Friday, October 31, 2008

Expectational Hazard

The Idealized Self-Image

The most insidious illusions are the ones that keep us in the prison of their parameters.
Though at first the concept of an ideal image that would guide us toward being what we most want to be would seem a helpful inner directive, the media world has contaminated the personal construction by the endless repetition of what is deemed culturally desirable. Industries are built on helping people match external images of success. Many individual traits that add color to the spectrum of being are excluded. Whole segments of the population are left out as not rich enough, not young enough, not a particular kind of attractive. Watching my colleagues age with me over thirty years, I look back and think how unformed they looked so long ago, how much more interesting and complex their features have become as they accumulated knowledge and perspective over the years. Yet so many people reject the more complex character that develops with age if they succumb to the idealization of youth. They look at years past as lost instead of as a richness of amassed experience.
Emotions that are a natural part of being human are rejected as unworthy if they don’t fit the ideal to always be happy. We feel a sense of shame and failure when we can’t live up to it. There was a time when melancholy was considered a sign of depth and not necessarily unattractive. Rather than a failure to be happy it was a sign of a healthy reflection on life’s difficulties, of thoughtfulness, and wrestling with questions like the meaning of life and the circumstances beneath our suffering. Such thoughts build new mental circuits to handle them and connect them to other like experiences, developing wisdom to grapple with the troubles yet to come. Keats referred to the “vale of tears that schools an intelligence and makes of it a soul”. Hardships, disappointments and mistakes are valued as lessons that expand our humanity.
When an unyielding and idealized self-image takes hold it interferes with our ability to be honest with ourselves. We force ourselves to pretend, and the mold we create restricts our future growth. When we can’t pretend to be happy anymore we isolate ourselves lest anyone witness our failure. Yet some of the best conversations emerge from difficult times and the sharing strengthens the relationship. There’s more to learn from sadness. When Joyce Carol Oates was asked why she didn’t write any happy books, she answered, ”People don’t need help with happiness.” So much of my own work grew from painful confusions that needed to be externalized so they could be seen and understood.
Our ego is an inner image of who we think we are. It’s pressured to adopt external measurement and if we stray too far from the norm, there’s a diagnosis waiting. Letting go of what we want to believe about ourselves is emancipation from the prison of an ideal not necessarily of our own making. To watch and learn from the feelings flowing through us as we adjust to the world is to experience the true scope of being. Our wounds are pathways to our deepest places, home to our ability to empathize. Though sorrow is never pleasant, refusing to allow it makes us more intolerant of others’ suffering. The ego ideal is a construction, not a real thing that needs protection. The development of virtues like kindness and sensitivity to others depends on awareness of our true feelings and attention to the others in our midst. It depends on extending our focus outward and learning from where we are at any given moment, rather than getting lost in our head comparing our lives to illusory ideals.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Shifting Illusions

“Reality is a construction in which we actively participate.”
Nobel Laureate, Ilya Prigogine
Our personal construction of reality is a working fiction that enables us to function in the world, but to think of it as anything other than a useful illusion is to trap ourselves in a box limited by our own life experience. Yet accepting it as an illusion is threatening to a stance that needs to be right, that needs to believe and cling to a particular way of thinking. William Blake wrote, “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” The need to defend a personal model of reality uses mental resources to twist and obscure what doesn’t fit our habitual way of seeing. To willingly sink into a cognitive rut, reflects the need for security, but doesn’t leave much room for growth.
Our cognitive powers would be better spent actually learning the valuable information offered by different life experience. On a day-to-day level, we can build our inner image of how the world works and unconsciously accept that it’s an evolving working model that we continue to revise as we get more information. Michael Hutchison, in his book MegaBrain, wrote, “The ability to create and manipulate internal imagery, called “visualization’, is one of the most powerful learning techniques at our disposal, increasing our ability to solve problems by ‘seeing’ them in a new way.” To be aware of how we think and imagine the world, and accept our constructions as useful fictions, without attachment, we step out of the box created by our previous theories. When we get too attached to our theories, fixed images we create about how things are, they can eclipse in-front-of-our-face-reality. We argue for the world to match our expectations and restrict our ability to learn from it. What doesn’t match makes us anxious because we’ve been conditioned to see in terms of right and wrong, and being wrong threatens our faith in ourselves. Real knowledge is too complex and contextual to get bogged down in codified ideas of truth. Discarding the compulsion to be right is liberating. We shift from holding an opinion to entertaining a view. We seek out what’s different in order to enlarge our view.
The illusion that anything is right or wrong completely when a profusion of ideas could offer choices according to what’s best for the situation is a shift that will allow for more comprehensive thought. The more points of view we take into account the more deeply we understand a situation.
The fallibility of our mind creates the impetus to stretch it. We watch a feat of magic that shows us we were wrong, that we misperceived, that we don’t know how it was done, and since it’s meant as entertainment, we enjoy it. Our mind rewards us for recognizing that we can be wrong. Illusion is most useful when we see it for what it is, the process of the mind making sense of the world, shifting and adjusting as needed. The treachery of illusion is not realizing the illusion is there, seeing it as the only truth, which leads to myriad insensitivities, from self-righteousness to war. Illusion is a deal we make with ourselves regarding how what we know is organized. Accepting it as our personal creation is both humbling and exhilarating, leaving behind the externally imposed values that propped up the fixed idea interfering with growth.