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

Growth, Change, & Death


What will it take for you to change and grow?—for you to become what God or the gods intended?  What will it take for you to manifest what is godly or divine-like in you and to live from that place?  For example, immature people, as well as bad people, do not know how to take good care of the things in their life.  They don’t know how to be “responsible”; they do not know how to love and care for what life gives them (or brings into their life) that is good and decent.  They are too invested in their pathology or immaturity and laziness to change.  They are too use to always taking the path of least resistance and or having things handed to them (again and again). 

So how does a person like that “change their stripes”? 

God’s Grace?  Luck?  A teacher or guru?  A book? . . .

Most of us are born this way—in a fallen or “less than” state—as cute and cuddly and smiling as we are, we’re also born with the tendency to be irresponsible, selfish, lazy, to take without asking, to whine and complain and blame and lie, to be exploitive; many (most?) of us seem to come into this life without a work ethic, acting like the world owes us, as if the world was made just for us and revolves us and our wants and impulses—no discipline, no giving back, no real charitable impulses.  Paraphrasing the movie “Shadowlands”—Most of us “think our childish toys will bring us all the happiness there is and that our nursery is the whole wide world.”  This tendency or possibility is what seems to be within all of us.  In fact, the tendency to be either good or bad, to awaken or to sleepwalk through life, to manifest virtue and compassion and psychological health and great mindfulness or to manifest disorder, selfishness, impulsiveness, greed, thoughtlessness seems to be possible within each of us, and it’s up to our environment, especially our parents, to determine what we will become.  This is what immature and emotionally/psychologically stunted people manifest—immaturity, selfishness, chaos, confusion, greed, grubbiness, pettiness—this is how they act; and it’s also what bad people do.  Immature people and bad people set fire to the world around them—they exploit, manipulate, lie, confuse, use—they exploit the world and use those around them—they treat those around them as props, not as real fellow human beings just like themselves and deserving the same consideration and care as themselves, but as props—props in their own personal sick dysfunctional psychodramas and unconscious patterns.  No personal responsibility.  No real care or concern.  Just the self-centeredness of looking out for number one.  Just “me first, everyone else a distant second—unless I want/need something from you and you might serve my pet ego projects or suffice as a pleasant distraction for a while.”  But no real love.  No real affection.  No real giving.  Just a long trail/pattern of exploitation, using, lying, deceiving. 

And Gurdjieff knew this.  He knew it well.

Which is why he had “Only he who can take care of what belongs to others may have his own” inscribed high up on the walls of his study house—his dojo—the place where his students would travel to from all corners of the world in order to try to awaken.  Waking up—real change and growth—was not possible for those who were irresponsible, exploitative, self-centered, lazy, without a work ethic—those who were bent on drugging themselves (anesthetizing and numbing and distracting and dissipating themselves) on silly books, TV, frivolous soulless relationships (Gurdjieff knew that the interpersonal was the ground and the path, and that there could be no separation).

Gurdjieff had looked into the heart of man.  He knew that most people we exploitative and irresponsible and had been raised by people who were the same, and who themselves had been raised by some version of the same, et cetera.  He knew what we was up against—how difficult it is to teach irresponsible and exploitative and poorly-parented people to actually have a work ethic, to wake up from their sleep of unawareness and running on the botched and chaotic programming of their upbringing and their innate selfish and impulsive and reactive and avoidant tendencies.  Gurdjieff knew how extraordinarily difficult it is to re-parent people and help them overcome both their nature and nurture.  Gurdjieff knew very well how “effed for life” most people were.

And he knew how difficult it would be for them to wake up and for him to help them in that—for all of his learning and sagely advice not just to be water down their lovely little dysfunctional drains.  He knew that deep down the vast majority of people were not going to be loyal to him or his teaching or “The Dharma” or whatever you wish to call it, but rather were going to be most loyal to what is most familiar to them—that that would be “home” to them—no matter how dysfunctional or toxic or twisted that original home was.  It would still be home to them.  And getting them to leave home—i.e. grow up and leave those dysfunctional parts of themselves—would be a severely arduous and uphill battle. 

