Let me start with a thought. A philosophical thought. A thought so simple, it’s hard to believe how much power it has on us. In fact this thought is the start and end of all our problems. Here goes: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about them.” (Epictetus).
Everything is a matter of perception. How we see something affects us more than what that thing actually is. Reality is in fact no scarier than how we think about it.
Men (and women) are controlled not so much by the turmoil around them but by the turmoil within them. I know this is basic self-help 101. But this is the irony. That dismissive phrase, that is, “Isn’t this all basic self-help 101?” is itself no less a thought that has influenced us in more ways than one - that dismissive attitude towards it.
Nothing has escaped our mind to think about things, and to subsequently allow what we think think for us. This post is about the latter phrase - "allowing what we think think for us." This is the main reason why we sleepwalk through our life by allowing one thought to control all other thoughts. That is also why Socrates kept reminding us to live an examined life, always.
But alas, the issue with us is not that we live an unexamined life. The issue is that we allow one dominant (even oppressive) thought to do the examination for us. In other words, we see the world through the lens of just one thought. We are brainwashed by it. We exercise extreme prejudice in its favour. This is the start of the tyranny of an idea. A start of a predestined end. An end predestined by one thought.
Socrates once defined philosophy as “reflection on propositions emerging from unreflective thought.”
Sometimes, we are given to the delusion that we are actually thinking. But this remains a delusion because we remain slaves to our own unconscious habits. And all unconscious habits, by default, are left to be fortified (or perpetuated) by lack of continual mental scrutiny. It is the “One thought” to rule the others like Sauron’s ring.
So, we go on autopilot mode most of the time. Decisions are already made for us before we even make them, and the delusion that makes us think that we are actually thinking does well to effectively keep us from thinking about our own thinking; that is, to do a Socrates' type of mental spring-cleaning of all and sundry.
We are all too familiar with the seed concept. We know that a thought is a harmless seed. We are actually bombarded by thousands of them everyday. But what escapes us is the fact that a seed doesn’t remain a seed for long. Some dies off no doubt. But others are selected for growth. And those that grow, grow for attention.
Like creepers, they form a mental citadel and sieve through all thoughts that nourish it, and reject all thoughts that don’t. That becomes our default mental position. Soon, we become selective in our thinking, in words and in deeds, without even knowing that we were selective about them. This is the insidious growth of what is known as the confirmation bias.
Let me offer an example, a real life example. Here is his seed of a thought that has grown via constant nourishment, and its recursive hold goes like this:-
“There is a part of me that used to think that I am smarter, better whatever, that nearly made me die.”
Sadly, the author of that quote committed suicide. His name is David Forster Wallace. He was an award winning American novelist, an admired professor and was called “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years.” (Los Angeles Times book).
Wallace suffered from depression for more than 20 years and was on anti-depressant drugs. On 12 September 2008, at 46 years old, he went into his garage, left a two-page note, and hung himself on the patio.
Of course, there is more than meets the eye here. His death may be genetic, environmental, drugs-related, or a combination of all that. I do not want to oversimplify it all.
But Wallace was also a highly intelligent thinker. He thought his way out of religion and into a form of nihilism that some may call “individualist autonomy” or “metaphysical individualism.” It is more akin to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, an Above-Human, a Superman, Superhuman.
In the book, All things shining, the authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly wrote this about the tragedy of Wallace’s death, and the irony of his quest for perfection by the sheer might of his own brilliant mind:-
“Perhaps the saddest part of Wallace’s story is that the human qualities he aspired to, the capacities of spirit that he revered and coveted, are a mirage. Indeed the entire mode of existence that he castigated himself for not being strong enough to achieve, far from being the saving possibility for our culture, is in fact a human impossibility. Wallace’s inability to achieve it was not a weakness, but the deep and abiding humanness in his spirit.”
Amongst other contributing causes, the quest for and the futility of perfection finally drove Wallace to his grave. And this is the same person who once said this about taking control of your thoughts:-
“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that…learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
The tragedy here is that the same thought (of pursing perfection) that liberated Wallace for a season might well be the same one that took his life in another. He was eventually controlled by the one thought that drove him to see the meaninglessness of it all. I guess it would be what Wallace would describe as being “totally hosed”.
Now, it can’t be denied that we are constantly being bombarded by thoughts running helter skelter within us. Some may think that their mind is a fortress, surrounded by a moat of metal resistance, and locked in the center by an impregnable forest of cerebral fauna and flora. We stake full control over it. We think we do.
But that is a delusion of control we all suffer from. Our entrenched bias shuts out most thoughts seeking an audience with us, seeking to change us for good. And in some cases, it is the same bias for the protection of that one (destructive) thought that might just drive a man to kill himself, or commit acts seemingly uncharacteristic of him, because he becomes the summation of that thought he thought he had control over.
Take the exceedingly pious monk Martin Luther for example. He was one devout professor who was completely obsessed with the purity of the spirit, and any hint of personal sin would make him scamper for the claustrophobic refuge of a confessional. This is the thought of tyrannical religious puritanism.
It is said, with a pinch of salt of course, that Martin Luther once kept his confessor for six hours to hear the full recitation of his sins. Things came to such absurdity one day that Luther’s confessor finally rebuked him, “You must get a hold of yourself, Martin. Every time you fart you want to make a confession of your sins…Quit coming to me with these puppy confessions, Luther…Go kill your father or something – then we’ll have a sin to talk about.”
Let me end here with the consoling words of Epictetus, “The robber of free will does not exist.” We are ultimately still in control – to varying degree. And our sphere of influence is in the thoughts that we generate to direct our words and actions, as it is said, “a thought produces the thing that is imaged by the thought.”
So, a little disciplined and focused reflection will reveal why we act the way we do or say the things we say. A little more reflection will reveal the biasness of our deeds and words. And a little deeper we go will smoke out the first thought that was once a seed that had over the years grown into a mental despot within us, calling the shots.
Once that is smoked out, the real battle of the mind begins. It is the greatest battle of our life, and it takes place away from the external world, away from the world of action. It is the world of our mind that will determine our fate in the world out there. And it is our struggle within that ultimately makes or breaks us. Cheerz