Welcome. Stren #83 is part 1 of a three-part stren to introduce you to that portion of your mental function that is capable of taking responsibility for the direction of your life, enabling you to create feeling good and “doing good.” I suggest you review in succession Know Your Self, Know Your Masters, and Know Your Board of Directors, the three parts of this stren. As you integrate them, you will increase your understanding of the self of self-mastery and facilitate your development of a newer way of thinking.
Throughout the ages, philosophers, theologians, scientists, and people of every type ask similar questions. “What is our purpose?” “What is the good life, and how can we attain it?” Perhaps the most common answer is to “understand oneself.” Socrates proclaimed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Christ preached, “Know thyself.” And Freud developed a system of therapy based on making us more aware of our deeper “unconscious” self. I join the multitude of others who elevate self discovery to prime importance. My interest focuses on a specific part of our mental activity that enables us to become master of our selves. It is this “something” within us that enables us to break the chains of servitude imposed by our genetic inheritance (our nature) and the nurture to which we have been fated. I designate this part of our mental function our self, the self of self-mastery. I have maintained a special interest in this self: how to get a handle on it, i.e. how to label it, how to strengthen it, and how to explain it to any willing consumer.
Humankind is distinct from all other earthlings because we have the possibility of freeing ourselves from the impersonal masters who direct our lives. Other creatures are prepared from their birth, or soon after, to carry on the functions of their lives. Their patterns of behavior, from birth to death, are limited and relatively predictable. Birds fly, fish swim, and animals roam following mostly instinctual patterns. The means of survival, patterns of reproduction and feeding, the function of vital organs, and so on, are gifts from which there is little deviation and limited exchange privilege. While we humans share much of this endowment, we also have, as most everyone believes, “free will.” We not only have a multitude of alternatives from which we may choose, but we also have immense capacity to create new alternatives and act on the basis of what we create. Philosophers call this intentionality. More so than any creature, we can challenge our inherited nature and the teachings of our early nurture. Humankind stands apart by our capacity for laughter, and our ability to read, to fantasize, and to anticipate the future. By devising ways to share wisdom and knowledge, we have opened the door to independence from what our genes have fated us to be. It has been said we are what we have become because we have the ability “to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have preceded us.” We have made ourselves the dominant creature on earth. And while we have the capability to do marvelous things, we can also use the power we have acquired to destroy ourselves – individually and collectively.
What is this “something” that permits us free will, intentionality, mastery of our environment, the control of our thinking (and thereby our feelings and actions), and other “human” skills? What is this nonphysical power we call upon? Is it “spirit,” “mind,” “soul”? Just how is this “it” connected to the body? Is this something totally exclusive to humankind, perhaps a gift from an almighty source?
The fact that we have not yet solved the problem to our satisfaction is indicated by the absence of a uniform agreement. The issue of greater importance is that right now we do have the means to make a difference in how this “something” acts for our well-being. We don’t require technical understanding of this mental power to harness its practical effects. Everyone easily learns how to “work” the T.V.; we are not required to know how and why a person miles away can be seen in our living room. We are wise to develop the practical knowledge and skills that work in our best interest, that are likely to get us what we want and to avoid what we don’t want. By effectively nourishing this, we may assume control of our thinking, feelings, and actions.
Once we recognize that we have the potential within us for self-mastery, we may develop its constructive application rather than be burdened by the harm of misdirected rationality. The first step is to give a label and definition to this specific part of our mental resources, this “something” that enables us to develop a self, the “I” part of me.
Since we already use the term “self-mastery,” I am going to refer to this “something” as the “self.”. Self is the mental processing within us that gives us the possibility to “master” ourself. It conveys the ability to have “free will,” (and “free won’t” to resist the courses of action imposed by our nature and nurture) and “intentionality,” i.e., the power to initiate action on the basis of its own abstract reasoning. It is the part of us that provides us with an identity or individuality. When we refer to “I” or “me,” we are not speaking about a muscle or organ; we are generally referring to the “me” that is responsible for our actions. If you find this use of the term self difficult, you can substitute the word “boss” or “master with reasonable accuracy. Further, I will refer to the process which permits the development of this self, “reflective thinking.” Reflective thinking is a more developed form of thinking. It is like a consultant looking in on our thinking – examining it, manipulating it, modifying it, and initiating ideas not present in our more primitive thinking. Self is the portion of our mind that can reflect on its mental activity. Self-mastery is the capacity to think about our thoughts and ideas, to be conscious of our consciousness. Having given our unique resource a name, let us address the characteristics of self-mastery and how understanding it can dramatically change our life. The next two strens elaborate on the two other masters of our life and their means of expression.
A distinction is made between our ordinary self and our self in the reflective thinking sense. I arbitrarily select this notation for this newer reflective thinking because it emphasizes that the reflective self has a separate function. Thoughts and thinking enter into our conscious awareness from our body [“Hey, I’m your bladder speaking; I need some relief.”]; similarly, our senses create thoughts and thinking from sources outside our body [“Wake up!” “Fire!”]. The self is “separate” in that it can reflect independently on the thoughts and thinking that originate outside its self. This rational self may engage in abstract problem-solving relatively untainted by the passionate demands for safety, food, sex, conformity, the instinctive demands of nature, and the acquired programming of our nurturers.
