People tend to suffer because they believe in a fixed identity. They believe deep down they are someone–the person they imagine–and they try to tune themselves to that internal ideal. Other people will certainly disagree as to our assessments of ourselves just as we would disagree with their assessments of themselves. We often disapprove of ourselves too, because most of us are about as hard on ourselves as we are on our enemies.
Seeing one’s developing self as an enemy that must be destroyed is largely why people are in so much pain. How can any of us enjoy the experience of our life if our experience takes place in our consciousness, and our consciousness is occupied with attacking our illusory, thought-based selves? It’s like our consciousness’s internal puppet show where one hand is hero, the ideal us; while the other hand is the villain, constantly and painfully measuring the distance between our ideal and our pathetic self.
It is possible to have an ideal for a target and yet not live a life of internally disappointed measurement. Rather than destroying ourselves we must kill that idea of measurement. It’s not part of the natural world so it cannot survive without our attention.
Once we ignore our own thinking long enough we start to feel how ephemeral and meaningless thoughts are relative to action. Once we have that, we develop a better sense of time, where we realise we cannot possibly change things from the past, and so thinking about painful mistakes in the present makes little sense. If the thought stings then the experience has done its job and we have learned. We don’t need to add beating ourselves up with our word-based thoughts. By feeling badly we’ve proven that’s not the direction we’re naturally inclined to go.
We must also recognize that our thoughts are not our own, they were cultivated by our society. We’re encouraged to think certain things about ourselves and discouraged about thinking other things. Our entire egocentric life is made of those silent rules. It’s why you feel self-conscious when there’s a stain in your shirt even though everyone’s spilled food on themselves in their lifetime. The problem really isn’t you, it’s that culture of measurement; of judgment.
This can really impact us when issues become particularly emotional. Because we will all self-reinforce our identities; the more time we spend with people who share a set of beliefs that we share, the more certain and extreme those beliefs will become in the absence of respected disagreement. Most of the major problems now seen around the world are linked to this idea.
While most of the world is pretty flexible and could live happily under many different systems in many different societies, some feel more threatened and are therefore more defensive, and that leads to anger. This effect can be see from ISIS to the Westboro Baptist Church to the KKK to the do-gooder mobs that destroy the lives of people who make big or small mistakes that violate–or appear to have violated–the social ideal; like the attacks on celebrities, or those on people over their food choices, or even through well-intentioned political correctness.
Let’s take a half hour of our lunch today and review our own lives. How many different points of view do we listen to? Are we in a feedback loop, where our microphone is too close to our speaker? Are the opinions that form our world just loops of ideas that go out of our microphone to be amplified by those who already agree with our ideas? Because that just makes us shout even louder into our microphone and the whole thing just gets louder and louder until it’s a frenzy. Those get built one person at a time, they can only be taken apart by each individual becoming conscious of their previously unconscious involvement.
If all of our friends live like us, share a lot of our beliefs and perspectives, and rarely disagree with our views, it’s almost certain we live in an ego feedback loop that will generate lots of suffering for each member because we will begin to mistake each other for the world itself. Conversely, healthy people are attracted to new ideas that challenge how they see the world. It’s a sign of the confidence they have in their true self. They remain open to the idea that they are big enough to be able to flex toward any idea that makes good sense to their being, because they rightfully see themselves as worthwhile aspects of the universe.
Let get out of our bubbles. Expand our minds. Any fear is a trick. It’s only misinterpreted excitement. We should go lovingly toward what challenges us. Especially including the people we assume we disagree with, because even if we don’t ever become friends with them, we will have both have learned more about both finding and making valuable friends.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.