'Right and wrong' or 'beneficial and harmful': which is going to serve humanity better?

In my 20s I had to be right. If I was wrong, I would be able to find a way to get out of that somehow; maybe in a politician's way of subject changing or avoidance; maybe in confusing the matter so much I seemed to be right. It was actually a very useful tool and helped me be a successful salesman. It may also have been a rigid and potentially damaging stance. What happens when you are right? Not a lot to be honest. Maybe some smug satisfaction and an ego stroke, or potentially it could lead to a pay rise, but these are superficial factors. In being right there isn't actually any change internally, except for perhaps a reinforcement of existing neural pathways. Yet it may be seen to be of more benefit to be wrong.


In being 'wrong', our current understanding has been found to be 'short' and we have the potential to change that. This can be in new knowledge or thinking, on a personal level and on a far wider one. For example, most of 'science' is based around the premise of testing a hypothesis. That is the testing of an existing idea. If the hypothesis is proved right, all that has occurred is proving what was already thought, but being able to say 'look, I've got scientific proof'. Now, if a hypothesis is proved wrong- depending on the experiment- it may lead to prove an opposite thought. Much more likely though is that it leads to having to go completely back to the drawing board, which could end up as a progressive leaps forward in our thinking. Imagine if ALL the experiments that didn't prove a hypothesis right were published. Would that not actually propel science forward at a faster rate, as other minds would be able see the 'incorrect hypothesis' and get thinking on it? Of course, this is ignoring factors such as confirmation bias and observer effects, but does show the advantage in being wrong, as well of working collectively- instead of the present system with many people looking at a correct hypothesis and patting the researcher on the back, it may help a move towards what Jordan Hall calls a 'decentralised collective intelligence'.


Why is this difficult? Well, if we are wrong it can be a challenge to our sense of self, or ego. It may be a challenge to admit that we are wrong with our best friend, let alone on social media where it is essentially played out in front of hundreds or thousands of people. Think of 1000 people seeing that you are wrong, and it could very easily be perceived as rejection. Many moons ago, if we were rejected from the group/pack/tribe there would be a reduced chance of survival, so it makes complete evolutionary sense for this 'wiring' to exist in our brain. It has been found that our emotional pain experienced in rejection is linked to physical pain, which may be as a way to really 'hit it home'. This has meant 'evolution’s solution to ensured nurturance might have unintentionally produced a lifelong need for social connection and a corresponding sense of distress when social connections are broken.' Could we also say that being wrong can be humiliating? This is dependent on how it is perceived by the experiencer, but I would suggest that for some (if not many) the rejection may feel like humiliation. Jonas and Otten found humiliation to be a more intense experience than other emotions and that 'it is likely that the behavioral and emotional consequences as well as the cognitive resources needed to regulate these consequences will be more involved and demanding for humiliation than for other negative emotions.'


We can see that there are actually benefits to being 'wrong', yet biologically it can be incredibly difficult for us, particularly in the cauldron of social media. There is no research linking 'being wrong' to social rejection so by all means say that you think I'm wrong. I have made this link from my own past experiences and compassion, and I can only share the tools that helped me to shift (and that is a lifetime work in progress). The reason I think this is incredibly important is the amount of polarisation I am seeing, which may be due to a 'need to be right'; social inclusion in one 'tribe' or the other.


Nervous system awareness

If we are in a state of fight-flight activation where the sympathetic nervous system is active, we resort to using the more primitive areas of our brain. Survival has been required throughout our evolution and was therefore developed very early on. The result of this is that when we are in survival mode, we are not using the more rational areas of the brain which were developed later on in our evolution. This makes sense if you think of the need for speed in survival. If a predator approaches you, you don't want contemplation as you will be eaten, but you want to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. The thing is, nowadays we don't need to fight to survive in the same way, but the body-mind is still geared up for this.


An awareness of our nervous system state is of huge advantage to us, in general, and in developing an openness to being wrong. For most of us we are no longer going to die from social exclusion, and the reality is that in being wrong you are only going to be excluded by people who aren't going to serve you well anyway; hence it often being easier to admit we are wrong with friends. So overriding our nervous system is safe in this regard, but takes awareness. Breath and heart rate are the two most obvious indicators of our nervous system. If we are in fight-flight our heart beats faster and we take in larger quantities of air in preparation to fight or flight. Developing an awareness of these two factors is a practice though, because the very nature of being in fight-flight means we are usually unaware whilst in that state.


The more time that we observe our breath and heart rate when in a relaxed, or rest-digest state, the more we learn our 'default'. Over time we can notice the little fluctuations, meaning we may observe heading towards fight-flight activation before it occurs and we've lost awareness. When this happens we might be able to control the internal situation by regulating our breathing and slowing it down deliberately, or we may be better served to move away from the situation. You may also notice how this is actually yoga.


Healing

My own need to always be right stemmed from numerous factors, including unresolved trauma. Society paints a picture of trauma as a huge horrific event (which of course it may be), but Levine and colleagues define it as 'an event that causes a long-term dysregulation in the autonomic and core extrapyramidal nervous system'. An awareness of our nervous system state is useful, but if we have unresolved traumas, we can see that there is a dysregulation meaning it is more likely for us to be triggered into fight-flight (or freeze-fawn). It will be an uphill battle to try and maintain a nervous system state suitable for openness.


There are many modalities for healing. Some are top-down, which work on the brain to 'resolve' the traumas, resulting in the release of them from the body. An obvious example would be psychotherapy. Other methods work with the body to help with the mind and are known as bottom-up. Most people can benefit from a mix of the two, and there is never a one-size fits all approach.


