Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
It is the comparisons we make to others that lead to inertia and self-doubt. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as ‘better’; more talented, more together, more in tune. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as somehow inferior; unworthy, deficient. Both of these are pre-judgements made on partial information, internal bias and projections onto others of who we imagine ourselves to be. Comparisons are what drive our deluded oscillations between self-doubt and self-importance.
I notice in myself that it is the comparison ‘looking down’ that has more of an immediate, reactive influence on future actions. I notice a reactivity to push away from a person or group I deem as ‘not me’. This reactivity is triggered by a delusional sense of superiority established by my brittle ego to reinforce its own self-importance. This is an instinct to separate myself, as if saying, “No, that isn’t me”, even if my participation in this group will help me to achieve the life I desire. Ultimately it is an act of self-sabotage.
In a similar, but different way, my comparison to someone I perceive as ‘better’, doesn’t necessarily pull me in that direction, but rather stops me in my tracks. It invites parts of me to replay all the reasons that I won’t be able to do the ‘thing’ that I idealise in that individual, and so prevents me from trying and possibly failing to live up to the fantasy. Both reactions are a desire for stasis, a desire to keep the fantasy in tact. This is a warped desire governed by a fear of the fantasy being lost, which in turn will reveal subsequent feelings of shame and deficiency.
The look upward, to this person I admire (or envy) is full of projections of my own desires for a certain lifestyle or vocation that I believe this person represents. If the comparison “downward” is met with a shout of “No!”, an act of separation, then it would be natural to assume that my desire and coveting of the person I am placing on a pedestal of comparison would lead to actions of identification. An identification made possible by ‘following in their footsteps’ via actions that I believe will take me to a similar place.
This is where the problem of comparison becomes glaring. My comparisons stem from the projections and identifications that are the realm of my story of self, my ego. Both the look downward and upward are like two opposing magnets holding me in a purgatory of inertia and isolation. Whilst the downward comparison separates and isolates; keeps me safe in a narrow, comfortable conception of who I am; the opposing desire for identification results in a kind of stuck-ness and despair. Despair that I am not already that which I wish myself to be. My comparison may reflect a desire for change, a looking out to what else is possible, but in reality it is a mirage of projections that keeps me in place; reinforcing and repeating my fantasy narrative of self.
It is this alluring mirage that disorients and deludes. We become like the lost person in the desert, walking toward an imagined salvation on the horizon that isn’t there. The person we admire is a culmination of an infinite number of steps that even if we could map them, would be impossible to replicate (i.e. you couldn’t return to when they were born, or the social environment that shaped them). This is not to say that we can’t be inspired by those who model what we value. However, whilst the inspiration can act as a catalyst for change, it also opens the chasm between where we are and how far we have to go. It is following this opening that we can fall into the comparisons that sabotage our desires for change.
The fantasies that we have of others represent the fantasies that we have of ourselves. Paradoxically the only way to move toward our ideal, to change, is to forget the fantasy altogether. The notion of following in someone’s footsteps implies that there are footsteps to follow. The truth is that there are no footsteps or path. The beginning of change is a realised capacity to move, the initial direction being less important as it will be corrected again and again by errors and false starts. What is necessary is a first step into the unknown. It is this lack of direction, and resulting anxiety, that leads to the inevitable temptation to indulge in the desire for clarity and certainty – desires that become expressed in our habits of comparison.
I have wished for most of my life that someone would show me the way, that there were coat-tails I could ride on. Experience time and again has shown me that this is completely at odds with my deeper desire for self-determination. To follow in someone else’s footsteps or to ride their coat-tails is to be determined by someone else’s path. Advice and reassurance may feel good at the time, but they are temporary salves for the angst that led us to initially seek them – angst to express ourselves in an authentic and original way. In the words of David Whyte:
“People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or a guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like.”
David Whyte, The Three Marriages
What he is saying here is that the development of a vocation or a style of life begins with some kind of inkling, insight, opening – a call. The root of the word vocation comes from the latin vocare which means “call” – but the call is all you get. The flash of inspiration is all you get. There is “no map into the future” beyond that. The only option after hearing this call is to leave the comparisons behind and launch from the contact point available, wherever that may be.
The existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard referred to this as a “Leap of Faith”. Faith is one of those words that is tangled up in so much religious connotation, but at base it means to ‘trust’. To trust in yourself rather than relying on the superfluous reassurances of, and meaningless comparisons to those we think we want to transform into or avoid becoming. This trusting is predicated on a kind of radical self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, so often misunderstood as passivity, but actually meaning a willingness to act on what is here now. Once the comparisons and fantasies have fallen away, we are left with who we are – and no other choice but to act accordingly.
To compare is to measure ourselves against someone else and feel either disillusioned by how we fail to measure up, or deluded by how we feel superior. In a time of almost inescapable social media platforms, which, if nothing else seem designed to prompt comparison; it can be very difficult not to fall into this habit of mind. To equate ourselves with others is to lose our own unique identity. The difficult (and radical) act is to have faith in your own conviction and embark without the map.
Coaching is the process of guiding someone through change. This change is often couched in the language of goals, and these goals could be based on many different (and at times competing) domains of life. Goals may be related to performance (e.g. sales targets), skills (e.g. develop public speaking ability), or developmental/lifestyle (e.g. “I want to act with more conviction”), but what is constant is a desire for change. Often when we engage another person to help us with a problem, we are in a state of conflict, a feeling of being lost in a sea of possibility or locked in a prison of maladaptive behaviours. The above painting by Jackson Pollock, literally paints a picture of how many people feel when engaging a coach, there is confusion, noise, ‘stuckness’ – a feeling of being lost. The purpose of a coach is to enable the development of an individual by helping them overcome the internal and external impediments that drive feelings of polarisation and ‘stuckness’. To overcome these feelings a client needs to understand what is relevant to their ultimate aspirations, how goals are framed to achieve this and how to act appropriately. This is an ongoing, dynamic process – with the coach serving as a guide along the journey.
