Our brains seek to understand this new thing (matching). Our brains fire around and too look for associations of things that we have in our memory (trying to be a bit careful with language, our memory is made up of all sorts of things. Memory is tricky.
Our brains seek to find contradictions or logical flaws that can discredit the new conclusions (mismatching)
Zen and Pickles-
During college I picked up a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Cool title, the book was pink and I knew a decent amount about wrenching on motors, so I thought I’d give it a read. As I went through it, I quickly realized that book was about a lot more than motorcycle maintenance, and then again, it wasn’t.
For a long time that book has stuck in my mind for some reason. More than most books I’ve read. There was one central concept that jumped out at me from the story, and that was quality. The author’s attempt to understand and know quality. It eventually drove him insane, but a few rounds of electro-shock therapy zapped him back into a functioning state. Strong overtones of the premise of Icarus and flying too close to the sun.
Pirsig, the actual author of this story within a story, and his previous life “Phaedrus” character, approached things differently. Romantic vs classical philosophy exemplified. Two approaches to thinking and being that seem to be at odds, but that always seemed to lead toward one another.
The problem that eventually drove Phaedrus insane was that he wanted to clearly be able to cut a line that divided quality into good and bad. To know the exact thing that would differentiate good qualities from bad. To understand the difference between the two, even beyond being able to clearly identify what has quality and what does not.
Confusion, Trying to Know the Un-knowable
I’m not abundantly trained in academic philosophy and my vocabulary on the topic is limited, but this situation that Phaedrus created, was ultimately un-knowable with the methods he was using. A universal and specific cleaving line of quality wasn’t reachable. The quality of hardness may be good in a piston, but bad in a crankshaft… Then that meant the purpose determined which qualities were desirable, and so it was a very context dependent situation, which for Phaedrus, and his model of thinking, seemed to move every time he tried to put a finger on it. So in an attempt to keep slicing to pull apart the layers of questions that would lead him to truth, he eventually went in circles and was caught in a nearly endless loop of thought that lead nowhere but madness.
There are some interesting quotes about insanity that bounce around in my mind. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” is one of my favorites. People tend to do this sort of thing in life nearly all the time. The problem is two-fold. Our brains are machines and need conscious input to change methods. Our brains also tend to function on methods that don’t tend to lead to a foundational understanding.
In a way, ZAMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) helped me “see” how properly messed up a lot our thinking is. How improperly we use our brain. How over-confident we are in our ability to think clearly.
Through that, it helped me come to sort out some of the stuff that had bugged me for years. Brilliant people, with huge brain power, resources, advantages and knowledge that were addicts, destructive and miserable. Simple farmers and mechanics who lived in abundance, happiness and peace. This seemingly endless quest to be told what to do, while at the same time rebelling against authority. These paradoxes point to a fractured understanding of what is really going on here.
Method of Thinking and Method of Knowing
Another thing this book really opened up for me was how powerful and how limited metaphors and analogies are. The entire book was written as a model within a model, where a story was told that seemed to uncover lessons and truths, but that was all framed again within a story with frameworks and filters. The illustrations pointed at things the author wanted us to see or investigate, but that ultimately were not the actual thing to be uncovered.
Most people I talk to, who have read the book, think it is about radically different things. Again, this so very close to giving us a key insight into what is really going on with the world and with us. We understand so little of the way our brain perceives things but we 100% trust what it is telling us. That leads us to believe that we know what is going on, because the brain is telling us what is going on, including believing blindly that we understand how the brain works on problems, even though we have never properly thought it through. That’s dangerous.
The cultural norms of unresolved confusion
As a competitive athlete in a somewhat violent sport of American football, I realized how much of what we do in life is much more confusing than we observe. We have rules in one part of our life that let us run full speed head on into one another, trying to hurt each other… but “outside the lines” government says it is illegal… unless you represent the government and therefore have a license for violence again under the rule of law, which is ultimately determined by a single judge… So we grow up surrounded by this scenario, I put on a certain uniform and I can hit people and get paid for entertaining. People buy my uniform and wear it and tackle people in the front yards across america. I take off the uniform and I can’t do that or I’ll go to jail where I actually can’t get paid. I put on a different uniform and I can arrest people. I take off that uniform and it’s kidnapping. I put on a police uniform and I’m not a cop and that is a crime. It’s like tying a towel around our neck with a clothes hanger and claiming we can fly. We have grown up pretending so much that we now believe it all. All in our mind. Much of it very arbitrary. All these different rules without any seeming organization to the whole thing.
