We are here to learn to take responsibility for the contents of our conscious minds, and to have fun in the process. Since this is an outgrowth of a quality that is intrinsic to our very being, it is completely authentic.
However, there are no maps or owners manuals, because we are each unique individuals, and no one has ever undertaken precisely the same quest before. This creates the need for a method of guidance to help us know whether we are moving closer to our ideal and authentic self, or farther away from it. To do this we use pleasure and pain as our feedback mechanism, to tell ourselves when we are getting warmer or colder. This means that we naturally desire to seek pleasure and to avoid pain.
To help us make decisions that will result in the greatest pleasure with the least pain, we use another of our remarkable capacities: abstract thought. This ability allows us to form in our minds models of reality. These are abstract, strictly mental constructs that are created to emulate reality. When we are born, we have no model for how shoelaces are tied. We have to learn that. But before we can learn how to tie shoes, we have to learn a lot of other things–how to move our fingers, how to coordinate our movements using our eyes, and much, much more.
When we have learned all the things needed to take on shoelace tying, we are ready to learn to tie our own shoes. Someone shows us how its done, and we practice it until it becomes automatic. Adults never have to think about how to tie their shoes. They just do it. Why? Because what we call learning is really just the process of adding a new set of models to our inventory. In this case, the shoe-tying model. Once that is done, when it comes time to tie shoelaces, we just turn the operation over to the model, and we are free to think about something else.
We create models for a great many facets of life. And most of them serve us well. But sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we create models that are flawed. These, unfortunately, fail to predict reality correctly some, or even all of the time. To understand this, we must look at the blueprints from which our models are constructed.
The raw material of our models is our beliefs. Once we have established a belief about something, we can use that belief as a component of models. A belief is simply a thought whose truth and validity we no longer question. We normally don’t even call these beliefs (though they really are): we call them facts instead. For humans, beliefs serve much the same purpose that instincts do for other creatures. The difference is that instincts are biologically based and cannot be easily changed, whereas beliefs are made of pure thought, and can be changed simply by withdrawing our support of them. More on that later.
So when we set about creating a new model for something we encounter in life, we go to our inventory of beliefs, often called a belief system, and pick those that seem most pertinent. We then assemble them and voila! We have a new model. But what if one or more of our beliefs are untrue? What if we have accepted an idea about reality, or about ourselves, that is erroneous? The effect is that any model that relies on that belief will malfunction. It may just be an annoying glitch now and then, or it may be a catastrophic failure every time, or anything in between.
Now you would think that if a sane and reasonably intelligent person created a model that performed incorrectly, they would immediately take a close look at the beliefs it is based on, and take corrective action. And they would. But what if they are not entirely sane? To explain what I mean by that, consider the following:
It isn’t what we don’t know that makes us fools; it’s what we do know that isn’t so.
In this context, I will use fool and insane interchangeably. So when you believe that something is true that isn’t, you have set yourself up for trouble. But since most of our beliefs are not considered as beliefs, but rather as facts about reality, when we go looking for problems we don’t consider them. Ordinarily.
When former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspans appeared before a congressional committee in 2008, to explain how the banking industry got so far out of whack as to cause a global financial disaster, the answer he gave was most illustrative. He said that he had known bankers for his entire adult life and that he had convinced himself that he knew who they were, and how they thought and operated. But it had now become clear to him that he was wrong about them. He said, “I had built a model of bankers, and my model had worked flawlessly for over 25 years. But now I see for the first time that it was seriously flawed.”
His failed model allowed a catastrophic situation to emerge slowly over many years without his recognizing it until it was far too late. You could see that this had left a mark on his trust of his own ability to create models that were trustworthy. Put differently, he began to wonder, ”How many other models have I created and taken as reliable that aren’t, and am I going to learn about their flaws in equally unpleasant ways?”
Most of our beliefs are of a rather superficial nature, like which is the better automobile or soda brand or vacation destination. But many are far more basic, and therefore important. Among the most fundamental beliefs we all have relate to questions like these:
Is the Universe a safe place to live?
Are human beings essentially good or evil?
Was the Universe created by God?
Did the Universe evolve by random chance?
Does each individual create their own private Universe at every moment?