The answer isn’t the answer
This process is not about giving the client the answer. Even if a coach had the answer, by telling someone what to do, it fosters a sense of dependence on the coach’s knowledge, which in any case is abstracted from the clients lived experience. The complexity of most problems faced by coaching clients, precludes the exclusive use of any rule-based, algorithmic-like decision making inherent in being given ‘the answer’. It also potentially reinforces a sense of self-deficiency in the client, by reinforcing a misbelief in their own lack of resources to deal with a problem – the primary reason for why the client sought coaching in the first place. Whilst the client may desire knowledge of how to act, to be shown the way, the job of the coach is to reinforce the client’s own sense of efficacy and capacity for self-leadership. Fundamentally the purpose of the coaching relationship is to help clients catalyse the change they seek by realising what is relevant to the achievement of their goals.
Heuristics, or shortcuts to realising relevance
The nature of the world we live in is incredibly complex and as such the impediments a client faces reflect this reality. We deal with this complexity of everyday life through what psychologists call heuristics; shortcuts for decision making that highlight what is relevant and allow us to act. A significant amount of evidence supports the Dual-Process Theory of Cognition, which holds that there are two ways that our minds process information. The title of Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller “Thinking Fast and Slow”, refers to how the majority our thinking is fast (automatic, intuitive), with the requirement for slow thinking (deliberative, analytical) when a problem requires deeper levels of investigation.
One of the key mechanisms in our use of heuristics is what psychologists call, attribute substitution. Attribute substitution refers to how our mind replaces a difficult question requiring high cognitive effort with an easier, heuristic answer. An example being, “how likely is it that this new job will provide the happiness I am looking for?”. There are so many unknown variables involved in this question that it is impossible to calculate or deduce the answer to it. Instead, a person may substitute this question with an easier one, “how do I feel about the prospect of the job following the interview?”. The individual has substituted an automatic/intuitive response for the more difficult and possibly unknowable, deliberative/analytic response. They have swapped ‘thinking slow’ for ‘thinking fast’.
Most of the ‘questions’ we face in our day-to-day life are like this, in fact everyday simple actions, if we stopped to analyse every possible step, would make our lives impossible. We would be overwhelmed by all the myriad elements in a problem, lost in a sea of possibility. Heuristics narrow down the questions we need to ask and allow us to find patterns in our environment that are relevant, affording us the opportunity to act. Working with a coach involves wrestling with assumptions. Reflecting on how we have gotten to a certain point and what is needed to achieve future goals is a process of understanding our own use of heuristics and how relevant or irrelevant these might be for our desired future.
The concept of Relevance Realisation and its application for coaching
John Vervaeke‘s, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, theory of Relevance Realisation refers to a dynamic, self-organising process that is central to decision making. He refers to this concept as a capacity to transform and self-correct decision making through new understandings (realisations) of what is relevant to a person’s goals. An example of relevance realisation in coaching can be seen in the context of an early part of the coaching conversation. A client comes to a coach with a problem and often that problem has been framed in a way the client believes is relevant to the achievement of a goal. Through the initial conversation the coach will ask questions relating to how the goal is framed, how observable it is (i.e., can you track progress), and to what purpose the client wants to achieve this goal.
The purpose of this conversation is to help the client formulate and define the goal in a way that makes it achievable. The initial conversation itself is a way of helping the client develop awareness of what is relevant to them. Realising what is relevant helps the client overcome various impediments to achieving the goal or prompts the client to redefine the goal itself as something more in line with a broader aspiration. For example, the client may come to coaching with a desire for more fulfilling work, this is an admirable aspiration, but it may not be possible to track progress or achievement. The coach’s role is to help the client re-frame this aspiration into more observable goals, enabling the client to develop confidence in their capacity for change as they reach those goals.
In a successful engagement this process continues throughout the lifetime of the coaching conversation and flows through into the everyday life of the client. A developmental coaching conversation will work with the client in a process of unfolding realisations that build on one another, however it will also work to break down or reframe patterns of thinking that are no longer relevant, and which act as impediments to change.
The Shadow of Heuristics: When relevance realisation goes awry
Our effective use of heuristics is predicated on our accurate mapping of patterns we can see in the environment and how well those patterns map onto the reality of what is happening. As discussed, the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions are essentially shortcuts to realising what is relevant so we can act. However, these shortcuts whilst efficient can also lead to biased or deluded thinking by mis-framing something as relevant when it is in fact irrelevant. Misplaced realisation of what is relevant can lead to vicious loops of thinking that are deluded and detrimental to the achievement of goals and to the process of change itself.
Vervaeke emphasises that otherwise intelligent people act irrationally due to a misuse of automatic thinking (thinking fast) in the place of more deliberate analysis (thinking slow) or vice versa. Vervaeke suggests that what is missing in these situations is a way of thinking that can reflect on the relationship between the automatic, fast thinking and the deliberate, slow thinking so that use of each is properly managed. He goes on to say that self-deception is about being locked into a feedback loop that maintains and reinforces the incorrect framing of problems and situations, and subsequently the misjudgement of what kind of thinking needs to be applied to a particular situation.
We can often see it in ourselves and others that maladaptive patterns of behaviour continue to repeat, despite our best efforts to change. If the way we are framing the problem hasn’t shifted, then it is likely that the changes we make are only going to lead to manifestations of similar problems, albeit in different forms. What is required is a re-framing of our experience, something that requires the cultivation of our capacity to reflect on our thinking, something referred to as meta-cognition.
