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We Are Not Our Thoughts
A disgusting image—the sight of a cockroach, the word “vomit”— will put you off your food. That’s priming and
everyone knows about it. There are strange and subtle priming effects,
though. If images of money are accidentally present (even subliminally)
during a task, a person is less likely ask for help or to give help to
others. There are many examples of priming, often hard to believe but
true. One conclusion is this: what we think we are, we are not. What I
think of as myself is enormously more a feature of the environment than I
would suppose. The elevator speech about what we are goes like this:
“We are actually a collection of devices—priming and endowment effects and plausible stories.”
Enlightenment and the Loss of the Expected
of Kahneman’s most charming features is that he likes to be surprised,
to have his ideas disconfirmed. This is encouraging as well as
endearing, since surprises are the core of learning. A day when you
expect to be unhappy but your expectation isn’t met is a nice surprise. A
moment of clarity during a hard day at work is a surprise. Happiness is
a shocking failure of the expected.
inner dialogue of surprise can go like this: “I was thinking something
and then I realized it wasn’t true.” Or, “I am not who I thought I was
but something larger.” And that is a good discovery. So such a moment is
a little dance step out of the pain of life, a miniature enlightenment:
I was believing something and then I stopped.
wait: there is a problem well known to meditators and to everyone who
has had a vacation—we have an experience of freedom and though we say we
won’t, we forget. We step back into a subtle confinement. Someone walks
out of a meditation retreat full of joy and then starts worrying, as if
worry were as necessary as happiness. Why do we do this?
answer is loss aversion. It’s my red window again: potential losses
loom larger in the mind than gains. He sees two kinds of thinking, two
interior personalities. One is quick and full of assumptions, the other
ponderous and analytic. The first enables you to catch a tennis ball
without thought the way a dog does, but also to go with your gut feeling
that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction when it doesn’t. This way of
thinking just blindly avoids loss without assessing the issue. The
second, slower way of thinking comes into play whenever we are confused,
laboring to think our way through the problem.
What Meditation Practice Offers
is another possibility. Perhaps you don’t have to go with your gut, or
lumber along and ponder. Instead, you step for a moment out of your
biases. “First thought, best thought,” Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to
say—we can just go ahead in spite of our fear of loss.
freedom means letting things go, what might you have to give up? Your
belief that you are small or no good. Your favorite pair of worn out
shoes. Your knowledge about what’s going to happen to you. Your precious
golden ring that makes you invisible but will destroy you if you don’t
destroy it. The thought that your suffering tells you who you are. Your
favorite color. Your judgments about yourself.
Buddhist idea is that if you catch the bias of delusion, you can reset
the mind. You might be driving over a bridge and suddenly the sight of
the bay and all that water opens a vastness in your mind. Kahneman shows
no evidence of being interested in such openings, but his inquiry
encourages them. Meditation is built to defeat inner bias and to make us
susceptible to such resetting.
is a vast inertia in the fear of losing things. Maybe the greatest
achievement is to throw away something small, like the thought “I have
already made up my mind about what is possible.” In meditation, it’s not
such a great effort to get from one thought to the next or from one way
of being to the next. Ideas about how the world is constructed start to
slip away. It’s not hard to step out of your idea of you. And perhaps
you don’t need to shop for a better version.
deep meditation the devices come apart and we don’t mind one little
bit. And when we put the world back together, after we have been free,
events don’t exist in the same way—the glue doesn’t hold, the habits are
slow to return. The world is refreshed after you have meditated. In the
end, deconstruction might lead to joy.
gives the reader quite a ride. It’s exhilarating and humbling to see
the science behind his work, the reality of the limitations of our
beautiful minds. It’s refreshing too to be surprised and to recognize,
“Yes, my mind is like that.” To see our limits is to begin to see
through them and Kahneman’s humility turns out to be compassionate. It’s
worth the ticket price.
John Tarrant, Roshi is director of the Pacific Zen Institute and author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life.