Friday, December 29, 2006

the ultimate end of personal growth

Serious disclaimer: As could be inferred from the title, the pretentiousness, preachiness, and all-around self-importance of this entry is far above-average. Its content is grandiose. Its topic is a timeless one as old as philosophy itself, so the mere fact that it attempts an answer is a possible sign of megalomania. Entire books have been written on the same or similar ideas, so this post will definitely be on the long side. Some may feel it to be too smug, although that is not the intent at all. Reader's discretion is advised.

A conjecture that has long jiggled in my noggin for a while, only recently coming into greater clarity with the reflections and resolutions of a new year, is that the concept of the ideal (or best) mind (or mental state) is a real, independent, objective concept, a concept which I will try to sketch out here. While none of the following will be truly original, this particular synthesis may be instructive.

What I mean by "ideal" is, believe it or not, basically pragmatic: that this mind functions well in a variety of situations. It considers its environment and goals, formulates decisions and plans, and puts into practice what it has decided. It is principled and rational, but also flexible. Simply put, this mind is ideal because it governs behavior as it should. To use more specific terms, this mind is likely to achieve success and (lasting) happiness or at the very least not be a hindrance.

The ideal mind exhibits these qualities:
  • Rationality. The ideal mind relates well to information. It is capable of recognizing the source, authority, and applicability of the information it considers. It realizes how powerful the right information can be, so it tries to maximize this power. For instance, it should be eager and able to learn, toss aside harmful preconceptions, and adopt new paradigms if necessary. Generally speaking, the too-closed mind cannot exploit information as much as the open mind, but the too-open mind fails to filter/distinguish bad information.
  • Self-Control. The ideal mind relates well to its impulses and values. At this point some might start saying "wait, you're talking about a soul attribute". To which my reply is "If you're able to precisely formulate distinct compartments of consciousness and diagram the interactions of those compartments, have at it. For my purpose here, I'm considering the ideal mind as a whole." Being rational and having self-control are separate qualities. Almost by definition, an addict may be rational, knowing his behavior is more self-destructive than not, but lack of self-control prevents this knowledge from its expected effect. Self-control is much harder to achieve than rationality, though both are lifelong journeys. To refer back to my post on Freakonomics, someone with self-control can take the (economically-enumerated) incentives in front of him or her and "rig" them with different relative weights. The ideal mind probably doesn't practice what is traditionally known as ascetism; rather, the ideal mind chooses what desires to obey and ignore. The dog wags the tail, not vice versa. One way to achieve the ignoring of a desire is to trump it with another desire. I have heard of a smoker who didn't quit until he saw his young boy pretending to smoke one of his crayons. Various media try to paint unbridled desire as highly dramatic and noble; don't be fooled, it's only trying to incite pathos, not give you life lessons. The ideal mind can and should have plenty of fun. The point of self-control is that the ideal mind can avoid the fun that has devastating side effects.
  • Empathy. The ideal mind relates well to its environment. One informal way to sum up this quality is "giving a damn". Some other names might be compassion, love (which may be the most overused word ever?), caring, tolerance. The crucial tipping point that marks this quality is the mind identifying with entities outside itself, hence the primary name "empathy". The ideal mind can appreciate goodness or Quality wherever it is, and strive to spread it through actions which vary wildly depending on context. However, since the ideal mind has needs and goals of its own, not least of all survival, it must maintain yet another balance in myriad situations. In the extreme case, the ideal mind's own existence is part of the equation, and the result may be reasoned self-sacrifice. If someone is not subjected to this kind of decision, he or she is lucky.
  • Timeliness. The ideal mind relates well to time. This quality is the hardest of the four to affix a one-word label onto. The abstract nature of time is not helpful, either. Anyhow, timeliness is the quality of applying mental energy primarily to the present, as opposed to expending it on regrets or unimplemented dreams for the future. Some might say that it consists of "just living in" each moment. The timeliness of the ideal mind does not imply that the past is denied or the future ignored; real timeliness recognizes the connectedness of time, and in fact takes this connectedness quite seriously. Without future goals, present action is aimless. Without taking the past into account, no learning occurs. Both the past and the future have no power over the ideal mind. The ideal mind uses other eras of time to serve and enhance the present. Part of forgiveness is refusing to permit another person's past actions to continue hurting you.
I'm going to stop here. There are many other fine mental ideals, I know, but I tried to choose four that were as uncontroversial and general as possible. Regardless of the many differences between the factions of the world, this concept of the ideal mind is common to all, even if it only takes concrete shape in a precious few individuals in a given society. It seems to me that any religion, belief system, morality, self-help regimen, or life principle worth listening to will foster development toward the ultimate end of personal growth outlined above: the ideal mind. Also keep in mind that in the vast majority of cases, strategies for the cultivation of the ideal mind fail primarily not because the strategies are defective, but because the person involved chose to fail. On the other hand, any specific strategy or system may overemphasize some attributes, leaving its acolytes to infer what counterbalances are necessary in practice of the ideal mind. And sooner or later the practitioner will discover complex unanswered questions and situations that must be confronted individually. Like some of the other vitally important intangibles of the human condition, the ideal mind is easier to sense "in the wild" than through words. That being said, the human search for the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything has been ongoing for a looooong time, so it's foolish to disregard what others discovered before us.

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