Every morning I wake up I like to think, “The sky’s the limit!”. It’s a great way to open up to new possibilities I know are out there. I don’t however, think the absence of limits is freedom. The excitement engendered by the experience of expansion I have when I look at a big sky is rooted in being able to choose. To change. Change the self. Change is the self. An intentional, creative decision making process informed by the constant and recurrent blending of the present moment with my past. That is me changing.
Limited by the finite states my self and the world have to offer and my ability to perceive all of the alternatives out there, my ability to change shape in response to my growing awareness of myself moving away from my goals is my identity. Change and change back.
Neuroscientists love to tell us how little free will matters to our behavior at the moment of execution. Do choices make a difference in how our lives turn out? Or do our brains and social environment determine everything that is to come? Could it be that the outcome of my behavior is less important than how well informed it was by my self? Does my brain get the credit alone? What about the blame? Where and why is the self important?
The reality that life is limited by the historical moment we were born into and the physical makeup of our brain can seem discouraging. On the worst of days we wake up feeling “stuck” in the middle of the two. On the best of days we might have the experience of steering toward our goals. I like to think of the self as a boat. Like a “dingy of free will” being tossed around in a “sea of determinism”. We have our oars and can deploy them into the surf or sit idly by and let it take us away. Whether carving out a path on the crest of a giant swell or quietly meandering through a lagoon, we have the option of being part of what moves us along.
My ideal “boat as self” metaphor would involve a kayak . I love paddling and the interplay between a kayak and the environment. Navigating requires sensing and feeling what is going on above and below the waterline. There are so many different aspects of piloting. Staying on top of the water, adjusting your speed, and charting a direction. The angle of the blade of your paddles and your stroke technique are under your influence as you respond to the water and wind.
A kayak portrays the self as an interface between the unconscious activity of the brain and the mental representations of the world we perceive in the mind’s eye. Our body is the link between the two. As if there were a rope that ran from within the recesses of our brain looping through our body and into the environment around us and back again. The self is an audacious agent, willing to intend with or without the odds.
Lurking below the water in our unconscious mind are mental states that can expand or narrow our pool of possible intentions. Once we make a choice our mental states can either distract us from our intention or keep us aligned with them. Our call is to know the vibrations that emanate from below within the activity of our basic instincts, autobiographical memory, and sensory experience, and coordinate the pushes and pulls of the inside world in collaboration with others on the outside.
The brain processes information at incomprehensible speeds. It’s exciting to read about goal keepers reaching out to catch a ball well before they have the conscious awareness to move left or right. However, this “fast processing” may be the source of a great deal of strife in our everyday lives. Advertisers love to manipulate it. In fact we can feel manipulated when we are reaching for alcohol, drugs, sex, or other substitutes for social collaboration with those who can help us stay aligned with our intentional goals. Staying in our boat can help change the vibration between the brain, self, and our relationships to slow down processing that would have it’s way with us.
Like a call and answer our self process is a much slower communication between our present moment awareness and our historical selves. Having an identification with a reflective me that just lets me be, is the beginning to getting more mileage out of free will. I’ve been testing out several different types of kayaks lately with “Phil” down at my local kayak shop. I realized after several visits there were choices only I could make. How long? How heavy? Ocean cockpit? Hard chine? I would ask Phil, “What do you think is best?”. He would inevitably say, “Well it depends on you, where you want to take it, what you want to do?”.
I like to get in and out of different places off the beaten path so I can visit animals living on the lake. I also like to go fast when the way is clear and get some exercise in. At some point touring sounds like a great way to spend longer stretches of time in nature. The type of boat will fit different goals I have for it. Changes in equipment ought to reflect an intention to embark on a journey to places I haven’t been yet. What kayak would support me to interact with the wildlife hiding out in the nooks and cranny’s of lagoons and tributaries? There are choices to make and they ought to be informed by my intentional goals. While there is no magic in becoming more aware of my intentions, more informed choices keep things moving along. There is more joy, competence, and excitement as I align with my brain and social environment.
My array of choices can be informed by slowing things down and being more involved in my own behavior. If the available choices are the map, intention is the compass. Holding an intention is alighting the previously tread pathways leading toward the completion of goals that represent the person I’m becoming. I can intend to be, to do, and born out of those awarenesses, to make the world a place where I can do what I’ve come here to. When my behavior reflects the wayward influence of unconscious processing or external disturbance and is not in line with my intention it is my self that notices.
In the best of times doing flows from being. A self informed by how it feels to be aligned with our intentions is able to compare and contrast when our behaviors are out of sync with our goals. Our discreet and background emotions bring information to our awareness about how far off we are getting. If we pay attention. In order to tolerate the stress that comes from living more intentionally, we need to be able to set boundaries to do more of what we are discovering we ought to do. These are the domains of the self. Being, doing, and setting boundaries to ensure my doing flows from my being.
At the core of our self process is an ahistorical in the moment awareness of our body interacting with the environment. A pilot paddling along. We make our way between our history and the environment around us. If the water below is uncluttered and sorted through we can sense and feel both our current position and past positions along the current run. Our history is available and flows seamlessly with our present awareness. Sometimes memories bubble from up below the surface by we aren’t distracted.
The Self as a process is like tacking between the present moment and historical awarenesses. The first set of boundaries we need to learn to set are between our ahistorical experiencing self and our historical selves. With practice we can come to sense and feel when our way is informed more by our past and less by what we are experiencing in the present.
This inner conversation is difficult to tune into if we’ve been on “autopilot” for long. So, this may take some time to master. Our historical voices can align with the fast processing driven by our instincts. When this happens our connected self process diminishes. If we keep our wits about us we might notice how these negative historical states steer us down “rabbit holes” of self deception. Those places where we repeat past behaviors unaware of choices that would align us more with our goals.
Rather than paddling away we may be prone to give in to such states. It’s like using your kayak as a nice comfy cocoon by climbing inside. We just let life happen around us waiting for the storm to pass. Sometimes the light we need to find our way out is blocked by the outside. The comments and interpretations of others. Judgements and classifications. The negative images of us they have accumulated from our past get projected onto us and make these disconnected states feel more like our “real self”. At other times we project our own negative images of ourselves onto others and imagine they see us this way.
Some people actively encourage our impulse to stay frozen by judging us for coping when we take the paddle out of the water. Other people get comfortable with our lapse of paying attention to our intention. Not everyone is ready for us to see alternatives and be different. How much do people notice you aren’t living the life you dream of living? Do they enjoy “taking are of you” when you feel stuck? Like, too much?
There are more overt ways our social environment keeps us in the tunnel of self delusion. Like mocking, bullying, and scapegoating. All of these external responses can cast a shadow on alternatives and keep us stuck inside our own mind’s eye when we feel disconnected from where we were headed. These states persist because they are reinforced by social feedback from others and the cultural artifacts around us.
We may come to fear re-connection to our in the moment self because the reactions of those around us. Our disconnected internal states don’t exist in a vacuum. Inner states are sensitive to the social context we live in. Disconnection begets disconnection.
On the upside of this brain, self, relationship loop, connection begets connection. In other words, social connection is sure to follow personal connection. Disconnection is transient. Unless we force it to be otherwise. No trivial, artificial focus on our inner light will cut it though. Only real back and forth communication with others about our inner hopes and dreams. Whether they be for the end of physical and emotional pain or the pursuit of lifelong goals. If you stay locked in your cocoon, you can expect it to stay dark. But light always comes to a mind ready to receive it. Maybe not as fast as we hope, or from where we would like.
Sometimes we have to paddle around the outer darkness a while to find our way back. Our eyes can become accustomed to the dark and betray a sense of vision that is short sighted. Like thinking that it’s ok to hide your inner light from the world. Let it shine!
Our long history of patriarchal sensibilities has prepared us for being forced into war more than being ready to grow into our own personal power by cultivating our natural talents. Punitive social practices engender surplus fear and shame and are especially erosive to self compassion. We lose our self in the present to avoid shame and fear of the past. In the face of challenging social contexts where cynicism, blame, and hopelessness reign, its easy to be lulled into seeking transient pleasures and quick fixes to our problems rather than staying on course. We prolong disconnected states by huddling up trying to stay warm in the darkness.
But we can’t hold back the spring, nor keep the light from finding a way through the external sources, of doubt, disbelief, and disarray. The sky breaks open eventually and we can choose to put our paddle back in the water and move on. Moving on doesn’t have to mean we permanently disconnect from people and places. We are traveling in the “mind’s eye” after all. While we use our mind to physically move about the world, we also use it to change the experience we have of places we frequent everyday. As we reorganize our self system, sort through our history, and re-draw boundaries in relationships we are “traveling to new places”.
You’ve probably seen this happen when a friend or family member who is successful in psychotherapy. They “seem different”. They may talk differently, dress differently, or make decisions differently. When we can stay in the boat and remain in control of the paddle for longer periods of time we even experience those dark places as “new places”. We can learn to stay connected to friends and family that may frequent those “ports of delumination”, without dropping anchor there.
An intention is only a difference in quality from physical movement, not kind. It stirs the mind and gives the self a chance to have a say. It’s energy humanitas. It is change. It helps us blend out, not in.