|One of the great marvels of our physical existence is the capacity of the brain to sort and prioritize information from our senses, and to allow to enter our conscious thought only those signals which are most important for our survival. All nerves in the body are constantly reporting condition or change to the brain. |
Besides reports from specialized stimulation receptors reporting sight, sound, taste, smell and equilibrium, there are countless sensory receptors throughout the body. From the skin come reports of touch, temperature, pressure and pain.
Each and every hair on the body has a nerve near the follicle which reports movement of the individual hair. Every joint has nerves which report to the brain the angle and position of the appendage. Blood and other fluids are sampled for condition.
Every organ and muscle has nerves which sense and report its condition. This reporting of condition is done waking or sleeping every moment we live, and yet most reporting and responding are done in areas of the brain and at levels of activity far below conscious thought. And thank goodness for that. What would happen if the movement of a single hair on the back of the hand were given the same conscious importance as the sights and sounds of an approaching locomotive?
Even in the absence of impending danger, we probably could not survive the sensory overload of all nerves reporting at the same level of consciousness. One type of insecticide is thought to kill in this very way. It interferes with the insects ability to process sensory input and shuts down vital
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Our ability to filter and prioritize sensory input allows us to both live at rest and to survive under threat. But this is just the first of several levels in a mechanism I call the perceptual matrix, a filter of many levels which, without our conscious thinking, sorts and prioritizes new information.
I think of the matrix as a woven fabric, each strand of which traps passing information and according to its relevance or survival value lets it pass upward or diverts it. This filtering continues on several levels of progressively increasing consciousness until the new information is made part of our conscious decision-making.
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Life's most important lessons are amazingly varied and can be quite confusing. Even so, they most all have two things in common. First, they usually are not particularly complicated. It certainly can sometimes take a while to get it; but once you do get it, the lesson is normally straight-up and to the point. Second, and here is the rub, the lessons invariably are a "So now you tell me!" kind of thing.
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Each matrix level acts as a gatekeeper who says, That is important, and
passes it on to a higher level of awareness
or it says, That is not important, and holds it back to be ignored
and filed away. Just which information makes it through the filters varies
from individual to individual. Certain psychiatric conditions may be evidence
of an either organic or acquired inability to prioritize sensory input
a faulty perceptual matrix not allowing pertinent data through to conscious
thought. Abnormal behavior results from choices based on irrelevant data
improperly sorted through the perceptual matrix.
In addition to the organic brain functions of sorting and prioritizing
all sensory data, prior experience creates additional layers of ones
perceptual matrix. We learned from the day of our birth that some things
bring comfort and some things hurt. Through each level of childhood development
we learned to distinguish what is helpful and what is hurtful or irrelevant
to our well-being. Once learned, those distinctions become part of a persons
perceptual matrix, requiring no further conscious deliberation. If I have
seen a circumstance or an object before, when it appears again it will
mean more to me than to someone who is seeing or experiencing it for the
first time. Some demonstrations have suggested that things which we do
not recognize, we take no notice of. We see only what we know. If it has
no significance we look past it; we will not recognize it as relevant
and our perceptual matrix will divert it without leaving an impression.
So it is no wonder that two eyewitnesses to an event will describe that
event differently. Two differing accounts do not mean two different events
or two different realities it just means two different perceptual
matrices processing the same information each in its unique way, with
its unique result.
Years ago I had been separated from my fianc e all summer. She told me
that she would be coming back to town driving her new yellow Volkswagen
Beetle. All of a sudden it seemed that the town was full of yellow VW
bugs. Every street I drove I passed one, at every intersection they seemed
to parade in front of me. Where did they all come from? I was certain
they werent there the day before. Of course they were there I just
had no reason to notice them. I did not see them because they had no
meaning to me until their new importance altered my perceptual matrix
to allow their image and color to stand out. Yellow VWs were given meaning
and I began to see them.
There is a difference between looking at something and looking for something.
Looking at a page jammed full of cartoon people has the effect of immediately
making me impatient and irritable, but when challenged by Wheres Waldo?
I begin to look for something and each characters appearance begins to
have relevance. I still get impatient and irritable, but it takes me maybe
two minutes longer.
Okay, maybe there are better examples.
A detective will notice details of a crime scene that I would never notice
because he has training and a purpose to look for them. I may look at, but
he looks for. This difference in approaches may have a limiting effect on
perception. I, in looking at, might not see the details as I take in the
overall scene I might not see the trees for the forest. The detective,
however, in looking for, might miss something in the overall picture
as he focuses on details, he might not see the forest for the trees.
Either way, this factor adds a new element to the composition of a perceptual
matrix. In addition to physiology and meaning, now we understand that
purpose and training help determine what we see and what we do not see.
Some have become so convinced of the effects of the perceptual matrix
that theyve been so bold as to say, We dont see what we dont recognize,
or, We dont see it if we dont know it is there. These statements
may seem a little extreme, but it cannot be refuted that incoming sensory
data are actively, yet subconsciously screened for relevance according
to physiological importance, emotional or intellectual meaning, past experience,
purpose for gathering data, and skills of observation.
