We experience life. That’s incontrovertible, even if we believe that this life is not the only one we’ll experience, or that it’s an incredibly complex simulation devised by a super-intelligent extra-terrestrial life form. Regardless of these beliefs, we experience life. And what are the essential qualities, or characteristics, of human life? This seems a simple question, because it’s easy to look around and notice life happening. Whether we’re in a city or in a rural place, we’re constantly doing things, volitionally or subconsciously or unconsciously. Oftentimes, many people and related material things are also involved in this process.
We can readily see other creatures doing myriad things as well, trying to sustain their lives on this planet, from spiders in blades of grass to birds soaring on wind currents. Indeed, our experience of the outer world is our primary connection to our own processes of living. We learn about life by interacting with the world, shaping our rational understanding with our empirical encounters. Seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting are the basic senses upon which we build vast knowledge. A sense of balance and other bodily senses prove invaluable too. Our lives of course rely on these things in order to flourish.
We’re essentially tasked with using our various faculties to sustain our existence. Most of us, at varying points in time, work with others directly in employment or self-employment, and some of us live on passive income or stores of wealth. To the degree that we aren’t economic islands unto ourselves, we trade with others for goods and services that we want and need, which others are willing to provide for a price, all once again in order to survive and flourish. Lots of bartering and gifting also take place, as do myriad self-sustaining and self-maintaining actions.
Aside from productive work itself, we also spend time doing many other things that make our lives more enjoyable. We engage in creative side-projects and have interesting and fun hobbies. We recreate, play, and exercise. We relax. We celebrate and party too. We do these things to have more fulfilling lives, assuring ourselves that life is really worth the effort. And, as a profound theme throughout, we enrich our lives a great deal by relating with others we value and who value us.
Many of these things, of course, other creatures don’t do. Sure, other mammals for instance often relax and play, but they also just live without meaningful celebration or reflection. Species besides humans don’t ponder the nature of their lives as mortal beings either, and they don’t doubt their perceptions, their capabilities, and their worth. Rather, they just go about living, be they squirrels in a park or the trillions of bacterial cells on us and inside us. By the way, did you know that the vast majority of our body’s cells are bacteria? Because these prokaryotic cells are much smaller than the eukaryotic cells comprising our various tissues, we tend to overlook their immense numbers.
Our outer world consists of a lot of things that may become ordinary to us over time. This is also part of being human; our immense abstraction ability enables us to lose sight of the big picture and not live very mindfully. Also, what we can possibly attend to in our lives is quite small in comparison to all the things out there. In our highly connected digital world, we are immersed in an incredibly vast amount of information. We can integrate only a small fraction of it, of course, and we dismiss the rest, or maybe we set some of it aside for a later date—though such queues themselves can become overwhelming.
To determine what’s essential amidst all the interesting stuff can be quite a challenge. For example, over a hundred hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube.com every minute. And now, largely on account of the relative ease of self-publishing, millions of books are published every year, and millions of apps are available for mobile and desktop computers. Granted, the quality of many of these products isn’t exactly what we may be looking for (amusing cat videos can only take us so far), but each of us can only make use of a tiny fraction of these things anyway. Imagine if we considered them all high-quality and interesting things!
Many years ago, the sum total of human knowledge used to be doubling every seven years, but now it’s doubling easily less than every year. Wikipedia has millions of pages, each dedicated to expressing and expanding our knowledge of practically every aspect of reality. In the midst of all this, our inner world remains a major and incomparable part of the vast realm of our life experiences. Despite so many things vying for our attention all around us every day, our finite minds have an amazing capacity to focus on significant philosophical and psychological aspects. Indeed, within our inner world are the crucial aspects of reality that determine our happiness and flourishing. Even though this world isn’t as tangible as the world around us, if we can become intimate with it, we can reshape our lives and change practically everything for the better.
