, you know that tomorrow will most likely be a different matter. Win and you fail; fail and you fail; the Catch 22 of the double bind.
So of course, once we clearly see this, we simply must not use must. Right? And around and around we go. Here is where skill comes in. It teaches us to bring to the work a gentle touch, knowing we are most effective when guided by patience. The psyche is complex. As we have previously discussed there are many times that the shadow is working important work in maintaining our actual adaptation to the actual environments we find ourselves in. All that seems weak, sinful, sniveling, all those parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and make outcasts, they need to have a place at the table of the Self too. No self improvement program started by the ego should dare to try and shed that shadow too quickly or too completely. Perfection is not for us. We can not even perfectly accept our imperfections – but we can imperfectly accept our imperfections and that is good enough.
REBT is a good tool to have on the cognitive tool belt. We all are prone to some crazy-making and we have it in our power to diminish or even, sometimes, remove it entirely. I have found myself using REBT periodically for decades. There are times it’s powerfully helpful to lay out the semi-conscious irrational beliefs that I have gathered from the on-going confrontations between my character and the world. Things shift around with the passing of the years and this technique has let me periodically tighten up the Ship of State, as it were. Writing out the irrational beliefs and writing out their disputations as taught is a bit silly but it has had surprisingly powerfully positive effects for me and thousands of others. Your mileage may vary but I am convinced that some form of disputing the mind’s irrational beliefs is required for mental health.
It is also required for social health. A society that cannot hold its own irrational beliefs up for examination loses one of its most effective means of navigating events and finding appropriately proportionate responses. The idea dominate in the over-developed world that the earth simply must give us the resources we need to continue feeding Homo Colossus is one of those irrational beliefs. Seen through the lens of mindful ecology our accelerating use of dirty oil, dirty coal, and dirty nuclear energy in the face of climate change facts is just a way of saying to the earth, like a somewhat ungrateful bully, “you owe me.” “Look at all I have done in my building and dreaming, creating technologies that mimic the magic of the gods, it cannot all have been for naught!” This is just more MUSTerbation and now it is doing a deadly dance with All-or-Nothing thinking. It implies, no, it insists that the only way forward is more of the same or “by god we will blow the whole thing up.” Isn’t that how the rest of the semi-conscious threat-thought runs in the haunted basement of the public square?
Working on our minds is the most direct route to working on the issues of ecology.
The REBT exercises train the mind to be on the lookout for temptations towards exaggerated conceit on the one hand, or self-damning on the other. These are the mistakes that accompany irrational beliefs. If we allow ourselves to have too high and mighty evaluation of our place then the slightest ego threat is perceived as an attack on our fundamental worth and can lead quickly to violent rage. In the other direction self damning leads to depression by confusing the guilt that might rightly belong to an action taken in the past which we have come to regret, with guilt about our very existence. We are confused by thinking not that I did a terrible thing but that I am a terrible person. This cripples the solution to past terrible actions, namely, future non-terrible actions.
These cognitive errors represent the human mind claiming god-like powers. This is rather obvious in the commands behinds the MUST but its not hard to see in the All-or-Nothing’s black and white perfectionism either, and so on for the rest of the cognitive errors we are prone to. This western mind training becomes a way of keeping in touch with the genuinely human. This is where, as the pages of our life history and our community’s history unfold, we will do many things well but not all things, others will often treat us well but not always, and the world will take the most exquisite care of us, furnishing us with everything we need to survive, even thrive, but not always.
“To challenge your misery, try science. Give it a real chance. Work at thinking rationally, sticking to reality, checking your hypothesis about yourself, about other people, and about the world. Check them against the best observations and facts that you can find. Stop being a Pollyanna. Give up pie-in-the-sky. Uproot your easy-to-come-by wishful thinking. Ruthlessly rip up your childish prayers.
Yes, rip them up! Again – and again – and again.
Will the millennium then arrive? No. Will you never again feel disturbed? I doubt it. Will you reduce your anxiety, depression, and rage to near-zero? Probably not.
But, I can, almost, promise you this: The more scientific, rational, and realistic you become, the less emotionally uptight you will be. Not zero uptight – for that is inhuman or superhuman. But a hell of a lot less. And, as your years go by, and your scientific outlook becomes more solid, less and less neurotic.
