In this essay I will discuss how to navigate the raging sea of our emotions. The essay presents a collection of techniques to control our emotions deriving from psychology, management skills and practical teachings by spiritual masters stripped from their religious context.
In the previous posts in this series of “Is intelligence an algorithm” I have exposed my hypothesis that intelligence functions as a kind of algorithm (see part 1 of this series). Part 2 related to cognition, (pattern) recognition and understanding. Part 3 explored the process of reasoning, which is necessary to come to identifications and conclusions and is also a tool in the problem-solving toolkit. In part 4 I discussed how we identify and formulate a problem; how we plan a so-called heuristic to solve it, how we carry out the solution and check if it fulfils our requirements. Part 5 discussed how emotions are indicators which are part of the natural intelligence algorithm and which indicate whether a desired state has been achieved or maintained.
As promised I will now first embark on the topic of how to navigate in the quagmire and quicksand of emotions. I will not discuss the complete literature by psychologists on this topic, but rather cherry pick some valuable insights from psychology, summarise patterns that I have distilled from my life experience and mention a few teachings from certain so-called “enlightened people” which I have collected as valuable tools.
Please note that if in this article I appear too pedagogic or even pedantic, this is clearly not my intention. You make ask yourself: “Who is this guy that he claims to know what intelligence is and to know how emotions can be mastered?” I don’t. I interrogate. I speak from experience insofar I have suffered my share in life and I have actively searched for solutions to reduce this suffering. This article is a summary of those techniques I have read about and practised and found to be effective in reducing my suffering. I don’t claim to master these techniques perfectly, but whenever I do apply them, they do result in a certain relief. This does not mean that I perfectly master my emotions. I can sometimes react quite primary, but whenever I am aware enough to apply the principles below, they do solve my problems. This is not an exhaustive treaty either, but a useful rule-of-thumb collection.
As discussed in the previous essay there is nothing wrong with emotions per se; they are useful indicators that update our knowledge of our status quo. However, we are not always interpreting the readout of these indicators correctly and sometimes we trigger a self-reinforcing hysterical or paranoid action from which we suffer. It is the over-reacting, the mental exaggeration that makes that we suffer. To navigate our emotions we must therefore learn how to adopt either a social skill strategy to adapt rapidly to a give context or a more equanimous attitude, so that we can avoid being overwhelmed and dragged in to a vicious circle of feedforward emotional escalation. I will start with the more specific toolbox of social skills and then discuss the more general toolbox for learning equanimity. Finally, I will dedicate a short paragraph to artificial equivalents thereof needed to avoid the creation of a nutbot as an introduction to the topic of the next essay.
Social skill toolbox
The problem with many people is that they identify only with a limited group of other people. They often identify solely with people from the same sociocultural background. When they have to interact with people from different sociocultural niches, problems start to arise. Even if they officially speak the same language, they do not speak the same sociocultural language. Each group has its own filters for reality; sees reality from a limited perspective. Due to these differences misunderstandings arise, which gives rise to unpleasant emotions such as fear, hatred, anger etc.
In order to be able to intelligently navigate in the sociocultural conundrum of the hivemind of humanity it is important that we learn to transcend the limitations of our safe sociocultural niche. It is important that we learn to adopt the bird’s eye view.
Ideally we can put ourselves above the different categories and castes we have seen in part 4 of this series, which gave a stratification of personality types. Ideally we become like chameleons that proverbially behave like a Greek with the Greek and like a Jew with the Jewish. Cunningly mimicking the behaviour of the person you are interacting with in order to gain his or her trust. Make them believe you are one of them, use their language and habits in order to ultimately be able to impose your goals once you’re in”. Sounds pretty much like what politicians do, isn’t it?
Apart from mimicking we can also complement behaviour. In psychological models, often mention is made of Parent, Adult and Child roles that can be adopted. In more detail, a so called caring Nurturing Parent naturally talks to a Natural Child and a Controlling Parent to an Adaptive Child.
