Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Mind War: Part Six -- All My Little Boxes

This post has taken a really long time to finish. In part it's because it's been a rough couple of weeks, both out there in the world and in my household. It's also because I've needed to employ the techniques in this email quite heavily during that time, which made it hard to write about. You'll see what I mean...

I think the first time I really understood the nature of the challenge was just over a decade ago.  This was back when I was in more of an individual contributor type role at my job. I was invited to attend a day long conference session hosted by a large tech company in a nearby town. We had purchased this company's platform software and they were hosting a show and tell of various tool vendors for local platform subscribers. Basically, this company hosted the venue and provided food and snacks. The vendors had tables with free swag and marketing material. And each vendor had a presentation to sell us on their software tool. Cost to us: $0.00.

So we're in this air conditioned high rise conference room, eating gourmet box lunches and cookies and free sodas and coffee, listening to these companies pitch us on their stuff. And behind the projector screen is this wall of windows. And there was this guy, out in the scorching sun, washing the windows.

And I just had this moment of, well, painful moral conflict.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I had skin on my skull

Another example, conveniently from my time at the same company (my entire stint there was a huge learning experience, concurrent with my Saturn return). At the time, the company was located in the mountains outside of town, a pain to drive in the winter, but a lovely area. I discovered that there was a Cretan labyrinth nearby, on private property but open to the public. Completely private, up in the woods behind this house. So I'd go on my break, stop by the little wooden box to leave a donation and sign the guestbook and walk the labyrinth. I never saw another visitor there and was never disturbed.

The space was highly liminal and I had a number of powerful experiences there. One in particular left me spiritually as well as figuratively disheveled. Grass in my hair, honey on my hands and forehead, dirt under my nails. It can't be spoken about of course, but it remains one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had.

I was not myself and not fully in the normal world. I barely managed to get into the car and drive back to work for a meeting.

I hereby call the meeting to order!
In the introduction to The Chaos Protocols, Gordon wrote "Cognitive dissonance has scuppered many magicians' ships before they have even left the harbour." With his flair for understatement, he's touching on something that I've rarely read about, but have found critical for my own practice and, indeed, my life.

From a purely psychological point of view, cognitive dissonance is a sense of psychological discomfort caused by a disconnect between different values / beliefs or between values / beliefs and actions. So, for example you believe that all people are fundamentally equal. However at the same time you believe that people of a certain culture or gender are less talented at math and science. Or you say that you are egalitarian, but you'd rather your wife didn't work.

Humans don't, as a rule, like the discomfort this causes. So in order to keep from feeling this discomfort, they engage in one of several different tactics of dissonance reduction:
  • First, they may engage in an effort to resolve the dissonance through examination and introspection and change either belief or action. This is the most difficult path to take and therefore the least common.
  • Second, they may engage in rationalization to create an artificial sense of resolution. So, the people who aren't good at math are good at other things (like language or sports) so it's OK. Or the reason you don't want your wife to work is because of how much you value your children, and not your latent sexism. You fix the disconnect in your head by creating a story, which is not truth so much as a pleasant fiction that makes you feel good.
  • Third, you engage in compartmentalization. This is a process where you separate the thoughts in your head that conflict. So you believe A and B, but you just make a point of not believing them at the same time. 
So that's the psychology. And I'd say that if you are engaging in this kind of cognitive dissonance, the first tactic is your best bet.

Modern psychology suggests that people attempt to integrate their beliefs and actions to avoid cognitive dissonance. However this is not sufficient for the practicing magician. I work hard to live by my values (and probably fail as much as the next person) and to avoid justifications. However, I find that I have to deal with a slightly different kind of cognitive dissonance that requires a different approach.

First, there's the dissonance that comes from living in a world that's bought into the materialist model and yet experiencing things that lie far outside that model. That aren't just outside of it, but that break the model in some interesting ways. So I believe in the reality of cause and effect, while at the same time believing in temporal magic. I believe in the scientific method, while giving equal time to things that may not be provable using those methods.

The biggest issue here is how my behavior reads to a world that's not ready for my belief system. If I know things that are technically unknowable through the materialist model, what can I do with that knowledge? If my practices are strange (and this wyrde sometimes shows on my face or my actions) what is the impact to the parts of my life that interact most with the mundane world?

