You’ve probably already noticed that I’m very interested in extending our awareness of the means of perception we all use, but tend not to examine. One reason for this is really simple – and it’s also why I’m constantly recommending Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Over time, some things happen in almost all of our lives that are so immensely painful, they actually require us to change the way we have been thinking, so we can surround the pain with new ideas that put it a safe distance from our heart (very much like an immune-response).
According to Jaynes, our whole modern way of thinking of ourselves and others comes from first being part of communities with (what felt like) complete, shared and always-true systems of thinking, where everyone heard the same voices and used the same metaphors – and then suddenly encountering outsiders from other tribes, and realizing our thought wasn’t complete at all, and others had never heard our voices or used our referents.
Recontextualizing a nasty experience so that we can stand to have had it, is a technique we can learn and extend greatly over the years – but it’s important to be clear about what we’re trying to achieve. It’s very possible to put up a brick-wall which rejects all emotionally challenging information, in the name of self-protection – this is known as “staying dumb”. Seriously, none of us knows everything, and the world is constantly trying to teach – so it’s important that we defend ourselves against toxins only, and not against the steady improvement of our mental architecture.
Now, assuming that we have identified a truly emotionally intolerable idea – what can we usefully do about it? Step-one is to step back from the frame we’ve been using for understanding and look at where it might be lacking. This is way way harder than we moderns like to think, because our ideas now feel so much like territory. Why should I give up any precious ground on a maybe?
Because a surprising proportion of the pain of we experience is essentially imaginary – that is, it mostly hurts because it offends an idea that we held sacred, largely out of pride and habit.
Jade green and running lava
The clearest example of this range is to do with how personally we take something which forces a change upon us. When we feel it’s happened because someone has decided to attack us individually, using unfair means, in a way we cannot effectively resist or contradict, we feel the very common reactions of anyone bullied – helplessness leading to misery and / or fury. But we can often be brought to the exact same unasked-for changes in life without anywhere near such emotional hurt, if the forces that brought the new challenge are clearly general and impersonal – emotionally weightless.
It’s always worth stepping-back and asking ourselves – am I mad at this person because of the change itself – or is it mostly the style with which they presented an outcome that was, from their side, decided for entirely impersonal reasons? Even with identical practical results, a fearsome bully’s actions really do hurt far more than an uncomprehending idiot’s or plain bad luck. Plus, laughter always helps.
Another very common trap is to assume (guess) that we know what someone else’s intent was, and then get so caught up in our emotional response about our guess that we never do notice that it wasn’t accurate. I try to make use of this principle all the time, though I do often read people fairly well, because I genuinely like people, and I don’t want to invent reasons for distance or offence, out of my own creative ignorance. What we think is inside someone else’s head is always a work of imagination made up inside our own head for self-amusement (and yes, this frequently takes the form of satisfyingly-cathartic but mostly arbitrary vexation).
All that being said – sometimes our self-humbling patience and ability to accept frustrations without taking them too personally can take us down yet another dead-end path – where we realize the direction we’re moving is wrong, but have decided (by being enlightened about the pettiness of others) to set our sense of this aside, often in an act of stoic sacrifice. – The ‘horse latitudes’ come to mind, where sailors used to get stranded aimlessly for so long without any useful wind that they’d run out of food, and have to eat the horses (abandon the quest).
Sometimes the thing we were waiting for just isn’t there, or the capacities we hoped were ready to develop were not, or the energy we hoped to be able to tap in ourselves, is lacking. Sad, tragic, frustrating, painful?
Sure, all of the above – no question – but not because reality is actually supposed to conform to our wishes and wantings – mostly because, with our lingering tribal-legacy thinking, we never do stop longing deeply for a system where the answers are all clear, fully-agreed by consensus, everyone has a defined role in the big story, and all hear the same great dominant voice – ONLY.
Probably be a little rude of me to point-out that the ancients always heard a voice that was NOT their own – and we now live inside digital halls-of-mirrors where no one but self is ever quite real (and there are very serious regular doubts about that freak in the mirror, too). ;o)
After all – magical “free lunch” thinking is the only right upon which all of us modern tribals definitely agree. Not each other’s favourite version, sadly – but this gulf (like that between any of the infinite points on the stunningly broad range of legitimate perception and experience variation) remains a matter better discussed than gone-to-war over, by an absolutely huge margin.
Our lives? Then those must be our rudders. Sketchy-charts, wonky compasses and all! ;o)