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

Civil Disobedience as a Cure for Cognitive Dissonance

Civil Disobedience as a Cure for Cognitive Dissonance

This post was begun on Friday, 11/22

I spent last night in jail because of an act of civil disobedience. After 10 hours spent occupying a very hot and stuffy office, 45 minutes with my arms tied behind my back with sharp plastic zip ties, and 5 hours spent stripped down to one layer of clothing (not including underwear) in a grim 10’x12′ concrete jail cell with 11 other women, I’d never felt better.

It was a little weird signing my property-release form next to the prompt “Inmate’s signature,” and a charge of criminal trespass shouldn’t be taken lightly with a maximum (unlikely) penalty of 30 days in jail, but nonetheless the mood of my 20 fellow activists and I when we were released at 5am, in the bitter cold, was nothing less than jubilant.

My good feelings about an act of conscience leading to arrest have nothing to do with pride. I’m only telling other people about it in the hopes that it will inspire them to take bolder action in their own way. My good feelings also have only a little to do with a sense of accomplishment; our specific demand was not met, and probably won’t be. We can hope we made some kind of positive difference, but it’s difficult to tell.

Instead, I think I felt (and feel) great because putting my body on the line for my convictions provided a profound relief from cognitive dissonance, a state of mental discomfort that arises when we experience “conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.” The theory is that we naturally want consistency among our beliefs, and between our beliefs and our behaviors. Acting contrary to what we believe or know to be true causes us mental, and sometimes even physical, distress.

I think I’ve experienced a pervasive sense of cognitive dissonance ever since I was a child, from the first time I realized there was unimaginable suffering going on in the world but I was essentially supposed to ignore it and just worry about myself. On the one hand I held a deep conviction that responding generously and compassionately to suffering was a moral obligation, but on the other hand I did nothing about it. Cognitive dissonance. Then, as a young adult, I realized my society and lifestyle were directly or indirectly connected to a whole lot of injustice and destruction, but there didn’t seem to be any viable alternative to business as usual – that is, if you wanted to be a part of society at all (and I did, if only to change it for the better). So I believed the whole system was wrong, but I continued to participate in it. Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a sign that I’m living out of harmony with my deeper self – the self that knows I’m interdependent with everyone and everything. The self that knows a clear conscience is a greater joy than the sensual pleasures I can’t let go. When my actions conflict with my core values, my life starts to feel shallow and insincere. My joys are constrained by the need to keep part of my heart closed off to what’s going on. Engaging in my own internal doublespeak, I start to doubt anything is really true.

Bear with me for a moment while I give you some context for my civil disobedience: Yesterday, there was a protest rally in Salem, Oregon, at the state capitol, in opposition to a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline and export terminal in Southern Oregon. Oregonians have been fighting this project, called Jordan Cove, for almost 15 years. Pembina, the Canadian company behind the project, makes bold predictions about job creation and positive economic impact, and argues that natural gas is a clean and environmentally-friendly source of energy that’s the wave of the future.

In reality, after a brief construction boom, the Jordan Cove project would not provide all that many jobs and the company would get huge tax breaks. The pipeline and terminal would have many negative environmental impacts and be extremely dangerous for those living anywhere near them in the event of a forest fire, earthquake, or tsunami. By arguing their pursuit of profits by selling gas in Asia is in the “public interest,” Pembina would be granted eminent domain and allowed to clearcut a 95-ft-wide swath of land and lay an explosive pipeline across private lands, traditional tribal territories, and public forests, leading to bitter opposition from private landowners and indigenous tribes. Not to mention that the project would become one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state (yes, natural gas burns cleanly, but the process of fracking it, transporting it, and liquefying it produces more greenhouse gasses than it’s worth).

When I heard there might be a nonviolent direct action happening in association with yesterday’s anti-Jordan Cove rally, I signed up right away. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for the opportunity to align my body with my beliefs like this. The chance to participate in civil disobedience doesn’t come often, because to do it in an effective and relatively safe way means you can’t do it alone.

I will write more about my experience later, but right now I’ll focus on the experience of being, for a time, freer of cognitive dissonance than I have been since I was a blissfully ignorant child:

After a perfectly decent rally which might otherwise have gone mostly unnoticed, we starting singing a simple, beautiful song together. “We have got the power, we have got the power, we have got the power, it’s in the hands of us all.” Hundreds of voices joining together and echoing in the most amazing way in the capitol rotunda. Our aspirations had space to ascend as if we were in a cathedral, and the all-embracing human music told us what we were singing was actually true. Click below to listen.

Fifty of us occupied Governor Brown’s office for over eight hours, refusing to leave until she publicly came out against the pipeline. She was away from the capitol most of the day, but did come to talk to us around 9pm. She refused our demand. The amazing thing was that for the whole time of the occupation, stuck together in a relatively small, stuffy room, none of us were bored for a moment. We sang, chanted, shared our stories, gave each other rousing speeches… our sense of solidarity and purpose created a community out of people of all different ages, from various places in the state, with different relationships to the issue: Affected landowners and community members from Southern Oregon, indigenous tribal members, and those of us concerned about climate change and ecological damage. This was the only place we wanted to be.

