If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder.
How could anything meaningful grow out of nothingness? If nothingness is the grounds for nihilism, and nihilism is the rust gradually disintegrating society, then wouldn’t an encounter with nothingness lead to the hollowing out of meaning and value?
In Zen Buddhism, nothingness can be better understood by hyphenating between the conjunction of the two words, ‘no-thing’. The Zen tradition understands nothingness as an encounter with the absolute of emptiness, a dropping away of the self-referential concepts and thoughts that make up our sense of self, our usual conscious experience. Through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of the present moment, Zen practitioners can experience the dropping away of self-consciousness, an experience described as a vast nothingness or emptiness.
Self-consciousness, the ‘I’ in the drivers seat of how we experience the world is occupied from morning until night with the definition, categorisation and association between ‘things’ in the world and their meaning. We have evolved like this for the purpose of survival – to master our environment, as well as to map out and manipulate our social worlds. Most importantly we have turned this capacity inward, onto ourselves. We have become objects for reflection and assessment, as ‘things’ in the sense of ourselves being an “I”, an object that is perceived as having experience; a ‘me’ that is constant across time. This ‘me’ that we spend so long thinking about and referring to is a classification of our mind, a classification that has emerged from the intersubjective meanings we have attributed to relationships, objects and places that we encounter.
It can be reasonable to understand how an encounter with nothingness can lead to nihilism. These experiences can reinforce the emptiness of concepts and striving and as such the delusion of attributing any meaning or value to anything. If concepts and thoughts are empty constructs, ‘no-thing’, then a logical view would infer that any concepts and thought of meaning and value are also empty. This groundwork then sets the scene for a kind of cynical, spiritually destructive path for life. The famously cynical character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the famous line “everything is permitted” indicating a moral relativism. However, this world view may also express itself in a more insipid and pernicious way, leading to a general inertia and banality. A life that is unaware, distracted, uncritical, mindless – easily placated by the packaged entertainments, bullshit work and sedating pleasures of modern life.
Taking a purely logical view, this also seems to be a rational way to behave. If there is no meaning or value to be found in the nothingness, then why not just zone out and allow yourself, in the words of Kierkegaard, to be “tranquilised by the trivial?” This Philistinism, which is recognisable across any age, may grow out of this encounter with nothingness. No appreciation or interest in spirituality, the arts or culture, because of a view that none of it matters, or that none of it is real. So much of the science, business, media, and political mainstream implicitly or explicitly encourages or propagates this view. Selfish genes, the God delusion, the orthodoxy of utilitarian progress, the fashionable ideologies that attempt to replace religion with abstract frameworks of secular ‘shoulds’ are all in some way an expression of this.
These concepts are then set against each other in a never-ending ‘what-about-ism’ shouting match that serves as its own distraction and entertainment. This is now our daily experience and the vacuity some of us feel, arises out of there being no common ground to any of it. No common axiom, no Maypole to dance around. The implicit shared meaning of the village commons has been discarded as valueless and now everything needs to be made explicit. This explicitness, the minutiae of having to explain every grain of detail is the chaff that is clogging the mills of our society.
What is the alternative?
The Zen concept of nothingness refers not to a black hole of meaning and value, a wasteland of being, but rather as an absolute emptiness, a formlessness that is embedded in being itself. Freud referred to this state as oceanic consciousness, the conscious experience before thought and concepts. This sense of emptiness is experienced because our categorising, classifying, comparing ego (self) has dropped away. There is nothing there that can do the ‘thing-a-fying’ that carves our world into distinctions, creating a matrix of things and associations, which includes our own sense of self.
The feeling of no-thingness or emptiness that results in the dissolution of the concept bound self can be the grounds for a new concept of freedom. Without the subjective I, there is nothing to anchor the grasping, taxonomist nature of our self and what is experienced is the void of pure awareness, a black hole of concepts and associations. This can be a very anxiety producing condition, the Christian Faith refers to it as the ‘dark night of the soul’, the wilderness, the desert. As mentioned this experience of emptiness can be framed as nothingness, a field of absence, but it can also be viewed as a field of presence, the presence of the implicit value and meaning of life as it is.
The philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft talks about the active absence of encountering no-thingness, or the whole of awareness. Paradoxically he refers to the awareness of the whole becoming known through the complete attention of the subjective ‘I’ with all of the parts (or things) of awareness. This is the practice of mindfulness. A broad, all-encompassing awareness of the myriad parts within consciousness. A mindful, open concentration on all the parts of our awareness ultimately can overwhelm and dissolve the self-referential, egoistic part of our minds, revealing the whole of being. This inexhaustible fecundity of being, shows us that we and life itself are implicitly valuable and meaningful. The tone of a sunset, the enveloping sound of rustling leaves in a forest, the Kookaburra’s laugh in the rising dawn, all these experiences are all still happening, regardless of the machinations of our self-obsessed, re-presentational thought. They do not rely on our subjective concepts to be meaningful, they are inherently meaningful for their own sake and carry on without our self-obsessed thinking.
When we realise this, when we become attuned to it, we realise the value of all life as an end-in-itself, rather than as an instrument we can leverage for a purpose we have momentarily conceptualised. Far from being the empty hole that nihilism grows out of, nothingness can be thought of as a connection with the whole of being that refreshes us and, in a Copernicus-like revolution, de-seats our sense of self as being at the centre of our conscious universe. Encountering nothingness in this way shows the inexhaustible wholeness of being, of life itself.
Holding my son is the physical embodiment of love. An inchoate agape. A grounding love as opposed to the all-consuming, erotic love that led to his conception.
Holding him at times I feel a brief melancholy as I realise he won’t be a baby forever, that he will gradually carve himself away from me. I feel this despite every new phase, every new sound, noise, facial expression being my new favourite – superseding the last.
I feel as though I am physically holding time – and that despite his reassuring weight, his smell, the rhythm of his breathing, that time is slipping through my fingers.
Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal, and yet if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable.
What people mean, when they say that life is meaningless, or has no purpose, is that there is no goal or final end point that we are progressing toward. Taking Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” notion as the reason for having a nihilistic worldview seems to lead people toward a view of the universe as somehow also dead. The belief of an ordained purpose (God) dissolving under the march of scientific progress has left many people believing that everything is determined by an infinite chain of causality. A world of randomly colliding matter, precluding any notion of free will, or purpose. Interestingly these views both fall within a deterministic paradigm. The medieval worldview held that everything was determined by God, and our increasingly modern worldview holds that everything is determined by the random machinations of dead matter.
‘Life’ does not need to be progressing toward some final end goal in order to have meaning, or be meaningful to live. Life, moment-to-moment, is imbued with an inexhaustible well of meaning in our everyday experience. The transient apricot streaks of cloud during a spring sunset. The pattering feet of your happy child running down the hall to greet you. The feeling of warm rain, pleasantly drenching you in a summer downpour whilst you are going for a walk. This inexhaustibleness of life itself, life as it is, gives meaning to every moment of our lives and the lives of all living things around us.
Our instinct, desire or perhaps expectation for some kind of teleological end point that we are working toward or can finally rest in, is the extension and projection of the subjective narratives that form the carapace of our ego. We are creatures driven by narrative. We are an organic creature that is born, lives, breathes and eventually dies, but we also experience life as a ‘self’, a self that spans through time with a capacity to reflect on and think about, it-self. Narratives are linear threads with a past, present and future and are by nature teleological, they are working toward an end. Narratives are a story, a collection of symbols i.e. language, that allows us to maintain a constant subjective identity of who we are. This self is intersubjectively dependent on our relationships through the various stages of our social development, an intersubjectivity mediated by the exchange of symbols, the exchange of language.
The projection of this purpose-driven narrative onto metaphysical assumptions, is the extension of our own ego development and anthropomorphism onto the cosmos. However, the opposing assumption that the universe is completely dead and we are all just subject to the random meaningless-ness of causality, appears to be just another projection of a modern kind. This modern view claims there is no intrinsic purpose whatsoever to life behind the propagation of life itself. The removal of an extrinsic purpose (a deity) has been met by the subsequent removal of all intrinsic purpose.