Second, there's the classic dissonance that comes from holding multiple contradictory beliefs in my head. However, my experience of the nature of the universe as a magician means that those beliefs are all equally TRUE. So, for example, are the Gods extant beings or psychological constructs? YES. Do we reincarnate or do we stay on to help our descendants or do we go back into the universe? YES.

Unlike typical psychological dissonance, these types of dissonances can't be fixed by changing ones-self, because the dissonance is either out in the world or due to the paradoxical nature of the world itself. So if we can't resolve the dissonance in this way, what do we do?

Psychology doesn't answer this question because it assumes that all dissonance is caused by a problem in mindset and not by the nature of reality. Of course psychology is the hammer to the mental problem nail so this isn't surprising.

Many a magician does engage in rationalization to resolve the dissonances. If the rationalizations are complex and broad enough, you end up with metaphysics, cosmologies, even theologies. Still, explaining away a conflict through narrative doesn't make the conflict go away.

It's also possible to hold competing and paradoxical views in your head together. This feels a lot like stretching the brain and it's good for you. But it takes effort and energy and, possibly, entheogens. It's not something that most people can sustain 24/7 and not necessarily something that you'd want to, particularly if you have mundane responsibilities.

Finally, there's the technique that I frequently employ -- conscious compartmentalization. I say conscious because technically it's supposed to be unconscious as a reaction to dissonance. But I like to employ it consciously to keep myself productive, sane, and socially acceptable. Here are some of the ways this works:

  • I like my job and care about what goes on at work. I do so while objectively understanding that my job means nothing and that I'm just a speck in the larger cosmos. I need to care about work when I'm work to be successful, so I allow it to matter when I'm working. However, I don't allow it to matter in a context larger than that because that would be harmful to my sense of perspective.

    If you have a difficult time with this, it could be that you simply need a more engaging job. A job where you can be interested and interesting. Note, this doesn't specifically have to be a job with larger humanitarian meaning. I don't save babies at my job, but I love it and it's easy for me to care about my company and clients when I'm there. That said, if I needed to move on, I could do so by remembering that everything changes and one job isn't really any big deal in the larger scope of things.
  • I do magic at home and at work and have all kinds of esoteric interests. However, I make an effort to appear relatively normal (by the loose standards of normal here in the Pacific Northwest). I've always strongly felt that it was better to look normal and be interesting than the alternative. And looking normal to the casual observer doesn't harm me and in fact helps me navigate the world. In fact, despite my efforts to appear reasonable mainstream, there are people who react to me with discomfort or even fear for no apparent reason.

    You have to decide how much of this makes sense for you, but I will say this. Being authentic and true to yourself is valuable. However, that goes much deeper than the trappings of your outer appearance. When I put on a suit for meetings at work, it's because it's a common metaphor and symbol of respect and professionalism. It's not because I'm actually any different or less authentically myself. However, if you are surrounded by people that do not allow you to be or express yourself, this can be untenable. There's a reason I live where I do. In that case I recommend changing your environment. In addition, try the next technique as well...
  • I carefully curate the opinions of others, both about the larger world and toward myself. For example, I absolutely care what my boss thinks about my work and my professionalism. I don't at all care what he thinks about me as a person or a parent or anything else. I care what my close friends think about me as a person and a friend, but that means that many people are relegated to acquaintance status in my mind because I specifically don't want to let myself care about their opinions of me. With close friends it matters. I also care deeply about what my spouse thinks of me, on every level, because we share our life so closely. And I care about my child's opinions in the context of their development (when my young teen says "you just hate me!" I do NOT take it personally).

    This is hugely liberating. I'm sure there are people at work who don't particularly like me or want to hang out with me. I hope that they respect me and what I do, because if not I could not be effective in my role. However, whether they like me? Not really my business.
  • In the same vein, I tend to like almost everyone in the appropriate context. So I work hard to find things to like about people I work with and deal with. And I try not to let my disagreement or dislike of them poison the rest of my relationship. I may not agree with them politically or socially or strategically (in terms of work place issues), but I can still work with them and appreciate the things I do agree with them on.