Meta-cognition and self-awareness
The capacity of reflecting on our thinking is referred to as meta-cognition in cognitive science. This capacity is also commonly known as self-awareness. Self-transformation, often the reason for why someone employs a coach, is predicated on self-awareness; a clarity of thinking that enables someone to see through the illusions created by their own framing. The road to self-awareness, and subsequently self-transformation is paved with insights into the nature of our problems.
The coach’s role is to act like a mirror for the client, enabling them to develop greater insight into their own thought patterns, and enhance their realisation of what is relevant to their goals. This mirror works via the coach’s reflecting back the client’s words or actions in the context of a specific impediment or issue, as well as through the interpretations of the coach. The value of these interpretations isn’t necessarily their accuracy (although accuracy is helpful) but rather the reflection of the client’s thoughts and actions as a means of helping a client see into their own cognitive processes (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory). Having the client either recognise and/or reject and re-affirm a more relevant interpretation is an expression of insight that helps develop the client’s own capacity for further insights and self-awareness. In this way coaching can be looked at as a “mindfulness for two”. The client is being mindful of what they are feeling/saying and the coach is mindfully tracking and reflecting this back to the client, with the client re-defining or re-articulating a more accurate description as required.
Impediments and Insight
The impediments that a client faces are the result of fixed and rigid patterns of behaviour, what psychoanalysts call defence mechanisms. These defence’s whilst being valuable in the past, a classic example being workaholism, have now become a barrier to the client living in a way that aligns with new aspirations for life. Insight in a coaching conversation can help a client not only reframe what is relevant for a new direction in life, but also develop a kind of intelligent ignorance to the many irrelevant facts that cause confusion or internal conflict. This process is one the Psychoanalyst and Professor of Psychology, Robert Kramer refers to as “Learning and Unlearning”, something we do each day, but which is accelerated in the coaching conversation.
However, momentary insight isn’t enough to facilitate transformation. A singular insight is like a reassuring conversation with a friend, a sugar hit to our sense of self-worth or confidence. Without a sustained shift in framing or attitude the ‘hit’ from these insights gradually fades. As the quote from John Vervaeke at the start of this article states: “development is a systematic form of insight”. This means that sustained transformation is reliant on insight into the entire system of cognition (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory), not just isolated parts, although this process may start with the isolated parts.
Bringing it all together
As much as it is possible to understand ourselves and live more alignment with our values we need to realise what is relevant. Realising relevance requires the self-awareness inherent in reflecting on our thinking and the accurate framing of our problems. Coaching is one avenue that can help an individual enhance their self-awareness by acting as a mirror to their perception, attention, thought, knowledge, and memory. By doing this systematically through integrative practices with the coach, clients can develop a muscle of understanding that allows them to act in a more aligned way in service of their goals and aspirations. Self-awareness, systematic insight and action aligned to what is relevant enables the small and big changes that catalyse transformation and lasting change.
Sesshin, “to touch the heart-mind”, is a period of intensive meditation usually performed in a Zen Monastery. My own experience of Sesshin was a six-day silent meditation retreat, held at an old Franciscan Monastery in a nature reserve near Stroud, New South Wales. I have been practicing with the Ordinary Mind Zen School since October 2020, and this was the first time that I felt ‘ready’ for my first retreat. I was very apprehensive as the retreat approached. There is a family history of psychosis on my father’s side of the family stretching back three generations and my old fear of being overwhelmed by ‘the shadow’ and succumbing to a psychotic break resurfaced. Going into Sesshin I realised how much this spectre has informed much of the nameless little fears that have shaped my life in countless unknowable ways. A recurring dream as a young child of a black shadow looming over the foot of my bed still holds an image in my consciousness, and I was anxious about the possibly of seeing this figure again. My apprehension had me prepared for a visit to the underworld, Dante’s “abandon hope all ye who enter”, flashing in my mind as a kind of steeling for a difficult emotional battle.
The liberation of silence
The aspect of the retreat that I was most worried about, the silence, in the end was the part I enjoyed the most. There is such liberation in silence amongst company! This silence removed all social hierarchy within the group. There were no cliques, no in or out groups, no one on top or bottom, no cool or not cool, even male or female felt irrelevant. This silence removed so much of the mental planning, analysis and rumination related to social interactions that fuels so much of our internal chatter. “Should I say this?”, “I can’t believe he said that”, “I don’t like that comment”, “His voice is annoying”, “That’s not what I meant”, “I wish I said it this way”, “I wonder if they like me?”
All this inane, back-and-forth, self-conscious chatter dissolved during the retreat. Interestingly, despite being no talking, there was a real sense of getting to know everyone just by being in presence with one another. Everything outside of the language realm took on much more significance. A small smile whilst crossing paths the hallway. The sound of a turning foot on the floorboards of the dojo. The way a person ate their soup. Through these observations it was interesting to watch how the judgemental and critical part of the mind, could still find the tiniest of social moments to latch onto and use as a way of separating itself from others. Comparing and competing over the tiniest differences in behaviour.
I had a truly wonderful, rich experience during this retreat. Moments of real joy, which were very unexpected. My experience was a privilege of being able to be present and witness the ordinary beauties of the flowing natural world and at times the equanimity and wholeness of my own essential self. Much of that sense of wholeness was experienced during the Samu or working periods, where my job was to wash up after lunch with two other people. I had noticed my impatience on the first day, which eventually dissolved or transformed by the third day. What was formed in its place was a deep sense of compassion and inter-relationship with the two others that I was working with. It was an unusual feeling in the sense that it was as though I had tuned into a sense of compassion rather than it being something I possessed or had cultivated. I had an intuition that whilst I could feel this compassion within, simultaneously it was a universal feeling, outside of me, available to everyone. Around the same time, I noticed that my inner critic and rumbling tremor of anxious internal chatter had also completely died down. I found it interesting that this died down in parallel with the quietening down of the judging mind that constantly monitors social interactions.
