Second Thoughts

image: public domain from pixabay CC0
On several occasions recently I found myself getting angry or anxious, and then almost immediately realized how inappropriate and futile my reaction was. I read about an act of destructive greed, and read an article with a preposterous and disturbing argument about how we should behave as humans. And I witnessed acts of aggression, fury, pettiness, and unreasonableness, a couple of which were directed, more or less, at me.

My initial reaction in each case was profound annoyance (and an awareness and curiosity about the fact that anger is often a mask for fear). My second reaction was one of astonishment at my initial reaction: How could ‘I’ still be getting so upset at beliefs and behaviours that the actors involved had absolutely no control over? What possible value did such a reaction have? Who was it, in fact, having this reaction? It was almost as if I was looking at myself and saying “Who is that person getting angry and frightened and upset?; it’s certainly not me!”

And in a way it wasn’t me. As my awareness grows about the nature of the self, and ‘my’ own self, there is a growing cognitive dissonance not only between what the media, friends etc are saying, and what ‘I’ now believe to be true, but also between what ‘I’ am (still) feeling and thinking and saying, and what ‘I’ now believe to be true. Eckhart Tolle talks about his ‘awakening’ when he reached a point where, he said, he couldn’t ‘stand himself’ any longer, and, at that moment, realized that he ‘wasn’t himself’.

What does it signify when the cognitive dissonance becomes so great that there is a split between the mask or veil of the self and what lies behind that mask or veil? What does it mean to say the mask or veil of the self is actually just a construct, a compelling and persistent illusion? And, more profoundly still, what if there is nothing behind the mask?

Radical non-duality seemingly holds that since there is no ‘real’ you, no free will, and no ‘self’ control, what appears to be learning and ‘self-improvement’ (ie behaving, according to prevailing consensus, in a more useful, mature, knowledgeable, experienced, positive way than ‘you’ used to) is in fact just the inevitable trajectory of beliefs and actions of the character that ‘you’ believe your self to be. Behaviours can (apparently) change and evolve, but no separate individual or will is involved in, or in control of, that change.

Currently our massively stressed and increasingly dis-eased and destructive human civilization seems to be behaving, collectively, badly and unhealthily, but while one person’s psychologically compromised act of anger or violence can certainly provoke a similarly unhealthy response (and the mutual triggering it can produce a feedback loop in which both characters, and possibly whole communities or nations, degenerate into seemingly psychotic behaviour), none of these behaviours is controllable, preventable, or alterable. Also, none of these behaviours is predictable — there are too many variables involved.

Everything is playing out, then, seemingly, the only way it can:

  • When each of us is very young, as a result of some combination of stress, teaching/reinforcement, intellectual capacity and the brain’s cognitive wiring, we suddenly perceive the existence of a separate self and come to believe it to be real, in control, and possessed of free will — to be who ‘we’ really are.
  • Things then apparently happen to ‘us’, and ‘we’ apparently react, and react to our reactions, believing ourselves to be separate and in control when we’re actually not.
  • For some, cognitive dissonance arises, both within ‘us’ and in our relationships with other apparent individuals, because the existence, beliefs and behaviours of the separate self cease to make coherent sense. Of course, we react to that as well.
  • For some, inexplicably and with no control or choice involved, the self apparently falls away. Conditioned reactions of the self-less body continue but gradually diminish in intensity (without a self to ‘own’ and identify with them). The cognitive dissonance likewise dissipates.
  • For others, reactive feedback loops (and, for some, cognitive dissonance) continue to cause unhappiness, suffering and destruction until the person apparently dies, at which time of course the self and dissonance fall away for them too.

So I get angry, and then I get annoyed and confused at my anger (but it continues nonetheless). That anger (or other stressful reaction) hurts others, who react and perpetuate the suffering. The self-annoyance and confusion festers inside. All of this may continue the rest of my life. My clarity that it’s all foolish and unnecessary increases the cognitive dissonance and is enormously frustrating. The clarity and cognitive dissonance may moderate my behaviours, but that’s not something ‘I’ have any control over, any more than I have control over my anger, fear and other reactions. I will do what I will do.

If my (apparent) behaviour is becoming more tolerant, (in part perhaps) because I am more self-aware of its impact on others, (in part perhaps) because I’m attracted to (and have been fortunate enough to find) people who tend to encourage self-awareness, (in part perhaps) because I’m inherently intellectually curious, that more tolerant behaviour has been ‘my’ inevitable life’s trajectory. It’s not something ‘I’ steered or had any control over or deserve any credit for.

Like the future evolution of the planet, my future and my future actions and behaviours are not foreordained or predictable (there are too many unknown and unforeseeable variables), but neither are they controllable — ‘I’ have no ‘free will’ to change them, nor have ‘I’ or could ‘I’ have made any decisions that might have affected them such that ‘I’ would have decided any differently. CBT advocates are terribly misguided (and there’s lots of evidence to support that assessment) — CBT simplistically heaps shame on top of all the other self-judgements and behaviours the individual has no control over, in the absurd belief that will motivate and enable ‘self’-improvement. But there is no ‘I’ to self-improve. There is no ‘I’, period.

