Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
(Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3, lines 73-80)
I ended the last post with a question:
Maybe this is partly why I ignored the whispers to hang on in there, shot the albatross in the heat of a conflict situation, and betrayed myself in the process. At least I think it was. Maybe this, rather surprisingly, is the lesson Bahá’u’lláh wants me to learn from all this crackle in my system. Can I, should I make a virtue of uncertainty, at least in some circumstances, and have the courage of my confusion?
This leaves another question still hanging in the air: ‘Maybe there are situations where waiting is clearly a mistake, and then isn’t doing something better than dithering indefinitely?’ And if so, how do I tell the difference? And when I sense a difference, how do I step back from the clamour in my head and stay still with no sense of guilt? We’ll be coming onto that aspect of things soon now.
Given my default position of doubt, it’s no wonder that Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I resonate to most strongly. ‘Now could I do it pat!’ except he can’t. Instinct gives way to the scanning of intellect. He stands ‘mammering,’ as Othello scathingly refers to this kind of hesitation.
It is intriguing to note at this point that if Othello had been in Hamlet’s shoes, Hamlet would have been much shorter and far less interesting, probably ending at Act I, Scene 2, shortly after Othello had left the battlements and cut his uncle’s throat before breakfast, whereas, if Hamlet had starred in Othello, Desdemona would probably still be alive, with Iago on a perilous mission somewhere in Africa, probably never to return. Neither play would have worked as a tragedy, or even as a comedy for that matter, as it would have lacked the necessary mismatch between character and situation.
To return to the main issue, ‘mammering’ has a bad press in our culture. ‘He who hesitates is lost,’ we parrot, ‘Strike while the iron is hot!’ quite forgetting that it might just possibly be better to look before we leap. Such a bad press in fact that it has taken me quite some time to recognise the possibility that there could be times when mammering is the best policy. He who hesitates may well be the wisest of them all.
Indecision is pathologised in our culture, but that should be when it’s a pattern which disables our ability to decide what to eat, where to go for a walk, what book or clothes to buy – none of which is the case with me as far as I can tell. Maybe refusing to decide to act when the stakes are too high, nothing is clear and we don’t really have to, is quite rational and in fact the toughest decision to make, not a sign of weakness at all.
The question though that confronts me every time in every situation is, ‘Is this situation one of those where mammering is best?’
Trying to apply this kind of thinking more closely to the actuality of an experience is also difficult for all of us. What happens when a specific situation presses a button, for example when we are convinced that someone close has lied to us? What do we say or do when a trusted friend has refused to help us? How do we deal with the soreness left after we feel betrayed and an important bond had been badly damaged if not completely broken?
Well, I think I might have a glimpse of the answer to those kinds of questions.
I think I now realise, and not just intellectually, that there is a huge difference between the reality we see when we stand back and the reality we experience when we allow the hurt to distort our perceptions, and the crucial Trafalgar we fight is when we battle not to board the ship whose sails are perceptions with the wind of hurt behind them.
When the pain and the reality collide and pressurise me to warp my perception and experience and decide something destructive, I need to learn to stand back and, first, tell myself that storm water on the mind’s window doesn’t alter what’s outside, and, second, that, with friends and family especially but perhaps with human kind as a whole, the basic relationship can only be blurred by pain but need not be destroyed by it – not even if we plan never to speak to or spend time with them again.
We are all inextricably linked, as Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner implies, so to use emotional pain on the spur of the moment as an excuse, for example, for not speaking again ever, while human and understandable, is not a viable way forward. (Physical harm is a different matter of course and requires that measures be taken as soon as possible to secure our safety.) I also agree that there are a very few people we might know whose speech comes to be too dangerous to listen to ever again: verbal abuse and systematic denigration, for example, should not be endured. I’d have to be sure you’re such a person before I cut you off completely.
But I am dealing now with what I would call the routine mainstream of human relationships, where there are serious mistakes but no calculated malice. In such circumstances, ‘I’m not taking this crap any more!’ and walking out might sound like strong minded forthrightness, but all too often it’s only camouflaged cowardice.
So, what has all this got to do with the Three-Brain model? How could that possible help?
The Three Brain Model Revisited
Well, a key issue is to learn how to step back from all the usual programming that tempts us to press the button marked ‘Fire’ too early, in case we kill an albatross. As we discussed earlier, different parts of our brain system are triggered in different ways along different time-scales.
