In psychological parlance, the term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the mental stress and consequent dysfunction experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or who holds a belief and nevertheless performs a contradictory action or reaction. For example, an individual is likely to experience dissonance if he or she is addicted to a destructive habit (such as drugs or alcohol) and continues to indulge that addiction, despite the fact that they know it is seriously harming them and their relations.
In her remarkably insightful book “Application of Impossible Things”, Natalie Sudman employs the term “Contraries” to describe that same process in which we sabotage ourselves by holding simultaneous contradictory beliefs. To illustrate how that happens, she uses the example of someone who desires to attain wealth, but also carries a hold-over belief from their early Christian indoctrination regarding how difficult it would be for a rich man to get into heaven — a challenge comparable to a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. As a result, their belief undermines their intent, and they fail to achieve the financial success they desire.
The point here is that our thoughts are energetic phenomena that create effects. All that we experience is the result of attention combined with intention. If there is some kind of internal conflict in that regard, we will invariably reap confusion and suffering. Indeed, this condition of internal discord is at the source of much of our frustration with life, wherein we are prevented by our own conflicted thoughts from accomplishing our goals and fulfilling our purpose.
In my essays “As We Think” and “How To Change”, I investigate the power of thought in the creation of our life and environs, but in this consideration I am exploring how we specifically sabotage ourselves in our life and relations by clinging (either consciously or unconsciously) to contradictory thought forms.
In his monumental opus “I Am That”, Nisargadatta Maharaj made a keen observation on this subject when he said:
“The real world is beyond the mind’s ken; we see it through the net of our desires, divided into pleasure and pain, right and wrong, inner and outer. To see the universe as it is, you must step beyond the net. It is not hard to do so, for the net is full of holes. Look to the net and its many contradictions. You do and undo at every step. You want peace, love, happiness and work hard to create pain, hatred and war. You want longevity and overeat, you want friendship and exploit. See your net as made of such contradictions and remove them – your very seeing them will make them go.”
In other words, if we wish to align harmoniously with our heart’s deepest yearning, we must first inspect our motives to the point of recognizing where the contradictions lie. For those of us who have visited the many shops in the spiritual marketplace, we might notice that as a result of these visits we are now carrying around a big stew of conflicting messages. For example, we are attracted to the concept that we are already free, that everything is perfect, and that there is nothing to do, and yet we have to strive for liberation and practice as if our hair is on fire; or that there is a true and immortal Self, and yet it is all a dependently arising mental projection; or that we must become detached and aloof, but also compassionately engaged; or that there is only consciousness, and yet the truth is beyond consciousness, and so forth and so on.
Furthermore, merely becoming cognizant of the contradictions, though a good first step, is going to be rather ineffectual in terms of real transformation, unless we follow up by thoroughly rooting them out. In other words, clear seeing requires a component of actualization in the way we live and act. That is the art of life, and calls for a mature and balanced vigilance. By combining unswerving attention plus intention, there is nothing that we cannot do, but that demands a purity that does not come easily to the human animal. However, by resorting to the expanded awareness available to us as immortal spiritual beings temporarily inhabiting these human bio-vehicles, we can tap into the resources we need to release our cognitive and emotional knots and fulfill our purpose for incarnating here.
In any application of that conscious process of recognition and liberation, we will eventually have to confront and acknowledge the limitations inherent in any self-image we hold about ourselves. Indeed, it is only our self-centered story (the narrative of me & mine) which we are always trying to assert and defend that stands in our own way. Certainly, even our most positive self-images ultimately need to be relinquished, if we are to truly awaken to who and what we really are. Nevertheless, in regard to cognitive dissonance, it is our negative self-image which obstructs many of us on our journey. As the American spiritual teacher Adyashanti points out:
“When most people begin to come into contact with the true nature of their own self, they have such a hard time accepting that they could naturally be something positive and beautiful. In the West, many people struggle with negative self-image. I have seen that negative identity held onto even in the midst of profound revelation. It so easily contracts back into, ‘It couldn’t be me. It couldn’t be who I am; it’s just too good.’ [There is] an unwillingness to admit that all the avenues that we try to pursue to make us happy don’t ultimately end in happiness. Yet, we continue to insist that they do in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Once we understand where the dis-connect originates, we can begin the process of clarifying our intent. Otherwise, we will forever be at the mercy of uninspected elements of the psyche, aspects of our being that clash and generate stress and dissatisfaction. In any case, there are no victims. By our choices we created the conditions for dissonance, even if it involved something as seemingly unavoidable as buying into the fear and guilt-based religious stories we were told as innocent and receptive young children. Since the disturbance is ultimately our own creation, it is also our responsibility to both recognize it at its root, and then to let go of it, as part of the conscious process.
