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Archive for the ‘Psychology/Philosophy’ Category

The notion that intentionally monitoring and decreasing one’s judgmental thinking increases one’s happiness fits well with a few other beliefs that I hold. I believe that early in life we develop what I call a default yes/no setting.  I call it that because we regularly engage it entirely out of our conscious awareness – we just do it like flicking on a light switch.  We evaluate our ongoing experience of being parented and cared for and before the age of five conclude either that new experience, new people, new situations are generally threatening ad we should be careful until we are sure that we’ll be safe or that new experience, new people, new situations are intriguing and we should move forward and explore them. Either “life is threatening, be careful” or “life is exciting, explore it”.

The ‘be careful’ becomes a default no at least at least until one is sure that one is safe, and the ‘explore life’ becomes a yes at least until something genuinely threatening enters the experience. I believe the development of this default yes/no setting has a huge ongoing impact on or character, our personality, and how we play out our life as adults.  I suspect it is the primary ingredient in determining whether one becomes essentially a conservative or a liberal in one’s outlook on and response to life. Are we more ‘WOW this might be good’ or more ‘WHOA, this might be bad’? Am I more yes until you can provide me with  meaningful evidence that I should be no,  or am I more no until you can provide convincing evidence that I should be yes. So the question to ask yourself is “what’s your default setting?” Are you more yes or more no?

I also believe that we can help ourselves and/or others to disengage our yes or no default settings by consciously employing the doubter/believer stance – a concept I learned from reading Peter Elbow.  It operates as follows:

In any situation where you are looking for the truth, making a decision, or assessing new data, there are two basic stances you can take: the Doubting Stance or the Believing Stance.

The doubting stance seeks truth by indirection:   (this is default no thinking)

  • – by seeking error. (Doubting an assertion or idea is the best way to find the error in it.)
  • – by assuming the assertion is untrue so as to find its weaknesses.
  • – by putting on a negative filter and sorting all data only for what won’t work.
  • – by using an adversarial method, think of ways to attack the assertion.
  • – by being against, apart from the idea or assertion.

The believing stance also seeks truth by indirection:   (this is default yes thinking)

  • – by refraining from doubting assertions or ideas.
  • –  by putting other ideas out of your head and trying this one on.
  • – by putting on a positive filter and sorting all data for the truth in it.
  • – by trying the idea on as though you believed it.  (Not the fullest sort of belief which is commitment and action, but the belief that involves trying to see things as the speaker sees them.)
  • – by being with rather than apart from the idea or assertion.

The doubting stance has a monopoly on legitimacy in our culture, it is the most common default setting.

  • – Socrates, Descartes;
  • – propositional logic;
  • – the scientific method;
  • – ‘rational’ thought process;
  • – “be realistic”;
  • – question everything you hear;
  • – the way to proceed to truth is to doubt everything and what is finally immune from attack must be true.

Doubting stance traits include

  • – extrication
  • – disengagement
  • – detachment
  • – rigidity
  • – closing up
  • – toughness
  • – hardness
  • – aggressiveness
  • – competitiveness
  • – adversarial desire to talk and correct.

The results of only doubting lead from doubt to skepticism to cynicism.

Believing stance traits include

  • – involvement
  • – commitment
  • – softness
  • – opening up
  • – flexibility
  • – cooperating
  • – supporting
  • – adaptability
  • – listening.

The believing stance permits one to explore and discover the value of an idea, and often to adapt it or modify it to fit the needs of the situation. One of the most difficult aspects of taking the believing stance is fighting the itch for closure which the stance may create. The results of only believing  lead from interest to enthusiasm to gullible  naiveté.

Both stances are powerful and important ways of getting to the truth or the best decision.  We need both. We also need to know when we are using which stance and why we are using it at that point in the process of coming to a conclusion.

Using the doubting stance first leads to negativity, mistrust and withdrawal. The values of an idea are never discovered or explored, the believer stance never gets a chance.  Using the believing stance first, however, leads to exploring all the possibilities of an idea.  Then, following up with the doubting stance avoids pitfalls and mistakes.

