Cognition & Reality

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Survival Instinct

Filed under: Basic Goodness,Human Evolution — drtone @ 5:59 pm

Sometimes we do things that are hard to explain at the time, only to understand their significance later. It could be that this represents some kind of instinctive response that, because it arises from deep inside one’s being, does not respect time and space. I have had at least one experience of this phenomenon.

Anyone who knows me knows that, outside of the written page, I am “organizationally challenged.” I somehow managed to acquire a doctorate, although I can’t take notes to save my life (no matter how strong my survival instinct); the same problem with note-taking has arisen again in connection with my clinical practice. My “files” are a ridiculous, musty mess. Most of the time, every horizontal surface in my place is at least partially obscured with papers, magazines, and other crap. I am the opposite of “detail-oriented” and am the world’s worst clerk. Nevertheless, years ago, I accomplished a difficult clerical task, involving repeated attention to boring details, that promises to make it possible for me to live without having to flip burgers.

When I was working for Western Psychological Services, in LA, I found out that I could count my hours at my job toward the 3000 clinical hours required to obtain a psychology license. In order to accomplish this, I had to submit an application to the state Board of Psychology to be a “psychological assistant.” This involved asking my department head to be my “supervisor,” something I was loathe to do, because I never liked owing him anything. In addition, I had to send the Board a passport-sized photo and my fingerprints, which involved spending a few bucks at some Kinko’s-like place. If the business had not been farther than only a couple of blocks away, I might never had gone there. I also had to fill out a long form and have my transcripts sent from UCSD (and perhaps other places). Furthermore, I had to reapply each year to renew my status as a psych assistant, which I managed to do, as well. After I accumulated my hours, I also studied for and passed the national examination, the name of which escapes me, that is part of the California licensing process.

I did all of this stuff, although it was entirely out of character for me to do so, something I recognized at the time and mentioned to more than one person. Further, I filled out the applications, paid various fees, and maintained my status in spite of not needing a license for my work and without intending–ever!–to become a psychotherapist. At the time, nothing in my life was forcing me to act in ways I would normally not act unless forced. I even went to state orals exam, which I failed miserably (scoring 7-1/2%!), although it cost money and involved spending an absolutely horrible day at an airport hotel. I proved that I didn’t care whether I had a license by not finishing the process, because I knew I would have to study for real to have a chance of passing the orals.

Nearly a decade after abandoning my desultory quest for a license, I found myself in Silver City, New Mexico, facing both a divorce and the prospect of starting my life all over again. I knew that it was impractical for me to stay in Silver City, where there were no job prospects. Desperate for a sign to tell me where I should go next, I called up the California Board of Psychology, sure that they would tell me that my application was void and that, time having passed, my hours had expired. They told me no such thing. In fact, everything I had accomplished, the hours and passing the national test, remained in place. Miraculously, they told me that the state had abandoned the oral exam that had stood in my way previously, replacing it with a multiple choice test!

Having passed the national exam and aced many other multiple choice tests, I assumed that I would be able to pass the new exam easily. I was wrong: It took me over a year to prepare for the test. Once I passed it two years ago, however, I was a licensed psychologist in the State of California. It would never have been like that if I had not engaged in the bureaucratic dance years before. It was as if I had known, almost a decade in advance, that I would need and want to have a psychology license.

I’m not sure what this all means. At minimum, it warns that the feeling one has that one’s actions are transparent may be wrong. Sometimes, at least, our motives are hidden, and sometimes they’re downright mysterious.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Something Will Happen

Filed under: Attachment,Basic Goodness,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 9:28 am

Last summer, a client and I came up with a sort of slogan describing the usual status of human affairs: “Something will happen.” Just when you think things are on a rail–going well, or going South–something will happen that changes your circumstances and your attitude. For example, last year I thought I was running completely out of money until I discovered, more or less by accident, that I could draw on my 401K at age 59-1/2. I would be that old exactly when I ran out of my other source of funds. Admittedly, it’s not great to be drawing on my retirement right now, but it’s better than immediate penury. Presently, I’m worried about my psychotherapy practice, because I have so few clients, but Something Will Happen. Guaranteed.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Changing The Past

Filed under: Attachment,Emotion,Film,Psychotherapy — drtone @ 1:50 pm

In previous posts, I have discussed the non-existence of past and future. They are projections consisting of nothing but complex thoughts, and are therefore not real. In its many guises, the past can be particularly problematic. From a “psychotherapeutic” standpoint, the past, as we conceive it to be, is the source of many difficulties in the present. We trace the defensive adaptations that seem to get in our way to the distorted family dynamics of childhood. Our memories of the past, constructed though they are, can appear to us with great clarity. Although they refer to the “past,” our memories happen to us in the present.