In addition to individual perceptual matrix, there are several levels
of consciousness operating at the same time in each of us. It could be
said that we know things at different levels. How many times have you
had ideas which you cannot express in words, or have you ever sensed that
something is not right, yet you cannot put your finger on just why? You
might learn later that these impressions were correct, but how could you
have known at the time? Often information resides on some deeper level
in our brain and we may only rarely, with considerable effort be able
to bring it to the top level of awareness. The discovery of pheromones
has made it clear that we sometimes make behavioral choices in response
to very real and powerful stimuli we cannot see, smell, taste, touch or
hear; stimuli received on a level far below conscious thought.
If you are not acquainted with pheromones, you surely are acquainted with
sleep, which offers fairly obvious examples of levels of consciousness.
A dream certainly looks and feels real, but sometimes even during the
dream, while fast asleep, we are aware that it is only a dream. It is
a second level of consciousness that allows you to say as the monster
is chasing you, This is a dream and all I have to do is open my eyes
and I will wake up. Here are two levels of consciousness going at the
same time, but there is more. A third level simultaneously at work is
evidenced by the fact that you were still in the bed when you forced yourself
When is the last time you fell out of bed? Why so long ago, and why not
since then? As you toss and turn and roll about fleeing the monster in
your dream, at some level your brain is saying, That, right there, is
the edge of the bed. This is as far as I can roll without falling off.
Staying in the bed  while you decide to wake up  before the monster
catches you  demonstrates three concurrent levels of awareness -- all
while fast asleep. How many more levels may there be when we are fully
Oh, one more thing before we leave sleep. Perhaps you remember the last
time you were fully awake when you should have been sleeping. You fidgeted
and fussed, pounded your pillow and counted spots on the ceiling. Something
was bothering you but you could not figure out what. Information was percolating
up through the lower levels of consciousness and struggling to arrive
at awareness. Finally it occurred to you that you were too warm, so you
kicked off the covers and turned on the fan and you were fine -- until
the dream monster started chasing you.
In a similar case I heard a speaker describe how he could tell how important
an idea was by how early in the morning it awoke him from sleep. Once
awake he would sit quietly and wait until the idea finally rose to the
surface of his consciousness. It may have taken some time, but eventually
an important idea or solution to a problem came bubbling up from deep
subconscious levels where his brain had been processing information all
Just as our subconscious awareness can percolate upward and become conscious
thoughts, our conscious thoughts can bleed down and color our subconscious
awareness levels. If repeated over time, conscious thoughts and actions can
become habitual and so automatic that no conscious thought is required to indulge
in them. Every behavioral choice we make has an impact on us through several
levels of consciousness. Even if one never repeats the behavior, the action resides
in ones memory, burned into the neural circuitry in the brain making it easier for
that same neural pathway to be followed to the same behavior the next time similar
circumstances arise. This is on the one hand a warning and on the other hand an
invitation. If the behavior was disruptive of peace, it will be far easier to slip into that
disruptive behavior again. Disruptive choices will lead to pain and conflict which can
be relieved when better choices replace them, but it will be harder and harder to
replace the disruptive actions or thoughts the more they are repeated.
Have you noticed that those persons who have the habit of using profanities are not
even aware that they are swearing? What once was a conscious choice has become
On the other hand, when their neural pathways are burned into the brain
through repetition, thoughts and actions which are constructive and edifying
can lead to general happiness and even enhanced performance.
Some years ago a TIME magazine article caught my eye. It featured US Olympic
athletes training intensely. They were lying comfortably on their backs in a darkened
room with their eyes closed. I immediately thought, Wow! Finally an Olympic
event I can do! Ive been training like that all my life! It turns out it was the US ski
team and what the skiers were doing was visualizing every bump and gate in the
downhill course, seeing themselves carving every turn, planting every pole, shifting
weight, cutting each edge. It seems, they say, that the brain cannot distinguish
between thinking an action through in detail, and actually doing it. The same neural
circuits are excited and reinforced. Thinking it is the same as doing it. The phenomenon
is recognized as a legitimate tool for performance enhancement.
A conscious commitment to live by peaceable principles may require deliberation
and decisive choice at first, but it can soon with repetition become habitual,
second nature and automatic. Consequently peace comes and it remains,
requiring less and less effort as time goes on.
At this point it is fair to ask why we have focused on perceptual matrix
and levels of consciousness. What do these have to do with developing
personal peace? These ideas are the basis for an important conclusion
that unfiltered experience with reality is not possible; that we are
in possession of far fewer absolute truths than we think. If this is so,
how can we function in the real world?
Models. We must, and unavoidably do use models to help us function in
a world which is constantly filtered and interpreted by each individual.
Once beyond our perceptual matrix, everything we have observed about
the world we live in has become part of a more or less accurate model
of reality. Our models of what life is, constitute a second line of filters
to awareness perhaps the first filters we can consciously influence.
