“Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV”
John Lennon – working class hero
John Lennon sure was ahead of his time. Most of us didn’t know it back in the sixties, but religion and sex and TV are drug pushers. So are credit cards and FaceBook and luxury brand names. In fact, it turns out that our minds are one giant pharmaceutical factory with uppers and downers on tap. And things like religion and sex and TV (and credit cards and FaceBook and luxury brand names) are our suppliers.
I’m reading a book called The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer, about how the brain makes up its mind. Now, if I can narrow a 300-page thesis into a couple of sentences, there are parts of the brain, like the insula, that release feel bad chemicals when they are confronted by anything they deem not to be in our best interest; and there are other parts of the brain, like the nucleus accumbens (NAcc for short), that produce feel good chemicals when they encounter something they expect to be in our best interest.
No decision in life is ever clear-cut; there are pros and cons to every undertaking and situation in life, as far as our brains are concerned; but typically the brain goes with whatever option will release the least feel bad chemicals and produce the most feel good chemicals. Shopping is a good example. We like to have things, especially expensive things that we associate with prestige and success, that unconsciously we expect will improve our social standing, and thereby, belonging. We want Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton accessories because they flood our brains with legal, organic ecstasy.
Problem. Parting with cash burns us up because we’re parting with our resources – and if it’s Rolex or Louis Vuitton, it’s big resources. That gives us a hit of bad acid, just from thinking about it. We’re torn. We really want that thing that’s going to give us a rush of good dopamine (dope) but we’re already getting a taste of the bad trip that parting with our cash is going to bring on.
Solution. Put the plasma screen on the credit card. Of course! That way we get our hit of good dope without upsetting the insula, because the concept of a future payment is too abstract for it to recognise as a loss of resources. No contest. The brain will take the plasma screen, thank you. The young couple look at each other and smile, at one in their mutual high. He gets an extra squirt of happy juice courtesy of the realisation that he’s also going to get laid tonight.
It’s interesting to note that when it comes to making decisions, the ultimate determinant is typically what makes us feel good. Now, am I the only one thinking, “Mmm, there’s something seriously wrong with this picture.” I hope not. It’s obvious that resolving tension in the short term is going to lead to suffering in the long term. Global credit card and mortgage stress are just one case in point.
The facts are that thinking rationally is really thinking emotionally in an intellectual disguise. When it comes to the rational mind, the mind rationalises in support of whatever holds out the prospect of the happiest high. It’s a drug tart.
In the 1980s a psychologist from the University of California, Philip Tetlock, quantified 82,361 different predictions by people who made a living commentating or advising on political and economic trends. I have to stress that these were supposed experts in their fields with more knowledge on their given subjects than virtually everyone else on the planet. If they had made blind guesses to formulate their predictions, statistically they should have been right fifty percent of the time. In fact, they were wrong sixty eight percent of the time, which is abysmal considering a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board would have done eighteen percent better.
My days trading financial markets taught me that a majority of people will always be wrong in predicting the outcome of anything. If you’re a bookie you can never lose money (unless the majority of people agree with me).
Why are most of the people wrong all of the time? Simply because the brain desires certainty. If someone concludes something contrary to what they want to happen or have formed an opinion about in the past, the downers factory goes into production. Hence, people unconsciously select, or are biased in favour of, information that fits in with their preconceived or wishful point of view.
I always wondered what the appeal of the syrupy inspirational message is. Why are there more inane motivational quotes on FaceBook than anything else? And how come those banal inspirational stories and exhortations spread like swine flu along the email ethers? Because we need reassurance. We love to be reassured, and we even feel reassured when we reassure others. It keeps our uppers factory cranking.
If being addicted to feeling good and needing to be certain all the time create such quantifiably dysfunctional outcomes – such patently second rate realities – why do we persist with such an orientation in life? As John Lennon sang: ”Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV, And you think you’re so clever and classless and free, But you’re all f***ing peasants as far as I can see.” Harsh words but very wise, I think. Why do we want to be slaves to our conditioning? Why do we want to be like monkeys in cages doing things for banana-like chemical rewards?
I’m always amazed at the wisdom of alchemy, especially considering that it is a model for mastering consciousness that was devised thousands of years ago, long before fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) equipment helped us understand how the brain works. Privately, alchemists called themselves masters of reality because they understood how to transcend the limitation of the comfort-seeking brain. As simple as it sounds, the trick is to change our relationship with psychological tension. As Joseph Campbell said, “I think it’s childish to want to avoid the pain of life.” If we can hang with tension in life, and don’t need to satisfy our cravings for certainty and understanding and emotional stability, we rise above our addicted way of thinking and come to a perception born of our inherent freedom. We don’t have to keep washing away unpleasant brain chemicals with pleasant ones. We can neutralise them by remaining neutral to them all. Really, it’s a function of suspending judgement. We shouldn’t think in terms of good and bad chemicals – thoughts – feelings – anything. And by not identifying with either faction of dope pushers, we can pass through – to quote Dante – to eternity. Free of fear and desire we enjoy the greatest reward of all – the truth.
The truth in one sense is a conclusion drawn not by a dope fiend manipulating the optimum chemical hit, but by a free spirit calculating the most sustainable and uplifting path. Resolving tension creates personal suffering, communal chaos and environmental degradation. Going for the truth creates personal fulfilment, communal synergy and environmental harmony. Every day, the most important choice we make is which of these two paths we want to go down.
William Whitecloud is both the internationally acclaimed author of The Magicians Way and a truly gifted transformational facilitator. His work has quite literally touched and transformed the lives of thousands of people.
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