You can’t change what doesn’t exist. In movies, sometimes, a character journeys into the past, where he or she has no power and can’t even talk to those he or she sees, perhaps to warn them of an impending disaster. Our experience of the past is much more like those movies than we usually recognize. Memories, especially when they are very clear, seem to be as subject to the rules that govern reality, such as the laws of physics, as are events that actually occur in the present. So we try to solve the problems that come to us from the past as if they were happening now. The problem is that we walk around in our memories much like a character in a movie who wanders wraithlike through scene after scene in which he or she can touch nothing nor be heard.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

“Getting Better”

Non-attachment means recognizing the basic goodness of our situation. I give up my goals, my notions about improving, because trying to “get better” implies moving away from WHO I AM NOW. Whatever I do, win or lose, come or go, I experience reality as it happens, unadorned by my stories about it. By the same token, as long as I focus on where I want to be in the conjectural future, I reduce the psychic space available in the present. If I am not attached to results, not only am I free from the suffering I might engage in, but also my mind and senses are clear. Paradoxically, once I renounce my attachment to going anywhere in particular, I become more effective at going where I want to go.

We can’t open selectively, however. Because pain and turmoil are part of life, we must accept them if we are to remain open to love and joy. I have told clients who have come to me as a result of ruptured relationship or financial crisis to welcome the opportunity the seeming disaster presents. Although these events are painful, to say the best, they also can illuminate pathways that would have been impossible to see under the prior, apparently more comfortable, circumstances. Notoriously, for example, a secure marriage, once gone, reveals itself as having been a hindrance to growth. Non-attachment from the immediate consequences of separation and divorce can therefore lead directly into previously foreclosed possibilities.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Filed under: Attachment,Non-Dualism,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 2:26 pm

Before birth, beings are not manifest to our human senses. In the interim between birth and death, they are manifest. At death they return to the unmanifest again. What is there in all this to grieve over? Bhagavad-Gita II

Because it is only a web of stories, subjective consciousness is not real. The self, the mind, the world, all these are illusions. There is nothing novel in such a view, which has been held and developed for millennia by Eastern sages. I am a story I tell myself. Attachment is, therefore, little more than a dream, because the “I” or ego who is the central character is an illusion, as is the timeline through which the ego moves.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Meeting The Dragon

Filed under: Non-Dualism,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 11:15 am

I’m reading another Robert Masters book, Meeting the Dragon, about what Masters terms at one point “radical acceptance.” He offers his method for entering our pain and thereby ending our suffering, because pain and suffering are not the same thing. Maybe that’s why damages are awarded for both pain and suffering. The pain is what hurts and how it hurts. The suffering is our story about it.

As I often tell clients and myself, feelings are always present, whether we acknowledge them or not. The temptation is to keep them subliminal, as if they were not present. It requires no fancy figuring to realize that doing so keeps us from being fully present. Holding part of me at bay not only prevents me from being fully embodied, but also takes energy. Therefore, it drains life force away from where I might otherwise use it. Even if a feeling hurts, it still deserves attention. The whole purpose of pain is to draw conscious awareness to the place that hurts. Following this natural law has its rewards, as Masters demonstrates, because bringing conscious awareness to bear anywhere brings conscious awareness everywhere.

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Fruits Of Action

Filed under: Attachment,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 1:21 pm

I have no desire at all for the fruits of action. Sri Krishna: Bhagavad Gita IV

The consistency that makes my story understandable and believable is an illusion designed to maintain the coherence of an ego required to give an account of itself. My story about myself happens to me as I move from the past into the future. The value of the story depends upon my identification with the central character, me, and upon my attachment to the story’s “plot,” as I win or lose, attain happiness, or sink into sorrow. Subjective consciousness is not real. The idea of self, the idea of mind, the idea of the  physical world, the idea of the psychological world, all these are illusions. There is nothing novel in such a view, which has been held and developed for millennia by Eastern sages: I am a story I tell myself. Attachment to the fruits of my actions is, therefore, little more than a dream, because the “I” or ego who is the central character is an illusion, as is the timeline through which the ego moves.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Problem Of Me

