The power of doublethink

This post is an example of thematic interconnectedness, the meta-cognitive skill of applying a specific learning to other areas. Know more about the broad applications of thematic interconnectedness in this magnificent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show with Josh Waitzkin.

 

According to Richard Wiseman in his classic 59 Seconds, the concept of doublethink was introduced by George Orwell in 1984, describing it as

the simultaneous holding of two opposing beliefs in one’s mind and yet accepting both.

Now, we know what Orwell made out of such a concept: he envisioned a totalitarian regime that could take control of anything, where rules were so weak that anyone could have turned into an enemy at anytime, and viceversa.

We shouldn’t despair, though. Being able to hold two opposite ideas at the same time has shown major cognitive benefits, as I pointed out in this article. There is not only the celebre marshmallow Stanford experiment to prove it, but also an interesting research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen at University of Pennsylvania, who assessed the effectiveness of doublethink to accomplish any goal in life, from improving a relationship to losing weight and dating.

What did she do? People were asked to fantasise about obtaining their goal, and take note of the benefits that would flow from such an achievement. They were then asked to think about the obstacles they might find along the way. Finally, the process consisted into thinking alternatively at what joys would the benefit bring into their lives, and how they would overcome the obstacle once encountered.

 

I know, it sounds much as any pro-cons, business-type, rational thinking. Scientific minds might have already discovered it a long time ago, and they probably won’t find this article much interesting. But we shouldn’t leave it for granted, and we shouldn’t forget about its principles, to be able to translate them in every area of expertise. Anyone who’s committed to know the truth about something, knows the tough process of taking every option into consideration, and to mention them to seal her final thought on the topic.

The idea is to try and give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

Richard Feynman

Science has demonstrated to be exceptionally valuable because of its principle to run experiments and gather all results, no matter how they resonate with previous hypotheses.

There is something deeply fascinating between the scientific method, which we found here applied to psychological experiments, the scientific era we are living in, the research which has been conducted on mindfulness meditation and how our beliefs shape society as a whole.

Until the scientific method didn’t takeover, we were not particularly advanced in recognizing the difference between subjective beliefs and social beliefs. Ultimate judgement was left upon the most sensible minds or the most powerful figures, and there was no statistical apparatus that gave voice to the wisdom of crowds.

Now that we are applying the scientific method to every branch of human knowledge, I wonder if there is any link with previous knowledge that has remained untouched.

I should say that I know very little about neuroscience and the development of psychology and everything else. What sounds more fascinating and promising to me, although, is the link between science – which has shown its enormous benefits to improve society and people’s happiness, as briefly shown in the Stanford marshmallow experiment and Oettingen experiment – and mindfulness meditation, a spiritual practice derived from Buddhism.

Science has some interest toward mindfulness meditation. Every discipline can claim to be backed from scientific evidence as – Ben Goldacre has brilliantly elaborated on the topic –  you’ll always find some Ph. D. supporting what you’ve got to say. In fact, we still have moderate evidence about the effectiveness of mindfulness practice for pain and stress reduction, several meta-analysis revealed. These studies underline how results may differ as experimental design would be improved, so we don’t really know what we may find about the topic in the future. When I started my journey to know more about meditation, I wanted to know more about Asian culture, what positive tricks it had to offer me and why it made its way through Western countries, to end up reaching me in the Italian Alps.

 

Buddhism is so vast, that in every of its branches you’ll find something that relates to the mindfulness practice, which was imported in the USA under the name of MBSR by dr. Kabat-Zinn: Vipassana for Theravada tradition, Dzogchen for Nyingmapa tradition, Samatha in Gelugpa tradition, and many more. If you look at single traditions, you’ll certainly find a lot of differences, and adepts would fittingly get indignant about how I dared comparing their unique practices.

My aim, though is to compare significant similarities, which would give me confidence and inspiration to develop whatever method helps me build a peaceful, efficient mind. Vipassana meditation uses body sensations as the third support for the double nature of the mind. One of its most practiced exercises is focusing on the breath. When you are caught up in sterile thinking, that trick is marvellous.

