Am just back from my motorbike journey to Wales and Scotland. I had a good time.
I walked up and down Snowdon. (My legs! Arghh.) The landscape of Snowdonia has a brilliantly happy vibe, full of joy.
Scotland too was beautiful and the stay at the Findhorn Foundation inspirational. The over-lighting spirit of the place is as strong and loving as ever, but the community members are understandably still orienting themselves following the effects of lockdown and the fires. I was intrigued by how they decide their next steps and make their policy decisions. This is always a challenge in utopian communities. Talking with Findhorn members set me thinking. . .
So here is one of my longer pieces – with a few diagrams to help illustrate my thoughts. It is all about thinking. Some thinking creates suffering. And some thinking creates enjoyable flow.
The Survival Dynamic
Here is an obvious idea. Our thoughts often have an emotional investment. This means that we want them to be respected, welcomed and appreciated. And we feel threatened and aroused if our thoughts are disrespected or challenged.
This is a good illustration of the Buddhist teaching that ‘desire is the source of suffering.’
We desire that our thoughts be respected. If our desire is not met, we experience suffering.
Thoughts + Feelings = Emotional Investment = Arousal if disrespected or challenged.
The current arguments around covid vaccinations are uncomfortable examples of how unpleasant emotionally invested thinking can be. The power of the emotional charge can be intense.
In a different world there could be a relaxed conversation between vaccine sceptics and vaccine advocates. This could be similar to how cooks might debate the best recipe for chocolate cake. The discussion could be passionate and noisy, but filled with creativity, flow and friendship.
The crucial triggering difference between emotional thinking and friendly creative thinking is the instinctive biological dynamic of threat and survival.
In emotional thinking there is always an unconscious dynamic at work. When our opinions are challenged, the vagal nerve is aroused. The gut becomes uncomfortable and acidic. Heart rate loses its integrity and breath loses its natural rhythm. The brain goes into the electrochemistry of fight/flight. The endocrine system ditches its cocktail of wellbeing hormones and releases a flood of anxiety neuropeptides.
As a result clear thinking is impossible. Feelings overwhelm the ability to be rational. Conversation becomes conflict.
When people with an emotional investment in their thinking are challenged or disrespected, there is an instinctive arousal as they unconsciously perceive a threat to their survival. But why do people feel such a primal emotion when there is no actual attempt to kill them?
My doctoral research was in identity politics and how we become glued to our sense of self. This sense of identity can be so powerful that we may be prepared to die for it. We can see this throughout history where people volunteer for death to maintain their ideology, religion and nationality.
The power of this sense of identity comes from the social and psychological safety it provides. Think of any cultural clan — lads, ladettes, greens, tories, bikers, Trump-ists, Obama-ists, bankers, goths, billionaires, vegans — and notice the psychological glue that binds them to that identity. It is not superficial. Through the processes of identification, internalisation and socialisation, it develops into a deep biological and neural groove. Our identity provides a primal sense of security, a compensatory safety in a world where most infants, children, teenagers and adults experience endless micro-aggressions and mini-traumas, as well as full blown abuse.
Enmeshed in this sense of self are our ideas and our opinions. Any challenge to our thinking can therefore be experienced as a threat to our identity and to our survival. Disrespect my clan and you disrespect me.
In my home town of Glastonbury I know people who were once friends, but now avoid each other because of their disagreements over vaccines. On both sides they are so emotionally invested in their thinking that the biological imperatives of survival are triggered the moment they start discussing the topic. We can clearly see this too in politics, community processes, religion, identity and culture wars. These types of argument are deeply confrontational and uncomfortable.
Education, Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence
One solution of course is good education. Education not knowledge.
At its best education teaches us how to enjoy thinking, how to explore and develop knowledge. Opinions based in beginner’s knowledge mature into thoughtful explorations, knowing that there is always new knowledge. New thoughts and perspectives are harvested through conversation, research, contemplation and being open to new insights. The further we go in education the more we appreciate the elasticity and infinite scope of knowledge and ideas.
