Please, Stop Being a Concept!
Authenticity is the sense of truly being what you are. There is a genuine ease and feeling of well being about being authentic and knowing this for yourself. There may also be no greater casualty than losing your authenticity, a sure descent into an empty, miserable existence.
Grasping is what shuts off access to authenticity. The best way to define grasping is over-reliance on mental concepts. It’s a strategy to secure one’s understanding of and place in changing world. It’s likely due to an overly strong desire for certainty and constancy, a reaction to being frightened. It can be so strong that it’s willing to accept plausibility, such as “my boss hates me” instead of truth (I need much more assurance and praise than others do). This need, mostly in the form of fixed psychological stances, like one race is inferior, most others are better than me, or the need to be right, causes untold suffering. Left unfulfilled, relief sought through reliance on fast food, fits based on chronic anger, an alcohol or drug high, or an anxious need for popularity makes the problem worse and the authenticity harder to feel.
A cure for being a fake does exist. The punch line to the old joke “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb” does show the way. The answer is that it only takes one, but “the change must come from within.” As I will argue, we need to be delivered from an original sin, our belief that words constitute bona fide truths. I am not saying that words are outright lies, which are deliberate falsehoods. However, through the distortion built-in to all words they just do not convey what most people believe they are meant to.
All languages have one big problem, for which philosophers may point to the “explanatory gap.” There’s a gap in our understanding between the inputs of our raw sensory-perceptual experience, the arising of consciousness, and our faltering efforts to put it all into words. How can we articulate what experiencing the color blue seems like to us? We see blue, but we don’t know two things about what we see: how blueness arises in our consciousness and, secondly, why we cannot explain blueness to a blind person.
Oddly, perversely, words cannot convey what we directly experience. If they’re aware of it, most people dismiss this egregious failing of words as irrelevant. Sadly, most go on to speak as if they knew exactly what they’re talking about. But authenticity ends when words are accepted as truth. This goes for our own personal authenticity, too.
Here’s something to reflect on. Think about your last experience of awe, when you were made speechless. Maybe it was when your child was born, or during a visit to the Grand Canyon, or first seeing Hubble’s photographs of a distant galaxy? Yet our precious sense of speechlessness lasts only until thoughts arise and suck the life from what was marvelous about the experience. Putting thoughts into words changes what was truly awesome into a joyless fact, like a date of birth (or a mile deep or a hundred thousand light years wide).
Our authentic humanity reveals itself in the aliveness of an experience when we are speechless and fully enmeshed in the sensory-perceptual moment. When thought enters the mind the feeling of awe loses much of its joy. Exclaiming, “It’s really big” doesn’t do justice to our true experience at the Grand Canyon, either. Authenticity means knowing the source of lived experience directly, without something coming in between. What comes between authenticity and us? Concepts do, because of that gap. Though they innocuously arrive in the form of flashes of thoughts and beliefs the problem lies in the grasping at them as if they are true.
Alfred Korzybski, a renowned scholar of language, once said unforgettably that, “The map is not the territory.” In short, a word (the map) is not the thing itself (the territory). Further, both the map and the word distort the truth. As for maps, look at the most common type used in grade schools, the Mercator projection of the Earth. It’s flat even though the Earth is a sphere. It also warps the territory, elongating the areas nearest the poles and squeezing those near the equator.
As for the distortions of words, the felt experience of what’s called awe is only a name that tries to point back to an authentic phenomenon. The awe-filled experiences of the Grand Canyon, pictures from Hubble and the birth of our child are uniquely different. The word awe is used because we have to communicate with each other but it does not fit the distinctive qualities inherent to each experience. The fathomless qualities of those distinct experiences get lost during their transformation into the puny word “awe.”