Samatha has a very similar approach, and it is considered within Gelugpa tradition as a training to improve ones concentration. Who doesn’t need to develop a stronger concentration? Please raise your hand.

Finally, Dzogchen stands for “great perfection”, the natural, innate state of the mind. You’ll find similar definitions within Advaita Vedanta, an Hindu philosophical school of thought.

I know that I’ve just thrown at you a bunch of complicated names and nebulous definitions. I might have not been able to explain anything valuable to you, yet this is not something easy to grasp, and I warmly invite you to dig deeper. Give it a try.

I dedicated much energy to discover what that “natural, innate” state of the mind means. It seemed very promising, as it was claimed to be the source of peace and joy. And it was there already, so I just had to remove stuff, and not do add anything. So I tried to follow some masters’ instructions, and finally had my unexplainable mystical experience. If that ever happened to you, you may understand a friend of mine, who famously stated:

once, during an high school lesson, I saw the infinite. I tried to explain my epiphany to the teacher, but she wasn’t as amazed as I expected.

You see, thousands of years have passed, yet some basic human experiences remain unchallenged. All the scientific research we are doing is certainly giving us a better grasp on those experiences, yet far from being ultimate and complete. I believe that until than – if any scientific truth may ever be pronounced on the topic | uh-uh, maybe not, as science is supposed to be a fluid stream of knowledge – anyone should be faithful to his personal experience.

What that mystical experience has taught me, which I find every day in my mindfulness practice, is that there is something else outside the mind we are daily used to. That gives me a lot of freedom. If we think at concepts as concrete objects, there must be a container to hold them together. I compare doublethink to black and white marbles, and mindfulness as its repository.

To be successful and live peacefully, we need to both dream and deal with worst-case scenarios. Once the framework is set, it ain’t so difficult. We have to be comfortable with our identity of containers to harness the power of doublethink. We have to be acquainted with mindfulness practice to be able to hold a fluid identity and take advantage of changing circumstances.

 

If this article has inspired you to dig just a little deeper, I consider my job done. Until next time, thanks for reading!

What about…conspiracy theories?

I wish I had someone beside me while surfing on the internet, looking for answers. I was just about sixteen when I firstly got to meet conspiracy theories’ mindset. And I had no tools to face it, except my adolescent thinking process.

It increasingly influenced my world’s view, until I felt totally powerless and frustrated. Every path which was set in front of me was invariably spoilt by a handful of evil, wealthy supermen. Studying? I didn’t want to give away my efforts and talents to those who were wrecking my life already. Getting a job? No point I could ever talk to people who didn’t see that everything was so evidently wrong with the world, while doing nothing to change it. Everyone seemed stupid and powerless around me, and I felt miserably alone.

I had some companions whom I could share that black vision with. All of them were leading an “alternative” lifestyle, looking for easiest and cheapest way to make a living. A bunch of them were very wholehearted, they took the alternative side as their own perspective and made it a source of connection, sharing and joy. I feel so thankful to them, they inspired me to pursue simplification, joy of living and the overcoming obstacles. They definitely could have embraced any type of lifestyle – at the core they were lovely people, occasionally bothered by common issues. They just simplified those complexities, labeled with an average form of “world’s fault” explanation – conspiracy theories.

The most of the alternative fellows though, weren’t happy people. I was one of them. Conspiracy theories had a greater influence, acting as the perfect exit strategy from personal responsibilities that were somehow neglected. Expecting others to do what you need to do simply is a sad symptom of a powerless and frustrated mind.

Year after year, I felt increasingly tight and uncomfortable, looking at the world through conspiracy’s lens. I needed something different, in order to believe that I had a future and I could act. Now.

Surely spiritual teachings do not let any space to complaint, if taken wholehearted. I slowly became to understand how I could deal with my emotions and with my thoughts. I understood that I couldn’t go on but growing out of compassion and finding a way to support others. Thich Nhat Hanh made it so clear to me it his highly inspiring interview at OnBeing. Ho’oponopono teachings helped me to develop a wider concept of what I am responsible for.


Vodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch and the fabulous You Are Not So Smart Podcast episode #16 opened my eyes wide on the topic.

