Inner life: suck or awesome?

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This post is intended to influence the relationship you have with your inner life, in order to make it easier for you to meditate effectively. The next post in this series is more background, “analytical phenomenology,” though it might have some practical tips. The post after that should be a “how to” post. So, without further ado…

Heard any of these before? [1,2,3,4,5]

  • Consciousness is, at best, a heavily edited and extremely selective representation of a representation of a representation, and your brain tries to hide that from you. At worst, consciousness is an outright fabrication which is presented to you as reality.
  • Your most heartfelt intuitions are “designed” to get you to make babies or navigate an ancestral environment, not to give you accurate picture of present reality
  • Conscious processes are the result of unconscious processes; Volition, for example, is a just a feeling that can be turned on and off by the brain
  • You can have strong, pervasive emotional reactions to unconscious goals you fail to achieve and not realize why you’re having those emotional reactions
  • Your brain makes you twitchy and awkward when it thinks you’re getting too uppity in the presence of your betters
  • Your brain can execute on autopilot almost everything you do consciously; You falsely believe you are the deliberate architect of your goals and your choices
  • Your seemingly genuinely felt tastes, preferences, and hobbies are covertly influenced by your status seeking systems
  • You can labor for years or an entire lifetime under mistaken impressions about your desires and intentions or what will make you happy
  • The stories that you tell yourself about yourself and your life can be wildly divergent from what you seem to be actually trying to accomplish
  • And then there’s the false memories, the cognitive biases…
  • And much more…

Ugh, right? Some of the above is accurate, some of it’s hyperbolic, and some of it will be corrected over time, as science advances.

Let’s step away from the content for a moment and consider what it’s doing to us as we read it. You’ve parsed all that text, and now you’ve got a nonsymbolic gestalt for everything you’ve read.

How does it make you feel? Do you think having a vague sense of all that affects your relationship with yourself, how you trust yourself, how you live your life? Do you have an uneasy distrust of everything you want, think, and feel? Do you shy away from paying too close attention to your inner life? Is that healthy? Is it even based on an accurate perception of the territory?

There’s a whole other side to all this “ways we suck” stuff [6,7,8,9,10,11]. For certain classes of phenomena we can know precisely and accurately about what’s going on inside us. We can precisely delimit the phenomenology of various inner experiences in ways that are useful to other people and to science. We can know the emotions and actual thought content of complete strangers, in real time, way above chance. We are arguably far more accurate than we are biased as we navigate our lives.

So which of these viewpoints is true? Are people hopelessly lost, adrift, illusory, and epiphenomenal? Or, are we capable of usefully unpacking our inner lives and navigating towards good, real things, in partnership with other people?

Yes. Both. All of it.

There’s no shortcut, no simple heuristic, that I’m aware of, that will allow you to safely lock down a single, parsimonious, highly explanatory mental model which you can use to navigate your life. What matters for getting what you want is highly contextual and different stuff dominates in different risk/benefit regimes, different time horizons, and as different values and priorities become opportunistically engage-able at a given time. Indexing what’s out there is important. I think explicit analysis is only sporadically the answer. Knowing when to get the hell out of the way of yourself is important, too.

Knowing how to integrate and act from many simultaneous schemas is probably the meta-skill, here. How much can you hold at once and still go deeply into a smaller collection of problem-framings when you need to? Can you offload all this when you need almost your entire working memory for something else and then reload your goals and navigational system afterwards? Flexible depth and breadth.

In any case, my main point of all this is that the only place you’ll ever be aware of all these issues is in consciousness. It’s tautological–you’ll only ever be conscious of what you’re conscious of. Your brain is where all these warnings and caveats and doubts are coming from. You installed them, intentionally or unintentionally. You have the power to use them effectively and with contextual appropriateness, to play nice with them.

All of this is happening in consciousness, the only workspace you’ve got. All your implicit or explicit observations, all your hypothesis generation, all your hypothesis testing, all your distributed cognition, all your inferences, all your behavior, anything you’ll ever know about your unconscious processes, whether phenomenally, inferentially, or through an fMRI machine, the only place you’ll be able to read off any of that is in consciousness. It really, really makes sense to get really, really familiar with the properties of the phenomenal field, to know when to step in and to know when to get out of the way.

You can have confidence that you’re experiencing confidence, have confidence that you’re experiencing doubt, you can be confident you’re doubting your confidence, and you can find ways to allow confidence and doubt to exist side by side for integrated action instead of ping-ponging between them over and over again, without realizing that’s what’s going on.

Any hope you have of dealing with yourself and reality effectively, any hope you have of counteracting your cognitive biases, any awareness of that is going to happen in consciousness. Don’t let vague impressions or other people’s agendas dictate your relationship with your inner life. It makes sense to get really familiar with the content and dynamics of consciousness. You can own it, engage it, live it, surf it, use it.

Next up, probably: More background in the form of analytical phenomenology. What does consciousness look like when you train your attention and really pay attention? After that will be a meditation “how to”…

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[1] Demmin, Herbert. Ghosts of Consciousness: Thought and the Spiritual Path. Paragon House Publishers, 2003.

[2] Burton, Robert. On being certain: Believing you are right even when you’re not. Macmillan, 2009.

[3] Hirstein, W. “Brain fiction: Self-deception and confabulation.” The MIT Press (2005).

[4] Wegner, Daniel M. The illusion of conscious will. MIT press, 2002.

[5] Wilson, Timothy D., and Timothy D. Wilson. Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Harvard University Press, 2009.

[6] Ickes, William. Everyday mind reading: Understanding what other people think and feel. Prometheus Books, 2003.

[7] Jussim, Lee. Social perception and social reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[8] Ericsson, Karl Anders, and Herbert Alexander Simon. Protocol analysis. MIT press, 1985.

[9] Hurlburt, Russell T. Investigating pristine inner experience. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[10] Barrell, James J. Inner Experience and Neuroscience: Merging Both Perspectives. The MIT Press, 2012.

[11] Goal Elicitation Workshop

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2 thoughts on “Inner life: suck or awesome?

  1. Pingback: how to do foreground/background meditation | Meditation Stuff

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