Life is Neutral
Let us make a little experiment. You will need pen and paper, and may wish to invite the people around you to participate as well. When you are through reading this paragraph, take a close look at the picture of the clock above. Watch it for 60 seconds and then look away from the image and follow the instructions that appear after the image.
Now, take a few minutes to draw the clock you have just watched. Include in your drawing every detail you remember.
When you are through, go back to the original picture. Are there any significant differences between your drawing and the original picture? This little experiment was part of a study that was based on the fact that in clocks with roman numerals, the digit 4 is replaced by IIII and not by IV, its conventional representation. Although we have all seen many clock faces with 4 represented as IIII, most of us would represent 4 by IV immediately after having watched closely the face of the clock. In this study, 66% of the participants who were asked to memorise the clock made that mistake.
The results of this experiment are explained by the psychological schema theory, which maintains that previous knowledge has an important role in shaping the data our memory is taking in. All our knowledge, such as knowledge related to people, events, objects, situations, etc., is organised in our brain in packets of information or schemas. Schema theory contends that the schemas existing in the mind enter into action when we try to recall information, and take over our memory processes. In the clock experiment, for example, our inability to recall the IIII correctly is explained by the schema theory. In reconstructing the information, we do not refer exclusively to the mental image of the clock. Instead, we are likely to fill the gaps with any available schematic knowledge. In this case, the digit 4 is represented by IV in our schematic knowledge. This schematic knowledge is so powerful that it overrides the actual image of the clock. What we actually do is use our past experience and knowledge to restructure our memories. In psychology, this is defined as "reconstructive memory": An active mental process where the information being recalled combines with previous knowledge and experiences. This is an inadvertent process that results in a distorted memory of whatever has happened. A classic psychology experiment carried out by Bartlett as part of his study of reconstructive memory provided a good example of this phenomenon. Bartlett presented the participants of his experiment, all white Americans, with a series of drawings, paintings, and poems. After several days, weeks, months, and even years, he asked them to reproduce the materials they had been shown. A story called “The war of the ghosts”, based upon the Native American culture, illustrated perfectly the point he was trying to make. Because this story originated in a culture that was thoroughly different from that of the participants, it clashed with their own schemas. Bartlett found significant distortions in the participants' reconstruction of the story, which kept growing with time. Most importantly, the distortions tended to be influenced by the participants’ own culture. The participants’ schemas were gradually taking over, and their recollection of the story increasingly leaned on their own cultural background, discarding the original Native American features.
The influence of ego concepts does not end with reshaping our memories. Ego concepts also shape our relationship with every moment of our life. The psychological concept of priming best illustrates this process. You are said to be primed when a past stimulus affects your response to a later stimulus. Psychological studies show that subtle hints coming from certain words and concepts are capable of bending your behaviour in their direction. In 1996, John Bargh and his colleagues asked the participants of a study they were conducting to form sentences from a store of scrambled words. The participants were divided into two groups. The first group was given words that included the words “old”, “bingo”, “wrinkle”, “gray” and “lonely”, all words that we associate with old age. The second group received no words from this semantic field. The participants were then sent down the hall to complete another task, but they did not know that their walk down the hall was being timed. The results were amazing: The first group took significantly longer to walk down the hall than the second group. This led to the conclusion that the participants of the first group were primed by the words associated with old age, and their ego concepts about getting old were triggered. Their predictions, beliefs and ideas regarding the experience of getting old came alive in their mind, and had a direct impact on their behaviour, making them walk more slowly. This example is a good illustration of the connection between your ego concepts and your bearing. The ego concepts embedded in your mind are triggered by words, ideas, images, and people you happen upon in different situations, and interfere with your conscious and unconscious behaviour. Most significantly, this process is not conscious, and you are unaware of it. If you asked the participants of the first group why they were walking more slowly they would not know what you were talking about. Similarly, a situation you believe to be reality as it is actually a product of your ego concepts shaped by your beliefs and expectations. Let me give you another example: Imagine that you are opening a new dental practice. Are you going to refer to your patrons as “customers” or “patients”? This distinction is crucial, as every person working in the practice (including you) will approach the patrons differently, according to the way they are regarded; “customers” will be primarily viewed from a business perspective while “patients” will be viewed from a care-giving perspective. This indicates that the labels “customers” and “patients” trigger each a different ego concept or schema in your mind. Each incorporates different attitudes, expectations, and beliefs, generating a different behaviour. As already mentioned, most of this process happens unconsciously, and you will not be aware of the way the priming (the choice of name for the patrons) triggers an ego concept that determines the way you approach the patron. Processes of this kind occur every moment of your life; you are continuously primed by your accumulated ego concepts, and react automatically. The question is how aware you are of the roots of your choices, and how many of your reactions are based upon triggered ego concepts that influence your approach to a certain situation. In the course of your psychological journey you will see these unconscious processes gradually become conscious. Unless you are fully aware of your motivations you will find it hard to see yourself as autonomous and free.
