June 2022 – Cherishing Our Own Bafflement
Following on from last month, this month’s article looks at something underneath the “culture wars”, and regular wars, of recent times, the violent clash of beliefs without communication. I’m looking here at the essential reason why there’s a refusal to entertain (“to receive someone as a guest”) the worldviews of others that give rise to their beliefs. It’s not due to confusion, or if it is, it’s a strategic confusion.
May these difficult times be met with heartfulness, companionship, appropriate combat (as necessary), wisdom, and more than anything, the willingness and resources to practice growth.
Cherishing Our Own Bafflement
Our stubborn clinging to bafflement.
The Zen teacher, Adyashanti, described a practice in which, when encountering our own confusion, misunderstanding, or bafflement about another’s perspective, we ask ourselves, “From what perspective would their view make total sense?” Try this on right now: pick something obviously stupid that a friend/partner/colleague/boss/politician said, and see if you can crawl into their worldview.
So, if you actually did pause just there, you probably quickly saw it’s more difficult than it might seem. Or you may have not paused and thought that you would come back to it. Or you might have reacted with something like, “That person does not deserve my understanding!” Or you might have recognized, woof, that’s not easy, which would be, for most of us, pretty spot on.
This difficulty is not usually an inability, but a reaction and rejection, an unwillingness to take in the other’s perspective. On the aggressive end of unwillingness, this rejection sounds like judgement and negation: “That is the most asinine view ever!” In the middle it’s a cerebral dismissal: “I understand what you’re saying, it’s just wrong.” And on the passive end it sounds like: “It just baffles me why you would think that.”
Why is this so difficult to do this, to take on another’s perspective? To, regardless of our assessment of their opinion, deeply understand the worldview which would generate that opinion?
I think the key to this is understanding that when we’re saying some version of “I can’t believe…”, we’re actually saying, “I won’t understand…” (see here for an earlier article on this subject). But, given that actually understanding the worldview of the other would help us in multitudinous ways (empathy, better arguments, ability to respond more specifically, etc.), why then won’t we?
We humans tend to think that beliefs are things that we have, confusing them with knowledge or data. Beliefs, especially the deep ones, are things we are. Beliefs organize our sense of ourselves, of our place in the world, of how we are supposed to orient to and navigate through the larger world, social and physical. They answer the question, “What is real?”, without which we are disoriented and confused. For our basic fight-or-flight, safety brain circuitry, this is itself registered as dangerous. If you don’t know what reality is, then you don’t know how exactly to get your needs met, in all sorts of ways. Nor, equally disastrous, do you know what the reality of your self is. You don’t know if you’re good or bad, or how to measure “goodness” and “badness”, a calamity since we have to exist in a society which controls resources (food, money, relationships) that we need to survive, and that distributes them to the “good” people and not the ”bad”.
Thus, no beliefs equals: no map of reality, equals: no way to navigate the physical and social worlds, equals: a short, unhappy life.
So, our beliefs are a major part of what helps us feel we can survive, and therefore suppress a basic, amygdala-driven survival anxiety. That which threatens our beliefs with negation, or shakiness, is felt in our brain stem as a threat equal to a lion traipsing into our dining room. Beliefs, at that level, are a threat response to danger.
Hence, when we won’t take in another’s worldview to understand clearly what sense and construction of a world it would take to generate their opinion, that’s essentially the same as barricading out that lion. I.e., that’s a threat response, not a problem with understanding. We don’t take in the other’s worldview when our own feels too small to make room for the other without shattering. So, we tighten, reject, and push away, whether with light bafflement, or a canon.
This has some pretty obvious relevance to current events. Played out across the world, in Ukraine, in countries lurching towards authoritarianism, in the U.S.’s “culture wars”, this refusal to understand each other appears to be particularly inflamed these days. But at a mundane, day-to-day level, this is what we humans are doing all the time, in our micro-lives, and micro-interactions. The clash of beliefs is not bound to any particular macro or micro level of human interactions; it’s there as much in geo- and national politics as fights about the dishes.
I won’t go into the connection with depression here (see the previously linked article above), but the relationship is pretty strong, as a generator of a basic sense of defensiveness and cutoff-ness, which stifles growth and connection (both rich fertilizer for depression). However, what Adyashanti suggested as a practice is a rich and challenging growth tool. You probably are not in a position to shift contemporary culture or politics, but you can genuinely influence your immediate surroundings by practicing opening your own worldview, working through your resistances, in order to prove to yourself and others that the World is not always throwing lions your way, and that the other is not a lion. Doing this offers some small counterbalance to the reactive, violent, and terrified rejection of others that is playing out globally, and routinely plays out in our own selves.