The musical flow of nature
With more than 8 hours of Zazen (sitting) during the day, there was so much… nothing happening. Much of the experience, particularly in the first couple of days was noticing the slow-moving lava lamp of discomfort throughout my back and shoulders whilst sat on the cushion. However this nothingness, compared to our everyday rush of stimulation, cleared me out to experience some infinitesimal, ordinary moments of pure wonder. The first, was sitting on a chair during a break with a cup of tea looking out the window. It was a warm, overcast, breezy afternoon and as I was sitting, there was a big gust of wind that led to the puff of a Dandelion dispersing in the breeze, whilst a rusty-red, rapidly rotating gum leaf fell through the expanding white mist. This moment must only have lasted a second, but it is seared in my memory like a painting. Another moment was standing on the bank of a lotus pond in the dusk of the final evening. Looking at the pink and blue lotus, my eyes were drawn to a lotus-free part of the pond, where ripples were emanating from some unseen disturbance. There must have been some unfelt or isolated sun shower that I couldn’t feel, with invisible falling droplets triggering rhythmic ripples that were like notes of music on the pond. I saw the music of the natural world in that moment standing next to the lotus pond and a feeling of melancholy came over me in realisation of how distracted and ignorant we have become of these everyday wonders.
The paradox of change and transformation
Our teacher, Geoff Dawson, gave a fantastic talk on the second day about the three Buddhist personality types, grasping, aversion and confusion. Which interestingly map onto the three Buddhist poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Realising my own grasping nature and how closely I matched the characteristics described by Geoff from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart provided a lot of clarity to past behaviours. At the same time, I noticed how I also grasped at the category of grasping, with a “Ah! That’s the problem!” making it feel like an infinite regress into the past, something inescapable. The nuance (and lesson) in Geoff’s talk that helped break out of this eternal recurrence was shifting the perspective from change, as though we could change into some other character, to one of transformation. Any change in ourselves comes not through a complete negation of who we are but rather an extension of our characteristics into something beneficial, which in the case of grasping is generosity. It is not about becoming someone else, but realising who we are and extending or transforming this pattern of personality into a different shape. In my case, the open palm of generosity, instead of the closed fist of grasping. Nothing about the hand has changed, except the way it is being used. This process of transformation isn’t about a Gatsby-like quest of changing yourself into someone else, a fool’s errand. Rather it is about extending beyond the fixed set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have stiffened through habit. A process that commences with mindfulness of these thoughts, feeling and behaviours. What was common across the transformative gestures for each personality type was the opening to others. Grasping transformed into generosity. Aversion into wisdom. Confusion into vulnerability.
The most profound experiences of this retreat occurred once I returned home. Firstly, everything was incredibly vivid, even driving down the freeway back to Sydney, a drive I have done often and always write off as ugly and dull. Everything had a charge to it and a sense of spaciousness, as though everything had fallen into its rightful place. When I first saw my two-year old son, he didn’t look real, almost like he was shining as an angel. There was such a surreality to seeing him and a lightness to holding him, that it took a couple of minutes for his familiarity and weight to register. The following day, sitting at breakfast I could feel a sense of vibration throughout my whole body, gently pulsing up and down. Later that afternoon whilst I was lying in bed with my wife in the summer afternoon, my son napping, I felt a return to the feeling I used to have when we were first falling in love. It was such a rapid transformation to a feeling of another time, that suddenly the 13 years we had been together felt as though it had collapsed into an instant. It was as though, for that moment, there was an atemporality to my experience; 13 years and those early moments together in 2009 collapsing into one instant of feeling.
The difficulties of written reflection
Writing it all of this down performs a kind of reification of the experiences which isn’t my intention. The moments which have held their place in my consciousness from this week were fleeting, at most a couple of seconds. There is an impossibility in trying to pin down any kind of internal experience, even if that experience is nested in the everyday wonder of the world. The danger in writing a reflection like this is that you embellish and, in a sense, betray the nature of what happened. In this article I have tried to be as true to reflection as possible. The paradox lies in the fact that our words are re-presentation of all we experience, and at times a poor one. However, they are all we have to share our experiences with others. In this instance I have written about my experience for posterity, but also in case others see in these words a door they would like to walk through to explore zen meditation and mindfulness for themselves.
Richard Pevear, Foreword to Notes From Underground
Through a fear of failing, we limit our reach as we feel that this will allow us to keep our balance, maintain our clean record, keep the fantasy of ourselves intact. Often we prefer to stew in what we know, deriding those who bumble on, but who bumble forward nonetheless as fools or failures. This is the enemy of progress because it restricts movement. Being cowed by an imagined ideal of excellence, creates an unwillingness to engage in new activities or to push yourself into difficult situations that may tarnish this ideal.
Sometimes when I am napping or day-dreaming, my mind creates little stories, similar to the kind of stories you inhale when reading a book. Visually they are a fuzzy representation of words on a page, as though I am reading and creating those words simultaneously, without any conscious control. The stories are stripped of any real colour or depth, they are more just vignettes of type and page, auto-dictating out into the dark edges of my semi-sleep. The dialogue in these stories, held by this twilight of consciousness, flows so effortlessly, but can never be caught when fully awake. Slipperier then a normal dream, these little scenes disperse as soon as my eyes open.
These twilight moments between sleep and wake have been happening more recently, a factor of the amount of time I have on my hands, an abundance that will soon be at an end. When working we spend so long aching for time, aching for the thing we don’t have, so that we can invest in activities that reflect who we ‘truly are’. How many people say, “If only I had the time I would do X,” but they never take the steps to make the time for the thing they want, and when the time does present itself, often it is wasted; shredded into pieces of confetti by Instagram, Netflix, social obligations.