As a result of this recurring process, we keep shaping our reality in a way that “proves” our beliefs, thoughts and assumptions to be ostensibly right. A psychological theory that illustrates this point is that of the self-fulfilling prophecy. This theory suggests that schemas are reinforced by situations involving the person/place/thing they relate to. For example, if one of my schemas maintains that North-European women are not smart, this will influence the way I behave in the company of a Scandinavian girl: I will probably not ask her interesting questions or listen to her with attention. As a result, the girl would feel uncomfortable and close up, giving the impression that she is indeed uninteresting. The prophecy has fulfilled itself. Our approach to a specific moment is influenced by the schema (ego concept) and shapes it accordingly. In turn, this strengthens the original schema, and here we are, entrapped in an ever growing false understanding of the world, that hinders us from seeing life as it is.
Spirituality and schemas
A fundamental spiritual insight maintains that life is a mirror that reflects your mind. In a famous Buddhist story, two monks had an argument about the temple’s flag that was blowing in the wind. The first monk contended that the flag was moving, while the other insisted that the wind was the one to move. They went on arguing heatedly until a third monk overheard them and said that neither the flag nor the wind was moving, but the mind. Not only does the mind interpret every moment, in doing so it follows your most powerful ego concepts. When this happens, you perceive the moment as it was shaped by your ego concepts. This explains the mirror-like nature of your life: if you shape each moment according to your own assumptions, beliefs, and understandings, you should be able to identify them by closely examining the moment. Here is an example from my own experience. In a yoga class I have attended, several students used to wear spotted swimming suits. The teacher, who did not know their names, addressed them by this feature: “The girl with the spots in the back row, lock your elbows”. The student replied defensively: “It’s because of the mosquitoes”. The teacher was obviously referring to the girl's spotted swimsuit, while the girl thought he was referring to the spots on her skin. The girl interpreted reality according to her most powerful ego concepts ("everyone thinks my skin looks horrible, people often make fun of me or of the way I look"). Had she been an aware individual she would have recognised the reflection of these ego concepts in the situation; she would have been able to observe her ego concepts, using the situation as a mirror.
Every situation in life mirrors our ego concepts, but do we have the courage to look in this mirror? As a child, I read the book “The Never Ending Story” by Michael Ende. The hero, Atreyu, had to stand several trials. As he was approaching one of them I remember thinking “What is it going to be? Facing a lion? Fighting a Dragon?” I was deeply disappointed when I found that his challenge was seeing himself in the mirror. Was that really all? No fighting? No glory? I was a child and did not understand that the most terrifying and courageous deed one could be faced with is really seeing oneself in the mirror, stripped of masks and covers. Along our growth process, we face ourselves, and identify the mental components of which we are made. This is bound to be very uncomfortable, and is one of the main reasons why people turn back and shy away from the psychological and spiritual path.
And yet, as you grow while observing the elements of which your self is made up, you are likely to reach a point where you will find it very hard to go back. At difficult moments, my clients frequently tell me that they wish they had not looked in the mirror in the first place, but walking that challenging path now almost seems inevitable. The more you learn about your self and the illusions you once had about it, the harder it is to turn back. At certain moments you may think that ignorance is indeed bliss. There is truth in this. Facing your self and slowly taking apart your ego concepts, and letting go of them and of the self they had created can be a painful process. Letting go of ideas that sustained your psychological self for many years is not easy, but it is the only way to get in touch with who you truly are.
The neutrality of life
The things that irritate you, make you happy or sadden you do not exist in life as it is. These are your interpretations of the situation as structured by your ego concepts. The moments themselves are neutral, and do not carry any positive or negative weight. Unfortunately, we rarely keep the moments as they are, and immediately go on to attribute to them our opinions, ideas, and ego concepts.
We build mental stories around reality as it is:
• Reality as it is: I have £120 left
Mental story: I’m broke, I’m a failure
• Reality as it is: The girl refused to give me her phone number
Mental story: I’m ugly; no one will ever want me
The bottom line message is simple: situations in life are all neutral. It’s all about the interpretation we create.