By Geoffrey Geddes
Is Reality Real?
Solipsists isolate, radical empiricists separate, Buddhists incorporate, and monotheists prostrate. Devotees of each perspective syllogize and infer and spin mental pinwheels that yield little more than academic vertigo. The convoluted arguments of earnest seekers typically reveal more about the seekers than the reality sought. If someone offers you the Truth, smile and check for your wallet.
Still, every journey requires a location from which to venture. What is the lay of your mental land? How may you best navigate your life-path? If a tree falls in your forest and you fail to notice, who will chop your winter wood?
To best change your behavior and influence your destiny, blend rationality with an open-minded pragmatism. Seek help and information, but trust your reason and experience, and keep focus on your purpose. If that purpose is to live effectively and authentically – to bloom – then invest your faith in a sensible, informed, useful perspective. Once you settle on your viewpoint, devote your best efforts to live as if that viewpoint is true.
Consciousness and Self
Life appears to manifest along a spectrum of consciousness from simple, reflexive organisms to complex, self-aware creatures. With apologies to dolphin fans, humans appear to sit atop Mount Consciousness on this planet. But what is consciousness? Does an organism achieve consciousness when its awareness divides between self and other? And what is self? Is self an illusion promulgated by sophisticated synaptic activity? Or does our mind reside outside our physiology? May we choose a thought or action independent of heredity, conditioning, or divine intervention? Or do we behave solely in response to genetics, instinct, and cosmic cause and effect?
Ponder those questions awhile; permit them to provoke your thoughts and tantalize your appetite for understanding. You may come to realize that, regardless of the elegance of your postulates (or those of your mentors), such questions cannot be answered definitively without compromising at least a modicum of reason or experience. As your pondering grows ponderous, the crucial question may become: if I cannot definitively define reality or fully know my self, how may I best live an effective, authentic, fulfilling life?
Faith in Freedom
Successful behavioral reconditioning requires an assumption – a faith – that we can, by choice, affect the trajectory of our lives. Regardless of the capital-T-Truth, and notwithstanding the celestial guffaws you may hear if Simon Peter was right, we must act as if we have a hand in the design of our destinies if we are to effectuate any real change.
For many, the notion of free will is superficially sound, yet violates a deeply rooted conviction either that Mom or Dad or God will always have our backs or that we are too powerless or ill-equipped to handle the responsibility that necessarily accompanies the notion of personal choice. Neither position is True; each position constitutes a belief – a thought. Change your thoughts and change your life.
Remember, too, that faith trumps belief. Alcoholics and overeaters believe relief is paramount and abstinence impossible; abused children believe they have somehow earned their abuse; the desolate believe that hope runs out. Even when belief takes a positive form, such as the addict’s belief in the power of tomorrow or the victim’s belief in a savior, the belief remains vulnerable to random happenstance and malicious intervention. But faith – the faith of zealots – can incite real change. Have faith, then, that you have the freedom and power to choose the life you desire. Plant your feet in a powerful, self-affirming philosophical stance, and declare your faith. Then stop pondering and kick some ass.
The Power of Thought
Our evolutionary progeny may routinely perform feats of telepathy and telekinesis that today we would label supernatural. But I defy you, twenty-first century Homo sapien, to levitate a coin with your stare. Yet, to conclude from our presently scant extrasensory powers that control of our mental activity is irrelevant to the quality and character of our lives would be to ignore the profound influence that each thought has on our unfolding stories.
The metaphor of karma and reincarnation deftly illustrates the notion that our thoughts, choices, and actions determine the nature and quality of our lives. Violating a moral commandment may not condemn you to an amphibious rebirth. Nevertheless, as you think, so shall you become. Thoughts of hopelessness lead to failure, while hopeful thoughts support achievement. Thoughts of desire or lust or craving, especially in the mind of a committed determinist, often lead to destructive indulgence, while thoughts of personal power and a belief in self-determination inspire increasingly healthy behavior and effective living.
Catch and Release
Assuming, then, that our thoughts impact our destiny, how can we retrain our minds to produce positive, constructive thoughts and to neutralize those that are negative or destructive? First, we can go thought fishing. In a particularly beneficial form of Zen meditation, practitioners affix their attention on their breathing. As thoughts of recent arguments and to-do lists and leg cramps arise, the meditator catches and observes the thought, labels it (‘I am having a thought that my legs hurt’), and then releases it and refocuses attention on the breath.
Restless rationalists will happily note that a more active form of persistent self-reflection may help to recondition thoughts as effectively as regular pillow sitting. Hyperactive fisher-folk need not sit and wait for enlightenment. Simply grab the wheel of your brain trawler and begin your watch. Spot a negative thought, question it, rationalize it into submission, and then release it to swim harmlessly back into your psychic ocean.
I need a drink/hit/donut. Now! But wait; do I actually need one? Of course I don’t need one. Indulgence will satisfy my craving, but at what cost? Is quelling my momentary desire worth my health? My family? My life? Or do I have the strength to call my sponsor? Catch; breathe; question; dial; release.
I will surely fail. I should quit now and avoid certain shame. Catch and question: Why is it certain? Because I’m stupid/incompetent/ugly/poor/silly/undeserving/worthless. Stop and think: Am I truly defective, or am I avoiding pain? Are we humans not a collection of differing abilities, looks, skills, and talents? Must I be better than another? Breathe and release.
Admittedly, catching and grappling with each negative thought can be exhausting. Vigilant reconditioning should lead to more effective living, not more struggle. How, then, can we maintain a vigilant reconditioning practice and still live an authentic life?
Shall We Dance?
Either we distractedly trudge through our days, relying on muscle memory and forgetting whether we locked the door or turned out the light, or we overly attend to each task, so concerned about our performance that a stumble becomes inevitable. What if we could strike a balance between the practiced and the beginner’s mind? What if we could attentively employ all of our well-rehearsed abilities with confidence and delight rather than with distracted boredom or cautious dread?
Consider dancing your life. When your awareness clicks and you catch sight of a moment, dance. Start your car with practiced, attentive movements; brush your teeth like Marcel Marceau (Google him); climb stairs, open doors, and shuffle papers as if you were the world’s premiere stair climber/door opener/paper shuffler.
Ponder the malignancy of the following scenario, and consider how a life-dancer might change the script. Choo-Choo chimes drag you from an incomplete sleep cycle. You finally silence the alarm with your fourth finger-swipe, grunting an incomprehensible “fuck me” and flopping back down to chase the sleep that you caught only four hours earlier. Ninety minutes later you wake again, this time spontaneously and quietly. But temporal awareness explodes your calm and drives you out of bed with a more articulate “fuck me” to an abbreviated shower, an injurious shave, and a slice of leftover pizza to fuel a reckless commute to your unsatisfying job. Or…
A quiet minuet begins. You already have begun to stretch the sleep from your rested muscles like Baryshnikov. You swipe your finger across your iPhone, attentively and with purpose, so that one pass is sufficient to quiet the music. You continue your morning routine, reveling in the incongruity of fresh sameness. You deftly twist the cap off the toothpaste tube; you pack your lunch as if assembling a treasure chest; you feel the front door snap shut, wave a smile to your neighbor, and calmly drive into your new day.
Practice your dance patiently and without judgment or frustration. Catch your moments as you can; they will become easier to spot with persistent rehearsal. If you focus on the artistry of your actions and drop your concern for outcomes, you will inevitably begin to live each moment more fully. Dancing your life will focus your attention and increase your appreciation of each moment. Dancing your life will also reduce your mental forays into ego’s toxic playground of worry, regret, and perpetual self-assessment. Perform your tasks until your performance lives.
Dance your life.