Sean King

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San Juan, Puerto Rico, United States

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Part I, Chapter 2: The Perplexing Power of Paradigms

As noted at the top of this page in the left margin, I've decided to serialize and publish on this blog a book that I've been working on for some time. Below is the third installment. Consult the Table of Contents at the right of this page for a chronological listing of posts.

So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key.

--The Eagles

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth…that you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.
--Morpheus, The Matrix

For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.
--The Apostle Paul

Man's task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.
--Carl Jung

When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.
--Carl Jung

Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
--Frank Outlaw

Fittingly, the word “paradigm” is Greek in origin. It is used today in scientific circles to mean a model, or theory or frame of reference. However, for purposes of this book, the word “paradigm” refers figuratively to the lens or “matrix” through which we “see” the world. By lens and matrix, I mean all of the unconscious history, knowledge, biases, attitudes and beliefs--sometimes called “scripts” or “maps”—which filter reality and cause our subjective minds to perceive the world in a certain way.

The concept of a simple paradigm can be illustrated by contemplating this image.

Some people’s paradigms will cause their minds to unconsciously focus on the negative space (the white space), and they will see a vase or chalice. Other’s will unconsciously focus on the positive space (the black space), and they will see two faces in profile examining each other. But which interpretation is correct?

Arguably neither. The diagram is in reality simply ink on a piece of paper. However our individual backgrounds, experiences, and biases (i.e., our paradigms) cause our minds to effortlessly and unconsciously interpret the lines as either a vase or faces, or perhaps even something else. We don’t have to work at it, we don’t have to think about it, it just happens. How our minds interpret abstractions reveals much about our unconscious paradigms, and this is one reason for the “ink blot” tests stereotypically employed psychologists.

Some years ago I had a series of experiences that awakened me to the influence of paradigms over my life: In college I came across a translation of a book originally written in the Far East. The book explained how various inanimate objects emit different types and levels of undetectable energy, called “chi”. It went on to explain that the nature of an object’s chi varies depending upon its shape, color, composition, and other factors. It further described how some shape and color combinations emit a soothing energy, others a frenetic energy, and it even went on to suggest that the energy emitted by some objects can be so negative as to adversely impact one’s health.

Reading this document through my Western eyes, the idea that inanimate objects somehow emit mystical chi energy that affects me seemed silly. I dismissed the document as unscientific nonsense from an ancient, superstitious era.

Sometime months later, I casually mentioned the document and my reaction to a friend. She told me that it was quite common in Asia even today to believe that objects emit energy that influences us. This is, I was told, the very basis behind the common Chinese practice of Feng Shui which has become popular in the West in recent years. She queried why I had dismissed the concept out to hand. I replied, “You don’t seriously believe there’s anything to that superstitious nonsense, do you?” She responded by asking if I thought that several thousand years of Asian culture was nonsense. My only reply was, rather embarrassingly now, “it sure sounds like it to me.”

Sometime later I attended an undergraduate level psychology class. One day the professor gave a lecture in which he mentioned numerous studies performed on the human psyche’s reaction to different colors, shapes, etc. See, for instance, this study. Such studies have demonstrated, for example, that it is more difficult to stop a person’s bleeding if he or she is treated in a red room verses a room with more soothing colors. Similar studies have confirmed that certain colors stimulate our appetite, while others are known to suppress it. Finally, the professor noted that our immune systems react to certain colors of green in adverse ways, while responding positively to other colors.

Because the lecture was presented using the words of the “Western” paradigm that unconsciously shaped my worldview—that is, because the professor explained how our psyches react to certain colors, rather than how colors act upon us, I didn’t think twice about it. The conclusions of the studies seemed perfectly reasonable to me. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that it was not until many years later that I realized there is, as a practical matter, no difference between the Western view that we react to certain colors and shapes in predictable ways, and the Eastern view that certain colors and shapes emit or reflect energy (light?) that acts upon us in predictable ways. Both models, or paradigms, adequately describe the same phenomenon, the same reality, for all practical purposes. But for years, my absolute immersion in the Western paradigm prevented me from seeing this now obvious fact.