I think the reason why people don’t take the action required to get what they say they want, is because time scares people. Time opens a window to the self-referential part of your mind, the part that likes to daydream, make little stories. Time allows this part of our mind to stomp around and peer over our shoulder, second-guessing every thought or action. Time provides the space for you to try something new, to make decisions and mistakes, mistakes which can foster learning, but can also diminish your own sense of competence and confidence. When time presents itself we try to fill it, as though its emptiness might let in some unknown horror, and by filling it, often we waste it. We talk of ‘doing time’ or ‘serving time’, we dread moments where our control of time is taken away from us. And so instead we scurry around in busyness, frittering away sequences of moments that could be used to cultivate a deeper sense of well-being.
I am one of those people who always preferred to be moving, busying myself as a way of deflecting a deeper psychological malaise that was illuminated by stillness. The last 12 months have been the first time where I really allowed myself to slow down, observe and smell the roses, and even then a significant part of me, that incessant voice at the back of the head, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this period of calm. It wasn’t really until I passed the halfway mark of this time away that I finally let go.
My experience of time as a result has changed. My threshold for boredom has significantly lowered as my general state of arousal/excitement has also lowered. I feel healthier, whilst also being less stressed. However, I have noticed that despite my significantly reduced levels of stimulation, my overall, subjective experience of stress hasn’t fallen that much. This has been an interesting aspect of this period, that despite all of this time available to do whatever I wish to do, the subjective experience of day-to-day stress, whilst lower, is only slightly so.
It has made me realise how much this stress reaction is just a part of me and that it requires a channel into some outward physical activity before it is redirected internally as rumination and worry. The fact that the level of stress hasn’t changed much and that it has essentially shifted its shape is a good lesson for future times of stress. That it is a part of me, that it needs to be managed by practicing techniques like mindfulness and that it isn’t going to go way by making big sweeping changes. I have also noticed at this time how being cut off from people, exacerbates this stress. My mind seems to think that it likes to be alone, which is true at times, but the truth is that I am almost always happier in and following (most) social engagements. This kind of misguided, short-term view of what I think I want, feels a bit like the reluctance of going to the gym, only to feel so much better once you have gone.
I feel as though I have been on the run for the last twelve months or so. I can see now that part of the reason for my running was a fear of the success I had enjoyed at work; fear that this would lock me into who that successful person was forever. There was a sense of guilt about this success, as though it had come too easy. In truth it was a shallow kind of success built on a wobbly foundation of gritted teeth and a blinkered focus. Whatever it was, the time for self-sabotage is over and whatever happens next, there won’t be the same freedom of time to simply cast it away. Perhaps that is what is really needed, constraint of time, so that you are freed from the worst impulses of your own ego.
I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Have you ever had a ‘feeling’ about something? Or felt a deep understanding or affinity for a piece of music or art that you couldn’t quite explain? A lot of our intuitive and emotional reactions to experiences are like weather patterns in our bodies and minds, unconscious, willful, with a significant impact on how we consciously pay attention to the world. So many of our phrases for emotions; ‘they rose within me’, ‘I lost control, ‘I was swept away’, speak to a sense of these processes having a will of their own and one that has more of an impact on our conscious thought than we realise.
Over the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of research into something called ‘embodied cognition’. Embodied cognition is a way of conceptualising how we think and make decisions, a shift away from the predominant, and restrictive, way of viewing thought as only specific to the brain, expanding to incorporate a framework that includes the significance of the body. The dominant view of cognitive science, and therefore of psychology more broadly, is that cognitive processing only takes part in the brain and is devoid of the bodily processes of sensory input and control. The movement of embodied cognition is a way of viewing thinking, in a way that is grounded not only in the biology of the brain, but also in the feedback we receive from bodily sensations in relation to our actions, in our connection to nature and the influence of our social environment.
The importance of serotonin in understanding ‘thinking’
When considering how thinking is shaped not only by our brain, but by our body, it is important to consider the role of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the central nervous system, and is critical to the regulation of virtually all brain function. Dysregulation of serotonin function has been implicated in major depressive disorder along with other mental illnesses, with most antidepressant drugs working by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. It is difficult to find a human behaviour that is not modulated by serotonin, with it responsible for regulating mood and emotional responses, perception, attention and memory, along with our attitudes to rewards like food and sex.
The interesting thing about serotonin is that the vast majority of it is found outside of the brain. In fact up to 90% of all serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and this network is so extensive that scientists have referred to the gut as the “second-brain”. Often used phrases “I feel it in my gut” or “I have butterflies” in my stomach are not superstitious nonsense, but a critical factor in what drives our cognition. That intuitive feeling of ‘something’s not right’, a feeling that we can’t explain but which we ‘feel’, may have a significant amount to do with the distribution of serotonin in the digestive system.
This hypothesis is supported by research conducted on mice in 2017, which discovered that serotonin played a key role in behavioural and cognitive flexibility, something the researchers called ‘reversal learning’. Reversal learning can be thought of as the ability to change a course of action, when something in the environment changes, i.e when something no longer feels right. An example of this process malfunctioning, would be someone with low serotonin levels who is unable to adjust their ways of thinking after being made redundant. This inflexibility leads them to ruminate over and over on the fact they were made redundant, leading to a spiral of negative thinking and self criticism. Someone with higher serotonin levels may have had more flexibility in their response and instead of ruminating, re-framed the way they view the situation, taking a new course of action like volunteering their time, or re-enrolling at university.
Of course our analytical reasoning and conceptual development happens in the most highly evolved parts of the brain, but they are built on a foundation of non-verbal, intuitive processes that begin in the body.
