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!


Also published on Medium.