in Cognitive Wisdom, Prism of Life

We see things, but fail to observe.

We hear things, but fail to listen.

We consume things, but fail to absorb.

The beauty of morning dews on green grass. The play of colors in the flight of butterflies. The fun in the purposeless running of the kids. Somehow, we are missing these seemingly mundane yet magical things unfolding right in front of our eyes.

As soon as we become physically mature to wear the mask of an adult, we are usually caught in the web of responsibilities, routines, and reliability — making us miss all those moments of wonder that is there right in front of us.

In an attempt to make quick sense of this life we usually are in a hurry to overlook things that are there in life to add value, things that make the life worth living. We have this habit of ignoring the most obvious day to day activities because we tend to take things for granted. A little bit of familiarity and we become too complacent even to contemplate an outcome that defies our linear expectation.

There is a widespread tendency to see things as we wish to see them rather than seeing them as they are. There is a lot of cockiness when it comes to defending our judgment that we find it insulting even to cross check the pieces of evidence on which we prefer to build our judgements.

Attempt to understand the apparent biases in our vision.

The world is too complex to comprehend. Everything known to humanity is nothing but a handcrafted sand castle made on a tiny beach. The unpredictable nature of the future doesn’t inspire much confidence in humans who still find it a struggle to survive. Therefore, we don’t wait for all the pieces of evidence before we could arrive at our decisions. Quite often the barest minimum of evidence is sufficient to help us confirm the decision already taken, that too based on random evidences.

There is an argument that bandwidth of our ability to make the judgment based on a minimum pieces of evidence has so far helped us immensely in arriving at quick decisions — evolutionary programming working tirelessly in the backdrop.

But gone are the days when our survival used to be heavily dependent on our ability to take quick decisions (your decision of not running when everyone is running could prove to be fatal while surviving with a tribe in the forest). Nowadays survival rarely enjoys the spotlight that it used to be — then how come our mind is still stuck with the same old programming? And why is there a need to rewrite the programming?

The seriousness of this predicament can be gauged from the following two narratives.

Scenario 1

It’s way past dinner time. You are driving back to your home. You are in a hurry to reach the gift shop on time before it closes for the day. It’s the birthday of your little princess, and just now you have managed to bail yourself out from the crime of being late by promising to reach the home with that special gift promised to your adorable princess. Before you could have a sigh of relief and disconnect your call while getting through the maze of evening traffic, you witness someone jumping signal & you can’t resist the urge to curse the driver for making an essential contribution to such conspicuous decline in the state of affairs. 

Your tired and impatient mind is in a tear away hurry to pronounce exemplary punishment for such delinquent behavior. You have managed to arrive at the pronouncement of the judgement without ever knowing the fact that the rash driver happen to carry his colleague to nearest hospital who was in urgent need of medical attention.

Scenario 2

You are dining in a restaurant with your family. You are having fun time till one of the waiters managed to spill water on your new suit by mistake. Despite the waiter apologizing profusely, you call the duty manager and faithful to your nature, proceed on delivering a free 10 minutes lecture on the topic of serving customers. Your autopilot response was on display without knowing the fact that young but relatively new waiter who committed the cardinal mistake was a research scholar of social psychology who wanted to study the response of customers under no stress situations.

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Irrespective of the circumstances, we have this tendency to jump the gun without even possessing the necessary license. We are in a hurry to put the cart before the horses. We all can recall innumerable instances where our quick judgment ended up creating an emotionally colorful mess, but since it was colorful, it usually got preference over monochromatic rationality.

Our brains are remarkably good at searching for patterns. Human beings instinctively conclude from their experiences all the time. If a child burns his hand on a stove, he is unlikely to touch it again: he knows it is hot. However, not only is he unlikely to touch that particular stove, but he will also approach any stove-like object he encounters in the future with caution. His internal model of the world has been updated.

As a consequence, we are in the habit of generalizing from our experience in ways that helpfully allow us to predict what might be coming up next. Over time our experiences, assumptions, and emotions gradually harden into our core set of beliefs — a collection of a relatively rigid position that we have intuitively distilled from our accumulated learning. 

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We often perceive things through our senses where the perception of these things is rarely devoid of feelings. Whenever there is feeling, it’s difficult to keep the conditional judgment away.

Let’s say while enjoying your favorite movie you got a call informing you that due to some official urgency your presence is required on the coming Sunday — your immediate reaction is to curse the messenger (in this case your boss) while allowing the news to affect your present experience of movie viewing.

There is an automatic response not only to avoid the unexpected turn of events that are unpleasant but also desire for things to be different than what they are. That is the reason why what we choose to do with our feelings when an unexpected event is knocking at our door ends up defining the contours of our response.

Is it possible to get rid of this evolutionary conditioning?

If what we desire is a constant liberation not only from the cravings to capture pleasant feelings but also the persistent desire for things to be different from what they are; then we can help our cause by cultivating an awareness of our feelings so much so that it fundamentally changes our relationship to them.

The human brain is programmed by evolutionary natural selection to respond in an autopilot mode to all variety of sensory inputs. If we are allowing our autopilot response — that has an immediate liking for pleasant feelings — to dominate, then we will continue to be controlled by the world a significantaround us.

Feelings if left on its own, plays a significant role in shaping our perception, thoughts, and behaviors. Therefore mindful observation of feelings without getting caught in its web creates a possibility for us to escape the control.

The entire endeavor through mindful observation is to rewire the automatic programming of the brain where most of the responses are guided by evolutionary conditioning and disallow feelings to make judgmentson our behalf; without being pushed around by its frequency & intensity.

Because once we manage to loosen the grip of evolutionary conditioning, we start expanding the existing contours of the white space between feelings caused by our immediate environment & our behavioral response. But again it’s one thing to understand the concept intellectually & another matter to experience it personally where we learn to resist the temptation of putting the cart before the horses.

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