Behind the curtain of the ego is the emptiness that lies behind our subjectivity. The emptiness of the present moment. To gaze into the abyss of this nothingness is to have these conceptions of the ego (the narratives, symbols, language) fall away into nothingness. This is what is meant by the Buddhist term of ‘no-self’. It is not to say that you don’t experience yourself as a ‘self’ or that a ‘self’ isn’t valuable for living in the world, it is to say that the self is intersubjectively construed across time by concepts of the mind. The cultivation of the present moment is thus a way to see beyond the past, present and future narratives that sustain the self, making contact with the emptiness behind the self or ego. This emptiness can be met with despair, it can be misconstrued as ‘fact’ that there is meaningless in life. But it can also be the grounds for a reframing of meaning. A meaning beyond mental concepts and self-reflective story. A meaning grounded in the everyday experience of our being-in-the-world, implicit in life as it is.
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.
“It’s no good trying to get rid of your aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Why is acceptance so hard?
Part of the reason appears to be the uncertainty of what we should accept. We are often bound by the tension that exists between being grateful for what we have, and the desire to stretch beyond our current capacity. Acceptance isn’t about any particular situation at work or in life; it is coming to terms with who you are, and letting go of thoughts and behaviours that lead to self-sabotage
This kind of acceptance is recognising your frailties and flaws, whilst honouring your strengths. Ultimately, acceptance is self-awareness. Self-awareness can provide you with the confidence to act in accordance with your values, rather than being pulled by others expectations. Without understanding your own values, it is easy to fall for someone else’s. It is when we are pulled by a “should” that we descend into the morass of self-deception, and its resulting cynicism and resentment.
Acceptance is hard because it is uncomfortable. It is often confused with passivity, when in fact it is in direct opposition to passivity. Acceptance implies wrestling with uncertainty and contradiction; of accepting and coming to terms with uncomfortable truths. Through acceptance, there can still be change, however this change can only occur without being forced or pushed by fear. Fear of being inadequate, of not having enough, pushes us to distraction. This distraction manifests itself in the blind ambition and greed that tries to plug an emptiness that can never be filled, like Tantalus and his grapes.
Acceptance appears to be a willingness to become who we wish to be, by having the willpower and patience to conform into who we think we should be. So much of how we think is determined by our social environment, and so we may not even realise that we are being led astray by the ‘Royal Should’. Putting up with the discomfort that arises from the resistance of ‘shoulds’, can open up the space needed to listen, examine and, let go. This process is uncomfortable because our thoughts and actions don’t exist in a bubble of isolation; it can be difficult to find the space needed to begin this process of uncovering. Indeed, we may even fear what lies underneath, instead choosing to distract ourselves with busyness, pushing away the pain that needs to be addressed.
Acceptance appears fundamental to the experience of the good life. It is also a key aspect of many psychotherapeutic techniques that are used to treat those struggling with mental suffering or illness. The difficulty of acceptance lies in its opposition to our intuition. Our mental life is so often focused on solving problems, moving from one to the next, that it can be very difficult to accept a problem, rather than trying to remove it. The problem that we rush to fix may only be the tip of a much larger iceberg of issues that we are unconscious of, and therefore unwilling to approach. Trying to fix problems without understanding their root cause is like cutting the head off a hydra. Acceptance starts with the psychological flexibility of making peace with contradiction and uncertainty. It can be the inflexibility and rigidness of our mental life that starves us of the vitality we crave.
Runnels of thought, silently slipping away; billowing then dispersing, pulling and repelling, never offering a firm grasp. A sudden splash of insight onto the banks revealing a rare, ephemeral clarity. Clear for an instant, like a droplet of water on a stone, reflecting the morning sun; disappearing under the fumbling grasp of paid attention. The rolling current, passing by, carrying him onward. Carving out time from the rocks it tickles past, the course of its carve, crystallising his form.
