Do you create your own reality?

Remember the Law of Attraction?

It became popular in 2006 thanks to the book and film “The Secret”, but the idea has been around for a while as part of the New Thought movement.

The Law of Attraction always bothered me because it seemed incomplete. The promise of changing reality simply by changing our thoughts seemed too good to be true, or to be the complete truth.

On the one hand, I’ve seen in my own life that perceptions can, for all intents and purposes, blind me to possibilities and realities that are outside my experience or my expectations.

Likewise, there is plenty of psychological evidence to support the claim that we create – if not our reality – then our fully immersive interpretation of reality, through cognitive and perceptual biases.

But New Thought wants to go much further than that, claiming that reality itself is dependent on the content or tone of our thoughts, with some going so far as to claim that reality exists in order to mirror back to us the contents of our own thoughts.

I wrote some time ago about the paradox at the heart of the law of attraction, but lately I’ve been reflecting on another, deeper paradox, and I think we can now reconcile the two.

While the law of attraction people were encouraging us to write imaginary cheques or bank statements to help us feel rich, or build scrapbooks of our dream home or dream car, dream partner or dream career, what they failed to clarify was that the you who wants to create a more satisfying reality is as much a creation of your thoughts as anything else.

Your thoughts create reality, but on what side of the equation does your sense of self and your many desires fall? Do you create or control your thoughts? Or are you yourself a product of your thoughts and impressions?

It may be true that your thoughts create your reality, but that doesn’t mean you can willfully control your thoughts or your reality.

That’s because your sense of self is as much a construct and creation as anything else in your experience. It has more in common with the objects of sensation than with the subject – consciousness – at the very heart of it.

So let’s revise the law of attraction thinking: your thoughts create your reality, including your own self and identity. This self or identity is a product of your thoughts, not the origin or producer.

That’s why all the encouragement to focus on and think about your desires should be viewed with ambivalence, because it implicitly reinforces an illusory sense of control, the idea that you can have whatever you want if you just want it with enough effort and focus.

Your thoughts create your reality, including the sense of a self who has control over its own thoughts.

That probably wouldn’t sell as many books as promising people all the wealth and success they think they need, deserve, or desire, but it does explain why those promises fell short.

Incidentally, this is why New Age and New Thought sources often invoke the concept of your true self or higher self. It is in part a valid attempt to depreciate your self-centred desires and illusion of control. It’s an attempt to talk directly to the ‘self’ behind the curtain, the real source of your thoughts and impressions.

The higher/true self idea can be found in the far older Upanishads, which describe the self as two birds sitting on a tree.

Some have argued that the same idea is echoed in St Paul’s depiction of the Inner and Outer man.

This is why mysticism contains the theme of enlightenment as remembering who you really are, or realising the source of all your thoughts and impressions as something mysterious, hidden, and divine.  Likewise it is the outer self, the illusory self that must die or be denied – be recognised as a product, a construct, a creation, rather than the creator.

As the commentary on the “two birds” analogy put it:

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

This doesn’t mean – can never mean – that the deluded, flawed, illusory sense of self is God. But it points to the Imago Dei of the inner man, the “Christ born in us”, the participation of the individual being in the divine Being of our creator.

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part three

In part one we looked at the anxiety of a melancholic in a sanguine world, and in part two we covered the anxieties that arise from a melancholic’s mistakenly taking phlegmatics as a social model. Part three will examine anxieties that stem from the influence of cholerics.

So how does the choleric contribute to melancholic anxiety?

We saw in part one that our society is heavily influenced by sanguine ideas of fun and excitement. In a similar way, society is heavily influenced by choleric sensitivities toward ambition, power, and achievement.

Most people enjoy socialising to some extent, but sanguine influences shape our experience and understanding of what it means to be social, of how to be social. Likewise, everyone desires some degree of success in their efforts and exploits, to improve their position in life, to accumulate some measure of wealth; yet how we go about it is shaped by a variety of choleric influences.

