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 acting. Each of the three reinforces the others two, and helps maintain the stance.
Most methods in this book introduce conceptual understandings that change thinking. However, I’ll make some suggestions about working with feelings and actions too.
The main method is to become familiar with the thoughts, feelings, and patterns of activity characteristic of each confused stance, so that you notice them as they occur; and then choose to think, feel, and act 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.
“Accepting nebulosity resolves confusions” sketched the method briefly. The next page explains further, in terms of various “aspects” of each stance. Meaningness presents increasingly detailed and complex versions as it goes along.
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.
p class=”meta_para”>My current (July 2014) plan for this book does not include much material about action, but I’m coming to think it should. So, this may change.