In school, the offer of preparing for life, has been morphed into preparing for a job. That morphed again into preparing for college. That has now moved beyond being prepared toward qualifying for competitive schools, which moved again into grades. Other factors helped move things this way, but now, somehow, a score on a test is what our kids think they are trying to “get” from school.
By now, the country is full of people with the cultural norm of arbitrary rules. The United States for instance, has, as a concept, the Rule of Law. Far from being what actually exists, there are laws, then case laws, and then cases go to trial, lawyers are involved, juries are chosen who seem favorable to either side, and ultimately, a judge governs what is allowed based on how that judge interprets and recalls all these legal frameworks. Our entire country operates on the principle that we can’t know for sure.
It’s not that surprising that people are driven to mental illness and drawn to extremism. At least they have some absolute boundaries and absolute freedoms. Kill a man and you’re a murderer. Kill ten, you get slapped with mass-murderer. Kill ten of the same type and you’re a serial killer and probably need “help”. Kill 100,000 and you are either a conqueror or a liberator, depending on which side you were on. Arbitrary.
Far from having all the answers, I realized that a step before the answers is a question. Likely a series of questions that are positive, lead to understanding and are knowable in some way. The book helped me not be so confident in what I believed. It helped me see how messed up we can get by trying to go all the way down a road that is ultimately circular.
For a couple decades after reading, from time to time a memory of the book and the characters would come to mind as I was assessing my life and my thinking. I’d gone to school for decades to learn facts, and hadn’t ever been trained to think properly. How ass-backward was that? In a way, what came out of this type of pondering was that I needed to know what question to ask and to work on. I needed to know how to work on questions. I needed to be able to prioritize which questions were important and knowable. Those were the right questions, at least to start. They led, as all questions have to either lead or be based on, “how do I know what is true”. Without that, we are without a foundation, and may very well find ourselves much like Phaedrus.
From where I am now, the book is a great illustration of the place most of us live, most of the time. The pickle of being stuck in confusion and blurriness. The precarious edge and dichotomy we try to balance. The yearning for a model to blend classical with romantic. A desire of to dissolve the madness of having two goals at the same time. Being able to enjoy the experience and understand the nature of it, all at once. A search for a method of using our minds that doesn’t lead us to madness and insanity.
An Erstwhile Reckoning
It can be quite uncomfortable to open journals you wrote in 7 years ago.
“What the hell was I thinking?”
“That conclusion doesn’t even make sense.”
“How long did I spend even writing this sentence about this insignificant thing?”
I’ve recently cleaned up a lot of my junk. Old paperwork. Random tools. Strange website domains I bought. Odds and ends I hung on to thinking they may someday be just the thing I needed to make some “final” push to somewhere, maybe Valhalla.
It’s just so hard to read that crap I wrote and thought about! But it is important. I thought about it once, and I may very well be just as screwed up now as I was then.
I have to be able to scrutinize my choices today and evaluate whether I am still just as screwed up as I was then, because…. I thought I was right when I wrote and thought those things, and I was quite wrong. That was a big lightbulb or me. How certain I felt about being correct had nothing to do with actually having correct knowledge. That meant my process for feeling confident was screwed up or based on the wrong conditions. There was a problem with my thinking process.
I mean beyond the writing, just the way I thought. The importance I placed on things. How I arrived at conclusions. What I was trying to create and achieve in the first place. Reading it and knowing I thought it and wrote it is so embarrassingly painful that I had to create this piece.
And here’s the thing… I kinda know that what I’m creating now will be just as hard to look at in a few years as what I just dug up from 7 years ago.
