Sunday, November 19, 2017

Testing a mindfulness hypothesis #1: Why does he always lie to me?


I feel that mindfulness is more of an investigation through the medium of awareness than just a practice. If so, then the question is: investigation into what? This is where mindfulness hypothesis comes to picture. Perhaps there are several versions of hypothesis that can be investigated. In this article, we take one version of the hypothesis and explore how it can be tested. The hypothesis is: Behind every sustained negative emotion, there is a cognitive illusion.

Let’s see if we can understand the terms in the hypothesis first. What’s a negative emotion? Anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, blame, guilt are some of the forms in which a negative emotion manifests. Whenever we carry a negative emotion, it feels heavier. In the absence of negative emotion, we feel lighter, we smile more etc. What’s a cognitive illusion? It
is a sustained gap between perception and reality. We are all familiar with optical illusions e.g. see the picture of Necker cube on the side. It has two ways in which it protrudes out – to the left and to the right. At a time, you can see only one of the two – not both. And whichever way you see, that’s what feels real. This is an example of an optical illusion. Similarly, we may feel one person right and the other person wrong in a situation and it could also be, like Necker cube, an illusion. You feel, one person is right because you see it only one way. A cognitive illusion typically involves misattribution – an incorrect cause-and-effect relationship created by thought process.

Let’s take an example that came up in my workshop. Whenever someone close to me (spouse or a close friend) lies to me – then I get upset. And when the person lies repeatedly, then I get mad. Now, mindfulness hypothesis says that since there is a negative emotion involved here (getting upset and mad), there is a cognitive illusion lurking behind. How would one begin to investigate into this situation? Note that before any such investigation can begin, a doubt should be entertained first, “Could I be wrong?” In the absence of this doubt, there is no beginning.  

Perhaps it would help to see how we learn about a magician’s magic. If you watch a YouTube video of a magician, and see the comments from viewers, many times, you will see people pointing out specific time e.g. 2:29 where the magician is doing some sleight of hand (e.g. see this blog on Penn and Teller Fool Us). Of course, if you watch the video in regular speed, it is difficult to see the trick. But if we run the video in slow motion then it becomes easier to see. Similarly, is there a way we can run the story in slow motion and check the “sleight of hand” of the thought?

One way to do this is to simulate the situation – in this case – spouse or friend lying to me – when I am seated in a cosy environment – say drinking a cup of coffee at home and see if the anger still simmers up. Watch how the tape of how he is doing this on purpose is playing again and again and how that still upsets us. This happens in spite of the fact that it is coming purely from memory. This simulation may help us see that springing up of a negative emotion may be an automatic process – almost mechanical.

Once we see this automaticity (if we see it), then we can ask the next question: Can the thought that led to my friend’s behaviour of lying to me be also an automatic response? How do I know if there was a choice involved? Some of these questions might lead us to observe the compulsions under which all of us are trapped. And we may see the futility of holding him responsible for the behaviour.

Of course, the crux lies in identifying such situations that upset us and carrying out these tests through run-time observation. Just carrying out an intellectual exercise would not help. One needs to pay attention to the train of thought as it moves around in these situations.

Monday, November 13, 2017

3 responses that hinder learning from the book of life


This year I got an opportunity to facilitate a two-day workshop on “Mindfulness on the go” in three different places – Kuppam (Andhra), Bangalore and Mumbai. The workshop follows an approach which is broadly called “learning from the book of life”. This means learning from one’s own life rather than according to a scripture or textbook. Many of the participants are open to this approach or at least curious to know more about it. However, some are not able to digest it easily. Here are three responses I have received from those who find this approach not so palatable.

1.      What about my favourite book of wisdom? Some people believe that the most profound wisdom is captured in some book such as Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads or some such scripture. In fact, some of them know such books by heart and they are able to recite several stanzas. However, when it comes to integrating any of the wisdom in their daily life, not much would have happened. Some have it in their to-do list to study their favourite book of wisdom, but haven’t got around to doing it yet. In any case, since they carry such a strong belief that real wisdom can only come from their favourite book of wisdom, they are not so open to learn from the book of life. There is nothing wrong with learning from a religious scripture. However, that’s different from learning from the book of life. And because of their fixedness on one particular book and its content, they are unable to appreciate learning from the book of life.

2.      Lost in the story in the book: Some people are interested in learning from the book of life. In fact, they are eager to narrate a story from the book e.g. how a close friend or spouse  lied to him consistently and how it is his right to be upset about it etc. Now, when you are learning from a book, before you get into the story, it is important to pay attention to the structure of the book. E.g. the book may be torn and may have lost a few pages, or the book may have loose pages which are jumbled up or the book may be translated and the translation may have errors etc. In fact, in case of book of life, thought process may be playing the role of a translator and a shorthand writer combined into one. And the story about which you are getting upset may be a result of some error in translation. Hence, it is important to pay attention to the process of how the book is being put together and presented to you. Getting upset about a jumbled up story has no meaning.

