The topic of discussion last night was whether or not you have volitional control to permanently change your mind. More exactly, can you simply choose to be happy?
The debate raced through a whole load of topics of all sorts of different natures. I don’t like to dichotomize people or ideas, but the debate shifted between two opposing perspectives that can be boiled down to optimists and cynics; or, in other words, idealists and skeptics. One position was that you could see the world however you’d like, choosing and creating the perspectives that best suit your aims or desires. The other was the cynic who held a fairly deterministic, mechanical worldview where being realistic about what is is tantamount to choosing a wholly favorable perspective.
The optimists position was a world view governed by faith and creativity and independent of the influence of unfavorable or negative externalities. The corollary of this view is an under-appreciation of all the details comprising life, a failure to account for relevant information, which causes a certain naivety and willful ignorance. In this view the hero is the ego. The ego shapes the world we see. They believe that it influences the perceptions and therefore by changing what the ego wants, one can change perception and therefore knowledge. This renders knowledge as relative to each subject. What is unfavorable is simply the result of a flawed perception rather than anything inherently unfavorable existing in a thing or circumstance or effect. There is no essence. Bad and good change according to what ends you hold highest. The optimist personality is creative.
The cynic position views the world as an absurd place with no inherent meaning and obvious goodness. In this world every perspective counts, however favorable and unfavorable, and a person’s duty is to account for all those details if he wants to remain objective. The corollary of this view is an over emphasis on externalities, and an under emphasis on the individual’s perception and attitude to shape and determine certain externalities. The result is a certain nihilism and helplessness. In this view there is no hero. The ego counts for next to nothing. What is important are the facts which the external world often hands us through direct experimentation or by receiving knowledge through other people via dialogue where we inherit knowledge as it is passed on from one person to the next. On a certain level, the cynic assumes objective perception is attainable. This causes him to hold fast to knowledge as atomistic and almost irreducible. Relativity is simply ignorance. The cynic personality is analytic.
For sport I adopted the optimistic position, arguing that our world is dictated by our perceptions, and that if we change out perceptions, the world as we see it literally changes. Of course, I do not believe simply believing we will fly changes the limiting facts of physics, but it allows us to take certain measures and partake in certain activities where flying becomes a possibility, such as devising flight technology. What changed was how we thought about our limitations, not the limitations themselves.
What is essential to understand is that we are not simply reflective creatures. We are reflexive creatures. As both an observer and a participant, how we choose to participate changes what we will observe.
The conversation essentially revolved around how one can change their perceptions. We talked about the role of thought, habits, and actions, and, given the plasticity of the brain, the role in changing mental states, mind and perceptions. A person cannot literally change his entire brain after years of habituated thoughts and actions. Especially after establishing a life, or world around you, that attributes and reacts to you according to those thoughts, seeing you as unchangeable rather than evolving. No, the mind changes all the time, in the present. Changing a single thought will not change the mind. Think “How you spend your time defines who you are.” It literally dictates who you are, what you are. If you spend all day doing math, you will cultivate a brain that is oriented for math, you will think math, act on behalf of these math thoughts, and people will (although not always) contextualize you according to your propensity for math.
Thinking thoughts over and over again changes the mind. It reinforces neural pathways, reorients entire neural networks. Once a thought settles in the mind it has permanence, but its influence does not. To increase the influence of thoughts requires their repetition. We are creatures of habit. In this way a conscious thought becomes ingrained in the mind, internalized into the subconscious, so that it becomes apart of our character and influences us even when it is not consciously acknowledged.
But can you simply will yourself to be happy? Not in a single moment, just like you can’t will yourself to lift 400lbs on a whim. It requires that you act and live the thought or activity you desire to emulate on a frequent basis. You must anchor it through repetition, through practice. But practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. You must practice excellence, repeat excellence, every time. There is no good days and bad days. Every day you must desire and hit the mark dead on. The best only have the habit of doing the best day in and day out.
You are a product of your environment, no doubt. You have years of habits that are most likely less than excellent. Overcoming them requires overwriting them. It requires forgetting everything you knew about the past and adopting and doing what you best desire right now. You cannot stand within and move without. You must step out of the past and any conceptions and experiences that do not support your current aim. You must redefine yourself every moment with perfect thought and action, consistently, day in and day out, until you become your aim.
To do this you must be your aim and goal from the start, and nothing less than your aim and goal. You will not become the best by trying or doing. Only by being. In this way you do not do in order to have in order to be. No. You must be in order to do in order to have.