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I’d like to make the following points in this post:

  1. The importance of our conscious mind and specifically the entity we call “I” has less of a role in controlling our destiny than we commonly believe.
  2. Our conscious mind doesn’t choose what we desire or our core personality traits.
  3. We place too much importance on our sense of self and its ability to direct our lives in the way “we” want to.
  4. Even if our conscious mind had a big say in things, the factors that shape our conscious or subconscious mind aren’t really under our control.
  5. Our enhanced sense of the power of self or what we consider “I” leads us to try to control our lives in ways that only produce neuroticism.

What Is The Role of Consciousness In Cognitive Processes?

The short answer is no one really knows exactly.  We tend to intuitively feel that higher level thinking is going on purely in our conscious mind, but we also know that this isn’t the case.

A group of scientists were asked how big they believe the conscious mind is in the context of all brain activity.  All of them indicated that they thought it was a small portion of total brain activity.



What I find fascinating is the fact that scans of our brain reveal what we are going to choose before we’re aware of it.

We are naturally deluded to think that our consciousness has an out-sized influence on our destiny.

We also don’t realize that the subconscious mind is also capable of thinking of complex problems, something we’d normally attribute to our conscious mind.

To demonstrate this, think about the time when you were thinking of a hard problem that you wanted to solve and the solution came not when you were actively trying to solve the problem, but when you were thinking of something completely different or maybe even when  you were  sleeping.   From this example, we see that our higher level thinking is quite independent of our conscious mind.

Who is the”I” That Chooses?


Have you ever asked yourself who the “I” is that’s choosing to live your life in some way or another?  Or the “I” that’s constantly thinking about everything under the sun?  Did you ever ask yourself who is doing all this thinking?  If yes, how much of it can you control?

Whenever I mention “I” or “You” or “Me” in quotation marks I am referring to the entity that we think is “You”, “Me” or “I”.  That super-being that is your thoughts and “decides” and plans the life you want to live – at least this is how it appears to us.  The “Me” that seems like an island unto itself that is completely separate from humanity.

For my whole life,  I had this dualistic sense that there was this distinct “I” or”Me” that called the shots.  This conscious entity, I thought, had the power to choose my destiny.  “I” could decide to do one thing over the other and “I” could choose how my personality should be, etc…”I” was the determining factor of my fate.

Some aspect of this is true, as in we do experience some kind of “I” that chooses in some sense.  Since our conscious mind is part of our overall brain activity it probably does play some small role in shaping our activities and decisions.  However, we tend to view this consciousness as a distinct entity and over-emphasize the power of this “I” entity, which leads to mistaken notions about how much of our life we could control.

We instinctively feel we can control our consciousness to a large degree.  I felt this, too, for a long time.  At a certain point,  however, I started to question how much “I” can control my fate.

Yes, there is some “I” that “decides”, but you should ask yourself who or what controls this “I.”

The Delusional Power of “I”

An underlying belief and a strong sense of the power of  what “I” can do leads to a situation where we believe if we just think about a topic enough, maybe we can change the course of our lives.

This  thinking that we have significant power to shape our destiny stems from the illusory idea that there is some entity within our conscious mind that we have complete control over.

If only we could find the right way to think about something or read enough motivation/self-help books then we can finally be motivated to get all of the stuff that we wanted to get done, we tell ourselves. Or we just have to will it enough, we’ve been told.

But I say that willing isn’t up to “You” nor is your level of diligence or desire for hard work.  These are innate traits that are clustered under conscientiousness and everyone is born with a certain level of it.  The environment modulates these desires, but the environment isn’t mostly under your control.  The part of the environment that is under your control isn’t influenced by “You”, but by the entirety of your “system”.

The point is everyone has the illusion to one degree or another about how much we control in our lives.   As much as we think we are where we are today because of some separate entity called “I”  made these choices, the reality is the path that you took was chosen for you by forces not under your control.

If you don’t believe this, imagine what your life would be like if you’ve never tried to change yourself, never had anxiety, never planned or thought about the future….? Instead you just did what you had to do when the time came…..I would’ve probably saved so much time from all the neurotic thoughts that I’d have accomplished much more by now.

Elon Musk Didn’t Choose To Be Motivated

Motivation is a good example of a relatively fixed trait, assuming no external biological manipulation (like LLLT) or no underlying change in health.   A cytokine called TNF, for example, can decrease motivation.

Otherwise, the only way that motivation can be changed in the short term by increasing your stress level – but there’s no free ride.  You can increase your motivation now by increasing psychological stress, but when the stress disappears your motivation declines to a lower level then it would’ve been had you not been stressed.

It’s kind of like how tired we are in the day is biological and the only way we can change it in the short term is by being stressed, but it catches up with you in one way or another.

Elon Musk is probably one of the most motivated people out there, but do you think he read a book on it or tried to actively increase it? I’d be shocked if he did.  Elon Musk doesn’t think about how motivated he is or how to increase it, he just is and doesn’t waste his time thinking about it.   He takes advantage of his motivation and just does what he’s motivated to do.  In a certain senses some part of him chose to be motivated, but that didn’t come about because of dwelling on it or trying to change it.

