Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.

What’s wrong with being wrong?

egoI feel like most of the suffering that we as humans create for ourselves originates with just a few misguided behavioral tendencies that become reinforced by society until they solidify into norms that lead us astray from our true fundamental selves. One of those tendencies is the habit of refusing to admit when we are wrong about something; i.e., our tendency to protect our worldview through defensiveness and refusal to accept new information/evidence that is presented before us as ‘truth’.

If we as individuals, as well as society as a whole, were better able to (or perhaps better encouraged to) admit when we are wrong about something and be open to other possibilities, we would subject ourselves to a significantly lower amount of suffering and delusion. The field of science, while far from an error or value free existence, is one of the few professions that appears to encourage a trial and error approach in which errors and mistakes are considered a valuable component of moving closer to the ultimate truth. When you are trained as a scientist, you prepare yourself for being wrong (or at least only partially right), for making mistakes, and for starting from scratch again and again. In fact, the scientific process thrives on this iterative approach in which incremental successes are built of a delicate play between errors and discoveries, until a clearer and more accurate picture of our world is slowly constructed across the eons.

Unfortunately, in most other professions (and societal roles), admitting that you are wrong is often considered weak or shameful–whether it be in the realm of law, politics, law enforcement, or even teaching, where admitting that you were wrong about something is typically perceived as losing face and credibility. Even as a parent, admitting wrongness to your children may feel like you are undermining your own authority and ability to garner respect. It’s quite sad really–most leadership positions require at least the appearance of unquestioning faith and confidence, even though most of us are fumbling about in this world looking for half-hidden answers. When you attempt to perform a task or gain understanding and are genuinely wrong, admitting your mistake should be considered noble and honest, not weak or wavering. It should be a sign of a thoughtful, critical, and scrutinizing individual.

We are all continuously re-writing our realities, coming to terms with who we think we are and how we engage the external world. Nothing is constant, so why must we pretend that our perceptions are so unwavering? Perhaps it is just an extension of our brain’s ability to filter out all ‘unnecessary’ information, to shield us from information overload. Maybe we shield ourselves from the many other possible ‘truths’ and ‘rights’ that don’t fit our personal worldviews or paradigms in fear that this openness would overload our sense of self, doing away with the Ego for good. It’s a legitimate fear—we spend our whole lives building up a sense of self, so the threat of losing it does seem great indeed. But maintaining that persona comes at great pain and often violence or emotional suffering not only for ourselves, but for others we subject to it.

Sometimes, I feel like we would all benefit from letting go of our sense of selves, at least temporarily, a bit each day. This is, really, the point of meditation, isn’t it? To let go of our ego, our ‘personality’, that is not the true US, just the caricature we have built up over the years to try to protect our underlying selves from pain and embarrassment (which, ironically, tends to open us up to even MORE suffering!). I wish we could all be better encouraged to lower our shields and respect each other for who we truly are, and to realize that everyone is valid, everyone makes mistakes, and that all paths may ultimately lead to the same place. Those that are misguided have become so lost in their solidified personalities, trying to protect themselves from being torn down, that they lash out at others, sometimes entire groups of people, causing great pain, only because they are crumbling inside.

I guess that the ultimate remedy for all of this defensiveness is compassion. Compassion allows people to let down their guard, to realize that their likes and dislikes, their understanding of science and religion, or their struggle for meaning in life, is all part of one giant puzzle–they fit together with everyone else, and we are constantly rearranging that puzzle in an attempt to ‘solve’ it, when in reality it is what we make of it! All the puzzle pieces are really just fractals of one giant ‘reality’, universe, existence, or whatever you want to call it.

If we could only admit that we are all ‘wrong’ sometimes (in that our perception is inevitably limited and as new information is introduced it is normal to evolve and negotiate new relationships with the world), we would be a giant step closer to the world that I think almost all of us imagines would be a ‘better’ place to live.

world hands

Food for Thought: A contemplation on ‘self’

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 9.11.26 PM

This is another from the vaults–a 4 part blog series in which I contemplate what determines our sense of ‘self’, and how our internal and external perceptions influence that self.

*****************************************************************************************************************

Now, beshrew my father’s ambition!
He was thinking of civil wars
when he got me: therefore was I created with a
stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when
I come to woo ladies, I frighten them.
-William Shakespeare, Henry V Act V scene 2

What makes us who we are? I mean, I know in genetic terms why my eyes are green and my skin is annoyingly pale and prone to freckle. But why am I an introvert rather than an extrovert, or have a passion for environmental conservation rather than for playing the stock market? Why do I prefer the color purple over yellow?

Are we each nothing more than the definitive sum of a series of genetic expressions? Perhaps we are simply the biological end-products of the chemical components in the minerals and nutrients we must daily consume—i.e., we are what we eat. Or is our sense of self shaped through our interactions with others; the influence of parents, acceptance or rejection by peers, pressures of society; our interpretation of these interactions weaving together a subconscious tapestry of beliefs and emotions that blanket us in self awareness? Or, if I were to believe the theory of many enlightened spiritual thinkers, then I would have to consider that our true ‘selves’ are not any of these things, but rather that our minds and bodies are mere abstractions (or distractions, as the case may be) of an underlying core that is our essential ‘Being’. At the level of ‘Being’, none of us can be individualized into separate and distinct bodies. Rather, all sentient “beings” are connected by one consciousness, like countless rays of light (some brighter than others, granted) emanating from a single, universal sun.

As it happens, I have read several books recently that touch on various aspects of these possibilities, from scientific theories of gene expression and investigations into the lamentable modern diet, to evidence that our thoughts and attitudes influence our physical health, and studies on the positive impact that meditation can have within ourselves and society as a whole. Interestingly, the ideas expressed in each of these books complement each other, and taken together create a holistic approach to understanding who we are, why we are here, and how we can improve both our own physical and mental health, and the health of the environment.

In my next few posts I thought I’d explore some of the themes expressed in these books that I’ve found relevant, and how they relate to each other. Perhaps some of these ideas will grasp your interest as well, especially if you are like me and wish to cultivate more balance in your life while reducing the need for harmful prescribed medications, or industrially produced preservative-filled ‘food’ and ‘nutritional supplements’. At any rate, consider the following reflections and excerpts as “food for thought”, which may yet be more nourishing than the microwavable organic TV dinner from Whole Foods waiting conveniently in the freezer.