Why do people believe things?

We believe because we are weak.

Let me refine that.

We believe because we have limited energy.

Much of what we believe, we believe because we believe we are weaker than we are.

We believe because the elevation of an idea to a belief feels so good. It’s the end of a search.

[ Shortly after I had written the above, I encountered this relevant blog post, Born Again, Briefly, by the s.f. writer Greg Egan, describing his own experience with belief. ]

I am a fictional character you make up.

I am a fictional character I make up.

I was going to write about a dream that I recently had, and my analysis of the dream, which led to an understanding of something that I considered a useful principle. Something that I had realized as I jotted down and thought about my dream. I felt reluctant to post the details of the dream and analysis here because it contains things that felt “private”, and that led to further thoughts about privacy and identity. The principle is that, what I say to you, “the world,” will become attached to my identity. You assume that, because I am writing in the first person and describing something as if it happened to me, that it is truth, even if the “thing that happened to me” was a dream, vaguely recalled, and that what happened after that was my analysis of the dream. Idle thoughts. Idle visions. Dreams are just thinking. Interesting that absolutely nothing physical happened in the world (apart from particles moving around in my head, and fingers typing on a keyboard). But we become attached to thought. Why is that? “This person had this thought, therefore she is such and such a kind of person.” This is understandable, too, because thought can turn into action. What people say reflects what they think. What they think affects what they might do. A great deal of the way we feel about people is due to the ideas they express. We are overly attached to the creation and management of a self-image, perhaps because we over-value our selves. Yet, it’s hard to see how things could be different.

I thought about how authors of works of fiction were much more free of this particular constraint. If I were writing a novel, I could have my protagonist describe a dream he had had. I could have my fictional protagonist post a fictional dream (on a fictional worldwide network, on a fictional planet…) Or kill someone. Or do something embarrassing. Readers could think what they wanted about the character, but the character “himself” is completely free of concern. He has no future. He has no past. He is completely static and unchanging, embedded in an imaginary world.

What does that imaginary world represent? And how are we all that different? We may like the character, or we may not. He may be a hero or a villain. We imbue him with identity in our imaginations. We want this or that to happen to him. A good writer will “bring a character to life.” But the character himself is not alive. If he dies, we may feel disappointed, or even sad. But we can take a step back and recognize that the emotion is for something inanimate, not real. We have invested the character and the story with personal meaning, but we realize it’s a story, just like any story, which reflects varying amounts of reality. What reality is specifically reflected is not stated directly by the story. It’s up to the reader to find personal relevance, and to let the story advance meaningful thought through its alignment with aspects of reality.

A good fiction writer is drawing from life experience, from some real understanding of the shared reality we all inhabit, otherwise her stories would be uninteresting. Therefore the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts, actions may reflect real dreams, thoughts, actions experienced by the author. Or may simply be real dreams or episodes described accurately from the author’s life. We often say that a novel is “autobiographical” if it reflects a great deal of that reality. But even then, there is that freedom enjoyed by fiction authors, which is the intentional mystery within the writing, because the writing is meant to communicate truth, not to be truth. A story is therefore a space within which to explore ideas, whose consequences are not tightly bound to particular real people in the real world.

(One of my favorite books is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins, which is said to be the author’s most autobiographical work. Clearly almost every aspect of the rollicking and fanciful story is fiction, but a certain personality is conveyed by the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts and actions: A fictional personality which is supposedly similar to Robbins’ own “fictional” personality.)

When we think further about this, there are many kinds of stories. Fables. Allegories. Allegories which characterize real people, and which have real effects. And all stories, we could say, are things that we learn at least small things from. So of course, the concept of “fiction” is not so simple.

But my points are these: (a) My own identity, in your mind, is a mental construct. That’s not too novel of an idea; it’s easy to realize it. You could probably conceive of the idea of “waking up” from this reality and realizing it was all a dream… (b) Likewise, my own identity in my own mind is also a construct, but a much “bigger” one, a realer one, to me than is anybody else’s identity. That this “I” I experience is a fiction is also not a new concept, even though it’s something I might talk about, at great length, some other time. (We have no reference points, like “waking up from a dream,” for understanding that “I” is the same thing– a construct of the mind. What if you woke up from a dream and your “I” wasn’t there? Or was somebody else’s “I”? Assuming you blinked your eyes all the memories in your head suddenly changed to someone else’s, how would you even know it? Interesting things to talk about, but why not try to experience them? My understanding thus far is that pursuing such experiences are one goal of Zen practice. I had a momentary experience in which my “I” disappeared. It was just for a few seconds, and it wasn’t particularly shocking. I was meditating by concentrating outwards and all of a sudden there was no “I”. Yet nothing else had changed.)