Michael Bloomberg, who is a self-made billionaire and one of the richest people in the world, didn’t choose to be where he is.  The reason I mention him is because I found it interesting that he had planned to do charity, but he couldn’t help but run his company.  He logically chose that it would be best for him to devote his life to charity, but his system, at the age of 72, decided that he just loved running his company and can’t hold himself back.  He says “However, the more time I spent reacquainting myself with the company, the more exciting and interesting I found it” (R).

I used to mistakenly assume that motivation can be increased by willing to have more of it or putting myself in the right mental framework.  Maybe if I just thought about how a subject or task can be more interesting, I’d like it more or if I viewed it in the right light, I’d finally love to do it.  Or even better, I used to try to convince myself I liked things when I didn’t.   I was searching for some hack to change my preferences and predilections so that I can become a “better” person.

The truth is, I’m already the best self I can be by not trying to be anything else other than who I am and embracing whatever talents I have and don’t have.  The more we try to change ourselves, the more  neurotic we become.

Ultimately, the only “hack” is complete acceptance of your reality right now and acceptance that this reality may never change, which is to say that there are no hacks to change your personality.   You may never be as smart as you wanted or as successful.  On the other hand, you may also be richest person in the world, but the point is you should be comfortable accepting your situation right now and whatever cards are thrown at you in the future.

We Control Less Than You’d Expect

In the past, I always kept trying to control my life in a very top-down manner. Slowly, I realized that attempting to control things not only wasn’t an optimal way for me to go about life, but it didn’t work as I had wanted it to, either. One such stark realization I had was how little we can control our destiny.  This is a scary thought for some, but the more scared you are of this idea, the worse your OCD is.

The realization of how little we control bolstered my ability to “let go”, which I had been working on for a while before that.  The inspiration for these realizations came from the Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn and some from the philosopher John Gray.  JKZ encouraged me to ask and investigate who the “I” is that’s doing all the thinking. He speaks about being aware of the mental chatter and letting it go.  This is called mindfulness meditation.

I always had a problem with the idea of free will, but even as I doubted whether free will exists, I still had the notion that “I” can control my destiny or that I can somehow influence innate biological forces by certain types of thinking.   I thought that we were born with whatever sense of self we had, so from that perspective we didn’t have a say in the sense of self we wound up in, but I also thought that given this sense of self that we have, it can be used to change various factors about us and shape our future in some out-sized manner.

To understand more deeply what I mean by our conscious mind having little control, I will bring a few examples by how we think we control our fate through our conscious mind, yet we really don’t.

For example, “You” can “decide” that you want to be more motivated.  So, you tell yourself, OK, for now on I will be more motivated and get more sh*t done.  So while “You” decided this, what factor decided what “you” should choose?  Meaning, where did this motivation to be more motivated come from?  You may think that no one or nothing decided this, but the only way that that’d the case is if there is some ethereal or mystical force that we can’t explain and is independent of our biology.  People are naturally inclined to feel that this is the case, even if they’re atheists.  It’s human nature to believe that our conscious mind is the seat of control.

It’s also true that I’ve found more often than not when I tried to change things by deciding to be one way or another, the changes were short lived, if they occurred at all.   And many times when I don’t plan to do things, I spontaneously do it anyway.  What this means, for me at least, is that planning has less of  a role in what I actually end up doing than I’d like to believe.

To some degree we need to use our higher cognitive function and some consciousness to plan something out initially, but there’s absolutely no reason to actively think of these plans more than once or what’s better known as dwelling (not the same as rehearsing for something).  And it’s not like our conscious mind can’t think about these plans anyway while we’re not actively thinking about it.

The conscious mind is relatively insignificant in deciding what “you” like or dislike.  The conscious mind is there for some higher level thinking and to implement the innate desires of your unconscious mind and your innate biology or what I like to call your “system.”  The conscious mind is probably more like a window than anything else.

Can you understand why “you” like sex, human interaction, goals, romance, love, etc….?  You didn’t one day decide to choose to like the smell of roses or the  scenery of nature.  You just did.  We are born with a set of genes and these genes interact with our environment to produce the product that is you.  Liking things isn’t “rational” and we didn’t choose to like or dislike anything.  We are how we are without choosing to be like this.

It’s also interesting how we like to view ourselves as morally upstanding individuals.  After all, “I” chose to do a good deed.  “I” could’ve chosen to not do a good deed, but instead “I” did something good and therefore “I” am a good person.   In reality, your “system” went through a complex “equation” of various innate forces competing against each other until the dominant force won out and communicated this message to your consciousness to implement the decision in the best possible way.  Our morality isn’t, therefore, chosen by us, but was rather prechosen by milllions of years of evolution in combination with environmental chance.

Everyone has a different system, though, irrespective of morals.  Some people enjoy giving more and have more empathy .  The givers didn’t choose to be like this – they just were.  In the way we define morality, I guess the givers are more moral.  But I see morality as just a code that we make up for ourselves and which springs forth from a cacophony of competing, innate desires.

