Power and Humanness — what the Jedi got wrong, Part 1.

[5 minute read]

“He’s a powerful figure in political circles”
“She holds a lot of power in this industry”

What sort of person do we picture, hearing these statements? Is “power” here a compliment? Does it make a difference if we hear it from a mate of ours, versus a mainstream media source?

Of course, I’m talking only about socio-political power here. Power as it might relate to rocketry, electrical cables, or weigh-lifting, is a separate matter. As far as humans are concerned, more of this sort of power is usually a good thing.

But power as a human being – is there too much of a good thing?

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the most powerful dude was pretty bad. He marginalised minority groups, had a militaristic foreign policy, and wore a lot of black. But there’s not a lot more to say about Darth Vader that seems objectively bad. In fact, there’s some pretty persuasive arguments suggesting “We All Thought The Sith Were Pure Evil, But What If We Were Wrong?”

More than just an amusing read for Star Wars fans, Coovadia’s article is a brief, but interesting investigation into power and the condition of being human (or Dathomirian or Twi’Lek or…), and a good base for self-investigation for any budding young padawan/apprentice.

The Jedi Code:

There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.

A pretty good critique of this is given in the article mentioned earlier. But to summarise, it appears as though the Jedi Order is in denial of the essences of being human.

So, imagine I came to your grandma’s funeral to show you some idiotic internet memes that I found amusing. You admonish “have you no idea what I’m going through?!” I respond “of course I do — I’m not ignorant…of anything! Whatever your deal is, it’s not emotion.” I go home to my doting, neglected wife. She’s set out a romantic meal for us, “how was your day? Are you ready for me to give you some dessert?” batting her eyes suggestively to me. In a flat, passionless tone answer “meh,” and go meditate upon my memes until she goes to bed frustrated.census2011jedi.jpg

Pretty antisocial. For those of you who wrote “Jedi” as your religion in the last national census, you might want to convert.

In contrast, the Sith Code is very much rooted in passion. Passion is used as a vehicle for personal development, to foster strength and power, with power then used to liberate the spirit.

 

Power In and/or Power Out

Power is often regarded as something like leverage over other humans and control. Power in this sense may be seen as dangerous — something to be wary of, maybe even avoid. When someone is described as having a lot of power, it is often cause to treat them with caution. It’s just a small step away to put “abuse of” in front of the word. Ironically, it is perfectly ok to strive for analogous concepts of “greatness” and “elitism” in individualistic cultures. [but check later for a comparison of individualistic- versus collectivist-oriented culture]

Power, as asserted by an individual, is perhaps misjudged. Power can also be self-assurance, esteem. Power which comes from within and extends to our immediacy is surely a good thing. It is necessary for a healthy, strong individual; Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, who strive toward perfection, excellence, creative improvement and collective superiority.

Nietzsche may have killed God, but the godless Jedi Order is as strong as ever.

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Low power is indeed something to be wary of. A depleted esteem, or broken self-worth can push an individual towards all manner of undesirable or even socially reprehensible actions. In this sense, this individual-centred power is is closely connected to control. Self-control.

In considering these concepts, a great difference becomes clear to me — power directed inward, over oneself, is very different to power directed outward, over others. Self-control, versus controlling others.

 

Vote #1 The Empire!

Coovadia goes the next step, and discusses if power and control over others can be a good thing. The early Star Wars Republic is a showcase model of ineffective governance. Clunky bureaucratic machinery steered by a governing organ that’s seemingly detached from reality. This lands the governance in perpetual stalemate, rendering it ineffective, redundant even — perfect breeding grounds for factioning and civil dissatisfaction. The Republic is seemingly in-line with the Jedi Code’s denial of human affect, yet ironically promotes the very “chaos” that Jedis deny.

This is in stark contrast to the taut, streamlined hierarchy of The Empire.SW-Propaganda-5-500-x-750.jpg

The Republic’s sloppy, unresponsive leadership and dissipated accountability sees a lot of parallel in modern governance, as well as some private business hierarchies. One might say that such ineffective use of leadership is in itself an abuse of power. A true leader, indeed any up-standing individual, will acknowledge his short-falls and do something to deal with them. If no solution is to be found, a true leader will concede his ineffectualness and step-down, giving the job to someone who can get it done. It’s only fair to the people he leads that they have an effective leader.

