Our Human Condition; Fantasy vs. Reality

I was in the kitchen, making my morning half-cup of coffee, and found myself thinking about a conversation I had had with Leon a couple of days ago. We had talked about our relationships with our biological families, and while he is understanding of my position to some degree, he casually mentioned that he hoped I wouldn’t someday have regrets about my decision.

I was wondering about the possibility that I might ever have regrets, imagining various scenarios of visiting/not visiting, and I gravitated toward sadness about the human condition. We develop fantasies about how our relationships with people might be, and those fantasies develop into expectations which are subsequently disappointed. Then we imagine strategies about how we might nudge the relationship in the direction of our desires, try them, are disappointed again, keep trying, hoping, being disappointed yet again…

At some point, if we’re lucky, we face the reality of the situation and realize that our fantasies will never be realized. They diverge too much from how the people we’re involved with really are, and those people have their own fantasies and desires—they will never become who we want them to be.

Then we’re faced with the decision of whether our relationships with these people are valuable as they are, with our fantasies abandoned, or whether their reality is so distant from how we want it to be that there is nothing worth sticking around for. Do we hang on to what is, or do we move on to more rewarding relationships—or none at all?

What seemed sad to me was that human beings inevitably develop unrealistic expectations based on their own desires. They want the world to be as they imagine it can be, and condemn themselves to continued disappointment.

At this point in my thinking, I realized that I had drifted into an unpleasant, downward-trending emotional state. What’s this? I wondered. Where did this come from? The human condition is what it is, and getting emotional about any particular aspect of it is optional.

Then I remembered the short story I had read in the August, 2007 issue of The Sun earlier this morning. Actually, I didn’t read the whole thing. After the first few paragraphs, I realized that this was not a happy story, skimmed through to the end, and confirmed that this was not a place I needed to go. I had begun another piece, an article by Lauren Slater, and ended my session when I read how she imagined her death might be: “…my very last nanosecond spent thinking, This isn’t nearly as scary as I thought. I wish I’d worried less.” The irony of that gave me a laugh, and sent me into the kitchen for coffee.

I read The Sun for at least a couple of reasons: There are sometimes genuinely insightful ideas that contribute to my understanding; and otherwise, there are many artful depictions of the human condition as it is experienced in its more emotional moments. The emotional parts are reminders of how most human beings live—carried along by the coping strategies evolution has devised for us; feeling but rarely understanding why we feel.

These emotionally charged pieces are a way of staying in touch with the rest of humanity, but there is a danger, as I experienced this morning. Allowing someone else’s input to arouse emotions runs the risks that we may get caught up in them in subtle ways. Our thinking may be nudged in directions it might not have gone otherwise, and we may find ourselves immersed in thoughts that are not characteristic of our preferred point of view.

Marvin Minsky discusses these kinds of emotion cascades, chain reactions that propel us from one way of thinking to another. After reading his latest book, The Emotion Machine, I put a sticky on my desktop that says, “Meditation: maintaining alertness for the beginning of cascades.”

I wasn’t as alert this morning as I might have been. Still, better late than never. Perhaps, next time, I won’t be fooled for quite so long before the alarm goes off.


Open To Suggestion


Reality Is More Than What We Think

There have been some interesting convergences lately. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who I wrote about a couple of months ago, is back on the New York Times “Most emailed” list. In an article written about her, “A Superhighway to Bliss,” she is quoted as saying:

“Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said.

Still, Dr. Taylor says, “nirvana exists right now.”

“There is no doubt that it is a beautiful state and that we can get there,” she said.

In case you don’t remember, she’s the brain scientist whose stroke gave her a different perspective on the brain and reality. But wait, there’s more…

Also on the list today is an article called, “Lotus Therapy,” which discusses current research on a hot trend in psychotherapy in which various forms of meditation are used. My favorite quote:

“It’s a shift from having our mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” Dr. Hayes said, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content — and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing and becoming disentangled from our definition of ourselves.”

You may recall that I wrote a few days ago about how we acquire our identities in the course of our personal history, and that by understanding how that process occurs, we may get a different perspective on who we are. But wait, there’s more…

In my previous post, I talked about an article in the June, 2008 Discover magazine about building humanoid robots, how the effort would improve our understanding of ourselves, and the necessity of coming to accept ourselves in all our robot-ness. But wait, there’s more…

There’s another article a few pages later in the same issue of Discover called, “Acid Test,” about the recent increase in research on the use of psychoactive drugs to treat various mental disorders. A key quote:

“The cortex basically takes all the information coming in and synthesizes it into reality,” says David E. Nichols, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who has done animal research on hallucinogens. “When you alter that circuitry, you’re essentially changing your perception of reality.”

I think the planets must be coming into alignment or something—just kidding. All these ideas have been favorite subjects of mine for some time, and it’s encouraging to see so much popular interest in them. The truth is ultimately inescapable, because decisions made on the basis of mistaken assumptions have haphazard and often unpleasant consequences. The more reliable our information about who we are and how our brains work, the more effectively we can deal with the difficulties life presents us.

Many of the old Zen guys used to say that Buddha mind and ordinary mind are the same mind, and I think the value of science is in showing that no matter how profound and transcendent an experience we might have, there is nothing mystical about it: we are just accessing a part of the brain, a particular configuration of neurons and neurotransmitters, that is not a part of our everyday experience.

You don’t have to be some extraordinary human being to have such experiences, but our everyday, practical sense of reality often has such a grip on our perceptions that it is difficult to escape. Meditation and drugs, used with the understanding that we are just shifting the brain into a different state, can give us a more graphic, dramatic experience of our options than we might get by simply reading about the possibilities. It takes something a little out of the ordinary to free us from the obsessions, depressions, moods, etc., with which our ordinary lives have endowed us.

Reality is more than what we think.


Spiraling Convergences