BY: Troy Murphy | July 2018
A healthy mind integrates values with action. We embrace high-ideals, and then act like an idiot, soothing the dissonance with justifications.
When actions conflict with values, we feel dissonance. Life is conflicting. We can’t blindly march and expect values and behaviors to smoothly sync. The syncing typically happened post hoc. We bend and twist interpretation of our wildly human behavior to match our more idealistic (or for some self-debasing) beliefs. With our fabulous prefrontal cortex, capable of pulling vast amounts of information, we have opportunities to change normal trajectories of our lives, using the executive functions of the brain for top-down processing to plan rather than top-down processing for creative justifications for harmful impulses. To improve our lives, we must address the complexity, varying priorities, and occasional struggles of competing values with a little more attention, focusing on what it is we really want.
Regular reflection assists with identifying and integrating the constant small (and large) internal conflicts. Conscious recognition of what it is we value isn’t necessarily obvious nor simple. Many goals that we chase exist without conscious knowledge, motivated by biological and programmed drives. Often an explicit and specific goal, such as losing weight, conflicts with internal drives (goals) to satisfy sugar cravings. The overtly proclaimed desire often collides and collapses to the less salient under currents that flow unnoticed.
Our character is defined by our foundational goals—whether we seek to be kind, secure, or powerful. All these driving forces exist within us; but have different priorities. When opportunities for kindness collide with need for power, which will win?
An old Cherokee chief teaching his grandson told him, “There are two wolves living inside me.” He continued, “They are in a terrible and ferocious fight.” One of the wolves he explained was evil, full of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other wolf is good, full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The grandson pondered and then asked the wise chief, “which wolf will win?”
His kind grandfather replied, “The one that you feed.”
"Conscious recognition of what it is we value isn’t necessarily obvious nor simple. Many goals that we chase exist without conscious knowledge, motivated by biological and programmed drives."
Our mental lives are divided—good and bad; self and others; conscious and unconscious. There is constant collision between warring parties. The different modules of the brain work to process the world, soaking up information and providing relevant information to direct the whole. For action to occur, one system takes priority over the other. One set of internal drives establishes importance, demands attention, and motivates action. While, from a conscious perspective, we seem singular—united in purpose—we are not. Inferior stimuluses don’t vanish—they linger. Once the immediacy of choice has settled and action completed, unfollowed impulses remain, pestering the mind.
A selfish act is questioned against the kind image we hold of ourselves. Once two motivating powers collide such as an action to secure an advantage, gain power, or secure a desire with a self-image of kindness. A powerful rise of dissonance interferes with inner peace. A divided self seeks for reunification. When belief and completed action are incompatible, we wildly justify forcing the odd action into the confining hole of our belief. We can act mean, blame it on the target, and maintain the self-righteousness of our kindness. Our dissonance is soothed, and we continue forward in the comforting fog of self-deception.
Self-deception serves us well—in the short run. Recognizing, in the examples case, that an act was unkind, requires deeper examination, efforts to repair, and closer attention to impulses of unkindness in the future. We may even need to alter our current goals for power, taking a more compassionate route than originally designed. So, we continue as we always have, largely unconscious, and justifying the mismatched actions, on our golden road to hell (figurative).
We combat this blind non-sense by painstakingly looking a little deeper, knowing the threat and examining patterns of justification and blaming for the truths they hide. We become enlightened, and courageously fight the trajectories that have harmed and will continue to harm our lives.
While dragging our conflicts into the open, and making wise informed choices is essential to well-being, there is another front to this war where we can direct resources and fight battles. Many conflicts are won and loss in the hidden recesses of our minds. The ferocious wolf of impulse and desire lurks there. This approach requires strengthening the inferior goals—building character by devoting energy to the process.
For kindness, we read books by and about juggernauts of kindness, integrating their experience into our unconscious mind. We join groups dedicated to helping others. We seek opportunities to serve. Our practices strengthen our goals for kindness, creating a greater sensitivity to unkind and mean acts—magnifying the dissonance and heightening the chance we notice justifications.
Nathaniel Braden explained this process in his book Six-Pillars of Self-Esteem:
"The practice of these virtues over time tends to generate a felt need for them. If I habitually operate at a high level of consciousness, unclarity and fog in my awareness will make me uncomfortable. I will usually experience a drive to dispel the darkness. If I have made self-responsibility second nature, passivity and dependency will be onerous to me. I will experience internal pressure to reassert the control over my existence possible only with autonomy. If I have been consistent in my integrity, I will experience dishonesty on my part as disturbing and will feel a thrust to resolve the dissonance and restore the inner sense of moral cleanliness."
Soothing the discomforts from cognitive dissonance is the biological goal. Wisely solving the dissonance is the desired goal of enlightened people. This often requires the more difficult changing of behaviors rather than the simple justifying and blaming protections. Like other aspects of healthy living, integration requires attentive and patient observations. Without scrutiny, the conflicts slip beneath consciousness, motivating actions that disrupt our lives by pulling us away from the futures we truly desire.
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