Even adults assume these roles in the form of a natural pecking order process. In fact these parts of our personality can be evoked by the opposite. When people are assuming to be talking to someone in a given role, but that person adopts a different role, problems and misunderstandings arise. Being controlling parent wishes to see submission by an adaptive child. If your interlocutor assumes a different role, rebellion can arise. In the scheme below this is illustrated:
When lines cross in this diagram, problems arise: In the example given in the diagram a person addresses a peer on the adult level and asks “How are you?” The interlocutor, who is not feeling well interprets this as a criticism from someone in the parent role and adopts a rebellious child role by cynically responding “why do you care?”
To be aware of such stratifications and roles can improve your ability to deal with interpersonal emotion exchange tremendously. Don’t interpret the reply too quickly and don’t respond in a primary manner, but analyse which level of interaction is at stake.
It is often useful to verify whether you have understood the intention correctly, by asking “did you mean...” This will allow you to avoid having difficult feelings about presumed intentions of others, which may not even be there.
If there is a problem, it is often one of feelings of inferiority. Even if someone tries to behave as your superior, this only betrays that he/she actually is insecure about his/her position in the pecking order, which itself is already a feeling of inferiority.
You are not inferior to anyone, nor are you superior to anyone. We all just have a different set abilities.
Improve your Linguistic skills
Crucial to gaining mastery of the social process is the mastery of language. The richer our vocabulary and syntactic skills the better we can express what we desire to achieve and the less we are prone to inducing false expectations or misunderstandings.
A more limited mastery of language can (but not necessarily always does) induce someone to become more introvert, more prone to frustration and anger. seeking responsibility for whatever occurs to him or her with others. This is a recipe for unhappiness. A better linguistic mastery can permit you to become more extrovert, less prone to anger and frustration and incite you to take responsibility more often.
The ability to rapidly mimic the vocabulary of your interlocutor may enable you to engage in successful communication and to increase your adaptability. Whenever you are in an unknown setting, with someone from a different sociocultural background, treat them as equals. Avoid arrogance and do not presume you are superior. What is different is not necessarily less. Thus you increase your ability to achieve complex goals.
Use E-prime language
The problem with our language however is that we use the verb “to be” and its conjugations far too often. This is an ingrained heritage from the family of Indo-European languages. In reality nothing “is”. As Heraclitus already pointed out, you cannot step in the same river twice. Everything we observe is subject to constant change. There may not even be such a thing a “objective truth” or “objective reality”. Quantum physics has shown that at the most basic level of existence events depend on the way we observe them. Our consciousness plays a role in the actualisation of events. This is summarised by the famous adage “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. As Terrence McKenna used to say with regard to this notion: “Object fetishism is completely bankrupt”.
If there is no objective reality, we are left with subjective perspectives. This means that things “are” not the way we perceive them, but appear so to us and not necessarily to others. The fact that we can still agree on many observations is because we often use the same mental and semantic toolkits, resulting in a consensus reality. But it is here where it goes wrong: We assume everybody else has the exactly same mental and semantic toolkits, whereas we all have different filters. Even if we associate the same verbal meaning to a word, we do not necessarily experience the same emotion when thinking this word.
E-prime solves these problems to a certain extent by systematically avoiding the use of the verb “to be”: Instead of stating “the film was good”, you could say “I liked the film”. Instead of stating “this is the knife the man stabbed the victim with”, you could say “The man appears to have stabbed the man with what seems like a knife to me”. By systematically subjectivising your language, you avoid falling in a trap of believing something, for which alternative explanations might exist. You avoid reading wrong intentions in someone else’s actions, where such intentions may be absent. And thus you also avoid having difficult associated paranoid emotions.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
This directly ties in to the modern psychological and psychiatric approach to treat various psychological disorders called “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” (CBT).
In CBT the so-called ABC Technique of Irrational Beliefs is used. In life there can be an activating event (A) or situation that triggers a negative thought based on beliefs (B) in a patient, which then evoke an emotional response in the patient. The patient then acts upon these thoughts and emotions, which result in a consequence (C).