We naturally tend to acknowledge those facts which support our current
model of the way things are, but we tend to discount or entirely disregard
any contradictory evidence. We are afraid that new evidence might force
us to do the work of reconfiguring our model. We may be inclined consciously
or not, to filter out, to not see contrary evidence, so we tend to be
blind to facts which are inconsistent with the operative model.
This unwillingness to see may be subconscious and lead us to unconscious
avoidance behaviors to hide ourselves from any sources of contradictory
information. Some persons refuse to go to a doctor, some move to a commune.
They have a working model of the way things are and underneath their
stated reasons for acting this way they really do not want new information
to challenge their models, even if it might save their lives. Occasionally
mounting evidence forces a person to concede that there are contradictions
in his model, but until then he may choose to ignore, deny or refute the
evidence. This is willful ignorance and is not compatible with peace.
Familiarity is a powerful narcotic. Some persons will never relinquish
the old familiar, faulty model even when irrefutable evidence suggesting
something new is forced upon them. In extreme cases the fear of ones
models being proven wrong is so powerful that a person will die, will
literally give up his life rather than give up his familiar model to accommodate
new data. This may account for the tragedies of Jonestown, Guiana and
How can anyone be so intractable as to kill or die to avoid truth? Dont
be too shocked; it happens all the time. How many careers are sabotaged
by insisting on acting according to a model which is inconsistent with
the job? How many families are willfully destroyed through divorce as
a spouse repeatedly acts out a model of behavior which is incompatible
with peaceable marriage, rather than admit the error and correct the behavior?
As we have grown up, gathering data throughout our lives, we have many
times changed or replaced our models of how things work. Every model existed
because it worked; it answered our questions; it explained what we had
observed about our world, and allowed us to function for the time being.
But successive models became necessary as something new or puzzling occurred
in our lives that the old model could not explain.
Even the most primitive model works in the absence of awareness of inconsistent
facts. The flat-as-a-table model of the earth explained just fine the
fact that after a ship was observed to disappear over the horizons edge
it never came back. The fact, however, that a model works to explain all
known relevant facts at a given time does not mean that the model is a
true depiction of reality. It only means that no inconsistent data are
known at the present time. Back in the flat-earth days, the minute a ship
had the effrontery to actually return safely after falling over the edge,
it was clear that something had to give. There surely were some, who,
rather than question the flat-earth model, initially denied the evidence.
Theyd say, The ship is a devil ship full of the ghosts of the dead
sailors! In what should have been a triumphal return, can you imagine
the confusion of the poor sailors at the initial hostility of the men
and the terror of the women and children? One can only wonder how long
that notion lasted. Eventually, when the living, breathing evidence could
no longer be challenged, the flat-table model of the earth had to be challenged.
Now as then, when our model works without contradiction, we cannot assume
that weve arrived at the end sum of reality; we have only arrived at
the limits of our current perception of reality. We have gathered up all
data that have arrived at our conscious awareness through our current
perceptual matrix, and we have not yet found an inconsistency. Will one
of our personal ships return after falling over some edge of our personal
world? Sure. It happens everyday. How do we respond? Dont kid yourself,
in favor of an old model we sometimes do denounce our returning ships
The history of science is rich with models, which have worked very well
for a time to explain and even predict physical events. But as observation
and measurement instruments improved over the years, new data repeatedly
forced scientists to rethink their conclusions and recalculate theories
to incorporate the new information. Ever-evolving, good science does not
claim to prove anything, it only attempts to describe and correlate what
to the current date has been observed and measured. Scientists call their
models theories. Einstein, himself, refused to refer to his E=mc
and other findings as a law or a proof. Indeed, during his life observations
were made which challenged even that immensely useful calculation-model.
At the risk of venturing too far afield, for the purpose of illustrating
an important attribute of models in general, it is useful to examine one
particular transition from one scientific theory to another.
Isaac Newton, responsible for giant strides in the progress of physical
science, formulated in the early 1700s mathematical descriptions of much
of what we see happening around us every day. So accurate and useful are
his equations that three hundred years later we still use them to predict,
among many other common physical events, how fast and in what direction
a billiard ball will roll when struck by another and, yes, why and how
fast an apple falls from a tree. It is hard to do him justice in describing
his contributions to our understanding of gravity, motion, transfer of
energy, and the wave properties of light. His findings are generally referred
to as Newtonian Physics.
More than two hundred years later, when researchers began observing cosmic
events with their huge measurements, and sub-atomic events with their
tiny measurements, they discovered that Newtons calculations do not fully
describe what they were seeing. A new model was necessary and Albert Einstein
and others formulated what is generally known as Quantum Physics, featuring
subatomic and galactic forces applied to unbelievably small and unbelievably
huge masses at inconceivable velocities.
Here is the puzzle: why is Newtonian Physics still taught when it can be demonstrated to be inaccurate as it applies to so much of the known universe, and when Quantum Physics is a more accurate model? Is science deliberately electing to use an untruth?
