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One of our Commander Brain’s traits is that it likes to pretend that all of its frameworks and ideas are original observations based on an objective view of the facts before us. It can be trained otherwise, of course, but this self-referential bias is pretty common.

The difficulty with this is that unless we can dispassionately explore the roots and origins of our perspectives, we’ll be held hostage by hidden biases and subtext. So long as we leave them in the dark, these strings from our past can dance us like puppets based on judgments we never consciously made. And when we might otherwise see things in a new way and develop a stronger point of view, we might over-rely on these pre-judgments because we don’t know their foundations lay outside ourselves. What we don’t know about what we think we know will cause us to mislead ourselves.

As a bit of a test, I might suggest watching for something to come up over the next few days where you catch yourself in a mental habit. See if you can trace back the earliest time you felt a similar impulse or feeling, as clues to where it originated. Find out whether you can clearly define where the idea was first encountered, and who or what presented it to you. If it was hinted at by someone else, see if perhaps you can sense what prompted it for them, and what relationship that has to your current situation.

Of course, sometimes these “hidden origins” can come up out of the blue as an innocuous surprise. Not long ago, I was putting together some thoughts about Buddhism for someone, and came across something I hadn’t read before.

I have this habit of trying to finish every grain of rice when I’m eating a meal with rice, or otherwise “clean my plate”. However, I think of it most with regards to rice, with the impulse to eat each bit out of respect for the food and all who had worked to make it possible.

It wasn’t a fully conscious thought, but when I did think of it, I thought perhaps it had originated from my abhorrence of waste. Also, I do have a feeling that food is a sacred link in the chain of life, so it’s important to be conscious of it and give thanks. But then I came across someone writing about her Japanese mother having told her that seven gods of fortune live in rice, and it would insult them to leave a grain uneaten. I then read of a Filipino mother telling her child that leaving rice uneaten would make God angry, and then of Chinese and Vietnamese grandparents warning that their child would marry a bad and ugly person if they left any rice…

Where did this habit of mine come from, I now wonder? I think I must have heard it somewhere, perhaps while reading a text on Buddhism, or perhaps at the Hare Krishna temple I used to visit for meal-sharing, decades ago. I am searching for a clear memory and not quite finding it.

Doing this search, though, has given me a fresh chance to examine this habit of mine, and decide whether it’s worth keeping. While I’m not as obsessive-compulsive about it as I once was, I do still feel a strong desire to make good use of the food I am blessed to receive. I do want to keep habits that help me remember to be grateful, and do my best to honor these gifts. Now that I’m aware there’s a lot more to that one little habit of eating every grain of rice, it makes me even more aware of this practice and its importance to me.

That’s the upside to examining the roots of our feelings and beliefs: we don’t just get to improve on the ones that don’t serve us. We also develop a deeper sense of meaning in the ones that do, helping them serve us better.

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