Is that a guarantee? No, but a prediction that will probably be fulfilled.”
Albert Ellis, How To Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything Yes, Anything
“These new methods present a unique opportunity to assess the origins of a fundamentally human condition: the costly yet advantageous shift from a primitive “live fast and die young” strategy to the “live slow and grow old” strategy that has helped to make us one of the most successful organisms on the planet.”
A Long Childhood is of Advantage, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
“The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
U2, Bullet the Blue Sky
The God I believe in is not afraid of science – to crib off U2 – nor reason, psychology, or engineering. Nor does the ground of all being fear the negative way of atheists, for they too see there is a real absence, and that that too is part of the mystery. There is nothing verboten to study, though not all things are equally of benefit to the cause of liberating the student from the shackles of thinking-too-small. All the details of the elemental molecular world are just so many signatures of the all-pervading intelligence that forms the ground of our being. Does that make sense? The truth cannot be one thing in the Sangha, Mosque, Temple or Cathedral, another thing in the laboratory or counseling office, and yet another thing in the streets.
God is a term with so many different possible connotations that without careful definition it is best if we comprehend it as our pointer word; it points to truth or being directly and as such is not a noun, verb, adverb or adjective in any ordinary sense. Eastern traditions are careful to include the emptiness features of any positive assertions when talking carefully about these ultimate things. We see this in Buddhism and in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Apophatic traditions. I mention this because for some people the thought of allowing a rational, dare I say scientific, view to guide their daily lives seems to be a threat to their faith. In my experience that is not the case. Surrendering ourselves to what is real is the Way.
We are an incredibly complex psychobiological phenomenon actively interpreting and adapting to our environments. With physical bodies always needing to be protected we also use minds to position ourselves within the greater scheme of things that we encounter within our understanding of how the world works. The complex psychobiological phenomenon has evolved in an on-going quest to open to that which nourishes and avoid that which poisons, in fulfillment of life’s primary objective: its own continuous survival obtained by maintaining mental and physical homeostasis. Steer your complex psychobiological phenomenon incorrectly and you end up mad on the one hand or feverish and without immunity on the other. The point of homeostasis in the psychological realm of daytime consciousness is rational discourse.
When we talk with others we project an expression of our character. When we talk to ourselves we do the same thing. This inner dialog that spins around in our minds every day of our lives is a very important ingredient in determining the type of life experience we will ultimately have.
What type of life do you want to look back on when the day comes to lay it down? It can be helpful to ask ourselves what sort of influence we have had so far on the world around us and assess if we could use a course correction, large or small, while we still have the chance. The time will come when the choices for how we think, feel and act will no longer be our own to make. There will come a time when all our choices will have been made, at least for this life, at least for this personality sharing life on earth with the rest of the human family.
When the day comes to lay our bones down in the dark earth, consume them in fire, or feed them to the mountain birds, we will become the summation of our whole life. For as long as breath lasts we have the power of choice. This leaves the future open, radically open. The whole story of an individual’s life cannot be known before the whole story has been played out – but once it has, it enters the domain of humanity’s inheritance. While we live, our lives are a whole piece with the generations around it and the society in which it unfolds. After we have passed, our lives leave ripples in the webs of cause and effect. Others will enjoy, or suffer, from the inheritance we leave in the same way we have when our generation was in the ever changing spotlight of psychobiological awareness. This is the truth. It is self-evident. It is spoken to us from the witness of our senses.
Our senses provide us with the gates through which our complex psychobiological phenomenon participates in reality. Our perceptual apparatus maintains an on-going physiological communion between our characters and their unique expression of the will to live and the worlds they find themselves participating in. They teach us there is no isolated self. They also teach that there cannot be a simple unitary self among the molecules, for how could one compare the input of sound to that of sight or touch to that of smell? These are fundamentally different data streams, wholly unlike one another so they cannot be simply summed. Things are more subtle and complex than a simple summation. It is in the orchestration of many different parts that the on-going maintenance of our being takes place.
