Friday, July 27, 2018

Your Mind Can't Make You Do Anything

I wrote last week about "Hitting the Bullseye", a discussion of the psychology behind shooting basketballs and similar win/lose activities. Anyone who's ever worked on this sort of thing knows that the only helpful thing to do with one's mind is to quiet it down. Mind can only distract; it can't actually help.
I recognized that there was nothing my mind could do to help. Thoughts were utterly impotent; they could only comment, to no benefit. Nothing helpful comes from the mind; all calculation is inherently miscalculation. You must train your body to take the action, and otherwise relax and let it quietly happen. Less mental chatter means less distraction.
Slog regular Richard Stanford left this comment:
This post reminded me of something that I feel to be true (yet have no real proof of), mainly the key characteristic that I've found over the years between people who are successful at making a life change (diet, smoking, etc) and those who aren't. The former decide positively to make the change, while the latter feel and know absolutely that they should make the change. Turns out that the art of making the active decision made all the difference in the world.
...and here’s a lightly improved version of my reply:
Yes, but you're offloading all the good stuff onto an extremely fuzzy word: "decide". 
For most people, a decision is a thought. And while thought is useful for performing calculation, it's absolutely unable to affect (much less spur) action. All the platitudes and notions in the world can't do a damned thing. As I said in my posting, thought is commentary, nothing more. When we issue a mental command to ourselves, and then carry it out, we imagine that’s cause/effect. But it’s not.  The body girds to act before the mind hastily gives the order ("I meant to do that!!"). When, by coincidence, thought and action align, we feel satisfied. When they don't, we feel stressed (see this).

A few years ago, I was about to fall asleep and realized I'd left the back door wide open. The problem was that next to that door lurked a bag of freshly baked cookies I'd managed to avoid all night. So I told myself I'd 1. go close the door, and 2. wouldn't eat the cookies. I headed downstairs, closed the door, and ate the cookies. Every last one of them.

My mind's "decision" had nothing to do with any of it. The door needed shutting regardless of mental resolutions. My body simply did what needed doing, though my mind feebly took credit. And my body ate the cookies, because that, too, seemed needful. The mental narrator gnashed his teeth, re-experiencing yet again the horrible truth: it only pretends to be in control. It's a laughable pretension.

So how do you actually make life changes? When something becomes needful - i.e. grabs your attention as something needing to be done. We rarely obey mental orders, but we do - for better or worse - respond to needs. It must be a visceral need, not an intellectual "want". You can't think your way to action, much less change. That should be obvious.

After I had a stent inserted into my heart, my cardiologist said the way to regain confidence in my heart - to feel healthy and strong rather than sick and victimized - was to go whole hog with cardio. Suddenly, I found I had the initiative to walk up steep hills, miles at a time, day after day after day. This "decision" preceded any conscious decisionmaking process.

Unlike previous resolutions to get in shape, it worked! Friends inviting me over for lasagna? Sorry, I've gotta walk. Twisted my ankle? Fuck it, I'll walk on bloody stumps if I have to. I walked and I walked, and I aced my stress test a month later. The nurse said it felt like a locomotive was in the room (I wrote about it here).

When we become accustomed to responding unflinchingly to benevolent needs (i.e. choosing not to inhibit our natural response via distracting mental chatter), the reflex strengthens. That's how we develop faculties like character and commitment. But people who haven't recognized the flimsy impotence of their mental thought stream never learn to trust their innate need/fulfillment response. They just keep endlessly telling themselves stuff. 
“Deciding” only works when the decision is made for you, much as creativity only works when inspiration strikes from beyond conscious thought. You always know, viscerally, when such a turn is being taken. There’s a certain moment when it becomes inevitable. But the news doesn't arrive via a chatty mental ticker tape. It's deeper. And as for the mysterious decisionmaking process, it’s as opaque to us as the mysterious inspiration process. It stems not from a thought, but from a reframing of perspective, which is a whole other thing.

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