Through a Glass Darkly

Through the exercise of will, simple, harmless paradigms can usually be placed under our conscious control. For instance, in viewing the vases/faces image linked above, most of us have no problem “shifting our paradigm” or changing our perspective at will to see either vases or faces. But, as my story above illustrates, we are almost always unaware of the most powerful paradigms, those that most influence our view of the world. In fact, it is purely our ignorance of them that accounts for our inability to control them and explains there influence over us. As the eminent psychologist Carl Jung recognized in Man and His Symbols:

[Contemporary Man] is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by “powers” that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food—and above all, a large array of neoroses.

Each of us believes that we see the world as it is—that is, that we are objective. But psychologists have demonstrated beyond any doubt that this simply is not the case. We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. Said another way, we see the world as our egos, regulated by our unconscious, are conditioned to perceive it. When describing the world to others, we don’t describe objective reality, but rather our subjective interpretation of it, an interpretation that is warped by the lens or matrix of our unconscious “underworld”, our paradigms.

In his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Steven Covey relays a story that illustrates how our unconscious paradigms affect our interpretation of reality in day-to-day life. He recalls riding a subway in New York one peaceful Sunday morning when a man and his children entered the car. The children were very loud and obnoxious, threw things across the subway car, and were even grabbing other passenger’s newspapers. Yet, their father did nothing. This continued for quite some time.

A number of beliefs (paradigms) are implicated here: Children shouldn’t misbehave in public. Children shouldn’t disturb others. Parents should intercede when they do. As one might imagine, Dr. Covey’s agitation began to build. He became irritated. He recalls that he eventually felt compelled to speak: Managing to Maintain his composure, he approached the father and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The father immediately and sincerely apologized and informed Dr. Covey that the family had all just left the hospital where the children’s mother, and his wife, had died less than an hour ago. “I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either," the father said.

Imagine how Dr. Covey felt. His whole perspective was changed in an instant. Upon perceiving things they really were, rather than through his paradigm of how children “should” behave, Dr. Covey recalls that his agitation was immediately gone and he felt overwhelming compassion for the family.

Sometimes changing our perspective, or shifting our paradigm, just happens automatically once additional information is made available, as was the case with Dr. Covey. But in other cases it takes an exercise of will. To this day it takes effort for me to explain the world through an Asian’s eyes, but explaining it through the Western paradigm comes naturally. In fact, viewing life through the Western paradigm comes so effortlessly that I often forget I’m “using” a given paradigm to interpret the world at all. The result? I often confuse my worldview with the world. I see truth “through a glass darkly” and not “face to face.” To paraphrase Anais Nin, we don't see things the way they are but the way we are.

Bringing Paradigms into Consciousness

Therefore, to the extent we continue to remain unaware of our paradigms, we don’t live in reality and we are not free to follow our true will. Rather, we exist in a make-believe world of our own creation. We make decisions on autopilot, and those decisions are powerfully influenced by our unconscious assumptions, prejudices, and instincts—i.e., our paradigms. Said poetically, we “live our lives in chains”, directed by “powers beyond our control” that appear from our subjective perspective to dictate our fate. As Morpheus noted,, until we recognize that we are “born” into a “prison for our minds” which we “cannot smell or taste or touch”, we are blinded to the “truth” that we are “slaves”. (The observant reader may begin to recognize how this understanding that we are born into bondage is both very similar to, and yet completely different from, the Literalist Christian teaching of “original sin”.)

One problem with this, and there are many, is that a great number of our paradigms simply aren’t useful—that is, they don’t “work” because they don’t reflect an accurate interpretation of reality. Consequently, and to put it bluntly, they are irrational, and their result is to interfere with our ability to live effortlessly in the world.

For instance, the paradigm that one plus one equals two is a useful and rational one because it comports with reality (i.e., it has not to date been falsified). Therefore, when we employ it, things are easier because we live in harmony with what is “real”. But imagine if we unconsciously thought that one plus one equals three, and that this idea influenced every aspect of our lives. How much trouble and struggle would that simple, single error create? This one erroneous “belief” would cause us to live in disharmony with nature, to our never ending misery.

