An Inclination Deeper than Words, Thoughts, and Feelings?

In a way, the human will seems to underlie so many of our cognitive processes—and even so, it is not always unified within itself.

I’m going to do my best to keep this short, as I just want to put a couple of thoughts out there without composing the volumes of supporting ideas that should eventually go with it. So here’s my main point: I think that in our complicated selves—somewhere amid that thingor groups of thingsthat we sometimes refer to with words such as mind, heart, soul, spirit, or being, there’s an important part that underlies the parts of which we are more often aware. The parts we more commonly “see” in action—that we are more routinely aware of—have to do with mental functions or features like thoughts, words, actions, feelings, plans, decisions, and actions. Though probably none of us are fully aware of all of these things when they happen, most of us are at least generally aware that such things are indeed doing on inside our selves. That underlying part is what I will (today) call “the will”; it’s our set of desires (wants, wishes, inclinations)—and the important feature of it that I’d like to draw attention to in this post is that not all of the desires that reside there are pointing in the same direction; sometimes they are at odds with one another. And when this happens, it can sometimes make us miserable. I’ve lately taken to describing this misery by use of the metaphor of a horse having a burr under its saddle.

BACKGROUND (Skip this if you’re in a hurry.)
In philosophy and cognitive science, there’s a concept called Theory of Mind. It’s the question of how our inner selves are composed—what all parts are in there, and how they work. At present (assuming I’m up to date on my reading), there are two prevailing models. One is the two-part model (Kahneman and Tversky’s model, as detailed in Thinking: Fast and Slow) and another is the three-part model (Keith Stanovich’s model, as detailed in Rationality and the Reflective Mind). What I’m suggesting with my graphic above is not necessarily a new model, but simply particular angle from which to consider what goes on. This foundation (labeled “The Will” in my graphic) is the same as or similar to what has been called the Reflective Mind (by Stanovich), or the Executive Function (Karl Pribram), and in my view, bears a striking resemblance to what the ancient Hebrew culture called the Ruach (spirit) in a human. (The Greeks called it Pneuma.) And the idea I’m getting at here may be quite similar to what Charlotte Mason had in mind when she opined that the human intellect serves at the pleasure of the will. (Please pardon me for posting this without a reference; I’ve seen the quote many times and am frantically searching for it again. I’ll post a reference as soon as I locate it!)

When the Will Is At Odds With Itself

I’ve had two main points at work in my inner observations this week, regarding Jack’s struggles to regain some high level of physical fitness:

  1. There does seem to be some level of self that lies deeper than words and analyzing and thinking and such. I say this because I see that I can’t always figure myself out by considering only the language that runs around in my mind or the decisions and actions that happen.
  2. What goes on at that deeper level (and may not necessarily have some set of words floating around in the mind to express it for our convenience) can sometimes be conflicting—with one part of the will wanting one thing, and another part of it wanting something else.

I’ve been struggling for months under a fitness program, and it seems I have been succeeding in tolerating it, but have not (until very recently) made much progress in settling into it and learning to “love the process”. (You can read more about that here.) For months, I have suffered from severe mood swings, even going back and forth from strong positive to strong negative moods in the same day! And I would describe it as having “a burr under my saddle” that needed to be located and brushed out. But it was very frustrating because I had the hardest time putting my finger on it.

And being a person of much deliberate thought and language and analysis, I noted that whatever was ailing me did not come with words floating around in my mind. It’s not like I heard echoes of some early-in-life authority figure saying, “You’ll never amount to anything!” or some taunting line like, “This fitness plan wouldn’t be hard for you if you were a real man!” Nope, there were no words associated with it. Instead, there was just a hard resistance to doing the workouts. Now, I want you to understand that I was doing the workouts anyway—against this inner current of resistance. But I had expected that the resistance should subside in time, and it was not subsiding.

So I’ll tell you what I think was happening. I could be wrong—it’s still early in all this analysis—but what I think was happening is that deep down, in my will, I simply did not want it to be true that I had to work out to reach a high state of physical fitness. I think I was pouting about it deep down inside, with my arms folded and a scowl on my face (these are both metaphors, mind you!) far below the level of words. It wasn’t coming out in cogent words and thoughts that could be recognized readily. It’s not like I was shouting out at night from my sleep, “I want to be physically fit without having to endure the workouts!”.

