The Sound of a Closing Mind

I am consistently amazed at how simple closure will satisfy most of us. As though learning or understanding wasn’t the objective, rather than merely settling our anxiety over not knowing. Think back to school for a moment. Recall what the classroom looked like, the smell of the old wooden desks (if yours were made with wood), the texture of the pages in your textbook. Imagine the smell of chalk, the sound of that chalk smoothly (we hope!) sliding across the surface of the blackboard.

There is so much we have had to learn – just to have made it this far. What else might we need to learn to get through our next big challenge? Now, consider a quick re-wording of that question… What else might we find useful to know in order to increase our readiness when opportunity strikes, to maximize our success, and to make our overall fulfillment skyrocket? Sure, it’s just a few words’ difference…but what a difference they can make!

What I so often found surprising was how, equipped with years of sophistication (you recall your young adulthood, don’t you? We knew it ALL, didn’t we?), we close ourselves so easily to simple truth. Truth that , while not entirely obvious to most of us, is easy to find if you only know where – and how – to look.

I was in a Psychometrics class several years ago, which focused on measurement of psychological potential. This included everything from intelligence quotient to standardized testing, the bane of public education teachers everywhere. The interesting thing about college for professors is that, unless they have achieved tenure, and can essentially determine their own destiny, their own courses, as dictated by their own interests (and where they themselves have a published body of work to which the course can refer), they often must compromise on the classes they teach.  This was, as I recall, not the favorite subject for my professor that term. She nonetheless was teaching what in her own words was an advanced Statistics course. I had a habit during my undergrad years, which amounted to reading through the course catalog, looking up its references to determine which were the really interesting classes. I had decided that Psychometrics sounded pretty great to me, and though a handful of introductory classes in Statistics (which I had not taken) didn’t sound like enough of an obstacle I did ask my professor that first week, if with hard work, she thought I could get over this deficiency, and she acknowledged that it could be done. My course was set.

However there was a strange and interesting twist in the story not long after that. Dr. Gail Gonzales, with long straight blonde hair, a big cowboy hat with feathers adorning it, long denim skirts, and a silver SAAB 900 turbo, was making an example, delivered entirely off the cuff. About auras.

Now as sophisticated as my classmates and I considered ourselves to be, there was no way we were buying into some hippy, new-age notion like auras! I’ll always respect and admire Dr. Gonzales, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that, at least judging by her appearance, that she had at an earlier stage identified with the new-age movement. Certainly I and my equally scientifically minded peers would not indulge such nonsense!

What should have tipped us off was that she didn’t make some grand blanket statement in a seeming effort to convince us that auras were real. She used it as an example that, in an entirely nonchalant manner, suggested she believed we all knew that such phenomena were real! Outrageous!

Now Dr. Gonzales had a wicked sense of humor, so none of us felt it impossible that she was simply pulling our collective leg. None were prepared for what came next.

We ordinarily met in a standard classroom, suitable for the thirty or so students in the class. (What? You’re surprised that no more people than that wanted to learn standards of psychometric measurement from a potential new-ager with an ever-present Western hat?)

Before we realized what had happened, she dismissed the class, instructing us to meet in one of the theater-style lecture halls for our next session. What could she be up to?

The afternoon we filed into that lecture hall, which was outfitted with a stool at the front, a white projection screen behind it. Dr. Gonzales had us pick up notebooks at the door as we entered and instructed us to further scatter among the lecture hall. Concentric semi-circles of auditorium seating rose in levels as though the small presentation dais was a pebble in a pool from which waves of seating rose up and spread out around it.

She announced that we would each take a turn sitting on the stool and that as she guided us through an exercise, each of us, without speaking to or sharing any observation with one another, were to simply jot down what we saw. She taught us to defocus our eyes as we watched the screen behind the subject’s head. She or he would sit in the stool and Dr. Gonzales guided each of us in turn through a series of emotions.

There were a couple of us who, whether we were just unable, or held such a bias so as to negate anything we saw. Our “notes” on what we saw were predictably blank. But as we observed the subjects’ auras expand and change color, we similarly recorded our observations. In the final analysis, all but two of us observed an energy field, a kind of glowing halo, surrounding each subject. The intensity, size and color did seem to shift as Dr. Gonzales led the subjects through a range of emotions.