The Four E’s of Cognition
Embodied – The body
Historically the body has been viewed as unimportant to the understanding of the mind, even as an impediment to this understanding. Religious ideas of the body as something base, even sinister; with its many temptations being a barrier to salvation, have been common across many religions and philosophical thought for thousands of years. The French philosopher René Descartes was so suspect of any physical experiences, including that of his own body, he decided the only thing we could be sure of are our thoughts. For most of Western philosophical history the body has been something to be overcome, to be tamed by the mind, as though it were separate from the body.
Without the body we would be unable to think. The brain is our seat of conscious experience, however the vast majority of what the brain does and processes is occluded from our conscious awareness. The amount of information that our body takes in from our broader environment, is the input that the brain uses to conceptualise an understanding of the world and to ignite actions within it. Our appetites for food and sex, what draws our attention, our emotional responses, all of these take place from within the body via a complex network of sensory inputs, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones, long before our rational mind interprets these experiences.
Our bodies then can be seen as the seat of intuition, of our understanding, whilst our mind is the centre of our intellect, of our knowing. A sense of understanding in this context is our visceral, non-verbal intuition of something that we have sensed, without applying a consciousness judgement of how this fits in with our existing knowledge. An example of this is a mother responding to her child’s cries in a specific way as she understands what the needs of the child are, without necessarily knowing what these needs are. Our sense of knowing then grows out of an initial understanding of the problem. After tending to the child, over time the mother develops a knowledge of what a particular cry entails and so develops more of a conscious response.
The opposite of this is the practice of a physical skill, something like playing the piano. At first, there is a requirement to consciously attend to each specific element of this skill, a sustained focus on which key represents what note, on how these keys combine to create a chord and how these chords create a tune. Over time as this skill is continually practiced, these actions become more natural, and with increasing proficiency the action of playing the piano becomes more and more devoid of conscious attention, in fact conscious attention may even disrupt the ‘flow’ of playing. At this point the skill of playing the piano has essentially become embodied, and it is as though the body is almost channelling the music that has been learned through conscious practice.
Embedded – The environment
The materialist view of the brain is that it must be explainable by the principles of nature. This view is extended by those proponents of embodied cognition, stating that cognition is embedded and shaped by the environment in which we grew up and live. In connection to the above point, our cognition is shaped by the natural environment we are faced with, and what the sensory input of our bodies gleans from this environment. An example of this is how the cognition of two people, one in Iceland and one in Thailand, are likely to be very different based on their experiences of navigating their environments. The skills required to be learnt, and therefore the ways of thinking that need to be utilised in order to develop these skills.
We are often able to remember more effectively by using our bodies and parts of our surrounding environment to ‘offload’ storage and simplify the processing required. Essentially we map our memories onto elements in the environment, with those elements serving to remind us of what we need to remember when we see them again. Simple examples of this relate to something that psychologists call context effects, which involved experiments relating to test performance of college students. These experiments showed that those who took the test in their regular, weekly lecture hall performed better than those who took the test in a new venue. It is believed that visual cues in the regular lecture hall provided memory cues for specific information that had been learned throughout the semester, aiding recall.
Essentially this is an example of the representation of knowledge in symbolic form. We imbue meaning onto parts of our environment, almost unconsciously, and this allows us to build sophisticated structures of references and understanding. Out of its context a clock in a lecture hall is just an object, however within the context of a lecture hall, during class, the clock may serve as a reminder to a student of a particular piece of information, jogging their memory.
Extended – The Social World
Our cognition does not develop in a vacuum, or a ‘black box’ as the arch priest of behavioural psychology, B.F.Skinner referred to the brain. Our cognition is shaped by the social environments we inhabit, in fact it is almost dependent on the social environment we exist within. The social environment and our cognition are reciprocal exchanges between us and the groups we are a part of. Our ways of thinking are shaped by family members, educational institutions, work, friends, sexual partners; sculpted by the millions of gestures, actions, words and emotions of the individuals we spend our time with.
The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero in 2004 was a major breakthrough in neuroscience. This finding represented a paradigm shift for our understanding of cognition and in particular the understanding of the mechanisms for empathy, imitation and language. The paper showed that mirror neurons in the brain ‘fire’ in the same way for an observer of an action, as though the observer had performed the action themselves. This finding was empirical evidence for a statement by the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who stated, whilst talking about the reciprocal nature of communication, that “it is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his”.
The implication of this finding was that it showed how fundamental empathy is to our ability to learn and think via the imitation of others in our social environment. Something that is also critical for language development and production. Without empathy, we are unable to understand another person’s emotional state, meaning that we are unable to develop lasting social relationships. Without the ability to imitate than we would never have been able to learn from one another. A child learns to walk and talk not by thinking abstractly about the concept of language or movement, but by attempting to be like those they hear and see around them.
Enacted – Our actions
An interesting way of thinking about how our thinking is enacted and how action supports thinking is by understanding gestures when we talk. In multiple studies, gestures have been shown to aid in the recall of information, particularly detailed visual memory, or memory about particular locations. The way that gesture can aid in the recall of working memory then helps in the production of speech itself.
We think as much with our hands as we do with our minds. So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us. This notion of grasping is critical to understanding how action and thinking are symbiotically linked. The German’s have a word for all meaningful, goal-directed activity called Handeln, which relates to an individual acting in the world, but also refers to more abstract notions of mental thought. This word of course is derived from where we get the word hand from and relates to our ability to manipulate our environment, to acquire things, including acquiring concepts, which is why we say we have “grasped” something once we understand it.