When we lived in caves and usually had only one chance to learn how to recognise and escape from a tiger, instinct was really handy. It still is. It helps us get out of the way of an oncoming train and sense if an attack in a dark alley is likely to happen. It also tends to mistake a black plastic bag for a mugger.
So, basically, it’s a good idea to put our instincts on a leash when we’re not in clear physical danger. We can allow the warning light to keep flashing, but we don’t have to attack or escape until we’ve made sure that the threat is real. Sometimes, even when the threat is real, we can keep the leash tight in order, for example, to help others out of danger before we escape ourselves. We can even save an albatross before we save ourselves. This over-ride is one of the things that makes us human rather than simply animal, though I accept that some animals can demonstrate something remarkably like altruism.
The ability to pull on the leash before the leopard leaps needs constant practice. Mindfulness helps. The earlier we can learn to spot the reaction the better the chance we have of stopping it and swapping it for a more considered response.
If we can keep the leash tight and keep calm as well, something that also comes with practice as we learn how to step mindfully back from our reactions, thinking remains possible.
In our culture, thinking tends to have pride of place. Science and logic are highly valued. We love the way we can analyse experience. There are huge advantages to this way of working. We go way beyond gut reactions, which can only really be trusted when situations are crisp, clear and self-evident or else, if complex, are predictably patterned and deeply familiar.
Such situations are most certainly not the only ones we meet in our complex and global society, far different from the forests of our distant origins. Snap judgements can now be seriously flawed, and the flaws grow in size as situations become more complex and chaotic. So, taking the time and making the effort to work things out carefully pays off in all complex situations where the consequences, though not necessarily life-threatening, could be scarily high. My home, my health or my wealth could be at stake. In addition to Kahneman’s work already referred to, Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, has much to say about how, for example, we can become better at making difficult decisions about what steps to take to mend our health (page 219-267).
We need to dig a bit deeper still.
I have produced a very left-brain diagram to roughly illustrate a right-brain model. Hopefully, if my left-brain buys it, there might be some chance it will give my right-brain enough space and time to function! The ellipse labelled Conscious Awareness represents a process and is not meant to be reified (or deified for that matter). In terms of the discussion below it is primarily to be seen as ‘consciousness influenced by brain systems/processes’ and restricted by the brain’s limited but nonetheless impressive capacity to act as a receiver of signals.
To place this in a context, which I won’t be exploring in this post, conscious awareness (CA) is underpinned by preconscious processes and rests on a brain foundation of unconscious responses, usually termed ‘subliminal’ in the psychology literature. Also, for a Bahá’í and an Irreducible Mind enthusiast such as me, Mind in its totality is a sphere of potential consciousness, within which the ellipse of CA resides, and which emanates from a spiritual dimension to which our brains can only achieve an intermittent connection at best for most of us.
As the diagram attempts to show, if we think of the input from each of these brain systems as radio, television or satellite signals, then the instinctual signal is strongest. In the brain as it is wired, it also has a fast track and begins to trigger a reaction before the higher centres know what’s going on, hence the long thin wiring to the intellect and intuition. Also the descending neural pathways used to help the higher centres of the brain keep calm are fewer in number than the ascending ones raising the alarm. They do win in the end though if we use them enough and wisely.
So, putting instinct on hold can be very difficult in situations where our feelings are running high. Also, as Baumeister and Tierney have analysed in detail, our ability to restrain ourselves can tire just like a muscle, and our grip on our instincts is loosened. They wrote in February 2012’s edition of The Psychologist:
. . . . self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. . . .
A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of self- control.
However, as the brain learns with practice to use the higher centres to hold back the tiger on each particular issue, we can get better at it, self-restraint develops more stamina, can hold on longer, and our fangs and claws may therefore more rarely rip into impetuous action.
The signal from the intellect is weaker than instinct’s and, although the diagram can’t show it clearly without muddling the main issue, the emotional centre of the archaic brain can keep interfering with the thinking process and colouring its deliberations. We can be infected by irrational fear, anger, impatience and so on, and, to make matters worse, because of our confirmation bias we will be very tempted to look only at the evidence that feeds our prejudices. We have to work very hard to keep the tiger in check, and to make ourselves look at evidence that contradicts our instinctive assumptions. That’s why paradigm shifts are so difficult to make in science as well as everywhere else: scientists are not immune to the impact of the primitive emotional investments they’ve made in what they have come to believe. Anyone interested in that area of exasperation need only read Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain, the Kellys’ Irreducible Mind, or Malcolm Kendrick’s Doctoring Data.
However, more often than we realise, there are other serious limitations to our logical thinking processes in themselves as well, against which we also have to guard. Iain McGilchrist has explored the ramifications of this in his excellent book The Master & His Emissary, in which he argues that the way we privilege our left-brain logical linguistic mode of processing is fraught with danger: we have to balance it with the right-brain holistic intuitive approach, which is sensitive to our connectedness with others and able to correct distortions in our schematic mapping. The so-called ‘rational’ processes aren’t geared to securing a good grasp of values, human relationships, complex organic interactions, spiritual dimensions, wholes rather than parts and so on. Through right-brain processes we can have access to a mind that is far better at dealing with such things, but we do not often give it the time to operate effectively nor are we good at attending to its findings, which tend to come not in words but in intimations, metaphors, symbols, dreams, and other intuitive shapes. At least this is how it seems to me things usually are in our spiritually illiterate culture.
When any factors such as values are involved we would do well to step back from our thoughts, quieten our minds and wait – and I don’t mean wait for just a few minutes. Sometimes I have waited for days, weeks or in rare cases, with various difficult issues, months before either meditation, dreams or apparently random flashes of insight come bursting in with the answer – or possibly not bursting in but whispering the solution quietly in the background, waving somewhere from a far corner of my mind’s eye. Unfortunately our receiver is not good at tuning into the signal from the wisest part of ourselves that makes the best decisions, and we experience its signal as frustratingly weak, so weak sometimes we convince ourselves it does not exist, and blast on regardless.
So when reason has done all it’s work, it can be best to wait if there is no real urgency, but waiting is very hard to do, especially when we do not believe there will be anything worth waiting for – I’m sure that there will be all sorts of imaginary reasons our mind can manufacture to persuade us that we cannot and need not wait. Under mindful inspection such spurious reasons burst like soap bubbles on a pin. If there is a valid reason why we must act now, then perhaps we should, but not unless. Rushing to react kills albatrosses, something that waiting for the wisdom of intuition will help us avoid.
A Traffic-Light System
What I am suggesting is a simple set of traffic lights.
Sorry they’re up side down in the picture above but I couldn’t reconcile myself to placing instinct on a higher level than intuition and reason, even to create a more familiar symbol. But at least I discussed them in the familiar order. It’s a simple visual reminder, when there is a lot at stake, to stop, put all action on hold, if no danger threatens. Then to think hard for as long as necessary to get a grip on what’s really going on, and even then, only to act if it’s genuinely urgent. If we can do that, marinating our minds in the complexity of the issue, we will inevitably gain access to a rich and subtle vein of creative processing that will enable us to make truly wise as against hastily quick, or apparently clever decisions that might be missing something vital and doing serious harm.
It is my belief also that once we achieve this level of consciousness, can tune into it at will, though not necessarily consistently, and can begin to avoid our usual mistakes, even perhaps beginning to compensate for some past errors as well, the weight of unnecessary guilt, rage, self-blame and angst will fall off our shoulders, we will stand straighter and see much further.
At least that’s where I’ve got up to in my thinking so far! I hope it was worth sharing my mariner experience. If not, writing it down as clearly as I can might help me remember when the next albatross is in danger.
 I was shocked to discover (or perhaps to be reminded) that I wasn’t the first person to think of this possibility. In December 2015, six months after posting this, I read, on page 149 of Mark Edmundson’s brilliant Self & Soul, ‘A. C. Bradley has said that if you put Hamlet into Othello’s play, the prince will quickly make Iago [out] for what he is and just laugh him to scorn. In Hamlet’s place, Othello would draw his sword and slice Claudius nave to chops in the first act. In either case: no play.’ I definitely read Bradley 50 years ago. Was this then a case of cryptoamnesia? I think so. What does that suggest about the rest of what I write? I dread to think and feel obliged to apologise to anyone I have inadvertently plagiarised.