The list goes on and on, but you can see from these examples that beliefs at this level affect everything in one’s life, and form the basis for the rest of our belief system. They are the foundations upon which we base our entire experience of being alive. Their importance cannot be overstated.
And if we choose to embrace beliefs at this level that are flawed, even a little, the effects on the rest of our beliefs, and eventually on our models, can be unfortunate indeed. To illustrate this, let me tell you about a psychological experiment that was conducted near the middle of the 20th Century.
In my Psych 101 class, our textbook contained an account of a learning experiment conducted with rats. The setting consisted of a pedestal on which a hungry rat was placed, and a vertical partition a foot or so away. Two windows were cut into the partition. Inside each window was a box with a tray of food in it, and the openings of the windows were covered by a sliding glass barrier. The barriers could be opened and closed from behind the partition.
The experiment was designed to see how well the rats could learn to jump to the window that was open to get their reward. When one window was always open, and the other always closed, the rat quickly learned which one to jump to. When the windows were opened alternatively, every other time, the rat learned that pattern too. Eventually, the rat could successfully learn many fairly complex patterns of the windows’ openings and closings. But then they did something different.
They opened and closed the windows by random chance. There was no pattern to be learned. The task was impossible. But the rats tried to figure it out anyway, jumping from one window to the other. Sometimes they would get fed, and sometimes they would bump their nose and fall to the floor. But since there was no pattern to learn, they were unable to find a way to succeed every time. And that is where something very interesting occurred.
After trying unsuccessfully for quite a while, the rats would fixate on one of the windows and jump to it all the time, never trying the other one again. This way they got fed roughly half the time. Actually, it was a fairly smart adaptation.
But then the experimenters went one step further. They closed the window the rat had become fixated on and left the other window open all the time. But the rat continued to jump to the now-closed window they had fixated on, and never again tried the other one, despite the fact that they no longer got any reinforcement at all, just a bumped nose and a drop to the floor.
In the many intervening years, I have observed that people behave very much like the rats when confronted with an insoluble problem They do their best to figure it out. Then they walk away if they can. But if they can’t walk away, if they have to make a choice, they fixate on one alternative and choose it all the time, never testing any other possibilities again. This remains true even when their choice brings them nothing but failure over and over again.
The key here is the insolubility of the problem. People tire of trying to figure out something that, to them at least, appears to be random and utterly unpredictable. If they can, they will avoid it altogether. If they can’t avoid it, they just settle on one choice that (they believe) will reward them at least some of the time, and never vary from that behavior.
Going back to models now, nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in failed mental models. When we build modes on erroneous beliefs, they are bound to fail. We try to figure out what’s wrong, but since we do so using the same flawed beliefs that created the problem, we don’t get anywhere. Eventually, we just give up and settle on one way of doing things and never look back, even when that way never gives us what we really want!
The only way out of this predicament is to assume that there is a solution and that the reason you have not found it is that you have one or more beliefs that are faulty. The only thing to do is to find those beliefs and correct them. Then everything changes. Either the solution is immediately clear, or it can be figured out with a little experimentation. Unfortunately, few people ever learn to question their most basic beliefs (you know, the ones labeled as facts). In actuality, they will more likely defend them to the death and often do so quite literally.
So what are the most commonly held beliefs that fail us? How did they get that way? What should they be replaced with? And how can we go about doing exactly that? Read on for answers.
The Way It Really Is
Time, as it is ordinarily perceived, simply doesn’t exist except as an idea. The fundamental reality is that each individual has one moment, the present, in which all of their conscious experience exists. To be more precise, it is a moment point. If you ever studied geometry, you will remember that in geometry a point is defined as a location that has no dimensions; neither height, nor width, nor depth. It is so small that it simply has no size at all. The moment point we call Now is just like that. It has no size, or in the case of time, no duration.
By now you are probably asking yourself how that can be because your experience seems to negate that assertion. And you’re right. Our experience does seem to deny the possibility. But it is an illusion. While it is not done with smoke and mirrors, other means are used to trick us. More on that momentarily. First, we need to take a look at what goes on in our moment point of Now.
The Now is composed of three stories: The Past Story, The Future Story, and The Present Story. These can be described as follows:
The Past Story is our answer to the question, “How did you get here?”
The Future Story is our answer to the question, “What happens next?”