That would have been quite obvious, eh? But no such thing was happening. Yet I kept trying to figure it out, and was frustrated because I’m normally pretty self-aware and it doesn’t take me long to figure out what’s going on inside. But this one stumped me for months. And that’s when it occurred to me that perhaps there was some deeper level at which I should be looking—something more primordial, more fundamental, than the normal realm of thought and word and analysis and problem solving in which I operate successfully many hours a day.

This all got triggered when my fantastic fitness coach suggested that I needed to learn to “love the process” itself—not just the final goal of fitness, but the process that was leading me in that direction. The more I thought about that suggestion, the more uncomfortable it made me. And that’s when I realized that she had somehow put her finger on that burr under my saddle. How, exactly, I couldn’t have told you, but she was obviously pressing on a tender spot.

So I turned my attention to whether I was willing to love the thing. Was I willing to be favorably disposed to it? Was I willing to suspend my misgivings about it and give it a fair shot? Was I willing to be unprejudiced about it? Was I willing to let it be my “friend”?

And this touched off another volcano of thoughts about the whole topic of what I am willing (and not) to love. From that volcano, this particular thought came out:

It started to become (I think) a very simple proposition—not about facts and figures and analysis and words, but about my inner disposition and whether I was willing to love good things or not. I did indeed love the idea of being physically fit, as also the idea of being responsible and diligent about my body, and the idea of finally overcoming the huge failure, the security of having help from others to work through my problems, and on and on. Yet there was something in my will that was still pointing in some other direction—still at odds with so much of the rest of me. And I’m pretty sure it was that refusal to accept that if I wanted all those things, I was going to have to love the process. And not being there yet—well, that led to lots and lots of daily strife for months. I was still progressing, mind you—my numbers were getting better and better—but something down in my spirit was continually agitated about it all, and I could not enjoy the victory—or not for long, at least.

But this all started to change several days ago, as this “love the process” idea got wrestled with enough to start getting somewhere. And I was able to keep “The Grinch” away from my workouts for about 6 days in a row. (That’s my code name for the grouchy disposition that would so often take hold of me regarding all this.) I did it by taking a few minutes before each workout to lay down on my mat and talk myself through what all was going on, how it was good for me, how I was going to “be OK”, how it was “only a couple of hours” and how I knew I could endure it because I had endured it before—a bunch of times! But I also went further. Though it sounds a little silly, I made myself think of the mat as my friend—and the treadmill and the whiteboard where I check off my exercises as they’re done, and the dumbbells. And I thought of how I’ve been enjoying rewatching the TV series 24, and how captivating the show is (by which I mean distracting from the drudgery of the workout.) And I made myself think of them all as kind and compassionate and trustworthy friends that are here to help me. And I repeated to myself the best and most encouraging one-liners from my fitness coach. All this I did to help soften my heart toward the process—to talk myself into really believing that this is good for me, and that my prejudice against it needed to be rethought, just like Opie needed to rethinking his initial resistance against Aunt Bea.

Again, I know this sounds weird, but it seems to have worked…

Until Yesterday!

On the day before yesterday, the 15th, I finally reached one of my goals—the 100-pound mark—reaching 255 pounds from my all-time high of 355 some 7 years ago. And on that day, I had another sweet workout (no “Grinch” present). And then finally, another fantastic thing happened on that day: At the end of my workout, I finally felt triumphant and exuberant. And I messaged my coach, “I FEEL PUMPED!”, and I went on about what a great mood I was in and how this is what I had thought all along it was supposed to feel like all the time after I work out, etc. etc.

