Humans are born a clean slate, but as we age our minds are programmed by our environment and experiences. The mind collects experiences to form concepts that shape reality. We see an object (which includes people) and within milliseconds associations arise. Associations are labels, judgments, and concepts that change reality. When I look outside on a rainy day I begin to think “it’s so gloomy, depressing, this sucks, the rain is bad”, others think “It’s so calm and cosy, the rain is great”. We have different associations that are elicited when we see rain, the object. Our experiences resulted in us oppositely distorting reality.
The quick judgments we make are evolutionarily advantageous. Our ancestors that quickly reacted faired better than those who were more deliberate. If you see movement in bushes and waste time thinking, it may cost you your life. If a tiger was hiding there it would’ve jumped at you, unless you reacted fast before your conscious mind even caught on and you run. People who were reactive were rewarded with life. Hence why the brain is wired that way.
The brain’s instantaneous judgments aren’t always helpful. It’s the reason why we are judgemental and close-minded. Our brains have learned concepts of how things are supposed to be and what’s outside that gets rejected. We have concepts for types of people, how people act, utensils, etc.
Concepts are categories of objects and behaviors. We have a concept for what a good human being looks like: kind, polite, caring, hard-working, etc. If you’re working in an office you have concepts about appropriate behavior at work: dress semi-formally, keep conversation to small talk, avoid politics, don’t let your boss catch you slacking off, etc.
The concepts we developed help us to unconsciously navigate life without having to deliberately think about every action and reaction. But, at times they can constrict and harm us. They trap us in patterns of behavior that may not be helpful. They can label people and things inaccurately resulting in a negative outlook towards them.
Associations carve a path for action. When you think of chocolate, you start to think “It’s so good, I love chocolate, chocolate cake would be amazing”. The associations lead you to crave and consume chocolate. In relationships, if you hang out with a friend of yours and after you’re bored and drained, you’ll associate negative feelings towards them, resulting in the action to see them less. If you have a friend who always does X behavior, you attribute that behavior to them. When you think of your friend you’ll think “he’s Y and B, he does C, H, I like how he’s T, and he always does X”. If your friend were to change, the associations you have of them would no longer be true. The model you have of reality would be false. Which can harm your relationship.
This extends generally to how you interact with people. With a friend since you see them more often, it’s easier to update those associations, “Oh I noticed my friend no longer does X, I guess he changed”. With strangers, it’s harder. We don’t have time to observe their nuances. We run unconsciously on the associations that arise based on how they look, dress, talk, what they like, etc. These distort reality and we act according to them. This causes problems. Putting people into boxes based on our instant reactions can result in unfair judgments.
Here in Canada going to university is what is societally expected of students. They’re typically harder to get into and more prestigious. If you go to college you get looked down on. College is associated with lower status. Due to the collective associations, If you think about college students you believe “oh why didn’t they go to university? They must be dumb or a slacker”. Which is an unfair generalization. The societal associations distort reality and box them in. Even college students themselves may believe that they’re low status. This serves to propagate unhealthy narratives for college students.
Reality is a blank slate. Objects are just objects, the associations we develop aren’t facts about objects. Seeing reality clearly, you must look past the reactive thoughts that come up. This allows you to see things without illusions.
Noticing when you are judging yourself/others/things allows you space to change. For example, If you label yourself as fat and lazy you continue to constrict yourself to what you believe fat and lazy people are like, but to see through that association frees you to change. It opens up possibilities for you to behave differently and change what you believe. The same holds true for others. We box them in with our associations, which also boxes ourselves in because we act based on how we think they are rather than how they truly are.
Meditation helps us notice associations. Have you ever been walking, driving, or even just sitting down and you went down a long train of thought? Maybe it was something that happened recently, a past event, maybe a fantasy about the future. You get so lost in your head, it’s as if your thoughts are reality until it’s over. It feels like coming back from another world, back to the present.
When you meditate each ‘rep’ is when you get lost in thought and return to your breath. When I heard this description, I believe by Sam Harris, it immensely clarified meditation for me. It trains your brain to notice thinking and to habitually return to breathing. The more you practice the easier it gets, like weight training. At first, you curl 10lbs, then 15lbs, 20lbs, and so on. With meditation at first you get lost in thought every 3 seconds, then every 5 seconds, then 10 seconds, etc. (it’s not exactly like this but you get the idea).
Associations are thoughts. Meditation can help you to strengthen your “noticing muscle” to notice thoughts right as they come up. You get better at controlling your impulsive reactions. Which leads to seeing reality clearly, giving you the ability to change.
Our minds are association-making machines. We perceive objects -> associations arise -> reactions occur. This helps us navigate life without straining our conscious mind. At times our unconscious reactions don’t serve us, so we must see through them. Seeing reality clearly requires getting past our associations to view objects as they are and not as we think.