The Mind is a Muscle people rightly caution upstarts against buying supplements before learning how to lift a dumbbell and cook a chicken breast. However, there is seemingly less resistance against people spending hours reading about, and hundreds of dollars buying, nootropics without first learning to flex their innate mentality. When finally optimally amped on nootropics, many go about their lives without the slightest alteration to their mental habits, relying wholly upon their new supplements to achieve magical leaps of development. Nootropics though, are merely the lube for the vehicle that can either rust in gridlock or tour the world.
The richness of every human action in history is distilled into each of us, into our vast applicability of mind, into our untapped potential. But what happens when this potential is left untapped, when this manifold spirit does not find suitable application? There is far more at stake than minor unclaimed mental enhancements (such as the recall of a few extra items or slightly swifter neurotransmission) for the psychonaut who fails to enrich himself and cultivate worthwhile habits of mind.
The Pitfalls of the Unexamined Life
Too often, hastily formed self-concepts confine individuals within illusory boundaries of ability. Assuming themselves bound by these, they perpetuate self-restrictive behaviors until they slog about their lives in “mind-forged manacles”. Those too squeamish to undergo self-examination make themselves further vulnerable to the alienating factors of modern society and often awake in a panic halfway through a dazedly lived life, wondering who they are and what they’re doing: all their haphazardly spent time behind them a disheartening mystery which dissuades them from self-discovery. Universally, the mind is the mediator of experience, and no external circumstances can make for a fulfilling life if their perceiving organ is unhealthy. Is it not common sense that untold increases in one’s quality of life may be achieved by improving the renderer of life itself, the mind?
If variety is the spice of life, and flux its texture, then a satisfying life is one lived in harmony with flux, and therefore a healthy state of mind is one of perpetual metamorphosis. Stagnancy is harmful, suggests a study that found under-stimulated monkeys to be less sharp than a rival group of apes engaged in learning and play:
Our lives are rendered client-side, our craniums the vessels in which we travel the world. How is yours furnished? Studies showing inhibited neurogenesis to result in an inability to learn new behaviors and concomitant depression also suggest that ruts can be dangerous.
In this Article
Worthwhile thinking is too often confused with intellectual ostentation and therefore maligned. Worry not, noble egalitarians despising elitism, in this article I will make a clear distinction between showiness and life-enriching cogitation. I will propose that certain activities and exercises (an early outline of which I will present), should be considered mental hygiene indispensable to all. I will explain some methods of achieving mental flexibility in order to open the floor for discussion and hopefully garner additional methods from readers, as well as speculate upon some of the causes of what I feel to be a widespread neglect of personal potential.
The Misconception that Extraordinary Training is Unnecessary
Ignorance of one’s own potential is easily rectified and yet more easily perpetuated. There seems to be a widespread misconception that the brain that slides through life without unusual vigor (simply performing the tasks of studying or working as they are assigned and without purposeful contraction toward a higher purpose), will have all necessary realizations presented to it. We have all met people that seem asleep, oblivious to concepts and perspectives accepted and embodied by others. Even those fortunate enough to have fallen into habits of contemplation may be limiting themselves. How? By not consistently examining their own mental states on the lookout for opportunities for growth and enhancement, cankerous obsessions needing plucking, grandiose tangles of possibilities needing pruning. But why is this training necessary, and how can it help?
The mind is the silkscreen through which the world is filtered, and as such, its coloration will reflect the materials that have been passed through it and their interplay. While we may not have control over the sensory jets that bombard us constantly, our metacognitive faculties (if bolstered and disciplined), allow us to pluck detrimental accumulations from our minds, rearrange those that remain into novel patterns, and add some of our own creation to our mental mosaics. In our mental maintenance, we are neither totally helpless nor omnipotent, but a barely viable blend of the two.
Ignorance of Self-Ignorance
It is heartbreaking to consider how much of our minds are underdeveloped. When someone recommends to us a new perspective, a new mental activity, or a novel attitude which resonates with us, we feel a flash of excitement over its freshness, in anticipating the positive changes it may bring about, but we also feel a nip of self-reproach in the realization that this fresh idea was always untouched in the attics of our minds, and that we did not spend enough time groping about for it. This is an example of the ignorance of self-ignorance.