Much of the purpose of our thinking is to put thoughts into action. One of the key benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, still the dominant form of psychotherapy sanctioned by most Western health systems and governments, focuses on how your actions can shape your patterns of thought. Clinical depression is often preceded by a life event that leads to a period of withdrawal, isolation and inactivity, and the premise of behavioural therapy is that new ways of thinking can be ‘enacted’ by changing patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, remove the individual from their isolation, exposing them to activities that bring enjoyment and connection with other people. This activity removes the self-directed gaze of rumination, bringing us back into embodied movement and an extension beyond ourselves back into the social and outside world. The feedback from these actions are what allows us to update our mental representations of what we understand to be the world and how the world works, whilst also enabling us to develop patterns of thinking that emanate from these new frames of reference.
Bringing it all together
The brain is not a black box pulling the levers on the rest of the body. The brain is the conductor of an orchestra, a body of instruments whose reverberations are influenced by the actions within the environment around them. The brain is our seat of conscious experience and where all our high level reasoning and abstraction takes place, however these mental parts of us that we rightly celebrate do not take place in a vacuum. Our ability to reason is critically dependent on the intuitive, unconscious and non-verbal understanding that comes from the body and its entanglement with the wider world. We appear to often have an intuitive understanding of something long before we develop conscious knowledge and it is critical to remember that this knowledge is built on this foundation of unconscious processes. A hyper-rational way of thinking that ignores intuition is a half-blind way of looking at the world, one that only values abstractions over the importance of context. The embodied cognition movement has major implications for how we view the world and is a promising avenue for developing a more holistic understanding of the mind, an understanding that is built from the body.
“This was the point, that I blindly believed then that through some miracle, some external circumstance, all this would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made, and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels. A secondary role was incomprehensible to me… Either hero or mud, there was no in between. And that is what ruined me, because in the mud I comforted myself with being a hero.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
The Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is widely viewed as one of the greatest writers of all time and one of the greatest psychologists in world literature. His novels, including Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground deeply explore themes of psychology, philosophy, religion, literature and family, shining a light into the darkest depths of the human heart, whilst also gazing up in awe at our capability, despite everything, for transcendence through our love for each other. For Dostoevsky the good life was a kind of embodied, reciprocal exchange, with this reciprocity between self and other, being the foundation for grasping any kind of truth or understanding.
The passage above refers to a sense of superiority. A retreat into grandiose and delusional fantasy, a fantasy whose carriage is a warped kind of rationalism. A vision in a vacuum, dissolving on contact with reality and experience. The anti-hero of the novel holds a preference for the perfect conception of himself, over a potentially stained one in reality. A fixed conception that results in a fear of life and so a retreat from it. A burrowing into a solitary invention, one in which he is the hero, or will soon be. The abyss between his flawed self-conception and the inconvenience of reality, is filled with a despairing envy and hatred of those he encounters, as they represent a hammer to the mirror of his intellectual invention. Unwilling to let go and accept the contradictions and hypocrisies that are involved in living, this individual festers like a bad seed, his potential growth cut off by an unwillingness to expose himself to the fertiliser of experience.
The narrator of Notes from Underground is a disheveled, shambolic, and completely isolated individual, who views himself as a kind of messiah, someone who, if only the right moment would present itself, would be able to demonstrate his genius. Of course there is no such moment, and the narrator’s fixed, warped notion of himself, leads to a belief that the world should present itself to him “beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made”, rather than presenting himself to the world in all the messy reality that entails.
For Dostoevsky, so much of his writing dealt with the dangers of pride and the limits of rationalism. Whether it is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, calculating the personal and moral necessity of the murder of his landlord, the cold and calculating Ivan in The Brother’s Karamazov, or his unnamed anti-hero in Notes From Underground, a detached, cold and prideful way of thinking that carved the world up into fragments and calculated each step out of context with the reality, was persistently shown by Dostoevsky as being a pernicious and ultimately disastrous way to live. Richard Pevear in the foreword to his translation of Notes From Underground reflects on Dostoevsky’s writing as a whole that;
“The one quality his negative characters share…is inner fixity, a sort of death-in-life…. Inner movement, on the other hand, is always a condition of spiritual good, though it may also be a source of suffering, division, disharmony in this life. What moves may also rise.”
Pevear refers to ‘inner fixity’ like a kind of narrow mindedness, or blindness, resulting in a spiritual ‘death-in-life’ or the death of potential. In these books we live in the minds of his characters and are shown, through their examples, the catastrophe’s that await us when we let narcissistic pride prevent us from connecting with others. Dostoevsky was very sceptical that we would be able to think our way to a better world and was vehemently against the utopian ideals of the day, including both capitalism and socialism. In The Brothers Karamazov, he captured the utopian thinking of socialism at that time, saying that the socialists wished, “…not to go from earth to heaven, but to bring heaven down to earth”, prophesying that this would lead to disaster. Referring to capitalism, consumerism and the increasing isolation he believed this was causing he said;
“For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in peoples help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles, lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.”
These warnings relate to how the development and over reliance on a kind of wobbly rationalism, stripped from history and context, with a blank slate, a year zero, the projection of a new kind of reality ‘free’ from the constraints of the past would ultimately lead to further division and death. This solitary focus on our own idea of the world, or of our blinkered, solo pursuit of material possessions ultimately would isolate us, disconnecting us from each other and life. Redemption for Dostoevsky’s characters came through an authentic, even vulnerable embrace of life, a dialectical exchange where a kind of embodied (not just intellectual) truth is mutually constituted by the interaction between self and other.
What does Dostoevsky have to do with a growth mindset? Well, Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist, renowned for her work into “mindset”, motivation and how people succeed defined a growth mindset as a belief that our capacity is not fixed and that we can develop our abilities and skills over time. Dweck showed in her research that our fixed conceptions of ourselves had to be constantly updated and transformed by the growth that comes from experience and the insights it yields.
