What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

Advertisements

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”

Love and doubt: the central truth of existence

I’ve been working for a long time to arrive at the central truth of my existence.

In search of answers I’ve read extensively the works of mystics, saints, sages and great teachers from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

I’ve read New Age books and talked to psychics and healers.

I’ve studied philosophy in an academic context, and theology in a private one.

I’ve read various texts from psychology and psychotherapy, undergone counselling and hypnosis, examined my quest from the point of view of mental illness and personality disorders.

I’ve tried Yoga, Qigong, martial arts, reiki, and various forms of meditation and prayer.

And through all this I’ve spent more than eighteen years analysing, questioning, struggling and striving, tying myself in knots and trying to untie them again.

What have I learned?

Some parameters

I’ve learned that the pursuit of some truths is unhelpful.

It eventually became clear to me that my path was different from most other people I know. It took longer still for me to stop apologising for this.

Part of me – both for intellectual reasons and for personal ones – has sought to universalise my conclusions. If, for example, I had the thought that “all wealth comes from God”, I would immediately think of counter-examples: drug-dealers, pimps, exploitative corporations and businesses, where clearly people are making money from the exploitation and harm of others.

Is their wealth “from God”?

Well, even asking the question is departing from my original intent. I want to get to the central truth of my existence, not come up with a universalisable moral theology of economics. The counter-examples my mind produces are not a part of my experience. To even consider them in this context is to set up obstacles to what is clearly a more faithful and God-centred view: that all wealth comes from God.

In other words, you can always find excuses to shake your faith and trust in God and in love. You can always find reasons to doubt.

So I took from philosophy a parameter that we could call subjectivism, so long as we don’t get distracted by the broader (and decreasingly relevant) context of that term in philosophy.

Subjectivism in the context of my search for truth means that I am not going to accept at face value the things that are not a part of my experience.

Many bad things happen in the world, don’t they? But in my experience, these global events are just news reports. I’m not looking to call God to account for earthquakes and wars on the other side of the world, I’m looking to call Him to account for my own subjective sense of something wrong in my life, and my experience.

Charity begins at home, or as John Wyclif apparently put it in the 14th Century: Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self.

What I’m looking for is the truth of my existence, and searching for objections in what I have heard from others’ experiences is an unnecessary constraint on finding answers.

Because there are answers I will find that defy the worldly view, and it would be ridiculous to turn to the world to confirm or repudiate answers I’ve sought from God, when the whole point of these answers is that the world could not provide them!

Nothing is impossible for God.

Over time I’ve become aware that my experience is profoundly shaped by my own beliefs, choices, and emotional states. I might be conscious of real, insurmountable limitations and obstacles in the world, and yet those limitations and obstacles have simply evaporated as my belief in them, or my underlying emotional state, has changed.

Like the previous parameter, this often emerges as a conflict between faith and doubt. Love may point in directions that the world or our own experience say is impossible, implausible, or even undesirable. It helps to remember that the limitations and obstacles presented by the world or our past or current experience are at least shaped by, and sometimes wholly constructed from our beliefs and emotions.

This can be as simple as a depressed or anxious person projecting their own negative thoughts onto others, and anticipating social rejection. Or it can be as profound as admitting that the whole of space and time is known to me only as a series of impressions, and that all existence and all consciousness emanates from, and participates in, the being we call God.

God could repair the world, or end it at any moment. Don’t talk about what is and is not possible based on the limitations of your own experience, when our own existence is barely distinguishable from a dream.

Love makes room for itself.

The obstacles and limitations that present themselves in the face of love are not substantial. They subsist foremost in our own doubts and fears, and the corresponding beliefs. They are only as consequential as we allow them to be.

Hence we can choose love over doubt, trusting that the conditions that seem to validate doubt will disappear or be resolved or somehow overcome through love itself.

Otherwise we are caught in an absurd situation, with love or hope that can’t be reconciled with “the world” or our own experience, precisely when what we yearn for, and what brings us true fulfillment, must necessarily repudiate the limitations and obstacles coming from the world.

So with all these parameters in mind, I’ve found that my experience of suffering arises because of complex sets of beliefs and emotions in my own mind, which both shape my experience and are reinforced by it.

If I want to know why my experience feels always insufficient for happiness, then I only need to look at the fears, doubts, and sense of insufficiency in myself.

How do I feel about life, about myself, and about the world?

It turns out that my whole psyche is packed full of conflicted and negative beliefs and emotions.

But by tracing those chains of cause-and-effect backwards, I’ve come at last to the fundamental choice from which all the subsequent flawed efforts stem.

The fundamental choice is a choice between love and doubt. I describe it as doubt rather than fear, because doubt is much more insidious and plausible. Yet doubt originally meant fear or dread anyway. It comes originally from the same root as “two”, and implies duality, double-ness, and the uncertainty evoked by suddenly having two alternatives to consider.

Recapitulating the fall.

Again without seeking a comprehensive theological framework: our original, fundamental choice between love and doubt reflects and recapitulates the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

In essence, human beings were at one with God and in paradise. Yet the serpent tempted them to doubt. 

In Genesis 3, the serpent essentially casts doubt on God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and defies God’s justification of the command. He presents to Eve, and by proxy to Adam, an alternative option, an option in which God – who is Love itself – has ulterior motives.

And from that moment erupts human suffering with temptation, blame-shifting, and fear dominating the human experience.

This doubt arises in our own lives continually. We have continual opportunities to choose between doubt and love. Yet for most of us the original doubt has grown and developed into a convoluted web of subordinate doubts, fears, temptations, and other psychological maneuvers, all designed to help us avoid, overcome, or shift the suffering that arose from that original doubt.

The original doubt would have been reflected back to us as it shaped our experience. In a vicious circle, our experience would have seemed to vindicate the doubt, in much the same way that a self-conscious, anxious person may act in ways that elicit negative attention from others.

The experience of doubt is painful, since it would have seemed to nullify or render-hollow the prior experience of love, just as the serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s motives in commanding the first humans not to touch the tree of knowledge.

To escape this pain, what can we do? Well, we can blame other people for our suffering. Or we can blame ourselves for our suffering. Either option gives us a sense that maybe we can regain the love we lost when we entertained doubt.

But both are false. And both elicit a chain of psychological “moves” that attempt to shift the pain around in the vain hope of eventually removing it.

If you blame yourself for your suffering, then yes you have the hope of changing and redeeming yourself, but you also experience an additional pain of self-blame and recrimination.

And now you must pursue self-improvement and redemption.

It is no coincidence that such a central theme of Christianity is the insufficiency of our efforts to redeem ourselves, and the depiction of Christ’s death on the cross as the one true and eternal sacrifice for our redemption.

I’ve never appreciated the idea that God required a sacrifice, rather it is we who needed to know that our attempts at redemption would never succeed.

We can’t go forward from doubt into love. We need to go back to the original choice, to our own choice and repudiate doubt at the most basic level. That’s why the centrality of God’s love is the most prominent theme in Christianity.

If you choose doubt, no amount of love can overcome it. If you choose love, no trace of doubt can shake you.