Everyday we are presented with questions and challenges. We encounter moral dilemmas, mathematical equations and traffic jams. Our education system has taught us to use logic to solve these problems. Natural selection has lead us to constantly survey for physical and emotional threats. Of course these tools of reason and self defense are essential. However, we are creatures of counterproductive and senseless habit. We are often subconsciously influenced by irrational fear. Reason is hard to find in a mind cluttered with misguided beliefs, anxiety and aversion. The answer to any given question may be found through the Socratic method. But in order to observe the related data wisely we must come to it with clear eyes.
We would all like to believe that as long as we have all the relevant facts, we will always get the right answer. But people tend to see what they want to. We are all driven to some extent by our biases. For instance, if we read an article that confirms our view on taxes, we are likely to accept the author’s policy suggestions without any further research. But if the writer presents data that contradict our view, we will spend hours on Google scouring for rebuttals from economists on our side of the aisle. We cannot be perfect. But the first step in improving our ability to overcome our preconceptions is to acknowledge that they exist and are always lurking, ready to defend us from cognitive dissonance. We have to avoid what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”
Another defense mechanism kicks in after we make a decision we regret. We desperately try to justify our poor actions or choices. For example, a few months ago I told my friend I would go to his concert that was happening the next weekend. On the day of the show, I had to be up at 6am to go to work. After work I went to the gym. By the time I got home I was exhausted and texted my friend that I was just too tired to go out. Shortly after, I felt badly about my decision and still had time to make it to the gig. But instead of grabbing my car keys, I thought about how early I got up, how I had such an intense workout and that I went to another friend’s performance earlier in the week. I told myself that I was thinking logically. After all, I was gathering evidence to validate my choice just like a good scientist would. But because I didn’t want to confront my moral failure, I chose to only consider the facts that exonerated me and ignored those that would reveal the simple reality: I made a promise and I should have kept it.
Cognitive biases like the one in the above example shield us from self-criticism. However, many of us follow thought patterns that lay undeserving blame on ourselves. For example, if a person discovers that his partner has cheated on him, he immediately thinks about what he did wrong or what he could have done to keep that partner faithful. He regrets not taking her out to dinner enough. He remembers that time he forgot her mother’s birthday. All of these clouds of self-doubt mask the fact that should be self-evident: Her infidelity was her choice.
Humans have a tendency to see any given piece of information with distorted vision. When we are making a moral or scientific decision, we must make an effort to do so while acknowledging our predilections. We should not be searching for an answer that absolves or incriminates us. We should be searching for the truth whether it hurts or not.
The practice of meditation can be used to improve our capability to enter a clear state of mind more reliably. There is a misconception that meditating is simply a way to relax and therefore not care about mistakes we or others make. In fact, its true purpose is to help us see reality as clearly as possible. It is an attempt to rid oneself of the influence of delusional thoughts and beliefs. The practice of vipassanna in particular teaches us to observe our emotions objectively and without attachment. If you’d like to try it, set a timer for 5 minutes and follow these steps:
1. Sit in a quiet space at a time when you will not be interrupted.
2. Direct your attention to the flow of your breath.
3. When you notice that your mind has surrendered its attention to a decision you need to make in the future or one that you made in the past, ask yourself:
Are these thoughts rational and/or useful?
4. Once you have evaluated the thought, give it a label such as “planning”, “regretting”, “catastrophizing” etc.
5. Return your focus to your breath.
Repeat steps 3-5 for the duration of the 5 minutes. Be careful not to judge yourself for getting distracted. Do not get discouraged if it feels like your mind will not stop wandering. Even practitioners with decades of experience cannot avoid these diversions. The purpose of this exercise is to simply notice when these distractions occur. As long as you are observing when your mind gets lost in thought, you are doing it right.
As you get more and more comfortable with the process, increase the setting on your timer to 7 minutes, 10 minutes and so on. With diligent practice we can learn to achieve a neutral frame of consciousness on and off the meditation cushion more rapidly and consistently. In this state our mind is no longer an agent of deception, but a tool for reason.
 Kolbert, E. (2017, February 25). Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds