Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Power of Subjective Attitudes

Originally posted on February 2, 2010

Responding to a NY Times article  about science and discovery in December, 2009, the article speaks about how our consciousness continues to grow as we discover new horizons in astronomy, sub-atomic physics, and so forth. This brings up an interesting epistemological issue! (Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that asks, “How do we know what we think we know?). As a psychiatrist with an interest in depth psychology —not particularly Freudian, but rather influenced by many who explore the unconscious—Jung, Adler, Fromm, Perls, Berne, etc.—, and as one who contemplates the power of mind, and am increasingly impressed with its power, I think that whatever discoveries we think we make about the objective world, the “out there,” become rationalized as co-created “evidence” for certain biases within human thinking, biases that reflect personal, current and emerging worldviews. The present paradigm is that most of the relevant truth that needs to be discovered exists “out there” in the material realm. I would reverse the proportions, though. I think the emerging paradigm is that mind to a much larger degree than previously considered  co-creates what we think of as reality, and that the most relevant parts are not “out there” to be discovered, but instead involve the attitudes we have allowed to dominate our experience. Of course it would be foolish, it seems to me, to argue that no reality is objective, but my point is simply to give the proper weighting to how much we unconsciously shape our interpretations of what we perceive.

One metaphor I find useful for imagining the nature of the complexity in the mind is to think of the ways colors are represented on a television or computer screen. Each point of color or pixel is itself a combination of three primary colors expressed in degrees of saturation and also with various degrees of brightness and contrast. That is blendings of, red, green, blue, black and white. As a result, each color has its own several digit number. By analogy, then, what if the three variables of essential life attitude involved not red, green and blue, but rather love, faith, and responsibility. What if each of these key qualities could also be represented by a number on a scale from 1 to 100. As a rough estimate, let’s consider that most people operate in the middle realm, with only saints scoring high and the most problematic of humans scoring low.

Let’s take a moment to consider these three variables: Love refers to the degree we open to others and the world, and move away from contraction, reaction—its most extreme form being hate. Faith is mainly a kind of willed optimism, a turning towards hope, a conscious affirmation of something more positive. It is a move away from the powerful lure of pessimism, cynicism, and nihilism. Responsibility is the taking on of what must be engaged, the opposite of giving into the illusion of passive victimization. Responsibility requires a great number of component skills, but it’s a positive feedback cycle: The more skills you develop, the more you feel confidence that you have the tools to develop other skills.

In a general sense, a severe absence of love and a preponderance of hate and fear; the loss of hope or will; and the more pitiful states of helpless victimization create experiences that are somewhat hellish for the individual or those upon whom he can project or displace these feelings (by being cruel). In contrast, the experience of more heavenly living might be imagined to accompany the higher degrees of expression of love, faith, and responsibility.

There’s also a positive feedback loop among the three principles: A slight edge or increase in the Love dimension gives more social support for pulling up the other two; a slight increase in the faith dimension gives more courage for opening up the love a bit. Responsibility rises is pulled forward, too, as the other two improve. I envision it being like three color parameters, each one affecting the others. Unlike colors, these qualities cannot in fact be separated, but the mind can at least identify these three facets.

In this metaphor, most humans exercise these qualities to some moderate degree, and my point is that we can learn to develop or upgrade our practice a little bit at a time, and more over longer periods of time. The practice involves increasing degrees of attention and intention, a bit of discipline balanced with surrender. Indeed, many kinds of wisdom must be developed and balanced, and it is a life-long endeavor. There’s no ultimate “there” that can be reached, and the qualities are more what you do than what you “are,” so if you stop doing them, you get little benefit from the fact that you may have done them better last week or last year.

Part of this challenge also involves an awareness that progress in developing these qualities is hindered by the sheer inertia of the follies of our historical era, the limitations of our imagination, the lack of development of skills and potentials we don’t even recognize. Part of the game is learning to recognize and resist the often subtle temptations to give in to the less worthy qualities in our minds and hearts.

