Why Do We Think the Way We Think?


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Often, most of our serious “thinking” ends up being little more than an attempt to justify our current unthought-out conclusions and prejudgments.

Most of the time we already know where we want our thinking to take us—the conclusion we want to arrive at. And so our “thinking” merely falls in line with that preordained conclusion. —”The execution is over, all that’s left is the trial.”

So too it is with our own thinking most of the time: the conclusion is foregone, all that’s left are the rationalizations (rational lies) and lapses in logic that will get us there.

“People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by the heart which first dictates the conclusion, then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.” – Anthony de Mello

Defend it? Or pseudo-defend it and make our conclusion sound at least plausible and defensible?

And is this dictated by the heart? Maybe. Or maybe the ego. Or maybe these two things are closely related.

One way of looking at the ego is that it is armor, a protective shell that we use to cover over our heart and our sensitive raw and tender spots and emotional nerve endings. Meaning that it is largely a collection of defensive habits and tendencies that we employ unconsciously, automatically, reflexively, out of fear of getting hurt or having to feel or experience a past hurt again.

Thus I would render de Mello’s quote this way—

People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by their ego (their self-protective reality-denying apparatus) which first dictates which conclusion it thinks is most convenient and easiest to tolerate and least unsightly emotionally, and then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.

And much of our thinking occurs at this level—the level of ego or prejudice or emotion. It is emotional thinking, blatantly biased towards ourselves and towards justifying and defending our fears instead of forcing us to face them. —Which for us would represent a fate worse than death—or at least on par with it, because in many ways it is a form of death. Whenever we face something that truly frightens us and might possibly overwhelm us—whenever we force or coax ourselves to face and actually feel a deep-seated fear or terror—we are forcing ourselves (or some part of ourselves) to in some way die—we are forcing ourselves to die to what we know and what we are clinging to as safe and familiar and open up to something different—to what lies on the other side of that particular wall or barrier. Facing what frightens us or what might potentially overwhelm us or cause us a “nervous breakdown” psychologically is in many ways like facing our own execution or extinction.

“Let death—and let banishment, rejection, misfortune, and every other thing that appears appalling and terrifying and that you’d rather ignore—be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” – Epictetus

What does man want?—A quiet life or to truly work on himself? If he wants a quiet life he must never move out of his comfort zones, because there, in his usual roles, with his usual repertoire, he feels comfortable and in control, at peace. But if he wants to work on himself—if he truly wants to awaken—then he must destroy this sort of peace. Because to have both together—comfort and truth—is in no way possible. A person must make a choice.” – Gurdjieff, paraphrased from P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 240.

“Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their thinking, attached to their patterns, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else. A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born. But how can they be made to die? They do not want to die.” Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218.

And it’s not that that fear is a part of us or something we’re attached to, it’s just that the fear is so great, so daunting, that we’ll do anything to avoid having to face it. We want to stay in control—in control, meaning, not having to face our fear. That “in control” apparatus—mostly if not completely defensive, avoidant, controlling, not to mention deceptive and often unscrupulous and manipulative and irrational and unobjective in its logic—is the ego. And it’s what drives our thinking most of the time, and especially when we get stressed.

“Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James

Or justifying them.  Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely trying to avoid dealing legitimately and honestly with their fears. 

Most of our thinking is defensive, self-protective, avoidant, and narcissistic. Most of the time when we think, we don’t so much think as we do justify our own prejudices and immaturities and patterned ways of facing our fears honestly. When we think we do so in order to justify our preset conclusions and underlying need/want of validation, safety, security, and the path of least resistance and least emotional upset and pain. And we’ll never be at a loss for finding and creating and developing arguments to support our prejudices/avoidant tendencies when we’re in this mode (or when our thinking is at this level).

So what’s the solution or alternative to having one’s thinking being driven by one’s ego or one’s false-/comfort-zone- self?

The overall solution is to learn how to think with one’s conscience (what’s best and healthiest and most sane and honest in oneself) and to let one’s conscience guide and or inform one’s thinking.

Which requires above all that we learn how to become (much) more objective and aware of and honest about our own thinking.

But this likely will not happen until we can slow down and look at our own thoughts and thinking from a different angle or from a less self-certain and in a more suspicious and skeptical light. Until we can take one of our own most cherished pet theories/conclusions/biases and play devil’s advocate—or what is more likely, God’s advocate—with it, meaning fight as fiercely to disprove our pet theory (or at least consider fiarly and honestly that the point of our line of reasoning may be to support what’s weakest and wounded and most avoidant and even pathological in us), we haven’t yet begun to actually think. We’re still just reasoning emotionally and immaturely, defensively and dishonestly.

I could not think without writing.” – Jean Piaget

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” – Flannery O’Connor

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”
– Czeslaw Milosz, from the poem “Love”

And the root of the majority of these “various ills” is our basic narcissism or egocentricism. And learning how to think objectively—learning how to step outside of ourselves, put some emotional distance between ourselves and our pet conclusions, learning to be not be so attached to the conclusion we want to reach or feel that we need to reach, but being more willing to reach a conclusion that is truer and more encompassing and actual—is what will free us from various ills. It’s thinking honestly and playing devils advocate with our own thoughts that will free us from various ills.  It may not feel at first like it is going to free us; at first being honest with ourselves and facing ourselves and our fear may feel rather terrifying and unsettling—we’re going to see all sorts of things we’d rather not see and face and feel—but—but—if we have the courage and grit and determination to stick with it—to stick with the truth and to stay honest and open and dedicated to reality—then the truth will set us free.  Not only that, it will become a source of genuine strength for us.

Writing is one of the best ways to start this process. It’s the first step in putting some actual tangible distance between ourselves and our thoughts. When we write or journal, when we put pen or pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, we literally are getting outside of our own head. We are externalizing our own thoughts.