Mindfulness and meditation are useful too. They provide strategies that help us work with the feelings that may be triggered by challenging thoughts. Sitting in the calm of meditation we can bring into our awareness those thoughts that usually provoke and trigger us. Vaccines. Governments. Global warming. Difficult family members. Identity politics. Trump. The meditation strategy is straightforward:
We bring the provocative thought into our awareness.
We notice the uncomfortable arousal.
We compassionately welcome the feeling. We breathe into it. We calm and integrate it.
In this way we train our body and neural grooves to stay calm when experiencing challenge.
Noticing these feelings and managing them wisely is the heart of emotional intelligence.
The first year groundhog day problem
Psychotherapy of course can be very helpful too in disengaging our thoughts from the unconscious, instinctive arousals of threat and survival.
Imagine if politicians — for example the Labour Party extreme left or the Conservatives extreme right — enjoyed the benefits of psychotherapy. They would learn to have some distance from their feelings, opinions and glued-in identities. Emotional devotion to ideologies would be a thing of the past.
This approach would also be relevant to religious gatherings, conclaves and synods, so that fundamentalists would temper their passions.
But there can also be a negative side to psychotherapy when it comes to conflict and disagreements.
I have experienced this in psychotherapy training centres, in intentional communities and in many couples. When discussing hot topics, we can get caught up in endlessly recycling our emotions. We can justify this by asserting that the release of our emotions is not only therapeutically beneficial, but also a vital and ‘authentic’ part of group process.
This is what I call the ‘first year groundhog day problem.’
In psychotherapy and counselling trainings, the first year is usually about helping students recognise that emotions and feelings are driven by unconscious dynamics. In the first year we learn to identify and express these feelings, rather than deny and repress them. Feel it – Express it – Release it.
In the second, third and fourth years, we then become skilled in recognising, managing and maturing these unconscious dynamics.
But some folk stay stuck in the first year, endlessly recycling their emotions, justifying their behaviour as necessary and healthy, when in fact it is immature. In this scenario groups, organisations and couples get stuck in emotional process. There is little clear thinking and painfully slow progress.
This does not mean that there is no space for creative passion, especially in the face of abuse and injustice. But this passion needs to be conscious and guided by clear, reflective thinking.
There is a place for emotional process.
And there is a place for intelligent discussion.
It can be difficult and exhausting to do them together.
The Spiritual Perspective
In spiritual development, clean thinking without emotional attachment is a crucial stage on the journey towards more love, more compassion and more connection with the great mystery and beauty of life. It is about the expansion of consciousness and wisdom.
In inadequate language, we might describe this as moving from lower to higher mind, from small to big mind. This means an expanding awareness of what our minds and hearts can access, perceive and cognise.
As a first step in consciousness expansion, it is absolutely necessary that we are able to step back, and observe ourselves with love and compassion. We watch our feelings and thoughts. We witness. We empty. We expand. We reflect. The rational, higher mind, Plato suggested, is proof of the human soul.
Talking with my colleagues and students over the years, and from personal experience, I know that this is tough spiritual practice — being awake, being observant and compassionate, being embodied and aware, being comfortable with unknowing, being mindful and fully in the heart.
This aspect of spirituality requires passionate motivation, discipline and a willingness to flow gracefully with the tides of the natural, psychological and spiritual worlds.
So where does this leave us in the real world?
It leaves us with the normal disciplines of being a better person.
It reminds us to contain our emotional processes and guide them into suitable contexts.
It reminds us that so many of humanity’s problems and abuses originate in bad thinking – thinking that is fuelled by unconscious and primal drives.
We need those teachers who clap their hands a few inches from our faces and exclaim: Wake up!
Moment by moment we are invited to be conscious and aware. This is not stern and earnest behaviour. It is beautiful and enlightening. Each breath brings new patterns.
I hope that is helpful.
Thinking in progress . . .