Finally: (c) We play with the concept of identity all the time. We drink to shrink it, to become less attached to it, to inhibit our worries about its preservation. We watch movies and plays and read books to conjure up different identities. We wear costumes or just different styles of clothing. We meditate to try and detach from identity, to become more (and ultimately completely) free of its constraints. Identity is of very great concern to ego; I would guess that the solid awareness of “I” is a “module” in the brain which is used by the ego in its modeling. And we dream. Dreams do funny things with identity.

Back to my dream. Let’s say I’m free of identity. I will say what I want, as if this “I” is the “I” in a novel; I am not attached to it. This is what I jotted down soon after waking up, so the grammar is not my best.

I’m on a bus. A number of us will be riding together, and we want to sit at a table. There are tables on this bus, and a few chairs. At first we spot a table on the ground floor, but then we move to the upstairs area. We find a table, but there are not going to be enough chairs, since one or two more people will be joining us. I go downstairs and ask some women if I can borrow a chair (it’s actually more like a cushion) from their area; I say that if someone comes and needs a chair, I’ll immediately bring it back. They seem a little skeptical and try to tease me a little or give me a hard time, but eventually just let me take the chair. I trip on something on my way out of their area, and bring the chair upstairs.

I’m drawing something with solid lines; a woman is watching along with some other people. I think we’re upstairs now. I take out a ball-point pen which has a thicker ball at its tip and go to make a drop of ink/paint (it’s a paint pen) inside an enclosed area lower down on the drawing, and because the paint in the pen touches the boundary of the surrounding ink, the surface tension of the paint bead breaks and becomes an ugly blob; I no longer have the thin white border of the paper around the paint bead I’d wanted. I shrug to the woman, saying oh well, look what I just did to my drawing… I guess that’s what’s expected when you try to use “paint pens” for something so delicate. I try to put a humorous spin on it to show that I know what I’m doing but that there are just some inherently hard materials, so that even though I’m confident in my abilities, it won’t always come out perfectly. For fun I continue to manipulate the paint bead, adding more paint, “messing up” my drawing because it’s ruined, but I’m just playing / experimenting. What starts happening is that I’m building up an object in three dimensions. The bead becomes larger and larger until it turns into a ball; it is semi-dry and gel-like; it feels like very soft rubber with a just-cured house-paint-like surface. I manipulate the bead and now I’m creating an abstract 3-D weird teddy-bear-like thing, maybe five inches tall. I show it to the woman and say something about the novelty of this. I’m impressed by what’s coming out: this giant “gummy bear,” but not exactly that. Earlier on, I’d commented that I’ve never done anything like this before, and I now have a sense of wonder as the thing is developing, as in, wow, I never knew you could do this with these paint pens! The woman is intrigued, too. I feel attracted to her; she’s cute but feels out of my reach at this point, since I’ve only recently met her. For some reason I feel a wave of attraction and confidence, perhaps triggered by her admiration of my skill and absorption towards the weird thing I’m doing, the experimental nature of it, the demonstration of confidence and skill. I need to look at something behind her, and in doing so put my face close to hers and kiss her near her mouth, just the very corners of our mouths touching. I have the thought, in a flash, that she would welcome a real kiss now, but I decide to wait, to go back to what I was doing, to not break that absorption. I feel good because now I’m much closer to this woman, there is possibility of a deeper connection forming, but I don’t want to focus on that now; I still want to focus on following the art and take her on a journey somewhere, not merely declare that this is the destination. I want to remain in concentration on this creative process and what it represents, to draw her admiration out, deepen it, make the connection more real. I’m not just an artistic man who momentarily wowed her, rather I’m a real being with depth who can sustain this level of curiosity and inquiry over a long period of time. We turn back to the art, together.

Analysis: Confidence in oneself is a very attractive thing, perhaps the most attractive thing, and an aspect of a romantic relationship which is possibly the most important to me is where a woman is attracted to me because of my true confidence and abilities. It takes artistic skill to win her over. Confidence exists in performing artistic activities without fear, demonstrating ability as a side-effect. Good qualities are shown here: curiosity. Fearlessness. So much fear exists in art, but why? But it’s fear of the unknown. Fear of experimental art forms, of fully engaging curiosity and doing something out of one’s own box, which is also society’s box. We are drawn to people who do what is new and novel and challenge our existing conceptions of what is possible with what they have done and will do. There is a certain freshness, qualities of mind of youth, that exist here. Many people can be curious and creative, but their products are often not worth much in the eyes of time: they are constrained by existing forms, by the need to make things that fit in with accepted patterns. I want to be curious and simply not care, which will result in the creation of products of greater value, while still being surprised by what is coming out, because they are generated by a deeper part of me, one that I do not control. So I do not look at myself or admire myself. There is no ego, no joy in identity. I simply create; my body and mind are the things that create, but I am not them. And that draws the admiration of others. This feedback loop makes me want to be my best. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you do not win. But in the process, you always win. And we can never expect that what we create is going to be the same as before. It’s always new. It’s important to do what is difficult, so that our mistakes can be guided into what is new and valuable. To have the confidence to keep going, even after a so-called mistake, just for curiosity’s sake, to see what it will turn into.