My brother was interested in everything except the task at hand. It was as though his head was on a swivel, spinning and turning from one interest to the next. He seemed to be his most creative when he was unhappy. Often drawing, or writing to soothe himself of what looked like mild suffering, but for him, was a blackened spiral of despair. To me, he always seemed most alive around family and close friends; however if you asked him, he would have told you he was most himself when alone. He loved ideas, but not enough to see any of them grow the fruits that would have sustained him and provided the independence he craved.
Everyone liked my brother, but he didn’t really like himself. It was though he was always grasping at something and as soon as he had whatever he had been chasing; he would soon cast it to one side, like a spoiled child with too many toys. He once told me that his restlessness came from a desire not to end up in the kind of mid-life catastrophe that our father became mired in. This fear pushed him to try as much as he could, futilely trying to stave off any future regret. What he didn’t realise then, was that we don’t get to choose our catastrophes. Whilst we are so focused on not repeating the mistakes of our parents, we unconsciously blunder on into new mistakes of our own, unaware that we are teetering on the edge of our own future flood. I suppose you could say that my brother was looking for a truth by which he could live his life, a truth that was often tantalisingly close, but faded away under a grasping hand. The truth about my brother was that he was happiest when he wasn’t grasping at all. When he was simply there, living, the grand projects and ideas set to one side.
Tortured by his lack of conviction there was a trepidation about doing what he needed to live the life he wanted. He had read all the books, had all the experiences, certainly more than most. There wasn’t much more he could have done to come to some deeper level of understanding. His problem was that he was always wondering when he would grasp something solid, something that might free him from the constriction of his rumination. What he hadn’t realised was that he had grasped it on multiple occasions; and that the truth he was searching for, had already been found. Found in the action of his searching. He hadn’t realised that the key to the life he wanted wasn’t to be grasped triumphantly, but was a continual movement. In fact, the grasping would have been in complete opposition to the way he was. He was always open, looking, interested, curious. Any grasping of some perceived truth never would have sustained him, as he would have cast about for what lay behind that truth! The reaching is what sustained him, what kept him moving. The truth he wanted to grasp would have led to the stagnation he feared.
The truth about him, one that he didn’t realise, was that he had a lot of conviction. He was tortured by his self-consciousnesses and how it presented itself as the only source of knowledge. How it discounted all of the times when his sense of what was right had taken the leap and landed on the other side. He had forgotten that while the landing had always kicked up an initial plume of dust, the dust always dispersed and the path would clear. He was generally vindicated. Vindicated because it was the leaping that continued to sustain him. By reminding him that he was alive and that life was to be lived and that to live required the willingness of faith.
But of course he was vindicated, we almost always are, eventually. Our memories are fallible, our minds flexible, and we have a great ability of re-arranging the furniture of our conceptions to match whatever new position we find ourselves in. When someone tells us that ‘everything will work out’ they are right. Not in some specific, calculable way, where a formula is applied and the hoped for, ‘yes everything worked out’, is weighed up against whatever imaginary benchmark we set. No, ‘everything works out’ because our minds, which are inherently optimistic, reconstitute our frames of reference, tying in a narrative that makes it feel as though this was all part of the plan. That whatever happened, happened for the best. As Dostoevsky said, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything”.
A sense of fate, that everything happens for a reason, is a feeling that many of us hold, which we do so because we are simultaneously shaping it by our actions and having our actions shaped by it. If fate is a path outside of our control, then in some ways we are all governed by a fate. Not one that has some predetermined outcome, but that is constituted by our reactions to events outside of our control. Very few of us are able to rise above this self devouring serpent to the point where we are freed from the cycle of being shaped and shaping the experiences we have. Everything works out, because life would be intolerable if it didn’t. Even in tragic grief, there is meaning found in the suffering that follows, a kind of duty to live, in order to keep a part of a lost loved one alive in you.
