There is an audio version of this article at the bottom of the page.
What happens when we get polarized? How can we avoid polarization to engage in more enriching discussions? I would like to share some thoughts based on an experiential exploration of polarization.
The experience I am drawing upon was not a polarized discussion. It was a collaborative endeavor: Remembering experiences of polarization to better understand them. I will be bringing up a contrast between this collaborative atmosphere and the circumstances under which we get more polarized.
The initial shift
The conversation started as an interview. The roles were clear. I was the interviewer, and Kirk Schneider was the person interviewed. We were going to talk about a topic he has thought about a lot and written a book about: “The Polarized Mind.” We didn’t go very far with the conventional interview portion. Soon after the beginning, we shifted the format of the conversation.
It started with my suggestion that we proceed carefully: We were not discussing a neutral topic, but one which could emotionally touch our audience. I disclosed that I could, at times, have a polarized mind. Kirk suggested that we explore the topic experientially. Effectively, we shifted roles, with him leading me through a process of experiential exploration. Before we went any further into this process, we established some rules for safety. All of this evolved organically.
When an interview takes place, some things are so evident that it is not necessary to state them explicitly. There are specific roles: the interviewer and the interviewee. The manner of the interview may vary, but both parties share the implicit assumptions. They constitute a stable framework for the interchange—I think about it as the Shared Implicit.
Through a process of attunement, we restructured our Shared Implicit. This involved paying attention to implicit clues and resulted in making the space safe and comfortable. This early step set the tone for the possibility of further expansion during the rest of the conversation.
An experiential exploration means paying attention to the experience from inside, as opposed to talking about it as if it were outside. Exploring inner experience involves paying attention to body sensations.
Here is what came up for me as I was recollecting polarized interactions to access my inner experience of them. I noticed the tightening of my shoulders, a shallower breath, a sense of my spine folding in. All of this, subtly, not necessarily visible to an outside observer.
These physical sensations were not random. They were the result of my whole organism reacting to the situation. They were “bottom-up,” implicit reactions, as opposed to “top-down.” Through neuroscience findings, we are keenly aware that much of our functioning is at a “bottom-up,” implicit level. Somatic mindfulness involves being in touch with embodied experience, i.e., the Somatic Implicit.
As we stay present with our experience, a felt sense forms, which is the way we experience the Somatic Implicit. In this case, my felt sense of the experience came down to a simple handle: a sense of rigidity. Conversely, as I shifted away from polarization, the experience was a sense of fluidity.
Interestingly, Kirk had defined the polarized mind as a “fixation on a single point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view.” The bodily sense of rigidity, the opposite of fluidity, made this concept come to life. It was not an abstract idea, but a felt experience of the Somatic Implicit.
Tracking the Somatic Implicit
Another bodily experience I had during this exploration was a sense of energy in my feet. It felt like they wanted to move. At the time, the meaning I associated with this experience was that it was a “flight” response.
The purpose of the exploration we were conducting was not to dive deep into the embodied experience, so we left it at that. Now, having had more time to revisit the experience, I have a somewhat different sense of it. I now think of it as something similar to what happens in the Wyle E Coyote cartoons. When he walks past the edge of the cliff and realizes he’s no longer on firm ground, his feet are frantically moving as if to try to generate a firm ground. We can see the panic in his face as he’s trying to prevent the inevitable fall into the abyss.
The sense of being like Wyle E Coyote has something in common with the earlier sense I had of this experience. It has to do with fear. The image of Wyle E Coyote makes clearer what it is about. It is a sense of losing ground. A sense of being in free fall, a terrifying existential fear.
Conversely, later in the conversation, there came the point where I felt that the energy was no longer just in my feet. I could feel it moving throughout my body, including my torso. I experienced a sense of fluidity. In hindsight, as I revisit the experience, I can see that the earlier experience of energy in the feet alone corresponded to a disconnection from my upper body. Of course, this is very consistent with fear.
What is it that made it possible to dissipate the fear? I became more grounded as we continued the conversation. “Grounded” is not just a word that happens to evoke the opposite of “losing ground.” It refers to the embodied experience of feeling supported by the connection between us (Shared Implicit) and the increased connection to my body (Somatic Implicit). The experience of feeling more grounded enabled me to have a more integrated experience of my body and experience energy as fluidity.
The realm of myth
What is it that elicits such fears, the sense of losing the ground from under my feet? It happened as I was recollecting polarizing discussions, with topics such as politics, economics, social issues, religious issues. What these topics have in common is that they are about myths, in the sense that historian Yuval Harari assigns to myth in his book, “Sapiens.” For him, myth is not a derogatory term, implying fraud or delusion, far from it. Myths are the glue that binds societies together, small tribes as well as countries or supranational entities.