The value in this observation is that we can train or reprogram ourselves to adopt the doubter/believer stance as our default setting and convert our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ default setting to a useful tool to be utilized as part of our decision-making process which, in my experience has resulted in a higher degree of happiness in my day-to-day life.

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I had an interesting insight the other day.  I went through a period of about fifteen or so years (early eighties to late nineties) when I practiced a good deal of Vipassanna mediation.  I meditated daily, was in a mediation group that met weekly, and attended quite a number of formal meditation retreats – six or seven ten day retreats, ten to twelve three and five day retreats and a number of one day or half day retreats.  With that extent of involvement and time expenditure it is evident that I was certainly getting something out of it to keep me coming back.

About three years into it I became aware that I was often experiencing a higher degree of happiness in my day to day life.  I gladly accepted and appreciated that change and allowed that was the main enticement which kept me coming back for more.  I often wondered and reflected on what it was about the mediation practice which lead to an increase in the degree and frequency of feelings of well being and happiness.  What was the connection?  And therein lies the source of my insight of the other day.

Early on in my mediation retreat attendance I learned (as nearly all people who attend such retreats seem to learn) that I (we) often have remarkably little control of my own mind and am frequently unable to sustain a single minded focus on something as simple as keeping my awareness on my own breath. The meditation terminology calls it monkey mind – a good name for it – and I was blown away by how easily and frequently I am judgmental about others – [If she’s going to breathe so damned loud why do she have to sit near me!  My god will they stop whispering and just shut up!  We must be fifteen minutes past the lunch break – why haven’t we broken yet?  Does he ever bathe? –  Or outside the retreat environment – Where did he get his license to drive?  Is it against the law to use directional signals in this state?  Perhaps after that woman chats with the cashier for another twenty minutes we’ll make our purchase and move on.]

Upon reflection I concluded that I conducted about 98% of my judgmental fault finding as internal dialogue and relatively rarely expressed my verdicts aloud.  (Good thing or I’d have had quite a hard time maintaining friendships.)  I have since initiated a campaign to become much more consciously aware of when I’m engaging in judgmental thinking and strive to use it only when it is a necessary and useful tool for reaching a rational decision.

The connection I made, my interesting insight the other day, is that becoming aware of and intentionally restricting my running string of judgments about what’s going on around me in my immediate environment, my social milieu, and the larger world has lead directly to my experiencing a higher degree of happiness in my day to day life.  My conclusion is that while judgmental thinking is a very useful tool in decision making, when used inappropriately and unnecessarily tends to sabotage joie de vivre.  It seems that bringing it into my conscious awareness and reining it in has had a very positive pay off for me.  Thank you Vipassanna mediation.

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In 1936 A.M Hocart the eminent English anthropologist who wrote extensively on Polynesian cultures published a book entitled Kings and Councillors which anaylized in depth the tribal structure of the Fiji Islanders.

He points out that the tribal chief was considered divine and thereby had access to the gods and how to plese them and thus invoke prosperity for the tribe. Hocart goes on to say “if the harvest was good the people were prepared to put up with a moderate amount of tyranny.”

How profoundly similar to the situation in which President Obama now finds himself!  Times haven’t changed much over the centuries.

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First written: March 12, 2007 

          About 135 years ago, at the age of 26, Frederick Nietzsche said:

A state that cannot attain its ultimate goal usually swells to an unnaturally large size. The world- wide empire of the Romans is nothing sublime compared to Athens. The strength that really should go into the flower here remains in the leaves and stem which flourish.”

          He meant, I think, that Rome was about expansion and power, military and imperial might;  whereas Athens focused on beauty and aesthetics, the development of insight and physical strength – as in the Olympics.

          How well that statement fits the U.S. today. More strength to the leaves and stem. Increase the military budget, send more troops, and yet more again. What is our ultimate for the creation of an ideal society? Is it ethical or only economical? Is it merely more is better, bigger is better, perpetual growth is better, more stuff is better? How will we tell when we’ve achieved it or even when we are getting closer to it? Where is our flower? What is our vision for ourselves and our world? And how could we ever hope to move toward its fulfillment if we don’t even know what it is? Is it any wonder that more and more of our children when asked what their hopes and goals are for themselves say they want wealth, to be rich? Is it any wonder that our teenagers ‘hang out’ at malls?