A simple metaphor may be expanded to characterize the unawareness of opportunities for enlightenment I am describing: when reading, many simply take in information as passively as one takes in light, never behooving themselves by encoding or analyzing the information to make a more lasting and personally significant memory. They thereby deny themselves the strengthening mental jog of such efforts. Instead, a reader may gain by sweating after the infixing of a multiform piece of information to his mental mosaic. e.g. what do I find on the surface of this story, and what do I find beneath it? What can I assume as the author’s impetus to composition, and how does this inform his message? What wisdom can be gleaned from this story, and how does that interact with my own dilemmas, present and past? With which aspects do I identify, and what do these relations reveal to me about my worldview, my personality, myself? How would I like to change? In light of the exercise and growth that might be had from activity, is purely passive reading not wasted motion? Is there not a diverse harvest neglected within each book, article, poem whose surface is skimmed? Yet this is merely one facet of experience which exemplifies what I fear is a widespread unawareness of ‘potential’. How much of our daily life can be similarly labeled wasted motion, in the sense that it is not probed?
Self-Awareness is a Skill
Deep contemplation of one’s self is neither an inherent nor a static trait with which few are blessed, nor (as it is defined within this article) is it reflective of or restricted by the type of intelligence measured by IQ tests. All persons of basic sentience have access to it. Just as self-awareness reveals itself to some through nature and circumstance (a trait dormant in all of us), in others, it’s a trait that only develops later through dedication and thoughtfulness. As such, self-awareness is more pronounced in some than in others. However, it is a skill as surely as reading and memorizing are.
Laying a Foundation of Curiosity
Mental flexibility is a keystone of self-awareness and its acquisition is possible through practice. Become curious about your environment and playful in your observations. Mental training does not have to be draining, nor unpleasant. It can be a pleasant habit that gives a new coloring to events as they’re happening, while you grow so mentally agile and attain such self-control as to be able to rewrite a mental complaint, update a cumbersome defunct outlook, and in the next moment relax and enjoy the scene with freshly appreciative eyes. If you bring an inquisitive spirit to everyday situations, if you search at all times for the interesting in the seemingly mundane, you will first develop your brain physically through such uncommon exercise, as surely as concentrated lifts will develop obscure muscles untaxed by a day of usual activity, as surely as the brain makes structural changes to reflect acquisition of new skills. Secondly, you will gather information left untouched by less the consciously observant. Get yourself into a habit of inquisitiveness. It is a mark of incisiveness to find amusement where others cannot. How do you know that you have achieved playfulness or flexibility? When you can sit silently in a bare room alone for a full day and have a good time, you can count on your spirit being playful enough.
Cultivating Self-Awareness through Mindfulness
The first step to a developed self-concept is mindfulness, the foundation from which all self-directed growth may proceed. But in order to know where one is and where one is going, one must understand where one has been. The easiest way to begin cultivating mindfulness is to ask autobiographic questions, answer these, and question their answers.
Point the Finger
Who are you? How do you know? If you submit to these questions, how do you represent your self-concept? Through achievements? Personality traits? Appearance? Aspirations? When you ask yourself these questions, does your imagination respond with a fit of activity or a single gentle heave? Do you visualize yourself as the embodiment of nearly endless possibilities for personal growth, or does your self-concept always appear nearly static? Have you confined yourself even within your own imagination? While I believe these are in and of themselves worthwhile questions, they can also be used to illustrate one method of expanding your self-awareness; and (though arriving at an answer to any of these can take time and effort), the answers are doubly useful.
Firstly, these answers are personal opinions which inform the seeker of self-knowledge about his current state. Underneath this surface, they are each opportunities to divine the implications of the presence of that specific opinion as opposed to that of all other possible responses. If one, on their way to an obligatory meeting, were to stop and say, “The hell with it,” and return home to relax, without forcing upon themselves some introspection, they would be personally stagnant in that particular instance. If, instead, the retiring party asked himself, “Why did I do that?” they might eek out the response, “I hate sitting through meetings.” This tells the questioner firstly that they are feeling either inattentive or disinterested, giving them a flash of a status report which contributes to a basic self-awareness; important in its own right. Secondly (and more meaningfully), this flash report invites one with cultivated self-awareness to use this piece of information in conjunction with previous observations of their own behaviors to puzzle out a pattern.
This simple method, scaled up to the full frequency and intricacy of actual experience, will afford its dutiful practitioner a more sound and complete sense of self than would casual, untutored, and irregular self-consideration.
Self-Examination through Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a deeply personal awareness of such patterns, their origins (so far as they are discernable) and the imaginative conceptualizations of more advanced states that these characteristics may be brought to through effort. Spend a generous amount of time developing an understanding of your personal patterns so that you will be quick in conceptualizing them and able to concentrate your energies on achieving your next phase. When you have a good idea of your general characteristics, use the situations that arise daily and your responses to them to verify your self-concepts. Am I really a lazy person, or have I merely conditioned myself by repetition to think so? Do I truly value that, or have I only been raised to? Be brutally honest with yourself about yourself. It’s not like there’s an audience, and your success in this venture will be directly proportional to the honesty and accuracy with which you have described yourself.
