TT&P: Discipline

20191221

Descartes said je pense, donc je suis and later cogito ergo sum. His argument was something like: if I am able to doubt my existence, I am thinking, and if I am thinking I must exist. This seems to be absolutely true in a sense. If I am able to think in any capacity, then I have some sort of existence. My mind, or at least my experience of it, occurs. What this does not tell us is whether or not this experience is genuine.

In meditation, I have found that I am not my thoughts. Thoughts occur to me without my volition. I can exercise control over my mind, but it takes effort and practice. The path for me was first to learn to control my actions. To some extent age brought that capability, and to some extent certain experiences in my life brought that capability to me. Controlling my mind was something of an outgrowth of controlling my actions, but meditation was the practice that solidified it. Emotional regulation and control is the most difficult of the three forms of self-discipline, and is still difficult. I still occasionally find myself asking: "Why did I say that?" or even more troubling "Why did I do that?"

To further illustrate "one is not one's thoughts" take a pre-teens as an example. Most middle schools across the USA (for those outside the USA, Middle School is US grades 6, 7, and 8 and usually has kids ages 11-13) are filled with young people who have zero ability to control their minds, little ability to control their mouths, and only feeble ability to control their actions. This tends to be why Middle School is nearly universally remembered as an awful time period for Americans. It's a shared experience in our culture, and one that causes a bit of suffering for the parents of those children as well. I bring it up as a sort of proof for adults who's memories aren't too reliable that self-control is not inherent. It must be learned and practiced. It must be cultivated. Without, at some point, rather intentional effort this ability will not arise at all.

This then brings me to a question: if I am not my thoughts, and I do not control them, what am I? I am the experiencer of my consciousness. I am not necessarily my consciousness. The mere act of thinking does not prove to me that I am anything. It is instead that I experience thought, that I experience anything at all, that informs me that I exist in some fashion. This may be a distinction without purpose, but I believe it to be quite important. The way we phrase this brings emphasis to the need to exercise volition and control over the mind. You can change who you are by changing your mental, emotional, and physical habits. You can become a better person if you are willing to invest the time and energy to do so. Your thoughts happen to you and not because of you, but you can change them... if only you wish to do so.

This is, partially, what our religions and philosophies have been trying to tell us for all of these many years. You do not have to be subject to your mind, emotions, and actions. You can direct them. You can gain agency over yourself. Perhaps it is the increasing secularization of our societies that have precipitated the rise in mental and emotional illness. Perhaps, it is this secularization that has led to the cultural confusions and conflicts we see in our societies.

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