In this last example, we see someone with great personal power, in a position of great power, but who actually lacks power to fulfil his role. But making use of this personal power, his lack of “vocational power”, if we may call it that, is quickly remedied. Whereas the autocrat who clings to his position in defiance of all his subjects (employees/followers/students) wishing that he’d leave would appear to be very low in personal power. He lacks the self-control to admit weaknesses, and is too powerless to respond properly to circumstance.

 

A final, and extremely important concept Coovadia investigates gets to the very core of good and evil. Please check back tomorrow for Part 2 of What the Jedi Got Wrong.

Idle Worship and Nontrivial Pursuits

[5 minute read]

Moving on from the heavy theory from yesterday’s post the Ego on Trial, we’ll now take a leisurely tour through what a misguided Ego might look like. Let me start with an assertion:

That which you worship, you will feel inadequate in.

Or if this seems too bizarre, we can flip it around –

that which you feel inadequate in, you will fundamentally pursue.

Even if you call yourself an atheist, there is something you “worship” — something you idolise in others and which you’re occasionally proud of in yourself, be it beauty, intelligence, power, or high scores in Fortnite. This idolisation means it’s something upon which you place deep value. And if you value something so deeply, then you will pursue it for yourself, and I mean really, deeply pursue even in small aspects of your life.

 

Have you seen this Idol?

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We need some examples.

If I worship power and control, I will always end up feeling weak and afraid, and will feel I need to assert ever more power and control over things to placate the fear. Unchecked, this comes out as being a busybody in other’s concerns, being a “control freak”, even tyranny. (I’m hard-pressed to think of ANY politician not suffering this crisis of self-assurance). But one’s arms of power/control might also spread over physical items, seen in hoarding behaviour, or obsessive-compulsive cleaning.

If instead of power I’m focusing all my attention and effort on physical beauty, my sexual allure, I will in fact be forever feeling ugly. This may come out as excessive makeup routines, an endless string of cosmetic surgeries, or the highly lethal condition Anorexia. Of course, it affects men and women both (but, curiously, not small children…)

If I idolise intellect and being seen as smart, I will always end up feeling stupid, fraudulent, on the verge of being found out.

If I worship piety and religious devotion, I will always feel a sense of being impure, weak in resisting temptation, unworthy.

And if I chase a lifestyle which features money (and flashy displays of having money) I will, quite cruelly, never really feel wealthy. I will, according to my perspective, never have enough.

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They’re all examples of a mis-directed Ego at work. There might be additional deeper things in play, but in all of these examples of idolisation there is always the factor of us wanting to be liked and respected by others, and of wanting to feel within ourselves that we’re worthy when we compare ourselves to others. This is the job of our Ego — our in-built social monitor. It pushes us to do things that might make us look good (strong, beautiful, friendly, whatever) to others, and then intensively looks around for feedback that we’re getting the approval of others.

 

But everyone else is doing it!

Let’s explore the last example a little more, since it’s at play in cultures everywhere. To others, I might appear filthy rich. Or abysmally poor. It’s irrelevant. The point is that to me, I will feel constantly hungry for money. The hunger might be sated for a few moments — after my stockmarket shares jump up in value, or after I drive around in circles downtown in an italian sports car. But the satiation is inevitably short-lived and I will soon hunger for yet more. scroogeLike Disney’s miserly Scrooge McDuck (Balthazar Picsou, Onkel Dagobar, Gober Bebek, Sknerus McKwacz, Tío Gilito), always greedy for more, never willing to give out.

And there’s a dark side of culture at play in many of these idols. This idolatry might not be connected to your core values, but social norms dictate that you should worship their idols anyway. In a capitalist society you’d be crazy not to want to pursue amassing a horde of money. That is to say, if you’re the sort of “deviant” who has little interest this life pursuit, other people will think you’re a freak, abnormal, maybe even a dangerous radical. The result? Ostracism, social rejection.