Aaronovitch smoothly introduces the Occam’s razor while defining a conspiracy theory as

[…] the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. […] a conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable.

Keep it simple! Which is radically different from any kind of clumsy misinterpretation due to helplessness in handling reality’s complexities… As A. K. Coomaraswamy once stated,

To be able to perceive post hoc and propter hoc, concurrence and causality, is a clear sign of a remarkable intellectual development.

Conspiracy theories have been explored and classified in different, helpful ways. The United States of Paranoia, a Conspiracy Theory author, Jesse Walker, divides them into

  1. “The enemy above” – conspiracy that forms at the top of the social pyramid (Big Pharma);
  2. “The enemy below” – conspiracy among the poor or the workers  (revolutions, riots, overthrows);
  3. “The enemy within” – conspiracy among people of your own group (spies, impostors);
  4. “The malevolent and benevolent” conspiracies (Matrix, Inception, UFO’s-liked theories).

Steven Novella, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, suggests conspiracy theories divide the world into three parts: Conspirators, usually incredibly evil, an Army of Light and the vast majority – The Sheeple.

Aaronovitch extracts 7 main characteristics that ensure their wide-spread propagation:

  1. […] conspiracists work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited.
  2. A conspiracy theory is likely to be politically populist, in that it usually claims to lay bare an action taken by a small power elite against the people. […] belief in the conspiracy makes you part of a genuinely heroic elite group who can see past the official version duplicated for the benefit of the lazy or inert mass of people by the powers that be. […] Those who cannot or will not see the truth are variously described as robots or, latterly, as sheeple.
  3. The theorist is just asking certain disturbing questions because of a desire to seek out truth, and the reader s supposedly left to make up his or her mind. The questions asked, of course, only make sense if the questioner really believes that there is indeed a secret conspiracy.
  4. The conspiracists draw upon the endorsement of celebrities and “experts” to validate their theories, and yet a constant feature of modern conspiracy theories is the exaggeration of the status of experts.
  5. The conspiracists work hard to give their written evidence the veneer of scholarship. The approach has been described as death by footnote. Accompanying the exposition of the theory is a dense mass of detailed and often undifferentiated information, but laid down as an academic text.
  6. Conspiracists are always winners. Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself.
  7. Conspiracists are inclined to suggest that those involved in spreading the theory are, even in the “safest” of countries, somehow endangered.

Furthermore, conspiracy theories are a surprisingly vivid journey into the world of cognitive biases.

Walker cleverly states that

[…] Even when a conspiracy theory doesn’t have anything in it that it’s that it’s true about the object of the conspiracy theory, it says something true if it catches on about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe it.

Steven Novella argues that we don’t like disconnected events. Our tendency to make up apparent patterns attempts to connect events and explain anomalies.

[Conspiracy theories are] a form of pattern recognition in order to generate a narrative that makes sense of a complex world.

A further explanation could be that we are hardwired to be threaten by external groups from ancient times, when humans lived in small tribes, always fighting each other. Globalization in the modern world exalted the bias as a threat by governments and big corporations, Novella suggests.

He further reports interesting studies showing the psychology that backs conspiracy-oriented people:

People who tend to believe in conspiracies are more likely to see patterns in random visual images as well.

It is somehow fascinating that a large number of smart and well-educated people can be found among conspiracists. Henry Ford, for instance, actively spread the Protocols of the Eldest of Zion, and Bertrand Russell promoted the Who Killed Kennedy Committee. How could that be? Here you have some crucial differences between so called “intelligence” and “critical thinking” (not to say Russell and Ford had no critical thinking skills, of course!):

Intelligence makes you better at rationalizing your own beliefs, you’re much more sophisticated at locking yourself into your own belief. […] Factual knowledge, memory and other measures of intelligence actually work against you, they will give you the tools [to do so]. You really need critical thinking, you’ve got to be able to get outside and think about your thought process.

Steven Novella

Metacognitive skills seem to be the only way out of destructive conspiracy thinking. Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool to soften and deconstruct negative biases that get into our way towards a peaceful, worthy living.

 

Mindful moments

Simplifying the thinking process is quite tough. Trying though is definitively worth it.