Well, no and yes. No, Newtons laws are not untrue. Relative to Quantum
mechanics they are merely simplified, rounded-off expressions of the same
calculations. They are accurate as far as they go. Newtons formulas are
still useful in systems at rest or in uniform motion at far less than
the speed of light, that is, in anything you or I might encounter in our
lifetime. Not everyone needs to deal with numbers whose decimal point
is somewhere near San Francisco. But, yes, Newtonian Physics is untrue
if not accompanied with a disclaimer such as, except in very huge or
very tiny matters, or, as far as it goes. People who work with such
formulas understand this and do not need to repeat it every time, but
they will always be prepared to say so if you ask them.
Newton tells me truthfully that the train will hit me in exactly 4.2 seconds
if I do not jump out of the way. Physicists might be happy, using Quantum
mechanics to calculate for you how much mass is added to the locomotive
through the energy of its velocity, but this information is of little use to the
startled pedestrian. Usefulness, or need to know is an important factor in
considering our selection of suitable models. If they both incorporate all
known data, a simpler model is more useful than a more complex model.
This among scientists is called the Principle of Parsimony, and justifies
using Newtons formulas in every case they can before resorting to Quantum
Our models dictate our actions, and we generally act in ways which are
consistent with the way we think things are in the world. Sometimes the
feedback is instantaneous as we see the results of those actions confirming
or refuting the model. One day I decided to expand my stereo by putting
additional speakers in other rooms of the house. There were only two speaker
outlets on the back of the amplifier, but I overcame that little inconvenience
by attaching a splitter which gave me a total of six speaker plugs.
As I ran wire for the six speakers I reviewed my model of how this sort
of thing works. The amplifier is like a pump, I told myself, which pushes
power out to the speakers. If the amplifier cannot pump enough power out
to drive the speakers, one or more of the speakers will be undersupplied
and will just not work. So to determine the limits of the amplifier, I
would attach all six speakers at once, then if the speakers did not work,
I would detach the speakers one-by-one until they started working again.
Thats how I would know how many speakers the amplifier would sustain.
The test was consistent with my model and I was sure it would work.
After attaching six speakers, sure enough none of them worked. So far
so good. As I detached speakers one-by-one, however, I was surprised to
find that my amplifier-pump could not drive even one speaker alone. When
I discovered smoke coming out of my amplifier, I began to think that maybe
my model needed work.
After a week at the shop and $173 of repairs I arrived at a model of electronic
things which better accommodates the experimental data. Speakers are the
pumps! They draw power from the amplifier which works to supply the demand.
If too many speakers are drawing power, the overworked amplifier cannot
keep up; it overheats and burns out. Note to self: It is not a bad thing
to pay attention to Ohms and amps and such things.
You electronics wizards out there need not snicker at the level of understanding
which led me to so confidently burn up my amplifier. Post-graduate scholars
with a high and refined need to know cannot justly snicker at grade schoolers
and their simple explanations of things. As the complexity of the grade
schoolers studies increases, their need to know will make them uncomfortable
with their simplistic ideas and will drive them to adopt more complex
models. Until the very day I tried to add speakers, my model was sufficient
for my needs. I did not need to know anything different. This is what
is meant when it is said, When the student is ready, the teacher will
If the student is not ready, no information can be transferred, no teacher
will be effective. If someone is bumping along, content operating under
assumptions you know are flawed, you wont help him by criticizing his
model and dumping a truckload of information on him. He is likely to be
startled and start defending his misguided ways, further burrowing into
the faulty model. Better to ask, Would you be interested in a different
approach to this? and go from there. If someone is not a student, and
does not feel the need to learn, it is no favor to him to blast apart
his operative model, however simplistic it might be. Just leave him alone,
trusting that one day he will feel the need to know better. Resisting
the urge to destroy someone elses flawed model may prove a challenge
to any well-meaning person.
During my adventures in stereoland I acted confidently and sincerely and
in strict accordance with how I believed things work; never-the-less the
outcome was painful.
Self-confidence was not the problem; more of it would not have altered the outcome.
Passion for my work? Oh, I had plenty of passion.
More passion might have induced me to offer to expand my neighbors
stereo for him, too.
Commitment? Didnt I use my very own property to test my model?
Does any of this confidence, passion, commitmenthave anything to do
with personal peace?
Unless the operative model is consistent with peace, adding intensity just makes
the eventual outcome more painful for everyone. Honest, faithful people can still
suffer if the model upon which their actions are based is faulty. Honest believers
cannot be criticized the model is the problem. Faith contributes to personal
peace if it is faith in something consistent with reality.
More faith in a falsehood does not make the falsehood true.
Once I had paid the $173 repair bill, if I had tried again to hook up
six speakers, you could justly wonder what was wrong with me. Didnt I
learn from my unhappy experience? If I were to do it a third, fourth,
or fifth time, you might want to organize an intervention. Start organizing,
folks; there are forces at work in you and in me which drive us to keep
hooking up our speakers and paying the repair bills, time and time again.