This social rejection is precisely what the Ego wants to avoid. So it might seem like my Ego is damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Aaaarhh can’t I just cut this Ego out of me?!

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Are you with me, or against me?

Before things get too desperate in this zany world of false-idols, let’s take one step back. In my previous post I critiqued Eckhart Tolle’s critique of the Ego. Perhaps he’d like his Ego cut out of him. But Tolle is on to something in suggesting we put our Ego on trial. We need to see if our Ego is working for us, or against us. If it’s aligned with our core values, or merely pandering to social expectations and peer-pressure.

In fact, some of these pursuits don’t seem all that bad. What about worshipping friendliness? Generosity? Self-composure? For sure they make us look good in society, and as such feed into the Ego. And I’m not suggesting we completely stomp out all our friendliness and generosity. But like everything, there’s a chance we go too far with even these more likeable pursuits. Being overly friendly can make people to avoid you, being too generous leaves you open to others taking advantage of you.

As with most things Ego, it’s more than likely that these idolisations are buried in our subconscious. We’re not even aware they’re there, propelling us through life to do some really weird, irrational things. But they’re always there, influencing even the smallest of our day-to-day operations.

As John Donne famously said, “no man is an island”, and it would be foolish to completely mute the Ego and shun all society. [Though I do respect those few who have tried exit society in favour of more simple, sustainable livelihoods.] A bit of Ego is appropriate.

The Ego keeps us socially acceptable.

Sure, if you ease back on how much you worship some of these idols, then some of your social connections may diminish. But as John Lennon said, “Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”

 

Credit should go to Mark Manson’s blog for inspiring some of these ideas

 

the Ego on Trial

[8 minute read]

I finally got around to reading Eckhart Tolle, one of the darlings of new age spirituality. His ideas aren’t entirely new, but let’s face it, it’s very hard to have new ideas in the introspective “soft sciences” that really push humanity to new levels. (To be honest, I hope to use this blog to help me do just that). Tolle’s strength lies in his presentation, which puts forward otherwise-vague propositions in a sensible fashion. The central tenet of his Huxley-titled “A New Earth” is that the Ego is bad, and that to progress as individuals we must hem-in the Ego, with the aim to eradicate it. Tolle (whose name in German translates to something like “really cool/OMG awesome!!1!”) is not clear whether total eradication is possible — perhaps this is the Nirvana unrelated to Kurt Cobain. Important to Tolle is to, in any case, constantly keep it in check. Let’s explore the ideas a bit more before I offer what I think is a more complete explanation of what’s going on.

 

To be SUCCESSFUL, look deep into the back of your fridge (?)

The hippies reading my blog probably already know that by “progress as individuals” we’re not meaning to accrue wealth or honour, or other such status symbols. This accrual is, Tolle states, merely feeding the appetite of the Ego. The spiritual progress Tolle refers to might be called growth, which to me unfortunately sometimes brings up images plantar warts, or leftovers in the back of the fridge years past its expiry date. So for my readers more familiar with self-development in professional contexts:

“personal growth” ≠ “success”

More than just an outbreak in skin infection, a deeper and more personally meaningful growth should cut down into the mouldy roots of dissatisfaction that can (and surely does) plague those with great social status. It involves a quiet, confident contentedness with our position in life, and a peaceful acceptance of who we are as individuals. leftovers-fridge-attack.png

So, growth into a lifestyle of sublime contentedness, of self-assuredness and an established feeling of self-control. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Sounds like a much more deeply-resonating state of being than just the classic benchmarks of “success”, as power and money. Tolle mostly attempts to shunt our way of thinking toward this way of thinking using rationalisation and drawing from the grandfathers of the world’s major religions, especially Buddha and Jesus. But he also offers some more practical exercises, such as body scanning without judgement or labelling.

 

Battle of the Egos: Sigmund vs Eckhart

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There’s actually not much contest, here. Eckhart Tolle’s Ego is not dissimilar to Sigmund Freud’s Ego. Well, those two guys have different flavours of egoism for sure, but their definitions appear similar to me. Freud suggests the Ego is the realistic part of our mind that mediates between the desires of the (unrealistic) Id and the external world. Freud believed only one’s Ego is in direct contact with the world; it is the part that deals with “reality anxiety”.
The Ego is more complicated and is presumably a higher evolutionary state than the Id — the primal urges and desires shared by all animals to eat, sleep, breed.