Mind can be considered a sense just like vision or taste. It too has the function of adapting ourselves to the environments in which we find our lives unfolding. It too has a data stream, one not of scent or color but one of thought. The words and images of the mind are the intimate arena where our choice making is most clearly expressed, for to some degree we choose what it is we will spend time thinking about. This is hardly the whole story however, as anyone who has spent any time minding the mind will know; things pop into our heads for often the most obscure of reasons. It is part of being a complex psycho-biological phenomenon. Sometimes those winds of thought larger than our ego are pleasant and inspiring and other times they are terrifying and bring fear. However these bully thoughts appear, the power to make choices in the mental realm remains. This is an important point. When the bully thoughts arise our freedom to choose is not expressing itself in choosing what to think about but in how we will think about what has, quite literally, captured our attention.
Those things that capture us most deeply typically involve the interpersonal hopes and fears, loves and losses, and the most profound regrets and traumas we have experienced. We ruminate on these things in the process of adapting ourselves to our environment. For us social primates there is no environmental feature more dominate than our interactions with other human beings. Our complex psychobiological inheritance has seen to it that this is so, beginning with our long childhood and extending into our most intimate thoughts which are of necessity couched in a language we inherited and did not make ourselves. The result is that we have the images of the society’s roles and expectations within us. It is as if the mind sets up semi-automated puppets as stand-ins for the people we have met and the various roles they have played in the development of our psyche. We meet them in our dreams. We must deal with this internalized community just as surely as we must deal with the people we meet with each day. Many of them are quick to judge us and tell us what we must do at all times if we are not to be no-good bums tossed out of the tribe. Many of them cause exaggerated emotionally driven reactions in us before we even recognize our buttons are being pushed.
The start of wisdom in matters of mind seems to be when we fully recognize that our own thoughts might be wrong. It becomes possible to sit as a judge over one’s own thinking only when we lose the narcissism that fails to question our own cognition with the same skepticism with which we greet other’s ideas. Some of what passes through the ever-changing thought streams is hardly worthy of entertaining at all and other bits are useful but packaged all wrong. In order not to get lost in the tides it is imperative that there be a place of reliable reference back to the real world associations the thoughts are involved with. This ability to stay grounded happens when the person’s innermost is able to trust reason as the rudder of the psyche. Reason is not the devil’s tool to trick us out of our faith in a good creation; reason is the expression of that faith by trusting in that which is.
The poetic turn of phrase, the emotionally colored perception of beauty, these and so many more of our cognitive experiences are obviously entwined with our emotional natures. In moments of emotional distress this harmony of heart and head is disrupted. The mind, as we say, gets carried away. Exaggeration and irrational conclusions can lead each other into loops that can spiral out of control until what the internal dialog is telling a person leaves them incapacitated for dealing skillfully with whatever is troubling them. Things in the mind will bully you around if you let them by causing you to tell yourself all kinds of things about your sense of worth that just do not stand up to a rational examination.
“Oh I never do anything right!” or “People always take advantage of me!” are typical of the kind of thoughts that might accompany an emotional outburst or period of emotional pain. Peace of mind can be reclaimed to the degree we learn to recognize when our thinking is going off the rails like this. Looked at with a calm, cool and collected mind it is obvious that all of us have done some things right and other things wrong. The statistical odds against “I never doing anything right” are beyond astronomical. Additionally, the definition of what is right for you implied by that first sentence is likely not at all what would actually express your true will but is nothing more than the mores of your family and culture. These are valuable but not the last word for you as you seek to work your way through the adventure of your own life. The second sentence is no less insane than the first. It is a willful blindness to all those other times when people extended compassion and aid to you in your struggles or celebrated with you your life’s sweet victories.
Perhaps a simple example will drive the point home. I hit my thumb with a hammer as I try to drive a nail. On some days I respond with a quick ‘Ouch!’ and carry on a bit more carefully. Other days, however, that same event might lead me to tears. On those days it is as if the pain found in this moment of working with the world has been lumped together with every disappointment and pain the world has ever inflicted on me. The world for me seems a mean and dangerous place which doesn’t really give a hoot about me at all. My mind echoes the sentiment that no one cares if I live or die or what it is like to experience things the way I do. This type of cognitive and emotional attack aims directly at our self-worth.
