Sometimes I get a bit fed up with how little purchase I seem to have on various long-standing habits. I eat too much and I enjoy treats so I’m either on a diet or gaining weight. I’m addicted to reading and would like to be spending more time reflecting, meditating or ‘doing nothing’. Instead, I read novels or sometimes watch DVDs. As well as the habits there is dukkha from the discrepancy between how I am and the view or idea of how I think I should be.
As some of you will know through my Facebook page I recently got sparked off by an article on the BBC news website by Matthew Syed. It was about ‘cognitive dissonance’ or how we hold to a particular view or outcome regardless of evidence to support our reasoning. The example he gives is of Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq which was justified by his certainty of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Despite WMD, never being found and the evidence pointing to them never having been in Iraq, Tony Blair switched his argument repeatedly to other justifications for starting a war.
Syed makes it clear it isn’t just Tony Blair, or even politicians, who are prone to this sort of behaviour but all of us. And it’s not so much about behaviour but about thinking and views. While cognitive dissonance seems to be more about the discomfort or anxiety produced by the possibility of a strongly held view being incorrect – an emotional reaction – ‘confirmation bias’ is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Probably both are working together with the emotional discomfort driving the need for a view or belief that will close the gap and make us feel safe.
The Buddha was also alert to this phenomenon and saw it as a fundamental part of practice for us to get to grips with. He saw that we reinforce our own views to shore up a sense of self. We feel more secure when we are constantly using data to establish and remind ourselves ‘this is what I think and know’ ‘this is who I am’. Or ‘I like this’ or ‘I’m not the sort of person who…’ In other words – the story of ‘me’ that we retell ourselves over and over again. Over the years it can refine and develop but it takes a lot to fundamentally change our views and particularly our view of a fixed self.
Ken Wilber, who writes on trans-personal psychology and integral spirituality thinks that ‘most of us are only willing to call 5% of our present information into question at any one point.’ It’s too scary – even for the most rational of beings! We are a long way from the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland who made a practice of believing impossible things for half an hour each day before breakfast!
The Buddha saw that it is extremely important to understand through direct experience what we can call ‘the view forming process’. Views don’t come out of no-where. We are conditioned by the experiences we have and the influences we’re subjected to. We have a back story based on our familial, cultural, social, religious and educational history. If we understand the way in which our views are formed and how they influence us a process of deconstruction or de-conditioning us of biases about the content of our views and opinions can happen.
There is not only what happens to us – but how we respond to it. Two people can have the same experience, say, a bike accident as a child, and react differently. One might grow up hating sport and the other winning an Olympic medal!
However getting a handle on views doesn’t necessarily involve looking back into the past at our story, but bringing awareness into our present moment experience. We start to understand the role of feelings in relation to the likes and dislikes that our views and opinions grow out of. We start to see how a simple feeling at the level of the senses – a pleasant sound or an unpleasant sight or taste – conditions wanting or not wanting that thing to continue, and we form views to justify the rationality of our thinking and desires i.e. the mildly unpleasant physical sensation of coolness on your exposed skin in bed can lead to ‘ it’s better if the bedroom window is shut at night because it will make me ill.’
This innocent little view can set off ‘window wars’ on retreats with others who have opposite opinions on the vital health-giving properties of an open window or two! It can be surprisingly difficult (emotionally) to see another’s point of view as having validity because we believe our own to be true. The ‘evidence’ is much less important than this feeling of ‘this is true’. This was Tony Blair’s position. The more strongly we hold to our views, usually, the stronger the sense of self-involved and the more defensive or threatened we feel by another’s views. If we can ‘stay with‘ the feelings of threat, with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance without moving into further justification, then there is a real opportunity.
This concerns ‘process’ rather than content. We don’t just know our ‘story‘ but we know it as a story, something that is constructed out of tiny bits of experience through the senses and including thoughts and feelings. If we can become aware of our own point of view at any moment as a mental position that’s been taken up in the mind this is an aspect of Right View.
This little mental/emotional ‘flip’ is fascinating. When we’re not invested and identified with a view we are free from it and free to examine it. Is it true? Is it helpful? What is it based on? A recent view I’ve spotted is around how drab my experience will be without daily ‘treats’ in my life. Drabness feels unpleasant and I don’t want it and the way to avoid feeling it is to indulge myself. Treats are tied up with how interesting and lively I am as a person! This is what I’m thinking without having any conscious idea that I had such a weird view! And it’s influencing my weight, my joints, health and the quality of my mind.
So I’ve been noticing ‘drabness’ from the outside rather than being wrapped up in believing I have to eat cake and read thrillers to be fun. When I can be aware enough to ‘stay with’ the feeling it no longer feels unpleasant but satisfying. It’s then possible to understand that the whole ‘treat’ view is very selective in the reality it believes. Not reaching for the chocolate becomes easy. The kindle ‘daily deals’ seem unappealing. The wise choice has become natural in that moment.