Learning to Tolerate Cognitive Dissonance

Learning to Tolerate Cognitive Dissonance

My post on November 22nd spoke of my first act of civil disobedience, during which I experienced the greatest freedom from cognitive dissonance I have experienced since childhood.

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we experience – mental, emotional, and even physical – when our various beliefs are inconsistent with one another, or when our behavior is inconsistent with our beliefs.

Sadly, the relief I found during my experience of nonviolent direct action quickly disappeared as I resumed my ordinary daily life. I was released from jail before dawn on a Friday, and by Monday I was fully immersed back in the surreal ethical conundrum that is modern life in an industrialized society. I drove my car to the gym. The gym inspires me to maintain my health but it costs a lot of money. Then I went grocery shopping, buying stuff that comes from god-knows-where, much of in encased in plastic. I busily tended to my own personal life, setting aside the great climate drama in which I had been so absorbed only a few days before.

I wasn’t surprised my lovely break from cognitive dissonance didn’t last. I’m a Buddhist. I’m devoted to perceiving and accepting the impermanence of all things. Still, it was sad to return so quickly and easily to living out of accord with my conscience.

A few days later, two beloved family friends came over for Thanksgiving dinner, as they do every year. We had a great dinner, cooked by my husband, and spent many hours conversing and simply spending time together. Later in the evening, each of us tried to come up with interesting Youtube videos to which we could expose one another.

The first hour or so of our social gathering, however, was spent with me and Michiel (a Dutch name, approximately pronounced mi-heel) vigorously arguing about how best to respond to the climate crisis. “Arguing” is not exactly the right word, however, because he and I agree on many things. We both agree this is an emergency. We both drive electric cars, have solar panels on our houses, try to avoid single-use plastics whenever possible, and keep ourselves informed about how live with less of a negative impact on our biosphere. I use the term “argue,” however, to convey the passionate tone of our conversation. Notably, our partners busied themselves in the kitchen rather than take part.

A cool thing happened in this conversation. It’s not that we came to any definitive conclusions about the best way to respond to the eco-crisis, but by talking we explored new territory. At least, I realized something new, although I can’t speak for Michiel.

Essentially, we talked about how impossible it was to live in this society without considerable cognitive dissonance. That is, unless we drop out completely and thereby forsake any influence we might have over the trajectory of our society, we pretty much have to continue participating in a system that sustains itself through injustice, greed, corruption, destruction, and obscene levels of consumption. Our verbal explorations kept coming to dead ends about how we could possibly change that situation.

At a certain point, a thought occurred to me. What if bodhisattva practice, in our strange, modern, pre-apocalyptic world, requires cultivating tolerance for cognitive dissonance? There are essentially two typical responses to resolving the discomfort of cognitive dissonance if it arises from a conflict between your beliefs and your behavior: You change your behavior, or you change your beliefs. When, as is usually the case, you don’t want to – or don’t feel like it’s an option to – change your behavior, you find a way to rationalize it.

I wonder if the truest fulfillment of my bodhisattva vows in the crazy-making situation of this world might be to stay engaged in it enough to make a difference – thereby causing cognitive dissonance – but then cultivate tolerance for the discomfort caused by that dissonance rather than rationalize my behavior. In other words, I will not practice denial mixed with selective case-making in order to make myself feel better. When I do that, I lose touch with the truth, and I fail to respond when the situation calls for it.

What a fascinating idea! Most of the time I feel guilty for not renouncing my entire practical and material life in a full and authentic response to my own conscience. What if there is – as we say in Buddhism – a “middle way” in all of this? Not getting caught in either extreme, whether it’s rationalizing a life lived largely for my own security and pleasure, or it’s leaving everything behind in a relentless search for purity. What if the most useful thing is to endure some cognitive dissonance while going about my bodhisattva activity?

