Friday, September 18, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness - Becoming Free And In Control of One's Life

Hey everyone, so here we go, continuing the journey of exploring life.

After my last blog a friend suggested that I check out Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (P.S.) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the content relates to a similar topic from Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind which was the topic of my last blog.

I am half way through the book; it truly is phenomenal, thought provoking, well, challenging me to digest new knowledge, hopefully pushing the limits of my current “box”. Unawareness of alternatives keeps you captive in your comfort zone, therefore, our actions and behavior can only draw from what is within that box. So, here we go! Welcome back to the journey of the Swiss mind!

Last time I explored the world of our “genetic machine”. Each one of us is born with a specific genetic make-up that we inherit from our parents and our prior ancestors. I guess you could call it our compounded genetic blueprint that we start out with when we enter this world. However, over time we contribute and are responsible for new neural connections through the repetitive exposure of millions and billions of raw information that we “allow” to enter our mind, which the self interprets within the context of its own interest. The internalization of the information, respectively, our interpretation of it, if repeated consistently over a long period of time leads to eventual “hardwiring” of those new connections – forming our attitude, or state of mind. The totality of your neural network, a compilation of biological and societal instructions, makes up our operating system. It is what makes us operationally distinct and unique from others. It gives us our personality.

The ability of our neural network to adjust and rewire itself is called “plasticity”, think of it as “experience-impacted brain remodeling”. It seems to be under “on-going construction” as our brains are exposed to experiences on an everyday basis. So if I get this right nothing is really set in stone, as to some extend deeper experiences and social conditioning have modified the original genetic blueprint we originally started out with. Seems like we unconsciously have “allowed” for parental, societal and cultural systems to imprint itself into the deepest core of our being. Confusing? It is, literally, after all look at how many of us are trying to make sense of who we are?

It might be more appropriate to ask “who are we not”? If you remove all the layers of genetic (biological) and social instructions, what is there left? Psychoanalyst Freud notes that there is a constant battle between our “biological impulses” (the id) and the “social instructions” (the Superego). The battle between the two of them creates a split in our sense of self. So then, what the heck is the (Ego)? Reading through Wikipedia, I guess you could say that (Ego) is the modified version of the (Id), or (Ego) is the graduated version of the (Id) after it has been modified and influenced by the external world, by societal instructions. So Ego is somehow still related to our biological nature, maybe a little bit more trained, controlled and emancipated, but still driven by the pleasure principle that is built into our genetic programming. Some of us execute more control over that aspect of ourselves; others are at the complete mercy of their basic instincts and drive.

Mihaly notes, “Submission to genetic programming can become quite dangerous, because it leaves us helpless. A person who cannot override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable. Instead of deciding how to act in terms of personal goals, he has to surrender to the things that his body has been programmed (or missprogrammed) to be. One must particularly achieve control over instinctual drives to achieve a healthy independence of society, for as long as we respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own ends.” We can reflect on this by looking at our daily individual interactions, or on a grander picture in the light of interactions with social systems.

Okay, so how do we free consciousness from external forces – 1) biological or 2) social in nature? It’s already complicated enough trying to understand and control your instinctual, biological impulses, while meeting the societal goals. But imagine what happens when both of them team up and collaborate with each other, biological forces with social systems? Let me back up a little bit and lay down a context for you. Mihaly points out that the pleasure principles (for example the craving for sex or food) are built in to our invisible genetic machine – the human body. It is nature’s way of guaranteeing the survival of our species. “The pleasure we take in eating is an efficient way to ensure that the body will get the nourishment it needs. The pleasure of sexual intercourse is an equally practical method for the genes to program the body to reproduce and thereby to ensure the continuity of the genes”. Hm, efficient and practical, yep, we are a machine! So, Mihaly says, seeking pleasure is a “reflex response” from the body (basic biological impulse) and your own conscious plan of “sex” or “feeding” yourself may not have much to do with your own “intention” after all”. Fantastic!

The challenge arises, he notes, when we confuse those reflex responses as our “own” feelings, and call it the inner voice, the self, my instinct, etc. “If it feels good then it must be right”. But when we respond (or react) to these biological or social instructions without examining them we become puppets of those “external forces”. As long as we rely on what feels good it is easy for others to exploit us for their own benefits. So, without this distinction and self-awareness it is easy for social systems (and individuals) to execute control with a language that is specifically designed to target your “pleasure gene” (or how to avoid pain): Vive le politicians, corporations, churches and advertisers! Smart cookies, aren’t they? “As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus-response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are controlled from the outside”. In that light, TV and commercials are not “bad”, just know what’s happening, it’s called awareness, understanding the systems. The same insight can be applied to individual interactions. The next time a conflict arises examine the source of it. Are you acting and behaving from a source of biological reflex responses? Or are your words and behavior consciously formulated from a space of clarity and awareness? That my dear takes effort!

Okay, I think we are getting somewhere. Awareness is one step, but how do we go about become consistently independent of the dictates of the body, and the imprinted social instructions of our environment? Mihaly says, “Optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity.” In other words there is no recipe out there. The responsibility for living lies in you living it, exploring it and experiencing it with all its facets. Now, we are back to knowledge, exposing oneself to new knowledge that pushes the limits of our current “box”. Many of us are drawn to the scriptures and philosophies of ancient times that supposedly teach us on how to control our mind. But Mihaly emphasizes that the knowledge and wisdom from ancient times may need to be “reformulated every time the cultural context changes”. It may have been effective in that time and culture, but looses its power and original context when put into the light of our contemporary time. That might explain why some of the ancient texts seem meaningless and make little sense. We try to make order and sense of it by projecting our own interpretation in the context of our own contemporary interests.

So, what do we have to do to calm and control the chaos of our mind? What are the conditions that allow us to create an experience, a new Self, where we do feel in control and become the masters of our reality?

Well, the journey shall continue…see you next time!