When people substitute the idea (map) of an experience for its actual aliveness (territory) , and most unwittingly do so again and again, they lose authenticity; they become zombies. Experiences aren’t ideas. Experiences are flush with gusto! When connoisseurs suggest, “This wine reminds me of apricots,” they have lost the experience of tasting the wine. They’ve become wine zombies, juggling dry ideas. “Wineness” taste happens to us only before words jump to mind and obscure it. The return to authenticity simply involves favoring the indescribable juiciness of experience over the barrenness of deficient words. All it takes is either resolve against the creation of a thought about the experience or restraint from accepting a thought as a truthful substitute. Practicing to remain thoughtless and speechless for a few more moments lets authenticity linger.
Though easy to write about, refraining from thought creation and the categorization of our experience may be one of the most difficult things we will ever do. Oblivious of the problems arising from the gap, speedy acquisition and unrestricted use of language are encouraged from the moment we are born. It’s our most important form of communication. Our skills are tested and we can fail at life tasks if it’s not well developed. However, to understand what language can and cannot do is imperative. It can only create and juggle symbols. If language is used inappropriately it will obscure our authenticity and distort what’s true. What it cannot do is help us find our way back.
What then is authenticity? I’m suggesting that it’s our concept-free beingness (territory), that unique combination of us as our ever-changing sense-perceptions, which are beyond words (maps). As mentioned above, authenticity is obscured at the first occurrence of a thought. In contrast to a thought or word, which are concepts, our sensory-perceptual experiences are percepts. That percepts cannot be named does not make them mysterious, sacred, or special, just consistent with the fact that experiences cannot be named. Because all we know comes to us through our sensory-perceptual experience, the only reality we initially encounter is perceptually based.
In this way, the percept, not the concept, is fundamental to authenticity. It dims when concepts dominate experience (for instance, Muslims are un-American) and is re-gained as concepts are displaced in favor of what we actually experience (for instance, I know someone who is a fine fellow, regularly visits a mosque and is a U.S. citizen).
Our own authenticity is like this—experiential, before words—that singular, inexpressible percept that’s been with us since childhood. It is always available, though easily obscured by a lifetime’s haze of bound concepts. We are not concepts such as, “Fortune 100 executive,” “dumb,” “too average-looking,” or any other “thing” that can be named. Those are merely alignments we may have unwittingly sidled up to. Grasping at one or another such stances in order to affix ourselves to something namable never satisfies. Those eventually, and surely, diminish us. At our most basic, our nature is perceptual. Ask yourself, “What has remained perfectly constant about myself over the years?” Something has been. Likely, it’s the percept of yourself. You can’t say what it is, though you experience it and it follows you like your shadow.
The experience of authenticity provides the stability most mistakenly seek through fixed thoughts and concepts, or food, money, power, and fame. Thoughts come and go without grasping; we perceive just what’s there and not fanciful complexities, like my car doesn’t work because the mechanic has it out for me, that aren’t. Re-acquaintance with it simply (or maybe not so simply) demands not grasping at concepts.
Though we might believe we understand the world only through thoughts, concepts and words like dog, twit, stop, greed, etc., this is not true at all. It’s only one way we understand it. Our equally competent, other intelligence system processes perceptual information. Because we logically understand only by employing concepts, no one can understand how perceptual data informs us. It’s beyond the reach of the part of our mind that requires concepts to function. Nevertheless, perceptual processing does a great job in relieving us from the burden of thoughts and providing us with intuitions and insights. Its power and influence is not to be taken lightly. Though you may not realize it or understand it, you already rely on it.
No better proof of the power of perceptual processing comes from the late Yankee sage, Yogi Berra. When his manager pressed him to think about the bad pitches he was swinging at, young Yogi lamented, “How can a guy hit and think at the same time?” Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller Blink also described the processing of perceptual information, or as his subtitle put it, “The power of thinking without thinking.” In Gladwell’s book, the power of non-thought-based intelligence is described in examples of art experts who uncover forgeries in the blink of an eye and marital therapists who know in a moment if a couple will divorce. Even Albert Einstein was reported to have discovered his theory of relativity through a flash of intuition while he was walking the Alps with a friend. Observations from our everyday lives also attest to the wisdom of perceptual processing. Asleep on a cold night, we don’t engage our logical mind to conclude, “I’m too cold now.” We just pull up more covers. We “know” to do this. We don’t think have to our way through it.
