Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Last night I went to dinner with a friend. He was telling me about a class that he was thinking of dropping, about the difficulty he was having with the material and how much time it took away from his other classes. Plus he was running, at present, a high C, and didn't want that kind of mark on his transcript. He told me about this ongoing debate he was having with himself, where on the one hand it was a class that he should take and besides, at this point in the semester he was already half way through. On the other, he could take it later, another semester where he had more time to devote to learning its concepts and performing well on the tests. After he finished speaking he asked me what I thought, and I told him that it seemed like he wanted to drop it. He asked what gave me that impression, and I said that it just seemed like he did from the way he was speaking. Who am I to tell another person what they are thinking or feeling? But that was the impression I got, and I reported my impression. 

There's a concept in Eastern philosophy that has some analogs in Western thought and philosophy about the three "minds" that help us make decisions. The first is our thinking mind, the mind that reasons and analyzes. It makes lists of pros and cons, listens to or disregards advice, it plans birthday parties and balances budgets. It works hard to find words to explain, usually in the past tense, why we do what we do. The second is our heart mind, or moral mind, the place that tells us an act is good or bad. It is the voice of should or should not. It's not so much reason as it is a disembodied presence that affirms or gives us pause. I should prepare for class and I should clean my cat's litter box. I should not stay up all night watching Breaking Bad and sleep in tomorrow. It is love in a universal sense, love for others including oneself. In a sense it is our social mind. The third mind is our body mind. It thinks in terms of feeling, of hunger or sleepiness, or fear or desire. It tells us we are uncomfortable or warm, that we need to move somewhere else, or are happy where we are. It dances, or feels terrible when everybody else around it is dancing, and it is not.

All three work in tandem, and people tend to rely on one more than the other. There are analogs in Freud's concepts of the ego, super-ego, and the Id (respectively, in the order presented above); in the concepts of logos, pathos, ethos in rhetoric; and more recently in neuroscience, where a group of scientists diagrammed every single synapse and neuron in the brains of round worms (which are much simpler, but considered to be a reliable analog for the human brain) to discover that there are three systems of synapses constantly interacting, rewriting, and changing each other i.e. three minds. Further, all three are located in different places: the head, the chest, and the pelvis. In a more popular application, when people say to "follow your heart" it might be more accurate to say, like G.W. Bush, to follow your gut, or what feels right. But what feels right is complicated, like the round worm's mind, by the other two minds, and it's easy to get confused as to "who" to listen to, all three changing and influencing each other.

Cultures too, have preferences. We could say that certain parts of the United States and most of "The West", at least historically, has been a logo-centric / ego-centric / thinking-centric culture, governed by laws derived from reasons. A country like Iran, where the laws come from Islam (Sharia law) could be said to be governed by morality, or the heart. I think it's very difficult for one mind to understand the other, simply because other minds function through an entirely different "language," though language isn't the right word. How do we compare feeling bored with what the word "bored" signifies? How do we compare what's "right" in social situations with what's "right" in logic (linguistics is a kind of attempt to solve this problem)? Not that it's not worth trying to find the answer to these questions, and the humanities have made their living mashing different modes against each other in a logo-centric framework.

But back to my friend's dilemma. We talked about all this because he said that he was told to "follow his heart" but didn't know which part of him was his heart talking. It's a good question. How do we know and is it even possible to separate these minds? In my opinion, when we can somehow come to a place where all three centers of thought align, we feel good about our choices. (Though this idea too could be seen as a cultural construct rather than a universal principal. In Japanese culture for example, from what I've been told and from what I've experienced, one's ability to hold these contradictory minds together is seen as desirable and as a sign of strength.) Of course, this rarely happens in important matters. Sometimes we run out of time, and are forced to make decisions. Sometimes we make a decision and come to feel good about it afterwards. Sometimes we regret decisions we made. Sometimes we just know, and sometimes we never do. Sometimes we are sitting on a ferry, coming back from a long day, watching the sun set and the other boats find their way home. Sometimes we are so caught up in the process we don't realize a decision has already been made. Today I saw my friend, and he decided to drop the class. He seemed to be happy with his decision.