What should I do? What must I do? What can I do? We all
sense the possibility of a more beautiful state of being, a more joyful state
of being for ourselves and the world. Indeed, we have all heard about or met
its exemplars: saints and heroes, people of such courage and compassion and
integrity that we could hardly believe it possible, were it not for their
living example. We want to be enlightened too. But how?
Let's not right now speak of enlightenment, which has become
one of the most dangerous and useless concepts in the spiritual vocabulary.
Let's be really really practical, and ask, "How can I stop losing my
temper?" "How can I stop smoking?" "How can I stop
overeating?" "How can I stop expressing negativity?" "How
can I stick with my exercise program?" "How can I find the courage to
live my ideals?" "How can I stop caving in to my boss?" If none
of these are relevant to you, think of one of your own habits of speech,
action, or though that causes pain, and which has resisted your most determined
efforts to alter.
There comes a point, after years of trying, when we realize
our helplessness to change the bad habits that keep us unhappy. We have tried
very hard to change them: we have set resolutions and motivated ourselves; we
have digested psychological concepts of responsibility and choice, and stated
with solemn sincerity: "I choose to be patient and kind." Yet
helplessly, a day later, you might find yourself losing your temper again,
shouting, out of control, as if some demon had taken charge. After such an
episode you might castigate yourself: "Why did I choose to do that? What's
wrong with me? Why was I so weak?" And you resolve to control yourself
better next time.
It is as if your self-loathing and disgust, your guilt and
shame, will motivate you to do better next time. This is the mentality of
punishment, of deterrence. If I hurt myself with enough self-abuse, surely I
won't do it again, right? Wrong. Ask any addict, or any spouse of one, how well
this kind of control works. Oh, it works temporarily, but in a moment of
weakness or forgetting or rebellion, the behavior happens again… and again,
and again. And yet, that penitent promise (to oneself or another) to never do
it again was sincere. It failed though, and the only conclusion could be that
you didn't try hard enough.
Another kind of self-control that does not work is positive
reinforcement — rewarding yourself for good behavior. Hooray for me! I didn't
eat candy today. I didn't lose my temper. I didn't engage in gossip at that
party. I did yoga, I meditated for 45 minutes, I at my vegetables, I gave money
to a beggar, I was patient with my children… I was good. As a reward for good
behavior, I get to love and approve of myself.
Almost universally, the effort at self-control is a program
of reward and punishment, incentive and threat. Experience tells us that it
does not work. And the reason it does not work is that human beings are not
meant to be slaves.
Think about it: How can you really control yourself? How can
you control another person? How can you make someone do something she doesn't
want to do? How can you stop someone from doing what he wants to do? Well, on
the crudest level, you could put a gun to his head. The regime of self-control,
threat and incentive, is little different. It begins in childhood. What is the
greatest fear of a small child, indeed of any young mammal? It is abandonment
by the parent, a certain death sentence. Parental rejection ("you are a
bad girl") and conditional approval tap into this fear. As we grow older,
we internalize them as shame and guilt on the one hand, and conditional
self-love on the other. We use them for the same purposes for which parents and
teachers used them: to control ourselves.
In other words, the methods most people use to control
themselves draw on a primal threat to survival and leverage our deepest fear.
We seek to enforce good behavior through the threat of self-rejection and the
reward of self-acceptance. Because this program is in constant, relentless
operation, we are subject to an omnipresent anxiety that is usually beneath
conscious awareness. We notice it only in its absence — in those powerful
moments when we experience the deep serenity, ease, and homecoming of All is
Well. It is what a nursing baby feels, and we are meant, ideally, to feel it
most of the time too, and not just in exceptional moments. It is meant to be
the default state from which we sally forth into adventures of discovery, and
not something we catch in rare glimpses and strive ever after to attain.
We are meant to feel at home in the universe.
Because the regime of threat and incentive makes us slaves,
we naturally rebel against it. Many people report, at the moment of a binge or
other outburst of pent-up desire, a feeling of "Oh yeah? I'm gonna do
it!" There is a kind of defiance, a secret gratification which,
unfortunately, feeds into the suspicion that "I am bad" and
exacerbates the War Against the Self. Notice it next time, in that moment
before the guilt sets in: a kind of gloating happiness of a child who has
gotten her way.
If you do find yourself bingeing or otherwise defying your
standards of virtue, take a moment to congratulate yourself on your strong
spirit that refuses to be a slave. Soon such rebellion will be unnecessary.