So far, so bad.

What then is the (uncontrollable) future trajectory of the character known as Dave, if ‘I’ am self-aware enough to recognize my reactions, fears and anxieties as they arise and know they are foolish, inappropriate, unhealthy, and possibly hurtful or dangerous, but also know ‘I’ have no control over these reactions?

Example: I am conflict-averse and often make what seem obviously suboptimal (in the long-term) decisions to try to keep the peace and so as not to immediately make anyone upset — it’s a very human proclivity to put off confronting a problem until it cannot possibly be put off any longer. When I do so I immediately blame myself for my cowardice (and get anxious about whether the later moment of reckoning will be even more explosive because of my procrastination). And then I get upset with others for putting me in this self-blaming, anxious position, and upset with myself for being upset with them. It’s pretty pathetic, but it’s a behaviour I fall into easily.

Suppose at some point, before there is no choice left but to face the issue, I decide to gird up my courage and confront the problem? Is this my ‘self’ exercising free will and choice? Not at all. At some point the pain of the two no-win situations reaches a tipping point at which my long-term dread outweighs my short-term cowardice, and this can shift over time. ‘I’ have no choice in the matter. It isn’t ‘my’ decision.

I’m clear about that, but the cognitive dissonance ‘I’ feel saying that is huge: it certainly feels like ‘my’ decision. My self rationalizes that I have made a decision, that I have ‘changed my mind’ and decided to act. But of course ‘I’ have not. The decision was made, but not by ‘me’.

An uncompromising radical non-dualist will shake their head and might even agree that this is a tragic situation for ‘me’, but will proffer no solution. There is none. There is no ‘me’, after all. The implications — for all complex predicaments, ‘personal’ and universal — are grave. There is nothing that anyone can choose to do. There is nothing that any one (or by extension any group) can do. As ‘I’ say this, the cognitive dissonance in my head is deafening.

And it gets even worse. Non-duality asserts that time is not real either — that all there is, is eternal. So there can be no hope that any of this will get better ‘over time’. Regrets and nostalgia about the past, dreams and fears about the future are all just mind-games, dis-eases of the self- and time-afflicted brain. But knowing that doesn’t make ‘me’ feel any better. It just ramps up the cognitive dissonance between my self’s absolute certainty that there is a past, a now, and the future, and the greater-than-my-self ‘intuition’ and ‘remembrance’ (those words come closest but neither expresses what this ‘knowing’ really is) that there is no past, no future, not even a now. No time.

My head hurts. It was so much easier when I just believed what I was told, and I am lazy — I don’t like to work hard. But there is, it seems, no going back. I’ve had a glimpse of the raw, astonishing, indescribable perfection of seeing what really is. My head is full of stars, my heart is full of hopeless anticipation, ‘I’ am standing at the precipice with my wings outspread.

And waiting. Having second thoughts. Nothing else I can do.

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7 Responses to Second Thoughts

  1. Janet says:

    I don’t know what CBT is, but I know I find the writings of Pema Chodron tremendously helpful (yes, Tolle too). No human being is a saint (in my worldview anyway). I’m a person who keeps her eyes wide open – have been an environmental activist for decades. I know about the horrible trajectory our species is on (well … it seems horrible to my limited Janet-brain, anyway) & I think there are times when anger is highly appropriate. If we had not all been such a species of sheeple for all these thousands of years, the trajectory would very likely have been very different. I’m seeing a therapist currently, & am being helped to see ways in which I’ve been tripping over my own feet for some years (decades??) now. I don’t even believe humans will be around for very much longer — but I’m keen to “do” relationships as well as possible while we’re still here. & to be kind – as much of the time as possible. & also realistic. & … in the moment, of course, too.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Janet: CBT is cognitive behavioural therapy, the predominant non-medication method of the psychology profession. It basically presumes you can change yourself by thinking differently about yourself (in a more rigorous, focused, aware way). It’s basically the method used in addiction and other 12-step-type programs. I’m down on it (as are many practitioners I know) because its verified success rate is abysmal. And radical non-duality (arguing that the ‘self’ doesn’t really exists and so can’t change itself anyway) would seem to explain why CBT can’t work. Having said all that, I think we are hard-wired to do (what we think to be) our best — we can’t do otherwise. It’s our evolutionary nature. So we learn and grow in self-awareness no matter what. Even though I no longer believe that ‘spiritual paths’ (like Pema’s and Eckhart’s) lead anywhere, I still listen to/watch/read their stuff because I find them interesting, thoughtful and sympathetic.

  3. Kari says:

    “So I get angry, and then I get annoyed and confused at my anger (but it continues nonetheless). That anger (or other stressful reaction) hurts others, who react and perpetuate the suffering. The self-annoyance and confusion festers inside. All of this may continue the rest of my life.”

    I believe (I want to say “understand”, but I’m not sure how that fares when folks believe differently, so I default to using “believe”) this cycle occurs thanks to resistance. Resistance is based on believing that what we’re experiencing is something other than what we’re “supposed” to be experiencing. Acceptance of “what is” is the antidote – not always an appealing one, but a very effective one.

