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.