A detailed account of my mental state

Wednesday dinnertime, I am by myself and I don’t want to eat alone, so I play Cal Newport’s Deep Questions podcast. Today Cal is interviewing the author of two fascinating books: Essentialism and Effortless. Essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less and Effortless makes it easier to do those essential pursuits.

Essentialism is an idea that attracted me for some time. I noticed many times that trying to do too much prevented me from both being happy and doing what mattered to me. Wouldn’t it be awesome if achieving more and being happier required doing less?

That’s a no brainer. It would be totally awesome. “So let’s be essential” – I thought as I finished eating. I stopped the episode and sat on the couch. The problem was that I hadn’t read the book, so I didn’t know what practising essentialism really meant. “Mh, perhaps I can just make it harder for me to do anything – I thought – I can increase the bar for me to take any action”.

So there I was, sitting on my couch, doing literally nothing. Quickly, everything was so quiet. No one was around me. No music, no sounds (apart from the refrigeration doing its thing). By now, it felt exactly like doing meditation, even if I did not start a timer or adopted a specific position.

“So what do I now? Mh, do I have enough motivation to do anything? Not really. Okay, perhaps I can just observe my being. Maybe I can even take the occasion to tidy up my mind a little. That sounds cool, let’s do it. I have enough motivation to do it and I don’t even need to take any action to start: two birds one stone”

“Okay, so what’s up here?” I thought as I started observing myself. After a little observing, I discovered a few things.

Observing experience

Inactive thinking leads to either detached thinking or involved thinking, where the latter leads to action

The first thing I noticed was that there are two distinct forms of my being

  1. A physical being that is embedded into the physical world. It is the doer, every action I take must go through it. It cannot but be it that takes actions, and it needs to be compelled and convinced to do (especially since I decided to be an essentialist).
  2. An inner monologue that is mostly verbal but it is not really a voice. Sometimes it shows pictures and tactile sensations. Other times, it generates unverbalised and packed sequences of symbols (sometimes my girlfriend asks me what I am thinking about exactly in the middle of these mental sequences. Verbalising them to her takes me about 10-50 times as much as they lasted). I feel like I could speak out this monologue, but actually, I can’t because that would involve passing by the physical being and the end product would no longer be the monologue.

At first impression, these two forms seem to point to Cartesian dualism. Actually, I don’t think it is the case and I can explain why by describing the various modalities in which these two forms interact

  1. Acting. When I have a (somewhat) clear physical need, such as hunger, coldness or feel like my teeth are unpleasantly dirty (eh, I said somewhat) this quickly turns into my physical being taking action. The inner monologue is hardly involved at all. The stronger the physical need, the lower the intensity of my internal monologue. I guess there just isn’t enough energy for me to both act effectively and think deeply. Sometimes taking action feels fully mindless.
  2. Inactive thinking. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when I take no action at all, I experience inactive thinking. During this, my internal monologue is very hearable and (annoyingly) unstoppable. I tried stopping it a bunch of times. The longest silence I achieved felt about 20 seconds. Also, while I understand well what the monologue talks about, the order in which things come up makes no sense to me. It feels quite random. I like to think of this monologue as an actor playing a bunch of different characters by himself, changing voices, personalities and behaviours. Often, the monologue/actor starts building upon a certain element, but this “building upon” mechanism is also quite obscure to me.
  3. Involved thinking. Sometimes the physical being takes interest in the internal monologue and I start feeling more and more involved with my thinking. I may even forget about my physical being as I feel physically involved in the monologue. The items in the monologue now cause me feelings. Normally, this resolve in my physical being taking some action and entering an active state, where usually the internal monologue remains lightly involved and the two of them (the physical being and the monologue) check in with each other from time to time (funnily enough, as I wrote this paragraph I feel warmer and more physically active, even if my writing experience has not changed since the last paragraph. Writing this paragraph itself elicited a state of more involved thinking, in which I was already since my fingers have been stroking for quite some time)
  4. Detached thinking is the other state into which inactive thinking can evolve. When my physical being takes no interest in my internal monologues for some time, the monologue eventually degenerates and thoughts become more and more abstract. There seems to be a gradient of abstractness and detachment from the physical being with its maximum being falling asleep and dreaming. Most of what the monologue cooks up in this state is hard to make sense of and I feel I cannot really bring them into the physical reality, for example by writing about them.

Reflections about modalities of being

Involved thinking has momentum. The more I engage with it, the stronger it attracts inactive thinking. In order words, when I make it easier for my physical being to get involved in my inner monologue and take actions as a result of it, the more it does. It seems that acting upon my thoughts is easier and faster the more I do it. Perhaps, what’s physically happening is that my brain is lowering the threshold that the activations of firing neurons need to meet to cause action. Once that’s done, action is easier and inactive thinking regularly leads to involved thinking, until I increase the threshold again. Sometimes it seems to me that I set this threshold so low that I stay in involved thinking mode for days, where I think-act-think-act all the time and I never really experience inactive or detached thinking (other than when I sleep). This feels draining. I think meditation helps me raise the activation threshold and come back to inactive and detached thinking (which I guess is why I like doing it)

Is self-control an illusion? I am not sure if within any of the modalities I described there is such thing as “control”. The physical being acts on a (somewhat) clear set of needs or as a result of involved thinking. The internal monologue is unstoppable and evolves spontaneously. It seems to me that my internal monologue behaves almost like natural evolution at a million-times speed (like a time-lapse). Seed ideas, which I have no idea where they come from, keep evolving rapidly in all sorts of ways until some of them are picked up by the physical being or involved thinking. It feels as if thoughts are subject to a selection of which ones are more relevant to my physical (well)being. The “I” that is observing this happening seems to have no control over either the physical being or the unfolding of the inner monologue. So, things just “happen” to me? am I having a first-hand conscious experience of the non-existence of free will?

Actively learning about myself. In hindsight, most of what I observed seems obvious: we do stuff and we have thoughts, and there is some relationship between these two. Sometimes they go hand in hand while other times they don’t give a damn about each other. However, what I found particularly powerful of these observations was that my experience of them felt physical. I read a lot about feeling vs thinking in Kahneman’s famous “Thinking Fast and Slow” and in the more recent depiction of the relationship between the Thinking Brain and the Feeling Brain by Mark Manson in “Everything Is Fucked”. Observing this dichotomy first-hand during my evening was quite powerful.

Is there such thing as embodied knowledge? Memory and knowledge may not be of exclusive access to my inner monologue (aka the Thinking Brain). My physical being (aka the Feeling Brain) can also access them. It seems that memory and knowledge are storages where each of these two puts their own stuff, but that both are unable to access and read the memories of the other tenant (perhaps we need to reconfigure access policies). This may be why having a semi-physical experience of a given concept feels very different from learning about it in a book. After having vividly experienced the difference between inactive, involved and detached thinking, I feel able to seek for them more actively, that is through the actions of my physical being. Even if I knew for some time that they should exist since learnt about them before, my previous knowledge did not feel as actionable as it does after this experience.

How about others?

After reading a draft of this article, my girlfriend asked herself if these modalities apply to her own thinking as well, which was quite intriguing to me. She said that the modalities mapped quite accurately to her own thinking, except for her inner monologue. While she described my inner monologue as a jungle as a place where thoughts can grow quite spontaneously and wildly (which resonated with me and my observations of my thoughts evolving and in a hard-to-control manner) she described her monologue more like a garden. She mentioned that she feels that every time she reconnects with her monologue, she can add or change things onto an already existing and clear basis. In turn, this made me curious about the essential nature of thinking of other people. Do these modalities resonate with you? If no, in which aspect do your main thinking pattern differ?


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