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A Technique of Living
Leonard A. Bullen
The seventh month
THE MECHANISMS OF SELF-DECEIT
THERE exists within the mind of every normal person a heritage of primitive urges, brought over from mankind’s early human and pre-human ancestors in their battle for survival. To recognise that these primitive urges exist in you is one of the first steps you must make in your progress along the path of self-understanding; to refuse to recognize them, to refuse to see them as parts of your mental make-up, is to build up a wall of self-deceit within your own mind.
In your early life, because other people disapproved of these primitive urges, you learned to disguise them and in some cases to be ashamed of them. At first you learned to refuse to admit them to other people, while at a later stage you refused – at least, you tried to refuse to admit them to yourself.
One reason for this refusal was that you wanted to think highly of yourself, to keep your sense of ego intact at all costs. It is, incidentally, this sense of ego which is the focal point of self deceit, and it is also the same sense of ego which is the focus on which the Buddha-doctrine centres its attack.
As to the mechanisms which the mind uses in its efforts to deceive itself, it will be helpful if we consider them in terms of brain structure end function.
In a certain sense you may regard the brain as a highly complicated system of pathways or circuits along which the nervous energy travels. Each such pathway is called a neurogram. When the nervous energy travels along one particular pathway or neurogram, a corresponding idea tends to arise in consciousness, and when the nervous energy moves into another pathway or neurogram the first idea fades and another one arises in consciousness.
Now if one of these nervous pathways becomes impaired or damaged in some way it will be able to carry the nervous energy only with difficulty, if at all. You can compare this situation with a road which develops potholes, so that a car travelling along it does so in a series of bumps and lurches. The driver whenever possible avoids this bumpy, difficult, and painful road.
This simile will help you to understand the "avoidant mechanisms" of the mind, for in a similar manner the nervous energy will avoid travelling along or through a neurogram which has been made difficult and painful.
It needs no technical jargon or psychological training to say that we all tend to avoid the painful and unpleasant. That, of course, is what defines the painful and unpleasant we tend to avoid it.
Let us consider an example. A child undergoes a frightening experience; it does not matter much what sort of experience, but he is very frightened by it. When it has been over for some time he tries not to think about it, because when he thinks about it he becomes afraid again. This is reasonable and easy to understand, and it all takes place at a conscious level. Later, it becomes subconscious.
But this does not mean that the child immediately blots out all memory of the frightening experience; the process as a rule is a gradual one, and the child’s refusal to think about it is at first ineffective. Later, however, it gradually becomes successful, and at the same time it becomes habitual. When an activity, mental or bodily, becomes habitual, it also becomes less conscious.
Thus the mechanism of avoidance, at first conscious, gradually sinks to the subconscious level.
There are other types of experience besides fear that set in motion the mechanism of avoidance; those of horror, nausea, and physical pain, for example. The feeling of inferiority is another of these, and so are the feelings of guilt and unworthiness. No one likes to feel inferior, guilty, or unworthy, and the mind at both conscious and subconscious levels tends to avoid these feelings.
But back to the car driver; having found the road full of potholes, difficult, and even painful, h, avoids it; but he nevertheless wishes to reach his destination somehow, and he does not abandon his journey just because the road is in poor condition. He finds an alternative road, even if it means a lengthy detour and a longer route.
In the same way the nervous energy refuses to cease its activity because one neurogram is pain-blocked, and it finds another neurogram which offers it a pleasant pathway. When this happens in the brain there arises in the mind a substitute-idea, for while the mind refuses to allow the pain-blocked idea to arise in consciousness it diverts its energy to a more acceptable idea. This is the mechanism of "divertence".
Because of the mechanism of divertence, there are times when you experience emotion but deceive yourself as to its true object. For some reason or other you do not wish to attach that particular emotion to that particular object.
For example, a child both loves and hates his mother. It must be realised that practically every child has ambivalent emotions towards his parents. In fact, he has ambivalent attitudes towards many significant things in his life, which means that he both loves and hates them. He loves his parents at one time because they look after him and he hates them at another when they scold and punish him; but both opposites exist potentially in his mental structure all the time.
But while his expressions of love are well received by his parents, his expressions of hate bring him disapproval, scoldings, and spankings, and perhaps lectures on the wickedness of not loving one’s parents.
In the case of the sensitive child all this disapproval and lecturing produce a sense of guilt and unworthiness, and when – later on – he becomes aware of his hate he tries to suppress it. But, without any real understanding of the way his mind functions, his attempts to control his instinctive upsurges lead only to their repression.
But any mental factor which is repressed is not thereby destroyed, and the repressed emotion of hate must find its outlet. As the child’s hate cannot attach itself to his mother it must attach itself to something else, something less likely to arouse the disapproval of his elders. This substitute object may be his school teacher, for example.
