Every time I head into my annual thinking session I have an idea of what I want to think about. And every time I end up thinking about something else. But as I go over my notes, that something else always turns out to be exactly the topic that has been in some way on my mind for months. And that topic always a continuation of the chain that by now has spanned quite a few years. This year was no exception. Just like the last year, my mind wandered off to an unplanned territory, only to come back with conclusions that made the puzzle more complete.
Two years ago I said that I have figured out the intricate building blocks of the puzzle that I had been facing for years every time I would take a hard look at my life. I talked about living every moment as the ultimate goal, willpower and procrastination being two sides of the same token and self-respect as the cornerstone of happiness. Every single conclusion I reached back then is still correct. Yet, something has been missing from the picture. Something fundamental. Last year’s No Limits idea ventured into that territory, but did not go deep enough. Yes, breaking through one’s limits is extremely important. Yes, earning self-respect is a must. Yes, truly living every moment is the goal. But what is the cause of the eternal inner struggle? Why is there a fight going on inside me, to begin with? Who am I struggling against? I can declare (and rightfully so) procrastination to be rooted in fear, but where does this fear come from? Those and dozens of similar questions remained unanswered.
I don’t know how scientific what is about to follow is. I have no formal education in psychology and, despite a decent number of good books, I have recently read on the subject, I’m far from being an expert. I don’t even have a goal of becoming one. I’m only concerned with figuring out what makes me tick and applying that knowledge to reach that elusive, yet very real, state of true living. Scientifically sound or not, my conclusions are based on my observations of my own actions, thoughts and behaviors. As long as they offer plausible explanations and don’t contradict facts, that’s all I need.
So here’s my newest theory or rather, the newest state of my multi-year “what makes me tick?” journey. This is a distilled summary of it, since there’s too much content to cram into a single post. If you have been following my blog, you know that I’ve been puzzled for years by some questions. I’ve just listed some of them, but there are more. Why, despite having strong abilities, I so often slip into the swamp of procrastination instead of putting them to use? Why do I even have to face the absurd idea of wasting time on something pointless instead of doing what I think needs to be done? Why, being a free man in a free country, am I so obsessed with a concept of liberation and awakening? Liberation from what? What are those bursts of life that I experience from time to time, that make my regular existence look like a gray shadow of what living my life can be? And so on and so forth.
At some point, I came to the conclusion that the struggle was imaginary. My mind, I reasoned, just deals with multiple options and tends to choose those that offer instant gratification. Piece of cake. Could be ended with a single decisive resolution. Several hundreds resolutions later I was still finding myself staring into the dark luring surface of the procrastination swamp way too often. As it turned out, the struggle has been very real. Snapping my fingers, no matter, how resolutely won’t end it. But the conditions causing it can be healed — once they are understood.
We are born wired for freedom. That freedom is expressed in two aspects. One, our ability to imagine anything. Too, our ability to choose to go after anything we imagine. Our ideas may be wrong, our choices may be horrible, but we do have those two innate abilities that are cornerstones of our day-to-day existence.
And so we imagine and choose, and act. And when I think about things I like to do and things I want to accomplish, the most logical step in the world is, as Nike likes to remind us, just do it. But I don’t always follow that clean logic and when I do, it often involves a great deal of that inexplicable inner struggle. However, it wasn’t always like this. There was time, not too long ago, when I was getting some very noteworthy things done, things that made me proud and prompted me to set even more ambitious goals. And that gradual change is the key to understanding what happened.
Despite the convenience of perceiving my mind as a single entity, what I call I is, in reality, a thin layer of consciousness on top of a deep ocean of subconscious. The scientists have been debating for years what exactly subconscious is and even how to call it (unconscious is considered a more accurate term these days), but there is no denying the simple fact that the vast majority of our brain activity happens without any discernible involvement of I. Be it processing of millions of signals from my sensory organs, driving a car or instantaneous translation of written text into mental images, my brain is always busy with myriad of things that I’m not aware of. And that part of my mind by its very definition operates without direct control of my conscious. It has its own priorities and constantly uses them to make decisions. It leads a very busy life, trying to protect me from real and imaginary dangers and get me through my day unharmed, and, preferably, fed. And it is neither fully aware, nor particularity interested in the goals and ambitions of my consciousness. It probably views the conscious as a spoiled child who can afford to play with his toys, thanks to the safety provided by a busy adult.
My subconscious learns and evolves throughout my life, just like my conscious does. But unlike its conscious counterpart, which may decide to hurl myself down a steep ski trail or get into a fight for a cause it considers worthy, subconscious does not get excited by a challenge. What it cares about is protection and maintenance. And if it senses danger in the path chosen by the conscious, it is not inclined to cooperate — unless it has been conditioned to accept that kind of a path. On its own, it always chooses the path of least resistance. Yet, it can be trained, condition and directed. This is where my mistake has been all these years.
At some point, the gap between by conscious and subconscious started to grow. And instead of working with my subconscious and training it to trust the judgement of my conscious, I began to fight it. Concerned about my well-being, it began fighting back — and winning. Every time my conscious, tired of fighting, would look away, the subconscious, left on its own, would find a way to get me busy with safe, easy and even mildly pleasurable activities. As a result, over time it has been taken over my day to day existence. Occasionally, my conscious would wake up, thinking about the goals it has wanted to achieve, scream in horror at the sight of the ticking clock and lack of progress, and try to go after its goals — only to face the growing resistance of my subconscious that over years has become accustomed to full freedom.
Then, my conscious would spent countless days in futile attempts to overcome the power of my subconscious and its growing control of my actions and thoughts. What’s worse, the conscious, frustrated by the meager results of its attempts, has been understandably harsh in its judgement, creating over time a very strong feeling of dissatisfaction with myself. And that’s where a vicious cycle got formed. The dissatisfaction was being fed into the subconscious regularly, which eventually has internalized it, turning it into an even deeper feeling of guilt and unworthiness that eventually started to permeate my entire existence. And, as a cherry on the top, my subconscious learned to dismiss the goals set by my conscious. From its point of view, those goals were bringing nothing but trouble. The conditioning took place, but it was negative. No wonder that my life has become such a mess.
This is exactly what that endless struggle of two souls has been all about. It’s been one, rather confused, soul in a constant and futile fight with itself. My consciousness against my subconscious. This path path has been a road to ever deepening misery.
But there is another path. I used to be on it, without understanding, years ago. The path of positive conditioning. The path of consistent conscious efforts that turn into robust and powerful subconscious patterns. The path that relies on and reinforces a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one. It is fairly easy to get on that path. And — despite what years of negative experience are screaming to me now — it shouldn’t be too hard to stay on it. After all, my subconscious is eager to work together, especially now that I understand the nature of that struggle. How do I know? Well, every rhymed verse I’ve ever written has been a product of joint work of my conscious and subconscious. And had it not been on board, I would not have concluded Two Souls with these lines five years ago:
I am the one who wins the fight
The winner takes it all.
And in a swamp or in a flight
At last I will be whole.