In yoga philosophy there are samskāras, vāsanas, vrtti and karma. Samskāras can be seen as deep impressions from the past. You may seen this as past life, or intergenerational trauma, which then has an influence on our vāsanas, which can be seen as present life impressions, including traumas. This effects our vrtti, which is how we experience the world, through thoughts, emotions, and sensations, which then effect our karma or actions. These actions then leave another impression, more often than not creating a vāsana affirming loop. I am going to suggest here that our nervous system is part of our vrtti, in that it is our sensation of the world, and our nervous system can heavily dictate our actions. If we work to heal at the samskāra level, we can stop these loops occurring in our life and restore a healthy functioning nervous system. The practice of Yoga Nidrā is an accessible practice suitable for everyone, which not only helps to return us to our rest-digest state, but with a daily practice, can heal samskāras.


Yoga philosophy


Our true nature

We have seen that the difficulty in being wrong may be linked to social exclusion, but looking back I can see in myself that was due to an identification with my thoughts/beliefs/ideas, or vrtti. If I was wrong, it felt like an attack on me personally. I don't wish to project my life on to what others experience, but equally, if this was my experience, it is likely to be that other people too. In yoga we are on the path to realise our true nature. Our thoughts are continually changing moment to moment. What I believe one day, may change the next as new evidence appears. If this changes how can be who we are? So really, to have an identification with this is not very helpful. In not identifying ourself with our thoughts we become far more open. It is no longer a personal attack on us if we are seen as 'wrong', because the Self remains changeless.


Karma

The need to be right may also stem from an attachment to the end result. If we look at scientific experiments for example, the whole basis is actually attached (hypothesis) to the results of action (the experiment). 'You have control only in doing action, never in its results' (Bhagavad Gītā 2.47). When we focus solely on the action or karma it is all just the 'experiment' rather than the hypothesis. It does not matter if the 'experiment' 'succeeds' or 'fails', is 'right' or 'wrong'.


You may remember earlier that our actions are effected by samskāras, vāsanas and vrtti. In other words it is important to not just no attachment to the end result, as without healing it is possible that there may be 'negative' consequences of our actions. This is why I have ordered things this way. We also need to carry an understanding of dharma, or what is good/true/right. Teachings in isolation have the potential for harm, which is why the texts exist the way they do; picking and choosing one teaching and not another is a recipe for disaster and I am only putting the concepts here to spark interest in deeper learning/understanding.


Māyā

We now leap to quite a difficult concept to grasp. In fact, if this starts to spark any 'negative' feelings please skip over this section as it's a sign it isn't beneficial for you right now. It is taught that everything in the material world is māyā, which is often translated as an illusion. In Śaivism it is translated as the 'illusion of individuality'. Again, the teachings of yoga are extensive, so unpacking is required, but for the purposes of this post we can say that 'what we perceive isn't the real nature of things'.


Now might be a good time to test what I've been writing about here. How's the breath? Are there thoughts of right/wrong occurring. I have deliberately ordered things this way, so that if necessary, just ignore this part and maybe return another day. This in itself is a great skill to cultivate, and one I'm certainly still slowly learning.


I am going to flip here to a local neuroscientist- Anil Seth- as I think the concept is easy to grasp when mixed with Western thoughts. Instead of 'illusion', he describes our interpretation of the world as a 'controlled hallucination'. To simplify, our brain receives the signals from our senses and then uses all prior 'data' to interpret these signals. This is happening in each and every moment, from the seemingly insignificant to the hugely significant. We all go about our lives in this manner, often not giving it much thought.


I would love to get into the teachings of yoga here, but that would take a whole book. What I can say is, how do you know anything is real so therefore right/wrong? You really don't. Everything is actually 'best guess', based upon our current understanding. Consensus is formed when everyone's 'best guesses' match up, but that does not make it right or true. If everyone is starting from the 'wrong page' it just means everyone has reached the 'wrong' conclusion, but all say that it's 'true' because to them it is. But that does not mean it really is.


This concept can be a little reality shattering, but once grasped is incredibly liberating. How can I ever be truly right or wrong about anything? Including all that is written here. I can't! The focus therefore can shift from right-wrong, to beneficial-harmful.


Dharma and adharma

We can call dharma, that which is beneficial and adharma, that which is harmful. This seems pretty straight forward but is actually incredibly complex. It takes huge amounts of discernment and a zoomed out perspective.


Let's use a very crude example, and I apologise if it offends anyone, but it is sometimes easiest to grasp something when it's in its extreme. Killing someone is incredibly harmful right? Yes of course it is. But what would your answer be if that person was dictator who was killing civilians en masse? It may be very different, and now an action which individually is harmful, can be seen to be beneficial to the collective. We then also need to consider time. Do we know that the short-term benefit of saving lives is really going to be of benefit in the future. What if one of the lives we save turns out to be an even more evil dictator who ends up causing even more harm than the previous dictator?


We really can't ever truly know. All we can do is make the best decision with all the information we have. The big difference in shifting from 'right-wrong' to 'beneficial-harmful' is that we can introduce other forms of intelligence. My stomach is never going to help in proving something right or wrong, but with awareness it can sure help me in deciding whether something is beneficial or harmful. This right-wrong thinking has got us where we are today. I truly believe if we are to build a better future we need to shift to the 'beneficial-harmful' mindset and incorporate our whole body intelligence. This shift would help in reducing the huge polarisation we now see, bringing people together, recognising that we are all the same. My body knows that. Your body knows that. It is only the brain that can forget that.


We are one!