Outfitters-2

This was the first and partial output of a long thinking process that sounded almost like this:

Why do I wait so long before I say or do anything? Hey hey, wait a minute…are you crazy? I want everything I do to be perfect! Who do you think I am? I’m a perfectionist! There’s no other way to be loved. After I’ve been rejected, I no longer want to be alone. That’s a shit. I’m gonna find a way to successfully relate to anyone on this planet before I’d even open my mouth.

Well, nothing has made me understand better how “creativity comes easier within constraints”. I could not imagine a stricter limitation than this – getting rid of my previous models of self expression. No music, no readings, no writing, no people, possibly no thoughts at all… YES, I was desperate.

Anyway, this obstacle turned in a miraculous way. I got in touch with meditation.

The mindfulness practice is great. I experienced that being alone is a basic human condition. Meaning that, at the very end, there’s nobody else who can relate to my problems better than I do. I couldn’t meet anyone until I skipped the relationship with myself.  When I did it, I felt radically better…in the long term. Loving myself is really the best smartcut I’ve ever experienced!

Outfitters

 

Self-confidence backed the mindfulness practice, and the need of being seen sweetly softened. Here you have the magic: a blog post that is not perfect…but nice. I feel so good about it!

 

Amor fati: you don’t need to be loved anymore

Is it possible to be calm while an earthquake disrupts everything around you? This is one of the questions I like most, didn’t you notice it? Well, Zen masters show it is, and not only them. It happens when we put ourselves before anything else – our peace of mind – while giving others the best example during hard times.

Here you’ve got an example from The obstacle is the way:

At age 67, Thomas Edison returned home early one evening from another day at the laboratory. Shortly after dinner, a man came rushing into his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus a few miles away.
Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene, but they could not contain the blaze. Fueled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the entire empire Edison had to spend his life building.
Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through theknow hundreds of onlookers and devastated employees, looking for his son. “Go get your mother and all her friends,” he told his son with childlike excitement. “They’ll never see a fire like this again”.
What?!

Unconventional wisdom turned to action. Ryan Holiday completes the picture with this wise piece of advice:

We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good? We can choose to render a good account off ourselves. If the event must occur, Amor fati is the response.
It’s a little unnatural, I know, to feel gratitude for things we never wanted to happen in the first place. But we know […] the opportunities and benefits that lie within adversities. We know that in overcoming them, we emerge stronger, sharper, empowered. There is little reason to delay these feelings. To begrudgingly acknowledge later that it was for the best, when we could have a felt that in advance because it was inevitable.

You love it because it’s all fuel. And you don’t just want fuel. You need it. You can’t go anywhere without it.  No one or no thing can. So you are grateful for it.

I have a metaphisycal block that can’t make me accept completely this point of view. I covered all that in the linked post, and my position hasn’t changed. But I admit that Holiday’s words are very powerful. Maybe they’re not metaphisycally correct, but they have awakened my soul.

Anyhow, the critical point here is to recognize that we do love what happens around us and within ourselves. Always. It is a matter of redefining what we intend for love.

If you think at love as that magic power that sustains everything, that simply allows everything to be, and you experience it within yourself as pure consciousness, well, you’re done. You are the world, as Krishnamurti would say.

From this point, I can both love the idea that I’m responsible for my feelings, together with the fact that I don’t agree. This seems to be the fate.

This universal skill is the root of emotional freedom. We don’t need to be loved anymore, we can directly love ourselves. Would Beatles have had the same success, changing their lyrics in “We don’t need no love”? Ray Charles may had, actually!

Here follow some precious insights from Alice Miller (The drama of the gifted child, Italian version):

In quanto adulti non abbiamo bisogno di un amore incondizionato. Si tratta di un bisogno infantile, che in seguito non può più essere soddisfatto. Chi non ha mai pianto tale perdita nell’infanzia, si trastulla con delle illusioni.
[…] Se il bambino deve adattarsi per mantenere viva in sè l’illusione dell’amore, della dedizione e della benevolenza, l’adulto invece non ha più bisogno di tale illusione per poter sopravvivere. Può rinunciare alla cecità per decidere come agire con gli occhi ben aperti.
Sia il soggetto grandioso che quello depresso negano completamente la realtà della loro infanzia in quanto vivono entrambi come se si potesse recuperare la disponibilità dei genitori: il grandioso nell’illusione di riuscirvi, il depresso nell’angoscia continua di perdere la dedizione dei genitori per propria colpa. Nessuno dei due però riesce ad accettare la verità, ad ammettere cioè che nel proprio passato non c’era amore, e che questo dato di fatto non potrà essere mutato con tutta la buona volontà del mondo.