Ideology of personal empowerment, choice, and free will to
the contrary, do you ever have the feeling at such times that you didn't choose
the compulsive habitual behavior at all? You just found yourself doing it, you
didn't choose it. In a valiant attempt to take responsibility, you might say,
"Why did I choose to do that?" yet your felt experience was not one
of choice, but of helpless automaticity. There is a good reason for this. The
reason you feel like you did not make a choice is that, in fact, you did not
actually make a choice. You did not choose to start shouting, to have a
cigarette, to eat the whole bag of chips, to browse some porn sites, to flip on
the television. Your feeling of helpless automaticity is accurate.
It is not that we humans are automatons, bereft of choice or
free will. It is that we make the real choice long, long before we appear to.
We choose indirectly, through who we create ourselves as. We create ourselves
as someone who will, or will not, start yelling in a given situation. We create
ourselves as someone who will, or will not, smoke cigarettes. We create
ourselves as someone who will or will not respond to a given situation in a
given way. Therefore, if you want to change the way you think, speak, and act, you
can only do so by recreating your self. You cannot enforce behavioral changes
through will, nor through the program of threat and incentive that we mistake
I was astonished to find actual scientific backing for my idea that we make the real choice long, long before we appear
to. In a study
published this year in Nature Neuroscience, European researchers found
that the outcomes of simple decisions can be detected in the brain up to ten
seconds before the subject is aware of them. They conclude that we make choices
ten seconds before we think we do, but perhaps these last ten seconds are only
the final stage of an invisible, cumulative process of years. As the research
does confirm the automaticity of our actions, the researchers could not help
but say that their experiment seems to prove that free will is an illusion.
Actually, they are looking for free will in the wrong place. Free will only
operates in our self-creation, and it is from this that we make predetermined
"choices" that are really just manifestations and symptoms of our
So, how do we create ourselves? We create ourselves through
the one and only choice we actually do have at any given moment. It is our only
power as human beings; it is the entirety of our free will. Our only choice,
our only power, our only means of self-creation and world-creation, is our
power of attention. In other words, at any given moment the only thing we are
actually choosing is where to place our attention. Everything else is
This may seem like a paltry, insignificant power that
leaves us as mere witnesses to the dictates of physics and biology. In fact,
the power of attention has no limit to alter our lives and even the fabric of
One way to understand why attention is our only power is to
consider that in essence, we are nothing but attention. Strip away
everything of yourself that is conditional — your name, your relationships,
your language, your acquired knowledge, your body parts — and what is left?
Nothing is left except a point of awareness. Since it is independent of all
that is conditionally you, your awareness is identical to my awareness and to
everyone else's. I don't mean identical as in "separate but the
same." I mean identical as in "one and the same." I am you and you
are I. We are the same being taking different points of view.
At any given moment, a huge menu of possibilities offers
itself for our attention. Some call more loudly than others, for example when
you bark your shin, but in principle we are at liberty to choose where we place
our attention. The possibilities include sensations, thoughts, memories, ideas,
stories, feelings, internal images, the breath, a mantra, and many more.
Ordinarily, we skip from one to the next without much purposiveness, but with
practice we can become masters of attention.
Here is how the process of self-creation works. Whatever you
pay attention to is your food. By paying attention to something, you take it
into your being and make it part of yourself. A saying goes, "You are what
you eat." Whatever you pay attention to becomes you.
Let me give you an example. A motorist cuts in front of me.
Here are two of the stories that offer themselves for my attention: (1)
"How could she? Learn to drive, lady. The nerve of some people. I'd
certainly never do that. People are always cutting in front of me, and not just
in traffic. They are so selfish. Why isn't it ever my turn? I'm always so
considerate, and look what I get? Nothing. No one even notices…" (2)
"That lady must be in a hurry! I'm glad I was able to slow down and let
her in. I bet a lot of people get mad at her. Maybe she's so tired she didn't
even notice me. Luckily the universe can accommodate our mistakes."
Each of these stories will have a different effect on my
being, the same way that a bag of cookies has a different effect than a bowl of
fresh fruit. If I feed myself the first story, and many others like it, then I
will create myself as someone with uncontrollable outbursts of anger, someone
subject to deep funks of victim mentality, someone who is helplessly vindictive
no matter how hard he tries to stop. If I feed myself stories like the second
one, I will create myself as someone who is effortlessly patient and generous.
An outside observer might think I am exerting a huge effort to keep my
patience, but I am not. It is easy and natural, simply a side effect of what I
In this light, we can see all of our destructive habits not
as problems, but as symptoms of a poor diet — a poor diet of thoughts,
interpretations, and stories, as well as the experiences we were "force
fed" as a result of our social and family circumstances. (By a story I
mean an interconnected system of meanings, interpretations of events, and
assignments of roles.) We can give up trying to control these habits. Breath a
sigh of relief! How many decades of futile self-improvement do you want to
struggle through? We can let go of control and focus instead on the deeper
process of self-creation.