Perhaps the most tragic thing to beset our reasoning species, and to beset each of us as individual persons, is to flounder in our inner world, adrift in a mostly hidden sea of contradictions and anguish. We certainly don’t want to voyage on such a hazardous sea throughout our lives. We need hope of finding some safe refuge, or at least some calm times away from the storms. The ideas in this book are intended to serve us extremely well in these profound matters. As vital navigational instruments, they can guide us to stable new shores within ourselves, as well as to absolutely wonderful new places both internally and externally.
The memes of our culture are desperately in need of addressing from the inside out. The “soft” science of psychology has discovered quite a lot about our inner world, especially over the last hundred years, since it’s been a field of study in its own right, separate from philosophy. Neuroscience, given its presently insufficient measurement tools, is still in the process of relating to psychology in a comprehensive and comprehensible way; many of its conclusions tend to be works in progress.
Psychology is a way to explain the experiences of our consciousness and how our behavior is tied to them. This pertains to many things, of course, but essentially the following aspects prevail in our minds: images, which are creations of “the mind’s eye” stemming from visual and tactile perceptual input; thoughts and beliefs, which are abstract patterns or associations, categories or conceptual frameworks tied to our vocabulary, experiences, emotions, and belief systems; emotions, which are evaluations that are mostly subconscious assessments yet also conscious ones, based on what we deem to be serving and not serving our lives and values; feelings, which can be synonymous with emotions and are triggered by underlying physical and psychological needs in addition to super-rapid subconscious assessments (that in retrospect can be identified as thoughts); and lastly, memories, which can be all of the above, stored in neuronal structures and processes.
Essentially, human consciousness identifies things in existence, i.e., distinguishes their identity, and it evaluates their nature, especially in terms of being a value or danger. The nature of our inner world stems from its complexity, in how it all relates to and interacts with our internal and external worlds, which of course includes relating to and interacting with other selves. Again, psychology is a soft science in the sense that not all of these things can be exactly quantified, measured precisely by observers external to what’s happening. Sometimes our subjective experiences also might be at odds with what we can discover objectively—such as an apparent bend in a stick when put in water, or a mirage in the distance on a hot day, or a belief in ghosts, despite the nonexistence of ghosts.
Even though we might not be able to measure our inner happenings in ways that hard sciences like physics or chemistry do, we can nonetheless make sense of them in comprehensible ways. We can identify, describe, and express qualities or characteristics conceptually that reveal the reality of our inner world. The challenge arises in how best to understand ourselves and, by extension, understand others.
If you open a psychology textbook, you’ll likely discover a variety of models concerning how the mind functions. Any Theories Of Personality textbook is thick enough to make you wonder who is on the correct path of understanding. Regardless of which model is most accurate and useful, we tend to go with what makes intuitive sense, based on a preponderance of evidence. Indeed, our intuition, which is basically our connection to past integrated experiences, conceptually and emotionally, helps us interpret a lot of things in our daily activities.
Yet sometimes our intuition gives us only breadcrumbs of understanding, perhaps just enough to get by, or enough to get us into trouble, leading us away from a helpful path. As humans, we do find rules of thumb, or heuristics, quite useful despite their potential pitfalls in certain contexts, as researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have noted in numerous studies of social psychology.  Psychologist Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational exposes some stunning evidence of biased judgment, when we make decisions without much deliberative thought or grasp of our preferences.  This research indicates that the more aware we are of our capacity to overlook things and make misguided choices—i.e., the more understanding we have of our cognitive/emotional limitations and potential biases—the more effective we can be with our mental processes, or at least we can avoid being blind to various mental hazards. In many respects, the more awareness we bring to our inner world, the greater our capacity to make optimal choices for ourselves. And objectivity via the scientific method remains in reach when we try to falsify claims and assumptions.
When we inspect what’s going on inside our craniums with our minds, we tend to find a multifaceted array of aspects of consciousness, presenting a sort of kaleidoscope of potential insights and interpretations. Given our quite complex and dynamic inner worlds, perhaps many people meditate and do yoga in order to find more harmony in such complex mental activity.
Evolutionary biology and neuroscience inform us that the adaptive nature of the brain is to connect evolutionary parts together in order for it to function in a seemingly integrated manner, ensuring survival. Our substantial cerebral cortex, limbic system, and various other subcortical regions have a dizzying array of interconnections and feedback loops, numbering in the billions and even trillions. The human brain is a massively parallel processor that’s always doing many things in many ways on account of its complexity of pathways.
The unconscious and subconscious aspects of our minds can play considerable roles in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Due to the fact that so many automatized processes (“zombie programs”) are constantly running in the background of our minds, giving rise to and supporting all sorts of experiences and behaviors, the following question arises: What exactly is one’s self? Some neuroscientists, such as Sam Harris, have even made a case that “free will is an illusion,” albeit a somewhat useful one. This view, while not uncommon among brain researchers, is more controversial in philosophical circles, and even some psychological ones.
Indeed, volition is an aspect of our minds as much as memory is. We have a conscious experience of being at the helm of our own ship, so to speak; we have a sense of self that’s capable of weighing options and making informed and deliberate choices. Our sense of self arises from interactions of various highly interconnected regions of the brain; research now indicates that these particular interactions probably extend beyond just the medial prefrontal and anterior/posterior cingulate cortical regions.
Our choices are largely dependent on what’s in our scope of awareness, of course. The brain constantly calculates options among an array of possibilities, in order to make a selection, experienced as a decision. As neuroscience and psychology both note, subconscious and unconscious brain processes can take the helm much of the time. These automatized processes have been shaped via learning experiences that began in early childhood. As we’ll explore in upcoming chapters, mental and physical trauma can enable self-destructive patterns; it can hinder our ability to make informed and healthy choices. This is why living consciously, striving to increase our level of awareness, is so key to flourishing as conceptual and emotional beings.
Granted, to become mindful of our internal world is also a choice—a choice that provides for a lifetime of healing and growth, which truly sets us on paths to experience happiness and freedom. The less awareness we bring to what’s going on inside us, which includes processes that might be running counter to our conscious convictions or professed beliefs, the less resourcefulness and responsiveness we can attain. Without awareness of our inner possibilities, our range of selection becomes more constrained, or limited. Even though a lot of our calculations and assessments are made below conscious, explicit awareness, as research on decision-making reveals, we can become mindful of causes and consequences, in order to make choices that are more useful and helpful for optimal functioning.
Compatibilism is the view of consciousness and its volitional aspect that the mind is what the brain does, while still keeping the mind in mind and honoring the conscious process of making choices. Undoubtedly, brain research will continue to provide more details about the neural correlates of consciousness. In the process researchers will rely on their own minds’ awareness to gain more insight. Understanding our inner world entails understanding the phenomenology of consciousness, which concerns the psychology of how our minds work. This is the lens with which we’ll explore the inside aspects of ourselves, to in a sense bring them outside for full inspection.
Still, we are faced with a supreme challenge here: to foster a stable and secure sense of self even as we encounter new truths that might trigger discomfort, at the very least. This book seeks to reveal significant truths about the self, which might be dormant in one’s own psyche. As psychologist Carl Rogers noted in his book On Becoming A Person, the first stage of self-understanding seeks to remain in the status quo, with the perspective that everything about self is just fine, thank you very much—so, let’s simply live!  In other words, self-reflection (to say nothing of honoring one’s true-self) might be viewed as something that only allegedly weak or strange people do. Non-introspection is favored in this stage, which can tragically persist for an entire lifetime, on account of choosing not to address the perceived dangers within the psyche. Obviously, in the quest to protect the self, this is the psychologically rigid and emotionally remote end of the continuum of self-reflection. Rogers detailed six other stages involving the processes of gradually increasing awareness, self-awakening, and integration of oneself. It’s my vital hope that all of us will strive for as much self-discovery and self-understanding as possible, so that we can be most aware of, and thus most capable of, making the freest choices for ourselves, while honoring the freest choices of others.
Another challenge is that the vast continent of consciousness tends to remain one of the most uncharted territories for us. Given the high level of cultural discouragement, for too many persons it’s a thick jungle that turns away all but the most intrepid or determined persons from inner exploration. For too many persons, it has various well-worn paths on which to venture, along with a wariness of straying from them, let alone straying too far, because “too far” might affect one’s sense of self and possibly fragile connections with others and the world. And, of course, these well-worn paths represent our culture.