“Our self” refers to our entirety; “our self” refers to the mental self of self-mastery. They are best distinguished by their function.
Self of Self-mastery (boss, master):
- free will and intentionality, the capacity to choose among alternatives, modify, add, subtract, create, and initiate action; the unique capacities of humankind
- reflective thinking, the capacity to think about our thoughts and thinking
- the ability to engage in abstract, dispassionate processing of information; “abstract” reasoning insulates or separates us from the more passionate, automatic thoughts and thinking originating from our nature and nurture and residing in the animal portion of our brain.
- the portion of conscious awareness that gives us an identity, that empowers us to “become our own person,” take control of the direction of our life, influence our thinking, feelings, and actions (including feeling good and doing good)
- The self is not “born” until many years after our physical birth. We commonly require 20-30 years to develop sufficient skills and wisdom to have the willpower needed to wisely manage our thinking, feelings, and actions.
- Our self develops and resides in the newest and most rapidly changing portion of our brain we identify as the cortex and its frontal lobes. I call this portion of our brain our freedom organ.
Our self, Yourself:
- our physical self and …
- the thoughts, thinking, ideas, etc., - that part of our conscious awareness that originates within our physical self, and/or that originate outside our self and are conveyed by our sense organs
- all that our nature and nature have made of us
- the passions, emotions, demands, expectations, “conscience,” goals, habits, and so on that have been provided by our genes and nurturers. The relatively automatic mental function originating from our genes and nurturers.
I find it useful to think of the self as the product of nature and our nurturers’ union, a gift to humankind that performs a specialized function. The kidneys filter fluids, the heart pumps blood, and the brain traditionally processes thoughts and considers how best to protect our lives and to see to it that the life cycle continues. Picture our brain as having a new part whose specialized function is reflective thinking and abstract reasoning, the equipment for self-mastery. Our human brain is in fact a series of five brains, the latest to develop being the cortex,where our “freedom organ” resides. Unlike every other organ, whose development and function are relatively automatic, the outcome of the development of our “self organ” will vary depending on its “education.” As the self develops, it may take an increasingly active role in directing its own mental growth … determining which skills and which wisdoms to acquire, and what amount of energy to expend. Reflective thinking is our means to become the programmer of our self – thus, self-mastery.
The self of self-mastery has specific characteristics that set it apart or “abstract” from our self. It is the quality of abstract thinking that gives us an identity apart from our physical self and the thoughts and thinking that originate from outside the reflective self. It is a specific portion of our mental function that has the capacity to reflect on the thoughts, thinking, pictures, and the like that constitute the “motion picture” of our consciousness. The mature self labels thoughts according to the master they serve (nature and/or nurture), organizes them, manipulates them, adds to them, chooses among alternatives, creates new patterns of thinking, and then “wills” action to effect change. This reflective self has attained a generous capacity of the skill to be conscious of its consciousness. In its mature stage of development, it is relatively independent of our body. It is “wired” to receive thoughts and thinking that originate from outside sources.
It is most important to understand that the wiring between our mental self and our physical self goes both ways; the self is not simply a receiving station, but can cause physical changes in our body. Hormones and chemicals are influenced by the direction and content of the thinking activity of this reflective self. The mind’s ability to effect physical and mental change has been called our “second signaling system.” Symbols (words, images, concepts) are the chemicals, hormones, and “juice” of the mind. Our self can create fantasy or images that have no corresponding existence in the common world, viz. a nonexistent creature, and then respond to its creation with strong emotion. This self continues to baffle our attempts to understand just how its volitional capacity works and how its nonphysical existence is related to the physical brain. Nevertheless, we can understand how to recognize it, address it, nourish it, and – of critical importance – utilize its power to make a difference in our lives. Here is our source of direction to become what we are capable of becoming, and avoid what we do not wish to become.
Our early lives are largely ruled through the perspectives of our genes and nurturers, emphasizing passion, blind obedience, and habit. As we develop reason, our thinking starts out by acting mainly in the service of those early perspectives! Passion and habit are ill prepared to deal with time and the consequences of the mega-power of self-mastery. The special advantage of this rational self is its ability to respect passion and habit, integrate them into the greater scheme of our lives, and provide direction through short and long-term problem-solving. The self’s capacity for abstract reasoning allows it to separate its self from the passionate commands of our nature and nurture, and the thinking and reasoning of our immature years. It is better prepared to consider what is wise over time and to initiate prevention and proactive constructive action.
The self I am referring to is not present at birth. Many years must pass before the mind is sufficiently powerful and mature to become the chief boss of our thinking, feelings, and actions. The mental apparatus that is self requires nurturance to attain its best functionality. The skills needed for this self to become effective can be identified, and they can be taught and learned. The Guide is my collection of such skills. I invite you to share and expand the curriculum of the skills that promote taking charge of our life’s destiny.
If you were fortunate enough to have a good genetic inheritance and upbringing, you already have a well-developed, wise self; you “feel good and do good.” Since we never attain perfection, mental growth is a lifelong opportunity. You can add to your strengths from this collection of “wisdoms.” And if you’ve missed some important ingredients in your life so far, I predict you will benefit dramatically from this collection of wisdoms. And through our blog, I hope you will expand this incomplete collection of strens.