Cognitive Reframing…Stinking Thinking Leads To Drinking!
The best way to communicate simple truths is through stories. The following tale is how I came to understand the power of cognitive reframing:
I once sat and marveled at the innocence and splendor of a nearby creek. Not putting much thought into the examination, I simply reflected on its beauty, its tranquility and in the same vein, its unremitting power, for it never ceased.
In a rare moment of clarity, I realized I was no longer purely reflecting on the concept of a creek.
Instead, it became richly nuanced and jam-packed with various meanings which I attached to it. What I found so awe-striking was not the creek but my interpretation of the creek. I could have easily seen the gnats, the mud, the pesky critters which thrive in its ecosystem and loathed its very existence. But I chose to view it from a different angle…
I realized that the awe I was experiencing was not in the event, the circumstances, or the thing, but the concept and the interpretation I attached to it.
We can do this with any experience and it is the crux of cognitive reframing.
This is the raw power of interpretation…
The Art of Interpretation
In the Buddhist Canon, the art form of speech is set within a parameter of five filters, it reads:
Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.
I will borrow from this passage yet rather than maintain speech as the centerpiece I will utilize the five filters for mastering interpretation and reframing. They are as follows:
5 ESSENTIALS OF COGNITIVE REFRAMING
First Essential To Defeat Stinking Thinking: Time
It should come as no surprise that we interpret current events by our past experiences. We do not come to our current situation as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, awaiting the divine strokes of the heavenly brush to paint new revelation and understanding in our lives.
Instead, we come to our contemporary encounters fully loaded with a host of preexisting beliefs, biases, and assumptions. To such an extent that understanding life objectivity is outrageously impossible.
In a way, we are all pragmatists, truth for us is simply what has worked.
If one is racist it is because at one point that worked for them, be it as a function for subculture cohesion or an endogenous opiate system rewarding avoidance, it worked. Namely, it felt and appeared to be truthful).
If one is the exact opposite and loves all people, it’s because historically this has worked for them. Once more felt and appeared to be truthful based upon their life experience.
But just because it worked in the past, does not mean it will work in the present.
Further, emotionally intelligent people must challenge their pragmatic thought processes.
Just because something works does not mean it’s truthful and right, all of history attests to this concept.
Let us not repeat the same mistakes our ancestors did.
Let me be a bit more nuanced.
If I grew up in an abusive home, I may naturally interpret the world around me as hostile and people as untrustworthy, out for themselves Cretans.
Adopting this mindset in the past may have assisted in self-preservation but now, as an adult, it is destroying my ability to have a real intimate relationship with another human being and is hacking my life quality to non-existence.
Asking questions such as:
- Is my emotional response appropriate for the situation or is it due to an interpretation developed by past experiences?
- Am I seeing the present right now or am I injecting the past into the present?
- How can their past experience (assuming your response is due to another’s behavior) caused them to behave the way they do? What are the potential reasons for their programming?
- Does this event remind me of any person, place, or thing from my past?
I’m sure you can draw up much of your own questions.
This filter is situated in time, we want to make sure, that our interpretation is time appropriate.
Aristotle once brilliantly noted, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
Second Essential To Defeat Stinking Thinking: Truth
I’m going to define truth as freedom and not in the capitalist sense of manufacturing and distribution but in terms of desire.
Epictetus majestically captured this concept,
Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it. Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. So act toward children, so toward a wife, so toward office, so toward wealth.Epictetus
More often than not, our commitment to truth only remains while it is consistent with our desire.
As the Roman poet Horace once admonished, “Subdue your desires lest they subdue you.”
Unless one is disciplined in the philosophy of self-examination and reflection than by default one is subdued.
Am I hurt, injured, or threatened? Or is my desire hurt, injured, or threatened? Semantically, the difference seems small, but regarding truth and freedom, they are universes apart.
Third Essential To Defeat Stinking Thinking: Affections
As alluded to in the above essential, the affections, which usually cling desperately to desire, need to be grounded in the intellect.
By this, I’m referring to what philosophers call the primacy of the intellect. No, I’m not referencing purely discursive reasoning and the laws of logic, but instead am appealing to a more medieval approach, particularly in the work of Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart. He writes,
In like manner, Soren Kierkegaard years later saw the primacy of the intellect as more specifically tied up in one’s own existence, he reasoned that “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”
Reality, as understood by the Eckhart’s and Kierkagaard’s intellect, is less propositional and more experiential. As the Buddha acknowledged that the true intellect is without judgment.
Or, as a modern prophet once revealed evangelically via bumper sticker, “It is what it is.”
Isn’t it odd that when we experience happiness we do not judge it, we let it be, we experience it, and it disappears as soon as it arrives?
It is captured wonderfully by the magician’s tagline, “now you see me, now you don’t.”