          Nietzsche also said that life needs to be more than a thoughtless accident. Surely it is time for an ongoing dialogue among individuals, groups, institutions, schools and in the political arena to address what we want for ourselves, for our society, for our world, for our children. Perhaps a position to initiate such a dialogue would be Ernest Becker’s suggestion that the criteria by which to measure a society should be the extent to which it seeks to maintain the greatest degree of individual freedom in balance with the greatest degree of social harmony.

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First written: February 26, 2007

         In the U.S. we are systematically forfeiting the representative democracy which our forefathers founded. Over this past century our culture has been transformed from one that was essentially ethically driven to one that is economically driven. Capitalistic consumerism has evolved through corporate globalization into a driving force wherein economic interests dictate both domestic and foreign policy. Citizenship has largely been reduced to consumerism, membership in a spectator democracy with optional voting for affirmation or dissent every four years. Meanwhile elected officials who profess to represent us govern with ongoing indifference to the expressed will of the people.

         How have we become so passive a citizenry? How is it we accept living without meaningful input into our society and simply put up with whatever transpires?

          I nominate our educational system as a primary culprit. It is the only public institution tourching the lives of every citizen. If you’re sick you go to the hospital, if you’re bad you go to jail, if you’re a child you go to school. And what is the essential social dynamic which our schools model? Our children learn in institutions in which they have zero input into the rules by which they are required to live. Students are expected to be quiet, obedient, and compliant, to study what they are told to study and to fit into a system that they are powerless to influence or modify.

          Is it any surprise that we breed passive adults who don’t expect to have any meaningful influence on the society in which they live? Where would they ever have learned the skills necessary to critically evaluate the culture of which they are a part or how to make suggestions for its improvement? Where would they learn that each of us has a social responsibility to evaluate and assess our institutions and governmental policies, to take a public stand and to inform our representatives about what we want, and what we want changed or stopped?

         Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker suggested that an ideal social model would be based on the dual values of maximum individual freedom and maximum social harmony. He proposed that a primary goal of education should be to teach students:

  • to become ever more rational social critics;
  • to see one of their primary social responsibilities as the ongoing critical evaluation of society’s political, economic, educational, social, medical, and criminal justice systems and institutions; and
  • to move those institutions closer to an ideal balance between maximum individual freedom and maximum social harmony.

         Our educational institutions ought to be charged with operating as representative models of systems adhering to these dual goals with ongoing input from students and faculty. Then, they could consistently make modifications to move closer to the stated ideal. This approach would teach students to become responsible participatory members and critics of the institutions of which they are part. It would teach:

  • the skills of rational evaluation;
  • the valuing of individual and group input into a democratically operating system; and
  • the social interaction skills necessary to promote social harmony in a context of maximum individual freedom.

         Some years ago Alice Miller said “If you don’t like the way the world is going, rear your children differently.” Acting on Becker’s suggestion for schools would certainly be one way to do that.


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First written: February 8, 2007

         This is a tribute to Jack R. Gibb (1914-1995) and his book TRUST: A New Vision of Human Relationships for Business, Education, Ramily and Personal Living.

         Years after I read this book, I met and spoke to him at a workshop he gave in Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s. One thing he said to me continues to stand out in my mind:

“You make the most important decision of your life at about the age of two to three years. You either decide the universe is friendly and essentially spend the rest of your life exploring and enjoying it, or you decide the universe is unfriendly and spend the rest of your life protecting yourself from it and being constantly on guard.”

         The central issue becomes do you trust life or don’t you? Dr. Gibb clearly identifies the dynamics of fear and trust at both the personal and organizational level. His book identifies the terrible destructiveness of fear within organizations and individuals. He does not, however, like so many others just leave us with an understanding of what’s wrong. Based on his life’s work (research and working with individuals, groups and organizations) he provides powerful and useful suggestions of how to discover and apply the power of trust in our relationships with others.