The melancholic tendency to form and pursue ideals means that we idealise the choleric approach to ambition just as we idealise the sanguine approach to social life. And in a sense this is accurate: sanguines are the ideal socialites, cholerics are the ideal achievers; melancholics just need to learn that recognising an ideal does not mean we can or should achieve the ideal.

Cholerics are as diverse as any of the temperaments, but what they have in common is achievement and ambition as their primary motives. Cholerics are excitable and reactive like sanguines, but like the melancholic they form long-lasting impressions. This combination can leave cholerics with the impression that they’re the smartest guys in the room, and there’s some truth to this conclusion.

The excitability and reactivity of the choleric makes them far more sensitive to opportunities than the melancholic or the phlegmatic can ever be. Their enduring impressions give cholerics a long-term vision and a capacity for focus that sanguines typically won’t sustain.

Every “self-made man” story is most driven by a choleric temperament. But that’s not to say that every choleric will resemble a business tycoon. Even amongst the usual list of ambitious and successful businessmen (and women) there’s a diversity that reflects the range within the choleric temperament: flamboyant, viscerally arrogant men like Trump; quiet achievers like Gates; intense iconoclasts like Jobs; their success stories can differ wildly, and even the quality of their success may be open to debate, but they share an ambitious quality that, once you recognise it, is distinctly choleric.

Cholerics are successful across a range of endeavours. You will find choleric musicians, actors, academics, managers, bureaucrats, and of course, politicians.  Their particular combination of excitability and enduring impressions leads them to find the most advantageous position in any domain.  Put yourself in a choleric’s shoes:

Imagine you’re hiking with three friends and together you stumble across traces of gold out in the bush. You realise there may well be more gold in this area, and naturally you start considering whether you could buy the land or carry out a quiet survey, what exactly the logistics and possible returns on such a venture might be.  You decide to discuss it with your friends* but to your surprise your sanguine friend seems put off by the hard work involved. Your melancholic friend seems to like the idea of a gold mine, but doesn’t seem to realise that this is potentially what you are all standing on. Your phlegmatic friend is agreeable, but doesn’t really have an opinion on the matter. Since no one seems to be truly on board, you pursue it for yourself and become the proud owner of a literal gold mine.

*Actual cholerics may be wondering why you would risk sharing the gold mine idea with your idiot friends in the first place.

As per the example, cholerics are more ‘tuned in’ to the opportunities and advantages in life. Sanguines are (apologies) too superficial, while melancholics and phlegmatics are too oblivious.  It’s not that these other temperaments don’t want to be successful or that they can’t be successful, they just have difficulty pursuing success in the choleric way.

For these three temperaments, it might be better to say that they achieve success through doing what they love or enjoy.  Actually this is true of the choleric as well, they just happen to love succeeding, overcoming challenges, pursuing what they believe is worthy.  Unfortunately, the biggest defect of the choleric is an overestimation of their own worth. Feeling like “the smartest guy in the room” encourages a sense of arrogance, and cholerics are known to struggle with or succumb to a powerful pride.

So while it is true that the other temperaments often fail to see the opportunities before them, it’s also true that they tend to recoil from the ruthless and self-serving actions that are sometimes implicit in seizing those opportunities. Australian politics is at present exemplary of the dark side of the choleric temperament. Idealists need not apply, and thankfully the poisonous nature of the process is evident enough to dissuade most non-cholerics (and probably many cholerics) from getting involved.

For the melancholic, it is vitally important to recognise cholerics and the choleric influences in society, and to understand that we are fundamentally unsuited to the kind of life that puts ambition and personal advantage ahead of ideals. While all temperaments can learn from one another, with knowledge it becomes clear that choleric attitudes and strategies are simply not appropriate for the melancholic idealist.