The next question is how to decide what to pay attention to.
How to choose what to take in? In my first book, The Yoga of Eating, and the
recent booklet Transformational Weight Loss, I describe in depth how to trust
pleasure and desire in finding the perfect diet of food. The same principles,
pleasure and desire, apply to other realms of self-creation as well. Our own
feelings will guide us toward "foods" that are in alignment with who
we really are, and who we are becoming. The process of personal evolution is
not a struggle against pleasure and desire. That pleasure and desire will guide
us toward our highest good is a fundamental piece of Good News of universal
generosity. This is the "miracle" of self-creation. All of the
results we tried so hard to achieve can come effortlessly, as side-effects and
When I taste each of the two motorist stories above, I find
that the first gives me a heavy, sinking, boxed in feeling, while the other is
light, carefree, and easy. So, based on hedonistic principles, I choose the
second one. In this example, feeling agrees with conventional ideas about what
a charitable or "good" interpretation would be, but such is not
always the case.
Let me give you another, more personal, example. For years I
labored (a labor of love) on my book, The Ascent of Humanity. Every publisher
rejected it, my agent gave up, and no reviewer would look at it. Then I lost my
job, ended my marriage, ran out of money, and lost my home. Two stories offered
themselves to me: (1) "Let's face it, Charles, you are a failure. The
reason no one wants your book is that you really have nothing to offer. Who do
you think you are, dropping out of the system, refusing to get a normal job as
if you were too good for it? Your repeated failure is a message from the
universe to stop trying. Don't be like the man who tried to bash down a brick
wall with his head, and when it didn't work, thought he just needed to bash
harder." (2) "The reason your work has not been accepted yet is
because it is new and original. The repeated failures are a kind of test: the
universe is giving you a chance to demonstrate to yourself your own commitment,
to show yourself that you really believe in your work. If it all came easy, you
would never really know how committed you are."
There were many variations on these two themes, but I think
you can see that the first story had quite a lot of reinforcement from society.
Who was I to flaunt the system? Who was I to believe in what I was doing when
society's mechanisms of affirmation — money, status, etc. — said otherwise?
The modest, conventional choice might be a gentler variation of the first
story. To be honest, I took in heaping portions of both stories, but as
evidenced by my continuing commitment to my work, the second story
predominated. By taking it in, I created myself as a person who trusts in
himself, for better or for worse. Indeed, it could be for "worse" —
maybe the first story is true! Maybe I will continue to beat my head against a
wall, obstinately continuing to offer gifts that no one, except for fellow
lunatics and misfits, wants. But I don't partake of that story very much
I want to point out that there is no empirical way to know
for sure which story is "true." The ideology of our civilization says
that there is a fact of the matter, an objective truth out there, and that we
can make decisions by ascertaining what that truth is. I believe this quest for
certainty is doomed, and that by pursuing it we feed into the despair of being
at the mercy of a reality that is already out there, indifferent to us and
infinitely more powerful. In my examples above, each story accounts for all the
evidence, and could account for practically any new evidence as well. (For more
on this, see "A State of Belief is a State of Being.")
So far it would seem that I have offered a simple formula
for personal transformation: trust what feels good and right in consciously
choosing where to place your attention. If you do this, you will probably
experience significant results, but very soon you will encounter some essential
complexities and pitfalls. I will offer some broad outlines of these, and go
into more detail in upcoming essays.
When people hear about trusting pleasure and desire, often
they will protest that it is precisely pleasure and desire that get them into
trouble in the first place. "My desire is to eat the whole bag of candy,
smoke the cigarette, have another beer, shout at my mother… and these things
feel good, too!" What happens, though, as we become masters of attention,
is that we discover that we don't really want the things we thought we wanted,
and that the things that once felt good no longer feel so good. We discover
that we have pursued substitutes for our true desires, and accepted lesser
pleasures in place of greater ones. In a future essay I will describe how to
facilitate and accelerate these discoveries.
One danger in applying the simple formula I've given is that
we might easily pervert it into yet another struggle, this time against
"negativity." This often
happens when people become enamored of the "Law of Attraction" as
popularized in The Secret.
Seeking to extirpate any trace of "negative beliefs" from
their minds, they actually indulge in the even deeper negativity that fears and
rejects such beliefs. But in fact, all of our negativity comes from real
wounds, and indeed can help identify those wounds and offer a gateway to their
healing. This is particularly true of negative emotions.
I have written here mostly about the choice of stories, but
the power of attention is even more critical in application to feelings and emotions. This is what allows us
to integrate the results of our prior choices, and thereby create ourselves as
someone who will choose better next time. All items on the menu of attention
are not created equal; some call more loudly than others, and if ignored will
call louder and louder until they receive the attention they want. This call
takes the form of situations and events that trigger the unprocessed feelings.