We all suffer from it, but this kind of intransigence is the special burden of
hard-liners or fanatics.
Those who cling to inflexible models have the toughest job because they
must constantly defend their views as the only true understanding. They
wont permit themselves to characterize their doctrines as models, which
would suggest the possibility of incompleteness or fallibility. They cannot
compromise, since to concede on any point is to admit to the possibility
of some other valid perspective which would topple their house of cards
their exclusive rightness.
Extremism and fanaticism are not evidence of the correctness of an
understanding, or validity of a contention. Such highly charged emotional
dispositions are not even evidence of security or confidence in ones models.
They are evidence of quite the opposite, an unwillingness to allow ones
models to be scrutinized, to be held up to the light and compared with reality.
Emotional volume goes up when the support of evidence falters.
Those who scream the loudest have the least confidence in their cause.
We repeatedly bring pain upon ourselves and others because we do not know
or we do not care that there are better, more peaceable alternative models
out there. Looking at things just a little differently makes all the difference
between a life of chaotic misery and a life of peace and happiness. The
circumstances of the world do not have to change for us to be happy
our vision, our understanding, our models can change to allow us a peaceable,
happy life regardless of our life circumstances. This is why our quest
to find peace is focused inwardly. It is fruitless to launch a crusade,
to attack, fight, and break down outside obstacles to our peace. If we
allow ourselves to look, we find the obstacles where they truly are, within
ourselves, and we dissolve them with understanding.
There are two ways to lift into the air something heavier than air. A
rocket burns explosive fuels in enormous quantities, struggling against
inertia and gravity to heave itself aloft. The sounds, the smoke, the
fury are stunning as force is applied against force in a mammoth battle.
This is blasting-off. The second way to lift something into the sky is
to open a hole in the air, release your grip on the earth and float into
the hole. A gas or hot-air balloon does precisely that. The work left
to the flier is only to release. But this is not always an easy job; the
ropes that are tying the balloon down must be cut, ballast must be ejected
the flier must relinquish all things which keep the gondola down. This
With peaceable things we cast-off, not blast-off.
Our struggle is not with the world around us. We do not learn techniques to
win confrontations or amass power. We do not find peace by applying
force or finesse to make the world accommodate us. We do not use force
against force, rather we recognize that our trials are with ourselves
and the work we must do is to relinquish those things which hold us, which
tie us down away from the free flight we seek. Cast-off, not blast-off.
We give up the struggle of propulsion for the freedom of release.
One of mankinds most fundamental models, one having far-reaching effects
on how we relate with others is the basic nature of man. This, through
the centuries has been a huge debate among theologians and philosophers,
yet the debate plays itself out in our homes and workplaces even now.
We deal with others differently depending on whether we believe man is
inherently good or inherently bad. If man from birth is inherently good
we approach our neighbors and co-workers with patience and understanding,
believing that their good nature will eventually overcome any temporary
experimentation with misbehavior. To coax better performance we appeal
to that basic good nature through encouragement, reassurance and praise,
anxious to help others avoid mistakes and mollify the consequences of
painful choices. The incentives we offer will appeal to their higher values,
their sense of personal worth, community, and contribution to the team,
Years ago I worked in a psychiatric hospital where I was assigned to the
maximum security ward, whose residents had perpetrated violent crimes
and were likely to spend the rest of their lives there. I was surprised
to see them organized into a self-governing body with elected officers.
Through group meetings the residents participated in counseling each
other, planning activities and agreeing on standards of behavior, which
they enforced themselves with group sanctions revoking or awarding privileges.
Called the Therapeutic Community, this approach was based on the basically
good model of man, emphasizing that by exercising the healthy portions
of their personality the unhealthy portions would eventually be overgrown
and squeezed out. As inherently good, even these men and women, it was
presumed, would want to behave better if given a sheltered environment
to learn how.
The inherently bad model of mankind leads to more confrontational interaction.
With no reason to be patient with disappointment, one uses criticism
and complaint, punishes with threats, guilt, and humiliation. One tends
to manipulate his fellow beings rather than motivate, and incentives tend
to appeal to baser values, such as money, possessions and other consumables.
I have been puzzled in recent years by a friend with a truly unpleasant
bearing. He remains embittered by disappointments that happened years
and years ago. Even though he says those far away events are the reason
he is unhappy, I suspect the disappointments may be a symptom of his unhappiness,
not the root cause. There is something sour about his attitude which
I could not illustrate with specifics until one day I noticed that he
consistently refused to allow other people to feel good about themselves.
When someone would mention a happy circumstance, hed be quick to say
Yeah, but If someone indicated that he was pleased with himself for
a task well done, my friend would not let it rest without mentioning how
it may not have been a complete success. And asked for positive feedback,
he is conspicuously silent. He simply cannot allow anyone in his presence
to feel good about himself. This may be symptomatic of his having adopted
the inherently bad model of mans basic nature. He says he has no friends.
