This essay is Part 1 of 3. The other two can be found here and here.
What should I do? What must I do? What can I do? We allsense the possibility of a more beautiful state of being, a more joyful stateof being for ourselves and the world. Indeed, we have all heard about or met its exemplars: saints and heroes, people of such courage and compassion and integrity that we could hardly believe it possible, were it not for their living example. We want to be enlightened too. But how?
Let’s not right now speak of enlightenment, which has become one of the most dangerous and useless concepts in the spiritual vocabulary. Let’s be really really practical, and ask, “How can I stop losing my temper?” “How can I stop smoking?” “How can I stop overeating?” “How can I stop expressing negativity?” “How can I stick with my exercise program?” “How can I find the courage to live my ideals?” “How can I stop caving in to my boss?” If none of these are relevant to you, think of one of your own habits of speech, action, or though that causes pain, and which has resisted your most determined efforts to alter.
There comes a point, after years of trying, when we realize our helplessness to change the bad habits that keep us unhappy. We have tried very hard to change them: we have set resolutions and motivated ourselves; we have digested psychological concepts of responsibility and choice, and stated with solemn sincerity: “I choose to be patient and kind.” Yet helplessly, a day later, you might find yourself losing your temper again, shouting, out of control, as if some demon had taken charge. After such an episode you might castigate yourself: “Why did I choose to do that? What’s wrong with me? Why was I so weak?” And you resolve to control yourself better next time.
It is as if your self-loathing and disgust, your guilt and shame, will motivate you to do better next time. This is the mentality of punishment, of deterrence. If I hurt myself with enough self-abuse, surely I won’t do it again, right? Wrong. Ask any addict, or any spouse of one, how well this kind of control works. Oh, it works temporarily, but in a moment of weakness or forgetting or rebellion, the behavior happens again… and again, and again. And yet, that penitent promise (to oneself or another) to never do it again was sincere. It failed though, and the only conclusion could be that you didn’t try hard enough.
Another kind of self-control that does not work is positive reinforcement — rewarding yourself for good behavior. Hooray for me! I didn’t eat candy today. I didn’t lose my temper. I didn’t engage in gossip at that party. I did yoga, I meditated for 45 minutes, I at my vegetables, I gave money to a beggar, I was patient with my children… I was good. As a reward for good behavior, I get to love and approve of myself.
Almost universally, the effort at self-control is a program of reward and punishment, incentive and threat. Experience tells us that it does not work. And the reason it does not work is that human beings are not meant to be slaves.
Think about it: How can you really control yourself? How can you control another person? How can you make someone do something she doesn’t want to do? How can you stop someone from doing what he wants to do? Well, on the crudest level, you could put a gun to his head. The regime of self-control, threat and incentive, is little different. It begins in childhood. What is the greatest fear of a small child, indeed of any young mammal? It is abandonment by the parent, a certain death sentence. Parental rejection (“you are a bad girl”) and conditional approval tap into this fear. As we grow older, we internalize them as shame and guilt on the one hand, and conditional self-love on the other. We use them for the same purposes for which parents and teachers used them: to control ourselves.
In other words, the methods most people use to control themselves draw on a primal threat to survival and leverage our deepest fear. We seek to enforce good behavior through the threat of self-rejection and the reward of self-acceptance. Because this program is in constant, relentless operation, we are subject to an omnipresent anxiety that is usually beneath conscious awareness. We notice it only in its absence — in those powerful moments when we experience the deep serenity, ease, and homecoming of All is Well. It is what a nursing baby feels, and we are meant, ideally, to feel it most of the time too, and not just in exceptional moments. It is meant to be the default state from which we sally forth into adventures of discovery, and not something we catch in rare glimpses and strive ever after to attain. We are meant to feel at home in the universe.
Because the regime of threat and incentive makes us slaves, we naturally rebel against it. Many people report, at the moment of a binge or other outburst of pent-up desire, a feeling of “Oh yeah? I’m gonna do it!” There is a kind of defiance, a secret gratification which, unfortunately, feeds into the suspicion that “I am bad” and exacerbates the War Against the Self. Notice it next time, in that moment before the guilt sets in: a kind of gloating happiness of a child who has gotten her way.
If you do find yourself bingeing or otherwise defying your standards of virtue, take a moment to congratulate yourself on your strong spirit that refuses to be a slave. Soon such rebellion will be unnecessary.