When you feel that your self-concept has been scrubbed clean of delusion, that you are on the whole accurate, take an objective look at it and decide what you personally would like to change, enhance, or discard. This self-categorization may be charted in any number of ways, visually through imagination, by diagram on paper, by spoken list on a recording. There are many methods that will work, and as you increase in flexibility and self-knowledge you will be better able to tailor your efforts to your needs and talents. If you plan it out explicitly, such that you are highly conversant with your own personality, you will be more likely to stick to your regimen of modification while out and about, more likely to break negative patterns while they’re directing your behavior, and more likely to flex your positive attributes in situations that would previously find you idle.
Identify, consider, transform. Identify your main flaws and weakest points, or your favorite talents. Consider their worth to you as the person you are now and the person you aspire to be. Plot out sequential steps to upgrade this old characteristic and make self-conscious efforts when going about your day to perform these revised behaviors. Too difficult? No one ever said you are inherently entitled to reach your fullest potential.
An Example of Time Spent Mindfully
A very bare list of a few traits that can serve as a starting point: memory, analysis, imagination, reflection, synthesis, and integration. Imagination, analysis and memory will help you both capture and retain worthwhile information from your experiences. The various mental exercises available on the web and through books which improve these functions are good starting points for the curious mind beginning its quest.
Reflection is the process by which these examined experiences and their results gain their personal relevance, as memories of one’s behaviors and feelings at various times are married to new information with advancement in mind.
Synthesizing these newly personalized concepts will lead to the development of new traits and characteristics. e.g. if, through memory, analysis and imagination, one were to discover in themselves both an appreciation of colors and also a high level of manual dexterity, reflection might alert them to their long unsatisfied urge to be artistic, and synthesis would merge all of these various realizations together into a new characteristic: the desire to become a painter.
Integration is the aforementioned process of establishing a sequence of goals and behavioral modifications which, when consciously undertaken, will lead to the fulfillment of this desire. The person in this example, who has reached the stage of integration, would experiment with increasingly more complex painting exercises until finally painting their masterpiece.
The activity is less important, but the mentality brought to it, and enhanced or unchanged by it as per its pursuer’s mindfulness, is of ultimate importance. Achieving optimal brain health through brain nutrition and nootropics will facilitate these processes, but the bulk of their development must be achieved through their employment, and through analysis of the results of their employment to inform future exercises.
The Unappreciated Benefits of Such Efforts
These exercises will not only align your present self with your highest potential self, but will simultaneously strengthen your mind for all other tasks. They are comparable to those of weightlifting in this case, for, just as weightlifting provides some obvious benefits immediately (like improved feelings of well being), mental training consistently undertaken will immediately begin to illuminate your self-concept. Yet weightlifting also confers cumulative benefits, granting one increased energy, sturdier skeletal structure, improved confidence, and strength applicable to all tasks from lifting furniture to walking down the street. Mental training in this regard is similar. It brings a host of secondary benefits: confidence in one’s own competence for facing future challenges, improved mood, increased mental flexibility, enhancement of the organ whose health is indispensable to every worldly action, and expansion of one’s perceptual capabilities, all while making homey and entertaining the self’s carriage, whether or not one decides to venture out or to recline within.
Do it Yourself
The mind is undoubtedly complex and intricate, so it makes all the more sense that mental housekeeping be a personal task, each memory packed compartment being most familiar to he who has ever lived within it.
I fear too much hope is placed in external sources of relief: mental health practitioners, pharmacological solutions, and self-help books which must speak generally to reach a general audience. Each of these has its place and efficacy, but none can be wholly entrusted with the alleviation of deeply personal distresses, the ramifications of which their sufferers know best. It would be ideal to combine all of these with mindfulness.
All translations are approximations, and those of experience into language are no exception. In a therapy session, for instance, the self-explaining patient’s tale is codified into words and constricted by syntax, and often the photographic images of the event (its auditory soundtrack, and the visceral surges of emotion these invoke in their recaller), are inaccessible to the listener. He who has disciplined himself to examine his own issues will find in himself a more copasetic audience for complaints more intensely and relevantly rendered.