The hammers that really hurt are swung by tongues. We need to understand how hurt and frightened people strive very hard to control other people. To do so they develop a range of psychological manipulation techniques. These include the injection of guilt and threats of violence if the injection process is pointed out. It happens in families and it happens in nations. This temptation towards manufactured consent remains the dark underbelly of human interactions: ‘I am here to be satisfied’, this impulse runs, ‘you are here to be used.’ Ask yourself how often your speech involves getting others to change what they do and how they do what they do or otherwise dismisses their own style or character? Do you place the whole world into your personal boot camp and sergeant over all you meet? Anyone who continues to look to others for a confirmation of their self-worth exposes themselves to these dark manipulations. It is in our resistance to their crazy-making that we come to find the path to our own personal best.
Once someone really understands that this is the lay of the land psychologically, they become capable of taking a-hold of the rudder for themselves. In every step we make towards trusting in our own ability to live our own lives well, we become a more genuine human being. Instead of being little more than a spokesman for an institution, or a holy book, or a dead relative, we become a voice speaking up for our real selves and their real needs. These are needs for love and respect as much as they are needs for food and shelter. We can tear each other’s dignity to shreds by calling one another heretics and apostates, the lost and damned, populating our world with the anti-Christs and devils of our angry damnations but this will not change our need to be understood one whit. Each of us wants to be loved by those we love, though many a tragedy is rooted in the fact that we cannot force someone to love us. Love is a gift that can only be accepted, we can only yield if we are to know another’s loving-kindness, but to yield is to open oneself up to their rejection. These are the issues we confront in the judgment of the heart and the on-going dialog with our conscience it provokes. Our loved ones, as they say, live in our hearts forever. They are trying to teach us the lesson of compassion and charity. At times it is a very hard lesson.
If we had to tackle the whole psychological meaning and biological substratum of these things at once we would be overwhelmed. Instead the psyche unrolls these things in its own good time. What we experience is the tip of the iceberg where thoughts haunted by exaggerations and irrationality come into our conscious awareness. When they arise in these forms we can be sure that under the surface some of these heart-issues are stirring. What is downright liberating is when we understand that our conscious minds are meant to be the guiding light for all these semi-conscious aspects of our dreaming and transcendent self. The daylight mind with its ability to reason can teach the irrational and exaggerated thoughts just where they have lost their way. It is a cop out to expect your dreams to reveal to you what you should do. Harry Wilmer in Understandable Jung captures what we are discussing quite succinctly: “By accepting our fate, that is, our present reality, we take the first step to change our destiny. Our destination is another matter. Dreams do not tell us what to do or where to go. If one attributes such knowledge to the dream, one abdicates responsibility.”
Peace of mind comes, in part, from recognizing how comforting it is to encounter the same molecular world each and every morning when we awake. Though the evening’s psychic experiences may be all over the map, the powers of conscious awareness return to greet a grand continuity when we wake up. Because the environment we find ourselves in is always there much as it was the day before, the daylight world offers us a chance to improve our skills in living the one life we have as it unfolds here and now. If the daylight world followed the same a-causal associations we find in the nighttime world this would not be the case. Here is the human middle way, difficult to find, but once found it cannot be perturbed by either gods or devils. The day consciousness learns to ride on the deep of the night consciousness as a talented jockey rides their great and powerful horse. The day consciousness can become wise and loving only with the cooperation of the denizens of the deep, if the wisdom and love are to be more than a thin veneer over a raging beast inside just waiting for a chance to attack others for the painful self-abnegation it has been subjected to. Force your ego into the straitjacket of a saint and you only invoke the beast. If instead you work with the spirit that moves across these deep waters in a patient alchemy ruled by gentleness then, it is taught, another type of wholeness, the one known as holiness, becomes possible. Not one that would castrate humans and turn them into angels who are eternally gazing at God but instead a holiness born within our most genuine humanity.
We are here to carry on the mission of art, the art of living. This is the clay we are each working with for as long as we draw breath. In the slow leavening of the daily contemplative discipline we pursue a more spiritual life, yet hope to obtain, in the end, one that is more genuinely human. We are training not to fear what this entails as we come to recognize we are beings with cosmic roots dwelling in a sacred land.