Our imagination is our Achilles’ heel. This is ironic because imagination is also one of our most powerful survival assets. Our imagination creates a yearning within for salvation from its manipulations and machinations. Moreover, imagination promises us ways toward this salvation. No wonder this ironic dynamic reminds me of a Möbius like geometry of Escher’s Waterfall.
We can imagine ‘better’ so we expect better. Animals feel the same emotions that drive imagination in us, but only briefly and directly connected to current external stimulus. In addition to external stimuli we sense, we fabricate self-stimuli from our remembered past and imagined future images. These memories and images, in turn, link ultimately to our deep-seated needs and fears.
Our difficulty begins as our imagined scenarios feed into our emotions and trigger energetic emotional responses. Next, we find ourselves chomping-at-the-bit because reality isn’t conforming to our imagined ideal of what it ‘should be’. Our minds eye begins contending with how it is and pushes to make it how we want it to be.
Sometimes that works just fine, especially when our ideal and reality practically align with one another. Yet, even then, success is fleeting and off we go imagining an even better world to push for. Our hunter-gatherer nature is always pulling the strings through an always present ‘more is better’ instinct. Continually imagining an even better world leads us to actions that bring unintended consequence. As chapter 16 warns, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
The pains of life are inevitable and natural. Cognitively and imaginatively resisting what is natural adds suffering to life’s pain. Non-thinking animals avoid this additional suffering. They can’t cognitively maintain a well imagined past and future, and so can’t imagine a better way. Does this mean humans suffer more? Yes, I expect so. Imagined gains and losses (need + fear + thought) create our desires and worries. These do seem to add a degree of discomfort beyond what other animals can experience. The question is how large is the difference?
Any judgment on degree of difference will always be a projection of the observer’s (the judge’s) needs and fears. The clever human mind has great difficulty seeing, realizing, knowing, and finally accepting its own fallibility. In addition, our ego generally doesn’t appreciate any fallibility pointed out. A couple of Taoist core observations speak to this issue: Chapter 56, Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know (I think of thought as the internal aspect of speaking, or vice versa); chapter 71, Realizing I don’t know is better, not knowing this knowing is disease; chapter 10, When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing?
Memory Poisons Consciousness’s Well
I suppose it is heretical to say, but human memory is another destructive and sorrow causing aspect of our superior cognitive ability. A sharp blade cuts both ways. First, the ‘good’ side of the memory coin: it is one of humanity’s foremost survival tools, and it offers us the sweet (and bittersweet) joy of nostalgia. Now, the other side of the coin…
We’ve all experienced how hearing ‘negative’ gossip about someone leaves us with poisonous preconceptions to overcome when meeting them in person, especially if we wish to follow chapter 16’s lead, Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial, Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural.
Another pernicious side to memory is favoritism. As D.C. Lau puts it in chapter 79, It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism. Just as we tend to see and hear what we want, we also tend to form and retain the version of memory that supports our viewpoint. That makes memory even more unreliable. Indeed, such biased memory may be worse than no memory at all.
Being more acutely aware of this tendency to use memory as ammunition to push an ideal or action helps me take the certainty out of the memory and the steam out of the push. Honestly seeing this bio-hoodwink for what it is, has so far turned out to be my weapon of choice against my own delusion and folly.