Now fortunately, most of us don’t harbor this particular irrational paradigm, but that should not give us much comfort because psychologists have demonstrated conclusively that we all cling unconsciously to an untold number of equally absurd ideas, many of which are even mutually contradictory (so-called cognitive dissonance). These cause personal strife and untold pain and misery and yet, so long as they remain unconscious, we are powerless to change them. We live our lives in chains, never even knowing that we have the key.

Knowing That We Have the Key

It follows from the above that we can perceive truth with greater clarity if we bring our unconscious paradigms into consciousness. As noted previously, it’s primarily our ignorance of them that gives paradigms their great power over us. Simple recognition decreases their distortion substantially. Hence, the more conscious we become of our hidden paradigms, the freer we become.

Hence, consciousness is the key. Consciousness is truth. Consciousness is life. Consciousness is the way. Consciousness is freedom. It is not by accident that Lady Liberty, the United States' symbol of freedom, holds a light, the universal symbol of consciousness, over her head.

But how do we become conscious of unconscious paradigms? Many effective techniques have been taught over the years by mystics and psychologists alike. In fact, we’ve already discussed one of them--asking the mind to interpret abstractions such as inkblots. But, this technique generally requires the assistance of a therapist, a luxury that most can't afford.

Fortunately, one of the most effective methods of bringing our paradigms to light is also one of the easiest, and it doesn’t require the assistance of others. It involves simply recognizing our emotions and considering their source. Those who practice this regularly can attest that anytime we experience significant emotions, unconscious paradigms are implicated. Emotions are really nothing more than the physical expression of unconscious thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and biases. As such, they provide tell-tale clues to the existence of these hidden paradigms. By noticing our emotions and feelings, and analyzing why we feel the way we do about certain things, our paradigms slowly but surely begin surfacing into consciousness. After all, why do you think the stereotypical psycho-therapist is constantly asking his patient, “And how did that make you feel?”

The irritation experienced by Dr. Covey in the subway car that Sunday morning could have alerted him to one or more of his unconscious paradigms. Contemplating this source of this agitation might have proven enlightening: It didn’t result from the unruly children, but rather from his unconscious paradigm that children “should not” misbehave in public, and that they “should” be corrected if they do. Had this paradigm been brought to consciousness sooner, Dr. Covey could have pondered whether it always holds true, or whether there are some circumstances when a parent might permit his children to misbehave, or even be oblivious to their misbehavior. And this might have permitted Dr. Covey to recognize that something was wrong much sooner, to his own personal relief.

As You Read, Notice Your Feelings!

As previously stated, the balance of this book will challenge the most fundamental paradigms of Literalist Christianity. As a result, it’s sure to cause an avalanche of feelings and emotions in many who read it. To the extent this may happen, I hope the reader will understand it’s not me or the words in this book that cause the feelings, but rather the reader’s own unconscious beliefs, assumptions, and biases (i.e., the paradigms) that are triggered by my words.

The powerful emotions that result from implicated paradigms should not be resisted or ignored. Rather, they should be recognized and fully experienced. By experiencing these feelings rather than suppressing them, and by meditating upon their cause, much information previously hidden will be brought to consciousness where it can be analyzed in the light of the facts described herein and otherwise known to the reader. After subjecting a given paradigm to this scrutiny, the reader is free to retain those that prove valid and useful in light known facts, but the reader must be prepared to sacrifice any that don’t, no matter how sacred the cow. Once brought to light, no sane, intellectually honest person is free to retain a paradigm that is inconsistent with reality. As Sam Harris has noted:

We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called “mad,” “psychotic,” or “delusional.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, at 72)

If the reader is prepared to “seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will”, then proceed. But understand in advance that truth costs dearly. And understand further that:

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Morpheus, The Matrix)

If the reader is prepared to proceed down the rabbit-hole, it’s time to ponder how a single unconscious paradigm has shaped our understanding of the Bible, of Christianity, and of our world for the last 1600 years.


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