In order to free the patient from irrational beliefs and assessments, the patient is asked to write down the event, the negative thoughts, the associated feelings and consequence. The therapist will help the interpretations of the event, which need not lead to the negative though-emotion-consequence cascade, by showing that there is no evidence that his/her interpretation is necessarily the correct one. Ideally the patient learns to apply this analysis him/herself, whenever negative thoughts and accompanying emotions arise. The thoughts and emotions can still be initially there, but the patient learns to put his/her observations faster in a more encompassing perspective. This allows the patient to relativize, to tone down, thereby dissipating the thought and emotion.
This is not only useful for patients, it is a useful technique for all of us, to avoid reacting in a primary manner based on wrong assessments where there might be alternative explanations and no evidence for our assessment of the situation.
I repeat that it is useful to verify whether you have understood the intention correctly. This will allow you to avoid having difficult feelings about presumed intentions of others, which may not even be there.
Swallow your pride
In order to avoid difficult emotions such as feeling begrudged, cherish revenge or feeling disadvantaged, another recipe is to learn to swallow your pride. If you don’t, you are just harming yourself by maintaining an unhealthy situation, about which you feel unhappy or worse which causes a disease like an ulcer. If you learn not to take yourself too serious; if you learn that winning an argument is not always going to serve your long term interests, you can start to observe the situation from a higher ground, seeing yourself as a pawn in a game.
It can be smart to concede to one argument not really too important to you in order to win one when it really counts for you. Choose your battles wisely and always keep track of what your long term goal is.
Your ultimate goal should be your happiness or at least your serenity. This is not going to increase by making enemies. Even if you know you are 100% right, depending on the social context and your position in the pecking order, it might sometimes be wiser not to insist on your point of view.
Of course if you do have the higher ground, you can permit yourself to be more demanding, but keep track of not hurting someone’s feelings, as that may create later problems.
In this framework it is also important to develop your ability to forgive. If you don’t forgive and keep a grudge against another person, this will mentally and physiologically harm you. In order to acquire the ability to forgive, it is important to learn to see, that every person who hurt your feelings, is acting from a limited perspective. Understanding that everyone has limitations and nobody is all-knowing and that most people act out of a conviction that they are doing the right thing –briefly that everybody is endowed with a certain amount of ignorance- can help us to adopt an attitude of compassion. If the other person really would know and feel the effect of his/her actions on you, he/she might not have done it. Most hateful actions are the consequence of ignorance. Even if someone appears to be fully aware of the harm he/she is inflicting, then still that is ignorance: such people are blinded by a point-of –view which does not take into account the long-term ramifications thereof. If you, like I, see your own limitations, your own failures, you start to adopt a forgiving attitude. Whereas I am not a Christian, there is a teaching of Jesus, which I find very valuable in this respect. When encountering a group of people who wanted to stone a prostitute, he said: “let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” Since we all have our limitations, how can we not forgive another person for acting out of his/her limitations? Sticking to our grudge will only consume us from the inside and create more suffering.
Cooperation vs. Competition
As explained in part 4 of this series cooperation is often a better bargain than competition. Ideally a so-called Nash-equilibrium is reached in which the overall result is maximised, i.e. the result of all the parties involved together. Mathematically it can be shown that cooperation most often has a higher overall outcome than competition.
Be aware of manipulation though and people assuming roles, which are not their natural roles in view of hidden agendas. But don’t push this to the extreme so as to become paranoid. Life is not only about getting the best short term deal out of it for yourself. We are in this together. The best deal can pragmatically be seen as the best long-term goal for all of us together, which is more likely achieved by cooperation and sharing than competition and usurpation.
Intelligent behaviour will seek for the optimal conditions when deciding on cooperation. Again the mastery of language (not only semantically but also socio-culturally) is crucial to negotiate the terms successfully. In order to improve our intelligence we can stimulate and train it by actively engaging in discussions. We will thus learn to argue, to reason and to be convincing. The tools presented in the previous essays of this series can be very helpful for this purpose as they put these abilities in higher perspective.