What’s likely really going on, however, is our subconscious – which is what really decides what we like and is influenced by our genes and environment – subtly and effortlessly relays the message to your conscious mind that you want to accomplish more.  All the while, we don’t necessarily understand the underlying reason why the subconscious told our conscious mind to choose something over another.   And even if we did it’s irrelevant.  The point is we were evolutationarily “designed” to feel drawn to certain behaviors and choices, with or without an “I”. So in some sense, we are like animals, with a small added layer on top that we like to call “I” and that makes us feel proud and gives us the illusion of choice.

This idea of how little control we really have collides with our neuroses head on and causes quite a bit of discomfort at first, which is why many people won’t accept this idea.

If you read these words, you will either accept them or reject them to one degree or another.  “You” aren’t choosing to accept them.  Although the conscious mind may play a role in reasoning through these ideas, where did your mind come from that caused you to accept them or reject them?  Did you choose to have this mind?

As Alan Watts says, “If you’re ready to wake up, you’re going to wake up…” (note that I can’t relate to about 30% of what Watts talks about. Much of this video doesn’t make sense to me)

Even if you think you’re highly rational, in the sense that you don’t let your emotions sway you much (as I try to be), you nor I choose to be this way; it was chosen for us by forces out of our control.   Also, the entirety of your system will have a larger role than you probably think in either accepting these ideas or not (including your emotions).

The most critical point is that whether your subconscious accounts for 99% of your desires or 1% (I think it’s closer to the former),  the “you” that is choosing didn’t itself choose what it wanted to choose.

Our Future Planning Is Mostly Irrelevant

I think most of our planning about the future is irrelevant.  Looking back at my own planning, 99% of it was irrelevant and didn’t help me anyway.  It was purely for my own pleasure, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Imagine how much time you’d save if you cut out 99% of the planning in your life and just did instead of planned.

In the past, if I dwelled on a topic, I would attribute a lot of importance to my thoughts.  If a topic ever consumes me now, I view it as a tide that isn’t under my control.  All I can do is sit back and listen to the chorus and what it’s telling me to do.

The voices aren’t usually monolithic.  Almost always, there are competing desires, so I listen to all of them and let them duke it out.  My conscious role then becomes more like a referee in a basketball game, or more accurately a spectator.  Whereas before I had this vague sense that I was more like some all star team and if I just had the right moves I could accomplish whatever I wanted.

I’m not saying that we should never try.   There’s no way to know unless we try.   But what we shouldn’t do is keep trying when our system is telling us to stop.  Sometimes we do this because of peer or familial pressure.

Elon Musk built incredible companies while people were telling him he’s crazy.  He didn’t care and he just listened to his system.  He knew he could fail, but he tried anyway.  I’m not against trying.  I think if you feel impelled to keep trying against all odds, then you follow that.   And if you have the talent, you will accomplish great things.  But, again, what I’m against is trying against all odds for the sake of trying against all odds.  Meaning, don’t do it because it’ll make a good story for your life.  Do it if that’s what your system is telling you to do.

If it’s true that we can’t change our fixed traits, then there is little one can change.   What we become isn’t up to “us.” The level of “success” I attain in the future isn’t my choice.  The amount of money I make isn’t up to “me.”  That’s for fate to decide.  All I can do is listen to what my system tells me to do and do that.

I don’t enjoy sitting home and doing nothing all day.  I enjoy learning, thinking, writing, being creative and helping people – and I don’t mind a small amount of annoying work in the day.  If I feel like working hard, I’ll do that.  If I feel ambitious, then I’ll be ambitious.  If I feel unmotivated, then I’ll sit and navel gaze or meditate.

Sometimes I feel lazy and don’t want to do anything.  Other times I can go 4 days straight of researching and writing for 18 hours a day.  Sometimes I get into a doer mode where I like doing, rather than thinking.  And then there’re the times where I just like to tinker, with my website or what ever.

Sometimes I plan these activities to no end and when it comes time to doing it I’ll think, hmmm….you know what? I’m not really in the mood for this now, and get distracted with cute videos of kittens on youtube.  The times that I have been most productive weren’t planned.  I spontaneously just “decided” to do something productive.  But again, who is the “decider”?

There’re two types of trying and this point is subtle.  There’s active trying and passive trying.    In active trying, you are trying to achieve a specific result.   In passive trying, you are just taking commands from your system and will accept the result whatever it may be because you realize that on some level you have absolutely no control over the outcome.

If you’re able to stop the chatter of your conscious mind, nothing will really change that much, except that you’ll become more at peace with yourself and you’ll be able to listen better.  Your inner desires will still be there.

What follows from these ideas is that you don’t need to give yourself motivational pep talks to be motivated in the long term.  It’s true that that pep talks may give you a surge of motivation (with some anxiety) for a few minutes and that may be useful for a coach to give to his players in the final play of a game, but this isn’t a strategy to shift your motivation for more than a few minutes.

I think the conscious mind can  influence our behavior in the very short term the way we want it to.   So if we think about accomplishing more for a minute, that minute that we were thinking about it, we are more motivated, but when we stop thinking about it, we go back to our baseline level of motivation.  Hence, thinking about it doesn’t really do much and  in the long run- the only thing that will change is our neuroses.

