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Safe Inside Our Truth

With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”

True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.

Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.

In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.

But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.

The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.

A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.

“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.

So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.

Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.

Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.

So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.

Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?

My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?

The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.

As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.

A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.

I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.

For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.

The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.

Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.

This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.

Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.

This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.

If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.

A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?

We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.

If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.

By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.

Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.

 

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A Method of Dialogue (Introduction)

For our future to be long and prosperous, our species needs to learn better ways of getting along. Our growing population, along with the steady increase in the pluralization of global culture, is making it impossible to stay inside our provincial bubbles of meaning.

More and more, we are confronted with the differences that characterize our remarkable diversity, but we’re still struggling with how to negotiate these differences and peacefully coexist. The high ideal would be that we develop methods, skills, and practices that will foster genuine community – not only in small pockets of intentional practitioners, but across the planet.

We’ve made some headway, but there’s much work to be done.

In this post and the next four, I will present a method which is highly effective when it comes to working toward resolution – whether it’s reaching agreement on a proposal, building mutual understanding, or resolving conflict between and among ourselves.

The method is based in a therapeutic approach to health and happiness that I’ve been developing for a decade and a half, called Mentallurgy, which helps individuals take creative control inside the ‘mental theater’ of their own brain. It is importantly different from – and much more effective than – both talk therapy and drug therapy (the conventional forms of therapy most common today).

Because the process for dialogue presented here uses many of the same skills introduced in my Braintracts blog, I’m naming it the Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue.

For now we’ll only take a summary overview of the Method in order to get a sense of its process. In subsequent posts I will open up each of its four phases and dig into the details. As the diagram above illustrates, effective dialogue moves through a developing sequence of steps, none of which can be skipped if we truly want to reach resolution (i.e., agreement, understanding, reconciliation, and unity).

We should start by making a critical distinction between dialogue on the one hand, and conversation, discussion, or debate on the other. The latter are either too unstructured (conversation), topic-driven (discussion), or gladiatorial in pressing for a win-lose outcome (debate). Dialogue literally refers to the collaborative process of finding common ground and making meaning in which all partners are invested.

This obviously requires some individual PREPARATION to ensure that dialogue partners come to the table in a creative, resourceful, and optimistic frame of mind. Individuals can’t do this for one another; each is responsible for doing the necessary “work before the work.” It’s common in everyday relationships for us to take a more passive, casual, or reactive role, so this step is essential for the Method to get successfully underway.

With partners thus engaged in the process, the next step of CONSIDERATION can begin to cultivate the conditions in which healthy and productive dialogue takes root. We’ll look more closely at the art of dialogue, in the way it carefully navigates a middle path between urgency and conviction – the Scylla and Charybdis that have wrecked many a ship seeking successful passage to the island paradise of genuine community.

Effective dialogue protects the space where each partner feels safe, welcome, and included.

As partners clarify their common interests and values, DELIBERATION guides them through a simple system of factors that helps focus their work together on a goal that matters to everyone. Built into the term is the idea of balance (Latin līberāre), which speaks to the importance of staying aligned with our desired outcome even as we honestly appraise the serious effort required in getting to what we want, what we may have to give up for its sake, and the possibility of falling short of our goal.

Realistic assessment, rather than starry-eyed wishful thinking, is intrinsic to the dialogical process. This careful balance of work, cost, and risk in pursuit of what we hope to gain by reaching our goal is the basic calculus of success.

RESOLUTION is where partners come to agreement, understanding, and reconciliation around the matter of concern. The goal that was clarified during the deliberation phase might still lie in the future, but there is now a shared commitment to its realization. This distinction between project (a future objective) and process (an organic unfolding) is what makes dialogue different from a mere strategy meeting.

Partners may well leave with specific task assignments, but the true resolution is a transformation by which separate individuals are lifted into the higher wholeness of genuine community.

These four steps or phases in the process of creative dialogue together comprise a method that can help move us into a more peaceful and prosperous future. In coming posts we’ll look deeper into each phase, arriving eventually at a full understanding of how we can flourish together, and not merely get along.

 

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