Three personal values, or metaprograms:
- Maintain a high quality of consciousness.
- Take radical responsibility for every aspect of your life.
- Design and implement a system of functional vitality.
The three are interdependent and intertwined, but this post focuses on the first.
Everything we do, we do to alter our state of mind. The motivation behind every external gain (both selfish and altruistic) is the feeling we expect to get from the result. We do things because we expect the result to be happiness, satisfaction, cessation of pain, euphoria, contentment, peace, or some other desirable sensation, emotion, or state of mind.
I call this the psychedelic realization. It’s what Timothy Leary was getting at when he said “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” You don’t have to follow society’s implicit and explicit “live this way” rules (ie. the “rat race”) in order to receive the feel-good rewards of high-status, wealth, etc. Instead, you can engage your neural circuitry more directly. In Leary’s own words (from Flashbacks):
‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’.
So how do we maintain a high quality of consciousness? How do we feel good (and fully awake, aware, and alive), directly and immediately?
Like Leary, I don’t think that taking consciousness as the primary consideration necessarily leads to navel-gazing, inactivity, self-obsession, substance abuse, or disengagement. If we really take our own state of mind seriously, then the more likely result is proactive behavior, including getting stuff done, taking charge of our lives, planning, being more engaged with the world, being conscious in our relationships, and generally being more real, alive, intelligent, aware, and powerful.
In regards to mind-altering substances, there’s a fine line between better-living-through-chemistry, and numbing out. If we’re experiencing negative fall-out (hangovers, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, etc.) from any chemicals we’re using, then what we’re getting is crappy-living-through-chemistry. I like my coffee, but I don’t want to be the caffeine spider.
For what it’s worth, here my own list of how to maintain a high quality of consciousness. Despite my total atheism, this list cribs heavily from religious texts and teachings (mostly Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism — the three traditions I’m somewhat familiar with). None of the concepts are complicated or secretive, but they’re all difficult to implement consistently. That’s why I have a list in the first place.
1. Open Heart
What does it mean to keep your heart open? It means that you’re vulnerable to pain and hurt, as well and pleasure and joy. Opening your heart means increasing your emotional bandwidth. You can’t have a symphony of feeling if only one note is available to you.
Living with an open heart is an emotional force multiplier. By practicing compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and courage, we remove roadblocks to our own energy, vitality, motivation, love of life, and power.
Living with an open heart also means we’re more vulnerable emotionally. When we increase the bandwidth, we also let in anger, fear, disappointment, loss, grief, shame, envy, and all the “bad stuff.”
These “negative” emotions are debugging tools for our brain. If we don’t let them in, we have no idea what’s wrong inside. It’s better to fully experience and process your emotions than to be numb. Numbness (narrow bandwidth) results in a dull affect, no joy, and inertia when it comes to action. Emotional repression can also lead to muscle pain (John Sarno’s theory is that repressed emotions leads to chronic muscle tension which leads to reduced blood flow which leads to chronic pain — I’ve personally experienced major pain relief from simply allowing myself to feel my own feelings).
Emotional processing can mean talking it out, doing therapy, journal writing, and the like, but it can also mean taking action in the world. How can you fight injustice if you can’t experience anger? How can you be a better person if you can’t allow yourself to feel shame for your past wrongs?
2. Mind Like Water
Having a tranquil mind doesn’t mean being sleepy or spaced out. It means effectively controlling your attention, keeping your conscience clear, managing distractions, and processing information effectively.
David Lynch compares meditation to tooth-brushing. If I’m willing to dedicate a few minutes each day to keeping my teeth clean, why not do the same thing for my mind? Mental hygiene.
Another part of “mind like water” is having and consistently using an organizational system that fits your personality. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a great starting point.
Reams have been written about managing distractions. Some are people are capable of truly simultaneous multi-tasking, but most of us are just deluding ourselves. In practice, for myself, managing distractions means 1) picking just a few priority items to get done each each day, 2) thinking ahead in terms of childcare and other family obligations, and 3) using LeechBlock to make sure I don’t fall down the social media sinkhole.
Is my conscience clear? Never perfectly. There’s always some crappy thing I’ve done, some way I could have treated someone better. But for the most part I try to be decent to other people, and to apologize and make it right when I do mess up. When my conscience is mostly clear is when I’m most effective and focused.
What else? Non-attachment. My peace of mind shouldn’t depend on external conditions or outcomes. I can’t control everything (nor would I want to — a single agent game would be boring). I can’t totally control other people’s perceptions, feelings, or actions (unless I use coercion, which is too costly in almost all cases). So in some cases I surrender to things I can’t control. This isn’t passivity or fatalism — it’s just realism and picking my battles. We aren’t gods and puppet-masters, we are limited agents with limited powers. To attempt total control is pathological.
Most people vastly underestimate their own capacity to determine their own lives and to change the world. Most of us are eager to give up our power to others. This is reasonable. It requires tremendous effort to actually visualize a better life for yourself, and a better world. There are too many variables. It hurts the brain. Inertia is much easier!
Still, empowerment is a crucial part of quality of consciousness. Even if our striving comes to nothing, the neurogenesis is worth it.
You could call it radical self reliance. You could call it living your best possible life. Not settling for what others are willing to give you, but instead creating exactly what you think is worth creating. Not coasting through with what you already know, but straining to learn (and use) new knowledge and new skills. It takes enormous effort, it involves multiple failures, and there’s no guarantee of any success whatsoever.
Is self-empowerment worth it? Is it too much bother?
It’s worth it because it keeps your brain fresh. It’s worth it because it gives you something to push against, and to know you’re there in the world.
I don’t think just deciding to be happy works very well. We might just end up with forced cheeriness, which is creepy. And if we’re depressed, meditation or a to-do list system isn’t going to instantly snap us out of it (there are many effective approaches to treating depression — personally I like the “become more paleolithic” method).
But I do think we can decide to prioritize quality of consciousness, and take both internal and external actions to do so. It’s not necessarily the path to happiness (that has more to do with friendships, community, and marriage — in other words happiness is almost entirely about social interaction [TED talk]). But if we focus on quality of consciousness, our relationships (both personal and community) will improve, quickly and radically.
In other news, my group Momu has a new album out. It’s only available on Beatport at the moment, which is a little pricey. If you like the music but can’t afford the Beatport price, the general release date is August 15. The iTunes version will be cheaper, and it will be available on Spotify as well (free).