Consistency, in practice and in thought, guides the creation of our stories and narratives. Selecting from the potentially overwhelming data of the world, our stories support what we believe and ignore or actively dismiss that which doesn’t. “New” information is not something we simply become aware of, but is all around us, happening every moment. This can be as banal and inconsequential as not paying attention to every shift in clouds above us, to the potentially disastrous of not seeing oncoming cars in traffic.
The ability, through story or perspective, to maintain an internal sense of right-ness and consistency is not always in our best interests.
Gilovich found that when gamblers were right, they tended to offer bolstering comments about just how right they were—“I knew it would happen,” or words to that effect. But when they were wrong, they tended to minimize their error by offering “undoing” comments about how the game should have turned out differently. In these cases the gamblers would often blame the outcome on a fluke event, like a fumble in the fourth quarter. To them, a loss wasn’t really a loss; it was a near win. In either case, the effect of the bolstering and undoing comments was largely the same: foresight became better in hindsight. (Halinan)Halinan, Joseph T. “Why We Make Mistakes”
Beyond ignorance or dismissal, we have here a rewrite of the past in a way that is falsely self-positive. Related to this is how we judge behavior we consider ‘wrong’; when the mistake is personal we often point to external circumstance, but when the mistake is someone else’s we direct our vision to the person’s internal failings.
Deeper is the Ocean
An intervention strategy within ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is referred to as “Dropping Anchor.” The idea is to take an experience of fusion (an unhealthy preoccupation with a thought/emotion) and mindfully reflect on it while expanding one’s awareness of the physical reality around and within yourself.
The purpose is not to avoid the feeling/thought or even to necessarily change the feeling/thought, but to defuse, broadening awareness to how much more is going on beyond the preoccupation. We are so very much more than any single thought, emotion, or even behavior. Acceptance is about dwelling in this larger reality, not necessarily being ok with any particular thought, emotion or behavior.
Fusion is an inevitable result of the ignorance/dismissal/rewrite processes described above. Selecting pieces of experience to create a self-serving Narrative requires putting oneself contrary to the rest of reality pinging on your mind. The world doesn’t go away simply because we don’t want to see it. The continual avoidance requires a constant doubling-down on one or more pieces of the Narrative, building mental walls that become increasingly isolating.
Importantly here, the personal gain accomplished is not necessarily about feeling better, but having the world make sense. We will put ourselves through a great deal of pain and suffering to avoid having to doubt the way we think of the world and ourselves. That we do this to ourselves is because the alternative, doubt and uncertainty, is considered, sometimes rightly, to be a generator of anxiety and thus greater pain and suffering. Better the devil you know, as the saying goes.
Here is where the Dropping Anchor exercise can run afoul. An anchor, to continue the metaphor, only works well when there’s a ground/bottom to settle on and catch you. In the midst of the ocean, an anchor may not be all that helpful and perhaps even cause further problems as it selects something that won’t keep you stable.
Dropping Anchor can be highly effective both therapeutically and as a technique within a broader meditative practice. Doing so in a healthy manner means remembering why fusion is both inevitable and often perceived as being helpful. Broadening one’s awareness can bring a level of self-reflective skepticism that can be disconcerting, especially if one’s sense of self or an Identity is tied strongly to the fused content.
Healthy, defused living means slipping into that deeper ocean of human potential, but there’s a reason why the lack of waves in a lake is associated so strongly with calm and peace. Exploring the former means acknowledging why the latter is so enticing.