UNFOLDING OF COMPLEXITY
BY: Troy Murphy | September 2016
We live amidst trillions of particles, moving, bumping, creating and dying. We are part of this magnificent show of life. We can't know all things, or reasons; but can know many things and reasons in our acceptance of complexity.
Found inside our thick protective skulls is a powerful machine. Our thinking brains—the mind—analyzes circumstances, draws upon the past and directs life through a series of unconscious predictions. We like to take credit for extraordinary intelligence from the logic of our thoughts but living and action is largely achieved from the intoxication of feeling. Our thinking machine has purpose, making sense of data, organizing and then filing conclusions that influence future feelings. Our thinking, as wonderful as a gift is it is, also creates unneeded and unwelcomed pain. With the slightest inconvenience or unexpected encounter, we cascade into misery, dreading possible failures and constructing conspiracies of drama and ache. We worry, shrink and shame and hide with guilt. Sparked by an ordinary occurrence, unhinged thoughts expand, predict and create menacing meanings—often with unsubstantiated facts.
Our curiosity, pushes the mind to create answers where no answers are available, trying to discover meaning where meaning is impossibly intertwined with complexity. A simple inquiry—why am I feeling blue—may unearth diverse causes, exposing many unfavorable happenings; circumstances we believe should be better. Some mindful exploration provides effective avenues for action; but too much rumination hinders, dragging the soul into careless ponderings, depressing action, and burdening the soul. We busy ourselves fretting over problems that don’t impact happiness. Working for change through faulty conclusions doesn’t produce grand results; and the failing then discourages continued motivation. We feel helpless, overwhelmed by floods of sadness, further depressing our system.
"Some mindful exploration provides effective avenues for action; but too much rumination hinders, dragging the soul into careless ponderings, depressing action, and burdening the soul."
The cycle of sadness (emotions—faulty meanings—and ineffective action) channels cheerless energy into hopelessness; strengthening the weighty winds of sadness into a full-blown storm of depression.
Depression is a disease with physical components often requiring medication for relief. But the allusive mind is not separate from the equation. Although science struggles to find the emergence of consciousness within the connections and activity of the brain, they do know there is a connection. Thoughts stimulate brain action and brain action stimulates thought. Thoughts are more than ghosts haunting feeling; they exist and translate into physical changes in the brain. As we dig into science, we can illuminate a few misguided beliefs, leading to unwelcomed sadness, adding to our biological sensitivities.
We can’t escape negative feelings; they have a purpose: a biological warning system to avoid painful and dangerous engagements. Emotions imprint experience for recall, giving priority to the more stunning events. Losses imprinted with sadness, encourage future action to hold to people and conditions that are important to us. A divorce is painful. The pain of a divorce, when properly directed, leads to actions that can prevent a second divorce. Wisdom encourages nurturing important relationships, maintaining healthier lifestyles, and staying relevant in the job market. When no emotional marker accompanies an experience, we forget—we’re not motivated to change. Seeking a life of non-stop pleasure, ignoring discomforting consequences, undermines this biological guidance system.
Joy is also important. Life derives meaning from pleasurable experience. We are driven to acts that create bliss. But joy has a natural ebb and flow, dynamically changing, alerting our system to change, and recording connections between behaviors and feelings. Emotion suggests movement—change. Joy fades, sadness arrives. The changes demand attention. Emotions disrupt the biological balance—homeostasis—signaling change and motivating choice, whether we should fearfully pull-back or hopefully approach. Constant joy would stupefy this life saving guidance.
Biological and experiential programming directs attention to behaviors and circumstances, identifying wrongs needing correction, dangers to be avoided and opportunities to be pursued. The complex web of possible associations complicates the system. Most choices are not simply right or wrong; but a mixture of benefits and drawbacks. Some pleasures sacrifice tomorrow on the altar of today—which may be perfectly appropriate (or very costly). Sacrifices and gains must be carefully weighed.