A more scientific example of perceptual processing comes to us from a 1988 psychology research study done by Lewicki and others. These researchers asked subjects to press one of four electronic buttons to predict in which quadrant of a computer screen the letter “X” would next appear. Results showed that their performance steadily improved as they intuitively absorbed a complex system of rules for the location of its next appearance. Even though it defies our efforts to understand it logically, our knowing without thinking exists as a powerful source of intelligent functioning. This research supports the behavioral economist’s argument that we see the world in two ways, by using memory and words or by experience.
Despite the fact that it works without naming, words, or the logical juggling of concepts, perceptual information processing is intelligent, demands little effort, supports most of our daily informational requirements, and provides the way to know, but not understand ourself.
It’s easy to spot inauthentic people, zombies, because they define themselves by concepts and act as if those concepts are true. Fixations, like yearning to be healthy, tall, smart, handsome, rich, famous, or powerful, etc., mask authenticity. The lack of personal authenticity with its common fixations (for instance, the fixation that people should not be of a different race or religion from me) has caused enormous harm throughout human history. Zombie people cling to thoughts about how they should be, perhaps smarter, more attractive, more capable, and then always try to relate to the world from that bogus stance. It’s the “always” that gives them away. There’s no “always” in genuine authenticity. Authenticity is flexible, without a despotic fixed position. Unfortunately, people tend to grasp at one fixed thought or another (racist, need for fame, unworthiness, etc.) and in so doing can’t see other truer alternatives as they arise.
The solution is clear for each of us. Simply relax the grasping tendency: 1. Withdraw your attention away from thoughts that linger too long by placing your attention elsewhere, like paying attention to your breathing, your chewing of food, or your walking stride; 2. Stay with the cleared awareness of what’s there without concepts; and 3. Repeat the cycle as sticky thoughts try to remain. Further, trust the perceptual information processing system–relax into it and let it do its work.
To be authentic, one must have the interest and energy to examine every fixed stance that appears to the conceptual mind. Life circumstances change continually. To keep pace, a flexible view helps. No stances or views are true for very long so. Frequent reappraisal helps keep us flexible and in accord with life circumstances. The process begins by detaching from the grip of thought. Clear consciousness exists when attention is withdrawn, like from the thought “my skin color is the only good one.” When consciousness is freed of thought, at least for a short while, one can more easily look around for other views (like whether other skin colors are acceptable, too). With less influence from past thoughts, it may be easier to determine whether any others are better. If they are better they are kept (e.g., honesty is the best policy, yup, seems like a keeper). If not, they can be discarded for another that’s best taken on temporarily. An additional alternative also exists. Perceptual processing can also supply helpful answers, providing you don’t muddle it up with thought. They are called insights.
Test yourself. What stances do you hold too strongly to? Just as good a test, reflect on views you can’t accept. Could you accept being of another racial or gender orientation, losing your home and much of your wealth, or receiving a terminal diagnosis, all without a high degree of stress? Consider asking friends to help you identify harmful stances. Fix what’s holding you back.
With the description of authenticity I’m proposing here, it’s not hard to see how its lack on a personal level may damage the quality of our overall civilization. All of us parts sum up to that whole. The failure to be authentic has been shown have catastrophic consequences, like mistrust of others, wars, various types of discrimination, environmental damage, wealth disparity, etc. Reflect on how it applies to some of the most meaningful personal qualities that support civilization, like abundance or scarcity; satisfaction or suffering; well-being or illness; understanding life or coping with death; and, ultimately, aligning with reality or rationalizing falsehoods. Consider how a return to your own authenticity might be personally, professionally, and societally helpful.
Disclaimer: This is a personal view and should not be considered as a replacement for mental health care.