So often our confidence is diminished by our analysis. An analysis that only leads in the direction of whatever has already been decided by our biases and the runnels of our thoughts. Our willingness to change only comes from moments of insight where our focus is taken away from the problem, and we are able to feel for whatever else might be. That ‘aha’ moment might come during a walk, in the bath, or whilst reading a book in the sun. Our analytical rationality is wonderful at processing and manipulating what is already in front of us, but insight and the ability to change direction requires us to look up. It is not something that can be willed. Insight is like a flashing light in the distance, obscured by fog; calling, asking us to look up beyond our blinkered view of the world and to take a leap.
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.
The quote above from Lord Byron was actually in reference to a collection of poets based in the Lake District of England and talks to both a desire for these individuals to push out into the world, to test their beliefs, as well as challenging them to break out of a fixed or narrow view of the world.
A lake is an enclosed space, a place of calm, where the water is predictable and the exploration bounded by the encircling shore. An ocean is an open space, boundless, where it is easy to become lost, where the waves and weather are unpredictable. A lake represents comfort, ease, leisure. An ocean represents discomfort, difficulty and adventure.
You might say, well, the lake seems pretty good to me, what’s wrong with leisure? Why push yourself into discomfort unnecessarily? And, most people would probably agree with you and do just that. It is easier to sit within your preconceived notions, the lake of immediate experience and thoughts, especially if this way of thinking has been beneficial for you. There is good reason to prefer this to the chaos of the ocean outside. However, like the black dot in the white hemisphere of the yin yang symbol, the lake contains a small part of its opposite, a whisper of the chaos outside, the distant rumblings of the ocean.
The problems of the lake are contained within what makes it great. The ease and protection of living in this encircled space can lead to a kind of complacency, a withering of skills and strength, an increase of anxiety, or even fear of what lies “out there”. The lake is no guarantee either. It is subject to the outside forces of drought, contamination, conflict and without having the skills to face the open ocean, this puts you at a severe disadvantage when the world shifts, which it will. If that time comes when you need to test yourself against the ocean then it will be better to have been prepared by previously testing your sailing skills on the ocean rather than letting them lay idle, untested, in the lake. A willingness to “change your lakes for ocean” relates to a willingness to be open to what the ocean represents; new people and ideas, uncertainty and discomfort, wonder and awe. Essentially this is a maxim that promotes an open system of thinking in comparison to a closed one.
Now, it is true that virtually no one says that they are a ‘closed-minded’ person, everyone would likely rate themselves as pretty ‘open-minded’. But as Paul Graham says in his essay, What You Can’t Say, how much of that ‘open-mindedness’ is simply taught? To what degree is it an inherited, rote learnt fixity of what a good person or citizen is? An idea that you have of yourself, as opposed to an actual behaviour? Both the arch-woke-liberal and the alt-right-troll, likely see themselves as ‘open minded’, however in their conflict, they simply reflect each other’s ignorance, a reflection that obscures the awareness of a more nuanced point of view. Both of these people are convinced of their “truth”, and as such, have picked a side, grasping onto the ideological viewpoint of their churches of thought.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a truism that is emblematic of what happens when we believe that we are certain. The gap between your own certainty and someone else’s is often filled with disdain for the other point of view and an incredulity of how someone else could think that way. So many of the tragedies and problems that befall the world are the result of a group, acting in a way that they are convinced is right, with those disagreeing often being labelled as dangerous, inferior or inhuman. A sense of certainty, is ultimately a fixed way of thinking, solidified by a perceived grasping of some unwavering “truth”. The grasping of this truth then leads to, in the words of the philosopher Gotthold Lessig, ‘passivity, indolence and vanity’. This represents a return to the lake, with the belief that the lake is all there is, that there is no point stretching yourself to understand any further because the truth has been grasped, paradise found, utopia ensured. A fixed system of thinking is therefore like a piece of domino art, the starting point and the final destination are set, and the sequence from beginning to end is fixed, unchangeable, unless the entire set up is interrupted or destroyed. The advantage of this system is that it allows us to achieve what we wish to achieve, the disadvantage of this system is that the sequence can’t be updated and nor can the objective of what this sequence is marching toward, regardless of what happens in the outside world.