    I think a bit of self-compassion would likely help here. We’re not “supposed” to be or do anything in particular, but we endlessly judge ourselves nonetheless. We even judge ourselves for continuing to judge ourselves, ironically. It’s taken me a long time, and I’m still “working” on it, but I’m getting to a point where I can observe my inner critic a lot more clearly, and notice what she’s doing without buying into it. With no “me” to observe, I don’t believe that would be possible. I don’t resist the existence of “me” either – that requires (fruitless) striving, and I ain’t built for striving :-P

  4. Kari says:

    p.s. I completely agree with you re: CBT, and for the reasons you mention (and more!). You’re welcome to cite me as a psychotherapist on that one, as I’d love for folks to understand we’re not all practitioners of heaping shame on folks for “thinking wrong” ;-)

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Kari, your comment raises the question of whether we can “choose” to accept or resist what is, and whether we can “choose” to be compassionate (including self-compassionate) or not. My Doubting Thomas radar is beeping non-stop these days (along with the noise of cognitive dissonance), but my sense at this point is that while there is no free will, choice or self-control, and while we can’t really choose what to ‘expose’ or ‘open’ ourselves to, those ‘naturally’ endowed with curiosity and hunger for understanding probably ‘naturally’ tend to be exposed to ideas about compassion, humility, and the impossibility of really knowing anything, and that exposure informs their (uncontrolled) learning, beliefs and capacities (particularly for metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha).

    And thanks for your support for my anti-CBT bias. It may be that no therapy can make any difference, but if non-dualism is correct and the best that can happen is that the prison of the illusory self becomes more comfortable, there are clearly forms of therapy (as we’ve discussed before) that can offer more equanimity and comfort than CBT.

  6. Kari says:

    I hear ya, and perhaps that’s why I go down the rabbithole of research myself… I don’t know if therapy of any kind does anything more than buff the exterior. I’m pretty sure CBT can only do that at best, and a lot of damage at worst.

    I’ve recently started learning a lot about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment therapy), and I’m intrigued by whether and to what extent it can help where all else has failed. It basically starts with the frank confession, on the part of the client, that they’ve tried a shitload of things, and none of these has worked… which segues into the therapist playing devil’s advocate and challenging the client to play with the idea that perhaps trying to make the “problem” go away is part of the problem. Or maybe is the problem. Accepting “what is” then becomes a more self-compassionate approach with which to inhabit the notion of “self-as-context” (the observer), rather than hammering the self-story (self-as-content).

    I am a little afraid ACT will get hijacked by the New Age sooner or later, however, and that the hijack will render it soulless – just another neo-capitalist version of “suck it up – we’re all responsible for how we feel; pretend it’s not a problem and feign a dizzy smile”, which is just another shame tactic that’s about as far from healing as it gets. I’ve had enough of passive-aggressive namastes, and ain’t overly keen to hear the same shit in different language, but what will be will be…. and I think it will be…

    Anyhoo, I haven’t made my mind up about whether or to what extent ACT might be effective, but it does interest me because it’s basically doing the opposite of what the cognitive model suggests by taking a metacognitive route. I’m hesitant to comment on the contributions of research thus far, as I’m too well aware of the limitations of science in discovering the effect of any given approach to improving one’s wellbeing… but I’m interested in how ACT is currently pushing the boundaries of the empirical paradigm in psychotherapy research, by attempting to operationalise existential concepts while admitting it’s only necessary because of the way the current paradigm works. Very refreshing!

    But yeah… ultimately, I think you’re right. We’re only going to be able to accept if we can simply just be, and do just that – it can’t be forced. At least it’s clearly a contradiction in terms to force acceptance, so we’re a little closer to revealing the emperor’s nudity in this sense! I’m on the fence for now, though, as I’ve had some positive results in myself from acceptance… and I have been able to find the kind of containment that makes experimenting with the “out-of-controlness” of acceptance feel safer, hence reducing my own tendency toward avoidance or distraction of any unwanted thoughts, feelings or sensations. Things are looking up: I managed to meditate my way through a patch of turbulence for the first time last Friday, despite having been afraid of flying (or, at least, in more mechanical terms, hyperaware of my own sensory reactions to the uncontrollable bumps and blips of airborne transport) for so long. I just finally accepted that this is how I feel; it may never change; but I can handle feeling this way. The result isn’t magical, nor is it particularly fast, but it’s there, and I’m really curious about the emergent observer that’s watching what Kari’s doing, thinking and feeling a lot more dispassionately and compassionately :-)

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Yeah, I’d agree that ACT is less damaging than CBT, though it hangs on to a lot of the latter’s dubious premises about the capacity of the individual to change and its obsession with success measures that seem so subjective as to be meaningless. I’d like to see a reconciliation between ACT and narrative therapy.

    I also share your concerns that the best parts of ACT could easily be coopted, diluted and buried in a misunderstanding of the approach’s key differences. It’s perilous in any case because any therapist who acknowledged the illusion of self would be talking themselves out of a job (nothing that can be done, and no ‘one’ to do it anyway), and would thus risk the anger of the entire entrenched profession. It’s kind of like a climate scientist admitting we’re fucked — professionally suicidal and not a socially popular move.

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