Is the problem with Climate change due to a failure of imagination? That is the main question in these next couple of posts, but let us begin with a discussion of creative problem solving.
Let me begin with a personal anecdote. For many years I have participated in role playing games. These games are forms of group storytelling with rules. The players take on the role of characters who are engaged in a generally fantastical adventure. One person, known as the Game Master, sets up the world, all the other characters, and most of the problems the players face.
Sometimes the players face a problem, that they cannot solve. After a while, the game master might ask whether the characters themselves (not the players) can come up with a good idea. Some kind of dice roll will generally answer this question. If the dice role is good, the play moves on. Interestingly, we can almost guarantee that some while later a player will find an ingenious solution to the problem – one that surprises everyone. This won’t necessarily happen if you expect it – it’s not a testable hypothesis – but it happens enough to be noticeable.
What we seem to need, in the game, is a facing up to the problem, seeing all the options and the situation as accurately as possible, lots of failure and argument, and then proceeding as if the problem is solved – and then a solution can arise. This is not the same as those forms of positive thinking, in which the problem is ignored and not investigated – here the problem is faced dead-on.
This seems true of a lot of creative process. Engage with the problem intensely. Learn all you can about it. Fail, and then step back, knowing a solution will arise. Do something differently, and a solution may well appear when you no longer ‘need’ one and are relaxed. Sometimes the solution will appear in a dream – although the dream solution may well have to be decoded or pondered upon – it may look like something entirely different.
What this suggests, is something proposed some while ago by Jung and Gregory Bateson: we have at least two forms of thinking. Jung later implies we have at least four forms of psychological activity, but let’s stay with this binary for a while.
The Primary, Habitual, Conscious Mind.
One mind tends to be dominant in daily life. It is habitual, largely ‘rational’ (given the axioms, emotions or desires it is working from), and rule driven. This mind is wonderful when we already have solutions that seem to work. Then it is simply a matter of applying those solutions correctly. This is especially so, when life is regular and without much change, so that the problems we face are largely similar to the problems we have faced before.
This habitual mind automatically faces some difficulties, as life involves change and situations are never exactly the same as those we have faced before, even if they are similar. And sometimes the solutions we have to problems don’t actually work anymore. They may even make the problems worse…
The main difficulty with this mind is that it is largely automatic. It rarely gives insights, or new behaviour, or even sees contrary evidence.
The theories that this mind accepts tend to influence the world it perceives – what we might call the ‘theory dependence of observation’, to use a term from philosophy of science. Under its influence, we tend not see our evidence critically, and easily assume a few confirmations imply there is only confirmation. We may not wonder if our evidence is that good, or if we are less critical of that evidence, than of other evidence.
This mode of thought is usually shared and reinforced by others, although sometimes, it is just habitual for an individual and can be socially incomprehensible.
Jung called this ‘directed thinking.’
This habitual mind represents our general consciousness. It is relatively stable, other than when it is subject to traumatic shock, or voluntary dissolution.
To some extent that statement is a bit circular – we can tell a shock is traumatic because the consciousness is changed. However, traumatic change often produces an extremely ‘programed’ consciousness. The person goes along a path without being able to stop, even if they know it will take them somewhere painful, or in some direction which other people do not comprehend. A traumatised person may see a new situation almost entirely in terms of the previous trauma, even if they are not aware of this. The trauma, then acts as a template which can make very different situations seem the same.
In this mind, people can be largely immune to ‘rational’ argument or ‘evidence’ because they are stuck in their own rationality, habits and ways of looking at the world, as conditioned by that trauma.
These ‘failures’ of the directed mind are often easy to see in other people, but harder to see in oneself.
It can also be useful to remember any form of conscious thinking can become programmatic in this sense. The fact that our thinking is similar to, or different from, the programmatic thinking of other people is no proof it is accurate.
Indeed, the habits of consciousness are probably unconscious in most people. We can, as discussed in previous blog posts, suppress awareness of moral dilemmas, failures, or other problems, in order to get on with the lives we have chosen, no matter how painful, self-destructive, or misguided those choices may be.
If there is a group of us, sharing these pathways, then it becomes even easier to make the solutions part of our group identity, and appear as if they are part of reality. Changing to new solutions can become socially threatening, and is even more strongly resisted.
Luckily we do not need trauma to change our perceptions of the world, and find creative solutions.
Voluntary dissolution of standard consciousness can be useful, but it can also be destructive when powered by addictive external poisons such as drugs, alcohol, or unsafe sex etc. – practices which tend to have diminishing returns the more they are used. I’m not saying that ritual uses of these procedures are always harmful if done carefully and with wide separation between uses…, but it pays to be cautious. It is also relatively easy to engage in safer, less traumatic, forms of dissolution – although even these may benefit from supervision, or someone else’s experience.
We will talk more about this in a few paragraphs.
