HOW DOES THOUGHT GO WRONG?
In my last letter, I described what happens in children’s minds when their relationships are unstable or even cruel. To survive an unwholesome environment, children must justify the reality in which they are raised. Paradoxical reasoning, tactical paranoia, and the urge to fight or subvert can evolve into a worldview. Year by year we coalesce beliefs, intellectualizations and prejudices. An especially pernicious defensive action we might adopt is scapegoating.
But is this all there is? Are we all doomed if we had a bad start in life? The answer is no. Ideally, a happy, stable relationship in early years readies us for a happy, stable adulthood. Yet, no matter how ideal your upbringing might be, if thinking can go wrong– it will.
How can this happen? Well, it’s about being human. Our minds like to logically link memories of the past to the present, and then wish or fear possibilities into our future. This function of the mind is factory-installed. It is hardwired into the motherboard of our minds. Our happiness depends on the quality of the daily and nightly data we input. If we are not alert, our minds begin to connect the memory dots in a pattern that creates a false reality.
So, how to stay in the fact of something? Discern the truth of our memories and arrive at a coherent, correct understanding?
This is an essential skill in today’s political confusion, so I would like to explore the subject slowly, separating its facets one by one. First is projection: how our minds effortlessly draft a dubious reality by projecting an idea onto another person, thing, or event. Later, we may explore why one’s mind would do that, what our mind has in mind, as it were. But first let us just look at how our minds conjure this real-seeming realities.
I will draw on Krishnamurti’s perspective on psychological projection. He begins by saying that we have our individual experience of the observer (oneself) and the observed (others and things). Here’s an outline. (I promise I won’t PowerPointify this.
There is a person who observes and there is a thing observed.
There is a division between the two.
A screen/ word/ image.
The division opens a space where conflict occurs.
This is where the ego is.
Ego (aka, I) is an accumulation of words, images, memories from all my yesterdays. In short, ego is thoughts I have about myself.
Thus, the space is thick with stuff from the past, dead stuff.
With all the debris of dead thought in the way, ego cannot make direct contact with the object. By definition, they are divided.
Meanwhile, the object is “what is” without the interference of your interpretation.
However, viewed through the lens of your memory, the object is always evaluated with inevitable, emotional judgements.
The result? There can be no understanding of “what is”.
I am afraid of you.
I measure you against others I have known.
I am conditioned to compare you to others who appear kindly, thoughtful, intelligent, considerate.
You are not that.
I am conditioned to protect myself and hide, or fight you and others like you. Sometimes my thoughts and my body stiffen with fear.
So, fear of another person is born.
I feel I observe fear objectively as outside myself.
However, as the observer, I absorb that fear.
Now I sense there is nothing I can do about it.
Whatever I do, fear is still fear.
I am full of fear, as well as other unwelcome feelings like loneliness, and despair.
Must I accept this? What do I do?
There is a gulf between the observer and the observed.
Conflict occurs when two thoughts of equal strength quarrel. The back and forth inflicts confusion.
The quarrel only stops when I stop resisting “what is”.
I observe the whole of myself, my nature and my ego processes.
I observe the overall structure and nature of the observed (which is also myself because I know I am projecting). In doing this, I see the totality of observer, observed and the gulf between. In my perception of its unity there is no conflict whatsoever – and therefore the I go beyond the fear.
If thoughts quarrel with each other and cause tumult, then what is thinking?
Firstly, I cannot do anything without how-to know-how. Knowledge is my accumulated, curated experience.
I have the experiences of using words, playing a musical instrument, touching others, and so on.
Secondly, I have archived the knowledge of my ongoing lifetime. I want to repeat those experiences that bring pleasure. Or I want others to disappear from memory because they bring pain if repeated.
Pain comes also when the pleasurable experiences are not repeated.
For example, yesterday’s sunset was lovely to behold. The light, the texture, the feel of it is recorded and therefore, over.
I say, I must renew my sunset experience. And the new one is interpreted as pleasure.
So, you see what thought does. It connects dots of experience, connects them, sensibly and sensefully.
But you can also see the danger of thought. Ask the question: Who is this in me that holds the thought, the thought as pleasure or pain?
What holds this memory as a center from which my thought operates.
Do you see that there is an observer and the thing observed– in you?
The observer is the center that holds all my knowledge of “me.”
The “me” is ego. I am aware of myself because the knowledge of all I experience is moderated by “me,” my center, my observer.
But how does my ego, my central point of reference from which I understand the world, stay in balance?
Ego invents a superego, a conscience, an inner voice of wisdom. But be cautious because superego is still a part of thought.
Yes, you are right if you say, “There is a duality in me as the observer and the observed. And there is a duality in my perception of you.
There is “me”, the ______ and “them”, the ______.
The observer holds all the memories from which all thought arises. Thought itself is never new, never free. It can only think or invent freedom.
Adapted from Krishnamurti, J. To Be Human. pages 109-111, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2000
And so, to perceive accurately and think healthfully we examine our impulse to project a thousand days of memories onto every object we observe. When is our past blinding us to the other and the new, and when is it illuminating her, him, it?
How can you tell if you are projecting? You might experience heightened emotion that will take you by surprise. You may laugh, cry, swoon, flare, recoil, shut down, or so on, all with a rush of unbidden but unblockable inner energy. This is how your body gets involved. It lets you feel that projection is in play. If you want to learn more about the defense against wrongful projection, read on. I have attached a .pdf at the end of my letter.
Keep in mind, though, that projection can be a creative act when used purposefully to represent what’s out there. Like any innate software, it’s unwise to condemn it. Just change your settings.
Your loving friend, Peggy
The Defense of Projection and the Challenge of Unlearning
Image: Knight of Faith from The Glossary for the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts