Here is a conversation I had recently with a student:
Nothing external can cause an internal response
What causes our emotional reaction is the black box full of assumptions (in the mind) by which we make inferences about how we should behave, emotionally and socially. So an insult doesn’t make you angry: what makes you angry is an assumption about behaviour, eg When demeaned, I should feel angry and vindictive; Insults demean me. So he insulted me; that was demeaning. Then the perfectly logical inference is to become angry and vindictive.
Yet the basic premise or assertion or assumption is not in itself correct – we don’t challenge it when we make inferences from it that motivate our decisions.
So you see how Inference can be a valid cognition (correct reasoning from the basic assumption) and still have a completely wrong outcome, if the underlying notion is unchallenged. That’s where the hard work is – just trying instead to change patterns of reaction is repressive, and is not effective, if the hidden cause isn’t changed first.
Every day messiness
The comments that students make don’t generally take into account the everyday inferences that mess life up. The great yogi Patañjali figured out nearly two millenia ago that all thoughts are an experience of non-reality, and yet he says that there are some valid thoughts, inference amongst them. So even valid inference can take us down the path of non-reality.
Along came Cognitive Psychology 2000 years after Patañjali to point out belatedly to non-yogis that our usual way of thinking is mistaken. We normally suppose that something external causes our emotional reactions. Yet nothing external can cause an internal response.
What about this, then? Hurting a child?
STUDENT: Your extra explanation on Inference, especially in reference to everyday life is helpful. I’m struggling a little bit to understand this one, especially the bit “Nothing external can cause an internal response”. I understood the example you used about the black box full of assumptions about how we should behave, emotionally and socially.
Then I thought of a more extreme example and lost the bit of understanding I thought I had. What about if you were walking and all of a sudden you see (external) a man grabbing a child by the hair and throwing the screaming child in pain against a brick wall. People would generally respond (internally) to seeing such an event in some way, depending on their individual black box as to how they respond. Isn’t this still an internal response (whatever that might be) to an external event? or are you saying the external event is neutral in and of itself and therefore has no ability to cause any types of internal responses? or am I totally not getting this?
M: Hmm, that is a fairly common counter-argument – I usually get, What about Child Molesters!!! And it is true that if I saw a man – or woman – bringing harm to a child, I would want to do what I could to prevent it.
On the other hand, the peoples of South America, Incas and/or Aztecs, practised child sacrifice. I read that the distress and tears of the children was highly valued, as it increased the regard the gods would have for what was offered to them. And the parents felt blessed by the whole thing.
So, evidently, it is not the pain and suffering of a child (external) that brings about the response, but rather, something (internal) sitting in the black box.
And now you’re probably judging the Incas/Aztecs via your own black box – and they would judge you through theirs!
Inside the Black Box
For one, it is
Ist assumption: Kindness to children is an imperative
2nd assumption: Unkindness to children is horrifying
3rd assumption: People being unkind to children must be stopped.
INFERENCE: If I see someone hurting a child, I must be horrified and I must make it stop.
For the other, turn all that around and you have the Aztecs feeling blessed by their child’s pain and suffering. A different imperative inside the mind.
Externals can’t jump inside your mind or muscles
Of course some examples are extreme. I am not for a moment saying that nothing has value. But it is impossible to get away from the fact that inner processes account for our reactions. If you don’t know about an insult, you don’t get upset. If you don’t know about the child, you don’t get upset. Those are the externals that in themselves have no power to get inside your mind or your muscles or your endocrine system, and cannot in themselves cause an emotional state.
I suspect there is a solution, and probably goes along the line of empathy rather than rules.
Is this it?
STUDENT: So our inner processes account for our reactions to (externals). So first there has to exist something (external) an object, a situation,whatever. It doesn’t cause how we react to it or not react to it , it just exists. Our reactions are subjective like what one tribe considers acceptable another might not.
I’m still not sure about whether (externals) in their own existence are neutral. I am guessing I would probably have to be able to see reality to answer that?
I was going ask you about where empathy and Karma fit in, but I think I might leave it for now.
M: Yes, that is so whether we like it or not.
In a hugely extreme sense, humans only make sense of the bombardment of sensory stimuli by creating categories and then interpreting the stimuli as convenient. Patatanjali calls it “vrtti sarupya” – total identification (of self and reality) with thoughts.
The mind makes sense of reality in its own way
Zen came to a way of communicating that by using terms like “suchness” and “isness” and “emptiness” – things are not what we say they are, things are what they are in themselves. A plant doesn’t call itself a flower or a weed, it is empty of a sense of self and devoid of the meanings we project onto it. Take that over the millions of experiences we have and where does it leave our certainties?
In more recent history, one could read Jung or research deeper into neuroscience or cognitive psychology. Or ask a scientist about the “flux of particles” that really makes up the reality of the world around us.
What to do about it
So everyday emotional behaviour is highly inferential. In daily life, doing something about it means that internal processes are the proper thing for each of us to investigate, rather than considering only how something external can be changed to our liking; and becoming fully aware of those internal processes instead of being dominated by the common unawareness: that each person feels that he or she is the one who’s right. Feeling right is a state of mind, while it is facts that are synonymous with reality. Factual reality is neither right nor wrong, but it wins every argument you have with it. Clearing the mind of resistance instead of persisting with feeling right means examining the contents of the black box in the mind.
People are more rational than we might suppose. It is unchallenged assumptions that make us stupid.
PS: Here is an article I wrote recently on Karma