Because these areas of dissonance are typically buried at the core of our assumptions about life, we must delve deeply into that core to root them out. The practice of True Inquiry can address them systematically, but to activate such a process requires both persistence and consistence – it cannot be accomplished half-heartedly. If we are truly interested in freedom, we need to tap into our natural devotion. In other words, sincerity and determination cannot be faked. Earnestness is not a superimposed artifice, but must arise from a core impulse to awaken to our true nature, which also includes recognizing all of our forms of avoidance.
Fortunately, we are each and every one of us endowed with just such an impulse, or else we would not have put ourselves into such challenging and potentially rewarding circumstances as these human incarnations. Although enlightenment is indeed our prior condition, we have set that aside to enter into these human births, with all the amnesia that entails, just for the enjoyment and thrill of expanding our self-awareness to the point of re-cognizing our true nature, again and again. From our human perspective, we might scratch our heads at such a proposition, but what we are is much greater than the human mind could ever hope to comprehend.
When we hear the phrase “God works in mysterious ways”, we can understand that the “God” referred to is actually who and what we are. It is only accumulated knots of contraction such as cognitive dissonance which impede and obscure that recognition. Thus, as part of the conscious process of re-discovering ourselves – our true nature and bliss — we are called by our Whole Being to see through and release all such limiting and contradictory beliefs, ideas, and assumptions.
Nor need it be some grim slog through layers of psychological muck. Rather, it can be a deeply enjoyable process, if we approach it with humor and humility. That means to not take ourselves so seriously. Someday, we may come to the happy recognition that it is all good, all of it. As Ramana Maharshi smilingly noted: “A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now.”
In the meantime, it helps to remember that whatever appears is mind. Moreover, whatever stories or thoughts are arising in our mind right now, we can also recognize that there is an awareness of them. If there is an awareness of them, then it follows that we are not the thought, not the story, but rather that spaciousness in which the whole drama is appearing. In other words, we can take one step back, in a manner of speaking, to a purely witnessing position. I say “in a manner of speaking”, because ultimately awareness is inseparable from experience, just as the ocean and the wave are indivisible. However, by assuming the temporary witness position, we can provide a fresh perspective and also give ourselves some space from the clinging and fixating activity of our conflicted consciousness, and its troubling case of mistaken identity with all that is impermanent, or non-self.
Now, we have often heard the suggestion from meditation teachers to “look at that which is looking”. Of course, this suggestion will stimulate the mind to try and turn back on itself, like the eye trying to see itself. However, can the mind ever make an object of itself? If the perceived cannot perceive, then any motion on the part of the mind to grasp itself instantly creates a false duality. After all, the mind cannot be used to grasp mind, nor can awareness make an object of itself in order to realize itself. All of the various so-called “spiritual” efforts to do so are in effect mental strategies that only serve to prolong one’s sense of dilemma, contributing to more cognitive dissonance and frustration.
Interestingly, when that fact is directly seen, then there can follow a spontaneous letting go, and paradoxically, in that surrender of the struggle, our true nature – what we truly are — emerges from the background to shine as the presence of awareness itself. That is also the moment when all past efforts are seen for what they were, provoking the humorous response that Ramana alluded to in the quote above. Indeed, in that timeless moment, we have finally ceased to sabotage ourselves, and now can get on with the adventure of this life, freed from self-conflicted programs of the search to become what we already are.