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!

Meeting Mr. Bauman: A spicy collection of Utopian notes

January, Sunday 31st, 9.30 AM.

I jump out of the train and expose myself to the sun of Trento. I’m a young man who has (maybe) just found his way. I’m excited. Today I’m going to listen to one of “the world’s most eminent social theorists“, professor Zygmunt Bauman. It is no such a big deal, I know. But I have just decided to apply for Sociology, and I feel inspired: something is going to happen!

The conference has been titled “The Utopia of Utopia’s Future”.  Sounds Byzantine, right? Celebrating the 500th anniversary of Utopia‘s publication is worth having such an intricate plot.

I reported below my conference notes, trying to give them a little bit of context. The crucial attempt here is not to report any coherent theory; it is to bypass the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

When I learn something new, I always try to define it. Describing the gaps I’ve been filling, I hold on the possibility to remember what it felt like not to know. I wouldn’t otherwise be able to cherish ignorance. And that would mean sacrificing an useful perspective.

gears-gap

 

Notes

Prof. Bauman describes biblical Paradise as “a place where you do not have to choose”. Remember Adam, Eve and the Apple Tree? That is our lost condition. Leon Battista Alberti’s definition of beauty mimics the utopian concept: “a state occurring when nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worst”.

Utopia tries to answer the question “how do we get back there?”, although it is clearly impossible. There is not such a condition where duality is extinguished. This whole thing reminded me of the attempts to make the choice process easier, evidencing how variety might impair our ability to choose. In The wisest one in the room, Ross and Gilovich point out that commitment boosts the psychological benefits of dissonance reduction. You’ll just tell yourself you made the best choice, selecting all the causes that led you behave that way and ignoring others. You’ll feel happy, and that is fine!

Bauman’s freudian background rephrases perfection as a sum of security and freedom. Social history is a pendulum between those two states. Civilization is the supreme example of such a compromise. Bauman argues that current social movements show a sacrifice of past earned freedoms to get back some security.

The conference reaches its emotional peak when Bauman loses the thread and stops mumbling for a minute. What a man! My heart is filled with tenderness. The audience applauds, and he is perfectly at ease showing his ninety-year-old vulnerability.

SONY DSC

 

Bauman later explains what the previous tendency was: whereas the welfare state concept was to provide people with a background to allow anyone to take risks, in the last decades we have been sacrificing social securities for the sake of greatest freedom.

My young, liberal soul immediately rebels: how is that more freedom could possibly harm anyone? I link up welfare state system and loss aversion concept from Thinking, Fast and Slow studies. If welfare state’s original claim is to provide everyone with a security net in order to risk and create wealth, the blind spot is loss aversion. Behavioural psychology has shown that loss aversion is two times stronger on average than gain evaluation: A 500$ loss has the same emotional intensity as a 1.000$ gain. By securing people against risks we are blocking them from creating value. There is a lack of behavioural fuel for social innovation. The importance of feeling safe in order to be creative doesn’t have to be undervalued, but beware! the result can be stillness.


 

The only question from the audience brings up a very interesting point: the difference between community and network.

Bauman explains that we used to belong to communities. Since the World Wide Web has entered in our lives, we are allowed to create our own: therefore, networks belong to us.

Bauman argues that fading communities get along with an unpleasant downfall of necessary conventions. He links nationalism ascent and Schengen’s crisis to an unsatisfied need for belonging, which is finding its revenge in today’s social movements.

I like much more the network alternative: it doesn’t have anything to do with legacy. Community is something that we inherited; network is something that we create for ourselves. Whereas “network” conveys a professional meaning of one’s relationships, “community” hands a broader sense of values, those which Bauman was pointing at as critically fading. I think today’s adulthood gets along with network creation much better. To choose with whom to spend our most valuable asset – time – is freedom.

 

Resistance

Warning. This post was born out of a burning desire, when an endless overflow of words began to fill the blanks in The War of Art. It has been like assisting to the re-birth of the Phoenix.


 

IChing was the first book that made me seriously think of persistence as the mother of skills, way before Anthony Robbins made it even more persuasive through his Money: Master the Game book. Money is convincing. But a 600+ pages book filled with crazy-Confucian-practical philosophy, studied while hermiting at Pasubio Moutains, was impressive as hell. Dear Steven Pressfiled, I love the way you remind me of persistence. Show up. Show up. Show up.

Resistance though hit me once again. I spent days reading articles that failed to light me on fire. Steven Pressfield’s book was winking at me day and night. I was used to think that miracles kick in mysteriously, that there’s no way to grasp what’s going on in the backstage. Waiting for things to happen, though, is a pain in the ass. You need to go out and catch them (do you understand any Italian? I strongly recommend you to check this out).

 

The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not to come, whatever they like.

This is Zen, isn’t it? Consistence, building up a process is the cure. Given you’re going to do your job, whatever it is meant to be, you earn the power to be at peace. Remember that you’re never done. When low satisfaction strikes, you look back to seek what could have been done better. But there is no point arguing with the mirror. If you did your job, if you craved and struggled to set up a masterful process and you keep up with it, there is no need to look back, neither forward. Don’t forget that

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight.

You know you’re going to repeat that process over and over. That is what you were meant to be. That’s what you are here for.