Ideology of personal empowerment, choice, and free will to the contrary, do you ever have the feeling at such times that you didn’t choose the compulsive habitual behavior at all? You just found yourself doing it, you didn’t choose it. In a valiant attempt to take responsibility, you might say, “Why did I choose to do that?” yet your felt experience was not one of choice, but of helpless automaticity. There is a good reason for this. The reason you feel like you did not make a choice is that, in fact, you did not actually make a choice. You did not choose to start shouting, to have a cigarette, to eat the whole bag of chips, to browse some porn sites, to flip on the television. Your feeling of helpless automaticity is accurate.
It is not that we humans are automatons, bereft of choice or free will. It is that we make the real choice long, long before we appear to. We choose indirectly, through who we create ourselves as. We create ourselves as someone who will, or will not, start yelling in a given situation. We create ourselves as someone who will, or will not, smoke cigarettes. We create ourselves as someone who will or will not respond to a given situation in a given way. Therefore, if you want to change the way you think, speak, and act, you can only do so by recreating your self. You cannot enforce behavioral changes through will, nor through the program of threat and incentive that we mistake for will.
I was astonished to find actual scientific backing for my idea that we make the real choice long, long before we appear to. In a study published this year in Nature Neuroscience, European researchers found that the outcomes of simple decisions can be detected in the brain up to ten seconds before the subject is aware of them. They conclude that we make choices ten seconds before we think we do, but perhaps these last ten seconds are only the final stage of an invisible, cumulative process of years. As the research does confirm the automaticity of our actions, the researchers could not help but say that their experiment seems to prove that free will is an illusion. Actually, they are looking for free will in the wrong place. Free will only operates in our self-creation, and it is from this that we make predetermined “choices” that are really just manifestations and symptoms of our self-creation.
So, how do we create ourselves? We create ourselves through the one and only choice we actually do have at any given moment. It is our only power as human beings; it is the entirety of our free will. Our only choice, our only power, our only means of self-creation and world-creation, is our power of attention. In other words, at any given moment the only thing we are actually choosing is where to place our attention. Everything else is automatic.
This may seem like a paltry, insignificant power that leaves us as mere witnesses to the dictates of physics and biology. In fact, the power of attention has no limit to alter our lives and even the fabric of reality itself.
One way to understand why attention is our only power is to consider that in essence, we are nothing but attention. Strip away everything of yourself that is conditional — your name, your relationships, your language, your acquired knowledge, your body parts — and what is left? Nothing is left except a point of awareness. Since it is independent of all that is conditionally you, your awareness is identical to my awareness and to everyone else’s. I don’t mean identical as in “separate but the same.” I mean identical as in “one and the same.” I am you and you are I. We are the same being taking different points of view.
At any given moment, a huge menu of possibilities offers itself for our attention. Some call more loudly than others, for example when you bark your shin, but in principle we are at liberty to choose where we place our attention. The possibilities include sensations, thoughts, memories, ideas, stories, feelings, internal images, the breath, a mantra, and many more. Ordinarily, we skip from one to the next without much purposiveness, but with practice we can become masters of attention.
Here is how the process of self-creation works. Whatever you pay attention to is your food. By paying attention to something, you take it into your being and make it part of yourself. A saying goes, “You are what you eat.” Whatever you pay attention to becomes you.
Let me give you an example. A motorist cuts in front of me. Here are two of the stories that offer themselves for my attention: (1) “How could she? Learn to drive, lady. The nerve of some people. I’d certainly never do that. People are always cutting in front of me, and not just in traffic. They are so selfish. Why isn’t it ever my turn? I’m always so considerate, and look what I get? Nothing. No one even notices…” (2) “That lady must be in a hurry! I’m glad I was able to slow down and let her in. I bet a lot of people get mad at her. Maybe she’s so tired she didn’t even notice me. Luckily the universe can accommodate our mistakes.”
Each of these stories will have a different effect on my being, the same way that a bag of cookies has a different effect than a bowl of fresh fruit. If I feed myself the first story, and many others like it, then I will create myself as someone with uncontrollable outbursts of anger, someone subject to deep funks of victim mentality, someone who is helplessly vindictive no matter how hard he tries to stop. If I feed myself stories like the second one, I will create myself as someone who is effortlessly patient and generous. An outside observer might think I am exerting a huge effort to keep my patience, but I am not. It is easy and natural, simply a side effect of what I take in.
In this light, we can see all of our destructive habits not as problems, but as symptoms of a poor diet — a poor diet of thoughts, interpretations, and stories, as well as the experiences we were “force fed” as a result of our social and family circumstances. (By a story I mean an interconnected system of meanings, interpretations of events, and assignments of roles.) We can give up trying to control these habits. Breath a sigh of relief! How many decades of futile self-improvement do you want to struggle through? We can let go of control and focus instead on the deeper process of self-creation.