         For me that early decision determines whether our default setting in life will be trust or distrust, whether we approach life from a “yes” or a “no” stance. When we are in mistrust stance, we always question what others say and do, and never question our own perceptions and conclusions. We enfranchise ourselves to fabricate the motivations of others and then act on the assumption that our fabrication is based on factual data and fully justifies our response.

         Sadly, it is evident that the current default setting of the USA is “no.” Don’t trust! Don’t trust Iran, the UN, Castro, immigrants, the World Court, our French and German allies, international treaties (such as , the Kyoto Protocol, the Landmines Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Chemical and Biological Weapons Treaties) or, as the Homeland Security Act indicates, don’t trust our own people. Habeas corpus is no longer a trustworthy policy. The Bush administration has shattered all prior records for the quantity of information it has classified. Citizens cannot be trusted to read it. Apparently we are bent on establishing a new world order based solely on distrust. With pre-emptive strike it seems that the U.S. default setting is now ‘we hit back first!’.

         A paradoxical byproduct is that we are being trained to distrust our own government. Distrust, like love, seems to be an appetite which feeds upon itself. Where shall we turn for the trust, belief, vision and hope that we need and owe to our children?

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First written: January 7 , 2007 

         In his book, The Discovery of Being, written a quarter of a century ago, the existential psychologist, Rollo May, explicates what he calls ‘normal’ anxiety, and ‘normal’ guilt. He holds that because we humans have self-consciousness we are consciously aware that we exist and are thus capable of, and therefore responsible for, choosing how we live our lives. To what extent do we choose to go at life with conscious intentionality, and to what extent do we allow it to be, as Nietzsche said, merely a thoughtless accident?

         May contends that ‘normal’ anxiety is a characteristic of the drive within us to fulfill our own individual potential, to be ‘ourselves’, to play our own song as it were. When confronted with the issue of fulfilling our potentialities we experience anxiety. When we deny these potentialities or fail to fulfill them, we experience guilt. To that end all humans experience both normal anxiety and normal guilt to some extent because none of us perfectly fulfill all of our own potential. Notice that May is not talking here about neurotic anxiety or guilt, but ontological or existential anxiety and guilt. That is to say, if you are born a human being these come with the package just as self-awareness does.

         May identifies three forms of ontological guilt:

  • Eigenwelt, or guilt against oneself or one’s own world which arises from not having fulfilled your own potential as a unique individual.
  • Mitwelt, guilt related to one’s fellow men which arises from the fact that since each of us is an individual, each necessarily perceives his fellow man through his own limited and biased eyes. This means that he always to some extent does violence to the true picture of his fellow man and always fails fully to understand and meet the other’s needs.
  • Umwelt, guilt against or separation from nature which arises from our separation from nature as a whole.

         May contends that normal ontological guilt does not carry the negative connotation of neurotic guilt. It is not the guilt that arises from our upbringing, religious beliefs or one’s culture. This onotological or existential guilt has constructive effects in our personality development. To that end it is a useful element in helping us to develop such characteristics as empathy, compassion, tenderness, humility, benevolence, modesty, sympathy, altruism, good will and sensitivity to others.

         He further points out that both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as the existentialist philosophers who followed them, indicated that the two chief sources of Western man’s anxiety and despair were: (1) loss of a sense of being as a unique creative individual – as compared to a cog of mass culture; and (2) loss of contact and communion with the natural environment.

         At a time when our government is engaged in: an illegal war; in mass detention of citizens as ‘enemy combatants’; using torture in violation of the Geneva Conference; wiretapping U.S. citizens in contravention of FISA ; and subverting international efforts to alleviate the effects of global warming, it would appear that our current state of affairs bear out the accuracy of May’s perceptions.

         We are indeed alienated from ourselves, from our fellow man, and from nature. Our ever increasing level of personal and collective isolation and alienation suggests that it may be time for us to go back and read (or reread) Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd or Becker’s Denial of Death and Escape from Evil. Or perhaps, watch or read Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and begin acting on some of the ten things he suggests that any individual can do to help stop global warming.

         From what I’ve been reading in the news these days, the alternative seems to be to sit around getting fat while our democracy and our planet go down the tube. All this leaves me to wonder will our ‘normal’ anxiety about the state of the world ultimately move us toward action, or ‘normal’ guilt?

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