That may be another result of his choice of models.
You, as well as I, can think of other persons, who seem to be at peace
or even joyous in the worst of difficulties; who are capable of giving
comfort even when they themselves are grieving; who seem to be capable
of loving those who are most antagonistic to them. Some seem to forgive
even as an offense is being perpetrated. Are these persons supernatural,
gifted at birth with this capacity for peace, or can we choose to cultivate
it in ourselves? Where do we start cultivating? Start with your assessment
of the basic nature of man. What does evidence tell you?
Where some believe with ample evidence that man must overcome his basic
bad nature to create goodness in the world, others believe with equal
weight of evidence that man is diverting from his basic good nature in
order to create chaos and pain. This suggests an important aspect of model
selection. All evidence being equal, it is simply a matter of choice which
model we adopt. Remember what we have learned from our discussion of perceptual
matrix and models? We sometimes see what we choose to see. In this way,
regarding the inherent nature of man, how we feel about other people
tells more about us than it does about them.
If we find ourselves honestly uncertain of what to conclude from the evidence
of our experience, we may select a model based on other criteria. If the
question, Which of the two models is more consistent with reality? cannot
resolve the issue, I suggest asking, Which of the two models allows me
to feel good about my fellow beings? If consistency with reality is equal,
choose the happier, more loving, more peaceable alternative. Like the
man who has no friends, or the man who has no enemies, the model will
create its own rewards.
Wait a minute, some might say, Isnt that the Pollyanna Principle?
We must re-emphasize that ignoring distressing or disruptive things is
not the way to find peace. Whatever the issue, whichever model we select
must acknowledge all known facts about the issue. Whether the glass is
half full or half empty is not about denying that there are both air and
water in the glass. If little Johnny is proud of having all by himself
fetched you a drink, even though he spilled some of it on the way in,
the half-full model would allow everyone to rejoice about the facts as
My sour friend, in preferring the half-empty model, strictly
speaking may be justified by the facts, but he will not feel happy about
the event, and worse yet, he will not let little Johnny feel happy about
it either. On the condition that it is consistent with truth, we may peaceably
choose a happier model when one is available.
This is not the Pollyanna Principle, and I like to call it the Dulcinea
Principle. Well address Don Quixotes adventures from time to time, but
as his exploits illustrate, with fewer exceptions than you might expect,
we are free to choose to imbue peaceable meanings and motives into any
life event. You may rot where you are buried or you may grow where you
are planted. Either model accounts for the fact that you are up to your
neck in it. Not your circumstances, but your choice of model makes all
I used to be vaguely uncomfortable with art, politics and entertainment.
In the case of music, I found myself resisting a song, not allowing myself
to like it because it was recorded by a band whose lifestyle is despicable.
As for politics, at the same time I was picketing for his impeachment,
I could not bring myself to regard favorably Nixons diplomatic accomplishments
in China. And movies? I would not allow myself to enjoy a certain actress
on-screen performance because she had abandoned her husband to flaunt
a worldwide sexual affair with a married actor. In each case I felt deep
inside that if I admitted to liking one part of a persons life, I would
be endorsing all parts of it. I realized one day that, just like my sour
friend I was saying, Yes, but to a large portion of what could have
brought enjoyment into my life.
I finally discovered that this condition was forced upon me by my model
of people as they relate to their accomplishments. I had been thinking
of a persons character as a glass of pure water. For each of that persons
misdoings I was adding a drop of ink to that persons water. Of course
the whole glass became increasingly gray. It didnt take long to want
to have nothing to do with that water. Couldnt drink it; couldnt wash
with it; I wasnt sure I would water my plants with it nothing good
could come of it. With this ink-in-water model I had to condone the badness
in a person in order to accept his goodness. I was led directly into critically
judging people on a scale of white to black and no one was all white.
No one could possibly fully live up to whatever standard I kept in my
head, so I was forced to withhold some measure of affection from all -
- even from my best friends. My model forced me to even anticipate offenses,
to greet strangers with suspicion and watch them carefully until their
weaknesses revealed themselves to me and I could be justified in saying,
Aha! Just as I thought.
As for public figures, eventually I decided that my disgust for an artists
behavior would never change his behavior, nor would my judgments about
public disgraces ever sway anyone away from his own choice to disgrace
himself in public. In fact, the only person my sensitivities could impact
was myself, and I discovered that I was missing out on a lot of color
and enrichment in my life. There had to be a better model.