To be convincing is easier said than done, because your interaction partner may not have the same knowledge as you and may not be able to understand your position correctly. As said before, he/she may be biased by his/her socio-cultural heritage, and so may you. In fact all misunderstanding is based on the wrong assumption that we speak the same language.
Therefore we should try to explore and probe the motives of our interlocutor. We can do this by asking questions according to the well-known “LSD” approach (no I didn’t mean to take the drug LSD, although that might be helpful too,)). LSD in management culture stands for “Listen, Summarise, and Drill”. You ask questions, you listen to the answer, you summarise the answer in your own words to verify if you have correctly understood your interlocutor and you drill down to the details by asking further questions.
Once you understand your business partner better, you can perhaps better address his/her concerns and negotiate a compromise to meet him/her in the middle. If possible reward your negotiation partner by making compliments.
I’m a Dutch person but I work for an international organisation. I have noticed over the years that the Dutch “direct” approach can sometimes be perceived as rude to foreigners since we tend to be too much task orientated and too little people oriented. Southern European people tend to be more people oriented. Before they get to the point, they first do some small talk and tell some anecdotes. This is to prepare for an amiable atmosphere. Ideally you combine these two aspects: Whilst doing the small talk, you use an anecdote to illustrate that you know damn well what kind of business your negotiation partner is conducting. This way you can kill two birds with one stone.
When discussing the intelligence algorithm, I already showed that problem solving often results in combining the best of two worlds, a symbiotic trade-off. In biological societies such as bacterial colonies, bee hives, anthills, fish schools, flocks and herds, we often see a social stratification as in our society.
Complexity cannot arise without specialisation and stratifications. In general more communicative entities are, the better can they express a cooperative complex behaviour. Evolutionary intelligence has pushed evolution to evolve from unicellular individualistic entities to multicellular organisms. Multicellular organisms have organised themselves into complex societies of conformity enforcers, inner judges, pioneers and resource shifters.
As organisms become more intelligent there is an increase in the degree of relations-forming ability and an accompanying integration. This requires an open attitude towards change and progress. The more conservative a society is, the less its chances if conditions change significantly, the less adaptability. Since adaptability is directly linked to the ability of achieving complex goals in a complex environment, it is a hallmark of intelligence.
Tools for equanimity
Whenever we experience a situation which is not in alignment with our desired state of affairs in terms of body and mind, we’re usually made aware thereof by the virtue of an emotional reaction such as fear, anger, jealousy and sadness.
This emotion is already an interpretation of the situation, because our subconscious mind (and sometimes even our conscious mind) has assessed that the situation as it presents itself is not what it wants it to be. Reality is simply what it is, but it is your subjective mind that colours it and labels it as good or bad.
The awareness that emotions are mere indicators of our natural intelligence striving to improve its condition can already make us more of an observer to our own emotions rather than being a victim thereof. Most basic emotions evolved before we were even humans and the more complex sociocultural emotions started to evolve when we were still cavemen. Whereas it was necessary to develop an automatic release of strong fixed action patterns that are hardwired in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia in those circumstances of a life-threatening situation and socially strongly stratified environments, in our present welfare state society such reactions are often excessive. With an equanimity directed attitude we can gear back more rapidly whenever we experience such an emotion.
As long as a situation is not life-threatening, the only reason that we suffer is that we refuse to accept the situation, reality as it is. We fight it mentally, but not in a constructive way. If we would be convinced of our ability to sort out the problem, we would simply devise a strategy to do so and carry it out. If we would be convinced that we could not change the situation anyway, we could simply acquiesce to our fate.
But it is this uncertainty, this idea that perhaps we might be able to change the situation to our profit, which creates this nagging dissatisfaction.
The trick to avoid this is to accept the worst case scenario. The Stoics would mentally imagine the worst case scenario and already try to emotionally live the situation before it had actually occurred. Eckhart Tolle writes: “whenever you accept what is, something deeper emerges. When you are trapped in the most painful dilemma, extremal or internal, the most painful feelings or situation, the moment you accept it, you go beyond it, you transcend it. What you feel may still be there, but suddenly you are at a deeper place where it doesn’t matter that much anymore”.
