February 10, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 03: Unnatural desires, journaling, and cultivating a self

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. A self cannot be found; it must be cultivated

Western notions of authenticity often cause more harm than good. Because it is impossible to separate ourselves from the unconscious behavior we have adopted, the advice to “just be yourself” is misleading.

Living authentically has three issues:

  1. We assume that we can recognize our true selves when they appear.
  2. We believe our authentic self is already within us, when in truth we’re creating ourselves in the present, action by action.
  3. If we did discover ‘who we are’, then this person would only be a glimpse of our totality at the moment we recognize it. As a result, we would be prisoners of our past selves, forever defined by a moment in time.

This brings us to ask whether an authentic self even exists. Professor Michael Puett, of Harvard University’s Department of Chinese History, explains:

“Chinese thinkers would argue that you are not and should not think of yourself as a single, unified being. Let’s say that you think of yourself as someone with a temper; someone who gets angry easily. The thinkers we are about to encounter would argue that you should not say, 'Well, that’s just the way I am,' and embrace yourself for who you are. As we will see, perhaps you aren’t inherently an angry person. Perhaps you simply slipped into ruts—patterns of behavior—that you allowed to define who you thought you were. The truth is that you have just as much potential to be, say, gentle or forgiving as you do to be angry.

“These philosophers would urge us to recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” — From The Path by Michael Puett

The philosophers Puett refers to are those who follow Confucianism, a school of thought based on the teachings of Confucius.

Unlike the Western self, often defined by labels, the Eastern self proposes that labels cannot capture the complexity of our consciousness. This is because our identities are fluid and continually changing. ​The Eastern self recognizes our conflicting emotions as the product of a fragmented self, which we can refine in our lifetime. In this sense, a self cannot be found; it must be cultivated.

2. The three poisons in Buddhism

Buddhism views greed, anger and ignorance as the root of suffering that stifles our well-being. It is beneficial for us all to minimize these negative emotions regardless of faith.

Here is how the Buddhist monk Shunmyō Masuno describes them:

“When we are afflicted with greed, once we acquire whatever it is we desire, we are still left wanting more.

"Anger makes us enraged by the slightest things, and once it is provoked, we take it out on others.

"Ignorance is a state of foolishness: we are heedless of common sense or knowledge and lacking in education. As long as we allow ourselves to be governed by these three poisons, we will be unable to find peace.” — From Zen: The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyō Masuno

Practical Advice

1. Comparison promotes unnatural desires

“When we think forward a few years and picture ourselves in a better position, we are making a comparison of our present self with our future self, and this provides us with our sense of purpose. But when those few years have passed, and if we now enjoy that improved standing, what do we do? Do we look back to our younger self and feel happy that we have moved forward? Very rarely. Instead we look around our peer group now, and compare ourselves with those who are doing a little better than us. And again we find ourselves lacking.” — From A Book of Secrets by Derren Brown

We are prone to playing the comparison game. It seems as though we are only ever looking forward to what we lack, rather than back at what we had.

Seneca’s writings might offer an antidote to this problem. He advises us to separate natural desires from unnatural ones, claiming the latter only result in greater cravings. Defining natural desires as having an end and unnatural desires as always leaving something ahead, Seneca writes:

“Whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point; if after going a long way there is always something remaining farther away, be sure it is not something natural.”

2. The ancient art of journaling

“Michel Foucault talked of the ancient genre of hupomnemata (notes to oneself). He called the journal a ‘weapon for spiritual combat,’ a way to practice philosophy and purge the mind of agitation and foolishness and to overcome difficulty. To silence the barking dogs in your head. To prepare for the day ahead. To reflect on the day that has passed. Take note of insights you’ve heard. Take the time to feel wisdom flow through your fingertips and onto the page. This is what the best journals look like. They aren’t for the reader. They are for the writer. To slow the mind down. To wage peace with oneself.” — From Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

I have found journaling to be the most effective method for overcoming inner disturbances. Journaling for me is not keeping a diary and logging the events of the day, but exploring who I am.

The purpose of keeping a journal differs for everyone. Some like to analyze their past, unraveling the web of unprocessed events that have accrued over their lifetime. Coming to terms with the past can help us make better sense of the present and future. Another style could be emotional journaling, exploring feelings as they arise and identifying their triggers.

Whichever style you choose, it’s important to remember that journaling isn’t the story of what you’re doing but rather the story of how you’re thinking.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Lao Tzu on how our thoughts become our destiny:

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

2. Shunmyō Masuno on perseverance:

“When you give up, your potential drops to zero. Possibility springs from confidence.”

​Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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