This is not to say that ‘anything goes’ and that there is no truth at all, but to say that the “truth”, in the paraphrased words of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, is always in a ‘process of becoming’. More a question of embodied searching, rather than of intellectual possessing. The problem arises when the narrowing of our attention, continuously blocks the outside world, muffling our intuitive understanding of the broader context. This silencing of our ability to focus on what we find interesting or valuable can often lead to that feeling of ‘being lost’, or feeling like there is no escape from your rut of thinking and behaviour. When actions become dislocated from the wider context of the person’s values, this is when the grip of depression and despair can take hold.
The often quoted maxim of “an open mind is one that is willing to change” has some challenging, overlooked implications, denoting an element of inherent discomfort and anxiety. If we are to live authentically, then there must be a willingness to be in a process of perpetual change that maintains a kind of psychological homeostasis. In order to dissolve no longer useful ways of thinking, we have to continually update our conceptions, maintaining an openness to our intuitive and implicit understanding. We always have to be willing, and prepared, to change our lakes for ocean.
The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing
Anyone watching The Last Dance on Netflix over the last couple of weeks has seen what it is like to be in an embodied state of flow. Seeing Michael Jordan playing basketball is to be reminded of how much the exertion of expert physical skill is devoid of our self-conscious awareness. When watching MJ drive to the hoop, or sink an impossible layup in traffic, it is like watching poetry in motion. A kind of magic connecting body, mind and soul in a symphony of coordinated movement. This state of flow is an immersed engagement in your environment, a oneness between doing and being, a sequence of time, where time itself seems to have disappeared. What is interesting about this state is how internal thought and fixation of ourselves stops when we are engrossed in a task. Why this takes place is of particular interest to researchers and their understanding of the brain and mental functioning.
Flow State’s and the Default Mode Network
This ‘flow’ state has been investigated using neuroimaging and has been shown to represent a decrease of activity in a structure of the brain called the default mode network. This network is responsible for much of our mental processes when we are not focused on the external environment, in other words our internal chatter and mind wandering. These processes include self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (ideas), moral reasoning and it is believed to be the network of the brain that contributes to our sense of self.
In a study investigating flow states, tasks that were rated by participants as ‘boring’, corresponded with neuroimaging data that showed higher activity in the default mode network, whilst ‘flow state’ activities corresponded with decreased activity. The network of structures in the brain responsible for creating that sense of what it is like to be you, are essentially switched off in these states of immersion. The default mode network is of particular interest to neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists as there is a belief that a hyperactivity in this network of the brain could be the neurological basis for the development of mental disorders.
The idea of investigating psychedelic experiences for treating mental disorders is not new. Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind, tells the story of how psychedelic science was a promising and legitimate field of inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, due to concerns relating to the growing counterculture and anti-war movement, the Nixon Government banned these compounds, effectively shutting down a promising line of research. Robin Carhartt-Harris, David Nutt and their team at Imperial College London, are two researchers at the vanguard of this renaissance and some of their theories related to the default mode network have significant implications for our understanding of psychedelic experience, the brain and mental disorder. Carhartt-Harris and his team found that the brain and in particular the default mode network, under the influence of psychedelics, exhibited decreased levels of activity, similar to those found in states of flow.
The brain is a hierarchical system, with the more recent, evolved parts, including key parts of the default mode network, exhibiting an inhibitory or repressive effect on the lower parts of the brain. Carhartt-Harris and his team argue, that the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony. The neuroimaging research conducted showed that during psychedelic experiences, this conducting part of the brain essentially switches off, allowing for increased connectivity between different areas which are usually not in communication.
The Entropic Brain Hypothesis
This research by Carhartt-Harris and his team led to the publishing of a theory called The Entropic Brain Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that our ‘normal’ waking consciousness is the result of a slightly skewed balance between flexible and rigid states. Entropy is defined as the level of uncertainty in a system, and, as can be seen below, high entropy states are associated with flexible thought, like creative or ‘dream-like’ thinking, whilst low entropy states are associated with rigid thought, characterised by obsessiveness and addiction.