There are layers, here. These are the thoughts of my changing “I”, in this small moment.

Cover PhotoThe solution to writer’s block? Lower your standards. I read that on the Web somewhere, and followed a series of links to a particular book on productivity at Amazon. The reviews for that book were lauding this one, by the same author, saying it should be read first. I was intrigued and ordered The War of Art.

It was a fast read; I completed it in a couple days. Very poetically written and rang true. A book about the nature of art, and about the nature of the mind when that mind’s owner desires to create art: To write a book; to undertake any endeavor which represents an expenditure of creative energy.

The author, Steven Pressfield, claims that the most important thing to overcome is one’s own internal resistance. And that this is a natural feeling, a reaction of the mind when confronted with something that is difficult for it. It is the self-doubt, the nagging thought that “maybe I should be doing something different”, the desire for procrastination.

The book opens with a powerful example. Hitler himself went to art school, but he didn’t / couldn’t paint because he experienced resistance towards it. Maybe he thought he had nothing to paint. Maybe he saw himself as a failure as a painter, and could not envision a future in which he was respected for the craft. And so he turned to politics instead.

As I write this, I am experiencing resistance. I just woke up; I’m a little sleep deprived; my mind is cloudy. “Go get some breakfast, first!” my mind says. “You’ll be able to write this much more effectively later.” There may be truth in that. But if I stop now, then who’s to say I’ll come back and finish this later? This essay may turn out like almost everything else I’ve had the initial impulse to write: I “never got around to” finishing it, or “never had the time”, or some such. So I lower my standards and push on.

The War of Art (I have to think of “The Art of War” and flip the words, every time I want to state the book’s name) calls out this internal resistance, defines it. Why is art so difficult? Why do we become “stuck”? Why do we give up on those creative endeavors, in the name of something practical? The answer is simple but nuanced.

Pressfield describes an internal conflict between the “self” and the “I”. The former is the entire mind, that which strives for something greater, something more divine, artistic, self-realized. More animalistic. More “real”. The latter is the ego, the experience of the self, which is concerned with the practical, with keeping the mind in check, with making us self-conscious and concerned for our physical safety and basic needs, among other things. The ego makes us doubt. “Is this the best thing for me? Is this the best way to be spending my time?” Ego says: The best way to spend my day is not to waste time doing something “artistic” (writing, dancing, composing, painting…) but rather to get a well-paying job, to fit in with society’s ideals, to contribute to society, to be safe, secure and successful (but by others’ standards). To be respected. Perhaps an artistic pursuit can lead to that kind of success. “But it is unlikely to be able to sustain me”, the ego says. “Earn money first, then pursue your art as a hobby; it’s unlikely you can become successful as a _____”.

What is a hobby? What distinguishes a professional from an amateur? Pressfield writes about this. The mark of a professional is that he has a craft. He doesn’t need to love it; that is irrelevant. What matters is that it is his craft, what he defines himself by. Arnold Schwarzenegger may not love working out; that is irrelevant to him. But he still (let’s rewind time quite a bit) clocks in his time at the gym. When he’s feeling down (the book had a better word, here), he deals with it by going to the gym. If he doesn’t feel like working out on a given day, he works out anyway. I’m losing this train of thought.

I continue to experience resistance as I write this. My writing is choppy; I’m having trouble finding the words to express myself. Yet, I push on. Let this be a draft. Then I’ll revise it, polish it a bit more. But let me not sit here and be stuck, feeling like I don’t know the words to write next, or give up in the middle.

Creativity is a different part of the self, which we need to invite in if we wish to let her use us to produce art. We need to give this internal muse free reign to use us, to not suppress her. Perhaps my muse is foggy, now? But that’s okay, I don’t mind if what she produces isn’t particularly polished. I still value the output. I’m not going to say, “not now, maybe later…” to her because she might not come back, later.

