Consciousness is our most precious gift, and simultaneously the source of our worst suffering. Subjectivity is the most salient feature of our lives, and yet for so many this experience is one marked by ontological anxiety, the feeling that life is meaningless and not worth going on with. In modern Western societies, this is increasingly becoming the case. Stripped of our faith in a higher power, we are naked in a world fundamentally indifferent to our well being.
Despite this, it’s difficult to dispute the value of a sound mind and the potential for life to be fulfilling. Even in circumstances involving extreme suffering people are able to find beauty and purpose. In Man’s Search For Meaning, holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes extensively about the profound psychological insights and clarity of purpose achieved by himself and other WWII concentration camp prisoners.
With this in mind, it’s clear that the task of building a sound mind and a meaningful life must be taken up by each individual, regardless of circumstance, as suffering is a result of our interpretation of events rather than the events in and of themselves.
But how can we go about this? The answer lies in a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ever-inspiring essay titled Self Reliance:
“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
What does it mean to have integrity of mind? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, writes that “the control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” Our ability to improve the quality of our everyday experience, Csikszentmihalyi argues, is dependent on the degree to which we can master our attention and gain autonomy in consciousness.
The first step towards gaining autonomy in consciousness is to undergo the difficult process of individuation, in which a stable self-concept is created independent of societal pressures. Although easier, there’s no freedom in conforming completely to the opinion of others. In order to enjoy a fulfilling life, individuals must become independent of social controls so as not to be a slave to their rewards. The alternative is a feeling of alienation, of not being true to ones self, and lacking control.
To individuate, however, is not merely to disregard social norms and follow one’s each and every impulse. Being a slave to desire is as opposed to cultivating autonomy in consciousness as being a slave to social control. We have impulses to engage in behaviours that are detrimental to our long term wellbeing. Learning to control these desires is another step towards a sound mind and building a stronger self concept.
The self can be described as the meta-representation of all the information you’ve retained throughout your life with which you identify: your memories, hierarchy of goals, and intentional states. Memories ground you in a particular narrative, goals tell you what to value and work towards, and intentions include such mental states as hunger and thirst. Combined, this information creates your self-concept.
The self plays a big role in the quality of our experience. By working towards a more complex self-concept, we can learn to combat ontological anxiety. Let’s recall the earlier quote from Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian-American psychologist: “the control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
The way to achieve this control and autonomy of consciousness is through the selection of goals that are intrinsically motivating, not dictated to you by others, and challenging enough to demand our full attention. By setting for ourselves difficult goals and working diligently towards them we expand our skills, re-structure our goal hierarchies and cultivate a deep sense of engagement with the world. Most people know the feeling of being so focused on a task that they lose track of time and forget themselves.
This state of mind is what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. By fostering this flow state, you are taking Emerson’s advice to “absolve you to yourself.” It’s precisely these moments that justify the inevitable suffering of conscious experience.
Our ability to simply pay attention to experience plays a large role in improving it’s quality as well. Simply being aware of the sensations you are experiencing at any moment is a difficult goal to set in itself, as our minds tend to wander within seconds. We can enter the flow state by pursuing goals, or improving our ability to sustain attention for long periods of time.
Life itself might be meaningless, but this does not mean that it cannot be given meaning, nor does it warrant nihilism. By learning to control consciousness, cultivate intrinsic motivation, and improve our selves, we can learn to see the beauty in every day experience.
Originally published on Medium, June 6th 2018