In my Opinion, Freud’s definition seems unnecessarily abstract in connecting Ego with reality. (…then, Id and Superego are unreal?). What is implied in what Freud says, is that the Ego is all about maintaining social cohesion. To my knowledge, Freud never explicitly says it like this, but it is simple to draw this conclusion.

  • Why is it that humans, and several other animal species, don’t automatically cave in to the Id’s desires?
  • Why would a sick wildebeest ignore it’s body telling it to rest on a plain, and instead move on with the migrating herd?
  • Why would a human being push himself to press little plastic squares in front of an illuminated 17 inch square, despite his body screaming at him to sleep?

The Ego is there to make sure we fit into society. To keep up with the herd, to suppress the Id’s impulses.

The Ego keeps us socially acceptable.

Sometimes it’s the only thing making sure we put pants on before venturing outside.

The Ego foregoes some of the benefits of satisfying the Id’s impulses, in favour of keeping social standing, and by following this more complicated path later reap some of the benefits of a community. If we had evolved as individualist species, such as a falcon, leopard, octopus, then these “reality checks” as Freud might call them, or “social acceptability checks” as I’m inclined to call them, these would not be necessary at all. No need for territorial pissings, we would just need to concentrate on ourself, to “Look out for Number 1”, as 90’s USA calls it.

We’re not there yet, but I believe we should soon be able to quite clearly delineate where in the brain the Ego — our in-built social monitor — is located. There should be some similarity in functional-structure found in the brains of humans and all social mammals, but which are not seen in individualist mammals. Birds are a separate biological clave, but the Ego of social birds (they flock together!) perhaps also neurologically resemble the mammalian Ego. Social behaviour is actually pretty complex and can take away a tremendous amount of resources. [More on this another day]. It makes sense that species that evolved to live in herds/packs/flocks also evolved parts of their brain dedicated to this part of life.

 

You know you’re right. Except, you’re not.

So you start to see where I’m a bit at odds with Tolle. And don’t worry, I’ll critique Freud in due time as well. To Tolle, at least in this book, the Ego has no redeeming features. There’s nothing good to be said of it, it will only drain you. But why would humans (or any indeed any life form) have developed a feature, especially one as intricate as an Ego, if it only made things worse for us? Sounds kinda dumb to me. In living things, function and structure always has purpose. If something doesn’t help, if it’s extraneous — if it doesn’t fit (to use Charles Darwin’s word) — then it will go. In humans, the very ape feature of tailbones isn’t “gone” but it’s “going”, and adaptation is slow compared to the time-frame of a single human life. Tails used to help us, but no more.

All this applies equally to our psychology. And I’ll go into more detail in a later post about why we continue doing/thinking things that don’t seem to help us. (Spoiler: they do help, just not the way you might want them to).

No, the Ego is there because it serves us well.

It’s important to note that the Ego, like other psychological drives, is appetitive — it’s always hungry, always seeking more. It’s an unremitting energy that is always there. Hence, quashing it is pointless and beyond our control. There’s no Ego-free Nirvana, you should just come as you are. Whether it’s a “good” thing or a “bad” depends on how and where we direct its energies.
[While we’re feeling musical, I’d like to give credit to Jack Noire of House of Light for helping letting these last ideas come in bloom]

So then the healthiest Ego isn’t one that is suppressed, but is put to use constructively, and (like EVERYTHING) in moderation. I’ll follow this up with a quick easy-read article on what an overblown Ego might look like and an interesting idea that might help you stay away from this scenario. A runaway Ego seems to be a symptom of some other failing in our mentality. And indeed Tolle’s prompts toward a cognitive reframing of our Ego can certainly help many of us.

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But it is important to also accept the Ego as an inseparable, ever-present feature of our lives. Kinda like a smart phone. You’ll never be without it, so just accept it’s there. But it’s important to be aware of where it’s limits of usefulness lie, beyond which it turns toward wasteful indulgence. For this, it might be useful to take a step back, and with an objective eye turnaround and watch what it is you’re doing. An exercise in mindful awareness. You might be quite unawares that your Ego, like your smrt fone, has hijacked your life a little too much.

