How to not be a loser

I have become an embarrassment to humanity lately. Here is the complete spectrum of emotions currently active in my body:

Table: Full itemization of my emotional pantry.
EmotionReferentLocation
Pain FFear of continued incompetenceAbdomen and throat
Pain CFear of continued aversionChest
Pain RRegretSolar plexus
Pain XSelf-hatred (“I’ve fucked up my life”)Skin

I used to be Mr. Entertainment to everyone. But not anymore. Since my abandonment by breakup three years ago, I’ve become non-fun to be around. What is the nature of this creeping devolution?

First guess: Heartbreak. Despair. Feeling abandoned, alone, and rejected. Loss of self-confidence, pride-of-accomplishment, social connection, and the happiness that comes from these.

But there is something else that I’ve noticed, which is the point of this post. Most changes of self are easy to spot because they are at least presentable to the self as changes that it can notice. A noticeable self-change is one that the witness consciousness, the core self that at the center of perception, is aware of. And when the witness sees this or that content, notes it, and recognizes it, it takes the change as something external to it. It thinks, “Oh, that thing about me has changed.” And by doing so it dis-identifies from it. One notices that the body has gotten fatter, or that one’s mood has changed. Things that are noticeable for the subject are external to it.

But there is another type of change that is utterly invisible and only surmised from what we infer to be its effects on other things, which may take years to manifest. I am talking about the will. The will is hard to catch precisely because it is not external to the noticing self, but stands at its center.

How can one manage the will, which is closer to one’s self than one’s own thoughts? Will is prior to all. It is the infinitesimal center of centers, inaccessibly at one’s center. We say that will is always behind or underneath our experience—never out in front like normal objects. It is prior to perception, prior to awareness. Objects, when intelligible, are born from consciousness. We posit them; our having putting them together is what we mean by our “understanding” them. But consciousness is born from will. How can one put the infinitely inward and prior will under one’s own … will?

Can willing be directed, be willed? When one’s own willing is out of accord with what one wills, what can be done? How can one wills what one does not will? The apparent contradiction in the last two questions plus the analyticity of the first indicates three types of willing:

  1. Live willing—Some willing is directed by short-circuit agency that controls the willing improvisationally, as when we play tennis or guitar or sing or (best example) balance a tennis racket on our finger tip. This is a short circuit of willing, muscle movement, perceptual feedback, and new willing—the whole time bringing (action) the ever-tilting and -falling racket (perception) back into verticality (our internal standard). The action is driven by a chosen standard.
  2. Rational willing—Some willing is directed by remembered commitment to an abstract principle. This is the willing we mean in the locution being one’s word. One’s word is a chosen collection of self-imposed maxims. The principles are chosen by rational choice, meaning merely that options for action have been (1) considered for their results and these results then (2) compared. What we “ought” to do is what the self wants when it’s practicing choice from the healthy state of long-term concern, which is a kind of sadness and so played down in advertising.
  3. Compulsive willing—Some willing is compulsive. This is willing that is activated by feeling (vedana) and enacted from a stored pattern (samskara). Samskaras are stored action sequences that run willing.

We have found our one and only enemy (number 3). If we could turn compulsive willing off, then life would be smooth sailing to success. But if perception is determined and responses are programmed, how is there room for intervention by rational agency?

The good news is that the description in (3) is incomplete. Samskaras are programmed responses to stimuli, true. But their realization through our enactment depends on force. The force is not the primal force of Schopenhauer, but a high-level emergent fabricated inside the organism. It is reaction to pain. Forceful reaction to pain, however, depends on something we can control. We can react blindly by giving ourselves over to the action sequence, which the most comfortable thing to do. Following ones habits is instantly rewarding.

Habit is run by pain. We just never test its limits. Urge is pain, and little urge is all we need to convinced. Slight discomfort arises, and gone—we grab another chip or play another game. If we resist Almighty Urge, the pain increases. Urge is pushing us. Then, even as we reach for the chip, Urge starts rewarding us—prematurely! Even before it happens, merely agreeing to consent to Urge in the future releases dopamine. This is very efficient control, perfect for manipulating an inner executive function that emulates physical time with images and concepts. Punishing and rewarding even acts of linguistic intent allows all the reins to be gathered into single executive center.

In Buddhism, the giving in to aversion is called craving. It is the one and only place in the Twelve Nidanas, which are the links in the Wheel of Assent-Mediated Compulsive Becoming. One of the links requires assent. Intervention is possible!

So there is a tiny gap that allows true intervention: reactivity to pain. Being non-reactive to pain, or equanimous, disengages samskara and physical action. And this prevents the premature punishment and reward cycle. If equanimity towards pain could itself be made habitual, then rational will could take the helm and the future would be bright.