Twenty-one of us decided, around 9pm, to stay despite the formal warnings from state troopers that refusing to leave would mean being arrested for criminal trespass in the second degree. They really did try to convince us to go, and arrests didn’t begin until we all sat on the floor together, joined hands, and sang. Two troopers escorted me out, cuffed, through the dark, cavernous capitol rotunda about 11pm. The whole scene was strangely beautiful. They walked me slowly and carefully down the stairs so I wouldn’t trip, and as I walked I knew that plenty of people wouldn’t understand or agree with what I was doing. I knew all of this was a big pain in the ass for the troopers. But I was expressing my convictions with my body, and that felt powerful and right. In the quiet, spacious moment, there was no cognitive dissonance at all.

Life is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful

Okay, life isn’t always beautiful. And the ways it can be happy-making in the ordinary sense – good weather, yummy food, a comfortable home, supportive friends, rewarding experiences – aren’t what I’m talking about.

Instead, I’m talking about the way life is beautiful in an absolutely unconditional kind of way. The way you notice out of the corner of your eye – yellow leaves scattered across the green grass… a spider’s web wet with dew… a child’s broad and innocent smile… The kind of beauty that’s not only without fanfare, it’s absolutely silent. This most profound, pure, and unrestricted beauty can’t even be directly shared with other people, except in the intimacy of recognizing someone else has seen it, too.

Before my Zen practice, I was familiar with life’s unconditional beauty, but only as a momentary interlude between the ambiguous and unyielding hard, cold, facts. I believed life was beautiful, but I couldn’t make sense of how that could be so when it was also so incomprehensibly ugly and cruel. My conviction that life was worth it came and went – and when it came, it was often with a strange, poignant sense of sadness and loss because it had been missing for so long.

The greatest blessing of my life has been deepening my relationship to life’s unconditional beauty, which in Zen we call “suchness.” In any moment, in any situation, we have the option to let go of our mental map of the world and open ourselves to our experience. No mental map means no expectations, no shoulds, no assumptions. Just “things-as-it-is,” as Shunryu Suzuki would say. The luminousness of suchness isn’t a passing phenomenon, it’s the way things are when we face reality with complete humility mixed with love.

Therefore my heart is nourished by the birds coming to the feeder outside my office window. Yes, the world is on fire. Yes, bird numbers and species are declining. Yes, I am ready to make sacrifices in order to do all I can to bring about changes in the world. And the delicate little lesser goldfinches, obliviously to all awfulness, stake out good spots on the feeder and sit there munching busily. They cock their heads back and forth, ready to dart away in an instant, but waste no time as long as the coast is clear. Occasionally a Bewick’s wren bounds through the underbrush, bobbing its overlong tail at jaunty angles, and a big smile crosses my face.

This is what sustains me: Beauty that has absolutely nothing to do with denial. Beauty that’s unassailable and ever-present. Of course, birds and sunsets are easy to find beautiful, but even a manhole cover wet with rain can manifest it. Or a Burger King employee enjoying her lunchbreak, sitting rapt while watching videos on her tablet. Or the tangible disappointment at a campaign headquarters whose candidate has just lost. There’s no accounting for where and when suchness shines through, helping me face another day.

Photo credit: Image by NickyPe from Pixabay

What’s the Problem?

What’s the Problem?

I’ve been on this journey of conscience for a while. Here’s a blog post from August 16, 2014:

Occasionally I cry myself to sleep. The last time I did, I just couldn’t stop thinking about polar bears and elephants. I sobbed as silently as I could in order not to wake my husband. My whole body clenched in grief and my pillow became wet with tears as I contemplated a world without any polar bears or elephants living in the wild.

The question, I feel, should not be about why I was crying. Instead, it should be about why I don’t cry myself to sleep every night. If not about the loss of wildlife, then about widespread human starvation, or about lonely and marginalized homeless people in my city, or about entrenched racism leading to the shooting death of another unarmed black man.

Of course, I can’t cry myself to sleep every night without compromising my own mental health. Descending into despair or depression wouldn’t help anything.

And so I decide how to relate to the world based more on pragmatism than on my conscience or the state of my heart. “You can’t let it bother you too much,” I’ve been told. At other times people remind me, “You can’t take care of everything, you just focus on doing what you can.” There is wisdom in these approaches, certainly. I have to find ways to cope with the cognitive dissonance created by going about my everyday life while other beings are experiencing unimaginable suffering and our levels of consumption are threatening the viability of life on our planet.

But here’s the problem. I have to allow myself to be bothered in order for my compassion and concern to be aroused. And while I can’t take care of everything, I have to explore with deadly seriousness whether I am really doing what I can. What does that mean? Doing what fits into my budget and schedule but doesn’t make me too uncomfortable? Devoting all of my spare time and resources to good causes, sacrificing almost all leisure and pleasure? Adopting a radically self-sufficient lifestyle, setting aside most of the other activities I do to benefit the world, in order to grow and cook my own food and sew my own clothes? (Do you have any idea how much time that takes?)

I love nothing more than to feel I am living in harmony with my conscience. When I feel that way, my heart is calm even in the face of great trouble and suffering. I am ready to respond and free from defensiveness. My mind settles down because I stop trying to justify my actions or figure out what I should do.

I want to live more in harmony with my conscience in a world that might very well be without wild polar bears and elephants in a matter of decades… [Clearly,] each person must make such a journey of conscience for themselves. When it comes to the details, we’ll all arrive at different answers. But when it comes to the essence – finding a way to live as compassionately and responsibly as we can – the journey is the same.

Image by Kirsi Kataniemi from Pixabay