Happiness, Psychology

Is A Problem A Problem If You Don’t Think It’s A Problem?

Problems and the perspective paradox. [Credit: Andrew Jenkins on Unsplash]

How do you deal with problems? Life is full of them. Just one problem after the other. You could argue human creativity and survival centres around finding solutions to problems. Not as physically strong as other animals? Build tools. Chilly in your cave at night? Spark a fire.

Basic word association links problems with solutions. Gary Weber, a non-duality teacher specialising in neuroscience, explains how the default mode network is the root of problematic thoughts. This includes anxious ruminations and incessant streams of unhelpful inner-chatter.

The task-positive network deals with attention-demanding tasks, and competes with the default mode network. The ideal scenario is for the default mode network to be offline so it doesn’t clash with the task-positive network. This allows for the holy grail of “no thought” without the loss of functionality. You can be present, engaged, and deal with problems.

Interestingly, the default mode network shuts down during meditation, mindful activity, through psychedelics, amongst others. Long-term meditators show a reduction of DMN activity even when not focused on tasks. Keep in mind this network is the I-centre of the brain which forms an ego and “autobiography.”

The dance between these two networks hints at the struggle between necessary problem solving and viewing life circumstances as problematic. Is the latter the result of the problem-solving ability being misplaced? How do we find balance? How do we put problems in perspective? And is a problem a problem if you don’t think it’s a problem?

The Wide Range Of Human Attention

“Whatever we put our attention on will grow stronger in our life.”

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Humans have an uncanny ability to pay attention to the minuscule or the massive. In a positive form hyper-focus is flow state. Coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is the feeling of being completely immersed in an activity, or in the zone. A healthy balance of stress and skill is required to reach this level of deep focus.

But hyper-focus has a downside. We might have a life of luxury (indeed most of us live relatively better off than royalty of the not-so-distant-past) yet fixate upon the problems in our lives (such as things we lack, or perceived obstacles to happiness) we become blind to the gifts on offer.

You’ll likely be familiar with focusing on one thing and losing sight of the bigger picture. Most of us know focusing on problems isn’t skilful, but can’t stop. Let’s look deeper into the problem perspective to understand why.

Problems Are Perspectives

Can you agree that there is such a thing as big? And such a thing as small? I’m sure we can agree on that. But how do we define big and small? If you stand at the bottom of Mount Everest and look up, and you see the peak disappear beyond the clouds, and you see infinite rock, you will likely think: that’s big. You could turn to someone and say, “that’s a big mountain,” and they’ll likely agree with you.

What if you’re on a plane flying across the Himalayas. From a vantage point of 35,000 feet, you look down, and say, wow, that’s small. Everything looks tiny from this vantage point.

A child might see a man who is over six foot tall as a giant. But how big does this man look standing next to a redwood tree? And how big does a redwood tree look next to Everest? And how big does Everest look next to the Earth? And how big does the Earth look next to the sun? And how big does the sun look next to the Milky Way?

These examples encourage us to intuitively hold a paradox in mind. We know big and small are subjective yet equally true because multiple vantage points are accessible in any given moment. Everest is a big mountain, but when viewed from above the clouds, we know its smallness is our current vantage point.

Can you see what I’m trying to point at in relation to problems? Whether problems are big or small, both statements are true. This is the paradox of perspective. But how does this realisation help us to deal with problems?

How To Deal With Problems

You can’t reject one perspective because another exists. You have to be able to hold the paradox and contradiction in mind. You have to be able to validate there is a vantage point where the problem is big, and that vantage point has its own emotional landscape. Take, for example, social anxiety, and ruminations over one comment or even a fleeting look.

Vantage points unconsciously change. At the extreme, one second you’re in the clouds looking down on Everest, life feels great, you feel connected to something bigger than yourself, the sun shines, the birds chirp, your problems disappear. Then in a blink of the eye, you’re at the bottom of the mountain looking up.

Fixation on problems creates tunnel vision

Fixation on problems creates tunnel vision. The problem becomes bigger and bigger, information on the periphery of consciousness isn’t seen, the rest of life is obscured. Then it’s easy to feel powerless. If I’m standing at the bottom of Everest, how can I possibly make the mountain small?

Fortunately we don’t need to downsize the mountain. Meditation teaches us how to consciously change our vantage point, to a place where mountains appear minuscule. The greater the awareness, the wider the perspective, the clearer problems are seen, like taking flight, cruising to 35,000 feet, and looking down.

Wanting Problems To End Is A Problem

“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”

Theodore Isaac Rubin

Aside from changing perspective, we can fall into the trap of believing we’ll be content when all of our problems go away. I see this in myself. My ego convinces me: when this problem goes away, you’ll be happy. When this problem goes away, you’ll feel secure. But life always presents new problems, and believing one day there won’t be any problems creates an unending loop of dissatisfaction.

The word problem comes from the Old French problème. Its meaning? A difficult question proposed for discussion or solution; a riddle; a scientific topic for investigation. Go back farther and you find the Greek problēma, that which is proposed as a task.

What if problems are questions life asks us to test our character and fuel our growth? As psychologist Carl Rogers said: “Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities, views about life.

Mastering problems isn’t exclusively solving them. It’s learning what it means to confront problems and grow. It’s knowing what problems are to be solved and getting to work. It’s discerning what problems aren’t problems. It’s the wisdom to take a wider perspective.

What’s The Opposite Of A Problem?

The big and small perspective has had an additional benefit on my outlook on life. When contemplating our finite, fleeting life against the cosmos, we might feel small. But understanding the perspective paradox allows us to appreciate we are small from the vantage point of the cosmos, but significant from the vantage point of human life.

Depression is a great teacher of this perspective. A lot of my darkest moments have been existential, but often small gestures or human interactions move me the deepest. I realise the small things are infinitely big. These interactions reach into my heart, and my soul rises in response, a brief reminder of the light that lies beyond the temporary fog.

In the very real, very raw, livable day-to-day we have the potential to realise our significance

We might not be able to deal with the world’s problems overnight or correct injustice or eradicate hate or bigotry. We might look at the world and question how we’ve got here, why the world is the way it is, so full of problems.

In the very real, very raw, livable day-to-day we have the potential to realise our significance and change the world of one person; to offer a light, offer warmth, offer a reminder of what love looks like expressed, one interaction at a time.

When problems become questions, they’re no longer problems, but opportunities to become who we wish to be, to master them, to grow. 

What are problems asking of us? What are problems asking of you?

Published by Ricky Derisz

Spirituality Coach and Meditation Teacher devoted to understanding the human psyche and nature of consciousness. Undergoing a life-long process of minding my ego.

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