Sam Harris & the Wisdom of Taking Our Own Advice

On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.”

– Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)

Trite but true. It’s easier to advise others than to embody our own recommendations. Why is that? I have an ideal morning route I’d like to follow, but I often don’t. More often than not, it’s because I don’t feel like it.

I imagine this is true for most of us; that there are things we’d like ourselves to do, but when it comes time to act, we don’t feel like actually doing the work. Reason #2 of the Harvard Business Review’s article, How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want Tois just that:

But as [Oliver] Burkeman asks, ‘Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?’…Think about that for a minute, because it’s really important. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea – without consciously realizing it – that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action. We need to be eager to do so. I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100% nonsense.”

So should we respect the way our body feels in each moment, tailoring our itineraries to its transitory states, or push past these blocks to follow our more rational agendas? I suppose it depends on how we want to live our lives. In my story, I admire the contemplative agenda surmised by Harris:

…what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

– Sam Harris, Waking Up, p. 14

It’s in this constant stream of self-conversation that those temporal states of not feeling like meditating, or working out, or whatever you’re into, really comes into focus. Harris tells us that we can live & identify with our continuum of thoughts, feelings, and emotions, or we can dispel these false identifications that bundle together to create our illusory notion of self. Choosing the latter, I then ask how to reach the alternative:

There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds – and lives – are largely shaped by how we use them.”

– Sam Harris, Waking Up, p. 31

Poetically echoed by Annie Dillard:

The mind fits the world and shapes it as a river fits and shapes its own banks.”

– Annie Dillard, Living with Fiction

Recognizing that how we feel about doing something in a particular moment is only one of multiple potential motivating forces proved somehow liberating for me. That feeling will pass, and if the action is something I believe in, I will invariably feel better afterwards than if I stay in bed that extra 5 minutes.

The task then becomes to investigate what that second motivating force is beyond the ordinary stream of consciousness that heeds our transitory states of lethargy. Cultivating this is what Tim Urban calls the “core internal human struggle”:

The battle of the Higher Being against the animals — of trying to see through the fog to clarity — is the core internal human struggle…part of the same core conflict between our primal past and our enlightened future.”

Still, even after writing this, tomorrow morning’s inevitable struggle between sleeping longer or meditating will remain just that: a struggle. My primal past talks a lot.

 

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