I found it in the mosaic-tiled floors in Pompeii. There it was, clear
as day, black tiles laid in a background of white tiles. The black tiles
were not bleeding into and spoiling the white tiles. Even from a distance
the floor did not merge into gray. Not only could I appreciate the clean
look of the white, while at the same time acknowledging the presence of
the black tiles, but beyond that I realized that the contrasts between
black and white gave pattern and meaning to the depiction. Bingo! I had
my more peaceable model. It may yet be an imperfect metaphor or model,
but now I can value O. J. Simpsons great athletic performances without
fear of appearing to endorse his movie-acting, or other facets of his
Great and useful qualities of character can coexist with flaws and baser
qualities within a single person. A man is not summed up and averaged
to decide his net value to humanity. In the presence of the very same
facts, the mosaic model provides a mechanism to savor any persons contributions
where the ink-in-water model did not. A persons gift can be celebrated
without absolution from, or endorsement of the other aspects of that persons
It is said that a fool cannot learn from the wisest man,
but the wise man can and does learn from the fool.
The mosaic model allows me to receive light from any source.
Better yet, it takes critical judgment of the whole person out of my hands.
I no longer force myself to bear the burden of condemnation. What a
In consciously selecting a model in instances where that is possible,
a person might be accused of picking and choosing what he sees. Remember
from our discussion of perceptual matrix that we all do unavoidably filter
incoming data, and that filtering is largely determined by our needs and
values. Yet, while acknowledging the existence of things inconsistent
with peace, it is entirely consistent with reality to choose to focus
on positive, uplifting, peaceable things.
We divide life experiences and circumstances into bad and good, but
this is an artifice, a completely invented contrivance not existing in
Nature. Nature just is. There is no bad or good until we each for ourselves
judge an events impact on our personal agenda. The concept of good and
bad exists only within each of us, and each judges differently. The same
rain that is good for your garden is bad for my picnic. We assign good
and bad yet, with our shallow awareness and our narrow field of vision
of the world around us, we are often the poorest judges of what truly
is good for us. Taoists understand this well.
An old man was living with his son at the top of a hill. One day, he
lost a horse. The neighbors all came to express their sympathy at his
bad luck, but the old man said, How do you know this isnt good luck?
A little later the horse came back and with it were some superior wild
horses. The neighbors all congratulated the old man on his good fortune,
but he said, How do you know this isnt bad luck? With so many horses,
the son began riding, and one day he fell off and broke his leg. The
injury left him with a bad limp. Again the neighbors came to sympathize,
but the old man said, You never know this may be good luck. Another
year passed, and a war came. All the able-bodied young men had to go to
war, and many died. The son, because of his bad leg, was saved. In this
way, what seems to be good luck may really be bad, and what seems to be
bad luck, good. (from Li Zi, adapted by Lin Yutang)
All events are neutral. Nature has no good or bad. Shakespeare had
Hamlet say it succinctly, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking
makes it so (Hamlet, act ii, scene ii, emphasis added) If thinking is
all there is to it, can we adjust our thinking to characterize all things
as good? Is this consistent with reality? Pain is often associated with
our insistence on labeling events as good or bad, when in Nature they
just are. We must relinquish the notion of identifying anything as either
good or bad. More emphatically, we must avoid even using the words bad
and good. Drop them from our vocabulary. Why such a radical affectation?
Because there are more accurate ways to convey things as they are. We
could say that rain is compatible with our agenda for the garden, or
not compatible with our picnic plans. Ideas are not good or bad, only
consistent or inconsistent with reality; a plan is either suitable
to our needs or not. A person is not good or bad, only making choices
which will or will not contribute to peace. Remember, our choice of descriptive
word-models may have no impact on the circumstances, but will definitely
affect how we feel about what is.
Just as the wise man can learn from the fool, successful people will tell
you they learned most from their mistakes from bad things. Yet if
something useful is derived from it, how can an event be a total loss?
If a person remains teachable and open to truth, he can take value or
growth from any event. In this way all things can be good to those who
But, you say, some events are just too painful to see any good in.
Perhaps, but even the worst event could create good by acting as a catalyst.
Often substances of different chemical properties are mixed with no intention
that they bond together, but rather to act as catalysts to each other,
each to sling the other into another phase or state of existence. Similarly,
all life events no matter how they are viewed can serve to sling
us forward toward a final un-compromised state of being. How can we call
this bad? It is Nature unfolding before us. It just is.
It may not be inconsistent with peace to deliberately interpret an event.
Through our models we will interpret every event anyway. So is deliberate
interpretation always mis-interpretation? Mis- according to whom? Who
gets to choose? Every negative event may be interpreted as only a part
of a greater positive whole, as a dark tile in a beautiful mosaic lending
contrast, shape, and identity to the whole picture. Whereas we each may
choose for ourselves how we characterize the world outside ourselves,
but we may not choose for another how he looks at things. Each person
is accountable for his models, and will reap peace or distress, the rewards
or penalties of those models.
Deliberately choosing to see value in difficult natural events and happenstance
is one thing, but can we deliberately re-characterize as a gift an action
intended to be hurtful? If something is sent as a curse, must it be received
that way? The answer is also a question: who chooses? I was mowing my
overgrown back yard one day and happened to spot a large potato just in
front of the mower. A peculiar thing to find in tall grass. I spent the
next ten minutes walking the yard looking carefully for more. Sure enough
I found more than a dozen. I concluded someone had purposefully scattered
them, and knowing how a mower is ruined when its blade shaft snaps, I
also concluded that damaging my mower was the pranksters intention. At
first I was angry, but then I realized that until I could find the culprit
I would have to suspect every one of my neighbors -- and their kids --
and their kids friends. I would have to remain indignant until then,
and that upon reflection seemed a wasteful use of my emotional energy.
