How to manage our conflicting thoughts, beliefs and goals?
The question’s been with us from at least the time of Homer. In tethering Ulysses to his mast so as to hear the song of the Sirens and live to tell the tale, Homer gave us one of our oldest examples of strategic action being taken in the face of an impending willpower meltdown. The idea that our ability to overcome our inner battles is a matter of having the right stuff – the guts, gumption and get-up-and-go to get things done – remains powerful today. How to self-manage? To follow in Homer’s footsteps: it’s a matter of willpower.
A second approach to our self-management challenge comes to us from a century or two after Homer, when Siddhārtha Gautama identified our inner dialogue as the key impediment to a very different kind of problem: leading a suffering-free life. Rather than striving to bolster bull-headed resolve, the Buddhist tradition offers practices for taming that constant stream of inner observations, commentaries and judgments clouding our attention to the here and now. Meditation – the practice of choice in this approach – begins with a simple premise: we already have within ourselves all it takes to lead a life of full-hearted compassion and contentment every single moment of every single day. It’s a matter of awareness.
Having an informed appreciation of where our conflicting thought, beliefs and goals originate – knowledge of our innate constitution – is a third approach that has been advanced over the centuries from the likes of Plato and Ovid through to Montaigne and Freud. Basic to this self-knowledge is the insight that we host within ourselves a bevy of semi-autonomous agents, each with its individual priorities and agendas.
Plato used the metaphor of a chariot drawn by two horses to represent his concept of the self: the noble steed on the right being the epitome of honour, modesty and self-control; the crooked nag on the left given to wild boasts, indecency and base desires. Similarly, Freud’s model described the ongoing tension between the id (the desirous self), the ego (the rational self) and the superego (the conscientious self) – each part entangled in a non-stop contest to hold sway over the others.
Recent research in neuroscience and psychology confirms that we do indeed have within ourselves multiple systems for assessing and responding to the challenges we face, some of which inevitably clash from time to time. How, according to this approach, do we begin coming to grips with our inner dissension? It’s a matter of knowledge.
Language has been put forward as yet a fourth approach pointing to the inner conflicts created by our own contradictory beliefs, rationalizations, goals and habits as sources of our inner discontent. As social animals, we share common perspectives and frames of reference with our families, friends, communities and cultures. We strive, as far as possible, to “make sense” and “be understood”, or even to be “normal”. At the same time, we can entertain ideas and intentions that transgress the bounds of our commonalities – indeed our culture itself will inevitably include contradictory beliefs, tenets and values that we must each work out for ourselves.
What concepts and structures do you draw upon to formulate your thoughts and justify your actions? The references you use to frame your world make all the difference: it’s a matter of language.
4 Paths – Which to Follow?
We can all too easily see ourselves as living in an either/or universe. Either it’s this or it’s that. When coming to grips with our inner conflicts, is it a matter of willpower, awareness, knowledge or language? If we take a step back, we can reformulate this question: What if it’s a matter of willpower and awareness and knowledge and language – and perhaps who-knows-what-else to boot?
The longevity of willpower, awareness, knowledge and language as ways to manage ourselves in times of stress suggests that each, in its own way, offers a particular advantage for moving forward. One possibility might be that each is best suited to a particular context or set of circumstances. Could the inner-dialogue challenges faced in mid-action – as in the case of Ulysses – be sufficiently different from the demands interrupting a Buddhist initiate on the path to developing awareness to merit its own management strategy? Might someone dealing with an unwelcome reaction from beyond the depths of conscious control possibly benefit from yet another approach? And what about a person juggling the pros and cons of conflicting values and frames of reference to achieve a sound and balanced judgement?
Rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, perhaps the first step in managing our conflicting thoughts, beliefs and goals might come in considering the contexts in which inner challenges arise – and the assumptions we hold about them. Perhaps, by reconsidering how we handle inner conflict, we can discover a pathway to self-appreciation on a whole new level.