In his capacious book The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas describes what he calls “a radical plasticity in the nature of reality.” What we see as reality, he argues, “tends to unfold in response to the symbolic framework and set of assumptions employed by each person and each society.” He explains the logic and ramifications of such a view:
The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality. The human being must therefore choose among a multiplicity of potentially viable options, and whatever option is chosen will in turn affect both the nature of reality and the choosing subject. In this view, although there exist many defining structures in the world and in the mind that resist or compel human thought and activity in various ways, on a fundamental level the world tends to ratify, and open up according to, the character of the vision directed toward it. The world that the human being attempts to know and remake is in some sense projectively elicited by the frame of reference with which it is approached.
Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about what Tarnas calls reality’s “radical plasticity.” Even when the idea does cross our minds, we seldom pay attention long enough to fathom its breathtaking implications. But few recognitions are more pivotal for someone who wants greater peace, happiness or success in her life, or who wants to help others in meaningful and far-reaching ways.
Tarnas explains that reality’s malleable nature highlights “the immense responsibility inherent in the human situation, and the immense potential…since evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of worldviews, the human challenge is to engage that worldview or set of perspectives which brings forth the most valuable, life-enhancing consequences.”
Bruce Cockburn’s song Child of the Wind emphasizes a bit more laconically the central role perspective plays in our experience of the world:
Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see
Many of us are temperamentally inclined to see the world and even our own lives as more blighted than blessed. Wherever you might fall on the optimist-pessimist spectrum, your attitude determines in part what you choose to look at, and the information you select for processing then reinforces your worldview (see confirmation bias). While a curmudgeonly temperament can have its benefits, habitual pessimism carries strong risks.
Reality’s “radical plasticity” manifests on both the macrocosmic level and in the microcosm of each person’s awareness. Getting stuck in stubborn funks can make our reality seem unchangeably bleak, but fluid circumstances everywhere belie that apparent immutability. The more flexible our outlook is, the more we can calibrate it to the needs of the moment in ways that lessen and leverage pain while jacking up contentment or joy.
Tarnas chooses his words carefully in asserting that the world “tends to ratify and open up according to the character of the vision directed toward it.” Attention is first of all a matter of vision—of looking—with our eyes and with our mind. Whatever sensory or mental data we subject ourselves to can influence us for good or ill. When the Israelites in the desert were set upon by poisonous snakes, God told Moses to forge a bronze serpent and raise it upon a pole. Whoever was bitten would then be saved merely by looking up at the serpent.
Contemporary psychology has begun to confirm in piquant ways what the world’s wisdom traditions have been teaching for millenia—that the quality and focus of our attention informs our moods, shapes our character and determines our fate. There’s a constant interplay between our attitude and what we choose to focus on. In this existential feedback loop, spotlighting every downside makes us anxious and depressed, and anxiety and depression, in turn, produce attentional biases toward further adverse phenomena.
We depressives seldom feel like we’re giving selective attention to negative stimuli—accused of crepe-hanging bias, we’re likely to counter that we’re just clear-eyed realists speaking the truth about a sub-par life or a FUBAR world.
But too strong a vigilance for trouble can lead you to mistake inauspiciousness for relevance. And people whose attentional bias favors the let-down lowdown have more trouble controlling their moods. The resulting depression jags, far from fine-tuning our perceptions, can make us torpidly heedless of what’s germane, useful, or promising. Simone Weil observed that “in anyone who has suffered affliction for a long enough time, there is a complicity with regard to his own affliction. This complicity impedes all efforts he might make to improve his lot; it goes so far as to prevent him from seeking a way of deliverance, sometimes even to the point of keeping him from wishing for deliverance.”
Fortunately, recent studies indicate that “attentional biases appear to be plastic, able to be trained and untrained, for negative emotions.” Subjects in one eye-tracking study were successfully conditioned to spend less time gazing at disturbing images. Since such negativity avoidance in gaze patterns indicates smooth emotional regulation, it’s encouraging that these biases can be revamped.
Optimists have attentional biases that favor positive information, and a similar feedback loop prevails with them—the promising scoops they scout out nourish their sanguine perspective on the world. This is important, since there’s evidence that optimists enjoy all sorts of benefits, including better health, higher levels of academic and professional success, and more harmonious relationships.
It’s true that those endowed with a congenitally sunny outlook, or those who completely ignore all negative data, run the risk of maladaptive pollyannaism. But research shows how “individuals experiencing positive emotions appear to seek out the most adaptive viewing strategy to fit their motivations and goals, even if that strategy involves being receptive to negative information.” For instance, they “oriented more quickly to self-relevant, but negative, health risk information and rated it as more convincing than did a control group.”
Now temperamentally I’m a pessimist, a real John Cougar Melancholy. If I’ve got thirty aspects of my life swimming along fine and just one or two circling the drain, my mind tends to spiral down and lose itself in those painful undercurrents. But over the years, through practice, I’ve gotten a little better at looking back up to where sunlight filters through those murky waters. And that has helped a lot. Merely looking up that way can begin to put the surface within your reach.
So just in case your own attentional bias caused you to miss it, here’s a news flash: We can learn to focus less on down-trending data and more on what’s empowering, what bolsters emotional intelligence, what can lead to a happier, more meaningful life. We can even learn to dispute our reflexively pessimistic interpretations of ambiguous conditions. A degree from the school of hard knocks doesn’t preclude grad study in smart optimism.
One big point: Please don’t misread this as a plug for facile, rigid “positive thinking,” the kind that tends, ironically, to produce more sadness and frustration than you started out with. We shouldn’t try to banish all painful thoughts and feelings. We shouldn’t naively ignore relevant data that seems negative. But we shouldn’t give it more weight than it warrants, either.
The goal is to recognize how your temperament or habits of mind lead you to fixate on train wrecks when boons and windfalls shine on the other side of the tracks. When your wheelhouse provides 360 degrees of earth and sea and sky to behold, why confine your gaze to the darkest straits?
Instead, start developing attentional flexibility, enhanced control of that Klieg light and amplifier you call your mind. Work at it and you’ll become more skilled at using nearly everything—negative, positive or neutral—to craft a better life.
If we refine our vision enough, we might even someday get to the point where we achieve the tuned-in discernment William Blake described so beautifully:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour