Thursday, December 22, 2016

Four hurdles in self-discovery

It is widely accepted in cognitive sciences (psychology, neuroscience) as well as in spiritual literature that our thinking process sustains various forms of illusions. Self-discovery is a process of learning through introspection about the process of thinking especially about how it creates and sustains cognitive illusions. It has been emphasized in some form or the other by various spiritual masters such as Buddha (Mindfulness), Jiddu Krishnamurti (self-investigation), Ramana Maharshi (self-inquiry) etc. If the learning process has been around for a few thousand years, why are most of us still trapped in conflicts, be it personal, religious, global? While it is easy to get started into self-discovery journey, anyone who has dabbled in this would know that the approach has several challenges. In this article I would like to mention, from my experience, what the top four challenges in self-discovery are.

Lack of urgency: Every day we are tackling so many tasks at home and at work that keep us busy.  In the midst of all this, self-observation doesn’t appear that urgent. At times, it feels as though it may be important but then something urgent comes up and self-discovery takes a backseat. Every day we are navigating life by evaluating dangers associated with various events – some real ones like a possible car accident while crossing the street or some imaginary ones like losing the job etc. We perhaps also sense a danger associated with cognitive illusions such as illusion of understanding. However, we don’t see that it the cognitive illusion is THE danger we are facing every day, perhaps every moment. To use Jiddu Krishnamurti’s words, we don’t see that it is like having your house on fire. He refers to it as a “skill” to see the danger. Unless we see the largeness of the looming danger associated with the cognitive illusions, there is no urgency in self-discovery.

“In order to” attitude: Every day we see unfairness around us – poverty, corruption, social injustice etc. We also see our own deficiencies or inadequacies – our inability to help or our mistakes that may hurt us or others etc. We are also busy safeguarding our interests – security, health etc. Every activity we do, we are doing it “in order to” improve things – my health, wealth, social inequality etc. We carry forward this “in order to” attitude to self-discovery and say that I want to pursue self-discovery “in order to” become better, perhaps enlightened. However, we don’t see that “in order to” attitude may be preventing us from learning about the thought process. It is like using an anti-virus software to locate the virus on your PC and not seeing that the anti-virus program is also infected with the same virus that you are trying to locate. If “in order to” is not the right attitude, then what is the correct attitude? The right spirit is that of “learning”. Learning for the sake of learning, not for improving or changing anything. However, the “process of becoming” is so deeply embedded in us that we easily slip into “in order to” mode.

Electrochemical smog: Imagine driving in dense fog. You can’t do it safely even if you are driving a BMW with all its navigation technology. Unless we see things clearly, it is difficult to get our act in order. Unfortunately, our thinking process is generating huge amount of smog – electrochemical smog – that is preventing us from seeing what’s going on. Why does the brain create this smog? Because it is operating on pain-avoidance principle and not on correctness principle. All addictions are of this nature. Overeating, anxiety or even addiction to positive thoughts is of similar nature. Positive thoughts secrete endorphins which cover up the pain receptors. “I will work hard, then I will get promoted, then I will buy that house… Aha…it feels good.” Even meditation may also generate smog, “I will meditate, then I will have an awakening experience, then I will reach a state of Turiya.” And that releases endorphins to cover up the pain caused by the sense of incompleteness. The first step is to learn to stay with the pain and say, “Let’s see if we can investigate the source of the pain.”

Fear of uncertainty: There are times when thinking process isn’t generating dense smog. The vision starts to get some clarity. But then what we see may be scary. For example, we may have lived all along with a self-image and its associated elements like educational degree (say a PhD) or the job title or the wealth etc. And suddenly the clarity of vision may show that these are not important. It may feel like somebody is pulling the rug under our feet. Out of fear from seeing “what is” we go back to the smog world. It needs some kind of resolve to see “what is” no matter what.

In summary, we need to see that our house is on fire (urgency), we need to learn about the thought process for its own sake and not in order to get somewhere, we need to stay with the pain and locate its source otherwise we are generating the smog and finally we need a resolve to see “what is” no matter how fearful it looks.

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  1. Your observations on self=discovery are really worth experimenting by everyone who is interested
    in spirituality. It's a continuous process while living day-to-day life.

  2. Very well-written article! I am afraid that to many, an implied route mandated by religion, societal/peer pressures and/or family prejudices leaves little room for self-discovery. To quote a Pink Floyd song, it is far less painful to just stand on the conveyor belt of life than to do any independent thinking because we, as a whole, "have become comfortably numb."

    1. Thanks for the comment, Padmaja. I like the Pink Floyd song line "I have become comfortably numb". So apt.