An event occurs or a feeling arises and in an instant we make a value judgment about whether it is good or bad, harmful or beneficial. This entry argues that there is a valid evolutionary reason for this process, but that when the same process has more to do with desire than development it ceases to be of benefit to us. It’s about the difference between exploration and expectation. Exploration uses our value judgments as a feedback mechanism to cement discovery and learning. Expectation signifies an attachment to the outcome of events or to particular feelings.
The post refers to the evolution of the brain’s neural pathways, using an example from my training to examine exploration. And it looks at expectation to explain how we can benefit from an increased awareness of our attachment. As we shall see, attachment is necessary for our early development; it is inherent in our behaviour, and with good reason. But it is not always to our advantage. As we mature, it is beneficial to cultivate a non-attached approach to what happens.
Throughout this post it is important to remember that our value judgments are influenced by our perspective. Through different eyes, or with a longer-term view, or by considering the bigger picture, events can take on a wholly different significance.
The biologist Gerald Edelman proposed a theory of development of the brain, which suggests that neural connections and pathways are reinforced by our experience. The experience, in turn, is evaluated using the value judgments we make about whether something is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. Edelman refers to the evolution of the brain in this way as Neural Darwinism and this particular aspect as Experiential Selection because, throughout life, unused pathways become extinct and effective ones survive.
The process is most noticeable in babies and infants. When we arrive in the world our main priority is survival. To survive we need the basics such as food, warmth and shelter, but we also need to understand how the world works. We need to explore our environment. In order to do that, we make use of the tools we have. We start reaching out for objects in order to examine them and understand how they fit into our ever-expanding world. A baby’s goal in the physical world is to grab whatever it can get its hands on (and then usually put it straight into its mouth).
The problem is that in our early development our body is uncoordinated. We don’t know how to use it properly. As babies we try repeatedly to grab an object, our movements uncontrolled, almost random. Again and again we reach out because we want to discover our world. After countless failed attempts there is suddenly success. With that success comes a feeling of satisfaction at having attained our goal. On a cerebral level the brain has caused the required motor neurons to fire in the right sequence and pattern to be able to grab daddy’s keys and begin exploring. The satisfaction reinforces the pathway, and the brain’s connections take another step in their evolution.
This process continues as we gain more control of our bodies, fine tuning our physical movements as we go. In a parallel process our behaviour is being shaped by the corrective action of our caregivers and the strategies we employ in our pursuit of strokes (TA).
An example from my training offers further insight into this process. The working title for this post was another of the phrases I heard regularly during that time. We heard it whenever we made value judgments about something which had happened, or a feeling we had:
“It’s not good, it’s not bad. It just is.”
It was particularly relevant during our end-of-day feedback when some of us were challenged for reporting that it had been a ‘good’ day. A silence would fall and Karaj would ask one simple question, with the emphasis on the adjective: “A good day?” Karaj’s point was that it didn’t matter what sort of day it had been. We were reporting on what had happened, our view of events, our learning points, our observations, and raising any issues we had. Any judgment of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meant attachment, and attachment was something to be aware of.
Not everyone was challenged; just the ones who were in the habit of giving their feedback from the Child ego state (TA). Emotions. Doing so from the Adult ego state, on the other hand, meant a delivery of facts and information without emotional involvement. Non-attachment. There were days, evenings and very long nights when such a delivery was the holy grail of feedback for those of us stuck in Child ego state. I remember being challenged four of five times on my feedback at the end of one particular day. It took over two hours, numerous breaks and the support and patience of everyone else in the group before I got it right.
I observed how the others gave their feedback and tried to copy them (Child ego state again). Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, after yet another attempt, Karaj finally said, ‘That’s it. That’s good feedback. You can all go home. Go safely.‘ At the time I wasn’t sure how I had done it or even what the difference was. But, importantly, the feeling I experienced whilst giving the feedback was different. From then on I knew that whenever I gave my feedback, if that new feeling wasn’t present then it wouldn’t be right. I continued to struggle at times, but the breakthrough had been made and eventually the new feeling appeared more and more, and my feedback improved.
This is typical of the process of personal development: we repeat our old habits, with increasing awareness, and then one day something different happens. It feels right, improvement moves within reach and nothing is ever the same again. Now compare the above examples to ones in which we are attached to the results of our endeavour (or, indeed, someone else’s endeavour).
Attachment means our emotional state is dependent on the results of future events. We are no longer in control of how we feel. How often have I heard football fans complain that their weekend has been ruined by a late equalizer or a poor refereeing decision? In a more specific example: I am learning Dutch and two weeks ago I sat a series of exams (listening, reading, writing and speaking). I was happy with the first three but came away from the speaking exam thinking I may have failed. For days afterwards I was concerned that I might have failed. It affected my confidence because failing means my Dutch is clearly not good enough.
But why should a pass or fail make any difference to the actual level of language as it is now? If, when I receive the results, I find I have passed, my Dutch will not instantly improve. Similarly, if I happen to have failed, my competency with the language will be no worse than it is now. What’s important is that my language is improving all the time. In fact, a couple of days after the exam I received two compliments on the progress I have made with the language. That is more important than the result I am yet to receive of an exam I have already taken.
The alternative – non-attachment – means giving everything we have, being fully focused, fully committed, doing our utmost to ensure an appropriate outcome, but not being affected by what happens. Sure, we have our goals and our preferred conclusions, but the ultimate goal should be to remain untouched by whatever happens: doing everything I can to learn Dutch for an exam but remaining unaffected by the result.* Such non-attachment is as difficult as observing our breathing without influencing it, but just as worthy of pursuit.
It does not mean living without emotion or feeling. We are humans after all. Neither is non-attachment about adopting a fatalistic attitude to life which leads us to conclude, ‘Whatever happens, happens; so why even bother?’ (this is being detached rather than unattached). It is about engaging fully and giving everything we have to achieve whatever goal we have in that specific moment, but investing nothing in the actual outcome. Appreciation without pride; celebration without triumph; acceptance without disappointment.
The process which serves us well in our discovery of who we are and the world in which we live, should not give rise to attachment. So whenever you find yourself considering the outcome of something or your feelings, ask yourself whether it is about exploration or expectation; development or desire. And then remind yourself that whatever happens: It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is.
*Update: I passed all four exams.