I’ll know more things. I’ll have crossed off a lot more dead ends. I’ll understand what is good, true and important to a much greater degree than I do now. That is the point of me sharing this. It’s about progress and perspective of building a process. Not so much how much you know, but making damned sure that you have a reliable process for understanding what is true.
-Figuring out how to know what is true
-using that method regularly is the only “secret” of success
-growing and avoiding the dead ends and contradictions
It’s not always about building a better mousetrap. Sometimes it is about understanding that you don’t really want to catch the mouse in the first place. Meaning that catching the mouse isn’t really going to make your life much better. I know I’ve spent countless hours on things that led nowhere. This helped me realize I didn’t really have a good process for understanding what is important.
Getting screwed up in what you are pursuing is a major problem I’ve encountered and created in life. I wound up achievment and quite bad at figuring out what to achieve. In a very head-scratching circumstance, it turned out I was pretty good at creating situations I set my mind to… It seems a lot of us are good at accomplishing goals.
David Mills, a mentor of mine used a great illustration of this in one of his trainings. I think most of us are familiar with with the “Three Wishes” scenario, where you find a lamp, rub it and a djinii pops out and grants you three wishes. I remember playing this when I was younger with friends as a way to day dream about things I wanted in life.
Wish 1: “I want a million dollars.”
Wish 2: “I want a castle.”
Wish 3: “I want…. MORE WISHES!”
This is where you’d have to adjust the rules somewhat, or it wouldn’t work as a game any more. “You can’t wish for more wishes”. At this point, looking at this game now, I realize it is critical to understand what is important. You’ve got limited resources and you’d better get things right about what to spend your wishes on…
In David’s example he pointed out a fundamental problem that we all have, which is over-confidence in our ability to think properly. He posed a interesting wish that I have never heard anyone say when playing this game as his number 1 wish. “Why not wish to get the other 2 wishes “right”, meaning wishing for the correct things to make your life ultimately good and happy?”. Further, why not wish for a perfect method of thinking to always be able to get the correct answer? I mean if you have a reliable method for always getting the right answer, then your only issue is asking the right question! And… you can ask the question, “what is the right question to be working on?”. If you had a way to get those answers, your life is just pretty much completely set at that point. Abundance, peace, calm, growth. Anything you came up with as important. This scenario pretty much sums up most people’s lives of struggle, complacency, redirection, ups and downs. We don’t know what our three wishes should be, even though we’ve all been playing this game our whole lives.
Now back to more examples of how screwed up my thinking used to be, but how powerful the mind is in getting what we want… I’ve taken actions based on a goal to be righteously justified in some argument, I wound up exactly where a righteously justified person would wind up; alone.
Most of the world seems focused on helping you get what you want. The marketing world at least. Manifesting some vision. Achieving some goal. Living some dream. The really huge Problem is, at least for me, I wasn’t all that good at choosing what to want!
I started noticing that I wanted things I’d seen in a commercial. I started thinking of myself as some character in a book or movie. I started trying to fit myself into a model that story tellers, advertisers, writers and preachers have created. I wanted to be like Han Solo, like the Terminator, Like Harrison Bergeron or like the biblical character Joshua.
We don’t have a very good in-borne method for figuring out what we should be trying to create. We aren’t all that inherently good at figuring out what is important. I came to realize that primary to having a life that was good, I needed to understand good-ness. I also figured out that instead of memorizing more and more facts and building random frameworks, I needed a method and process for knowing what is true, and I needed to let go of thinking that I already had mastered that method.
Another huge problem, nobody is even talking about this either… there are all these messages everywhere about how to get the results you want in 90 days… Whatever results you may want.
The implicit idea cooked into this is that we know what we want. Whether it’s based on your environment growing up. What television shows you watch. What your best friend’s household was like… Not about figuring out the “one thing” that would completely change your life if you get it right…. Sorting out “Importance”, is very important, and leads to very different pursuits. Our brains notice something, a question gets assumed which is “if I noticed this, it is important” and then the brain works on trying to achieve that mini-goal to get the results in the advertisement.
