Saturday, August 30, 2008

Context and actualization

In conversations and discussions I have remarked that I don't believe in lazy people. That is, I don't think anyone is inherently lazy. They may not be focused on what others consider productive, but being unproductive in one area does not equate to a lack of effort in all areas. Take the person who skips class and misses work, who thinks that science and strategic planning are boring subjects. Yet this same person will work for hours on end, without resting or stopping to eat, trying to master a level in a video game. This person will explore in the game, make observations, and test different possibilities. This person will come up with a plan, and when it doesn't work, will note what went wrong and try again making a sensible adjustment, employing trial and error and experience until a satisfactory solution is found. The same areas of the brain are being used as one employs in designing and conducting an experiment or managing a planning session, so this "laziness" isn't about effort. It is about motivation.

For some, not wanting to fail at school or at a relationship, not wanting to get fired, not wanting to get yelled at, not wanting to be lonely or poor, or some other form of aversion is their primary motivating factor, but it often only gets just enough out of us to keep us from the unwanted consequences we would otherwise face. For some, praise or other kinds of reward (or at least the potential for gain) is their primary motivating factor, but greed also has its limitations in its capacity to inspire. Other than greed and aversion, the old carrot-and-stick approach, another possibility is feeling fulfilled - that you are doing something worthwhile and that it is making a difference. This is especially inspiring if you are good and what you are doing - it helps you to actually enjoy your circumstances and look forward to each new day. But one cannot simply fill out a form and expect to have their ideal circumstances for a fulfilling life arranged and delivered. Even with hard work, one may never come close to doing what they might feel they would be best suited to do.

One solution is to be happy where you are. To learn the art of gratefulness and make the best life you can out in the middle of whatever circumstances you may find yourself. The "make lemonade" approach. However, it seems like this might require the person to be somewhat grounded - rooted in something that allows them roll with the punches and stay upbeat in the face of seeming adversity. For some this is described as faith. We tend to follow that word with another - "in". Having faith in this, or faith in that. But whatever that anchor may be, what is important it is that is gives one permission to stop trying to control that which is beyond their control, to maintain a patient optimism.

So here is the rub. In the right context, we all can be really productive individuals who live up to their potential and lead deeply satisfying lives. However, we are often limited in our ability to control the context in which we find ourselves, at least in terms of our external environment. Hence to help us achieve actualization as human beings, we must be willing and able to change some other aspect of our context. But many of us aren't really sure how to do that.

I know for a fact that in some circumstances I find it MUCH easier to think of ideas, get my work done, be friendly, be active, etc, and in others I just don't seem to have the energy or will to do more than slog through the day in a numb to semi-painful fashion full of dullness and discomfort. I know that my reaction to external circumstances is an internal event, and that technically it is possible have the same reaction, the same attitude, the same mental and emotional perspective, without having to have the same external stimuli. That is, to keep that more energetic and positive attitude in a different set of circumstances. But like most of us, that isn't what happens. It's like the song says - "When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you..."

So what is the world like when you are feeling like a pointless shadow that has no real significance?

Nor is it just a matter of rose-colored glasses. "Oh, she is an optimist so she just SEES potential." It goes the other way too! "She is an optimist so she is able to perceive potential." That is, we miss a great deal of what is going on in the world because our reality is tightly bound up in our expectations. If you don't allow for some things to be credible or possible in your perspective, you will almost certainly fail to notice them (or you may minimize them, trivialize them, deny them, etc) and fulfill your own expectations. And you cannot necessarily (ever?) force yourself to change such expectations - you have to come to genuinely believe in a new perspective. Even if you suspect or are fairly certain that you are wrong and really want to adopt that new view of existence, some small thing, some little hindrance deep in your subconscious, can hold you back. Some social and behavioral scientists have suggested people are more likely to be open to such changes if they spend a significant amount of time around people with particular beliefs - we tend to adapt ourselves to the local conventional cultural perspective - but even that does not always work.

So that raises an interesting question for those pursuing to reorder and re-evaluate the context of their lives, particularly those seeking to do so through the practice of sacred traditions. How do you generate sincerity for such practice? Enthusiasm? Or the kind of faith mentioned before? Do you need to catch a glimpse of something greater? Of a genuine depth to one's life and all of existence? That is, a glimpse of "the Divine", of "Buddha-nature", of "Christ-consciousness"? And how does that happen? Is it an act of grace bestowed on the patient seeker? Or does it sometimes strike those who wouldn't have sought it out purposefully in a million years or a thousand life-times? Or, in simpler terms often asked of spiritual teachers and guides:

How will I know?

What should I do?

(And no, I am not offering any answers...)


  1. You have just offered a consolation. I accept the gift.

  2. You're welcome.

    If anyone has any suggestions, btw, please feel free to share. I don't offer any because I have none to offer. I am in that boat myself.

    I once spent several weeks on a trip working in the field. For some reason, I didn't have trouble waking up, or looking forward to my day. The company was good and encouraging, and the work, though sometimes physical or demanding, didn't seem strenuous or tedious. I had no bed, no computer, just an old television with one channel that was rarely watched.

    I am not suggesting I was living a fully actualized life, but rather that it was more substantial and invigorating than my usual routine. Hence I know a more energetic, optimistic, and fulfilling perspective is possible - not by cosmetic surgery or weight loss or extreme financial wealth - just by a change in perspective. This wouldn't benefit only me but those with whom I interact, in particular those closest to me.

    For example, one can see the light from the sun and sense the heat on one's skin but not experience "sunlight!" One can observe the symmetry or the color of flower petal powers and appreciate these as aesthetically pleasing elements but not experience the beauty of a "rose." Somehow I suspect this lack of depth and muted sense of wonder is related to the aforementioned dissatisfaction and lack fullness of life.

    Einstein said it well:

    One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

    The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind.

  3. I will be travelling from 9/9 through 9/21. If I can find hot spots, I will also be blogging. Let's see what happens.

  4. "...we miss a great deal of what is going on in the world because our reality is tightly bound up in our expectations."

    Great post! Once one realizes the concept in the above statement it can be quite refreshing. I seek every day to reach beyond my expectations, to see beyond what I can see today.

  5. It is a lesson I try to share as often as I can, even though I don't fully appreciate it myself. Maybe I will give my whole "talk" or at least a chunk of it here sometime.


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