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A client of mine once told me that as a young child he was playing contentedly in his room one day when he noticed how quiet the house had become. He wandered down the familiar hallway of his house looking for other family members and opened the closed door of his parents’ bedroom. Inside he saw his father, naked and in bed with a neighbor woman barely known to him. He told me he went back to his room, returned to his solitary play and was confused. His confusion was mixed with shock and fear but also incomprehension. He knew instinctively that some basic parameter of his young world had been shaken. Beyond his recognition. His father soon came into his room and told him that what he saw was nothing wrong, but he shouldn’t talk about it nonetheless. Well if there’s nothing wrong with it……then why…… He was confused.

Of all the mental states people can experience, confusion does not rank up there as having much value, as a state to be reached for or desired. Webster’s defines confusion as a situation in which people are uncertain about what to do or are unable to understand something clearly. That’s not bad as a start but confusion can run deeper, as a feeling that you have when you do not understand what is happening, what is expected (of yourself? of others? from the world itself?) or a state in which many things are happening in a way that is not controlled or orderly. It may be a feeling that you or the world itself has lost its moorings, has collapsed. On a universal level, W.B. Yeats wrote of this as ‘the center cannot hold……anarchy is loosed upon the land’*

The felt experience of confusion is a lack of order to one’s thinking, unsettled, maybe manic with upheaval, underpinned by pressure, loss of control. CON-fusion means without fusion, without cohesion which is pretty much what the experience of confusion is all about. The ways with which we make sense of our world go missing, our center no longer holding coherence.

Confusion is a kind of loss; our natural ability to orient to our world by time, location, identity is disrupted, compromised. Its a difficult feeling to tolerate; we value our clarity of mind, we want to know where and who we are and proceed from there. Don’t-know-mind, as the name implies, is a cultivated practice of resting in not knowing some fixed answer. But it helps to hold with surety some basic continuity of familiar conditions surrounding us. It’s not easy to get there. We value being able to feel our feet on the ground: the consistency of knowing and knowing what’s consistent. Confusion is reaching for the known when that information is not there.

Confusion ranges on a spectrum, sometimes a mild state that can be quickly rectified and sometimes its an earthquake, expanding, spiraling up and out with fear, shock, disorientation. A woman goes into her doctor’s office for a lingering set of flu-like symptoms and learns suddenly the unwelcome news of a life threatening illness. A total unexpected upheaval of her world. She leaves confused, in shock, full of fear and unknowing how to exercise options, that is if she even heard any options being offered. Identity, grounded in her body, along with continuity of health and faith in it is thrown asunder for this woman. Confusion borne of shock but also as an unhinged form of not knowing. Confusion may lead us to a loss of self. We want to run from it. That makes sense. When there is an earthquake in us, we get shaken.

In a crowded plaza, vendors have set up their stalls for morning market. Rows of fruits, stacks of fresh vegetables, village entrepreneurs of every kind out and doing business. Children running, friends stopping to chat, deals being made. Suddenly a bomb explodes in the midst of the plaza, all hell breaking loose. Smoke, fire, debris raining down; people screaming, running, crying out for lost ones, for help. A scene of confusion en masse. In a moment, everything has been turned asunder, all order cut away, the known world collapsed. For anyone trapped in such a scene, confusion reigns full in the form of chaos. Confusion as internal experience, chaos its external mirror.

Drug and alcohol use can cause confusion. Easily. We use substances because we want to feel or perceive something, or not. Drugs are medicine to take us out of one state and into another. We usually don’t aim for confusion as an end goal but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come unbidden. Our brains as the seat of our most basic orienting functions of continuity and homeostasis are effected by drugs. Changes brought about by excessive imbibing are characterized as delirium states, themselves a kind of confusion.

Buddhism teaches that confusion is a outgrowth of delusional thought, of not seeing things – ourselves, the world around us, other people – clearly. Confusion as a state of being. The desired outcome of this spiritual practice is to acquire skills and to utilize them consistently to return us to a natural order of mind, one settled in finding our place in the world, in our lives and in direct experience of what’s real.

Natural order of mind. Sounds like the opposite of confusion.

I’m curious about the evolutionary value of confusion. Why does it exist? It slows our thinking, our ability to move from thought into coherent action. When we don’t know how to proceed we don’t and when we do we don’t tend to do it very productively. So confusion can act to slow us down, an allowance to not go for certainty. A down regulator on the onslaught of change, of setting fixed conclusions on an uncertain future. The writer Deepak Chopra calls this reactive coming to conclusion premature cognitive commitment. With confusion, there’s little chance of sane commitment. But there may be opportunity. Accessing creativity that stems from reflective thought offers us room for nimble, slowed-down considerations of possibility, of options.

If there’s any value at all in confusion, it may be in not knowing and to make use of that not knowing as potential, potential just as it is.


* “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats (1919)


© Peter Goetz 2016