Some of her most impactful research, which investigated praise and its impact on motivation amongst fifth-grade students, showed that those praised for effort started to value learning opportunities, whilst those praised for intelligence were more interested in demonstrating their existing ability rather than stretching to improve. Dweck showed that the reinforcement of an existing way of thinking or viewing your own abilities as fixed can have a detrimental effect over time, leading to stagnation, frustration and a loss of potential.
Growth often involves stretching beyond your existing potential, which often means discomfort and effort. But as Dweck mentions in a revisiting of her initial publication, effort without actual learning is pointless. It is not simply about encouraging effort or resilience but also the encouragement of developing a personal insight into what works, a repertoire of techniques and strategies to learn and grow. In other words, a willingness to fail, which gives you the opportunity to update your understanding of what works by testing your concepts against reality and using this insight to transform skills and understanding. A fear of failure can often lead to the restriction of experience and develop into a kind of perfectionism that over time, if coupled with a fixed-mindset can become restrictive. Dweck, herself a recovering perfectionist, stated in a talk at The School of Life a number of years ago that, “I had to start shrinking my world in order to maintain [perfection].”
The shrinking of the world to match the conception you hold of yourself, as opposed to transforming your conceptions to match the world, would have been a thread of thought that Dostoevsky would have admonished. What is interesting about Dweck’s personal insight along with her extensive research is how it shows that in order to even maintain our abilities we need to keep challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. A fear of looking foolish or ridiculous, leads to a retreat from experience and a constriction of action. A true growth mindset appears to involve a willingness of being the fool before becoming the master.
We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery and bravado. I would not say we were wicked; they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, and I most of all. The chief thing was that I had come into my own money, and with that I threw myself into a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The passage above is from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and is the account of the elderly monk Zosima’s youth, recounted by the protagonist Alyosha. This passage struck me when I read it last night and I wrote the section down as the first thing I did this morning due to it reminding me so much of my own approach to life in my ‘youth’.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been increasingly thinking of past behaviour and how hedonic and aimless so much of it was and how all I was interested in over the course of many years was where I could find fun and pleasure. It is interesting to me that it is only recently, during the last couple of months, that my own opinion of my old life has so rapidly shifted, shifted to a point where I sometimes find it difficult to recognise the motivations of that old self.
“We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery … they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, I most of all.”
This was what university and the emerging adulthood period of life was for me. There was a feeling of pride. A sense that what we were doing was right, smart even. That we knew we were ‘making the most of it’ by sewing wild oats and getting our kicks whilst we could, before it was too late.
I always thought when I was younger that I had to see and do as much as possible so as that I could stave of future regret and not have the chaotic mid-life catastrophe that eventually engulfed my father. I realise now how misplaced some of these notions were, how pursuing fun and distraction only drove a chasm in my own life, a void in which I lost a sense of meaning, purpose. My expediency regarding work and university led me to feel that whatever it was I was doing over those years didn’t really matter. There was no wisdom in the drunkenness, debauchery or hedonism but it did ultimately yield wisdom, wisdom of what not to do.
The move to Hong Kong was the apex and termination of this ultimately unsustainable trajectory. We went to Hong Kong out of boredom, chasing fun, status, money; and the pressure, heat and brightness of that fascinatingly strange place incinerated this old part of myself, revealing an old truth and an old vein of understanding that I had lost. During this painful process, one which is still unfurling, it was as though I rediscovered a part of myself which had been occluded by the fog off all that I had tried to distract myself with. I realise now that I was blinkered and blinded by the light reflecting off the wrong values, values which I had never really stopped to consciously consider.
What is likely true is that in desperately trying to not repeat the same mistakes as our parents we simply blunder on, smashing into things on the periphery of the tunnel vision that focuses so determinedly on avoiding their bad examples, instead creating our own.
The remedy for this appears to be living as truthfully as possible. Of not giving up the potential you know is within you simply because it is difficult and will jeopardise your security and comfort at that moment. Manifesting what you intuitively know to be right seems to me at this moment to be a bulwark against the future corruption of your psyche. The difficulty of course is finding that moment of clarity, a still moment when the fog has lifted and you can not only see, but know that truth. What this might mean is that in order to find it you first need to jump into that fog.
The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights, namely liberty.
You could be happy. Happy like a fucking donkey strapped to a cart. Satiated by a regular carrot, a scratch behind the ear, some hay and a bucket of water at the end of the day. Happy because you have submitted. Given up your responsibility in order to be bound to the yoke of someone else’s charge. Preferring to be bounded to something, anything, simply so you don’t have to wrestle with the freedom of your own independent thought and subsequent psychological storms. You could be happy. Happy as a lobotomised automaton, blinkered and clopping through life to the tempo of someone else’s rod.
Freedom doesn’t mean happiness, in fact it very likely means the opposite, particularly when it is first grasped. Newly found freedom can often be terrifying, as all the possibility of the world comes flooding in and you are made aware of all that you could be which you are not. Like the first moments when we wake up from sleep and are dazed, confused and vulnerable, freedom simply exposes you to all the potentialities of life, dazzling and overwhelming us. It takes a conscious focus to aim at that which you are interested and through that focus begin to build on that which sustains your interest as that is what brings meaning. Our interest determines what we value and by focusing on what we value we begin to breakdown the overwhelming vastness of the world’s potentialities into a world that reflects us, that we can mould into something that will allow us to manifest our own latent power. Freedom doesn’t mean happiness. However it allows us the capacity to make our own decisions that can harness our own potential in the pursuit of something that we value, that has meaning.
Not a city that welcomes you with open arms, doesn’t really welcome you at all in fact. It makes you chase through layers of parties, graffiti, crumbling buildings, parks, confusion, beguiling you along the way, but keeping you off balance. The expectation of dropping into Berlin and riding the rail first go was naive. This isn’t Hong Kong. No welcoming fanfare and glittering carnival here. This is a city that you have to work for, a city you have to scratch around in the dust to find.