 

We apparently overestimate the likelihood of a short-term change, and underestimate the long-term one. Nevertheless, taking action might bother those around you. They could accuse you not being the person you were. You’ve shifted gears. I recently had to deal with that, and eventually leave the people I was living with. It is so obvious and even desirable not to be the person you used to be. Change happens. Some might like it, some won’t. I learned that true friends will incite me to move on. But at the very end, it comes to no one but me to judge whether I like it ot not.

 

You’re no closer to taking action than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you.

Sometimes I do think Resistance isn’t real, as far as I consider duality itself the major deception. Pressfield boosts it with the following statement:

Resistance has no strength on its own. […] We feed it with power by our fear of it.

I laze, when I think I own it. Many philosophies try to guide us to that very juice. We own what we experience, when we come to believe that we are the source of perception. But reality is, we usually don’t live that way. That is the point where self-dramatization and victimhood come in, just to name a few. Reality is, we’ve got to keep moving to be alive.

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance.

That is a very old story. Once upon a time, God created Light and Darkness, right? Most of the time, we forget that both of them are God’s creations. When we seek for pain-free means we mistakenly acknowledge that Light is God, and there’s no room for Darkness. You know what the real magic is? It doesn’t work! We would inevitably face awful moments, and they’ll get worse and worse if we don’t allow them to be.

 

If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends) “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are.

Sometimes, we say what we need to be told.

 

We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention.

Being in trouble is appealing. But a working artist cannot allow himself to be in trouble, because it prevents himself to get the shit done. Want to get out of troubles? Get your homework done. Still can’t figure out what your homework is? That is Resistance in action. Go and clear that out – it’s the major part of the homework itself.

 

The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.

Freedom is troublesome. We’ve spent millions of years trying to get out of the tribal mindset, striving to act indipendently from one another. Freedom is a mess. Rebellion took us to places we’ve never lived before. Artists feel the importance to look forward and not to be stuck in the past. Artists feel that best stories are yet to be written, and beware of bending over to study sacred texts.

Self-mastery doesn’t have limits, and freedom has the same promising outlook. The major challenge is to fit them in a limited, earthly existence.

 

 

procrastination

Not to beat around the bush but…to add anything further might be worthless. Nevertheless, it is useful to notice how healing and resistance become allies. How many times have you turn down accomplishing that stressful important task because you didn’t feel well enough?

The athlete knows the day will never come when he wakes up pain-free.

Not to mention that, doing your homework is the way to heal yourself effectively, and stay there.

 

The chapter was ending. I thought I was done. But Pressfield kicked in with hilarious genius:

Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.

At death’s door, I bet I’d appreciate it even more.

 

Now that you’ve get prepared, it is the time to face the Rule of thumb:

The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

It reminds me of that old story. We somehow tend to believe that the opposite of love is hate. Artists know that what kills the most is indifference. Leave out for a moment the concept of “soul’s evolution” – it might be something you’re not interested in. The point is that if anything meant nothing to us, there would be no Resistance at all. You should find a framework to dissect and understand emotional feelings, otherwise they’ll just own you. Rational thinking bridges the gap between ever ending fear and enthusiasm. And be careful rationalization not to take over, preventing you to see your fears and act upon them.

Tao is a never-ending game.

 


Complement the reading with  The Only Way to Stop Stressing About a Task Is to Finally Start It and the smartest video I’ve ever seen about procrastination.

How do Happiness & Money go together?

Money, money, money… it’s a simple, yet contentious reserve of value. How has it come to be so important? Money is an agreement, a form of self-fulfilling trust. It is a measure – how valuable is our behavior on the planet? Sometimes we are granted with money, with a smile, or with a punch in the face. The attempt is huge and heroic: to strive to evaluate every skill and vocation, without letting anyone upset. I like that we try to estimate what we considered to be immeasurable. Once upon a time, consultancy was an occasional chat with a friend. Nowadays, it’s an industry.

 

If your target in money spending is happiness, scientific research shows that experiences have to be chosen over things. When eventually buying stuff, it is useful to think about what experience you’re going to get. I love buying books. The purchase makes me happy already. When the pack is delivered to my door, I’m so excited I can’t wait but break it open. And the best is usually yet to come. Books inspire, books connect, books relieve. It’s not an ode, just an example of how objects could be valuable to us, thus a beautiful experience to buy.

 

I believe that every of us, the so called “market”, has already understood that. Stuff pricing falls, while service’s mostly arises. Services become more valuable when provide us with exciting, better experiences. Objects do the same, but the technology razor kills the costs by exponential ratios. Scientific research suggests experience has a major impact on happiness due to experience-related positive peaks, that we are likely to remember. That might be the explanation to another, seemingly dual research statement:

“Money is related with self-oriented actions. Happiness is mostly developed within relationships.”

Experiences are usually shared, while buying is mostly a solo act. When money is spent on objects and experiences that enhance our connections, happiness comes in.

 

Pay now, consume later.

It is a little counterintuitive, still research-based piece of advice. Credit cards are an example of attractive tools that allow us to delay pain (yes – spending activates neural areas witch are related physical suffering). But the payoff is eventually to get into even more pain (debt shows to be the most stressful issue overall). What about doing the opposite? To buy in advance is fruitful – you get a free excitement while waiting for the purchase, and once the time has come, you might have even forgotten and you kinda get a self-given gift!

 

Bottom line: turn the focus on earning more into changing the way of spending what you’ve already got.


All of the above was mainly inspired by the episode #50 of the fantastic You Are Not So Smart Podcast. Check it out!