Recent research reveals how we can’t help but shoot ourselves in the foot. When I look around, I see our aversion to loss influencing just about everything we do, albeit often in very subtle ways. The innate emotional aversion to loss, when reinforced by thought, traps us even more. I’m going to explore this issue of loss versus gain and tie up any lose ends that I notice. My premise is the more we know the what, how, and why of a situation, the less likely we are to misdirect our emotional fire, and therefore have some ability to manage our circumstances better.
Loss, mourning, and the new normal
When all is said and done, life is simply a process of gains (upward movement) and losses (downward movement) playing out over one’s lifetime, with loss winning out in the end. I’m going to begin by breaking this process down to its essential elements…
We tend to mourn the major losses in life: loss of jobs, friends, possessions, and finally the gradual loss of life functions that come with aging. This mourning period is the gut-felt emotional low caused by the loss of our up-to-then status quo. Life feels ‘right’ when we feel headed upward from our status quo. Life feels ‘wrong’ when loss causes us to feel we are headed downward instead. It helps to think of the mourning period as a natural resetting of our status quo. As this resets, we can again feel we are headed upward, now from our ‘new normal’. Mourning losses gradually resets (lowers) our expectations of life, which makes feeling upward movement possible again. Finally, I assume this process plays out in all life, although due to thought, it is a much more acute experience for humans. Now, with these essential elements laid out, I’ll examine some tangential factors.
I Feel Therefore I Think
I’ve pondered Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) proposition at various times (see A How-To for Extinguishing Self, p.88). Doing this is mostly an exercise in beating around the bush, I suppose. Google [NPR Why We Care More About Losses Than Gains] for research that reveals the roots of this bush somewhat. Indeed, biological science has been relentlessly revealing what makes life tick. All the same, I don’t think one needs to fall back on biology for evidence. It works well to just observe what is naturally so.
It will help to begin by stipulating the obvious: We are animals. Sure, we’re different, but then so is every species in its own way. The commonality we all share is feeling, i.e., sensitivity, sense, sensation, responsiveness. This ability defines sentient life all the way from the sensory perception of an amoeba that guides its movements, to a fighter pilot’s sensory perception that guides his.
The point here is that sensory perceptions direct every action we and all other creatures take. The only part of this sentient realm of which we are aware is merely the tip of this sensory iceberg. Below this self-awareness are millions of biochemical interactions that make sentient life possible. For humans, emotions churning below the surface waters of our awareness guide the direction our thoughts will take. It really is straightforward, yet it is something difficult to see and accept. Why?
We can’t see the forest for the trees
Living in our experience makes it tricky to see anything within that experience. One gift of aging is an increasing ability to perceive through the “illusion of self” box. I suspect that experiencing losses, e.g., the physical body’s decline and the death of loved ones, along with a broader sence of history leaves each of us more humble as the years fly by. It is from that humility that clarity becomes more possible. As chapter 40 observes, Loss through death, of the way uses. I broached this issue in Emotion Speaks… Literally (p.387). There you will find links to scientific research that supports this bottom up view of cognition.
Feeling is Real
Sense perceptions—“feelings”—are actual biochemical processes that all animals experience. I’m referring to sentient life, so by that definition I must include all—yes ALL—living things. It can be extremely rudimentary as when a poppy flower closes its petals when it feels the loss of sunshine at the end of the day. It can be extremely sophisticated as in a rich women weeping over the loss of a beloved piece of jewelry. Both experiences—the feelings—are real. However, the flower’s perception results in positive survival responses. The rich woman’s sense… not so much.
It is not that the rich woman’s feelings are invalid. It is that the thoughts these feelings evoke quickly lead to needless stress for the woman and those around her. Her mind’s thought connected the jewelry to her sense of self and well-being from the outset. The subsequent loss evoked negative emotion, which elicited further thought. This perpetuates itself in a vicious circle; a thought-> emotion -> thought -> emotion… feedback loop. This loss of jewelry becomes a virtual death-of-self spiral. It is easy to see why it will be difficult for her not to feel the thoughts as genuine as the emotions from which they arise. It is that linkage to which chapter 71 speaks. To realize I don’t know means to realize that the thoughts that feel so real and true are not truly real — only the emotions are genuine.