We are accustomed to thinking in these terms when we talk about primitive societies, held together by their religious myths. But, for Yuval Harari, this is not limited to the religious or spiritual realm. Myths are not the exclusive property of primitive societies. The more complex the culture, the more deeply rooted the myths.
For instance, money is such a myth. It does not have an intrinsic value, and it gets its value by the trust that people have in it. A dollar bill is a worthless piece of paper unless there are people that believe in it enough to give you substantial goods in exchange for it.
In describing the pillars of society as myths, Yuval Harari is not saying that they are illusions that we should eliminate. Quite the contrary. His point is that human cultures simply could not function without these myths. This is why I prefer to refer to these constructs as our Collective Implicit, rather than myths.
Our society (like all societies) rests on a consensus around a Collective Implicit. What would happen if we were to lose this common ground? It would feel as if we no longer had a ground to stand on. Freefall. Something similar to the fear I described above.
An experiential exploration of polarization
I am now coming back to the conversation with Kirk.
At times, I experienced a sense of calm when contemplating the possibility of opposite views. This calm was an embodied experience of equanimity, as opposed to polarization. There is an important caveat. I felt this sense of calm when dealing with the theoretical consideration that views opposite to mine could be valid. But I felt more inner turmoil as soon as I started considering some specific issues (e.g., climate change, impeachment). My experience would then go back to something like the sense of losing ground that I have described before. As I now listen to the recording of our conversation, I can hear the stress in my strained voice and a more disjointed sentence structure.
There is a big difference between valuing equanimity and experiencing it when faced with an issue that is important to you. During the conversation, I mentioned the contrast between my values (to be open to other people and points of view) and my experience (feeling compelled to hold onto a position). The threatening experience felt like a sense of not having something solid to hang onto.
I will try here to translate this embodied experience into conceptual terms. When dealing with an issue that is important to me, such as climate change, having a polarized view gives me a sense of clarity that grounds me. In my perception of the world at such times, there are two starkly different sides on the issue. One is people who see reality as I see it and act accordingly. The other side is people who (in my perception) refuse to face reality and make a terrible situation worse. It feels like a clear-cut decision.
Evolutionarily, there has been a great value to this kind of clarity. When faced with a clear and present danger, it served our remote ancestors to narrow their focus and marshal all their resources to deal with the threat. Occasional false alarms were a small price to pay for the survival value of reactivity.
But what happens when I have this kind of clarity in a polarized discussion? I experience a sense of rigidity and narrowness. The very opposite of the sense of fluidity that would foster creative thinking.
Reactivity is counterproductive. But it is ingrained in us, and we cannot will it to disappear. To regulate it, we need to deal with the fears that cause it. We alleviate the fears by fostering a climate of connection and trust (shaping our Shared Implicit).
The moment-by-moment experience of connection counters the fear of unraveling. This is not an abstract thought, but a felt experience (awareness of the Somatic Implicit). Becoming more conscious of feeling grounded helps us broaden our perspective. Putting more of our attention on our felt sense of the situation lessens the all-too-intense focus on the topic we are discussing.
To use a metaphor: If we see awareness as some sort of a container of experience, this container has now become a larger container. It does not just contain the topic; it also includes the sense that I am a human being who is involved in a discussion about a given topic.
Depolarizing our conversations
How can we avoid the pitfalls of polarization? Paying attention to the various layers of the Relational Implicit helps us enrich the conversation.
Directing our attention to our sensations and felt sense (Somatic Implicit) reduces nervous system activation and facilitates access to the more mindful circuits of our brain. Our perspective expands, from a narrow focus into broader peripheral awareness.
We become more able to engage with what is between us (Shared Implicit). This is not just an interaction of ideas, but of human beings. Feeling this way deepens our capacity for empathy.
We are less caught up in a cycle of threat and defensiveness. This helps us remember that we are not dealing with absolute truths, but with subjective notions that are, by nature, emotionally charged (Collective Implicit).
We are now able to have a multilevel conversation. As we let go of resolving the issue in a narrow sense, we use the discussion to expand our awareness of the many layers that are part of this issue for each of us. Out of this new awareness, it may even be possible for a new consensus to emerge, something different from the two poles that previously seemed to limit the field.
Published February 2020. With deep appreciation for Kirk Schneider. Photo by Lightwise / 123RF