The Other Mind
The ‘other’ mind is less accessible. We may even want to call it ‘the unconscious mind’, as it is hard to direct with our consciousness (which tends to be habitual and a bit unperceptive, as stated above). This second mind is great at pattern finding and problem solving. Jung originally called this second mode of psychological activity “phantasy thinking”. It is tied in with fantasy, image (‘sensory analogue’ – see below), association, dream, pattern detection and so on. It is pretty much mind as free flow, rather than mind as rule following. It can use perceptions we are not consciously aware of, and set our thought on new paths, helping us to get out of the ruts and ignorances we have constructed through our daily social life. It also seems to be better at dealing with complexity, perhaps because it is better at perceiving many things happening at once, or simply because it is less directed.
In my opinion, Jung’s main contribution to thought is the insistence that phantasy thinking is normal, important, worthy of study and vital for therapeutic processes.
Phantasy thinking is directly related to imagination, however one problem with the term ‘imagination’ is that it can suggest this thinking is primarily done by visual images or “pictures in the mind’s eye”. With investigation we can see phantasy thinking involves: feelings in the body (‘gut feeling’, ‘the heart’, as well as touch), sense of movement, taste, smell, sounds as well as images and words. As such, it functions and thinks through what we could call ‘sensory analogues’ – that is not just by image or words but through other sensory channels and representations. Phantasy thinking can use all modes of information gathering and processing.
However, we need to be aware that sometimes the patters and solutions this mind finds can also be harmful and deceptive… This is to be expected, as we are humans and not gods. We are often wrong. We need to be able to evaluate the insights. Fortunately, the general conscious mind is quite good at evaluation (if given that task, rather than the task of purely justifying or destroying the new insights), and can get better with practice. But evaluation needs to come at the right time. Too soon, and the insight can be lost.
This other mind is not entirely without unconscious rules and programs of its own, which is why it can be deceptive. We may be even less aware of what this mind is doing and, without caution, can find ourselves entangled in its deleterious fantasies – as with shadow projection, ‘complexes’, trauma, etc.
The two minds working together.
Let’s return to my anecdote about role playing games and solution finding. My suggestion is that just as in these games, we can work towards a solution by facing up to the problem, seeing all the options we can and the situation as accurately as possible, perhaps even listing points and problems. We think about what we would like from a solution; and generate lots of failure and argument, perhaps to the point of exhaustion.
Through this process, the directed mind is brought to bear on the problem. We don’t have to solve the problem at this stage, but simply be aware of everything that we are currently perceiving as involved in the problem.
[We might also want to ask questions about what we might be missing (the directed mind is directed and prone to ignore parts of the problem to make it simple), and we might want to ask if what we are doing is making the problem worse for the same reason.
[I’d also suggest when you get a bit more familiar with the process, that you bring in your full response to the problem. Perceive how you might feel the problem, whether you have bodily responses to the problem, pictures of the problem, a sense of the problems movement, its smells or sounds etc. Do this without evaluation. What you find does not have to be rational, its just data. If it gets too painful back off and calm down.]
We then distract, or dissolve, the directed mind.
This may be the place were normally people tend to go and get drunk or have unsafe sex, but this is absolutely not necessary, and you might forget the solution when you return to normality. Instead we can invite the other mind into play, through phantasy (preferably allowing things to arise by themselves), looking at something completely different, going for a walk, putting in random input, relaxing, getting on with something else, or just getting the directed conscious mind out of the way.
Don’t expect the solution to arise immediately. It may arise in a short period of time, but be accepting if it takes a week or even longer. Expecting immediate answers can shut down the process. The solutions will come when they come; often unexpectedly and, as said earlier, perhaps in a dream.
When a solution, or some kind of ‘image’ arises, you can play with it. See where it leads. You may find more new ideas arise. Write them down, try them out. This is just phantasy. Again no pressure. It’s seeing what happens.
If you get interesting dreams then pay attention. It will help if you have already cultivated the habit of paying attention to your dreams, but no reason you cannot start now.
If you don’t get a new start towards solving the problem, then wait a bit longer. Come back to the problem, think about it again, and see what happens again. If you can, record your thoughts – either on a sound file or on paper, having a record can be useful. Engage in distraction or phantasy. Eventually something is extremely likely to shift.
There are many ways of approaching this issue.
One way is described very clearly (much better than me) by a friend of mine on his blog.
I think the unconscious is often the source of lots of our ideas. The trick to using it is threefold:
First, just knowing it exists and that you can use it to solve some kinds of problems;
Second, feeding it enough raw materials, so there are bits and pieces for it to connect to solve the problem;
Third piece, leaving a silent space for it to present its answer to you.
I’ve found the more I use it, the more I come to know the feeling when my unconscious has something ready for me.L.J. Kendall. Unconscious Thought Theory as a Creativity Tool. A toe in the ocean of books, 31 July 2020
He also gives some useful references to the scientific literature. This is real.
The spiritual psychologist Sydney Banks, tells us that all we have to do is stop our endless thinking and just listen for our inner wisdom, or a good feeling. Simply knowing that your current (‘directed’) thinking is helping to form the problem and that you have an inner wisdom which is easily accessible through ‘listening’, can be enough for some people.
There is nothing occult, or strange, about this process. It is just the way our psyches work. And we have to be prepared to work and play with the process.
What this means for Climate change in the next post…