I realize this may sound like the ultimate rationalization: “You’re never going to be able to appease your conscience while participating in this society, so just stop worrying about it! Enjoy yourself and give yourself a break!” But this isn’t the approach I want to take. Instead, I want to remain painfully cognizant of the harm I am perpetrating by participating in our modern, industrial, ultra-consumptive society. I don’t want to let myself off the hook for anything.

But maybe, just maybe, the most effective way to make a difference in this world is walk the middle way, accepting the continued presence of cognitive dissonance as a burden to be borne – letting go of the obsessive drive for the ultimate purity that will disperse it forever. But accepting the cognitive dissonance not for the sake of pursuing my own pleasure and satisfaction, but for the sake of operating in the world in a beneficial way.

Time For Contemplation: Turning Toward the Absolute

Time For Contemplation: Turning Toward the Absolute

Last week I was at a meditation retreat at a Zen monastery. For six days we kept complete silence – not even making eye contact with one another – and sat in meditation for about 7 hours a day. We followed a schedule from 4am until 10pm, trying to stay in the present moment as we ate, worked, and rested.

I turned my cell phone off for the duration, and didn’t read or write. Part of me worried about what kind of crazy shit might happen in the world while I was off-line, but I also knew this was the best possible thing I could be doing with my time in order to be strong, resourceful, skillful, and resilient in my usual work in the world. Because I want to be of benefit in the world, I dedicated a week of my life to reconnecting to the Ineffable, to what can’t be destroyed.

In Zen, we say there are two aspects of reality: Relative, and absolute. The relative aspect of reality is the one we’re usually aware of – where the world is made of up countless individuals with complicated relationships, where cause and effect operates, where there is right and wrong, helpful and harmful, beautiful and horrible, life and death. The absolute aspect of reality is always true but subtle and easily missed, where only right-here-and-now is real, where everything is a miraculous manifestation just exactly as it is.

In the relative sense, there’s our climate and ecological crisis, which every day I come to believe is much more real, dire, and immediate than any of us can comprehend. We’re up against huge odds in our efforts to make any kind of changes even to mitigate the destruction, let alone turn this process around.

In the absolute sense, things are just as they are. No one ever gave us a promise this world would work out. Viewed entirely free from any expectations, a crazy confluence of causes and conditions led to This, and here we are. No matter how it turns out, in an deep sense it’s miraculous and amazing any of this exists at all.

All of this may sound crazy, as if “the absolute” is just some cruel rationalization we construct to make ourselves feel better. If it sounds crazy, it’s because the absolute isn’t something we can grasp with our minds or convey using language. It’s something we experience. You catch a glimpse of the absolute when your spirits are raised by awesome music, or a big smile appears on your face because of the completely innocent and earnest actions of a child, or when you stand transfixed by the mist rising from a forest.

The absolute doesn’t conflict with the relative; both are true at exactly the same time, just like your finger is an independent entity and part of a hand at the same time. So our planet is burning and if we have any compassion at all our hearts will be breaking, and everything is precious just as it is.

I attend silent meditation retreats in order to allow the absolute aspect of life to come to the fore. Without denying anything, I enter a largely timeless zone where how I meet the next moment is a matter of life and death. Am I awake to this life? Am I present in my body? Am I actually paying attention to what’s going on around me? In the silence and stillness, boundaries and distinctions dissolve, and the universe is no different from my self. We – me and the universe – breathe and pulse and hope and endure. In the natural quest for truth, fears are uncovered and released, assumptions are recognized as being merely assumptions, and I have to admit I have no way of knowing what happens next.

Continually deepening my awareness of the absolute aspect of reality is what sustains me. Facing incomprehensible destruction and suffering, I ground myself in a larger perspective – one that includes our struggles and pain as part of an epic unfolding drama. It’s like I’m a protagonist in a novel or a movie, and when I only perceive the relative aspect of reality I’m caught up in the drama. When I’m able to include the absolute aspect of reality in my perception, I can appreciate the arc of the story, and how even the awful parts of it, in a sense, belong, and actually lead to the growth, triumph, or tragedy at the end.

Photo: Silent Meditation Retreat at Great Vow Zen Monastery