Why aren’t thoughts as real and true as they feel?
Thoughts naturally assemble themselves in ways that verify how we feel. An example of this is the belief in free will. Like all animals, we feel an innate need to control our actions. Unlike other animals, imagination allows us to conjure up the necessary “proof” that we actually do. Our belief in free will becomes the proof. Religious faith is similar… our belief in God proves to us God’s existence. Belief is a cognitive trap.
In a sense, we fabricate the cognitive evidence we need to prove our feelings reflect an objective reality. Put another way, survival instinct drives thought to uphold the illusion of self… as Buddha put it, “create and maintain the illusion of self”. The beliefs we cling to, like free will, get way out of proportion to reality, especially when it gets personal. We lack an impartial judge to mediate our internal deliberations. There is nothing to prevent our narrative of “proof” from feeding back and re-stimulating our emotions. Chapter 71 diagnoses this dilemma, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Conversely and ironically, we have no problem recognizing this disease in other people. We sarcastically say boohoo about the rich woman who lost her jewelry, yet fail to recognize this neurological amplification as it occurs in us whenever we make our own emotional mountains out of sensory molehills.
Nature’s Gifts Will Be Used
Evolution has endowed life with certain innate responses to a species’ environment. Two of the most powerful responses to stimuli are attraction and aversion. They play out in everything from amoeba to humans. In us, and other higher forms of life, these express themselves as need and fear. There are other primal endowments as well, e.g., the immune system’s response to bacterial invasion, the physical skeletal muscular system that moves the body to carry out the work of living, to name two.
Human instincts evolved to enhance survival fitness in the wild, not in civilized circumstances where we seldom need to work as alertly at living as we originally did in the wild. Indeed, the primary thrust of civilization, from the stone axe and fire to chainsaws and central heating, has been to maximize comfort and security and minimize the price (time, mindfulness, physical work, nutrition) that we must pay for these benefits. However, we still do pay a price! These survival endowments didn’t just vacate our genome as we came to utilize them less.
The result of raising children in a super hygienic environment illustrates the issue. Researchers find that when the immune system is deprived of the chance to fulfill its mission, it turns in on itself, which increases incidence of allergy, for example. On the physical side, one might wonder why jogging and other forms of strenuous activity have grown in popularity. The reason, in part, may be that the body knows it needs to do something more than the current overfed sedentary life style offers.
This same dynamic plays out in our core attraction and aversion emotions. In the wild, need “energy” aims toward acquiring the necessities of life — raw survival is in charge. The same holds true for fear “energy”. It aims toward being on the lookout for predators or other threats to survival. The innate survival endowments of need and fear don’t disappear once they no longer aim solely at core survival; they simply shift focus.
Where does the focus of emotional energy shift?
Clearly, survival focus shifts toward realms that are more trivial… and we become increasingly neurotic! The energy shifts inward, feeding back into our emotions and re-stimulating them. This keeps emotions alive long after the initial external stimuli passes. This enables us to dwell on issues and reignite the sparks that set off emotions in the first place. Now, this might not be so destructive if it played out in a balanced way, i.e., if both positive and negative emotions reinforced themselves equally. However, that is not the biology of it. Negative emotions carry more weight, and overpower positive ones. In other words, as the NPR report described it, “We care more about losses than gains”.
One can do nothing to change this directly. We’re dealing with instinct after all. Conflicting needs are a primary work-aspect of life. In reality, every living thing experiences this dynamic tension… a need to gain versus a fear to lose. The silver lining here lies in how living long enough gradually brings us to see that life frequently turns out differently than we imagined. That sobers us to a humbler and often subconscious truth… something like, “I don’t really know, in spite of feeling what I feel”. From here, wiser insights can bubble up from below.