The next question is how to decide what to pay attention to. How to choose what to take in? In my first book, The Yoga of Eating, and the recent booklet Transformational Weight Loss, I describe in depth how to trust pleasure and desire in finding the perfect diet of food. The same principles, pleasure and desire, apply to other realms of self-creation as well. Our own
feelings will guide us toward “foods” that are in alignment with who we really are, and who we are becoming. The process of personal evolution is not a struggle against pleasure and desire. That pleasure and desire will guide us toward our highest good is a fundamental piece of Good News of universal generosity. This is the “miracle” of self-creation. All of the results we tried so hard to achieve can come effortlessly, as side-effects and not goals.
When I taste each of the two motorist stories above, I find that the first gives me a heavy, sinking, boxed in feeling, while the other is light, carefree, and easy. So, based on hedonistic principles, I choose the second one. In this example, feeling agrees with conventional ideas about what a charitable or “good” interpretation would be, but such is not always the case.
Let me give you another, more personal, example. For years I labored (a labor of love) on my book, The Ascent of Humanity. Every publisher rejected it, my agent gave up, and no reviewer would look at it. Then I lost my job, ended my marriage, ran out of money, and lost my home. Two stories offered themselves to me: (1) “Let’s face it, Charles, you are a failure. The reason no one wants your book is that you really have nothing to offer. Who do you think you are, dropping out of the system, refusing to get a normal job as if you were too good for it? Your repeated failure is a message from the universe to stop trying. Don’t be like the man who tried to bash down a brick wall with his head, and when it didn’t work, thought he just needed to bash harder.” (2) “The reason your work has not been accepted yet is because it is new and original. The repeated failures are a kind of test: the universe is giving you a chance to demonstrate to yourself your own commitment, to show yourself that you really believe in your work. If it all came easy, you would never really know how committed you are.”
There were many variations on these two themes, but I think you can see that the first story had quite a lot of reinforcement from society. Who was I to flaunt the system? Who was I to believe in what I was doing when society’s mechanisms of affirmation — money, status, etc. — said otherwise? The modest, conventional choice might be a gentler variation of the first story. To be honest, I took in heaping portions of both stories, but as evidenced by my continuing commitment to my work, the second story predominated. By taking it in, I created myself as a person who trusts in himself, for better or for worse. Indeed, it could be for “worse” — maybe the first story is true! Maybe I will continue to beat my head against a wall, obstinately continuing to offer gifts that no one, except for fellow lunatics and misfits, wants. But I don’t partake of that story very much anymore.
I want to point out that there is no empirical way to know for sure which story is “true.” The ideology of our civilization says that there is a fact of the matter, an objective truth out there, and that we can make decisions by ascertaining what that truth is. I believe this quest for certainty is doomed, and that by pursuing it we feed into the despair of being at the mercy of a reality that is already out there, indifferent to us and infinitely more powerful. In my examples above, each story accounts for all the evidence, and could account for practically any new evidence as well. (For more on this, see “A State of Belief is a State of Being.”)
So far it would seem that I have offered a simple formula for personal transformation: trust what feels good and right in consciously choosing where to place your attention. If you do this, you will probably experience significant results, but very soon you will encounter some essential complexities and pitfalls. I will offer some broad outlines of these, and go into more detail in upcoming essays.
When people hear about trusting pleasure and desire, often they will protest that it is precisely pleasure and desire that get them into trouble in the first place. “My desire is to eat the whole bag of candy, smoke the cigarette, have another beer, shout at my mother… and these things feel good, too!” What happens, though, as we become masters of attention, is that we discover that we don’t really want the things we thought we wanted, and that the things that once felt good no longer feel so good. We discover that we have pursued substitutes for our true desires, and accepted lesser pleasures in place of greater ones. In a future essay I will describe how to facilitate and accelerate these discoveries.
One danger in applying the simple formula I’ve given is that we might easily pervert it into yet another struggle, this time against “negativity.” This often happens when people become enamored of the “Law of Attraction” as popularized in The Secret. Seeking to extirpate any trace of “negative beliefs” from their minds, they actually indulge in the even deeper negativity that fears and rejects such beliefs. But in fact, all of our negativity comes from real wounds, and indeed can help identify those wounds and offer a gateway to their healing. This is particularly true of negative emotions.