 

Bonus Round: It wasn’t my original intention, but in this article I’ve put 12 references to Nirvana’s discography. 10 points to anyone who spots them all.

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About Me

Antzus,
a psychologist with itchy feet;
a traveller with an itchy mind.
And that’s just scratching the surface.

I’ve got a multicultural background and pursued an interdisciplinary education. So I explode with ideas trying to connect all the dots. Yet I’m surprisingly bad at pub trivia.

In all honesty, pinning all the ideas down into a one-liner was difficult. “Wandering Mindfullness” fits well enough.

To give something more concrete, I’ve landed in the wide-reaching field of psychology for this phase of my life. At the time of writing I’m even in my homeland.

This blog is for anyone looking to open their mind a little, to look inside the funny little workings behind the scenes.

It’s for anyone who’s travelled into new lands, noticed something unique, and wondered why “their” way seems so different. (Quick riddle: who’s foreign? You, they, or their way?).

Despite some deep, sometimes heavy topics, I aim to keep it entertaining. But feel free not to laugh —  I’m told my sense of humour is pretty weird.

Who I Want to Be – The Repeat Offender

[7 minute read]

Are you who people think you are? Are you even who YOU think you are? Or are you playing a role? Maybe acting out a characterisation of someone you want you or others to think you are?

This is my first post on a series about authenticity.

 

To a younger Antzus (that’s me! The author), drunkenness was largely a caricature – those silly red-nosed men on TV that can’t hold themselves up straight. Tsk tsk Captain Haddock, been drinking again have we? I’m sure my parents and older siblings had their moments, but drunkenness wasn’t something I was so well acquainted with.
Then, I went away to university…
Smoking is relatively unpopular in this country, but the other government-sanctioned drug has an impressive fanbase. Like almost all the other uni students around me, alcohol had found in me a new friend. But it was once of those weird friendships, which your mum disapproves of, and where this friend takes things too far, one too many times, and forces you to re-evaluate your relationship.

Back then I didn’t even know what a pschomology was, but some human behaviours presented themselves clearly enough, that I could make some observations.

 

#1) Getting drunk changes behaviours.

I’ll start with the obvious, so you at the end you see where we’ve come from. You’ve already made this observation as well. Talking to a drunken Alex is a different experience to talking to sober Alex.

 

#2) The amount and style of change varies.

This, too, is something you’d have already seen and noted. Not everyone reacts the same way to being drunk. One guy might get really annoying, the other might become really amusing. There is even variation within the individual. E.g. “Oh don’t let me drink rum. I get all aggressive on rum. I’ll just stick to whiskey.”

(Though, technically alcohol is alcohol. It’s the same chemical molecule, with the same effects on your body, whether distilled or brewed, mixed with cola or hops or soda-water. What can affect your behaviour is your expectation of what a particular alcohol (e.g. rum) does to you. The importance of this is explained more below).

 

#3) Getting drunk is often used as an excuse.

A mate of mine in undergrad, Ronny, became a stand-out example of this. Despite having a girlfriend (“back home” somewhere), he was quite a Cassanova. Whether or not Ronny was drunk for all his romantic escapades I cannot say, but in any case, his response the next day (for nothing could be kept secret very long in college) was always “oh, but I was drunk.” Let’s call this the OBIWD defence.

Ronny’s OBIWD became a bit of a cliché amongst us, but everyone in the college had their own variations (if we combine observations #2 and #3). After drinking, some tended to get angry and punchy, some got adventurous and took to creative vandalism, many become louder and talkative, some just turned plain weird. And of course many became flirtatious and sexually open like Ronny. Challenged the next day by friends — those familiar with their sober versions — their answer? OBIWD.

And the next week, they will do it all again.

 

#4) People WANT this change.

