The misunderstanding of who we are

Who we think we are is not who we are

Photo by Todd Robertson

Photo by Todd Robertson

The events that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia remind me once again of the very great misunderstanding we have around who we truly are and how our minds really work.

On the surface, it appears that our judgments and preferences and opinions and experiences and beliefs and habits and memories all swirl together to create an image of who we think we are

In effect, all of these things combine to create our identity.

And oh boy...once we think we have carved out an identity for ourselves, it is very difficult to change our minds.

In fact, during interrogations of prisoners-of-war, it was often the goal to psychologically chip away at the prisoner's sense of identity. In doing so, they could be turned and used as a form of propaganda.

We see the same psychological manipulation take place within cults and gangs and extremist groups.

Strip away or reinforce an old identity so that a new or newly fortified identity can be fashioned to espouse the beliefs of a particular group.

By the time this is achieved, you have effectively created, within that individual, a new pattern of thinking that becomes habitual and almost impossible to break...

Except for two considerations:

1. The lower brain is responsible for habitual thought. As the oldest part of our brain, its main job is to keep us alive and safe through instincts and fight or flight responses.

Our lower brain is like an efficient machine. It notices any experiences or behaviors that help relieve perceived psychological or physical discomfort and then creates a thought loop that encourages those same behaviors or experiences to be repeated given the same or similar psychological or physical discomfort.

As a result, habits and habitual thought patterns are developed to temporarily address the distress, in the moment.

For example, noticing a feeling of emotional turmoil, our lower brain may implore us to reach for the bottle or the pie or the anger response in an effort to keep us 'safe.' 

It does whatever it can to relieve the temporary itch of an uncomfortable emotion or thought or experience, in the moment.

Since the lower brain is unable to reason or judge, however, it worries not for matters of consequence or ramifications.

Feeling lonely...displaced...isolated...insignificant? The lower brain stitches itself to the easiest most immediate and effective solution - be it to join a knitting club or a neo-nazi club.

Interestingly, the Norwegian teen drama SKAM (translation: Shame), indirectly touched on the role of our lower brain to minimize uncomfortable feelings in a dialogue between two characters:

I don’t think that it helps to pretend that prejudice doesn’t exist. Really, everyone is the same. Everyone thinks they’re on the team with the good guys. There isn’t really any good or evil. Just lots of people trying to stand together, to not be alone.

But here lies part of our misunderstanding...

We think that the lower brain represents who we ARE.

We think that the lower brain dictates what we must do.

We think that the lower brain is in charge.

We think that we are our experiences and habits.

We think that we have no choice.

None of that is true.

We are merely misinformed...

(which leads us to the second consideration):

2. We have a higher brain.

Within the higher brain resides our capacity to discern and decide, reason and rationalize...all of which lays the foundation for choice and responsibility.

At this level, we have the ability to override anything that the lower brain suggests simply by activating our higher brain functioning.

In doing so,

there is space to question and challenge the suggestions of the lower brain.

there is space for sound reasoning and reflection and choice.

there is space to diffuse and eliminate habits whose value is upended by its cost.

Sadly, however, most of us don't know this.

Most of us walk around blindly listening to our lower brain as it chatters away directing us to seek relief for our discomfort, unaware of the havoc it creates in its wake.

And so we dutifully

take the drink to numb our pain

eat the cake to ease our hurt

join the gang to assuage our fear.

In doing so, we create a cycle of thought over time that leads to habit.

And before we know it, we begin to believe that we ARE our habits.

We've unwittingly left little room for our higher brain to kick in and kick out the potentially destructive habits encouraged by our lower brain.

Perhaps more importantly, however,

We've left little room for our true selves to be revealed.

Who we really are resides beyond thought...

Who we really are remains constant the whole of our lives. 

Who we really are remains unaffected by thought and belief and memory and habit and opinion and preference and experience.

Who we really are, at our highest level, radiates a love and compassion, wisdom and common sense that is utterly devoid of color or creed or religion or gender or orientation.

Who we really are lives within all of us.

And when we connect with who we really are...when our mind is clear and quiet and free from thought...

we suddenly realize... 

everything else was a simple misunderstanding.