Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Mind Over (Things That) Matter

On the first season of the TV show, The Apprentice, one of Trump's advisors made an interesting statement. A contestant, I think it was either Kwame or Troy, was in the boardroom, trying to justify his actions by giving the reasons for them. George said something to the effect of, "You shouldn't give so many reasons. You're giving away your power."

I don't think he got his point across to the contestant, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been considering a related point at the time, and his statement just "clicked" for me. What he was saying was, "Who's in charge? You, or your reasons?" If you decide something for a reason, who is deciding? Can you really call it deciding at all? Or are you just a reed in the wind, singing a tune for whichever way the wind is blowing?

If you choose to do something because you don't like the way things are now, then more often than not, your efforts are doomed. That's because as soon as things begin to change, you lose your motivation to change them, and soon enough, they're back the way they were. Only a choice that's independent of circumstances is really a choice at all.

In other words, you can't really choose because of something. At best, such a choice is what Robert Fritz calls "secondary choice": a choice that grows out of the intersection between your primary choices, and the current conditions. Primary choice, on the other hand, is based on nothing more than what you decide.

The tricky thing to realize, is that it's not really about what you want, either. The positive side of motivation can be just as treacherous. If you start out walking because you want to be fit, and then you start to like walking for it's own sake, you might stop when it rains for a week and walking becomes unpleasant. Zen teachers warn their students not to be scared by any horrific visions they encounter in their meditation, but also not to get caught up in pleasant or "spiritual" visions either: both are just a distraction.

So how in the hell do you decide something without considering the pros and cons? This is the part that drives me -- or at least my analytical side -- completely stark raving nuts. It's that "thinking doesn't satisfy" thing all over again. You just have to choose.

Fritz writes that primary choice is choosing what matters to you. He adds, "nothing has to matter." (Emphasis added.) Of course nothing has to matter, because if it did, it wouldn't be a choice, would it?

It's a subtle irony. You can have almost anything you want (that's in keeping with the laws of nature) as long as you don't really care one way or the other, and you're willing to do whatever it takes. I could almost deal with those first two conditions for success, but then the third one is a real head-flipper: you have to be willing to accept the utterly arbitrary nature of this godlike power of creation. Your choice is your choice is your choice, with no backup or reason, no appeal to cause or effect, ultimately groundless, ultimately yours. And nobody else's.

For me, this is the hardest sticking point. On some level, I feel less comfortable admitting power than I do defeat. I'd almost rather pretend helplessness than step out over that abyss and admit I have no ground to stand on except my own will. If I did that, I'd be responsible for my own actions, free to fall or fly. And I want to fly, but I'm afraid to fall.

And just as difficult, I'm afraid of letting go of rationality. Viewed from a purely rational cost/benefit perspective, life is a bad deal. You get lots of pain, lots of boredom, and occasional success that you quickly habituate to, bringing your overall perceived condition back into the "normal" range soon after. What's the point of trying to improve, in that case?

So clearly, primary choice isn't really about being rational. To be rational is to ration, to do ratios, to mathematically weigh the ratio between cost and benefit. But life isn't about the costs, it's only about the benefits. As long as we count the cost, no choice that strives towards something better will make any sense whatsoever. Yet, it's also clear that for people who have sufficient sense of purpose, no cost is too high to pay to achieve their goals. In mathematics, two negatives make a positive, but in life, not-dying is not at all the same thing as living. (Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live.")

Over the years, rational choices have successively limited my options in life. As I repeatedly take the sensible precaution of avoiding things that I don't want to experience more of, I gradually wall myself into a corner. I read about things like the job opening for a Python hacker at OSAF, and think, "I don't want to get involved in another big project with vague goals, that could be a lot simpler than it's being made to be, but where the people in charge don't really want it to be simpler." (Whether those things are really true of the Chandler project is a separate issue, of course!)

So I guess the truly rational thing to do is to give up my rationality. Lose my mind and come to my senses, as they say. Perhaps rationality makes a good servant, but a poor master. And, despite the title I chose for this post, the truth is that it's really Things That Matter, over Mind.

Which, if you think about it, gives a whole new twist on that old saw: What is Mind? No matter (i.e., it's not something that really matters). What is (things that) matter? (Something you should) Never mind (if you want to attain them).

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