When you realize these things, you begin to accept who you are – your nature – and you stop trying to fight or control it (or at least you fight/control things less).   This isn’t a hack, but a realization and truth which allows you to put things into perspective better.

There’s nothing to implement.  I’m just offering the ideas for thought, so that you can pay attention to your own patterns and see if it matches up to my experience.  If this resonates with you, you will think about a lot.  If not, you will forget it in a few hours.  It’s not up to “You.”

It may take time to realize what your nature is about, but once you do embrace it and don’t take it too seriously.  I view my own nature as a river that pulls me in places that “I” can’t control.  Instead of fighting against the tide, I relax, don’t take it seriously and let it take me where ever “it” decides to take me.

Why Does This Philosophy Matter?

The realization that we can’t control our destiny  can be useful in a few ways.

For example, I see people trying to use mantras and other top-down mental approaches to increase their motivation and mood.  Like I’ve said,  I think this is a completely, a fruitless endeavor.  If you understand the nature of the mind and people, you’ll realize how this approach won’t get you far.

We’ll then be less likely to think about the past, the future,  and therefore regret or be angry with ourselves or others. There was nothing “you” could’ve done to stop some outcome that occurred (no regrets) and there’s less of a reason to think about the future, because it’s not really under our control, anyway.

And if you don’t think there’s this separate entity within people and “they” aren’t responsible for their behavior, you stop getting angry at people, or at least the anger subsides.  I don’t think people are responsible for who they are. Still, it doesn’t mean I will associate with certain individuals even if they didn’t choose to be a certain way.  And this doesn’t change the morality of locking criminals up.  Locking criminals up is a practical way for society to be functional.

How Did These Ideas Influence Me?

At first, this realization made me uneasy because I felt like if I don’t really have control over my fate then why am I putting effort into some task?  But eventually, I became more comfortable with this and began to listen better to myself.

Of course, I still put effort into things, but the effort is more organic than controlled.

I’d like to emphasize that losing control is not a science, but an art.   It takes time, but you’ll get better.

Overall, my life is less a planned and I don’t try to control my destiny.  Instead, I sit back and feel the current pull and I don’t fight it- I just listen and swim with it.  I’m not perfect and sometimes I get swept up and become mindless or try to control something too much, but just realizing these ideas have had a profound impact in the way that I see the world.

By changing my physiology and coming to certain realizations that ended up changing the course of my life, I was able to completely get rid of my OCD and now I’m less  neurotic than anyone I know.   My roommate who lives with me claims I’m the least neurotic person he knows.  It didn’t happen over a day or even year, but was rather a 5 year process (and counting).  It took me a while to accept many of the ideas that I have now about life.  The first stage in changing is believing in the path that you want to pursue.  Hence, I am writing this post for you to ponder and mull over.

This attitude may not lead you to where you intended to be led, but it certainly leads you to a more peaceful place and it will alleviate the internal strain of constantly fighting against the tide of your nature.  Going with the flow dramatically decreased my level of neuroses and released creative energies within me.  It also made me more productive (not more productive in carrying out specific goals, though).

I didn’t implement these steps for these or any specific outcomes.  I just realized the truth of it.  It took a long time for these things to slowly sink in and I wasn’t prepared to accept them for a while – I was afraid of the outcome.  Well, I thought, if I accept these ideas what if I’ll become indolent and lifeless?  However, after practicing letting go for a while, I finally was able to let go of most of my ambitions and the need to accomplish anything.  I realized that no matter what happened I could still be happy.  If I accomplish less?  No problem.  I trusted that whatever the outcome, my quality of life would be better, overall, even if I couldn’t predict exactly how.

Having gone through this transformation,  I can say there is no turning back.  I’ve likely been changed forever.  I can’t take anything in life too seriously any more, but it doesn’t mean I get less done.  If anything, I’m much more productive because I’m not thinking about 90% of the stuff I used to think about and the anxiety associated with those thoughts. I’m happier this way.

I mentioned that I was writing a book and though I’ve worked on it a bit, I realized that I don’t have the motivation to do it one fell swoop, like other people.  Instead of fighting this and trying to change myself,  what I plan on doing is writing more content for the blog and eventually, maybe in a year, taking the material from here that can be fit in an ebook and adding maybe 30% and editing it.  That’s something my current motivation allows me to do.  Again, I don’t fight my system, I just try to listen to it and work with it.  The same thing can be said about my shake.  I don’t know if spending most of my time launching a shake will make me happy and I’m definitely not motivated enough to do it alone.  My solution, when and if the time comes, is to partner with people who are “doers”, rather than thinkers like myself.  Yes, I can “do” in the right environment, but I am more motivated to do thought projects right now than opening up a business that requires more hands on doing.  I accept my nature and work with it instead of fighting against it.  If I try to do too much, my mood starts to go down a bit.  It’s just a pattern I’ve noticed.  There’s no question that planned activities are necessary sometimes, but I think many people’s lives are over-planned – I know mine was.

I used to try to plan out the posts I wrote.  I realized it started to feel like work.  So instead I just wrote whatever, even if the post was a quarter finished and published it.  Heck, this post wasn’t even proofread. Eventually, I get an internal push to make it better and so I eventually edit posts.  There’s many posts that need a lot of work, but I wait for the push to come and then ride the wave.

