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Making Up Our Minds

Most of you don’t realise this and to the amazement of the more practical and pragmatic of you, you are all visionaries and mystics!

Let me state a fact that might surprise you. No human being has ever experienced an objective world!

Whatever you are experiencing right now is in fact a visionary experience. It is your interpretation of the world “out there”. It is a construct of your mind albeit informed by your sensory perceptions. Even though to all intents and purposes it might be a reasonable representation of the world, it is definitely not the world but your own particular imaginary construct of it.

As the Quantum Physicist David Bohm put it:

“Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based on our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

 

Most of us find this difficult to accept. We believe there is only one way of experiencing the world (our particular way of course!). Yet our perceptions are coloured by many things.

If we begin with the more obvious, it is easy to see how our physical limitations constrain what information we absorb and subsequently use to construct our world view. Our sensory stimuli are essentially limited. We have a limited ability to see, for example. Our sensory capacity is limited to the visual spectrum of light. We don’t see infra-red or ultra-violet. Some organisms have such capacity, but humans do not. We can’t detect the high frequency auditory signals that dogs and bats can access. We are oblivious to the earth’s magnetic field that seems to aid the navigation of migrating birds.

 

And just as sensory acuity varies between species, it also varies between individuals of the human species. Some of us (the sensates) are aware of more sensory inputs than others (the intuitives). Some of us are colour blind. Some are more sensitive to sound. Others are more sensitive to temperature differences. And so on.

 

I think it was Aldous Huxley who said that the human mind was a reducing mechanism, which filtered our sensory data to a degree that was manageable. If we were able to perceive every possible sensory input then our minds would be indeed be overwhelmed and our ability to make decisions would be consequently diminished or even eliminated. Thus it is that evolution has equipped us to notice those things in our external world that have the greatest impact on our survival.

 

Yet whilst these sensory inputs help fashion our construction of our world model they are not by a long shot the most dominant influence.

Neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris declares:

“For every neuron that receives its input from the outside world there are ten to a hundred that do not. The brain is talking mostly to itself and little information runs directly from a sensory receptor to the cortex, where the contents of consciousness appear to be sequestered.”

Thus how we see the world is transfigured in a more insidious way. We tend to see the world in a way that confirms our belief systems, and we disregard (often unconsciously) evidence to the contrary.

 

Unfortunately some of our beliefs are ill-founded. We often adopt beliefs not because we have come to them rationally but because by professing such beliefs we are able to belong to a likeminded group of people. In such cases our deepest social needs seem to dominate other considerations. As an example, it seems to me obvious that most people adopt their religious beliefs for such considerations. Very few people acquaint themselves broadly with the principal religious faiths and then make a conscious choice to adopt one that most appeals to them for the nature of the beliefs themselves.

 

It is therefore a valid claim to assert that if you changed your beliefs you would see the world differently.

 

In retrospect, it is obvious that people do not rationally choose their beliefs, because even a cursory examination of the beliefs embedded in the most dominant religions, reveal they are irrational.

 

We saw a good example of this in one of my recent blogs. When Galileo, informed by the work of Keppler and reinforced by what he saw in his telescope, dared to challenge the cosmology propagated by the Church he was humiliated and forced to recant.

 

But let me be clear – this process of belief formation is far more ubiquitous than just how we acquire our religious beliefs. Whilst we must suspend our rationality to accept that Jesus performed miracles, we do also in support of many other irrational beliefs, be they belief in the paranormal, that witches fly on broomsticks, that Jews drink the blood of babies, that people with close set eyes are untrustworthy, that the attack on the World Trade Centre was God punishing us for being tolerant of homosexuality or whatever.

Let us look at the implications of all of this. Our beliefs colour our worldview. But it is our worldview that finally determines our state of mind. We seldom give this thought. Most of us believe our well-being is largely determined by things external to us – our wealth, the attractiveness of our partner. our mental or physical prowess, how we are regarded by our fellows or whatever. Yet we experience none of these things directly and the only reason that they can actually impinge on our state of mind is our belief that they do so!

It is in fact a truism to state that if we find the world not to our liking it is more profitable to look at trying to change ourselves rather than change the world. And what this implies is that we must change our beliefs. As an example I have written in other blogs about the work of the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe who has worked extensively in the area of depression and written many books on that subject. She enunciated what she believed was a typical worldview of someone with depression.

  • No matter how good and acceptable I appear to be, I am really bad, evil, valueless, unacceptable to myself and other people;
  • Other people are such that I must fear, hate and envy them;
  • Life is terrible and death is worse;
  • Only bad things have happened to me in the past and only bad things will happen to me in the future;
  • I must never forgive anyone, least of all myself.

 

It is not hard to imagine the distress of someone who sees the world this way!

 

But changing such deep seated beliefs is not easy. Most people do not challenge their fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world unless those beliefs sets are causing them great trauma. We covered similar ground in my recent essay about paradigms. But if I do finally change my paradigm and see the world differently it is like Thomas S Kuhn suggested. “The scales will fall from my eyes”!

David Bohm, who I quoted earlier, believed that our thinking was the greatest source of all our problems. He said, “….it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems with is the source of our problems”.

What can we do then to fashion a mind that can engage the world in a productive way and maintain our own inner well-being and serenity? As I have advocated in previous essays, we can cultivate “mindfulness”. There are proven techniques which can assist us to modify our minds in a positive way. As I have argued previously meditation helps facilitate this process.

In meditation practice we work directly with our confused mind states. We allow our thoughts to arise but not identify with them. In our mind space we treat everything that arises as just as it is without judgment. We don’t fixate on these passing thoughts but try to let them go and recline into our pure presence. There is no compulsion to prove we are good, successful or worthy. We just are. As a result we come to accept ourselves just as we are. Without judgment we come to understand there is a basic goodness in our simple being.

 

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  1. 1 Comment(s)

  2.   By Matt Smith on Mar 30, 2014 | Reply

    The only belief that is defensible is rationality, because our minds can share in the process. Even a belief that is irrational, the defense of the person accepting the belief, invokes rational argument. E.g. Why does a person have faith – because science doesn’t explain everything; because fear of what happens after death has caused me to believe in a particular afterlife etc.

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