Filed under: Attachment,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 9:07 am

I’m always trying to figure out the problem of ME. Despite recognizing that my story of myself is an illusion, I have maintained a naive faith that I could position my mind in such a way as to answer every question all at once. Although I recognize that the mind won’t work, because I can only experience my “mind” as a rather complicated story, I nevertheless try to smuggle my mind in.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Grocery Store

I have finally got round to reading The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. It’s about William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and the development of pragmatism as an American philosophy. Of course, it’s interesting, but the most fascinating thing about it is that I’m learning that I, and others, have been reinventing pragmatism as a sort of adjunct to radical constructivism. The central point of pragmatism is that our thoughts are only thoughts, and any theory about the world is only a story made up of selections from individual experience. So much for ideas. So much for theory. For example, as one passage in the book explains, legal arguments about liability identify causal chains of events, although such chains are actually fabrications based on a given point of view.

In this connection, consider my experience of going to the grocery store and its relationship with what “actually happens” at the grocery store. There are typically dozens of people in the store, most or all of whom I do not know and do not know me. There are the clerks, to whom I am perhaps familiar in a shadowy sort of way if I frequent that supermarket. Other than that, it is rare for me to see anyone I know. The other shoppers and I are, in effect, independent observers of the events occurring before us. We all literally have our own points of view because we’re all standing in different places. Furthermore, we have come into the market carried along by our own stories about ourselves and our intentions in being there.

Let’s say I report to you about what it was like at the store. All I can tell you is a story entitled “My Visit to the Supermarket.” I can tell you the route I took around the store, what I bought, the number of people who were there, etc. If I were to give a detailed account, it might contain my impressions of my fellow shoppers, some of them at least, the number of checkstands that were open, the produce prices, the level of illumination, and the temperature in various parts of the store. What is the relationship of my report, however detailed, with what happened while I was in the store?

To begin with, there is  the question of events that happened while I was there, but that I did not or could not witness, such as the actions of shoppers in aisles I was not in when those actions occurred. Furthermore, my personal account must be silent regarding the experience of everyone else in the store, even supposing that one or two people spoke with me while I was there to comment on events as they happened. The chance are, moreover, that I would not appear as even a minor character in the report of any other shopper about her or his “visit to the supermarket.” As an expert in eyewitness testimony could tell you, if a crime had occurred while I was in the store, and I saw it happening, my report about it would vary in many details from the reports of other eyewitnesses. Even supposing that a crime did occur, and statements were taken, those statements, taken together, would still not constitute an account of what was happening, in total, within the store at the time I was there. Many more things than the crime were happening at any instant.

So where does this leave us? There was no place to stand in the store, no point of view, that would permit the creation of an individual report accounting for everything that happened during my visit. Standing in any place precludes standing in any other place. If we were to discuss what “everything that happened” means, we would find the same problem at another level, because your ideas about what constitutes a “fact” or “event” will almost certainly be at some variance from mine. For example, everyone in the store was breathing: Does each  inhalation and exhalation count as an event? Does every step that every shopper took? What about changes that were occurring at the molecular or atomic level? When asked what happened in the store, we might say, “God only knows,” and in some systems of philosophy the meaning of “God” is the point of view that sums or integrates all possible points of view. Were such a God to exist, however, neither you nor I would have direct access to her “experience.”

Let’s chew on that for a bit.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Science & The Church: An Addendum

Filed under: Attachment,Perennial Philosophy,Radical Constructivism — drtone @ 5:51 pm

Some may have found my entry of yesterday surprising because we are accustomed to think of science in opposition to religion. At least in part, this is because of science’s self-promotion as the only source of answers, demonstrating that it is indeed a child of the Church, whatever its current stance may be regarding religious doctrines. I have been struggling for some time with this sort of phenomenon, which I believe to be a function of closed systems: If a closed system has any products, those products retain the essential characteristics of the system as a whole. Possibly, this is what Varela and Maturana mean by autopoiesis.

Another area in which I think the same law or the same tendency applies is in the area of ego. Whatever it does, the ego’s products inevitably resemble the ego, a version of “You can run, but you can’t hide”: Whenever one enters the ego, one enters at the same place, with the same problems, concerns and beliefs, with the same attachments. At least, I think so.

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