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  • Joe

    @Rob You make good points, most of which I agree to. The only thing I disagree with is that we can’t work on our level of awareness. I agree that situations are a huge motivating force to increase our awareness, just like motivation.

    I also think we can’t change our motivation by thinking about it or willing it. These actions also carry the downside of making us more neurotic. However, I do think that getting used to hard work – for whatever reason you decided to work hard in the beginning – makes us more motivated. So not everyone can get used to hard work, but if you are used to it, then that you will increase your motivation “muscles.” So thinking about how to be motivated won’t get you anywhere, but actually working hard will build your motivation “muscles.” Conversely, watching TV all day will weaken your motivation “muscles.” (I think these effects are relatively short lived, though)

    Awareness is also a muscle and it can be built by practicing mindfulness and meditation, the same way focus can be enhanced by samadhi meditation or studying for the LSAT or dual N-Back and the same way our muscles can be built by lifting weights or your music skills improved by playing an instrument. You won’t become more aware thinking about how you should become aware, but rather by practicing it (through mindfulness and meditation). What will happen after you become more aware we can’t predict. Different things happen to different people, in the same way that everyone experiences differences in their response to psychedelics.

    You can argue that we don’t know the causality and that the only reason we became more mindful if we tried is because our system already decided to do so because of some circumstance. But I think that’s kind of like saying we only built our muscle because already decided to build it, not as a result of the action of lifting weights. I say practicing awareness, just like exercise, will cause us to increase awareness if we do it. Most people don’t actually do it, though, just like many people don’t exercise. Knowing that working out will build our muscles and that exercise has health benefits will make us more likely to do it. I think everyone should attempt to do it and do it to the best of their abilities. After giving it their best shot for say 6 months, they should look back and determine if it’s helped them. If you look at the studies, it doesn’t help everyone – my guess is because they just weren’t inherently capable of doing it or some other unknown reason.

    How do I know we can enhance awareness and attention if we try? I don’t. But there’s my own experience (which is rightfully flawed because it’s hard to pin down causality as you’ve pointed out), 2500 years of Eastern teachings, other people’s experiences and scientific studies. If I see studies on people trying to increase their mood and it works, then I may change my opinion even though my own experience was negative, but I’ve listed a study where it shows that people who are focused on their happiness become less happy. So that’s one study supporting my hypothesis. The following studies show causality that mindfulness and meditation can help us (ie we can change):

    “Our findings suggest that 4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention”

    Twelve studies were included in the review, six of which were randomized controlled trials. Studies involved a wide variety of meditation techniques and reported preliminary positive effects on attention, memory, executive function, processing speed, and general cognition. However, most studies had a high risk of bias and small sample sizes. Reported dropout rates were low and compliance rates high. We conclude that meditation interventions for older adults are feasible, and preliminary evidence suggests that meditation can offset age-related cognitive decline.

    This review demonstrates some efficacy of meditative therapies in reducing anxiety symptoms, which has important clinical implications for applying meditative techniques in treating anxiety. However, most studies measured only improvement in anxiety symptoms, but not anxiety disorders as clinically diagnosed.”

    Trials conducted against nonspecific active controls provided efficacy data. Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate strength of evidence (SOE) for improvement in anxiety (effect size [ES], 0.40; CI, 0.08 to 0.71 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.22; CI, 0.02 to 0.43 at 3–6 months), depression (ES, 0.32; CI, −0.01 to 0.66 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.23; CI, 0.05 to 0.42 at 3–6 months); and pain (ES, 0.33; CI, 0.03 to 0.62); and low SOE for improvement in stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life. We found either low SOE of no effect or insufficient SOE of an effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating, sleep, and weight.

    After reviewing 18 753 citations, we included 47 trials with 3515 participants. Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety (effect size, 0.38 [95% CI, 0.12-0.64] at 8 weeks and 0.22 [0.02-0.43] at 3-6 months), depression (0.30 [0.00-0.59] at 8 weeks and 0.23 [0.05-0.42] at 3-6 months), and pain (0.33 [0.03- 0.62]) and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. We found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. We found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).

    There were no significant differences between meditation and relaxation on distress and positive mood states over time. Effect sizes for distress were large for both meditation and relaxation (Cohen’s d = 1.36 and .91, respectively), whereas the meditation group showed a larger effect size for positive states of mind than relaxation (Cohen’s d =.71 and .25, respectively). The meditation group also demonstrated significant pre-post decreases in both distractive and ruminative thoughts/behaviors compared with the control group (p < .04 in all cases; Cohen's d = .57 for rumination and .25 for distraction for the meditation group), with mediation models suggesting that mindfulness meditation's effects on reducing distress were partially mediated by reducing rumination. No significant effects were found for spiritual experience.

    We report for the first time significant increases in left-sided anterior activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect, in the meditators compared with the nonmeditators. We also found significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the wait-list control group. Finally, the magnitude of increase in left-sided activation predicted the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine.

    Mindfulness based interventions in multiple sclerosis – a systematic review.
    Statistically significant beneficial effects relating to QOL, mental health, and selected physical health measures were sustained at 3- and 6- month follow up.