I don’t think Ronny was ever really interested in his girlfriend. Or at least, not during his college years; I’m not sure what happened to him. But the frequency of OBIWD suggests he wasn’t really disturbed by his dalliances.DSC05233-RotBricnt.jpg

If his drunken behaviour truly attacked his core value system, would he not at least take steps to change? Or to follow his OBIWD declaration with some plea for help or understanding? No, Ronny wants this drunken version of himself to come out.

What actually is this alternate personality that comes out under the influence of alcohol? For all appearances, it seemed to me that he willingness of people to transform themselves is an indication of a deep inner desire. Ronny, at least in part, preferred his drunken flirtatious self to his sober monogamous self.

 

#5) The characteristics that come out when I’m drunk is a display of the sort of person I want to be.

Or at least, an aspect of what one would want to be. Wait what? People want to be “that drunk guy”? Let’s pick on another college mate of mine to see what’s going on here.

Drunken Nathan likes to start silly antics in stolen shopping trolleys. Now, Nathan obviously doesn’t want his whole life to be a series of bruise-inducing antics. But Nathan does wish his life involved more of this reckless silliness. So what’s stopping him? Why does he only try ride trolleys into the air when he’s drunk, not when he’s sober?

There’s a perpetual, unavoidable conflict in Nathan’s life, and it runs deep. People already have an expectation of Nathan — he’s a sensible, level-headed kinda guy. Taking to regular sober trolley stunts will shatter the image people have of him as a man of sensical logic. This in turn brings a risk — that people around him, be they friends, family, colleagues, will change their relationship to him. They might even unfriend him from Facebook. Damn, how can Nathan live our this dream bursting our of his heart, to try against the odds to fly in a steel-wire shopping trolley???  …OBIWD.

 

#6)  These characteristics I desire are always there, even when sober.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at a party, drinking some potent cocktail. Sure enough, after an hour or so you everyone seems to be more excitable, more daring, more giggly. I guess we’re all tipsy? Only, you find out there next day the fruit punch you were drinking was alcohol-free.

Alcohol is a type of drug called a depressant. It “lowers” us, dampens things down. Our reactions times slow down (making driving dangerous), our minds aren’t quite as sharp, our speech and movements become sloppy (slurred speech; inability to walk in a straight line). It also tends to numb pain to an extent. For someone with a hurting psyche, this can be a dangerous relation. This “dampening” might seem to contradict the feeling some people have of “opening up” after some drinks. This is because a very large, important network of neurons are there just to inhibit other neurons. When a drunk person “lose inhibitions”, that means these neurons are dumbed-down. Your brain is rolling on, but you can only manage to push the throttle in half-way, and brakes also aren’t very responsive.

I used this realisation of #6 to re-evaluate my impressions of college mates (and rivals) around me. I knew that amicable Paddy, who periodically found himself brawling at 3am, harboured an inner anger when he was sober. As charming and chilled-out as he might be during the day, there was a facet in him that wanted, no, needed to lash-out violently. And that facet was always there.

The alcohol doesn’t create any new persona, it merely let’s down the walls so that an existing hidden part of one’s personality may come to the fore. This is an important distinction, because it means what you see as drunken behaviour is actually a small window to an otherwise hidden part of one’s true identity.

The party people of ancient greece knew this too. They have a wonderful little phrase for it – “in vino veritas”; in wine, truth. If you care to take a quick look at the wikipedia entry, you’ll see equivalent phrases in a number of different cultures.

Ok so I’m not so very clever or original in making these 5 points of observation. I’m late to the Bacchic party.

 

Oh yea thanks Antzus, so now you’re telling me I’m living a lie that comes out in brain damage on Saturdays, that I confess to Sunday morning as OBIWD? Is there any fun left in weekends after reading this article?

I made these #5 observations as a 19 year old undergrad trying to make sense of the world around me. But these observations were reaffirmed over a decade later and after a 6 year sequence of studies in professional psychology. In treating clients with substance abuse behaviours (e.g. alcoholism), it was important to look at what drove this person to drink (or smoke, snort, inject, vape, etc). He wasn’t born that way. And my supervisor pointed out my #5th observation – the sort of characteristics on display when drunk give an important clue as to what it is this person is chasing, or running away from, the DRIVING FORCE that compels him to bring out this drunken personality time and again.

