"Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week." - George Bernard Shaw
Can you actually think?
Of course. That's what I do all day. My mind's never at rest. Thoughts swim around like a giant bait ball of fish, without a pause.
But is that thinking?
Enneagram teacher and writer Russ Hudson said he can count on one hand the number of people he knows who can actually think, which he defines as the ability to "follow a thread of reasoning and find out something different from what you thought before."
How many of us do that?
What we refer to as "thinking," Hudson says, is "racket, replaying old conversations, little fantasies, random memories, sexual weirdness, tired old opinions, telling somebody off… it's just inner chatter." To that list, I'd add reinforcing our biases. Building up our intellectual defences. Proving to ourselves how right we are.
And why shouldn't I?
I'm right, aren't I? I read. I have a sharp mind. I converse with intelligent people. I know what's going on.
In Cordelia Fine's book A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, she describes how we instinctively filter information so that we get the version of reality that suits us. Our inner lawyer sifts the evidence to support what we want to be true. We tell ourselves, and honestly believe, that our failures are due to mitigating circumstances, or we weren't really trying anyway. But our victories come from our hard work, skill and intelligence.
She cites studies showing we're more likely to believe scientific findings that support our views, and disbelieve ones that don't.
We have a preference for the letters that make up our own name.
Our perception is loaded with self-serving bias.
Most people probably are like that, but not me, I say with a chuckle.
Fine also cites a study that shows we believe we're less susceptible to duping ourselves with a self-serving bias.
What motivates this massive, constant effort to shore up the correctness of our position?
Fr. Richard Rohr lays this point bare, saying that "individuals in positions of power who wish to control others by means of fear will always find new code names for it: 'loyalty,' for example, or 'obedience.' Many of us as children had the 'virtue' of obedience pounded into our head. In reality the point was that we were supposed to knuckle under to our parents, teachers, superiors, pastors, or other people in charge."
Even for those of us who don't surrender our intellectual and emotional autonomy to the church, politicians or our parents anymore, there's still a force that looms over us, demanding our loyalty and obedience, without ever saying so. It embeds itself inside us. It moves our limbs and wags our tongue like we're marionettes.
The ego's interested in maintaining the status quo. Changes in the foundation scare the shit out of it. They're not to be tolerated.
Anything can be a threat. And nothing's more dangerous than an idea that doesn't fit into the framework we've established and become comfortable with. So in conversation with someone with any kind of view different from our own, priority number one is Defend What I Know To Be True. As Rohr puts it:
"This is the very nature of the Western debate, which is someone says something, and you immediately come back 'Well I don't think that's always true…' It's all downhill from there. Because you will both at that moment get ego invested in your own opinion. And the broader picture, the deeper picture, can not be seen once the ego is invested. Once you've made one statement, and you've all been in these kind of arguments, it's a save face kind of thing, it's I don't want to look foolish, I don't want to back down, I've already defined my turf, I can't change opinions now. So I've got to prove my opinion is right, even though, as we've recently seen in our country, and in our politics, all the evidence says it's not right. And at that point people can have overwhelming evidence and they will still hold on to their position. You all could tell ten stories like that. That's how much the ego is invested."
How much good information have you missed because of this impulse? How many new points of view have you protected yourself from with the firm shield of arms folded across your chest and a barrage of justifications inside your head and coming out of your mouth?
What would a person who didn't do that look like?
Russ Hudson said "a question is way more interesting than an opinion." He recommends we take a cue from little kids, whose inner script says "I don't know, but I'm willing to be informed by Spirit, by reality, by real wisdom."
How different would the kind of discussion Rohr describes look if both parties approached it with this attitude?
Free of fear.
Think of the courage it takes to face uncertainty. To not be swayed by the ego's subtle and persuasive screams of terror. To allow for the possibility that our cherished positions might be incomplete, or wrong. To have the humility to be willing, as Hudson says, to find out "how we've been mistaken about something."
"As all first-rate soul men know, there are few things sexier than a man singing about humility in a strong, confident manner. Because it's the strong guys, the potent artists, who have life in perspective, and who know that humility is a powerful virtue."
Humility is the lion laying down as the sacrificial lamb, dying to its old conceptions, being reborn in the enlightenment of the new.
Humility necessitates having the courage to lose face in service of further growth and advancement.
Carl Sagan said: "In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know, that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion."
I'd add numerous other fields to that last statement.
And change is painful. And frightening. It's much easier to unconsciously swear loyalty to our set of ideas and exclude all else.
It's difficult and heroic to question one's own biases. To catch yourself in the act as you resist taking in something new, something outside your perception.
It's terrifying and thrilling to explore unknown territory.
Russ Hudson said "If we're not willing to find out we've been mistaken, we can't get beyond where we are."
Isn't unknown territory far more interesting than the familiar?
What would open up if you were to drop your habituated thinking patterns? If you were to take responsibility for the havoc that fear and conditioning wreak on yourself and everyone you interact with? What new possibilities would arise for personal development and meaningful achievement if you were to break free of the ego's feedback loop that abstracts you from reality itself?
Yeah, I might do that. Some day. But not today.
A standard feature of the hero's journey is the rejection of the call to adventure.
Stay home. It's safe and warm. You've got responsibilities. There are things in the great beyond that'll fill you with pain and doubt, that'll rip your guts out, that'll make you wish with every ounce of your being you'd never left home.
Whose voice is that, do you think?
But any hero moves past that initial rejection, and saddles up.
Your higher self beckons you into the fog. Into the dark territory on the maps. To the places, as Joseph Campbell said, "Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."
Are you up for it?