    In contrast, mindfulness meditation techniques appear to shift cognitive appraisals from threat to challenge, decrease ruminative thought, and reduce stress arousal. Mindfulness may also directly increase positive arousal states. We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.

    These results suggest that MBSR may have a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms in GAD and may also improve stress reactivity and coping as measured in a laboratory stress challenge.

    The results suggest that mindfulness meditation may alter the efficiency of allocating cognitive resources, leading to improved self-regulation of attention.

    This research examined whether cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness interventions that target responses to chronic stress, pain, and depression reduce pain and improve the quality of everyday life for adults with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The 144 RA participants were clustered into groups of 6-10 participants and randomly assigned to 1 of 3 treatments: cognitive behavioral therapy for pain (P); mindfulness meditation and emotion regulation therapy (M); or education-only group (E), which served as an attention placebo control. The authors took a multimethod approach, employing daily diaries and laboratory assessment of pain and mitogen-stimulated levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a proinflammatory cytokine. Participants receiving P showed the greatest Pre to Post improvement in self-reported pain control and reductions in the IL-6; both P and M groups showed more improvement in coping efficacy than did the E group. The relative value of the treatments varied as a function of depression history. RA patients with recurrent depression benefited most from M across several measures, including negative and positive affect and physicians’ ratings of joint tenderness, indicating that the emotion regulation aspects of that treatment were most beneficial to those with chronic depressive features.

    So my position is most of us can increase awareness and attention, but what results with this increased ability is unknown and probably different for different people, but it usually leads to more positive and less neurotic states.

    So I think people CAN CHANGE in some ways for the better, but not by using the methods of the self help movement.

    Fatalism comes in after we try to change. Then I think we need to look back and take inventory of our lives and see what has worked for us and what hasn’t. We should accept that on some level we can’t change at all, on a different level our capacity to change is very limited and on different level our lives can be completely transformed.

    One thing that’s important from this post is to realize how limited the thing we called “I” is and the more we try to use this “I” to change who “we” are, the more neurotic we’re bound to become. But I don’t think increasing awareness or focus are changes that will make us more neurotic.

    Whether I can fully explain why trying to increase our happiness causes us to become neurotic,but trying to change our awareness doesn’t is irrelevant. The fact is, this is what my experience (and science) suggests.

  • Rob

    Anyways I want to congratulate you on a thoughtful post that even if it can’t “help” us adds to our understanding of human nature, even if we can only sigh in rueful resignation. Cheers!

  • Rob

    While this is a great post and you’re on the right track I feel that this philosophy doesn’t go far enough – you haven’t drawn the ultimate conclusion from your own insight. You’re only half-way there. If our thoughts truly play so small a role in our life then it really doesn’t matter what we think and any effort to think a specific way – even the way you recommend – is pointless Even to recognize the illusion of choice is pointless since its only a thought and can’t have any impact on your behavior. Your “system” will keep on trying despite what you think you “recognize” if that’s where your system “is at”.

    I think its far better to simply live life and the experiences you have will naturally – organically, if you will – give rise to specific thought responses to that situation in ways that are totally out of your control. If you try to motivate yourself and continually fail then eventually you’ll simply stop and accept that its futile – or you won’t. Either way its not up to you – some people will be trapped in an endless cycle of futile effort that no philosophy or thought will break them out of – since conscious thought has no impact on our behavior, as you have very ably demonstrated.

    While you seem to imagine this philosophy helped you and might help others, you have very ably shown that your philosophy could not possibly have had an impact on your behavior and is merely an after-the-fact “realization” of something your system has already decided upon. If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you’ll agree that even after you had this insight you tried to motivate yourself for some time until your system – not this philosophy – simply made you realize it was futile.What you’ve successfully shown is that having any philosophy is rather pointless as we’re utterly trapped within the limits of our biology and our philosophy plays no role in shaping our life – they are just after the fact explanations of things our system has decided.

    What this shows is that philosophy cannot substitute for experience – you live life, your system responds, you have no control, and philosophy merely explains the responses your system has already made, sometimes giving you the “illusion” that your responses were a result of your philosophy.

    The takeaway lesson here, for me at least, is think less, live and experience more, and things will take care of themselves in ways that are inevitable. While there is value in understanding what is going on such understanding won’t have any practical impact – understanding can’t have any practical impact – although such understanding can have intrinsic value of a, to me, limited kind.

    1. Joe

      Thanks. I hope I understand your friendly criticism. I agree with almost everything you’re saying.

      “What this shows is that philosophy cannot substitute for experience – you live life, your system responds, you have no control, and philosophy merely explains the responses your system has already made, sometimes giving you the “illusion” that your responses were a result of your philosophy.” I agree with the first part and I hear the second part as possibility.

      “While there is value in understanding what is going on such understanding won’t have any practical impact.”
      I think understanding what is going on does have an impact. I used to think that my thinking mattered and I could change things, which lead me to try and change things.

      If you’re coming at this from a starting point of “The takeaway lesson here, for me at least, is think less, live and experience more, and things will take care of themselves in ways that are inevitable.”, then I agree that this philosophy isn’t useful for you. But I think an understanding of how little we control will allow us to do exactly as you prescribe.

