By Michael Mead, Director, LiveWell.Coach | 31 January 2019
'Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes.' Well, I've had my fair share of conflicts and problems in life so I'd like to add those to that list as well. I think there's a misconception out there that we should be aiming for a life that's permanently happy and pain and problem free. Life just isn't like that, particularly when other people are involved. Conflicts, problems, and pain are an inevitable part of life so why spend so much time and effort trying to avoid them? I think it's better to just work on identifying the values that lead to better decisions that lead to the sorts of conflicts, problems, and struggles you enjoy solving so you can enjoy facing those head-on whenever they appear.
I have often asked myself questions like, 'what's really at the cause of conflict?', and in this article, I've outlined some of the ideas that I've discovered from my reading that help to answer questions like that.
First, when we perceive an attack, or potential attack, against our self-esteem or against the life situations and interests that we have fully attached or identified our self-esteem with, we experience a gap between what is (the present moment) and what we want (the future).
Secondly, this insufficiency or lacking that we experience can cause us to feel insecure and less; in the sense that we might now, to some degree, be worth less than what we are fully identified with. It can unconsciously trigger negative emotion causing the ego to feel an immediate need to repair itself via the quickest and most efficient path available at that time.
Let me explain ...
The three motivational drivers of all animals, humans included, are the need to avoid pain, seek pleasure and conserve energy (following the most efficient path to either avoid pain and/or seek pleasure).
Enter justification. Where we justify whatever thoughts and actions we engage in to repair, restore and validate the opinions that we have of ourselves (including the life situations and interests we have fully attached our identities to).
The quickest and most efficient recourse to repair pain in the short term is to seek whatever short term pleasure is available.
People do this unconsciously all the time choosing (either singularly or in combination) from the smorgasbord of options available - lashing out, withdrawing, drugs, sex, alcohol, binge eating, and ... justification - to name just a few.
One method we might subconsciously default to in order to repair the damage done and restore the security of our esteem is the raising of ourselves above others making us superior to them (I know more, I’m better, I’m right, I was honest). Or we might subconsciously resort to lowering others below us to make them inferior to us (blaming, criticizing, they’re wrong, I wasn’t the one who was dishonest, they’re dishonorable). Or worse still, we might feel special and entitled about how worse off we are compared to others as if our problems are unique and have never been experienced by anyone else before and never will.
This is a dark road you don’t want to develop the habit of going down. It takes time to unwind those hardened neural pathways that we develop over time. It gets considerably harder as we get older.
When we’re engrossed in self-justification like this we are not truly present and when we’re not truly present we’re not freely aware of what we are doing. We, in fact, increase our distance from presence when we fully engross and project ourselves into our thoughts reliving ourselves in the past and imagining ourselves in the future. We are unable to view ourselves, others and the world around us as clearly as we might otherwise be able to if we were present and free from the cognitive biases that cause us to repeat our past into the future.
Our brains are already less than ideal in the way we unconsciously filter a selection of the available information around us into consciousness and then predict what that means based on our past experiences. Adding justification to this multiplier effect just incapacitates our ability to see things as clearly as we can even further.
When emotions are high, and threats to self-interest and esteem seem very real, the use of mind concepts (like exploring shared meaning, thinking about the gratitude we should feel for what we have) to solve problems of the mind like this are not always effective.
This is because, at this point when our attention is distracted and carried away in thought, we are no longer present and free to think independently of our conditioned past.
When we’re like this we are busy focusing on and highlighting the differences we have on the surface - different goals, skill sets or lack thereof, belief systems, life situations - and we use these as further fuel for our justified judgements. ‘Their situation is always caused by some defect of their personality whereas my situation always has that person or those outside circumstances at fault.’
Through random mutation and natural selection, we’ve inherited unhelpful adaptational consequences as well as helpful ones. There is a constant struggle between emotion and cognition, these systems have evolved independently, each with their own unique usefulness.
Emotions help us to respond effectively to immediate physical threats but with psychological threats, they can wreak havoc. Psychological threats can cause pain through sustained periods of attention, negative thought, anxiety and stress and just as the short term pleasure we get from binge eating is not a long term sustainable solution to whatever pain that is masking, engaging the habit of justification as our solution is equally unhelpful and damaging to us in the long term.
Being trapped in justification is like having our minds temporarily hijacked. A more effective and sustainable solution is therefore likely to lie outside of any concept of the mind.
And there is one that does.
It is only when we develop the skill to distance ourselves from being lost in thought, to be fully present as an observer of our experiences, of what’s happening in the mind, of the conscious experience of thoughts and emotions as they arise and go, can we detach and regain control again.
We also become better positioned to let go of feeling special or entitled, of trying too hard to please people and of being too attached to getting or achieving things.
We remind ourselves that life doesn't have to be notable and great. We still set ambitious goals but it's the journey that we enjoy and focus on more. Through better values, we choose better problems and tasks to tackle in life. Free of that expectation and the need to be something amazing we find it easier to return back to presence where we enjoy the simple things in life that we often take for granted like our friendships, the life around us, creating new things, helping, learning and just being alive and well. We enjoy the 'how' over the 'what'. We enjoy the doing, the actual journey, more than we enjoy the outcome, the end result.
When we are really present, we are awake, we are fully conscious and in touch with our stable core identity - the ‘being’ part of ‘human being’. Consciousness itself. This is the true reward of mindfulness practice.
From this position, we are able to notice the difference between thinking and conscious experience and free ourselves up to experience peace, humility, and compassion.
This is because, free of the busyness of thought, we feel peace and are able to relate to others in terms of the one thing we will always have in common. We see others not as fellow humans but as fellow human beings - as equal human conscious beings just like us with their own self-opinion and conditioned thoughts, opinions and beliefs happening on the surface causing behaviours and actions beyond their control. On the conditioned surface we see ourselves as special and different but at the core, we realise that we aren't so special and entitled, we're all actually pretty average most of the time and have a lot in common. We are all human beings and we all experience at times our own fair share of unconscious thinking and degrees of narcissism.
Having regained peace, humility and compassion we enhance our sensitivity towards the insecurities of others who aren’t so self-aware and how they might be perceiving their own character - their own sense of autonomy, intelligence, and decency.
When truly present and conscious we accept whatever is and has been and free ourselves up to learn from the past and make better decisions about the situations that we find ourselves in.
By prioritizing better values and our need to grow and to contribute to others we also develop a range of experiences that help us to meet our other human needs - security, variety, significance, and connection. With a wide range of experiences to fall back on we’re no longer attaching our identity to a small number of external things beyond our control that can quickly change and cause us to experience more highs and lows in life.
Having a more solid self esteem on the surface and being more in touch with the ‘conscious’ part of our identity we achieve a balance between ‘human’ and ‘being’ and become more stable and less needy, less self-absorbed, better able to live consistently with our values and better able to build relationships based on what we can give as opposed to what we can get.
To achieve this balance, and to survive past the technological advancements we have made and continue to evolve as a species, we must wake up and learn how to stay awake more often to transcend the irrationality of conflict. Waking up and staying awake requires presence.
To get a sense of what it's like to be truly present and awake you have to discover the answer to this age-old question: WHO AM I?
Can you answer this question yourself right now, in the present moment? If you’re thinking about what the answer might be (What do I look like? What job do I do? What do I believe in? What interests do I have? Who are my family and friends? What do I own?) then your answer will be wrong (or at least incomplete), because you will have missed the bigger picture; 'you are the experiencer of those thoughts'.
As Eckhart Tolle once said with words to the effect - ‘The correct answer cannot be found in thought. It is beyond thought concepts of the mind. It’s something you can only experience. Right now, in this present moment.'
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