With very little exception, we all saw the same things. Those two people saw nothing, several of us saw the color more clearly or less so. But once the notebooks were collected, I suspected, and later conversation confirmed that many of us suspected this, that we were guided via the power of suggestion. I was already very much enamored with hypnosis, and have observed and read accounts of numerous faith healers, mystics, televangelists, politicians, and others simply induce a trance and guide or “install” an observation that the subjects believe to be their own subjective experience. Of course, it is just that, but very heavily influenced by the hypnotist. I dissected the instructions and how Dr. Gonzales spoke to us and concluded that no, she had not done this.

How then to explain that the majority of us saw the same things? This would be easy to “rig” of course, had Dr. Gonzales simply picked up the notebooks and reported back the findings. But she had us compare our notes in groups, cautioning us to disclose anyone being a “good subject” – just going along with the experiment and making up an outcome he expects is desirable. We were startled to find that with very little variation, our observations were the same.

I now understand that by having us scatter all about the lecture hall, she controlled for projection or other light trickery. We were viewing from different angles, increasing the expected variance between our observations.

Once we all felt sufficiently less sophisticated and knowledgeable than we had an hour before, we discussed what “auras” actually are. Any physicist knows that all matter is energy. What might seem solid is at all times a swirling storm of energy. Just going by what we know of energy, even as lay-people, is it in any way surprising that we emit an energetic field? Ironically, the “new age” connotation most of us brought to the subject matter led us to close our minds prematurely, to decide that “auras” were as real as the gods many of us worship. Actually, there is more support for auras because they can be measured via instrumentation, removing human subjectivity from the discussion. So without intending any offense, because I don’t have any special knowledge about any god or spirit, if you follow a religious or spiritual path, you actually have more scientific reason to believe in auras.

Having seen this myself, and finding that I wasn’t just imagining it (over 26 of my peers had seen the same, or nearly the same, thing), my rational mind quickly rushed to defend itself, saying things like, “Well of course we have an energy field surrounding us at all times! And of COURSE our emotions, particularly intense ones such as jubilation, sadness, or anger, affect that field! As if I didn’t know that before!” But of course I HADN’T known it before. None of us had. Quite the contrary, NONE of us “knew” this to be superstitious new age imaginings. A hippy’s hallucination, certainly nothing more than that.

If memory serves, one student rushed out of the class, his religious faith terribly shaken (he seemed to have a particularly unuseful belief that God doesn’t like us having energy fields. He felt it was at odds with his religious convictions and, having seen the auras for himself, was terribly upset by it. I myself was actually impressed that he noticed at all because beliefs can be so powerful that we OFTEN do not see something that everyone else assures us is right in front of our faces. All because we just don’t believe in it. We accordingly negate it from our awareness. So the fact that this young man saw the auras at all spoke well of his ability to perceive the world in a manner that, at the very least, his peers could corroborate.

But what does all this mean? I’m a pragmatist by nature, and if something cannot be easily applied to some useful purpose, I rarely remain interested for long, the mental jiu-jitsu of logic and philosophy not in the least affected by this because I find value in those fields every single day. I left that lecture hall no longer doubting auras or the way our emotional state, our feelings, affect the energy we exude, demonstrate to others, and share with them. The first valuable lesson to me was that, no matter how safe we consider our bias to be, it’s possible for someone to share new information that turns that bias on its ear. Or should. If we use our bias to  negate things it doesn’t accept, but are absolutely real and filled with potential to make our lives better, then we rob ourselves of value every moment. That because such behaviors, whether they serve us or rob us, tend to become habits, our standard way of interacting with the world. Choose your beliefs well or you will likely miss out, and potentially a great deal.

The other thing that gave me a great lesson that day was that if we nurture and project outward an energy that draws others to us, makes them want to be near us, to share with us, we are vastly adding to our social skills repertoire. I’ve watched strangers draw one another with mere glances. I’ve also seen tremendous disagreements and intense fights erupt based on little more than a different series of looks and glances.