Thus the disapproved emotion is displaced from its true object, his mother, to a substitute object, the teacher.
You can see, easily enough, that the avoidant mechanism and the divertant mechanism work hand in hand. The nervous energy avoids travelling along a brain pathway or neurogram that arouses ideas and emotions of guilt, inferiority, unworthiness, and pain, and it is diverted into neurograms that avoid these unpleasant feelings. And if these neurograms arouse ideas of self-righteousness, superiority, or self-importance, so much the better; or at least so it seems in a superficial sense.
Now just as pain and unpleasant emotions can damage a neurogram, so pleasure, physical or emotional, can smooth and improve another neurogram and thus facilitate the passage of the nervous energy through it.
To revert once again to our car driver, he will avoid a narrow road whose surface is full of potholes, and he will divert his course to a road which is in good condition. But if there is yet a third road which has been broadened and well-surfaced, and which gives beautiful views and interesting vistas throughout its whole length, then he will travel on this road whenever he can. And he will do this not always because it leads to any special destination but for the sheer pleasure of travelling along that road, with its views and vistas. He may even do this when he should be travelling to his work or attending to other responsibilities.
In the same way the mental energy will flow along a neurogram that yields pleasure, even though there is no other purpose to it than the pleasure it yields, and even though it solves no other problem or brings about no particular decision. This describes the mechanism of "fixation".
As an example, if a child is spoilt, if his mother fusses over his comforts and pleasures, if sire overprotects him and gives him excessive praise, all at the expense of his character-development, then his mental energy will become fixated on the mental image of his mother.
So here you have three basic mental mechanisms – avoidance, caused by a pain-blocked neurogram; divertence, dependent on an alternative neurogram; and fixation, arising from an over-facilitated neurogram.
If you accept the idea that – in common with humanity at large – your mind employs various modes of selfdeceit, you can see that these mechanisms are at the root of much of this self-deceit, and it is the pain-blocked neurograms that account for the very natural resistance that sometimes comes to the surface when you are required, in the process of self-understanding, to face the less savoury aspects of your own mind.
This resistance arises when someone questions the rightness or value of some self-deceit you have been treasuring. Such a resistance comes to the surface as annoyance, fear, or maybe some kind of irrational mental attitude. Its function – if you can call it a function – is to keep the self-deceit intact.
Until you can overcome this resistance and face all your self-deceits you are helpless against them; they dominate your thinking, and this is one of the greatest difficulties in the task of self-understanding.
THE CONTROL OF IRRITABILITY AND RESENTMENT
Few of us have entirely overcome the tendency to speak or respond irritably in difficult circumstances, nor are many of us free from a tendency to harbour some degree of resentment. This resentment generally concerns petty injustices and hurts, inflicted – in reality or sometimes in imagination – by others.
For present purposes we shall assume that you are amongst the majority in this respect. For a month or longer, then, take in hand your own tendencies towards irritability and resentment, however slight they happen to be, and use them for the basis for an exercise in mindfulness.
In the ordinary but unnatural tempo of life it is difficult to maintain a condition of tranquillity in all circumstances, for there are often too many petty annoyances in the daily routine and in consequence the mind is too often aroused to a state of anger. Now this anger does not have to take the form of rage or fury to be anger; very often you are merely mildly angry, and you fail to realize just how often in the ordinary course of the day your anger is aroused in a mild way.
This practice, then, is a matter of watching yourself critically and dispassionately, with a view to realizing just how often and under what conditions your anger is slightly aroused. In this practice you are not interested in the major displays of anger that sometimes occur, for you are fully aware of them; it is the occasional small annoyances, the petty irritations, that should be the object of increased awareness in the daily routine, for, once the minor forms of anger become well-controlled as a matter of habit, the major displays of anger are easier to control.
It is essential at this point to note that control does not mean repression, for the repression of an emotion-laden thought means that it is pressed down below the level at which it is accessible to consciousness. Such a process is the very opposite of the process of mindfulness, which in one sense is the process of extending the range of consciousness.
If you can develop the habit of dispassionate observation with respect to your mental state at all times, you can progressively increase your control over your reactions to the outside world and gradually find a greater degree of inward balance and tranquillity.
In acquiring a more detailed awareness of the functions and contents of your own mind, an essential part of the process is the work of making the acquaintance of its more unsavoury elements, the retarding factors of the mind. If you become more familiar with your hidden hatreds, fears, and jealousies, you then know better how to deal with them.
Make a contract with yourself, a pact-resolution, to the effect that you will impose on yourself some small penalty soon after any occasion on which you respond irritably or harbour resentful thoughts.
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last updated: 03-04-2005