How do thoughts affect behavior? How does overidentifying with thought cause suffering and dysfunction?
According to Eckhart Tolle, thought is at the root of human dysfunction. In his book A New Earth, he explains that our thought elements shape how we interact with the world and lead to two forms of dysfunction: 1) inauthentic relationships, and 2) polarization and violence.
Here’s why identifying with our thought elements is harmful to both ourselves and others around us.
Tolle explains that thought elements are the recurring thought patterns we identify with, such as the roles we play (like mother, customer, or employee) and the ideologies we believe in (like morals, values, and religions).
According to Eckhart Tolle, thought elements are the cause of human dysfunction in two ways:
1. Inauthentic relationships: Tolle argues that when we adhere to societal roles, we act based on what we think that role calls for rather than how we really feel. When that happens, our relationships can become artificial. For example, when we’re playing a parent role, we might act superior because we’re “the knowledgeable adult,” and we therefore might end up missing a more authentic emotional connection that our child needs. In extreme forms, role-based relationships can lead to human mistreatment like slave versus master, or in everyday forms, like an abusive boss and submissive employee. Ultimately, when we see another person as a label—a child, slave, employee, and so on—rather than a human being, our relationship with them is formed according to this label rather than how we feel toward them.
2. Polarization and violence: When we attach our self-image to ideologies like religious beliefs, we want to feel these beliefs are “right” (superior) for our ego to feel “enough.” Consequently, we insist that others who contradict our beliefs are “wrong” and will often resort to violence to assert this truth. For example, during the Crusades, Christians raped, tortured, and killed those of different spiritual beliefs to assert Christianity as “right.” Ultimately, when others fail to share our beliefs, morals, or values, we experience negative emotions like anger, frustration, and resentment—the underlying causes of human polarization and violence.
(Shortform note: Experts agree that religious identity can cause polarization and violence because the underlying psychological function of religion is to provide us with a sense of certainty and identity. The human need to have an identity, and for that identity to be “right,” can grow so strong that the individual becomes more concerned with maintaining their truth than upholding the religion’s teachings. Ultimately, experts explain that the more reliant people are on religion as a form of certainty and identity, the less compassionate and understanding they are of others, and the more likely they are to grow distant from and even violent towards people who contradict their beliefs.)