Perhaps if we take that first lesson and expound on it just a bit more, we can morph it into a third benefit. I don’t recall any among my peers or myself being even somewhat open to the notion of auras. We all dismissed it with the certainty of the young: We KNEW such things didn’t exist. What then when we saw for ourselves that they do? We can take a similar lesson right now. Hubris can lead us to make such cocky, naïve mistakes because we are overconfident. More confidence, one could argue, than is warranted. The place where, as Richard Bandler has said, “confidence exceeds competence”. Confidence, mind you, can be a wonderful thing, when warranted. If not overdone to the point where we either alienate those around us (being arrogant, cocky, etc.) or simply get ourselves into trouble, believing we are competent with a skill that we have not, in fact, mastered, or possibly even BEGUN to develop. I’ve seen relationships, both personal and professional, fall apart due to such abuses of confidence.

If we instead were willing to consider (if only for a moment!) that we might not be right…or not entirely right, we allow space in which our coworkers, spouse, children, our peers, can explore their own potential “right-ness”. Perhaps if we can all bask in and share mutual respect, we can combine our “right” answers (to us) into something greater, a collaboration that actually suits the situation even better. The first step to making that possible to to acknowledge that, though we may feel certain that we are right, we’ve been wrong before, and this person before us, whether a coworker, a subordinate, a stranger in the drug store, our spouse, anyone, might very well have something to teach us, we enrich our experience greatly.

What do I mean by “not entirely right”? Some questions are simply by nature, good examples being “digital” or “binary” options. “Either the lights are off or on”. “Either you are standing up or not”. “Either your car is stuck in the mud or it isn’t”. While some among us manage to argue over such questions, it’s far easier with complex questions. Something “analog” in nature, such as “hot” or “pleasant”, each of which could be treated as digital (i.e. “It’s either hot or not”, “It’s either pleasant or it is not”…) but in many cases, we speak more about the degree of hotness or pleasantness (i.e. “It’s hotter than it was last week, or at least it feels that way to me”, or “That’s more pleasant to me than what I felt yesterday”. Consider another example, the word “lazy”. We could state that we feel lazy or that the large meal and the hot day are leading us to feel lazy. We could also suggest that someone seems to be feeling lazy that day. But if we ask our partner to do something for us and they do not, we might decide it was their laziness that caused this. How can we know? Aren’t we just interpreting their action (or inaction, as it were). An example of the difference I often choose is that of the lights mentioned above. In a digital fashion, I could say that I switched the lights on or off. There is no in between. However if I install a dimmer on the light switch, I can adjust in an analog fashion the brightness or darkness in the room.

So returning to our point, we can learn that the person with whom we’re talking, even perhaps arguing, may actually have a point. Moreover, they may be right. It can often be tough to accept, but remembering how certain I and my classmates were that auras were a silly notion no more scientific or real than fairies or Tinker Bell, our biases have been wrong before. And maintaining a commitment to NLP’s determining criteria of value – USEFULNESS – our bias may be right, wrong, or partly both. Though its usefulness is a much more important question. Though if we dismiss the possibility, much as I and my classmates initially had, we could miss out on something very useful, indeed.

This certainly won’t be the final word on beliefs and bias. Though it’s a fun example of where I learned to retain a degree of humility, regardless of how certain I was that I was right. I urge you to remain similarly open so you’re able to explore more honestly your world, noting details, possibilities, and opportunities that otherwise you may have missed.

Lastly, Dr. Gonzales, if you’re reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart for humbling some pretty hubris-filled college students. You taught us many powerful lessons, though that may have been the pinnacle (I’ve also been greatly influenced by a quote she had us recite very frequently: “Correlation does not suggest cause and effect!” That’s a big one if you apply science to your world. The fun example of that she once told us was that ice cream sales are positively correlated to murder rates. Yet no one suggests that ice cream consumption leads to violent behavior. The two, murder rates and ice cream sales, are correlated and seem to have another, much more likely causal, variable in common – rising summer temperatures.

So enjoy that Rocky Road double scoop with confidence, while watching your own emotions, your own temper, as well as that of those around you. If things start to get out of hand, you can offer to buy them a double (or triple) scoop of their own.