And The Present Story is our answer to the question, ”What going on right now?”
The important thing to recognize is that these stories exist only in the present moment, and only as thoughts in our minds. Oh, you think the past has some other kind of reality? Try to prove it.
So you produce a history book. But all that proves is that there is this book (in the present) that has words about something it calls the past. Thats not proof of anything but the existence of the book. Ditto for the photographs, and videos and CDs and anything else you can produce.
If one really looks at the past we all pretend is real, it quickly becomes obvious that it is an indefensible idea. For example, how do you answer this question: What happens to the present when it becomes the past? Does it drop into some cosmic void and cease to exist? Does it disappear by slipping into another dimension? And if so, is it frozen there as we last saw it, or does it continue to evolve on its own? What’s your answer? Can it really stand close inspection?
What is absolutely certain, however, is that virtually all of us have a past story that we hold to be rock solid, so much so in fact, that most of us consider it as real as the present, and sometimes more so. Yet it exists only as a thought, and that thought exists only in the present moment point.
The future is quite similar, except that it is imagined instead of remembered. Where does it come from? What is it’s reality? The simple truth, for anyone who can be bothered to look closely at it, is that the future is just a story we tell ourselves as to what our next experience in the present will contain. Or if not our very next, then the one after that, or after that, or .eventually.
But in the end, we are left with the same conclusion as with the past: the future exists only as a thought, and that thought exists only in the present.
The present is not as different from the past and future as you might think. We experience the present in three ways: through our physical sensations, through our thoughts, and through our emotions and intuitions. Of these, the physical senses seem most concrete and incontrovertible. Yet we have to ask ourselves this: if my senses were creating sensations rather than reporting their interaction with external physical objects, how could we tell the difference? The answer is simple. We couldn’t. Since our physical sensations are the only link we have with the objective universe, we just kind of have to take their word for it. If they’re lying to is, we have no way of knowing it.
And even our sensed reality is not what really matters to us. It is our interpretation of it that is paramount. We don’t deal with raw sense data. We deal with how we perceive, evaluate, judge, and experience it.
So our present reality is composed of thoughts, feelings, and our interpretations of sense data. You must admit that this is quite a different picture than is usually assumed. Yet it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to really justify any other view. It is all thoughts that occur in the present moment in the mind of the individual. Everything else is fiction, pure and simple.
And, since none of us can think exactly the same thoughts, by definition we cannot share precisely the same stories about the past or future. For that matter, we can’t even agree entirely on our present stories, either.
But the impression we all have is that we move through time like we drive down a street and that even our present moment is a huge phenomenon populated with more detail that we can usually comprehend fully. And it is all done with the three stories just described. The impression of spaciousness that this arrangement creates is why I use the term spacious present rather than just the present. The congregate sensation is one of vast spaciousness in both time and space. And even though it is not strictly speaking so, the illusion is so overwhelming and convincing that it deserves a special term. Dont you think?
Now that we have laid down a foundation, we can begin to explore some of the interesting consequences of this new scheme. Here are just a few of them.
First and foremost, the objective physical universe that we all are presumed to share doesn’t exist, at least not as usually assumed. Instead, we each have our own private universe. This is the one that your senses, and only yours, inform you of. Every person has their own, and since it really only exists in the privacy of their own mind, they are like gods in that universe. A simple change of thought changes everything.
Now before you start crying “Heresy!!” at the top of your lungs, let me clarify a few things. I know what you’re thinking, ”But we all agree that the sky is up, the Earth down, and hot is hot and cold is …” I know, I know. But what you need to understand is that the reason it seems to be that way is just as you said: we all agree. So what is actually happening here is this.
We can create the illusion that we are living in the same universe by virtue of our agreement on its contents and nature. What we agree on, we can pretend to share. What we do not agree on, we cannot share. Remember what the prevailing worldview prior to 1492 was? Right. Flat as a pancake. Then it all changed, though not necessarily right away. And oh yes, that is part of our agreed upon and therefore shared history.
It is only because of our voluntary agreements that we can create the illusion of an objective universe that would exist with or without our presence. The same applies to every facet of shared human experience. The rule is very simple:
What we agree upon, we can pretend to share.
And that, as the man said, is the name of that tune.