The good news is that your hidden persona that OBIWD covers up for is not a life-sentence. People can, and have, reconciled themselves with this person they want to be (#5). For many, this is a difficult and slow change to make, requiring alterations in many aspects of lifestyle. It is often like taking 3 steps forward, 2 steps back.

Finally, all these passive observations led me a hypothesis which I could apply more actively, by looking into, and at myself. It is something I use as a reality-check on myself, a measuring stick to see if I’m keeping it real, or if I slipped into a role that distances myself from who I truly need to be.

The smaller the difference between my drunken and sober personality, the more authentic and true-to-self I am.

 

This one article is, of course, in no way a complete program of drug rehabilitation. The intention of this article was to prompt you, Dear Readers, to expand your understanding of yourselves and the world around you, like it did for me many years ago. Perhaps you’re living with someone who seems to consume a bit too heavily. Perhaps you shocked or shamed yourself last time at the bar with the sort of personality that came out on display. Or maybe you haven’t even had a drink in years, but can see a connection between the OBIWD-behaviour and some nagging uneasiness in the back of your mind, holding you back for so long you’ve forgotten it’s there.

What sort of person were you, to have later said “oh, but I was drunk”?

Our Invisible World on Display

 

There was a young woman who’d recently married. Following long-standing traditions, she happily threw herself into domestic affairs, creating a loving and comfortable little palace for her husband to come home to after work. In the course of settling into this new life, this rite of passage into womanhood, she decided to bake her husband a pot roast – a dish she enjoyed since childhood, and whose recipe she recently learnt from her mother.
She mixed the seasoning, dressed the roast, sliced off both ends, and set it in the pot. Savouring the first few mouthfuls, the husband pressed her on how she made it. One question struck her – why did she chop off both the ends? She could not answer why.
A few weeks later the woman was visiting her mother, reporting details of her new home and marriage. It occurred to her to relay the question: “Mum, I made the roast like you showed me, for Thomas. He asked me why I cut off the ends of the roast before baking it, but I wasn’t sure. Why do you do that?”. Her mother, too, could find no answer for this.
For Christmas the families got together. The newlyweds, the woman’s mother, and her mother’s mother were all there. The woman took the chance to ask her grandmother the same question.
“Chopping off the ends of the roast? Oh, that’s just because the pot I had was too small!”

We have all grown up with culture and inevitably internalised the culture – made it part of who we are in our everyday lives. When we hear “culture”, our minds tend to jump toward exotic lands, and bizarre clothing and initiation rituals. But culture manifests in the smallest and most banal of practices in the quotidian life of you and I – What sports do the guys at work discuss? Do you use toilet-paper? How many metres away are “walking distance” shops? And our cultural tendencies are inescapable. Even if you like to think you’re the most objective thinker in the world, chances are you still tend use some quaint phrases favoured by your dad, or have similar music preferences as your sister, etc, etc. These have been repeated so often, and from such an early stage, that they’re no longer just a part of the environment “out there”, but have become an inalienable part our identity. We carry the culture in us, when we go somewhere. As such, they’re not a product of conscious effort, but are automated – it requires no mental exertion to display our culture (e.g. we don’t have to actively think “what was it that dad always said?” – we just say it). If anything, effort is likely required to suppress or alter them.

There are other automated thought processes busy at work in our lives. Chances are you’ve heard of the term “cognitive bias“, or “cognitive distortions“. Confirmation bias and loss aversion are perhaps two more better-known ones. They’re generally posited as something undesirable; a little lie-whispering demon in my head that led me to buy a Lamborghini before I have my driving licences; a mental lock-down blotting out the infallible facts laid out by my friend explaining global warming to me.
These cognitive distortions are there for a reason; they are not in themselves “bad”. The person we are today has evolved in such a way not merely through capricious Luck, but through an immense chain of cause and effect. Cognitive distortions are also borne of some self-serving function, though in today’s modern complexity of interactions they may at times go astray.
There’s a few sources that try to be helpful with 7-point-lists of how to combat the cognitive distortion of choice. At the end of the day it all boils down to being aware of it. Because they’re automated, cognitive distortions are generally invisible to us. But this doesn’t have to be the case – we can direct our attention toward them and, in doing so, summon them to order. I’ll probably post more on this later.