I have written here mostly about the choice of stories, but the power of attention is even more critical in application to feelings and emotions. This is what allows us to integrate the results of our prior choices, and thereby create ourselves as someone who will choose better next time. All items on the menu of attention are not created equal; some call more loudly than others, and if ignored will call louder and louder until they receive the attention they want. This call takes the form of situations and events that trigger the unprocessed feelings. That is why, when we attempt to banish negativity, it keeps coming back in another form. This is the huge gaping hole in New Age systems of transformation based on positive thinking, so I would like to address the purpose and
transformative potential of pain and negativity later in this series.
At the risk of inviting metaphysical hair-splitting, I will add that to say we do not choose our words or actions, but only our focus of attention, can be very misleading. A choice of action IS a choice of attention. Think of it this way: all possible actions in a given situation already exist, and it is our attention that reifies them, in the same way a measurement reifies a quantum potential. This can happen ten seconds before, cumulatively years before, or very occasionally at a crucial moment of pure choice. Therefore, you can apply the same test of rightness, deliciousness, and desire to any choice, real or apparent, that you face — any choice of what to do, what to say, how to be.
Even if you do nothing else, simply noticing the self-control program of threat and incentive in constant operation is a powerful step. It is, in fact, a revolutionary step, in the sense that our dominant culture is predicated upon the same control writ large. Civilization’s adversarial relationship to nature mirrors an adversarial relationship to our own nature, which is to follow desire and seek pleasure.
The dominant (though often euphemized) ideology of civilization says that nature is a foe, and that
the ascent of humanity is a series of triumphs. First we controlled the plant and animal world with agriculture, imposing human design onto nature. Then we built megaliths and pyramids, objects of unnatural geometric precision to transform the very earth. We reworked and transformed matter itself with metallurgy and other material technologies, and today our medical science reengineers the body and alters genes, bending the elements of biology to our will.
That nature is a foe is implicit in the dominant ideology of our civilization that we call science. Biology speaks of the selfish gene, which programs all creatures to maximize their self-interest even at the expense of others. Physics puts us alone in an indifferent, objective universe. This is the world that is collapsing today, as new paradigms upend classical science, and as a proliferation of ecological disasters outstrips our technologies of control. There are some who think that the answer is yet more control: to solve the food crisis with more genetic engineering, to solve the health crisis with more powerful drugs, to extend material technology to the molecular level with nanotechnology. They hope that more of the same will not bring more of the same.
The dream of techno-utopia, which has been a core enabling ideology of industrialism since the Age of Coal, and which was articulated by Descartes some two centuries before that, parallels exactly the individual dream of finally getting your act together, controlling yourself, and living happily ever after. Both involve a conquest of nature; in the latter case, a conquest of your own nature, your biological drives. In religion, this idea takes the form of Original Sin and the Calvinistic concept of the Total Depravity of Man, but conventional science, ethics, and even much New Age thought agrees in a more subtle way. The flesh and the spirit are opposed. Hence a line from a recent Reality Sandwich article, Finding Peace between our Sheets: “This is a key tenet of the mystery of sacred sexuality; one that Mother Nature doesn’t want you to know.” Nature is opposed to humanity’s higher evolution.
Have you ever thought about the term “higher” to mean good, and “lower” to mean bad? Humanity’s higher evolution, indeed. These connotations arose in the early agricultural civilizations, which began to associate divinity with the sky, in a separate realm from earth and nature. The earth became profane, unclean; thus the king’s feet were not allowed to touch the ground. To be ascendant, superior, was to rise above the earth, above nature, above the flesh. You see, our very vocabulary encodes prejudices of separation and opposition to nature. Higher and lower — is a piccolo superior to a bassoon? For that matter, what about the word “superior”? All it really means is “on top of.”
I have placed the regime of self-control in this larger context to give you an idea of how deeply revolutionary, both on a personal and civilizational level, it is to live in another way. By abandoning the practice of self-coercion, we repudiate humanity’s war against nature as well. We enter a new and unfamiliar territory of freedom and self-trust. For me, it was a tremendous relief to not have to be good anymore. I recovered the freedom of an animal, of a baby — to do what I want to do. Yet my behavior is different from that of an animal or a baby, because in fact, nature herself contains untapped programs for what we call our higher development.
Nature is not opposed to humanity’s higher evolution, and Mother Nature does want us to know the mystery of sacred sexuality, and indeed all else that is sacred. Even more: nature, in its incarnation as desire and pleasure, is the gateway to healing and the gateway to the sacred and the gateway to the fulfillment of human potential. It is not an adversary we must overcome, internally or externally; it is not the guardian of the higher estate we all sense, but the gateway.