Living in the moment
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev writes in his book “Inner Engineering” about a similar notion. When you worry about the future, you are imaging things that might happen. But that is not certain and those things are not there in this very moment. So your suffering is concocted in your mind. The same when you are grieving or having a grudge about a past event: the suffering is fabricated in your mind; the past event is not occurring in the present moment. So all your suffering is based on mental hallucinations of situations that are not there in the moment.
Similar to Eckhart Tolle he advises you to live in the present moment, to experience reality as it is and not let yourself be carried along by mental constructions. If you really look well at the present moment –as long as the situation is not life threatening- there is nothing wrong with it. Any suffering is the result of mental labels to interpretations of the situation. If you accept reality as it is and do not compulsively want to impose your will on reality because you think you know better than the universe, you can basically learn to be equanimous in every given situation. This does not mean that you should become defeatist. If you accept the worst outcome that you lose, you can start trying to repair whatever can still be saved. Which means that everything that can still be saved is a kind of win-situation.
Note that although I may not agree blindly with everything that Mr. Vasudev says in the totality of his works, the book “Inner Engineering” is a little gem which I back 100%.
Image source: https://www.innerengineering.com
Desire and compulsions
Mr. Vasudev correctly points us to the fact that there is fundamentally nothing wrong with having desires. It is only when you start to strive compulsively to achieve your desires, that they become suffering. If you only want to do what you like, you live a horrible compulsive life of suffering. Whereas if you blithely do whatever must be done (even if you may not like it normally), you start to enjoy every facet of life.
Do not identify with your body, mind and emotions
People suffer tremendously because they identify with the shape of their body or the process of their thoughts. This has its roots in the Cartesian adage: I think therefore I am. But this should not lead to an identification with these thoughts. You physical body is not a constant thing. Every seven years all the atoms in your body have been exchanged. Moreover your form has changed. You may still be recognisable, but nothing material is identical to what it was. From this we can conclude that it is preposterous to identify with the body, because it is not a constant thing. The body of today is not the body of tomorrow. Similarly the mind is in a constant flux of taking in information and losing it by forgetting information. The opinions you had 10 years ago are different from those of today, your opinions 20 and 30 years ago were different yet again. So with which ideas should one identify? Emotions come and go. the way you reacted yesterday to a situation is not the same as the way you react today to the same situation. So we are not our body, mind or thoughts. To speak in terms of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus no man ever steps in the same river twice. Because the river flows, and what was there a second ago, is no longer now. If we can identify with these, with what can we identify?
There is something in you which observes the body, which observes your thoughts and emotions. It is your consciousness. The ability to sense and experience. This faculty provides us with a sense of “self” (even if this notion of “self” may also be a mental concoction). It is your consciousness which is aware of what is happening. Eckhart Tolle realised this when he hit rock bottom. There is something that notices the suffering, but which itself is unaffected by the suffering. If we start to be able to observe this distance between the consciousness we are and the body, mind and emotions we have, we feel less encumbered by it. We start to feel free from suffering, because we are not that suffering.
Another tool to avoid being angry about and the victim of a situation is to assume responsibility. Many people complain about unpleasant undesirable situations stating that it is not their responsibility to solve the problem. This puts you in a victim’s position. If you adapt an attitude of assuming responsibility whenever you can –even if technically spoken you may not be responsible for the situation- you gain control over the situation. Instead of feeling frustrated, you start to feel empowered. In fact as Mr. Vasudev suggests you can also interpret the terminology responsibility as the ability to respond. This does not necessarily mean that you must solve the problem. Already showing a supportive attitude can be a response.