Psychedelic experiences, emotion and sensation
In a 2018 paper researching the effects of psychedelics, researchers using neuroimaging, found that LSD induces increased connectivity in the sensory and somatic motor areas of the brain. This network of neurons is mapped to the sensory experiences of our body, indicating that LSD increases these signals, whilst decreasing connectivity in the areas of ‘associative thinking’, which include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for most of our executive function. This increased connectivity also extended to the amygdala, which is heavily involved in the emotional processing of stimulus. So a psychedelic state is exhibited by high sensitivity to sensory information, increased emotional response and the reduced executive functions relating to internally focused thought (thinking of the past and future, and mental constructions of self).
What is interesting about this research is that the psychedelic state is not associated with a higher form of consciousness, but in fact a more primal, or primitive form of consciousness. The quieting of the default mode network appears to open the door to elements of our subconscious experience that are not usually available to us. The question then becomes, why do many mental health professionals believe that this state can have positive outcomes for patients?
Mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress, are characterised by mental constructions that can become rigid and debilitating. One theory of why these experiences have positive outcomes, is that they act as a ‘circuit-breaker’ of these rigid patterns of thought, allowing patients to regain perspective. Another possibility is that these experiences, when accompanied with psychotherapy, allow patients to access memories and emotions that are otherwise unavailable, facilitating catharsis and acceptance.
This research appears to show that psychedelic experiences allow for some of these rigid mental constructions to be switched off, providing a reset and a new, balanced perspective.
The Divided Brain
A sense of balance between competing ways of viewing the world is exactly what is proposed in Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Master and his Emissary. This book, twenty years in the making, detailed the neurological research into the different “views” of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. McGilchrist makes clear that, despite the burgeoning amount of pop psychology stating otherwise, both hemispheres are involved in what the brain does.
Where things differ however, is in how the brain does what it does and how the different hemispheres ‘view’ the world. The left hemisphere’s view is more sequential and fixed, processing information linearly toward some objective that it has picked out of the broader context. In contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader, big picture view of the world, developing implicit understanding (as opposed to knowledge). This includes the understanding of metaphor, imagery, an ability to see patterns and read facial expressions and to appreciate art and the harmony and melodies of music.
One of McGilchrist’s central concerns, is that the left’s fixed, sequential, linear view of the world leads to a re-presentation of reality, one devoid of the broader context. According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere’s view is a reproduction, essentially a virtual reality, which is mostly interested in objects and ‘things’ as opposed to people and the environment. When our representation of reality becomes detached from the broader context for long periods, our experience can become what he terms, a ‘hall of mirrors’; an oppressive sense of being trapped within the mental constructs of our own thoughts.
This sense of being trapped in the hall of mirrors maps onto the type of rigid thinking typified by a low-entropy state in The Entropic Brain Hypothesis. Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world, a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality. There is a clear overlap between flexible or rigid thinking and the left and right hemisphere’s view of the world, between the grasping and sequential processing of the more rigid, left hemisphere and the contextually rich, intuitive understanding of the more flexible view of the right. Thousands of years of ancient spiritual traditions have spoken of the need for balance in the way we view the world and current psychological and neuroscientific research appears to have now caught up.
Bringing it all together
Whilst our sense of self and our ability to plan and reason are critical to our daily lives, it appears that these elements of our thinking can become counterproductive if they do not take into account a broader context. With the increasing digitisation of our leisure, work and social interactions there seems to be a creeping tendency to allow a more fixed, re-presented view of the world to dominate, potentially contributing to the significant increases in depression globally. Psychedelic experiences have been shown to be an effective treatment for many individuals suffering from intractable mental disorders. Organisations like MIND Foundation in Europe and Mind Medicine in Australia, along with many others, are working to educate mental health professionals, governments and the wider community as to their benefits and risks. By building awareness about these experiences, along with an understanding of who might benefit, we can remove some of the ‘war on drugs’ dogma that has shut down any debate regarding these treatments and begin to build a new paradigm of understanding for mental health treatments.
“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.