Orienting to the Unknown

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, get out of your comfort zone. We intuitively grasp the meaning, but what actually is a comfort zone? And where should you go when outside of said comfort zone?

Comfort Zone

To be fair, and despite the above advice, a psychological comfort zone is not a bad thing. On the contrary, you are in a psychological comfort zone when you feel comfortable speaking and engaging. It is why you can speak your native language with ease. It is the accumulated facts, experiences, and traditions that you have learned, and learned so well that they can be acted upon automatically.

Have you ever gone to work or school and suddenly realized you have no recollection of how you got there? The entire journey was completely forgotten. Were you in a daze? In reality you were completely engrossed in a comfort zone. You became something of an automaton. In no way is this considered intelligence, and yet without this kind of automatic thinking, you wouldn’t be able to read, converse, or chew your food. This is what Daniel Kahneman called System 1 in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is fast, automatic, reactive, and heavily biased thinking.

To the degree that you can successfully predict what will happen in your life, you will exist within your comfort zone. This is where you feel psychological security, as well as an identity. This is the center around which your perceptions layer like an onion.

In religious/spiritual language: this is the known; order; where everything makes sense; and everything is where you expect.

When you are faced with anomaly, that is, something unpredicted by your conceptual model of how reality works, then you will no longer be in your comfort zone. In this situation your thinking switches to what Daniel Kahneman called System 2. Is switching to System 2 the path out of a comfort zone? It turns out, there are a lot more layers to this onion.

Learning Zone

The first layer outside your comfort zone is the Zone of Proximal Development, or Learning Zone. Imagine you are confronted with an anomaly, let’s say a word that you have never seen before. This anomaly will result in what’s known as an Orienting Reflex (a concept defined by the psychologist Evgeny N. Sokolov). In this case, the unknown word will stand out, your attention will reflexively focus on this unknown word, and your thinking will automatically move out of the comfort zone.

The orienting reflex is the primary means by which thinking will shift from fast automatic (comfort zone) to slow deliberative (learning zone). And this is also how new knowledge is accumulated into the center, into the comfort zone. Imagine learning a new language, or learning to drive a car; the goal is to gain sufficient mastery so that this new information will be available to the fast reactive thinking of the comfort zone.

In religious/spiritual language: this is the mediation between chaos and order, between the known and the unknown.

Defensive Zone

In addition to the orienting reflex, Sokolov also defined what is known as a Defensive Reflex. The Defensive Reflex is the psychological response to an anomaly that is perceived as beyond what an individual can understand, learn, or cope with. This is also known as a stress response (classically as a Fight of Flight response).

A stress response is intended to remove us from danger, that is, to remove or in some way mitigate the dangerous anomaly. Thinking becomes fast and reactive, yet you are not in your comfort zone. For example, you will probably remember what happened.

Have you ever been in a fight, or been robbed, or attacked, or perhaps merely witnessed a catastrophe (such as the events of 9/11)? In these cases your mind was thrust into the defensive zone, and likely a flashbulb memory was created. Hence, you probably remember exactly where you were when the event occurred.
* Interestingly, these memories suffer from memory biases as much any other memory (you might be wrong about where you think you were).

In religious/spiritual language: this is the fall; this is the first phase of samsara (the cycle of suffering).

Danger Zone

What happens when a stress response fails to remove you from perceived danger? In other words, what if the anomalous event is still there? Research in this area is limited, and in most cases difficult (and rather unethical) to perform, but there is plenty of real-world data, such as how people responded after the events of 9/11.

The orienting reflex is still in play (you can’t stop thinking about the anomaly); the stress response (fight or flight) has not removed the anomaly; now what?

Your core beliefs, your identity, everything within the comfort zone was wrong, because it failed to predict the anomaly that put you into the danger zone. In these cases, a revolutionary process will occur. The anomaly will be integrated into an updated world view (an updated comfort zone), attempting to render it predictable. This process can take years, and in some cases the entire foundation of one’s comfort zone will be questioned, discarded, and rebuilt.

In religious/spiritual language: this is chaos; this is the second phase of samsara (the cycle of suffering). Psychologically, you’re afraid, uncertain, and desperate for stability.

Nihilism Zone

What happens when that revolutionary process fails to integrate the dangerous anomaly? The orienting reflex keeps your attention on the anomaly, yet you’ve discarded the meaning found within the comfort zone (the dead traditions of the past). Life appears to be cruel and unjust.

It is no doubt possible to find meaning in the known, in the comfort zone, by blindly following past traditions. We do this as part of our conditioning. But when a catastrophe threatens our world view, we will also lose that which gave our life meaning.

For example, imagine you did everything you believed was right; everything you were taught; you got married; you bought a house; you had children; and one day you learned that your partner has left you, and taken the kids. It was nothing you could have predicted. The anomaly persists through a bitter divorce. You lose the house, lose custody of your children, and to top it off are unfairly given a restraining order. You lost your job in the process and grow bitter and resentful. Nothing in your comfort zone provided meaning, nor any reason to justify the suffering of life.

Or more subtly, imagine you failed to succeed; you tried and failed to get a good job; you failed to settle down; you’re now broke, single, and unemployed. Life itself is the anomaly; other people succeeded and didn’t even try as hard.

In religious/spiritual language: this is hell.

There’s a way out of hell, and it’s the same way out of samsara (the endless cycle of suffering where you bounce between comfort zone and defensive/danger zone); it is found in responsibility, orienting to the unknown, to the transcendent, and responding back to the known (building a comfort zone that is transparent to the transcendent).

Transparent to the Transcendent

Despite these perceptual layers, everything you perceive is a delusional representation: a model, a concept, a narrative, a memory, in all cases a subjective perception of a (hopefully) objective reality. All knowledge, like all facets of a dream, is a personal thought; it is a mirror reflecting that most intimate of concepts: you.

All of these thoughts, including the thought of you and I, exist within the comfort zone (within the known). And when confronted with a persistent anomaly, we may be forced to question and discard even these most personal thoughts, including identity and meaning.

Persistent meaning cannot be found within the known (comfort zone), nor can intelligence. There is no intelligence in the known; it is conditioning; it is biased unconscious reactions. Thinking within the comfort zone is predictably irrational, prone to errors and misjudgment; it is not intelligence.

Intelligence cannot exist within the known, and yet it also cannot exist without responding to the known. Intelligence requires orientation to the unknown, responding back to the known, integrating the anomaly in a revitalized center (rebuilt comfort zone), and then voluntarily seeking more anomalies. Intelligence is the continual improvement of the known (comfort zone) to better understand the truth, which can only be found when permanently oriented to the unknown. This is, for most people, a radical shift in thinking (certainly preferable to nihilism, or bouncing back and forth between comfort zone and defensive/danger zone).

Responding back to the known; this is the response within the word responsibility. Life’s meaning is found in responsibility; response back to the known. Responding correctly is intelligence; that is, knowing where to aim (what to learn in the learning zone). It is your responsibility to cultivate true intelligence that mediates between the known and the unknown, looking towards the infinite unknown without bias and reactionary filters, and to observe the world as it truly exists in each moment.

You are responsible for yourself, your family, and the whole of existence. Done properly, responsibility resonates on all levels (individual, social, global, etc.), and provides permanent meaning to life.

In religious/spiritual language: this is orienting to the unknown; this is enlightenment (that is, being a light unto oneself); this is the cessation of samsara; this is nirvikalpa samadhi.