For more information, contact:
Gary Schouborg, PhD
Trying involves a chain of actions oriented toward a result that’s in doubt.
We can try to open a door by taking several actions designed to open it. Our attempt may prove successful or not. If we open the door immediately and effortlessly, we won’t say we tried to open the door, but simply that we opened it. Even if we go through some extended process to open the door — say it’s the door of a safe with a combination lock — we won’t say we’re trying to open the door unless the result is in doubt. For example, we may be guessing or we may not initially remember the combination correctly and make some false starts. We’ll then say we’re trying to open the safe. But if we’re looking at a piece of paper with what we all know to be the combination on it, and simply and easily follow the combination, no one would say we’re trying to open the safe. If someone enters the room and asks what we’re doing, we’ll answer unqualifiedly that we’re opening the safe.
The actions don’t have to be conscious. For example, we may not be able to remember the combination, so we try to do so; we really are making an effort to remember. Our effort may involve some overt behavior (e.g., one of us says he thinks it starts with 3 right), but in any case it sets into motion some psychophysiological processes, some but not all of which cognitive science has been able to identify, but most of which we can’t consciously and directly control. Similarly, we might try to move our paralyzed hand. In that case, there is no sequence of conscious activities that we engage in. Consciously, our decision to move our hand and our actually moving our hand are indistinguishable. But psychophysiologically, we know that there is a complex process underlying our consciously simple decision. This underlying process is what enables us to try to move our paralyzed hand. We can make the effort, setting some of the process into motion but failing to achieve the result that would normally occur with a healthy hand.
Were we completely mindful, we could let go of our thoughts. That is, we could disidentify from them, seeing them as merely structures that only partially express reality, being tools by which we make our way in the world. The operative word there is ‘seeing.’ We don’t decide to let go, but see the real state of affairs about our conscious activities. Similarly, we don’t decide to let go of the belief that 2 + 2 = 5, but instead see that 2 + 2 = 4, at which point there’s no longer any room for the incorrect belief.
The mistaken notion that letting go is an act of will derives from early stages of spiritual development. For example, in mindfulness meditation we really do decide to let go of our thoughts and let them come and go through our awareness willy-nilly. We still believe that our thoughts are perfect expressions of absolute reality, but for purposes of meditation we don’t follow the logic of our belief and grasp onto our thoughts, following their logic to its consequences in other thought and ultimately in action.
However, as we continue this practice, we become increasingly aware of the difference between the satisfactions we derive from engaging our thoughts and pursuing our desires (ego-level activity) and the satisfaction that emerges when we let go. As this realization grows, we become increasingly mindful of a satisfaction available to us independently of achieving our desires. We experience this satisfaction as “home,” something we don’t have to strive after, but something available to us independently. I don’t know if this is a deeper, “truer” satisfaction than that derived from achievement. But we do seem to need it, in that without it even our greatest achievements have a certain emptiness. In either case, it lies beyond (independently of) the ego-level activity of trying to achieve goals, with the result that we take our ego-level activity less seriously. Just as adults, we don’t deliberately let go of our interest in playing with the blocks of our childhood but instead simply lose interest in doing so in favor of more interesting activity, so as increasingly enlightened human beings, we don’t decide to let go of ego-level activity but instead simply take it proportionately less seriously as the exclusive source of our happiness.
To spiritual geniuses, this realization may come effortlessly, as an obvious discrimination between two sources of our happiness, ego-level and non-ego-level. It may even be possible to raise children to thus discriminate naturally, rather than over-socialize them into taking their personal goals as all-important. But for most of us, as was the case even with the Buddha, the road to enlightenment may require a great deal of effort. For at the early stages of spiritual development, we may know only ego-level activity. In that case, we’re not going to transcend that level unless we achingly, if uncomprehendingly, sense that it leaves us hungry. And if we feel that hunger, the only way we know of satisfying it is by trying to fill our hunger. And it’s only by making that effort that we’ll ultimately come to see that it’s doomed to fail.
That realization may come from either, or a combination, of two experiences of trying. We may hit a wall of such utter personal failure that we finally give up looking for our greatest happiness in achieving our desires. Or great success may lead us to discover that it doesn’t bring the satisfaction we expected. Either way, we may so disidentify from our goals that our attention is no longer distracted from the non-ego-level satisfaction that is naturally, effortlessly available to us. Either way, we paradoxically come to our realization through the intense attempt to achieve it.