by David Shackleton (Contact David at

This month’s column will be about why we are usually unbalanced, and what that means for our lives.  But first we need to talk about unconsciousness.

We are unaware of most of the functioning of our minds and bodies.  This is simply the way it has to be — there is too much going on for us to be aware of more than the surface level.  Consider something as simple as moving your hand.  It involves a complex orchestration of millions of neurons, nerves and muscle fibres — and that’s just the tail end of the process.

How volition gets turned into action is a mystery that no one understands at present.  Being conscious of all of that is simply impossible.  And when you are moving your hand to catch a ball, say, the complexity increases enormously — the brain is solving quadratic equations in real time, continuously updating approximate solutions, adjusting your hand position, etc.

It’s literally mind blowing to consider the size of the operation that the mind and body perform entirely outside of your awareness.

So for us to be unconscious of about 99.9999% (actually many more 9s) of the workings of our minds and bodies is the natural order of things.  It’s important not to judge ourselves for being unconscious.

With that in mind, let’s consider how psychological imbalance usually shows up.  Remember that the two sides tend to be opposite ways of doing things, or of looking at the world.

For instance, competition vs. cooperation as ways for people to be together, hierarchy vs. consensus as ways to make group decisions.  More generally, being vs. doing, feminine vs. masculine, mainstream vs. alternative, political right vs. left, etc.

Because these approaches or worldviews are opposite in many ways, there is inherent tension (conflict, if you like) between them.  This tension is natural and appropriate, it is the energy of difference, which seeks integration in a creative solution to whatever problem or decision is pending.

But tension is difficult to hold, and it takes a strong and mature psyche to hold it.  Most of us allow the tension (known in psychological circles as cognitive dissonance) to collapse or dissipate by preferencing one approach over the other as a matter of habit, and seeing the other approach as bad or wrong.

This allows us to have peace in our psyches, but at the cost of a considerable loss of competence, since we have made a whole half of the valid approaches to living wrong and inaccessible to our lives.

Let’s consider a practical example.  A very basic duality is between thinking and feeling as different approaches to examining people, events or situations.  (I mean the felt sense of right or wrong, good or bad when I say feelings — I am not referring to emotions).  There will typically be a tension between how we feel about something, and what we think about it, since these very different processes lead to different places.

The usual way to deal with this is to make one approach (thinking or feeling) dominant, and make the other a slave to it.  If we give the power to feeling, then our worldview will be dominated by how we feel about everything.  What we think about any particular thing will be derived from how we feel.

If we feel, for instance, that capital punishment is wrong, then our thoughts will be rationalizations to justify this feeling.  We will not be able to entertain a thought process that leads to a different conclusion, although we will be unconscious of this fact.

We will feel just fine about our view of the world, because our thoughts and our feelings are aligned, not realizing that we have completely disempowered our thinking in order to have it always serve our feelings about what is right and wrong, good and bad, etc.

Of course, the opposite approach is also possible, and also common, where feelings are the slave of thoughts.  Using the same example, if we think that capital punishment is wrong, then our feeling will agree with our thinking about it.  We will not be able to empathize with anyone who holds a different view about that idea.

Once we really understand what is going on in people’s psyches as they deal with congnitive dissonance by enslaving a part of their psyches, it explains a lot.  For instance, it explains why right wing and left wing folk simply can’t understand each other at all — they have each turned off the part of their psyche that they need to comprehend and appreciate the validity of the other’s viewpoint.

It also explains why most mainstream health practitioners simply can’t appreciate alternative medicine, and vice versa.

If you would like to get a sense of how you personally might be out of balance, consider some of the dualities I have listed.  Do you think that competition is as good as cooperation, or is one of them the right way to be and the other the wrong way?

Do you think that hierarchy is bad, and that most decisions should be made by consensus, or vice versa?  Or do you think that it is circumstantial — sometimes one is the right approach, and in other circumstances the other is better?  Do you lean to the right or the left (an easy test at present for this — how do you feel about Stephen Harper)?

Let me end by re-emphasizing that being unbalanced, and unconscious about it, is natural.  But so is living without brushing our teeth — clearly once we know a healthier way, we can learn to follow it.  In future columns I will begin to outline how we move towards greater balance in our lives.

~ David