Friday, April 20, 2012

Reinterpreting the World

In the previous two posts, I put forth the idea that, relative to our own self, we can change the world simply by changing how we think about it.  This is an important idea in many spiritual traditions, and it might be worth exploring further.  I suggest that there are four levels on which this principle applies: surface culture, deep culture, surface biology, and deep biology.  At each level, our ability to make this kind of change becomes more difficult.

The poem is an example of surface culture. It is not terribly difficult to mentally make this kind of change, but as I suggested we can encounter significant resistance from our fellow humans if we do.  Also in that post I suggested that there is an analogy between the notion of weed and the notion of sin in Christianity.  Here, I’ll suggest that in our culture the notion of sin is more deeply established than the notion of weeds and that our ability to reinterpret that notion will similarly be more difficult.

Moving from the re-interpretation of ideas grounded in culture to ideas that are grounded in biology is a significant increase in difficulty, but I will argue that the principle still holds.  We may think that pain and pleasure are simple biological givens, but this is not so.  As an example, I used to teach outdoor education, and sometimes we would do an exercise with kids were we would blindfold them and have them smell various aspects of the world.  Often, along the way, we would take them to a “stinky” garbage can.  In the blindfolded conditions, the kids did not recoil from the smell the way that most of them would have had they known it was a garbage can.  Instead they would explore the smell.  We may think that our response to such odors is purely biological, but there is actually a combination of learned and natural response at play.  After witnessing this, I played around with this idea and found that I could re-interpret many things that I found mildly painful as simply interesting sensations.

Just how deep people can take this principle is an interesting question.  In the various ascetic traditions, there are many examples of people doing things that we would find intensely painful.  In some cases this is due to people developing a very high pain tolerance, but in the yogic traditions the explanation is usually given that the yogi has learned to become totally detached from the idea of pain, and so is able to re-interpret what would naturally be thought of as a painful sensation as merely a strong, but neutral sensation.

The upshot of this principle is that we have more control over our world than we normally think.  This control can provide us a significant degree of freedom from the negative conditions of life.   The Western alliance of science, technology and market economics has fixated on external solutions to problems.  It has highlighted the so-called “objective” world and de-valued the subjective.   In the process it has ignored the degree to which the world for each person is that person’s subjective interpretation of the world.  That degree is limited -- there is a range of laws and principles operating beyond subjective interpretations.  But the degree that those laws and principles determine the quality of our life is also limited.   Too often we think that our quality of life is a state to be achieved by changing our external conditions, and fail to recognize the degree that the quality of our life depends on how we choose to interpret those conditions.

(The above doesn't really says anything different from the old adage: "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.")

No comments:

Post a Comment