    People are really interesting and I like learning about them. This helps me find ways of relating. I know people who I butt heads with in a professional context who are absolutely the most adorable and doting parents. I focus on the latter when I'm dealing with the former.
  • That said, I keep my personal life personal. I don't think of myself as "in the closet" (I have a Pagan book published under my legal name) but I just don't get into it with people outside of specific contexts. In part it's because some people may be uncomfortable and that would impact my professional or acquaintance level relationship.

    However in part it's because people just don't care. They don't care so aggressively, that even if they don't have obviously biasing misconceptions, they will be made very uncomfortable by having to discuss anything outside of the scientific/materialist paradigm. It's almost like, well, cognitive dissonance. And some of them will do whatever it takes to make that dissonance go away.
  • I make a hard effort to acknowledge inequity and privilege. When I'm in a poncy hotel and people are sleeping on the street outside, I try not to allow myself to ignore that or rationalize it. That said, me being poorer won't make them automatically richer. I do give to charity (I give 10% of my gross CircleThrice income to help the homeless and support a charity called Modest Needs -- highly recommended by the way). Above all, I try to remember that the rules for them are different than the rules for me.

    After having my little family suffer a very serious medical event, I know just how much of what and how we do comes to luck. You can do magic to change the odds, indeed if you have the interest and talent, you must do so. However, you can't always dodge misfortune. Which brings me to...
  • Gratitude -- a practice I highly recommend. When things are going badly -- and look around, there's a lot of badly right now -- we can't give into fear. Fear leads to anger and anger to hate (which I have on good authority leads to the dark side). When we remember how much we have, how wonderful and miraculous life is, and how beautiful and amazing the universe... then we begin to fight that poison -- inside ourselves at first and then the people we connect with. 
So hang in there. Compartmentalize as necessary. Focus on the moment while you side-eye your goals. 

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    At July 27, 2016 at 4:04 AM , Anonymous Scarlet said...

    This makes so much sense to me! I tend to analyze my thoughts a lot when it comes to resolving cognitive dissonance (even when it would probably be easier or more beneficial to compartmentalize, cause I want it to be a conscious decision). Most of the issues that have come up in regard to this can be solved by realizing things can operate on different levels, the same way contradictory beliefs in magic can be equally true (humans reincarnate after death AND stay and help their descendants, and you can explain that by saying that there's a different part of the soul that reincarnates and a different one that stays and helps, or you can think of it as something operating on more levels than we are wired to perceive and that's why it looks contradictory when it's not). Which you could call compartmentalizing I guess, but it's probably closer to what you wrote in your "the rules for them are different than the rules for me" post.

    No matter how much one cares, even if you have a job that doesn't directly harm or exploit people, you'll still live in a world where your clothes, your cell phone etc are mostly produced by people who are practically slaves. Because that's how the system works right now. And it takes a tremendous amount of effort to step out of this role, to make sure nothing you do and nothing you buy exploits other human beings that way. And even if one manages to do so, it will not change the conditions for these people. If one wants to truly do something about it then becoming poor doesn't exactly cut it as a solution for anyone.

    At July 27, 2016 at 5:52 AM , Blogger Noah Acosta said...

    It's interesting to see this written out as I struggle with cognitive dissonance constantly. I am challenged by depression every day and it has taken its toll. It is for me hard to not see the world as nothing more than some sort of prison or curse for something I have done.

    At the same time I know I am absolutely divine and free of blame because tbh I haven't done anything that horrible to deserve this knife in my chest.

    I guess I have been holding conflicting worldviews side by side constantly for a very long time and not just about my mental health.

    At July 27, 2016 at 11:02 AM , Blogger Ivy Bromius said...

    Your latter example is also much more challenging for me personally. And the risk to practical enchantment is that you never reach your goals because so many people have it worse. So it's an important thing to try to come to terms with.

    At July 27, 2016 at 11:05 AM , Blogger Ivy Bromius said...

    My goal is always to acknowledge the bad things but also the good. Trees and butterflies and sunsets (to chose some banal-sounding but potent examples) exist without human attention and approval. They are perfect in and of themselves. This is my goal, but I admit I don't always reach it.


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