Signs of a closed mind

It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.

— Epictetus

But how do I know that I have a closed mind? (“Closed” in the sense that it does not accept new ideas–or even entertain the ideas that its beliefs may be wrong?)

I think the key is to look for my emotional reaction. When I come across something new or different, how do I respond?

If I’m clinical and dispassionate in my response, I am probably open-minded. Someone in that mode is more likely to be acting objectively, seeking “better” outcomes or beliefs.

Think of it like one of those card games where you have to pick up a card from the pile and discard one from your hand. You are going to be objective about that new card–if it improves my chances of winning the game I will keep it. Otherwise I will discard it and stay with the old cards I already held.

But note the precondition in my analogy–I have criteria for judgment. If I pick up a face card I will keep it and discard the three, because in this game high cards win. Sometimes games are built the other way, though. Hearts. You don’t want to win hands because you might pick up points, and low points wins the game. In that case, you would reject the face card and hold the three.

Picking up a card and deciding to keep it or reject it, in that example, doesn’t make me furious or overjoyed. It’s a clinical decision.

In other contexts, being presented with new ideas or thoughts will evince a strong emotional reaction in me. Usually it is an unsettling, destructive emotion. Politics is the prime example.

I don’t know what to do about that except keep humble, and look inside myself to see what is right for me. What are my internal rules of the road for myself?

Feeling of anger, exasperation, etc. are my clues that I am off track. These emotions arise when I don’t have a good “why”. Good criteria internally for judging right from wrong.

Usually when faced with these situations I retreat within, to the “I was born alone and I will die alone” mindset. Extreme Serenity Prayer Mode. Then I am at peace, because I can not control the actions or beliefs of others.

I return to tending my own metaphorical garden. And I tell myself that by tending my own garden–keeping my own thoughts and actions clear to the best of my ability today–I can influence the course of the community.

Who knows if this is true or not. At some point maybe it is my responsibility to do more, just as Marcus Aurelius got out of the palace and met the barbarians on the battlefield.

But I’m more aligned with the idea that even one Man Number 7 can change the course of civilization. I will be lucky if I become a Man Number 4, and I have no delusion or desires about my abilities to do so. I am a Private in this army and always will be. My aim is not to “Save the Whales”–for whatever definition of Whales you choose. “Save myself” is a hard enough–and worthy enough–aim.

But still–do what must be done. Be solid, stable. Let the wind blow. Watch your emotions and when they are unsettled (or gleeful, for that matter), just say “Huh!” and wait a while for the second order emotional effect. See what pops up next. That’s likely to be the better reaction and to be a better indicator of how well (or not) your beliefs line up with reality and principle.

I guess this is just my long-winded way of expressing my favorite line of all time from all the books I have read:

It is a spiritual axiom that when we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.