For me this translates into the recognition that I am deeply averse to commercially driven activities. My idealism does not incorporate what I regard as a mercenary motive. Yet at the same time I know that such things simply do not seem ‘mercenary’ to a choleric, within reason. When I think of all the cholerics I have met or worked with, I know that their ‘successes’ would seem to me either empty success or even failures.  Yet there are other cholerics with whom I have a great deal more in common, whose goals are perhaps more idealistic in their ambit.

Regardless, it is a great relief for a melancholic to realise that many of our socially reinforced ideas of ambition and success simply do not apply to us.  We are idealistic rather than ambitious, or if you like, we are ambitious about our ideals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creative dismay

I would also have accepted ‘depression’ and ‘despair’, but dismay with its roots in the Latin exmagare “divest of power or ability” seems so much more fitting.

It’s a melancholic thing, I’m sure; and it goes in cycles: first the inspiration, striving to obtain the ideal. This effort is rewarded with success, and success is very pleasing but the ideal is still not obtained. Time passes and we feel the need to achieve success again in some small measure, but this time the effort is not inspired. All we can do is attempt to repeat the previous work as though following a formula, thinking “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”.

But it doesn’t work. You can’t repeat your success because you weren’t aiming for success in the first place, you were aiming for the ideal. Success for its own sake is no ideal. So there you are: both past success and inspiration fading away, increasingly desperate to resurrect some measure of that lost energy, and all you can do is create half-a-dozen scribbled ideas, attempts at writing that might seem plausible in theory but in practice only fill you with a sense of dismay – divested of power, inspiration, success, and the ideal.

The problem lies in trying to seize for ourselves the source of our creativity when in reality it cannot be controlled or held. Our work might be ‘creative’, but our role in the creative process is ultimately a receptive one. As the Yi Jing states:

There is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles [Creative and Receptive]. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand as an equal side by side with the Creative, does it become evil. The result then is opposition to and struggle against the Creative, which is productive of evil to both.

You can receive inspiration and follow ideals; you cannot create inspiration or lead an ideal. This creative dismay is a symptom of trying to lead the creative, to push and manipulate inspiration, typically in aid of some transient external goal. These transient external goals such as the desire to succeed, the fear of losing momentum in one’s work, the enjoyment of having one’s work published and read by an audience – they are ultimately vain and empty if there is nothing deeper to sustain them. To pursue success without ‘inner truth’ is a hopeless cause, as Confucius in his commentary on the Yi Jing notes:

The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! If the superior man abides in his room and his words are not well spoken, he meets with contradiction at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! Words go forth from one’s own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor or disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves heaven and earth. Must one not, then, be cautious?

Dismay may signal the loss of creativity, but it also shows the path of return. By accepting the experience of dismay as a source of inspiration, we return to the role of the receptive principle, devoting ourselves once again to the role of the follower, devoted to the movements of creativity however it may lead.

Yet it is worth remembering how this whole lesson came about: through the superficial and ultimately vain desire to once again succeed at writing, coupled with the fear of losing momentum, becoming unproductive, and falling behind. These fears and desires have never before instigated success in my writing. Desperation has had little bearing on inspiration. It is important therefore to remain objective about writing: both the process and the prospects. To go two or three weeks without an article will not be the end of the world; at the same time a hurried and desperate composition might even detract from my existing body of work. At the same time, I should not ignore the deeper suspicion that the writing I am currently doing may not be the final direction of my work.

On this the opinion of the Yi could not be clearer:

The cock is dependable. It crows at dawn. But it cannot itself fly to heaven. It just crows. A man may count on mere words to awaken faith. This may succeed now and then, but if persisted in, it will have bad consequences.