So I rethought the situation, re-characterizing the facts as they were.
The fact was that I had a sack full of fresh, washed, dinner-size Idaho
baking potatoes. I chose to characterize this fact as a courtesy of some
thoughtful person. And why not? I came away at peace with my neighbors
and chuckling at my good fortune. We enjoyed the potatoes for weeks.
Without denying any known facts I had an opportunity to choose a model
which left me at peace. It may not always be that simple. For instance,
could I have been so cavalier if I had actually damaged my mower before
I discovered the prank? Yes, of course I could have -- why not? Who gets
to choose how I feel? The details of the event may have changed somewhat,
but the alternative responses would have been exactly the same. The prospect
of catching and confronting the perpetrator would have been just as impossible.
Do I accept for myself and extend to others a lingering emotional burden,
or do I elect a peaceable path? More times than you realize you can choose
a peaceable way to see things without violating your devotion to truth.
If we can learn and grow from all things, even an assault is an invitation
to learn, to grow, to see things differently. We can thank even those
who want to be our enemies for helping us to learn peaceable things. It
is merely a function of the choices which accompany every event in our
An incident even more touching than my run-in with potatoes is portrayed
in Les Miserables. The thief, after having attacked the priest and escaped
with his silverware, was arrested and returned in handcuffs to face the
priest, who chose to respond with words like, Oh, I am glad you have
returned. You forgot to take with you the matching candlesticks. The
police released their prisoner. If there was no crime, there was no criminal.
By the priests deliberate re-characterization a theft became a gift,
a thief became a free man, and the priest, by relinquishing the desire
for revenge, transformed himself from a victim to a benefactor. The facts
did not change. How they were characterized did.
Re-characterization can go the other way too. Those who desire to injure
another person can turn something intended to be happy and loving into
something nasty. For instance, you can drain any gift of any positive
value whatsoever by characterizing it as a response to compulsion. Who
told you to do that? Why do you think you have to do this? You wouldnt
do this if you didnt have to. When the response to a gift is a counterpunch,
the gift can look like a punch, and any further interaction becomes a
duel. Sometimes this happens quite innocently when you try to receive
a gift pleasantly. Oh. You didnt have to do this, might very easily
sound like, You must have felt obligated to do this, and You wouldnt
have done this if you didnt have to. To preserve the pleasantry of the
moment the giver in this case is required to justify the gift with a response
of his own. This interchange usually seems innocent enough, but the moment
is lessened a bit. Maybe there is a more peaceable way to express gratitude.
In any case, the receivers response to a gift, whether thoughtless or
contrived, goes a long way toward redefining the event. With a quick turn
of phrase a circumstance can be created in which neither receiver nor
giver can rejoice, and both are diminished by the gift. Even subconsciously,
the way a phrase turns is also the result of a choice of models. The
conscious choice of a peaceable model, even a deliberate interpretation
or re-characterization of a circumstance avoids the possibility of misunderstanding
and defuses what may have been an attempted assault.
Words are models of ideas. Word-models have a powerful impact both outwardly
on other people, and inwardly on our own thoughts and feelings. Those
who love truth will be very deliberate in their choice of words. As we
learn that a certain model is inconsistent with reality or does not contribute
to peace, we must abandon the model and all the words, which promote that
faulty model. As weve discussed good and bad must go. As we discover
in the chapters dealing with illusions, no one deserves anything. The
word deserve no longer belongs in our vocabulary. Right and wrong
at best are inadequate descriptions, and at worst they are ammunition
used in battle, and resulting in injury. The arrogance of being right
has its own rewards, but being wrong also has its rewards related to
being a victim. Peace must come in acknowledging truth without being either
right or wrong. It is much more accurate to describe something as consistent
or inconsistent with the evidence, compatible or incompatible with
peace, or useful or not useful for our present needs.
One final, yet vital understanding about models in general -- whereas
we must use models to relate to and function in reality, models are not
reality. They are limited descriptions of reality as one perceives it.
At some level all models must fail. That axiom has a corollary: For any
given model of reality there will at some time and place be a different
and more accurate model. We must not marry ourselves to how we understand
things today. This is the first step in discovering and applying peaceable
Tracy Sandberg has been through: an acrimonious divorce, contrived
estrangement from children, various business failures, fraud and
embezzlement by life-long friends, foreclosure, bankruptcy, threat of false
lawsuits, calumniated reputation among friends, unfounded firing from
employment, physical injury and chronic pain, unfounded persecution
and confiscation by taxing authorities, financial losses, employee theft,
investment fraud, and death in the family. Tracy Sandberg is still at peace.
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