Yet, isn’t it also a tad bit odd that depression, anxiety, fear, and the rest of its compatriots seem to linger on forever? It’s like the clown who pulls the tissue out of his pocket only to reveal a never ended stream of tissues.
Why does this happen?
Because we judge these qualities as bad and thus resist having an experiential encounter with them. We try to figure out where we went wrong, we blame others around us, we search for any reason to avoid culpability and thus resist them, but as the old adage states, “What we resist, will persist.”
It stands to reason, that if these undesirable qualities were simply treated experientially like happiness is, then just like the happiness it would be experienced and vanish.
Do not allow the emotions to subjugate the intellect, but keep the emotions tethered in a nonjudgmental state to your experience. Soon you’ll discover your mind in resourceful states offering an endless volume of opportunities.
Sometimes reframing is less ‘why’ and more ‘what’, less rational, and more experientially.
Fourth Essential To Defeat Stinking Thinking: Beneficial
Benefits for self? Isn’t that carnal? Isn’t that antithetical to spiritual and self-actualizing modes of living?
I respond with a resounding no!
We understand the world and the people in it only by their relationship to ourselves.
We are the ground, the starting point for all understanding and wisdom.
Some believe that God, or maybe a Kantian category of sorts, is the necessary precondition to rationality and understanding.
Nonetheless, this conclusion can never be reached until we first realize that we are not the sources of our own knowledge, but instead are merely self-conscious of ourselves, which is the beginning of any pursuit.
For instance, as I write this article, it first began in my own mind, in my consciousness, wrestling with the ideas, and so forth. So my investigation of the world in which “I” reside must naturally begin with “myself.”
Further, we learn less by our instruction and more by our failures and emotional discomfort.
For example, Eckhart writes,
If one pours out love for another solely because of the benefits it carries for themselves, only intense dissatisfaction and restlessness can be the long-term effects.
Sure, the short-term game feels profitable but in the end, it’s only consummate bankruptcy.
One of the many benefits of relationships is self-understanding. Indeed, it takes a community to understand oneself. Of consequence, those in the community are also understood in this process, this is the process of connection via empathy.
So in short, asking if one’s current understanding is beneficial is asking this one question: does the interpretation begin with love or a contrary motive?
Fifth Essential To Defeat Stinking Thinking: Good-Will
This last phase of the reframing process is teleological in scope. Teleology is a philosophical term that defines the underlying purpose, goal, or trajectory of something, be it the universe, a subatomic particle, or the human personality – assuming, of course, there is one.
Now, all human personality is teleological in nature, that is we all project an image of ourselves that we strive earnestly to live up to. Unfortunately, sometimes the image needs some refocusing, that is in terms of purity and realism.
For instance, if your idea of self is perfect that’s not realistic – you’re not God.
That’s going to cause all types of interpersonal animosity because you will either be perceived as arrogant, unapproachable, withdrawn, or something unfavorable.
Because everything is a threat to your perfection like sin is to the holiness of God. But people are imperfect….see what I’m getting out? This won’t work.
The situation doesn’t need to be reframed as much as your projected self which needs modifying. Adlerian psychology – Alfred Adler’s namesake – calls this fictional finalism.
“Adler was influenced by the philosopher Hans Vaihinger who proposed that people live by many fictional ideals that have no relation to reality and therefore cannot be tested and confirmed. For example, that all men are created equal; women should always bow to the will of their husband; and the end justifies the means. These fictions may help a person feel powerful and justify the rightness of their selfish choices, although at the same time cause others harm and injustice and destroy relationships…”
“Fictional Finalism proposes that people act as much from accepted ideals as they do from observed reality. Whatever the subconscious mind accepts as true, it acts as if it is true whether it is or not – it does not have the benefit of the conscious mind’s ability to observe independently and check with real experience. From the point of the view of the person, such a fiction may be taken as the basis for their orientation in the world and as one aspect of compensation for felt inferiority.”
Thus, the projected fictional image is not inherently bad, it’s neutral and necessary. Instead what is vital is that we calibrate it to target stronger interpersonal relationships and to operate with other people in mind i.e. seek to dismantle selfishness.
As the late Chuck C once noted, “maybe Heaven is just a new pair of glasses.”
If we can be committed to the truth regardless of the lies we attempt to sell ourselves, if we can weather the storm of discomfort despite our inherent desire to maintain constant pleasure, if we can confront our problems rather than avoid them, we can experience a whole new world.
This may not sound appealing but it’s similar to the day following a solid workout at the gym. The discomfort is evidence of growth rather than failure. Therefore it is imperative that we live in our current time, not transferring emotions of the past onto the present and that we remain anchored in freedom rather than transient desires.
This entails being dedicated to experience rather than explanations and judgments and being devoted to that which benefits all rather oneself. And finally, the goal must be to project an image or ideal self which corresponds with the above, then one can rest assured it’s not the Ray-Bans they sport, but divine spectacles.