As we progress in the following chapters, we’ll discover why it’s so difficult to blaze new trails in our minds about so many crucially important things. We’ll also discover how we can re-imagine the nature of our minds, so that we can realize so much more of our potential.
Mental freedom, in brief
What does mental freedom mean to you? Whether you’ve had the opportunity to explicitly ponder that question, you’ve definitely had thoughts and feelings about it. Granted, if we were one of the many billions of people who don’t have consistent access to basic sanitation, plumbing, electricity, and other things that the developed world takes for granted, then we’d have more immediate concerns. Despite humans’ general absence of political freedom on the planet, our situation in the developed world does indeed provide us the opportunity to ponder what being mentally free means.
In essential terms, political freedom and mental freedom both entail having the capacity of choice, the motivation to exercise this capacity, and then choosing as one sees fit without coercive influences. In the mental realm freedom entails feeling empowered to operate one’s mind and person in an efficacious manner, as one desires, without any debilitating aspects, such as contradictory beliefs, agonizing inner conflict or emotional torment, or an unrelenting “inner critic” or automatic negative thoughts from the subconscious—all of which can express themselves in self-destructive behaviors, or self-worth-denying addictions. Distorted thinking about self-concept tends to enter our minds from a very early age, unfortunately, during our attempts to make sense of ourselves in relation to others. We’ll explore this in more detail in subsequent chapters.
Mental freedom also pertains to having the flexibility to shift focus and to attend to whatever we want, without being distracted by other motivations, such as obsessing or stressing or being compelled to do something. It means being at peace with our mental processes, rather than being in conflict, at war with ourselves. It means practicing self-empathy and self-compassion. It also means having resilience, which includes emotional resilience. This entails being able to process emotions in a natural, authentic, adaptive, self-accepting way, so that they’re given the respect necessary to be recognized and to flow through us, instead of remaining unidentified and leading us down more troubled paths.
Thus, what mental freedom means is more than just how many choices are in the realm of our material existence. It means really being comfortable with one’s sense of self, being at ease and secure within one’s own mind and body. As we take into account the past and present input being processed from various subconscious and emotional perspectives within ourselves, as we reflect on the multifaceted nature of the human mind, we can appreciate what an achievement mental freedom is. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden noted that each of us has a “sage-self,” a centered and balanced part that’s fully present to our experiences and can handle any and all challenges with a sense of realism, empathy, wisdom, and resourcefulness. The sage-self is able sustain us in so many healthy ways, and it gets strengthened as we become more integrated internally. It knows that we are more than our emotional difficulties at any given time, however pressing they may be, as they reverberate strongly through us.
The observant part of ourselves, the one that’s attuned to our present-moment experiences, offers us a path to true enlightenment and enrichment. Of course, it can be sometimes scary to realize just how much we depend on ourselves for our own fulfillment, because it entails fully accepting our self-responsibility too. True integration also means pursuing and embracing self-knowledge, which entails processing doubt, fear, and pain.
Think of when you were a child exploring something fascinating or experiencing something thrilling or delightful. We can also embody this mindset as a way of life as adults. In fact, it’s the birthright of each of us, despite what hurt or sadness we’ve endured, are enduring, or will endure. Hurt and sadness are inevitable facets of life, of course, but they are by no means the only ones. Life doesn’t have to be about suffering or sacrifice, despite what the culture generally promotes and despite what we might have learned, and normalized, in childhood. Indeed, we can think differently, or think different (whether or not we’re Mac fans).
Expectations of obedience and conformity in our culture exact a heavy toll. They become normalized and almost reflexive, as we’ll see in the next chapter. Our sense of both inner and outer freedom consequently declines a great deal; then, we’re supposed to identify with doubt, fear, and pain instead. So, to keep a stable and secure sense of self to entail more mental effort, which can contribute to suffering as well, unless the paradigm is changed.