Another challenge is to resist those who would offer short-cuts, in effect promising that you can make major leaps in love, faith, or responsibility. I don’t think this is the way it works. Indeed, the lure of short-cuts feeds that childish part of the mind that thinks that it would be nice if it were easy and simple, so maybe it is easy and simple. But it’s not. The search for short-cuts actually generates a variety of other kinds of foolishness and illusion that in turn tend to counteract authentic development. For example, the desire for shortcuts lead to cults, magical thinking, simplistic thinking, over-idealizing leaders, or excessively devaluing them if they don’t come up with quick and easy “answers.” Folks don’t want to really grapple with the simple reality that you get what you pay for.

The key point is that our experience of life is more affected by our attitudes and expectations (i.e.,  especially regarding the three dimensions of love, faith, and responsibility) than it is by what comes at us from the “outside,” from objective reality. This isn’t always so, of course, but in the main, more often than not, for most people, our attitudes shape our experience more than any objective perceptions. If we’re fearful, a glance from another person may be seen as more judgmental or hostile than it actually is.

I have been struck by the way these attitudes affect our unconscious selection as to what is evidence, what is relevant, what support this or that attitude. There’s so much stuff there that can reinforce an unconscious decision to retreat or advance on any of those parameters. So what needs to shift is something that few folks do, which is to consciously will, intend, and  attend to what can and will support an advance in any or all of the parameters of love, faith, and responsibility, and turn away from contrary evidence.

Of course, this needs to be done with wisdom, because there are occasions where that kind of policy can lead to foolish denial. So there’s a measure of caution that can be woven into this equation. But since there are so many little instances where it doesn’t matter, it’s better to err on the side of the positive. Giving too much weight to disappointments and resentments can generate habitual attitudes—and the key word here is “habitual.” It is a movement towards wisdom to avoid letting things be habitual in your mind without consciously re-choosing what those things are. (Many habits are nicely functional and don’t cause problems. But as life goes on, some of these need to be reconsidered.). What’s needed is a freshness, a willingness to re-think, improvise, create in the moment in light of present circumstances. Again, I’ll concede that a give situation might call for being more restrained or wary, suspicious even. For some things, like telephone solicitations, I don’t even give them a chance to make their pitch. But on the whole, an urge to be more giving and responsible is at least a direction I want to pursue.

The point of this essay is to realize that much of our culture and much of our education has operated with a bias towards the idea that if we only knew what was real out there, life would be better. I think that’s so to some extent, but we must add to it that even more important is the need to recognize that our attitudes shape our experience of reality and those attitudes are by no means rational reactions to the world. We bring the past and our own defensiveness to bear on the situation.

To re-state, the old paradigm is that objective reality, what is “out there,” what is able to be measured and validated by consensual perception, is what counts. This for some goes so far as to be a belief that objective reality is not just the dominant reality, but the only reality. I’m offering a counter: What if the “out-there” objectivity of reality is maybe only 10 -40% of what really is real, and what if the majority involves the weighting we give to our perceptions as determined by our habitual attitudes!?

A corollary of this approach is the humble recognition that there are powerful seductions to lapse into less love, more hate; less optimism, more pessimism; less responsibility, more blaming. If we don’t have these ideas clear in our mind we’ll fall prey to these temptations to regress into lower consciousness. It’s not as if we go over wholeheartedly to the dark side, as in the Star Wars movies Anakin gives into the role of Darth Vader; that was a melodrama of good and evil; most folks waver between better and a just a little worse, tempered by hypocrisy and rationalization.

Another corollary as mentioned above is that one makes shifts gradually in life, as if digging a groove, a rut, in a road, even though there are other ruts that tend to take you off the righteous path. It’s a matter of consciousness and habit building and resisting temptations. I’m not talking about the big temptations to rob a bank or have an affair, I’m referring to the little more tempting temptations to be just a tiny bit less loving, responsibile, or faith-filled. (And again, that doesn’t mean being piously or strictly observant in a religious sense, but more just expecting the best from yourself and others and life.)

