DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

14Jul/10Off

Do Thoughts Create Things?, Part 1: Yes, Unless You’re A Robot

It will probably be obvious, to anyone who follows debates about personal development, that a central question in these debates is whether our inner experience can affect reality.  In other words, can changes in our thoughts and feelings cause changes in the world around us?

It's tempting to respond the way some critics do, and treat the answer as plain -- and, perhaps, the question itself as dumb.  Clearly, the answer is no -- thinking about a BMW won't cause one to appear in my driveway, my bad moods don't cause inclement weather, and so on.  Only a fluff-headed, New-Agey navel-gazer could think otherwise.

But that response, as we'll see, caricatures and oversimplifies the question.  In fact, this question raises profound, and hotly debated, philosophical and scientific issues.  To illustrate, let's look at a few (and by no means all) of the ways we might answer this question.

Reductive Materialism

From one perspective, it's impossible for our thoughts and feelings to affect reality.  What we perceive as "thoughts" and "feelings" are merely our subjective experiences, or "epiphenomena," of biochemical processes in our brains.  Our experience of those processes plainly cannot cause or influence those processes.

Here's a crude analogy -- the chemical reactions in my brain are like a movie, and "I" am like a person watching that movie.  Clearly, my experience of the film can't alter the film itself. The fact that I like some character in the film, for instance, won't cause the movie's plot to change so that the character lives rather than dying.

One result of this view is that human beings don't have free will. This is because the very concept of "I" -- an individual who chooses, wants, makes plans, and so on -- is itself just a subjective experience of chemical reactions in the brain.  "I," being merely an illusion created by neurological activity, can't influence anything that happens in the physical world.

If you buy this view, you're free to claim that our thoughts and feelings don't affect reality at all.  But if you don't accept it, I think, you have to believe -- on some level -- that they do.

Emotions As Reasons

You may recall that, in an earlier post, I observed that we do most, or all, of the things we do in life because we want to experience certain feelings.  For example, as I pointed out, most people don't make money just to own little colored pieces of paper -- they do it to create feelings of security, power, joy, or something else.

If this is so, there is clearly a sense in which our inner experience -- our thoughts, feelings and sensations -- affects our reality.

Take the example of making money.  The feelings we desire (security, power, etc.) influence the actions we take in the world (starting a business, getting a job, and so on) -- and when we act, of course, we alter the physical world in some way.  This is just another way to put the point that we make money because we want those feelings.

Thus, on some level, I think most people would agree that our inner experience does affect reality.  The real question is the way in which, and perhaps the extent to which, it does so.  We'll get into that question more deeply in the next post.

3Jul/10Off

What Is Personal Development?, Part 1: It’s All In The Intention

It just occurred to me that, in the "About" page of this blog, I promised you a working definition of personal development.  It feels a bit odd for me to keep talking about personal development without giving you that definition.

So, here goes:  "Personal development" perspectives and techniques are (1) consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations; and (2) meant to produce a lasting result.

We're In It For The Feelings

Arguably, human beings do basically everything they do with the goal of having some kind of inner experience.  Whether we're meditating, giving to charity, getting an education, drinking alcohol, or something else, we're doing it because of the way we think that activity will have us feel.

To use a common example, we don't make money just for the sake of having a bunch of colored pieces of paper.  We do it because of the feelings we think having and spending money will bring us.  Perhaps we want the feeling of security that comes with knowing we'll have enough to eat, a sense of accomplishment, the thrill of knowing we can buy a flashy motorcycle, or something else.  But in any case, what we're after is some inner experience.

Some might object that they make money to take care of others (their children or elderly parents, for example), not because it helps them feel a certain way.  However, you wouldn't have any interest in taking care of others if doing so didn't give you a certain inner experience -- maybe a feeling of happiness, righteousness, or something else.  In other words, if you were emotionally indifferent to whether someone else lived or died, stagnated or thrived, you probably wouldn't be helping them.

Where The "Conscious" Part Comes In

While it's true that we do most of what we do with the goal of having an inner experience, we aren't always consciously seeking an experience.  In everyday existence, I think, most of us don't consciously contemplate how the things we do will have us feel.

We don't ask ourselves, for example, whether we'll feel better if we go to work or stay home, or whether listening to the car radio will make the commute smoother.  Usually, we're just going through our daily motions.

By contrast, personal growth activities, to my mind, are things we do with the specific goal of transforming our inner experience.  We do them consciously intending to create a specific mental or emotional state.  As a simple example, I may say the affirmation "I am lovable" to develop more self-appreciation.  Or, perhaps I'll do some yoga to get a sense of openness in my body.

By my definition, the specifics of an activity don't determine whether it amounts to personal growth.  For instance, suppose (somewhat implausibly) that I'm in the habit of meditating every day simply because my parents told me to.  I'm not doing it because I think it will bring me inner peace, happiness, or some other feeling.

In this example, meditation is not a "personal growth" activity for me, regardless of how others might use it, because I don't do it with the conscious goal of feeling a certain way.  The intent is what's important, not the specifics.

In the next post, we'll talk about how approaches that work on our inner experience with the goal of producing a particular outer result -- for instance, visualization techniques that have us imagine business success to help us create it in the world -- fit into this discussion.