The complexity of choice is most salient in human relationships. Relationships require constant balancing of give and take, assertive action to protect the self and compassionate action of sacrificing the self. Because of the importance of relationships to our well-being (and survival), they magnify emotions—joy and sorrow, peace and anxiety. Normal people become lunatics once engaged in the drama of love.
Our brains solve problems; we anticipate, avoid and plan based on predictions of the future.
In relationships, especially in intimacy, we are vulnerable to the other person. We can’t perfectly predict. We can structure our own life to limit surprises but when others enter our circle, those predictions become imprecise, subject to other’s actions with competing and sometimes conflicting goals.
When confronted with fear of rejection—the loss of security—the bells and whistles of discomfort sound, “something is wrong, pay attention!” The discomfort generally draws attention to our partner’s action that seemingly triggered the feeling. We blame them for the discomfort, and demand they change. These moments of alarm are where subtle manipulations invade interactions. We cheat reality, hoping to solve relationship anxieties; but forced reshaping of others rarely succeeds. The partner’s failure to change sets in motion a chain of reactions—anger, frustration, sadness, and resentment. We frantically go into cognitive overdrive trying to solve the unsolvable. Vulnerability of a relationship, where we lose a portion of control, is uncomfortable (see The Vulnerability of Intimacy). Some choose to destroy the vulnerability, building walls around their heart, and failing to love. But this method keeps intimacy beyond our reach. Closeness and connection demands vulnerability. Overtime, in healthy relationships, trust in self, and trust in a partner mitigates the fear (see shared emotions); but complexity remains.
The rejection of negative emotion, popular in pop-psychology, is a disservice. Condemning a person suffering from dysthymia for choosing sadness is ethically wrong. The sufferer must contend, in addition to the inner-turmoil, guilt for suffering. The guilt is also condemned as a choice, “Don’t feel guilty. Guilt isn’t good.” I’m baffled. In an era where we recoil at demanding responsibility for horrendous crimes—the Twinkie defense, affluenza, or childhood neglect made me do it—we do, however, demand responsibility for feelings.
"Condemning a person suffering from dysthymia for choosing sadness is ethically wrong. The sufferer must contend, in addition to the inner-turmoil, guilt for suffering."
We are not powerless. Emotions slowly conform to healthy thought. We invite healing to soothe past hurts through mindful practices. Healing is complex. Hurts are entangled in memories. Deep wounds impacting emotions are not washed away with magical thinking. Negativity isn’t the cause of pain, past-experience is. Positive thinking isn’t, however, bunk. It plays a significant role in growth; but we must realize that thinking alone isn’t the complete answer. Expressing gratitude, acknowledging unnecessary negative thoughts, and focusing on joys are tools worthy of developing.
We should constructively work to address and soothe pains without denying them necessary space in our lives. Some hurts quickly heal while remaining a significant part of our past—adding to our wisdom and compassion. Other wounds—especially childhood hurts—aren’t so easily cured. Constantly resurfacing throughout our lives. We may never completely escape the emotional impacts of the past, but we can compassionately accept these emotions, building a healthy conceptual context around the felt experience. With growth, we can become adept at identifying remnants from past hurts. We skillfully navigate the emotions to mitigate their interference with current important relationships—having an understanding partner helps with this difficult task.
Increasing skills of self-nurturance is essential to address, process, and resolve hurts. Mindful reflection is a constructive approach, inviting improvement. Seemingly random events begin to make greater sense. Our lives increase in wisdom with larger perspectives (see widening view); new experience no longer feels chaotic. With acceptance of the unknown, our futures become more connected to our present. Future hopes are not ill-defined dreams but an interwoven part of a defined plan. We recognize our role in the complex and unfolding universe. With our growing knowledge, we exercise caution. We can’t avoid all the unknowns but manage to avoid obvious dangers that inflict new wounds in need of care. The small steps of improvement lead towards healthier living, and healthier living invites more growth. The positive cycle of change is born, and we delight in the unfolding of complexity.