Too Smart for Our Own Good – Part Two

too smart for our own good

In an article last month I described how an unintended consequence of the evolution of large brains (the development of and attachment to ego) is that we have become “Too Smart for Our Own Good“. In that article I posted the graphic above which I explained as follows:

In the model above, which I have developed to attempt to illustrate [Eckart] Tolle’s thesis, wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right side. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted.

By contrast, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left side. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events (real or imagined) — in fact Tolle thinks they are addicted to them. The ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us. Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is developing the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

Blogger Joe Holmes, in response to this post, sent me a paper he had written entitled Disengage the Simulator, which draws on the Daniel Gilbert TED speech on the brain as an “experience simulator”. And while I don’t buy the argument that only human brains can simulate experiences before their bodies try them in “real life” (watching birds and squirrels at the bird-feeder will convince you otherwise), Gilbert does demonstrate that more often than not, this simulator “works really badly”. Joe picks up on this in his paper and explains that this simulator actually creates a “reality” that we mistake for the real one. Our minds create a veil between ourselves and the real world that both prevents us from “seeing” the real world and gets us dreadfully, even pathologically, upset with the created (synthetic) “reality” that is stuck in our heads. So we end up believing the totally fictional stories that are part of this synthetic reality, and having the negative emotional responses to those stories which in turn convince us that these invented stories must be “true” (else why would we be so upset about them)? Our giant brains become a hellish intellectual and emotional prison in which we are stuck, pinned, unable to escape.

Hence our desire for “presence”, to relearn how to live in the now and let go of those stories. Hence the popularity of meditation and other practices that offer the promise of escape.

Joe goes further, and explains what one might call the Tragedy of the Simulator, in the important areas of art and science:

How much are the wonders of our lives worth when we pass through them in a dream? How much is it worth to see a beautiful painting and really only see the thought-bubble, really only see oneself seeing it? How can we enjoy art when our minds are caught up with what it means and with filtering it through a complex machinery of cognition? When we can’t feel things fully, we are farther on the side of curse than gift… While other animals have their eyes pointed towards things in their natural environment, going left and right and everywhere, humans are forever looking upwards into the content of our thought-bubbles.

Without the [capacity for simulation] we have within our own minds, we would never be able to be trapped inside a simulated reality. We suffer from our strength. But when the simulator can be disengaged, when we can stop mistaking it for reality itself, we have a tremendous new tool to play with…
Science, for instance, could not function without a healthy distrust of the status-quo operating system of consciousness, setting up controls and tests to keep our minds from running away with us, because it knows that our intelligence is purchased at the price of easy self-deception. Art knows it is an illusion, and no one mistakes a fictional story for anything but the allegorical truth. So the simulation is free to exhaust itself, in a way, through this safe region where all of its crevices and hidden structures can present themselves. And the mystics and sages throughout history can be read, quite simply and fruitfully, as those individuals who have fully broken free from the seduction of their simulated perceptions. In so doing they are able, once and for all, to think forever outside of the box. The tenets of mystical philosophy all reveal in their underlying structures the realization that the simulator is a simulator: that past and future are illusions and there is only now; that the isolated self is an illusion and there is only one flow of interconnected experience; that all qualities we ascribe to things are within our own minds and cannot be projected onto the things themselves. Enlightenment is a kind of lucid dreaming, where one experiences the image-play of simulations but watches them with a keen eye toward their unreality. Life becomes fun. As humans we will live in a self-made prison until we can stop [mistaking our thoughts, and the emotions they invoke (which emotions in turn evoke more fictional thoughts), for reality].

In his presentation, Gilbert suggests that this Tragedy of the Simulator can actually work both ways: It can persuade us that our fictional negative stories about our past, our future, ourselves and others (and their invoked emotions of guilt, anger, fear, shame, envy, dread and grief) are true. It can also persuade us that our “unrealistically” positive stories about our past, our future, ourselves and others (and their invoked emotions of unwarranted hopefulness, irrational denial, nostalgia about our past etc.) are also true. Both types of illusions are cruel and diabolical: the first type makes us unhappy for no reason, and the second type makes us complacent, expectant and resistant to change, setting us up for disappointment and then, when we become disappointed, more stories and reactions of the first type. And so on, in a vicious cycle.

The challenge of course, is to get beyond being too smart for our own good, to become truly and persistently present and let go of stories, without becoming desensitized or disconnected from ourselves or all those around us suffering from the unintended consequences of being so smart. That’s a difficult balancing act. Perhaps too difficult for me, and for most people. But knowing what you are striving for is a start, at least.

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6 Responses to Too Smart for Our Own Good – Part Two

  1. Brian says:

    Oh it’s exciting, a tremendous tool we work with: “works really badly” or “works really well”. Both of these are true and each of us is both.

    With nowhere to go, nowhere to go but here, I sympathize with error. Of all things, empathy is good for that. Yet I think much is mundane. What’s offered that will not wreck things? It’s what’s put on the table. Poison or it’s not. If not benefit, why?

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  3. del says:

    From watching my pets over the years and from studying wildlife I’ve long believed that — when they even bother to think about us at all — the other animals on this planet probably think we humans are quite insane. To them we must appear dangerously unpredictable, selfish, self-destructive, and perhaps in some ways, deserving of pity.

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  5. Euan says:

    Great post Dave. I have been working hard on at least noticing when I am stuck in stories if not truly disengaging from them and while it is hard it also becomes an exciting and rewarding game. I recently consumed all of Byron Katie’s books and audio programmes and the idea that we are constantly fighting with what is really resonated with me.

  6. Lacey Small says:

    Great post Dave. I have been working hard on at least noticing when I am stuck in stories if not truly disengaging from them and while it is hard it also becomes an exciting and rewarding game. I recently consumed all of Byron Katie’s books and audio programmes and the idea that we are constantly fighting with what is really resonated with me.

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