Applying Meaning

The most human thing we do may be the way in which we take stimuli, observations of the world around us, and apply meaning to them.

Meanings make us human.  They define our awareness and understanding of the world around us.  They underlie all our choices.

Freedom only exists in the moment between stimulus and response.   That is the moment when we evaluate the stimulus and apply meaning to it, using that meaning to guide our actions.

In “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing,” Jamie Holmes goes through much of the way psychologists have explored the process of applying meaning.   It won’t surprise you to learn that process is rarely deliberate, considered, thoughtful and aware, instead most often being reactive, judgemental and driven by unspoken emotional needs.

We learn to be part of our family, part of our peers, by learning to apply meaning to the world in the same way that they do.

The process of applying meaning often becomes so automatic and invisible to us that we end up assuming that we don’t apply meaning to stimuli, rather that the real meaning was always there, in the observed.

Not understanding that it is our mind which applies meaning, instead seeing meaning as something objective and beyond our control, makes it almost impossible to change our reactions and our behaviours.

Meaning doesn’t reflect the world, rather it reflects what is going on in our mind.

For example, when I go into a business and see a Christian cross, I often worry, because I have experienced people who believe that their faith gives them the power to judge and call out evil in the world.   Others, who are regular churchgoers, may see that same cross and be comforted with a sense that fellow believers will act with integrity and charity.

The truth may be that the cross is just left over from last owners of the business and the current staff are lackadaisical agnostics, but we assign meaning not based on the facts, but on our internal response to the stimuli that confronts us.

What happens when we find out that the meaning we assigned to the stimuli isn’t the meaning that it holds?

For me, I am very quick at shifting my view, integrating new knowledge and finding a new approach.   I live in the question, not in the answer, so I am always ready to adapt to new information.

Many people. though, have a high “need for closure.”  For them, protecting the beliefs that they hold is much more important than acknowledging that their assumptions are mistaken and they have to change their view.

For example, they might get upset and indignant that non-believers left a cross around to “fool them.”   Their anger may lash out, based not on the situation as it is but instead on how the situation violated their own inner assignment of meaning.

For transpeople, both the assignment of meaning based on belief rather than evidence, and the distress some have about having the meaning they assigned be proved incorrect can make unsafe around others.

For transpeople, both the assignment of meaning based on belief rather than evidence, and the distress some have about having the meaning they assigned be proved incorrect can make unsafe around others.

Yes, I repeated that paragraph for emphasis.

Until the people around us understand that their feelings are about them and not about the things they see as “creating” those feelings — the “phobogenic objects” — it becomes very difficult to negotiate the fears and feelings of other people in the world.

All of this is based on their assignment of meaning in the moment between stimulus and response, how much of that comes from thoughtful awareness and how much comes from habit and assumption.

For people whose understanding of the world comes from the beliefs that they have long held, the beliefs that they need to hold for the world to make sense, they can see challenges to those beliefs as attacks.

Defending the meaning you already hold rather than being open to applying new meaning to new information is the entire essence of why people get stuck.

It’s not useful to not be grounded with some kind of understanding and belief, but it’s not useful to be mired in a mindset that doesn’t open to new possibilities, that only looks for what it already knows in the world.

I believe in divine surprise, moments where something new comes into our vision and lets us see the world in a new way.

The believer is happy; the doubter is wise.
– Hungarian Proverb

Belief is the basis of comfort, the affirmation that the world is like you expect it to be and you don’t have to extend yourself to create new and uncomfortable understandings.

Wisdom, though, is the basis of growth.   Wisdom allows one to focus on better, though always at the cost of focus, which is not free for any human.

Changing the way we apply meaning is the way we change our lives.   Acknowledging that our meanings, even the ones that make us upset, sad or angry are inside of us allows us to have control of changing those meanings and changing our choices.

By using some conscious thought to understand the meanings we apply, we can stop being controlled by the meanings we internalized early and find new ways to be open and present in the world.    We can build new habits that come from considered best practices rather than just acting from our deep and raw routines.

We are humans.   We engage the world and apply meaning, either from our emotions, our thoughts, or our beliefs.

Changing our process of applying meaning — changing our mind — changes who we are and the choices that we make.

I know, though, that there are many out there who want to apply their own meaning to my impulses, my choices and my heart.  They want to keep the mental walls that comfort them in place, want to not have to do the work of examining and changing the meanings that they have held so dear for so long that they believe they are simply real.

The meanings we hold, though, are the meanings we apply to the world.  Objects are just objects, events are just events and symbols are just symbols.  When creating them, people may try to invest them with the meaning they want to convey, but in the end, the meaning they have is the meaning observers assign to them.

They have the meaning you assign to them.

And that meaning will always reveal more about you than about what you are observing.

Isn’t it worth the effort to get clear on how you assign meaning so you can be open to new possibilities, new connections and new vistas?

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