      If you do accept what I feel is a “truth” then it’s like an environmental factor and I say environmental factors can change the course of your life – in a certain way.

      We can’t control what happens after we realize this but if we pay attention and are aware of what’s going on in our biology we naturally will change to be more at peace with ourselves and less neurotic.

      The only thing that I support we try to change is our level of awareness to the best of our abilities. Realizing and accepting that higher levels of awareness can improve your life in some ways is an environmental factor that will cause some people to become more aware had they never heard these ideas.

      The truth is it’s impossible to know how much any environmental factor will affect us. Maybe I naturally would have been more aware as time went on without hearing someone tell me that it will improve my life. Or maybe accepting fatalism was a result of some internal change that would’ve resulted in me being this way even had I not believed/accepted it.

      But the fact that many of these practices are ancient and have been practiced by many eastern philosophies suggests that in some way you can change your life – ironically, by not trying to change it at all and just being aware and accepting who you are.

      I have another post in the pipeline about attitudes that are conducive to a better life. We can’t necessarily control if we accept those attitudes, but if we do our lives will be better in some way and presenting the information is an environmental factor and like I’ve said environmental factors have the ability to change us in some way.

      1. Rob

        Thanks for taking the trouble to respond, Joe.

        I’m afraid I’m somewhat skeptical of the power of awareness. We all know people – and ourselves – who are perfectly aware but can’t break out of patterns of self-destructive behavior. Something more than awareness seems to be needed (experience?)

        The “system” is a master at self-deception and awareness seems to have little impact on it.

        I would anticipate your response to say that awareness works for some people but not others – but I think that proves awareness doesn’t create change, but only reflects change. Only those who have already changed internally CAN be aware.

        Can we choose to be aware? If awareness is a choice, and choice is an illusion, then it would seem that we cannot. You seem to be saying that there is one area – awareness – where we retain choice and free will. But does that seem very likely? And is that consistent with your philosophy?

        If that’s true then awareness merely REFLECTS change and never produces it.

        Change is accompanied by awareness, creating the “illusion” that it was the awareness that facilitated change – but its the old illusion of choice coming in through the back door.

        The situation is similar for attitudes. You say accepting certain attitudes can help us live better but we can’t choose to accept those attitudes. If so then those attitudes can only be reflections of a change our system has already made. Its not the attitudes that help us live better – its living better that lets us accept those attitudes.The attitudes are natural, organic outgrowths of a chance we already made.

        I am afraid, my friend, that you did a fantastic job showing the illusion of choice only to quietly sneak into the back of the house and let choice in through the back door 🙂

        Anyways thanks for your response and I thoroughly enjoyed your original post even if I can’t accept that awareness or attitudes can be anything more than epiphenomena of change.

        Keep up the good work, Joe


        1. Joe

          “I’m afraid I’m somewhat skeptical of the power of awareness. We all know people – and ourselves – who are perfectly aware but can’t break out of patterns of self-destructive behavior. Something more than awareness seems to be needed (experience?)”

          Awareness is necessary, not sufficient. Experience is also necessary, as are maybe other unknown factors. So I agree awareness alone won’t change your life, but it’s still necessary.

          “The “system” is a master at self-deception and awareness seems to have little impact on it.”

          I agree, but that means we aren’t 100% aware if we are being deceived. It’s not in our power of how aware we are or how capable we are at overcoming these deceptions. But appreciating the value of what awareness is and how it can help us (can we choose to appreciate it???) is an environmental factor that can cause people to become more aware – I think. So you make a good point in whether we could choose to be aware – I can’t know. But what I can say is that if you are/become aware this is a necessary step to making real changes in your life. And I can also say that the environment plays a role and being presented the idea that awareness is necessary for change will cause some part of you to try and become more aware. So I’m for trying (more like experimenting) to be more aware just like I’m for trying to to do anything in your life because we can’t know what will happen unless we try and see for ourselves. I suggest you even try to change your mood and motivation at some point in your life if you haven’t, but listen/be aware/pay attention to the outcome. What changed after you tried to change your mood? Did your mood change or you just became more neurotic? Or nothing happened? One point of this post is to make you more aware of what I’ve experimented with and what I couldn’t control. My experience suggests, however, that we can increase awareness if “we” try. Maybe this is an illusion, but what do you have to lose if you try?

          So try to become more aware of your patterns and just listen. What happens after you do this for a while? We don’t know. Don’t try to become more aware and expect some fantastical change – because what happens after you try to become more aware isn’t up to “you.”

          And you’re right that I can’t prove you can increase your awareness if you try, but this seems to be the case with me and Eastern religions preached this throughout the millenia, so I’m assuming it has an effect for some. Maybe this choice was an illusion…We both can’t know. But I think understanding the value of awareness and what it can do in your life is an environmental factor that will influence us – at least some of us.

          Maybe it’s a good idea in trying to become more aware to read different books on Eastern philosophy, discuss these ideas and perspectives with others and analyze your own patterns. It seems like you’ve done such things judging by how aware you are of our power to self deceive and what awareness could and couldn’t change in your own life. The point is you experimented and saw the outcome.

