The Nature of Ideas
In the previous article I talked about the driver of nearly all our emotional states – namely the will-to-life, or survival instinct. If you have not read this article then please go read it, simply because some of it is foundational for this one. Although many people might not suspect it, the emotions are in the body. The proof is simple – just smoke a joint or take a mood enhancing drug. The mind however processes representations of things – real things and concepts. I’m not going to dwell on our representation of ‘real’ things, but when you look at a tree what you actually see is your brain’s simulation of the tree. Somewhat more relevant here is the way the mind builds concepts and ideas, and how most of these things are assimilated by us in an unconscious manner. By the time we reach our late teens we are full of ideas that have been unconsciously introjected, and many of them conflict with each other. We keep these conflicting ideas apart by buffering them – creating walls in our mind so conflicting ideas do not see each other. Even so there is some level of internal conflict going on. A person may have learned that it is important to work hard and strive, but at the same time they may hold the idea that life is short and they should enjoy themselves as much as possible – conflict is inevitable. Many of our ideas are just plain confused, correlating poorly with reality. Someone who believes they have to please people to get approval, probably doesn’t notice that it might have the opposite effect – both annoying the person on the receiving end, and causing them to see the people-pleaser as weak.
Many of our ideas come with associated emotions. Someone who was once bitten by a dog may fear dogs the rest of their life, and so the idea of a dog automatically invokes fear in their body. In the previous article I talked extensively about the will-to-life. Those things and activities which enhance our survival cause positive emotions, and we also build ideas associated with them. If something diminishes our survival prospects then we will experience negative emotions, along with associated ideas. For the vast majority of people these dynamics drive the creation of most of their ideas. So the idea of money, sex, food, fame and power will bring about an excited state, with associated imagination and desire. Ideas of poverty, starvation, loneliness, poor health, death, will invoke a depressed state, again with imagination and desire – the desire not to be in these states. By the late teens most people have been fully programmed. Their ideas of what is good and what is bad will have been fully formed, and will guide the rest of their life.
Another class of ideas is similarly driven by the will-to-life, but in a much more subtle manner. Mankind has always striven to create systems that alleviate existential angst. Religion, philosophical systems, esoteric beliefs, scientific dogma, and other idea systems divert the attention from the fact that death is the final outcome for all of us, and no system of ideas will prevent this. This does not mean the work of reason is irrelevant, but let’s use reason to form appropriate ideas about reality, and not castles in the sky.
So having laid this foundation – that most of our ideas will have been unconsciously introjected, that many ideas will conflict, that most of our ideas are confused, and that a large class of our ideas come with an emotional charge; it should be obvious that by the time we reach adult life that our minds resemble a pile of garbage, and that what we call our mind is not ours at all, but a programmed machine. For the rest of our lives we will affirm or negate new ideas based on this programming. This is why Gurdjieff famously said that most people are dead to any new possibilities once they reach the age of 30. They will suffer their inevitable neuroses caused by this jumble of poorly formed ideas, become sad as these neuroses wear them down, and eventually die. And as with the previous article, do not forget that the will-to-life is the force that causes many of our ideas to be formed. This is a conflicted process. On the one hand we form positive ideas about the things that enhance us, and negative ideas of the things that diminish us. But all the time we know deep within that the will-to-life serves its own purposes, namely continuation of the species, and not our purposes.
So far we have seen that our emotional states are almost entirely driven by the will-to-life, and that it is the same with the formation of our ideas. If we are to form an objective and more realistic set of ideas, then we have to perform the painful task of seeing life as it really is. On the surface this may seem like a recipe for unnecessary suffering, but actually, the opposite is true. As our ideas become more aligned with reality, so the neuroses lessen and we acquire a certain inner strength that serves us well in dealing with life’s realities.
Finally I need to make a very important point about all of this. This study of the real situation man finds himself in should not be emotionally charged. As far as possible it should be conducted as we might study any other subject. The modification of our ideas takes place in a purely intellectual way – or at least it should. Anyone who ventures out into these stormy waters needs to remember that pure ideas do not affect our emotional state. The inevitable outcome if we do not remember this will be some level of depression or other negative emotional state.
Suggested reading: Part 2 of Spinoza’s Ethics (very difficult), Schopenhauer, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (tortuous). These are heavy duty works requiring years of study, and so it might be better to buy books that introduce the ideas of these philosophers. Also the Stoics, and particularly Epictetus. When we come to practice there will be other books and authors.
Previous article in this series: Inner Liberation 1