The mental state of cognitive fusion is one in which we confuse our thoughts and beliefs with reality; we become so identified with them that we lose the ability to see them for what they are—inventions of the mind. Our thoughts are fleeting, insubstantial things, products of a brain whose business it is to continually manufacture them. If we cannot “unhook” or “de-fuse” from them, they become a kind of cognitive quicksand that drags us toward suffering. Applying this idea to our experience of illness and health, if I begin to experience, for example, intermittent blurring of my vision, I may begin to fear a brain tumor. Having the thought is not the same as having a tumor, but if I am cognitively fused to the idea, it can feel dangerously real, even though the truth is that the only thing I can say with certainty is that I’m experiencing intermittent blurred vision. Here you can easily see how cognitive fusion with thoughts that evoke fear causes terrible emotional distress.
Experiential avoidance is two-pronged. First, it means avoiding any thoughts, feelings, emotions, or sensations we find unpleasant. It also means avoiding taking actions that are life serving in an attempt to avoid such unpleasant emotions as fear, anger, embarrassment, or shame.
Attempts to avoid experiencing unpleasant thoughts and feelings paradoxically lead to more of the very thoughts and feelings that we don’t want to experience and it even gives them greater power. Furthermore, attempts to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings deny us valuable opportunities to learn and grow by meeting our discomfort head-on.
The Dominance of the Conceptualized Past and Future
Part of the human condition involves creating concepts. We do this in the hope that they will provide us with understanding and even a sense of predictability. Concepts are essential to our survival and to the ability to live a full life. Unfortunately, the human condition also includes cognitive fusion with our concepts. Without mindfulness practice, we are unable to step back from these concepts and see them as insubstantial mental constructs. In such a fused state, we fall victim to regret about the past and worry about the future.
Attachment to the Conceptualized Self
Narcissistic personality disorder is an extreme example of what we all experience throughout life. It involves fusion with the belief that we are a certain way—a certain kind of person. Like the conceptualized past and future, the conceptualized self (also known as the ego) is not intrinsically bad; in fact, it is essential for life. The problem arises when our self-concepts are challenged and we are unable to immediately step back from them and see that they are nothing but brain secretions, or as comic George Carlin termed them in the title of his book, Brain Droppings.
Inaction and Its Companion, Impulsiveness
Many of us hold ourselves back from doing things that would enhance our lives because we’re afraid of embarrassment, shame, or failure. On the other hand, some people, especially those with bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, act impulsively in order to avoid the same very uncomfortable feelings. We all do this to some extent, and for most of us, mindfulness practice is one of the best antidotes, because it allows us to embrace our fears and take action that is in harmony with our personal life values even while experiencing uncomfortable emotions.
Lack of Clarity about and Contact with Life Values
It is impossible to live a rich and rewarding life until we begin to live in full contact with what matters to us most. But in most cultures throughout the world, a large segment of the population becomes so fused with societal values that they are unaware of their own personal life values. Instead, they unquestioningly value what their culture deems worthy. For example, in the 1970s it became out of fashion in the U.S. to nurse one’s infant. Cultural values are commonly in conflict with scientific evidence.
Like many people, in my family of origin I was expected to adopt the family’s religious and cultural values; my own were not accepted. In modern Western culture, this problem is ubiquitous in schools, in the corporate world, in government, in all religions, and to varying degrees in every area of work and play.
Sometimes it’s easiest to recognize these societal values in the details of unwritten rules we followed in the past—practices from which we’ve since distanced ourselves. For example, I remember a time when you couldn’t play tennis without wearing white and men couldn’t play golf without wearing those silly-looking plaid pants. Though these values—in this case, definitions of propriety—may not be terribly important in the scheme of things, they are indications of the extent to which societal values can guide the choices we make and the way we live.
One way to increase happiness is to allow ourselves to fully experience whatever we are thinking and feeling from moment-to-moment, and to do this while living by our personal life values.