If we somehow feel that our childhood lacked of love, here is when being adult becomes valuable: we can give us everything we need, from the very beginning: loving our story.

Amor fati.

Quelle gioie che fanno male

Sembra incredibile, ma gioire è una delle fatiche della vita.

Qualche giorno fa mi sono addormentato con una gioia indescrivibile. Avevo appena terminato la visione di Le mele di Adamo assieme a persone meravigliose, dopo aver trascorso il pomeriggio a ritagliare costumi carnevaleschi e una sontuosa cena in pizzeria. Sotto il piumone, alla luce soffusa di un’abat-jour, sul diario sono sgorgate parole d’amore per me stesso e per la Vita. Meraviglia. Avrei versato volentieri una lacrimuccia.

Risveglio: al centro del petto una sensazione incolmabile di vuoto. Non era la consueta fame mattutina. Sorprendentemente spontanea, emerse la seguente domanda: lasciarmi andare alla gioia in maniera eccessiva può avermi danneggiato?
Che abbia stirato il muscolo del cuore?

Fortunatamente la lettura corrente (Esercizi d’amore, Alain de Botton), aveva in serbo le parole giuste:

Era malattia assai diffusa tra i turisti, in quella regione della Spagna: in un contesto di tale bellezza, folgorati dalla repentina intuizione che la felicità terrena era portata di mano, cadevano vittime di una violenta reazione fisiologica, mirata a neutralizzare una simile eventualità.

Chloe ed io avevamo sempre avuto la tendenza a localizzare la hedoné nella memoria o nell’aspettativa. Per quanto obiettivo dichiarato fosse raggiungimento della felicità, ad accompagnarlo per un’implicita fiducia che la realizzazione di tale aristotelismo fosse da qualche parte in un futuro lontano.

Godere del presente avrebbe significato impegnarci in una realtà imperfetta, o pericolosamente effimera, piuttosto che trincerarci dietro una rassicurante attesa nel di là da venire. Vivere nel tempo futuro significava alimentare, in contrasto con il presente, una vita ideale che ci avrebbe preservato dalla necessità e lasciarsi coinvolgere dalla situazione che ci circondava. Era un modello di comportamento simile a quello che si ritrova in molte religioni, dove la vita sulla terra è solo il preludio a un’esistenza paradisiaca eterna e infinitamente più beata. Il nostro atteggiamento verso le vacanze, feste, il lavoro, e forse l’amore, aveva qualcosa di immortale, come se a noi fosse concesso di vivere sulla terra abbastanza lungo da non abbassarci a credere tali occasioni così limitate di numero, sentendoci quindi costretti a coglierle al volo.

Carpe diem come necessità.

Incapacità di vivere il presente si manifesta, probabilmente, per il timore di rendersi conto che potrebbe essere l’approdo a ciò che si è desiderato per tutta una vita, il timore di abbandonare la posizione, relativamente sicura, di attesa o di ricordo assumendo, come implicita ammissione, che quella che si vive è, verosimilmente, la sola vita (intervento celeste a parte) che ci è dato vivere. Se la posta in gioco fosse una partita di uova, scommettere sul presente vorrebbe dire, allora, rischiare tutte le proprie uova in quell’unico cesto, anziché suddividerle a quelli di passato e futuro.

In barba a tutte le teorie finanziarie sull’asset allocation!

Preferisco assaporare la momentanea beatitudine e rischiare un attacco di cuore. Poiché se è vero che in fondo cerchiamo semplicemente di sentirci vivi, tali eventi risaltano nella nostra vita, ben più veri dei sogni risposti nei cassetti di domani.