Causes of Self-Ignorance
Why do I believe this searching is fundamentally necessary, that diversified thought in humans is a worthy purpose? Just as our predecessors carried the embarrassment of slowly morphing necks, lengthening spines, just as they struggled to assume upright stances (always subjected to the awkwardness which attends growth in a hellish and continuous puberty of thousands of years), so too, do we have our own puberty to complete. The development of modern human consciousness is a relatively recent occurrence and initial stages are usually awkward. Ours is the stage of man suffering the development of incomplete awareness; the fumbling awkwardness of one who has just begun a night of drinking (whose tongue sticks in the penumbra between two different sets of consciousness), first timid and faltering into drunkenness and afterward relaxing again into fluency. We are all half-drunk with an inherently half-formed sense.
We deal daily with the discomfort of sentience and complex language, the glint of a gem in a mud puddle. For every capacity, we have a weakness, and more confusions than understandings. However complex the world may be on its own, I contend that much of our condition is related to our struggle with an awareness that is still in progress, still faltering and becoming itself. Inevitably, the world becomes confusing, yet can’t we posit that one in tune with himself and with a background of self-exegesis might see further into predicaments than one who is essentially inexperienced with his own cognition?
I believe it behooves one to understand he is possessed of incompleteness, that he is a new arrival intrinsically uncomfortable in his surroundings. With this knowledge of specific shortcomings, it becomes more difficult to shrug off personal responsibility onto a fear of the unknown, and it becomes more feasible to augment these shortcomings and to adapt. A problem must be identified before it can be directly attacked.
Just as toddlers cannot be expected to stand and run from the beginning, we must accept that the full use of something as complex as the human brain must, at this stage, be learned through steady training, with patience and time.
The Societal Impediments to Self-Awareness
There are deeply ingrained cultural influences which frustrate such efforts. In being a more recondite sphere of understanding (due in part to the necessity of divining the mind with the mind), mental training has not yet been popularized or received the same treatment as that of musculature; and yet is it not true that one must flex intensely and then recuperate his intellect in order to develop it?
Shouldn’t methods of self-exploration be taught in school, allowing afterward the mind accustomed to exercise to run loose in its own hunt, well-armed and hungry? Institutional education suffers from a damning philosophical flaw- that most instruction focuses on the relation of information and not direct personal development, not on the manipulation of gathered data. Give a man a mountain of information and he grows sluggish and weak for having the prize laid before him. Teach a man to climb and tease him with indications of seizable grandeur, and he will grow limber in his own ascent, enjoying along the way those vantages most dear to him. We are conditioned early on to accept things as presented, to devour and regurgitate information that has no personal relevance. What’s worse, we never learn to personalize it, to make it meaningful for ourselves as individuals.
Speaking Strictly about the Educational System
Lamely and overdue (in the upper echelons of college exclusive to most), some class (by virtue of its curriculum’s radicalness) may occasion an underdeveloped urge in the student to revise his thought and worldview. Yet such urges should be fundamental, introductory, and consistent, for while we arm children with rudimentary notions of physiology and the care of their own bodies (giving them the basics upon which they may expand later should they wish, we leave them utterly unprepared to deal with and understand their minds.
Mental health is touched upon only in high school (incompletely), and diluted by political correctness, so that the material is taken up as lightly as any other information not considered as urgent to the individual’s needs. By its very virtue of being a subject and not a way of life, it is doomed to obscurity. Here is explicit knowledge referencing students’ core needs, yet kept at a distance by their cultivated unconcern.
Sadly, even in the most rigorous psychology course, they only dimly touch on what is currently understood of the brain; something which will influence the remainder of their lives their daily experiences. Our rabid societal trend toward specialization makes knowledge of the mind seem erudite and strictly scientific. It is as though people grow up believing they cannot know their motives, their abilities or their potential, if they cannot name the cerebral structures responsible for them. Thus, we doom the majority to a life of uninformed mental consumerism. Additionally, we doom those few who escape with curiosity about their essence intact, to scraping up tidbits that initially seem written in foreign languages, and to a fractured chase after knowledge, whose rarity amongst the public damns it to the same reactionary disgust as mysticism. I condemn the public education system for not seizing students’ by their guts.
Most criminal of all, there is no impartation of ecstasy; no one beams to children,
Why are children not running home excitedly, with their beloved science experiments being their own minds?
Why should such self-conscious mental effort seem so outlandish and unnecessary? We spend a considerable portion of time attending to the various biological imperatives of our lower bodies: eating, sleeping, hygiene; yet how many do you suppose are self-alienated in strolling about, contained within their own thought processes, unwilling to use to their full extent their minds’ self-reflexive capabilities? Courage, now! Take to your mental exercises as you take to a set of squats!
Either conceive yourself
Or by all be deceived.
Raise your head
From your rut
And squint to see!