The pitfalls of careerism

Some time ago friend dtcwee pointed me towards the website of Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of Early Retirement Extreme. Jacob is a nuclear astrophysicist by training, who achieved financial independence at the age of 30, rejecting careerism and consumerism in favour of a simpler yet more satisfying life.  His philosophy of life is well worth examining, even if it isn’t entirely suited to your present circumstances.  As Jacob writes:

It is not unusual for people to discover this blog and proceed to read through it from the beginning to the end spending several hours (people have written me and told me how they plowed through a backlog of 900 posts) as if they have been intellectually or culturally starved and finally found the answer to something that had been bugging them for some time without knowing what it was.

For independent thinkers and creative radicals, this blog feels like the red pill of the Matrix movie. Some people have grown up having seen or heard nothing else about how to live than consumerism and careerism and yet it never felt quite right to them. ERE is a completely different philosophy and so it’s refreshing or eye-opening to learn that an alternative exists.

This certainly reflects my experience, and I’ve returned to his site more recently for further inspiration and enjoyment.  In a recent post, Jacob describes the pitfalls of careerism in a way that reassures me my two years in a corporate environment were, sadly, not unusual:

It should be clear that marketing and trying to manage other people’s impression of one’s work becomes much more important than the work itself once few people can tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better. Of course, those doing better work can tell. Interestingly enough those who just do work that is good enough are either successfully deluding themselves or they have simply become very cynical. Both are good survival mechanisms preventing people from going nuts. Conversely, if your work or if the system ever meant something to you for its own sake rather than simply a career in the sense of titles, salaries, and baubles, you may just decide to leave it disgusted with what it has become.

Last I read, Jacob and his wife were living on an annual expenditure of US$14,000 per year.  If nothing else, his way of life provides a much-needed reproach to our consumer-driven society.

 

Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.

 

‘Success’ brings out the worst in us

Great article on the pathological aspect of our economy. Certainly accords with my observations:

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/29/neoliberalism-economic-system-ethics-personality-psychopathicsthic?CMP=ema_632

The Melancholic Emperor

My friend Tom recommended the following videos in his comment on a recent post:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLD09Qa3kMk&feature=player_embedded&list=PL361CE5C9167977FC

This is one of the best lectures I have seen, on one of the most intriguing characters in Western philosophy.

While I’m reading some work on the Stoics, I know very little about Marcus Aurelius.  But Professor Michael Sugrue, of Princeton at the time of this lecture, characterises the Philosopher-Emperor as a man of heroic virtue without peer in his own time or in history.

His reflections will be of particular merit to those of us with a philosophical inclination who are weary of the self-interested ethos that rules contemporary life!

Here’s an alternate link, in a single video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z27Saih7JK4

P.S. I would surely fail the Emperor test!

Joan Rivers and the price of victory

I’ve had another article published on MercatorNet.com,  a brief reflection on the career of Joan Rivers and the cost of success in an industry that’s against you:

Joan Rivers clung to her performance career if not to the bitter end, at least to the very end. Yet Rivers was tough, and even those who found her humour utterly beyond the pale must give at least grudging respect for her accomplishments in an industry averse to women who fall outside of a narrow set of criteria beginning with youth, beauty, and sex appeal.

 

 

Vale, Robin Williams, Hollywood’s melancholy funnyman

MercatorNet.com has just published my article on Robin Williams’ comedic genius:

Robin Williams’ death moved me more than I had expected.

Which is a silly thing to say because I hadn’t expected him to die; I hadn’t even thought about it. It was nowhere on my mind, and hence a shock to wake up that morning and find that he had gone.

It’s very strange to find out this way that my life was in some small but significant measure dependent on the existence of a man I never met but whose movies and interviews – his persona – shaped me in a way I’d never credited. I feel like I knew him.

Some people think my father looks a lot like Robin Williams, perhaps that’s part of it; that, and hours spent as a family watching and re-watching his films, with the unanimous sense that this was a good guy, the real deal, a truly funny man.

But more than that, he was clearly inspired, electrified, with an exuberance that didn’t always translate into great comedy but often enough it did, and showed a man with an unusual gift that, on-camera at least, seemed to transform his own personality and overshadow everyone around him.

Read the full article here.