It kinda turned out that I was better at creating things, than I was at deciding what I should create. A lot of the people I have come to know and gotten close to, fit into that same description. It was a fundamental shift and awakening in my life when I realized this. At first I noticed a contradiction, which I’ve talked about here. This experience was really un-nerving and dis-concerting. “Oh wait… I can create nearly anything I want… so the real question I have is what should I want in the first place….?” I don’t have a good method of figuring that out reliably, but at the same time I am spending all the time in my life on other things than figuring this out.” I certainly didn’t have a way of sorting that out that isn’t heavily influence by what pump-me-up movie or book I had just read.
I found myself wanting to take action and then asking myself, “is this really going to make things better?” Charging in to battle, fully capable of conquest, and asking myself, “is this even the right battle to fight?; that’s where I found myself.
Like the paraphrased scene in Swingers with Mikey and Trent. “You’ve got these big claws baby, you can just take what you want…” Yeah, but do I really want this….?
Knowing I could win, but not knowing what fight I should fight…. That was a question worth figuring out.
You may be able to see the problems cooked into this. A heckuva lot of folks I talk to aren’t overly concerned with their ability when it comes down to it. Think about that in your life. Are you really worried about your ability to do something? It seems a lot more like what we are all concerned with is figuring out how to get committed to something that is going to be worth it. Let that sink in…
If you are considering the validity of this concept, then you are confident in your ability to discern. Consider where that confidence can lead.
Our main problems seem to involve CHOOSING the right problems to work on more than how to resolve those problems. But even in that, it means we don’t have a good method in figuring stuff out, but… we tend to be damned confident in our ability to make it work if we can sink our teeth into it. A lot of us have many of the things we think we want, but our lives still stink in tons of ways. We somehow aren’t very good at knowing what things we should want.
In that question, I really want to try to draw attention to how much we achieve and how much we hold on to, fully based on a belief about who we are. Not an ideal life, but how we turned out. Our identity. About how the “deck was stacked” to create “us”. About “how we are” versus how we really think we want things to be. That difference in your day to day and what things should or could be.
We all have some silly concept of potential. That’s all potential really is. Realizing that we didn’t get our priorities right in where we spend our efforts and what that error might actually mean. Your car, your lifestyle, your income and job, your happiness; your “in the mirror naked” look.
Those are the kind of things I’m talking about. We tend to be good at getting what we see clearly. Our brains are so wicked powerful in achieving the visions we place before them without contradiction. The successful people we see in media who won’t even consider that they are wrong, who won’t consider they poured effort and focus and years into something potentially conflicted. Those folks guide people to not resolve conflicts. To follow blindly. To not think or know how to think. They have built frameworks of success that are so cooked into our society that elements of them are taken for granted.
It’s based on certain people like this doing well, and apparently succeeding, so we follow along assuming they know what they are talking about. To believe we should just put our head down and act instead of understanding. Maybe you were born in the right time, at the right place with the right personality and connections to just let it ride… Maybe not though, and… I’d sure rather guarantee that I’m not screwing up huge by driving even faster off the huge cliff just around the corner. Doubling down on your current whim isn’t the secret to success, no matter how good that meme sounds in the moment.
It’s likely you can connect visions you have of your life with what you actually experience on a daily basis. I thought I’d be a husband and a parent. I thought I’d have a good relationship with my folks and family. I thought I’d do something important someday. The problem is that our visions aren’t created by us and those visions aren’t created by people who have our best interests in mind. We don’t have a great method of filtering visions out that are dangerous. We accept them as ideologic based on popularity and a whole host of triangulation our brains do to make sense of the world.
The problem is, we hold visions in our mind that aren’t good, true and important. The problem is that we have contradiction in our beliefs that aren’t resolved and we have no method to even tell us we need to start looking. We pour effort and intention into connecting with out vision and we don’t dissolve the things holding us back or understand the things that are pointing us in the wrong direction. Getting that vision right is so critical. Getting rid of blocks is equally important. It’s time to sort out both of those blocks.