Mistaken ideas about meaningness inhibit creativity, constrict your life, and make you miserable. This book is meant as a practical manual for overcoming these confused stances, liberating you from their negative effects. It offers specific antidotes for particular confusions.
A “stance” is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and eventually acting. Each of those reinforces the others, and helps maintain the stance.
The methods described in this book mainly work by changing thinking. It’s also possible to work with feelings and actions; I’ll make occasional suggestions about those too.
The main method is to become familiar with the thoughts and feelings characteristic of each confused stance, so that you notice them as they occur; and then choose to think differently. Simply remembering that there is a better alternative—a complete stance—is often most of the battle. However, it’s also necessary to understand how and why this alternative is better, and that can take some work. If the complete stances were obviously better, no one would adopt the confused ones.
The next page explains the method in more detail, in terms of various “aspects” of each stance.
Cognitive restructuring is the central method of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive restructuring is also a practice of “thinking differently,” by noticing patterns of dysfunctional, emotion-laden thought, and replacing them with more accurate and functional ones. CBT, like Meaningness, suggests that patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior reinforce each other. Interestingly, like my approach, CBT draws on Eastern religion and Western philosophy.
The specific patterns of thinking/feeling/acting CBT works with, called cognitive distortions, have almost no overlap with my confused stances. So the method is similar, but the content is mainly quite different. (One point of commonality: CBT aims to overcome “absolutism,” perhaps similar to eternalism. In place of absolutism, it promotes “flexibility,” perhaps similar to the complete stance’s attitude toward nebulosity.)
Unlike CBT, Meaningness is not intended as therapy, and is not concerned with psychopathology. However, because the method is similar, the two might be complementary or synergistic. Perhaps Meaningness offers CBT practitioners an expanded set of dysfunctional patterns to address; I’m not qualified to say.
Several communities aim to improve normal (non-psychopathological) thinking, using a similar method. They identify common patterns of dysfunctional thought; each can be replaced with a better alternative. Among these communities are the rationalist, skeptical, and critical thinking movements.
In early versions, these movements concentrated on logical fallacies—errors in thinking alone. Increasingly, they have recognized the importance of cognitive biases, many of which involve emotions distorting thought.
The lists of these errors (linked in the previous paragraph) have little overlap with my list of confused stances. It seems likely that rationalism, skepticism, and critical thinking can be synergistic with the Meaningness approach. (That is my experience, anyway!) However, rationalism can sometimes slide into eternalism, a dysfunctional, confused stance. I’ll discuss later how to avoid that danger.
Recently, insights about cognitive biases have crossed over with CBT, as cognitive bias modification therapy. Maybe a three-way synergy is possible!
This book grew partly out of my engagement with Buddhist philosophy. That philosophy is closely related to Buddhist meditation methods. I have found that the two support each other—as Buddhism says.
In meditation, you watch yourself thinking, without interfering. Then you discover what you are thinking, and how. It comes as a shock to most people to realize that they actually didn’t know—and another shock to learn the typical contents of their thoughts.
Because meditation reveals the process and content of your thoughts, it’s probably synergistic with any of the three “think differently” methods (Meaningness, CBT, and rationalism). And, indeed, meditation is increasingly combined with CBT to create various crossover therapies. There’s also considerable interest in meditation in the rationalist community.
According to Buddhist theory, meditation eventually allows you to experience “emptiness,” which is closely related to my “nebulosity”; and after that “the nonduality of emptiness and form,” which is related to the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern. That inseparability is the hallmark of the complete stances.
Confused stances make you miserable directly; but even worse, they make you take dysfunctional actions that harm yourself and others. Some helpful interventions can replace dysfunctional actions with functional ones. These include both individual activities and social or group practices.