3.      “Touch me not” pages: Some people are interested in learning from the book of life. And they make a beginning in paying attention to the process and structure of the book. Until, the subject matter turns to something they are very protective about e.g. religious beliefs or political ideology or a relationship that has gone sour or some idea close to their heart. These pages become “touch me not” pages. There is no room for investigation because the story is frozen and the book is believed to be in perfect order in those pages. This limits the learning because perhaps some of the greatest nuggets of wisdom may be hidden in that area of the book.

In short, there are three responses which hinder learning from the book of life: One, a belief that real wisdom lies only in certain scriptures and nowhere else. Two, getting lost in the story (content) of the book and as a result losing track of the errors in the process and structure of the book and three, treating some of the pages as “touch me not” and refusing to investigate that area of the book.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Progress, process and possibility: 3 words and their new meanings


Self-investigation is a process that involves testing some of the long held beliefs. If some of the beliefs are seen to be false then that results into old words acquiring new meanings. In this article, I would like to present three such words: progress, process and possibility – which have acquired new meanings for me through the process of self-investigation.

Progress: Right from school days the word progress carried significance. Initially, it meant gaining height and weight and getting good marks in exams. Later on it meant getting into a good college, getting a good job, getting married, owning stuff like a house, a car etc. Somewhere along the way, I came across books by two spiritual teachers – J. Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi. JK said – root cause of human suffering is the process of becoming. And Ramana said – there is no separate entity there to progress. I don’t know why but I took them seriously – at least treated these as serious hypothesis to be tested. This was twenty years ago. And I haven’t found any evidence to disprove them so far. As a result, the word progress has acquired a new meaning – progress, to me, is a cognitive illusion – a thought created gap between perception and reality. To get a glimpse of how this could possibly be the case, it would help to look at the new meaning of the second word – process.

Process: Be it history or science, it was about understanding the interaction and relationship between various entities. Physics involved large bodies like planets and small particles like atoms and electrons and the forces among them. History involved kingdoms, nations, their leaders and the wars. In either case, objects were primary and their interaction was secondary. How does the earth attract the moon? Did Gandhi help India win freedom from British? In short, objects were primary and the process was secondary. Somewhere along the way, came a doubt: what if the process is primary and everything else secondary? This investigation takes a new turn when you question whether I am primary or the process of perception and meaning making is primary. Here is how I see this currently: All there is – is the Unknown which is a process of meaning getting expressed into matter, thoughts and actions and simultaneously getting compressed back into the Unknown. Every moment there is a perception and meaning making. If perception is with clarity, then the meaning is harmonious and gets expressed accordingly. If there is misperception then the meaning is conflict-ridden and gets expressed accordingly. Every object is only a relatively stable structure in this process flow – similar to a vortex in a river – never separate from it. Desire for progress comes out of misperception when the relatively stable structures (such as this body or the nations) are taken to be independent entities. And the meaning making process tries to make the entity (e.g. this body) more secure making progress (e.g. by getting a better job). How does a conflict-ridden meaning begin to change?

Possibility: Every conflict has a notion of impossibility inherent in it. Every anxiety involves imagining a future – a what-if scenario – say of losing a job or a breaking of a relationship – and also carrying a rigid belief that the imagined scenario should be impossible (must not happen). However, sometimes perception undergoes a shift and clarity emerges in the process. This is called an insight. And through insight there is a perception of the futility of the process of becoming. Then the rigidities which lead to impossibilities dissolve and turn into possibilities. Then every opinion, every meaning is seen as a possibility and nothing as impossible. In the worst case scenario of someone telling, “You are stupid!” may also involve a possibility of learning something new about oneself. Perhaps there is an opportunity to say “Sorry” if one has inadvertently hurt someone. This is when the meaning making process becomes creative. This understanding results in a living where every moment comes with several possibilities and enriches life.

In short, I see currently that progress is a cognitive illusion when meaning making process misperceives reality and begins to treat relatively stable structures as independent entities. Sometimes, through insights, the meanings undergo a shift and that melts its rigidities. Then every moment brings several possibilities and makes life is a continuous learning process. Who knows? The meanings might change tomorrow.

References:

1.      J. Krishnamurti’s reference to process of becoming as the root cause of suffering is in “Ending of time” Chapter 1.

2.      Ramana Maharshi highlighting that there is no separate entity to make progress can be found in multiple discussions in the book – “Talks with Ramana Maharshi”. E.g. talk 380.

3.      Seeing every object as a relatively stable structure like a vortex in a river is a metaphor I came across in David Bohm’s writing and interviews. E.g. “Wholeness and implicate order” Chapter 1.