When I shared this with a friend, he enthusiastically encouraged me, writing: “I agree that the most fundamental and worthwhile aspects of being human are faith, love, and responsibility. And that they are the only things that can bring peace to the mind and order to our inner universes. The seemingly meaningless chaos of the perceived outer world does often seduce us into apathy or anger, but is also capable of provoking us to be more compassionate. I try hard for it to be compassion for me, but it is a struggle that I often face moment to moment. To me the vital glue that has held together the human race though the most violent and deadly of times is composed primarily of faith, love, and responsibility.This friend also wrote: “I recently visited with a relative in another town and he appears to me to be an example of a lost soul living in fear and depression. He sees nothing of real meaning in anything. It is mostly “the man” taking advantage of us. Its all a huge scam – everything. When I mentioned faith, love and responsibility he responded that these as just examples of some of the more subtle methods used to enslave us, to rob us, to destroy us. Your example of the hero’s journey is the answer I should have given him. It would greatly appeal to him, I believe. May I quote or sent him your email? Thank you for your wonderful response. I feel that I am becoming more aware and that the human race is slowly, very slowly evolving into something more thoughtful and compassionate even amidst the deafening clamor of chaos.”

Considering this email, I was confirmed in my impression that there are indeed so many reasons, so many allurements, so many excuses to give in to the dark side: It seems that there are too many bad guys, too many other cheaters—you’d be a sucker if you didn’t do your share of the cheating and looting, too. So many people seem to hate you or what you stand for, it seems only right that you should hate them back. Hey, if we could kill all those bad guys, then the world would be all clean and nice, right? (Oh, the Nazis tried that and look what happened? Hm.)

Indeed, one of the attractions of cynicism and nihilism is that it views the world as mostly crap, which leads to thoughts such as: “Well, there’s no point in pushing yourself to do anything more than try to get what’s coming to you.” Such attitudes seem to make life easier, because there’s less responsibility. There’s also a kind of fun in feeling superior and a little powerful in your anger as you rail at the “gummint” and the corruption of the politicians—but are lured by the demagogues who feed on your discontent. Meanwhile, you don’t have to push yourself to make the world a better place; you can feel that it doesn’t matter one way or the other if you truly waste your time in pastimes, intoxication, petty struggles for status. And there’s always the excitement of the quest for sex, even if it’s only through internet pornography.

So there are lots of inducements to choose to dampen your capacity for faith, love, or responsibility. I think it’s the hero’s journey to turn away from such temptations and to dare to press towards one’s ideals. More, I think that this turning back or forth in ten thousand ways makes up the aggregate of our experience of reality, our co-creation with each other and the world in bringing forth what we unconsciously expect. That we can choose to expect the better seems to be still a hardly-appreciated idea; the illusion dominates that the world exists independent of us, our minds, our attitudes. This mini-essay disputes that. Your comments can help, this is all provisional and new.

In Summary,  it’s not a matter of the whole of our being advancing. Rather, we humans are more multi-focal, and the shifts in role, more of this or that in this or that role, makes for the “pictures” on the screen. These account not only for what we think we’re experiencing from the outside, but equally the qualities of receptivity and distortion imposed on those experiences by our attitudinal expectations, our interpretations and how these perceptions are then affected by our intentions, how much or little faith (optimism-pessimism), love, or responsibility we bring to the perceptions.

As I contemplated life, I was struck by the degree to which our experience of life is affected by our attitudes and expectations, and that these in turn reinforce the quality of experience. The content of the perception—whether traffic, a relative’s behavior, the latest situation at work, what’s on the news, and so forth—tends to be either an occasion for validation of attitudes of less faith, love, or responsibility (or even their negative counterparts); or an opportunity to resist that lure and to affirm more faith, love, and responsibility, thus giving an extra charge and potential to these experiences.

It seems to me as I consider the big picture, the “what’s it all about,” that the mind gets seduced into thinking about what is “out there,” and further into thinking that what we are thinking about relates to what is perceived “out there.” But this is illusion, a cover-up, an avoidance of true insight and responsibility! In fact, whatever we are perceiving is feeding our preconceptions, our biases, our expectations, our beliefs. Oh, sure, I’ll even concede that some of what we are perceiving is really out there, mysterious, luring us onward. But I’ll say again that the proportion of how people really live their lives is hardly affected by this interface with the outer world. Where the real substance of life occurs, the heaviest dynamic process happens, is in the realm of how much do we choose to move towards more or less love, faith, and responsibility, given the latest news of the cosmos?

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