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Know When The Mind is A Terrible Master or Servant (Week 14 of Wisdom)

Forget the saying, ‘the mind is a terrible master but a great servant.’

The mind can be a terrible master and a terrible servant. Not only does it not know what it wants, but it is bad at doing what it does want. If you have ever struggled with breaking an old habit, or building a new one, then you have had the unfortunate experience of realizing the limitedness of your willpower.

To begin with, your automatic, default setting is a problem. You desire not what is best for you, but something that is a consolation between opposing wills and desires, that ends up taking you for a ride you never wanted or needed. And because these contradictory impulses exist, you find it impossible to evaluate the result of your behavior clearly.  

The dichotomies that define this contradiction are limitless: the rational mind and the emotional mind, the ego and the self, the right-hemisphere and the left hemisphere, or System 1 and System 2.

But of course, these are too simplistic to describe the true nature of the mind. There is such thing as pure rationality or pure emotionality. Our instincts are complex, unpredictable, and unstable and are a mix between rationality and emotionality. Yet the dichotomy is a useful one, and can help us understand ourselves, even if in an imperfect way.

If it is true that some people choose to prize the rational over the emotional, it is for practical reasons, as many feel as if we have no choice but to do that to survive.

Life does not give us too many options. If we do not adhere to a bounded set of rules, that can be socially practiced, and rationally articulated, then we will suddenly feel ourselves isolated and incompetent. It is not an accident that as time has passed, humans find themselves more strongly drawn to rationality – it is the only dependable mode of being in civilized society.

But as Jung points out, we are exiled from ourselves when we do this.

The predicament of being human is that both rationality and emotionality are flawed. If we are too emotional, then we have betrayed our thinking minds. But if we allow rationality to reign supreme, then we are warned of divorcing ourselves from our unchanging core (or self), and from archetypes that make up parts of our subconscious, which dominate our conscious lives.

And if we think that we can dismiss these ideas with rationality, then we risk the wrath of the unconscious, which as John Gray points out, is the true commander in chief. How much do we really control?

We think our actions express our decisions. But in nearly all of our life, willing decides nothing. We cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so.

John Gray, Straw Dogs

As Jung taught, clinging to rationality will divorce us from our true selves, to the unchanging core within us, to the archetypes that rule our unconscious, which in turn, dominates our conscious lives. If we cannot understand our dreams or the demands of our unconscious, then we are unwitting slaves to it.

Modern man does not understand how much his “rationalism” (which has destroyed his capacity to respond to numinous symbols and ideas has put him at the mercy of the psychic “underworld.” He has freed himself from “superstition” (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break-up in world-wide disorientation and dissociation.

–  Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

On the other hand, the emotional and intuitive mind is fickle and capable of great acts of folly, that can ruin your life, and the lives of others around you.

It is because rationality and emotionality are deficient in a fundamental way that they need to be united. To avoid repressing the shadow, we must integrate our emotions and intuitions. To avoid folly and danger, we must subject our feelings and intuitions to scrutiny. This is not a perfect solution, but no such solution exists. It is simply the best we can do, given our biological make-up and limitations.

Integration is a compromise. It is a way to limit damage, and nothing more. Yet, by embracing this compromise, we make transformation possible, since our right-brain is allowed to take in new information about the world, and our left-brain is allowed to be selective about what we should pay attention to, and what we should ignore.

Whether the battle takes place between rationality and emotionality, whether we have multiple sub-personalities lurking beneath our conscious awareness. We have but the same, eternal predicament. How do we reconcile our internal contradictions?

For much of human history, the solution was war. The Enlightenment was war against intuition, whereas Romanticism was war against rationality. But the lesson from Jung is that this war is futile. It is through the combination of both that something greater can emerge, that is more complex, more individuated, more self-aware, and more powerful.

But even more specific than that, it is the diagnosis of the Master and Slave in our minds that provides the key.

It is not the pithy statement ‘The Master is a great slave but a terrible master” or even its reversal that is most worthy of a solution to this problem. The most important thing to know is that your mind is both a master and a slave, and to understand what this dynamic means.

If your mind is a good slave, and a terrible master, it means that your rationality is flawed. While you show no emotional rebellion, your logic is failing you, and thus you must improve your thinking.

If you have the opposite problem, if your mind is a terrible slave, but a great master, it means that your emotionality is the problem. You may know that your addiction is bad, but you cannot emotionally commit to ending your pattern of behavior. The ‘slave’ part of your mind is not doing its job. This entails a different approach, where you are more connected with the irrational side of your brain.

If you know that your mind can either fail as slave or as master, or as both, then this gives you freedom to change.

The McGilchrist metaphor of the Master and his Emissary is slightly different, as the Emissary is wrongfully the right-side of the brain, which is not only the emotional center, but also responsible for holistic, big picture reasoning. But what does it mean to see the big picture? It means you are associating a value judgement to complex phenomena.

You are not following the left-brain recommendation of breaking down everything to its component parts and simplifying the world. You are choosing to have an emotional response to something you do not fully understand yet. Your task then, is to know when it is appropriate to make this leap of faith, and when it is better to pause and reflect, and to follow the argument where it leads.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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