And the next morning, she messaged back something or other about how exciting it is, and how great it is to have this experience—which she experiences fairly regularly. And suddenly, upon reading that, I was not in a very good mood anymore! I wasn’t sure why. Again, it was something deep and would evade me most of the day, defying my language- and cognition-level searches of my own mind. And being unsettled by that, I kept putting off the workout for the day, afraid that the Grinch would assail me, or that I was going to crash into some horrible mood. And I was running out of time near the end of the day, so I decided I had better just push through and do the workout anyway, even if I couldn’t straighten out the feelings. And that’s when this epiphany struck me really hard:

That is, I was pretty sure at that point, that whatever conflict I was feeling was one at the deepest level—something in the will, where some conflict was brewing. I didn’t know what it was yet, but it seemed silly in one way to push through it, when I was pretty sure that what needed to happen was to crawl down there into the abyss of myself and straighten it out. Yet at the same time, the pragmatics of the day were looming large, and I knew I would take a huge emotional hit if I were to fail to get in the workout. (I was on day 22 of a 30-day plan where I work out every day for 2 hours, and so far, I had only missed one day—Day 5—and was diligent to make that up on Day 6 with a double-workout day. So I knew I did not want to have to fight that battle again!)

So I got 2/3 of the workout done before supper, not being very happy, but managing to get by. And then we had a pleasant surprise when a cards night we had thought wasn’t going to work out did work out! And this was great for me because I was able to talk it all out with our friends—guessing aloud at what might be going on deep in my will, and getting their feedback on it. And after they left, I was able to finish my workout in quite a good mood after all.

What Was It?

I’m still not certain that this is right, but it seems to me that something in my will was unhappy with the thought that I would be one of those workout people who is in such a good celebratory mood after working out. (This is particularly surprising, since my fitness coach is one of those kinds of people, and I respect her immensely.) But it just felt like something of that sort was going on. And something else kept coming to mind—as if whatever was going on was familiar from my past. I kept remembering various dance experiences in my past, where I’d be at parties or dances, and was expected to “get out of myself” and dance like everybody else, but where I normally held firm and wouldn’t do it. That, too, was a deep internal resistance—probably deeper than words—probably at the core level of my will.

And I want you to know that I’m not passing judgment on the dancing question. I could actually see myself enjoying it somewhat, but still, to this day, I have some deep resistance to freestyle dancing and line dancing, even though I’ve actually had some level of instruction in ballet, jazz, tap, square, and various country dancing. And can I explain the hangup? Nope! But it’s most certainly there, and it’s very real. I just don’t wanna!

And that kept coming to mind yesterday—probably, I figure, because it’s of the same flavor as my will not to be among those who celebrate the grand experience of their workouts. And why I would be like that is a mystery at this point, but I’m betting it can be sleuthed out of me. (And maybe I’ll figure it out myself.) And I have to say that I don’t *think* I would mind being one of those people, but clearly, something about me would mind it. And I hope it will become very clear very soon, so that I can change that part of my will—so that it can relax and let the rest of me be—so that I can fully settle into this new lifestyle of fitness, and not be at odds with myself —or with the spirit of my coach, for that matter!

I Think It’s Kinda Cool!

For the record, I’m fairly excited about all this, and I think it’s kinda cool that Mr. Rationality is dealing with issues that lie at a deeper, more fundamental level than rationality. I have never thought that rationality was or ought to be the whole of one’s inner life, but for several years, I have focused on it because of its vast importance, as well as because of how it’s an area that is grossly under-emphasized in our culture.

But I’m very glad to be working on this deep stuff at present. And so much of it has come pouring out this year, as I dared to open up this Pandora’s Box of physical fitness, with all the repressed inner issues that were stuffed inside it. Strangely, the same kinds of issues quickly spilled over into cleaning out my basement (the “Abyss”, I call it) and getting back on track with a long-overdue remodeling project, as well as with taking a good hard look at how loving/unloving I am with the various people in my life and in my community choir program. And all of these things may seem quite disparate in nature, but they all point back to my will—at the very bottom of all my inner processes.

So it’s all got me taking a very hard look at myself, and what kind of person I am, and whether I’m truly willing to love all the good things that God wants me to love in my life.

So we’ll see where all this heads in these next few weeks. And I must say that the obvious question is looming: How does one get the particulars of his own will to line up and be unified with each other? Well, I’m just beginning to think on that one, but I can’t wait to see what can be learned about it! And I must also add that it raises an intriguing question in my mind: Is our society somewhat obsessed with “pushing through” when we should be learning also how to realize when the obstacles facing us are conflicts in our own internal will? (See also this new piece about this question: To Do But Not To Be.)

Perhaps, though, the heart of this bundle of questions is somewhat to be found in yielding oneself to this poem, which I shared above, and will repeat here to end this post:

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