“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he..” The words, taken from As a Man Thinketh by James Allen, are inspired by a quote from Proverbs. They continue, “…a man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.” The concept, not new but relatively unfamiliar in 1903, has now become part of mainstream culture. Thought is creative…we can create by conceiving an idea in mind, and envisioning the thought consistently, acting in accord with it, and persisting throughout apparent drawbacks. What is less apparent is the contribution of perception and assumption.
I sometimes need to teach students the basic concepts of grammar. One of the most frustrating tasks is unteaching what is given them in public school, that a noun is a person, place or thing. A noun is not as they have been taught; it is a name, a name of a person, place, thing, animal, action, idea or feeling. It is not the actual perception, but the name of the perception. The configuration of energy perceived as matter rooted in the earth, which breathes in CO2 and emits oxygen, is named a tree. Without the name, we could still perceive it, but we could not talk about it. The perception and its name are different things, even though we may consider them the same until we stop to think about it. This confusion, that a particular naming or interpretation of perception is an unalterable fact, colors the way we think about things. Everyone can perceive a configuration of energy; there are as many ways to think of that as there are languages (maybe more). In English, our nerves can be on edge. In French, we would have nerves at the flower of the skin. Perception is constant and ongoing; it is conscious only when we specifically pay attention to it, and it influences our conscious thought.
The concept that a perception is the way we happen to interpret it, and accurately no other way, is an assumption on our part. It is usually unconscious. Yes, we can make conscious assumptions and reason logically from those assumptions. Those are useful in debate, or in designing scientific experiments. The most powerful assumptions, however, the ones influencing our behavior, are unconscious. We do not think about them. They feel to us like an instinctive knowledge of truth, and kick in automatically when we must make decisions or act upon events. The assumption that snakes are dangerous will cause a person to avoid them; the assumption that those unlike ourselves are dangerous can cause us to subtly or explicitly exclude them or put them down, in order to weaken their supposed threat to us. Soldiers in battle must be taught to assume that the enemy is somehow even just a bit less human than themselves, in order for the soldiers to be able to kill the enemy. We have a lot of assumptions; rarely do we examine them.
Here are a few of the common negative assumptions: Life, or the earth, is dangerous. Men (women) are dangerous. If something good happens to us, something bad will have to happen next. People cannot really love us. Any success I might have is just lucky; I am a loser. In order to succeed or have something, I must take from and deprive others. Here are a few positive, though not necessarily so common ones: There is enough for everyone (enough life, enough love, enough sustenance..), I am a unique and wonderful creation, with a gift to give others/the earth, the spark of the Creator is in all people, who therefore all deserve respect, all is working as it should. If the negative assumptions rule our unconscious thought, then our lives will be a series of blocks, failures, or pain, to the extent that we are ruled by negative assumptions. If, on the contrary, we can manage to host and rely upon positive assumptions, then our lives will be joyful and successful to the extent that we are ruled by positive assumptions. Most people have a mix of the two. However, most people also do not examine those assumptions; instead they think that they are unlucky or unfairly persecuted by others or by life.
The news is awash with injustices – actions destructive to others, perceptions which discredit others, and which inspire people to demand change. (Often the change demanded is amorphous, as people do not always know exactly what they want the change to look like.) The noise for change can be cacophonous; each change seems followed by another demand to change it. It is as if people do not know what they want, cannot control or direct the energy of dissatisfaction. They are looking in the wrong direction. Before change – either negative or positive – can take place, our common underlying assumptions need to be examined and challenged. If we like what we are assuming, we can also embrace the results of those assumptions. However, once we understand that it is our assumptions that are bringing the results that we dislike, it is then possible to change those assumptions.
The key is to be aware, and to individually and collectively take responsibility for our lives. We can then examine what we are creating, and engage with each other in forming alternative patterns and solutions which work for all of us. The consensus process of cooperative decision making needed for these results is already extant. It is exemplified in microcosm in a growing number of intentional communities worldwide. We can heal ourselves if we can examine our assumptions.
It has been said that winter is a time to introspect. Let us introspect this winter by examining our assumptions.