Adopt an attitude of all-inclusiveness
Social tensions often arise when you try to exclude someone. However everything in the world we live in is interconnected. You won’t have your clothes without the tailors in Bangladesh, you won’t have your bread without the corn from the Ukraine, you won’t have heating without gas from Russia, and so we all depend on each other. To speak in terms of Gautama Buddha (again an enlightened one), there is only dependent arising. Moreover we all descend from the same Homo sapiens sapiens from Africa, so basically we are all family. As we depend on each other and together from a society, to consider the limits of me, myself and I to be solely the physical limits of my body is preposterous. For those who identify with their minds, note that you constantly take in information from all kinds of sources in your environment, which determine your behaviour. So if you can consider humanity as one big organism, it becomes preposterous to exclude someone. You don’t want to exclude your kidneys or your liver either. In this way whenever you feel uncomfortable about a person, if you can adopt the feeling that he/she is somehow part of you, you will start to sense a kind of compassion and connection, which can make you willing to include this person in your world.
Most of these teachings as regards equanimity have their counterpart in Buddhism and Hinduism. The teachings of Gautama Buddha were specialised in the notion of taking away suffering. Buddha provided a complete ontology of suffering, pinpointed the problem and proposed a solution. He applied the intelligence algorithm to the concept of emotional intelligence. Buddha taught in his four noble truths that there is the existence of suffering, a cause thereof, a path towards its cessation and the cessation thereof. He provided a diagnosis, applied problem solving skills and proposed a therapy. His eightfold therapeutical path he described in terms of right understanding, right thought, right action, right livelihood, right effort, mindfulness and concentration. The cause of your suffering is your mental attitude towards a situation. You are responsible for this attitude and you can resolve your suffering by adopting a lifestyle that does not create any tension.
Most philosophies and religions agree on the notions that ideally spoken you should not kill or even be violent at all, you shouldn’t lie, you shouldn’t steal, you shouldn’t intoxicate yourself and you shouldn’t misconduct yourself sexually. Not necessarily because of moral reasons, but because these actions may disturb your equanimity and cause suffering. Whereas some of these precepts allow for a deviation therefrom in extreme (e.g. life threatening) situations and whereas different cultures have different interpretations and definitions of what is to be understood by these precepts (especially regarding food and sexuality), a general rule-of-thumb which I think most of us can agree on is that you should not do anything which you know will cause long-term suffering to another person. Sometimes it is necessary to cause a short term suffering for educational purposes, for instance when you have to punish a child because he/she did something dangerous or something detrimental to their development. The intent is then still to avoid long-term suffering.
What is important here is that your intent should never be to harm another person. If you can apply that rule-of-thumb systematically, you will already start to develop towards equanimity. I am not preaching morality here; you should figure out where your borderlines in the interpretation of the precepts lie for yourself. Nor am I stating what is “good” or what is “bad”. The precepts of the Buddha were a pragmatic recipe to avoid suffering, not a ticket to buy yourself into heaven. The Buddha advocated a simple way of life with as little material burden as possible, because if you have nothing, you can also not lose anything, which sets you free from worrying about the future. From Islam there is the teaching that whenever you wish to say something, only do so if it is true, kind and necessary. If all people could adhere to such simple rule-of-thumbs, we would not create suffering at the scale we do today.
In this essay you have seen a variety of techniques which can be applied in a social context to avoid hard feelings. You have also seen how, when such feelings occur they can be analysed and be put into perspective. From spiritual teachings stripped from a religious context we have been able to distil some general principles to achieve or maintain equanimity. I hope these techniques may help you to avoid drowning in the emotional quagmire and increase your emotional intelligence. Most of all I hope they can be of any help to reduce suffering in the world.
I the next post I will also brainstorm how in the design of an artificial intelligence which has artificial emotions, we can avoid creating a hysterical nutbot. This article has paved the way for revealing the various obstacles a mind may encounter. Artificial intelligence however faces an additional problem (if not present in a robot that can explore its environment to verify concepts) that it cannot tell truth from nonsense, fake from real if it is only faced with loads of contradictory information. Krnel already pointed to this problem in one of his posts. The next article will explore how we can design AI that can take this hurdle.
I hope you have liked this essay on emotional intelligence. If you do please upvote and/or resteem. Comments and suggestions are most welcome.
Image source of the bacterial colony on top: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_IQ_score_of_bacteria