A Key to Living
Find a cognitive balance.
An Introduction to Meditations: A New Translation
Recently, my boyfriend encouraged me to read a book he just finished called Meditations: A New Translation by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by Gregory Hays.
It doesn’t read like a typical, contemporary book. The structure of it gives the impression — as explained by the translator — to be reiterations of philosophical concepts, repeated through re-expressions of the same ideas.
The repetition is odd to read. It almost feels like someone having a hard time grasping a concept, repeating it over and over again to themselves in hopes that it’ll eventually click. But as I got to the end, something clicked for me too.
Is it really only a matter of Perception?
An overarching theme that has caught my (and my boyfriend’s) attention is the idea that as human beings, we have more control over our lives than we believe.
In every moment of our lives, regardless of the situation, we have a choice. We choose the way we perceive, interpret, and respond to the world.
This may sound familiar, as it is the core of many self-help movements and also evidence-based psychotherapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
The slight twist I’ve come to grasp is that our reality isn’t simply a reflection of our perception and interpretation of a situation. Our brains have evolved to help us survive. In consequence, we have developed a handful of biases and heuristics (mental shortcuts) to help us get through life.
This is the default state and it’s natural. But the problem is, many of our held biases and heuristics are wrong or incomplete snapshots of reality.
They’re only “good enough” ways to evaluate things. Without feedback from an external, unbiased, objective force, we don’t know if our bias or heuristic was correct.
And because these biases and heuristics have allowed us to survive for so long, we perceive them as truth. Or at least as our truth.
Why we become “stuck” in perception and interpretation
So what does all of this mean? My belief about a situation will be my truth, my reality. If I believe that every living person has some good in them — regardless of what they have done in the past or what they currently believe in — I will go about my life having a soft spot for every person I meet.
Is this belief wrong? It’s hard to say. But it’ll taint every perception and interpretation of every person I ever meet. It’ll create the bias that people are safe, and the heuristic of overlooking and disregarding whenever someone does something to challenge my belief.
Maybe as part of my bias, I will see my belief as beneficial because it allows me to be kind and loving to every soul that crosses my path.
… But what if one day I meet a person who is ultimately a pure reflection of evil? Someone who without a doubt has no source of light within them? (This is all hypothetical by the way, as it is currently impossible to purely and objectively measure any real extremity of evil or altruism).
This is where so many of us may become “stuck” with the concept of having total control of our perception of things.
Within this situation, my beliefs, biases, heuristics, and sense of reality would be challenged. I wouldn’t have a way to process this situation. So what would most of us do? We would elicit whatever survival response we know best: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
My understanding, right now, is that there is one ultimate reality of things. An objective reality that none of us can really reach, because we’ll always be tainted by our subjective experience.
Within our subjective experience, we have control. But our perception, interpretation, and response can all be tainted by our beliefs/biases. We may not even be aware of how much our thoughts and mental habits impact any given situation.
I think having awareness of this cognitive hierarchy, however, strengthens our ability to develop an open mind and increase our overall awareness of ourselves.
The goal is not to reach a level where we have no biases or heuristics. That’s impossible. We should try finding a cognitive balance. That means bringing awareness to the moving parts that go behind our perception and interpretation of the world.
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