          I had a friend who used to think he was aware all of the time. He used to say that he can control his thoughts and always knew what he was thinking. He then started studying Buddhism, having conversations with me and reading various philosophies. He now realizes how unaware he is much of the time, how capable he is of deceiving himself, and how little he can control his thoughts and his innate characteristics. He needed experience AND an awareness of what was going on in his mind and his patterns. Could “he” choose to increase it? Sure, if “he” (the entirety of him) was convinced that it could help him in some way. What comes after this? No one can predict.

          This is the only thing that trying to change about us not only doesn’t result in an increase in neuroses in the long run, but decreases it.

          1. Rob

            So awareness is under the control of the system much like motivation or any other trait. If understanding the importance of awareness will provoke our system to increase it then why wouldn’t understanding the importance of motivation provoke our system to increase motivation? They are both traits under the control of our system. What makes awareness special that merely appreciating its importance will provoke our system to give us more of it?

            In fact, it takes far more than just appreciating how something can benefit you to make your system increase it. We see that with motivation – you appreciated how it could benefit you and even wanted more of it. Yet nada. What it takes is an emergency. It takes immediate pain. If facing a famine, your motivation will skyrocket, right?. If facing a crisis, your awareness will skyrocket. That’s why there’s no point – aside from there being no way to – pre-cultivate awareness. Merely appreciating how it can benefit you isn’t enough, as we see with motivation. And when you’re facing real pain, your awareness will naturally skyrocket. And SINCE it will naturally be there when you need, there is no point in preparing it.

            But there is a much bigger problem here

            This is what I think you’re saying: you need awareness so you can figure out what actions are causing you pain, then stop them. If fighting your limitations are causing you pain, you need to be aware of this, and then you can stop fighting your limitations (fatalism).

            Its all just a misunderstanding and you didn’t know what you were doing. Now that you know, you can stop.

            What I’m saying is you can know all you want which actions are causing you pain or are self-destructive and be utterly, utterly powerless to stop it. You can even deceive yourself and think you’ve stopped while still doing it, you can convince yourself you’re being very aware while being blind. That’s what it means to be fatalistic and to see that choice is an illusion.

            I’m not saying change doesn’t take place. We do change, but it has nothing to do with any cognitive processes. I was trying to change myself for years after I had a supposedly fatalistic philosophy. I knew what I needed to do and eventually did it.

            And its not just the case that you need knowledge but it isn’t sufficient – your system can easily blind you to knowledge if its not “ready” for change. The knowledge wont even “seem” right at all to you, or it will and you’ll think you’re doing it when you aren’t, and when your system is ready for change finally, the “knowledge” will be right, and you’ll do it for real this time. The knowledge isn’t esoteric – its easy to see what you’re doing that causing you pain – and is an utterly dispensible piece of the equation. When you’re ready, your system will produce this knowledge naturally.

            We ascribe far too much importance to thoughts. Joe, right now you have no choice but to be a fatalist. But you’re ascribing far too much importance to words if you think it helped you. It just reflected a change that already took place.

            Awareness, thoughts, and attitudes aren’t the processes by which change occurs, if it occurs at all. They can’t, by their nature, help, and when the time comes, when you’ve struggled for years against your limitation and reaped nothing but pain, these attitudes will seem true and right, but it was the years of pain that made you stop struggling, not the attitudes. Attitudes are just reflections that you have changed.


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  • Val

    This is a profound & meaningful post Joe… I look forward to reading your book!

    1. Joe


  • dawnofeverything

    Hm, I can’t accept this for the very reason you can. You’ll understand one day if you have bad enough luck…

    1. dawnofeverything

      Also, bruce lee was talking about adapting to your circumstances which is exactly the opposite of what you’re proposing.

      1. lord

        no it is not..
        he did note the environnemt-> circumstances are part of the environment.

  • fabiuo

    this was good. it resonates with me on some level but not 100%
    more like 80% .. lol
    why? because after reading it i feel more passive but this is just
    temporarily like all the short motivational boosts ,my philosophy was more like
    make your life easier, i want life to be easy so really i dont
    want to do any of the slave and dirty work.
    most of the time.
    people call me lazy especially ine family but i look at it as
    minimal style.

  • Solomon

    You are an absolute existentialist whether you realize it or not. It’s for the better since ALL other philosophies necessarily register at a lower rung in the quality/meaning ladder.

    “Apparent truths are the only ones. Absolute truths are mearly added by lies.” – Nietzsche

    “Instinct is the most intelligent intelligence.” – Nietzsche

  • kvsanagi

    I were reading this article with this soundtrack in background.

    I was awaiting for someone like you, and after I met this blog, I was awaiting for this missing part of your great work. I want more, althought try to make less words, more accurate phrases that aim straight into the heart. Let’s remove unnecessary clutter, do a pure message.

    1. Joe


      I hear you, but I felt the need to focus on various points and use lots of modifiers because 99% of people aren’t on board witht his message.

      This wasn’t meant to be a motivational piece, just something that would demonstrate a point.

    2. Joe
  • balayla

    Reminds me a little of The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot 🙂

    1. Joe


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