In context

I recently attended a seminar looking at communication from a psychological perspective. Of course, a two-day seminar could only – barely, tantalisingly – scratch the most superficial surface of this topic. We communicate from the moment we’re born, and in every aspect of our existence. We use communication to learn about our world, ourselves, to connect with others and to create our place in this vast universe. How could ten hours in a classroom even begin to delve into the immense subject of communication? Nonetheless, I came away with much food for thought. As I follow leads and research the topics that most interest me, I will no doubt form more coherent views. For the moment, however, there are two issues we touched upon that resonated with me: emotion and values.

Emotion

Unsurprisingly, there are different schools of thought about the nature of communication. Some scholars regard it as a cognitive function, grounded in thought patterns, in order to convey information and ideas. Others regard communication as an emotional function, arising from our feelings and attendant physical state. (Perhaps the difference lies in the distinction between communication and language?)

In any case, can we ever separate ourselves from our emotions? Emotion is frequently conceptualised as a seasoning, an extra ingredient adding a particular flavour to the baseline of communication. What happens if we flip this around, and establish emotion as our baseline? To be sure, our emotional state varies; as a baseline it is by no means static. But still: what if we always start with an emotional state, with our thoughts formed as a vehicle to convey, share and/or negotiate these emotions with others?

Our dominant Western culture reveres thought: I think, therefore I am. Could we not as easily say: I feel, therefore I am? What would be the consequences of this upon our interactions and our culture?

Values

One of the exercises at the seminar I attended demonstrated how our values impact upon communication. This seems self-evident, but the facilitator used a group exercise which put values right into the spotlight. A simple narrative presented to us with a scenario and a set of moral choices (I won’t delve into the details.) Suffice it to say that even a very neutrally-presented and minimal set of facts led each of us in the group to form assumptions, draw conclusions and establish a judgment that reflected our individual values. Remaining polite to one another, and moderated skillfully by the facilitator, we still very clearly seethed with emotion when confronted with others whose values differed from our own. Our words were careful, but we communicated our emotions in body language and tone of voice. When we broke up afterwards for lunch, I found myself outside and walking off the tension that had arisen within me, checking my breathing, relaxing my racing pulse.

Our values are not some abstract reference volume that we open on occasion to position our opinions; they are a visceral part of us, of our identity, of the story we hold within ourselves, about ourselves and about others. Our values are intimately connected to our emotions, but the relationship often goes unnoticed and unaccounted for.

So what?

So far, so basic; I suppose where I’m going next is into the realm of story. In her wonderful book Storycatching, Christina Baldwin analyses the process by which we create the story of our own life. She describes four steps in a spiralling and ever-repeating pattern – the DNA of a life story:

  1. Linking, in which “huge sorting and discarding is constantly going on in the mind. The self-story is composed of those events, relationships, and reactions that make the cut into conscious memory. We then link these memories together to create a coherent narrative. Linking makes the story: linking is the building block of what we choose to remember and how we make meaning out of recall.” (p.124)
  2. Editing “ is a constant process of updating who we think we are and how we speak about our histories and ourselves.” (p.128)
  3. Disorienting: “The gate to any new period of growth or maturity in our lives requires a period of discomfort and disorientation….Plot carries us forward into new territory; there is no going back. The only resolution is to reorient our lives so that we can integrate this experience into who we are.” (pp.131-2)
  4. Revisioning: “To make a world that can hold us is a universal longing. And we start by organising a story that can hold us…. Making a world that can hold the self requires that we find a… frame inside which we see our life story happening.” (pp.134-5)

Critically, the steps in this process involve our emotions and our values, inseparable from any rational sifting of information.

Again, nothing new: this is the stuff that mindfulness seeks to address. In a mindful state of awareness, one recognises one’s thoughts, emotions and values as fleeting phenomena pulling us this way and that. So can mindfulness ever be a relational state? Is it possible to exist or to communicate from beyond the confines of thought, emotion and values? Our self and our story never operate independently of others: we live within a vast network of life, and our identity can only ever be understood in context.

Context – from contexere to interweave, from com- together + texere to weave, braid.

Now I’m writing in circles, it’s getting late and I need to sleep. So I’ll pull the plug here: goodnight.