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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

One 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.

The 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.

But 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?

Kahneman’s 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

There 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.

If 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.

The 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.

There 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.

In 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.

Kahneman 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.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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