And when we put our thoughts in writing or on a computer screen, we can then start to think about our own thinking and examine it and critique it and do so differently—we can look at it as something no longer inside us but now outside us, an object. We can literally place it alongside other people’s thinking.

A few additional keys to thinking better and more clearly (in addition to writing) would include:

1. Learning about “projection”— reversing the situation and trying our judgments or criticisms of other on ourselves first for size;

2. Reality-testing the way we’re possibly justifying or rationalizing (rational lies) one of our courses of actions by seeing if the situation were reversed would we want what we’re doing to another done unto us, or what we’re not doing to another not done unto us—if we wouldn’t want it done or not done unto us, then we’re not thinking fairly and maturely, but unfairly and immaturely, we’re actually doing something that is likely wrong, if not evil;

3. Paying attention to our choice of words and look for unwarranted or nonfactual all or nothing, black or white, throwing the baby out with the bath water thinking. And also pay attention to our use of words and phrases such as “need to,” “have to,” “can’t,” et cetera.

4. Learning to identify when we’re stressed and or anxious and afraid, and learn to be more suspicious of our thinking during those times. The greater the stress, the more defensive and less true and less rational our thinking and the more prone it is to being hijacked by our amygdala.

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We MUST Choose


We MUST Choose

This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Shakespeare, “Hamlet

Yes, but what part of thine own self to be true to?  What’s best in oneself?  Or what’s less—sometimes even much much less—than best in one’s self?

“For human beings, there is a possibility of making a choice of influences; in other words, of passing from one influence to another.  It is impossible to become free from one influence without becoming subject to another.  All work on oneself consists in choosing the influence to which you wish to subject yourself, and then actually falling under the influence of or submitting wholly to this influence.” – G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 25.

There’s no neutrality in life. 

There are only two possible states of being, two ways of orientating ourselves. 

One is complete submission to God or to God’s will or influence, the influence of the Tao, the Dharma, Truth, goodness, virtue, Love.

And the other is incomplete submission—or the refusal to truly submit ourselves—to anything, to any influence, beyond our own will—beyond our own narcissism and our own scattered disorganized impulses, desires, and feelings—a refusal which automatically opens the door to the forces of evil. 

Because at every moment we ultimately belong to either God or the devil, to good or evil, to one influence or the other.  Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch around us and every split second of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed by God or the devil, and to be claimed by us for either God or for the devil.” 

And to attempt to avoid this dilemma by trying to stand exactly halfway between the two—halfway between God and the devil, uncommitted to either—to either goodness or utter selfishness—is to risk being torn apart and split forever into two beings, to become a house divided, permanently at war with ourselves, vacillating forever between two influences, forever fighting ourselves, fighting within ourselves, and having that infighting spill out of us into the lives of those around us.  Because, ultimately, even trying to choose not to choose and to not align ourselves with one influence or the other is still to choose, it is still to choose not to submit to anything beyond the self, beyond one’s own will and wants.  

Christ expressed this paradox when he said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).  

Yes, we are always free to choose, but ultimately we are free only in this sense: in the sense of choosing which influence, which form of enslavement, we ultimately will submit to: God’s or the self’s, God’s will and influence or ultimately nothing more than our own; what’s best and highest and noblest in us or a free-for-all where we give into and submit to any impulse or desire that occurs to us.  

We must choose: —One form of enslavement or the other. (The previous eight paragraphs were abridged and adapted and elaborated on from M. Scott Peck’s “Glimpses of The Devil,” pg. xvi)

And most people do not so much choose their form of enslavement as they just go along with what happens to them and what feels natural without questioning much, without really thinking much or examining themselves and searching out their own heart and mind and conscience and paying much consistent attention to themselves and what path they’re really on and why.

This is our fundamental choice in life and to make each day and at every moment—who and what to live for and why?  To live on the autopilot of emotions and impulses and desires and wants and pet ego-projects and whatever gets us through the day and anesthetizes us, numbs us, titillates us, distracts us, momentarily makes us drunk*; or to live more mindfully, more deliberately, with more grace and composure and perspective and order?  To live for ourselves and nothing greater or more than the self and our ego and aggrandizement and survival (narcissism); or to live for something more, something that transcends the self—some ideal, principle, path or way (Tao), some force or Spirit—God, Love, Truth? 

Again, there’s no neutrality in life. Every day, in every moment, and with every choice we make—of what to do with ourselves in that moment, with how to spend that moment—we are declaring our allegiance and we are doing something to ourselves . . .
 

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

“To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” – C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87

 ——————————————————————-
 

* “There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all highs are the same!
Drink from the jars of saints,
not from other jars.
Be a connoisseur,
taste with caution,
discriminate like a prince.
Any wine will get you high;
choose the purest,
one unadulterated with fear.
Drink a wine that moves your spirit.
– Rumi

Gurdjieff on Self-Deception and Truth


One must learn to speak the truth.

This may sound strange to you.  It may seem to you that it is enough to wish or to decide to do so. 

But it isn’t.

People comparatively rarely tell a deliberate lie.  In most cases they actually think they speak the truth.  Yet they lie all the time—both when they wish to lie and when they wish to speak the truth.  They lie all the time—both to themselves and to others.

Therefore nobody ever understands either himself or anyone else.

Think about it—could there be such discord, such deep misunderstanding, such animosity and hatred towards the views and opinions of others, if people were able to understand one another? 

Of course not.

So people cannot understand because they cannot help lying.

To speak the truth is the most difficult thing in the world; and one must study a great deal and for a long time in order to be able to speak the truth.  —The wish alone is not enough.

To speak the truth one must know what the truth is and a lie is, and first of all in oneself.

And this nobody wants to know.

(G.I. Gurdjieff, in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 22)