That is why, when we attempt to banish negativity, it keeps coming back in
another form. This is the huge gaping hole in New Age systems of transformation
based on positive thinking, so I would like to address the purpose and
transformative potential of pain and negativity later in this series.
At the risk of inviting metaphysical hair-splitting, I will
add that to say we do not choose our words or actions, but only our focus of
attention, can be very misleading. A choice of action IS a choice of attention.
Think of it this way: all possible actions in a given situation already exist,
and it is our attention that reifies them, in the same way a measurement
reifies a quantum potential. This can happen ten seconds before, cumulatively
years before, or very occasionally at a crucial moment of pure choice. Therefore,
you can apply the same test of rightness, deliciousness, and desire to any
choice, real or apparent, that you face — any choice of what to do, what to
say, how to be.
Even if you do nothing else, simply noticing the
self-control program of threat and incentive in constant operation is a
powerful step. It is, in fact, a revolutionary step, in the sense that our
dominant culture is predicated upon the same control writ large. Civilization's
adversarial relationship to nature mirrors an adversarial relationship to our
own nature, which is to follow desire and seek pleasure.
The dominant (though
often euphemized) ideology of civilization says that nature is a foe, and that
the ascent of humanity is a series of triumphs. First we controlled the plant
and animal world with agriculture, imposing human design onto nature. Then we
built megaliths and pyramids, objects of unnatural geometric precision
to transform the very earth. We reworked and transformed matter itself with
metallurgy and other material technologies, and today our medical science
reengineers the body and alters genes, bending the elements of biology to our
That nature is a foe is implicit in the dominant ideology of our
civilization that we call science. Biology speaks of the selfish gene, which
programs all creatures to maximize their self-interest even at the expense of
others. Physics puts us alone in an indifferent, objective universe. This is
the world that is collapsing today, as new paradigms upend classical science,
and as a proliferation of ecological disasters outstrips our technologies of
control. There are some who think that the answer is yet more control: to solve
the food crisis with more genetic engineering, to solve the health crisis with
more powerful drugs, to extend material technology to the molecular level with
nanotechnology. They hope that more of the same will not bring more of the
The dream of techno-utopia, which has been a core enabling
ideology of industrialism since the Age of Coal, and which was articulated by
Descartes some two centuries before that, parallels exactly the individual
dream of finally getting your act together, controlling yourself, and living
happily ever after. Both involve a conquest of nature; in the latter case, a
conquest of your own nature, your biological drives. In religion, this idea
takes the form of Original Sin and the Calvinistic concept of the Total
Depravity of Man, but conventional science, ethics, and even much New Age
thought agrees in a more subtle way. The flesh and the spirit are opposed.
Hence a line from a recent Reality Sandwich article, Finding
Peace between our Sheets: "This is a key tenet of the
mystery of sacred sexuality; one that Mother Nature doesn't want you to
know." Nature is opposed to humanity's higher evolution.
Have you ever thought about the term "higher" to
mean good, and "lower" to mean bad? Humanity's higher evolution,
indeed. These connotations arose in the early agricultural civilizations, which
began to associate divinity with the sky, in a separate realm from earth and
nature. The earth became profane, unclean; thus the king's feet were not
allowed to touch the ground. To be ascendant, superior, was to rise above the
earth, above nature, above the flesh. You see, our very vocabulary encodes
prejudices of separation and opposition to nature. Higher and lower — is a
piccolo superior to a bassoon? For that matter, what about the word
"superior"? All it really means is "on top of."
I have placed the regime of self-control in this larger
context to give you an idea of how deeply revolutionary, both on a personal and
civilizational level, it is to live in another way. By abandoning the practice
of self-coercion, we repudiate humanity's war against nature as well. We enter
a new and unfamiliar territory of freedom and self-trust. For me, it was a
tremendous relief to not have to be good anymore. I recovered the freedom of an
animal, of a baby — to do what I want to do. Yet my behavior is different from
that of an animal or a baby, because in fact, nature herself contains untapped
programs for what we call our higher development.
Nature is not opposed
to humanity's higher evolution, and Mother Nature does want us to know
the mystery of sacred sexuality, and indeed all else that is sacred. Even more:
nature, in its incarnation as desire and pleasure, is the gateway to healing
and the gateway to the sacred and the gateway to the fulfillment of human
potential. It is not an adversary we must overcome, internally or externally;
it is not the guardian of the higher estate we all sense, but the gateway.
Image by h.koppdelaney, courtesy of Creative Commons license.