One last type of automated process I’ll mention is something that doesn’t need much explaining here – habits. Just like culture and cognitive biases, habits can work in our favour, or against us. If they serve our goals, we call them “good habits”; if it’s something we’d rather not have, at least when we consider them from the subsequent hangover, we term them “bad”.

When I was researching my honours project I was astonished to find that what many people call “memory” is in fact an entire tree of various types of remembering. “Implicit memory” is one such branch of memory, where things are learnt without us even realising it. Many of our habits and components of our culture are learnt in such a way. Our implicit memories, and all these automated processes (and I wish I could ascribe this a less ungainly term), are part of what Sigmund Freud called das Unterbewusstsein – the Subconscious. The Subconscious is our mind’s most powerful force of nature – it drives us far more than anything our willpower or our conscious effort might do. If it comes down to a war between will and our automated process, you better not bet on the horse named Will. Indomitable as the Subconscious may be, the automated processes do not necessarily have unfettered reign over our lives.

We tend to be more aware of our habits than of our culture, because we’re able to make comparisons between individuals (“would you like smoking or non-smoking?”), whereas “my” culture is all around me (“do you want to leave your newborn son alone in the hills for a week, or stay with him in the maternity ward first?”). However, sometimes in travelling people are hit by “culture shock”, when they run into a culture vastly different to what they were expecting. The shock inevitably wears off, but it imbues the traveller with invaluable knowledge. Seeing an alternative way of doing things holds up a mirror to ourselves. The ability to compare affords us a greater objectivity, to take a small step out of our bubble, and a chance to scrutinise our automated processes. Necessarily, this comparison also puts the question to us: is it better? Worse? Do I like the way they do it more than the way we do it? Should I change accordingly? Is there a third, fourth, one-thousand-and-fiftieth way of doing this instead? Is there a optimum middle-ground between our way and their’s?

Such profound and confronting questions might not pop up on your booze-cruise, 10-cities-in-10-days Europarty tour. It takes a certain sensitivity and depth of experience for the cultural mirror to come out and to see a new picture. But something I’ve always enjoyed about travel is to have that mirror shoved in my face, to have these questions put back on to me. If possible, I like to immerse into the host culture. Yes, it can be confronting, and may cause me to question the sanity of my host for a moment, and leave me screaming in my head to flee back into my comfort zone. But I live through it and am rewarded with insight.

Mirror-fatWhilst this social comparison isn’t the only way to address your automated processes, it is perhaps the most effective and unapologetic way to force a look at ourselves; into ourselves. My western upbringing might say it’s ironic, that it takes the presence of others for me to see myself. For those familiar with the Batswana philosophy of Ubuntu (tip: NOT the operating system!), this is perhaps already obvious; or as someone who was skateboarding in 90s USA might say: “Tcha… DUH!”

What I’d like to offer you, my dear intrepid blogonauts, is a few glimpses into the mirror. I daresay everyone here has a habit or two they’d like changed. Perhaps you were hoping that 7-point-list of life-hacking your cognitive bias had a life-shattering 8th point. Are there any other automated processes that could be improved? I’m not about to tell you what to do, I’ll merely nudge you hold that mirror up to yourself. What secret world are you living in plain sight for all to see?

Questions, coherent rants, and snarky remarks are all welcome below.

Our Journey Begins

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.

— Izaak Walton

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This blog offers you a portal into the wandering mind of Antzus –
a psychologist with itchy feet;
a traveller with an itchy mind.

 

The musty, cavernous halls of psychology faculties have given me incredible academic insight into the nature of being human. But it is the colourful vibrancy and quaintness of various cultures I’ve encountered that has shown, and still is showing me, the humanness of who we are.

For half a lifetime I’ve kept these thoughts and perspectives private between me and my notekeeping, occasionally coming out in short-lived dialogue. I now offer these online to inspire and agitate people around the world.

 

Feathers will be ruffled, waters will be stilled, inner lights shall be sighted.
But none of us can ever pretend to know for sure.

 

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