Gurdjieff knew the deep meaning of these words of Jesus—“If anyone comes to me without hating his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  That without this level of deep dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s life and what one grew up in, there could be no real openness for something new and healthy—that whatever Jesus had to say, whatever Gurdjieff had to say, whatever any great spiritual sage or teacher would have to say, would just be water down the drain and be drowned out by all of their listener’s pathology, faulty and warped programming and upbringing, closed and frightened heart and mind.  Gurdjieff, like Jesus—and like Fromm— knew that most people never really leave home and break what Fromm described as the incestuous psychological and limbic ties to family and what is familiar and what they grew up with.

Moreover, Gurdjieff knew, like M. Scott Peck (see “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” pp. 138-149—“The Case of Spider Phobia” [The case of Billie]) that most people were destined/doomed to become modern day Maguas (“The Last of the Mohicans”)—an imitation of what had twisted them—that they would, even in spite of themselves and their best intentions (if they had these), twist themselves even more fully into the shape of what had first twisted them and becoming living monuments to those who first and most deeply wounded them.

Gurdjieff knew that waking up from all of this dysfunction and conditioning and pathology as well as innate narcissism and immaturity would be for most a fate worse than death, because for most people it would be a death—the death of so many parts of themselves, the death of their ego, the death of their personality, their first self—which most people are attached to neurotically, pathologically, “egosyntonically”—meaning even if that self is pathological, sick, wounded. 

Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, 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)

Changing oneself is the last thing people will willing do.  It’s a case where cure that is worse than the disease.   Most need the threat of execution, the threat of imminent and painful death, before they will get serious about “changing their ways.”  Most people would sooner live in the squalor of their own disease and amputate themselves from everything and everyone around them, even family, even children, than face and deal with themselves and make some real changes inside the self and to their patterns of thinking and perceiving and reacting.  Most are hoarders when it comes to the immature and dysfunctional parts of their psyche—and they are not going to give up these parts without a fight—without kicking and screaming and firing off all of their many defenses frequently and grandly and throwing others under the bus, et cetera.  Most people would simply rather hack away idiotically and self-centeredly at the branches all around them and prune this and that and try to make their pathology livable (“Each human being must keep alight within him the sacred flame of madness. And must behave like a normal person.” – Paulo Coelho) or even gussy it up a bit and make their dysfunctional patterns and tendencies look like some sort of Bonsai tree than get busy hacking away at the roots and really start growing up and become who and what they were intended to be, and to do so passionately and joyfully. (As Gurdjieff wrote, “The energy spent on active inner work is then and there transformed into a fresh supply, but that spent passive work and distraction is lost forever.”  And M. Scott Peck speaks in his books how therapy becomes a joy and even sometimes playful when the patient [disciple] allows him or herself to become open and trusting and vulnerable [pregnable] to the therapist; it’s then that the real work of healing and growing begins in earnest and the preliminary work of getting [seducing] the patient to this point is over. [See “People of the Lie” pp. 158-9 and “The Road Less Traveled” pg. 55.])

Which is why Gurdjieff eventually become quick to cut to the chase and put things in no uncertain terms

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

He didn’t say one way, he said the sole way, the only way.  This is his ax for the frozen sea within us, strictest attention-getting, whack us with a sledgehammer, in your face, cut to the chase, no bs equivalent of Luke 14:26.  If you really want to change, you have to know, not think, but know, feel viscerally, emotionally, in a white-hot terrifying searing way, that you—and all the people you love, and all your pet ego- and immortality-projects, and all of the pet rats you keep (a reference to an episode of “Hoarders”— http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsITgqGQgj4)—are going to die, and that there’s no getting around this, that death is certain, that loss is certain, and you and your little groveling pathetic inner control freak cannot do thing one to change it—not will all of your bs, escapist reading, self-numbing, et cetera.  There’s no place for you to run or hide.  You will die; someday you and all those you love will play out that scene, and so what are you doing right here and now to prepare for that—for that greatest of partings?  “Only he who has freed himself of the disease of ‘tomorrow’ has a chance to attain what he came here for” (Gurdjieff), and “the best means for arousing the wish to work on yourself is to realize that you may die at any moment.  But first you must learn how to keep it in mind” (also Gurdjieff).

There’s no real change, no real growth, possible for us without facing our own mortality and really feeling now what it will feel like some day when we’re told we only have a week or months to live, or that, God forbid, one our children or a parent has died.

Otherwise we’re just wasting time.

As Augustine put it, “It is only in the face of death that man’s (true) self is born.”

Short of this level of honest and open relationship with our own mortality, we’re living the false life of a false self.

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)