Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mental Maps

"The poetic observation often attributed to French writer Anaïs Nin that 'we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are' is precisely what scientists now confirm experimentally: For human beings there is no unfiltered reality.  We are creatures of the mind who interpret experience through a largely unconscious mental map made up of the big ideas orienting our lives.  Philosopher Erich Fromm called it our 'frame of orientation,' through which we see what we expect to see. So, while we often hear that 'seeing is believing,' actually believing is seeing."
So writes noted environmentalist Frances Moore Lappé in her book, Eco-Mind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want.  She is, of course, referring to our subconscious schema, what the Buddha called samskara.   The Buddha taught that the products of samskara include human consciousness itself, and that samskara arises out of ignorance, that is, without our knowing it.  

In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Fromm states, "Man's capacity for self-awareness, reason, and imagination - new qualities that go beyond the capacity for instrumental thinking of even the cleverest animals - requires a picture of the world and of his place in it that is structured and has inner cohesion.  Man needs a map of his natural and social world, without which he would be confused and unable to act purposefully and consistently.  He would have no way of orienting himself and for finding for himself a fixed point that permits him to organize all the impressions that impinge upon him." 

Thus stated, Fromm illuminates the difficult-to-understand link in the Buddha's Chain of Dependent Origination between samskara, often translated as "mental formations," and consciousness.  The mental formations of samskara include this structured and cohesive map of our natural and social worlds, and this conceptual map not only describes the contours and topography of the external world, but by conceiving that such a thing as an external world can exist, it thereby assumes an internal world that stands in opposition to that which is external.  As Lappé explains, our frame of orientation shapes not only how we perceive our place in the universe but also our own nature.  Thus, our mental map, samskara, give rise to self awareness, to human consciousness.

Fromm illustrates how samskara arises without our knowing it by discussing those individuals who "disclaim having any such overall picture and believe that he responds to the various phenomena and incidents of life from case to case, as his judgement guides him.  But it can be easily demonstrated that he takes his own philosophy for granted, because to him it is only common sense, and he is unaware that all his concepts rest upon a commonly accepted frame of reference.  When such a person is confronted with a fundamentally different total view of life he judges it as 'crazy' or 'irrational' or 'childish,' while he considers himself as being only logical."   Even bright people clung to an earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe worldview for 150 years after Copernicus showed that, no, the earth is not at the center, we revolve around the sun.

Once we see through a certain lens, it's hard to perceive things differently, be they the most mundane matters of the most momentous.  "I first grasped the huge import of this trait," Lappé writes, "when, as a college senior, I was assigned Thomas Kuhn's classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it, Kuhn shows how difficult it is for humans to shed a reigning mental map."  

The hard fact of human existence is that if our mental frame is flawed, we'll fail no matter how hard and sincerely we struggle.

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