There will always be something that is hard to do, for which you experience resistance. You want to do it, but something inside says “not now…” This happens all through life. It applies to dating… if you’re in a coffee shop and see a cute girl, you’re probably not going to talk to her. “She probably has a boyfriend…” or “she’s probably not interested in me…” or “I don’t have time…” Your mind (the “I”) invents a million excuses. Reverse the genders, of course, if that works better for you. The self feels the pull of something greater and urges you to talk to her. But the mind usually wins. (This example did not come from the book, but it is very illustrative.) I should also point out that the ego has a stake in talking with this theoretical girl, too, and to talk to her for reasons of satisfying the ego would not result in satisfying something of the self. (Or perhaps there are darker aspects of the self?) And yet, this is another trick the ego plays. It makes us consider itself, the ego, as a line of defense. The ego says: “Don’t do this, because if you did, you’d just be feeding your own ego…” That is a trap, and giving in to it feeds the ego.

Do those things which are hard. Which your mind rebels at. That is The War of Art. An internal war, between two opposing concerns. Between the mundane and practical, and the artistic and divine.

And now, I have to polish this up. But first, I’m going to have breakfast.

Wait! I’m not. There is more that I want to say. There are nagging thoughts in my mind, and I want to give them a chance to be expressed. Yet a part of me actively suppresses those. “You should get your day started, already!”. Wait. Not yet.

Another mark of the professional is that he shows up for work, day in and day out. Whether he feels like it or not. When art is your work, you have to do it even when you don’t feel like it. Those difficult times are when you truly battle your resistance. Then that resistance starts to melt away.

But when something becomes easy, there is probably little growth left in it. Art is the struggle. If the struggle doesn’t exist, then the art will become routine, will not advance. Others may like it; you have have developed “your style”, but you will not be working at the level of your potential. You can always improve, but you will feel resistance to improving. Your ego wants you to stay comfortable.

So the exercise of identifying things which are “hard”, for which we experience the greatest psychological resistance, is important. Think of those things which are difficult for you to do, over which you are drawn to procrastinate the most, and among those things are those which are most important to do, for your growth. I was thinking of a silly example of this in relation to my desk. Why? It’s too much work to clean it up, to file everything away, to figure out where all these little bits and pieces go. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clean desk surface? Yes… But I experience resistance towards even starting, and clutter remains. “There are other, more important things to do…” And so this one never gets done. Prioritize the things you most want to procrastinate over. Get over that resistance. Then your mind will be free. Free to experience and conquer resistance over greater challenges.

What would happen if I kept writing? What if I wrote all day? I’d probably “become” a writer. I also probably wouldn’t be paid for it. Or perhaps I would, eventually. But those thoughts are irrelevant towards the task of writing, itself. I do it because I want to do it, not because it has some practical value (despite the fact that the my ego chimes in every once in a while and proposes a practical value; that doesn’t matter, though).

I had a very rudimentary form of this idea back in college. I thought about the way that I wrote, how I would constantly re-read everything I’d written so far in trying to figure out the best way to attach the next sentence and retain the “polished jewel” which existed thus far. I would write as if I had no way of changing a sentence after finishing it (beyond correcting the most rudimentary of errors in a proofread), and I would get stuck, reading and re-reading, waiting for inspiration to come, for an idea. What should I say next? Sometimes I’d have to get up and pace around the room, trying to think of some idea. Especially when writing an academic essay. We all talked about “b.s.” as a running joke; how it was a skill. How being a good “b.s.-er” was invaluable in college. What is the hallmark of a good b.s.-er? Does not get stuck. Is able to spew forth streams of thought/writing which make no sense, which seem logical on the surface until someone reads a little more into them and realizes that there is nothing worthwhile, that it is random babbling that gives an impression of having communicated something worthwhile. Perfect for test graders who would rather be doing something else. But within the bullshit, perhaps there are seeds of ideas. And it’s something you produced. It’s a start. Better to start from somewhere, then trim it down. Make your block of stone first, then carve off the unwanted pieces until you have a sculpture.

Anyway, my thought was, that there’s another way to write. To write without pause, almost as a stream of consciousness. To write fast, without over-thinking. Letting the thinking take place in the text. Writing as if style doesn’t matter, using one’s natural style. Letting the muse do her work, even though she may be extremely rusty. Even for a highly polished piece, a one-page essay, why not babble on for 20 pages, capturing every last nuance of thought, and then trim it down? Or write it out all over again, after gathering the key ideas out of the longer piece? Writing then becomes a process. It disengages the ego, the constant self-checking, the high standards which block progress. There is no resistance, because the bar has been lowered. The solution to writer’s block was to lower the standards, to think, I’m just going to write whatever comes to mind. To not self-analyze or think about the way it is being expressed; simply to express it in the way that it comes. Or to express something, if nothing comes. Just write. To try and center thoughts around the desired topic, but then even write down those mundane thoughts which don’t seem to be related. Because perhaps they are. Or perhaps they are not. But staring at the wall blankly, waiting for a thought to come, is probably the least effective way of inviting thoughts in. Lower your standards.

You can always revise. But you can’t get back time lost to paralysis.