Old habits die hard, right? For more than three years I’ve written whatever seemed interesting in the moment. Despite an earlier resolve, something in my system balks at posting only memoir pieces. It feels contrived. Which raises the question: what is going on in my “system” that generates habits, balking, and judgments?
Brain science has come a long way since my days as a neurophysiology graduate student (to be described soon in the memoir thread), and even back then it wouldn’t have been possible for one person to know all available facts. I’ve long contented myself with using bits of knowledge about neuroscience to inform my views of human life.
For instance, the brain has no central operating core. It consists, instead, of numerous semi-autonomous regions that interconnect. These centers compete for dominance. For instance, if blood sugar is low, foci related to appetite and feeding will gain ascendance. If an appealing mate comes into view, discursive thoughts about grocery lists lose out to juicier content. If someone rebukes us, centers responsible for fear, anger, and embarrassment kick in.
We don’t need to invoke brain science to recognize that minds work like this; we need only examine our daily experience. Describing a system of modular regions that communicate but also compete merely explains what’s going on under the hood. Brain science provides structural proof that no single aspect of personality can secure control for long.
And yet, I feel a sense of personal cohesion. I claim ownership of my actions, thoughts, and feelings. Which raises the question: what does “I” represent? The brain’s make-up (and experiments with patients after brain damage) invites the conclusion that “self” may be just another module competing for dominance. The self-function seems designed to simulate a sense of personal determination and stability. It claims control, but does not exercise it.
The Buddha denied the existence of a controlling self, and in my opinion this was his most impressive realization. Through introspection alone, he ferreted out a fundamental truth about the brain.
If there is no controlling center, is it fair to judge my “self” on the basis of behavior? Consider slips of the tongue. Sometimes I accidentally blurt out comments that offend or shock others. Yet in no way does my conscious “self” choose to speak thus. Should I feel ashamed when this happens if I can’t prevent it?
What about crimes of passion? The law treats sudden acts of violence more leniently than those coolly planned. We forgive, to some extent, a loss of “self” control because we know how easily it can happen. (And consider that if “self” gives only the illusion of personal mastery, and not its actuality, then most misbehavior must be unconsciously motivated. Guilt is claimed after the fact by a conscious “self” that would rather feel blameworthy than admit impotence.)
If thoughts, feelings, and actions arise from disconnected brain regions without central direction, how can we justify punishing ourselves and others for unskillful speech and behavior?
The criminal justice system operates on the assumption that punishments will deter or rehabilitate criminals, or effect retribution. It’s a solution to disruptive behavior with a long and spotty history. Its aim is social harmony even if its effects are often the opposite. But within a single mind, self-reproach serves no purpose. It neither deters nor rehabilitates, and it doesn’t repair injuries. It only stimulates feelings of shame and self-loathing. One can resolve to try harder without hammering the psyche.
If judging my so-called self harshly is unfair and undermines wellbeing, the same must be true of criticism leveled against me by others. External judgments arise from mental activity in other brains, no more reliable or controllable than my own. Why grant them the power to bruise my sense of worth?
By the same token, we should resist judging those around us. And yet we habitually criticize politicians, neighbors, freeway drivers, and so on, even though each is a conglomerate of influences without central control. We demonize internal directors that do not exist.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advocate better behavior. At times imprisonment or fines appear necessary. But we need to be cautious about condemnations. They are directed at a fictional controlling self, they invite payback, and they don’t make anyone act more skillfully.
Judgments are unreliable. They are products of entangled mental streams, lifetimes of conditioning, unconscious prejudice, and much other material that lacks objective basis. Whether directed at ourselves, other people, society, or something like God, they are arbitrary constructs that in no way capture ultimate truth. They are opinions only, which means they are debatable. And this is true whether said opinions are generated by my own brain or someone else’s.
These realizations, as disconnected as they sound, have helped me find freedom. I no longer feel bound by internal or external criticism.
When I forgive others their humanity, I appreciate my own. The more I release the idea of fixed and punishable self, the more I connect with all that is flowing, untethered, and alive.
What’s more, letting go of judgment makes me more flexible and less resistant. I can abandon old habits without constraining my behavior with a new rigidity.Share on Facebook