Meaning. Connection. Contribution. Total peace of mind. Saying “yes” to such a life and “yes” to learning its truths; leaning into love and kindness; cherishing authenticity and the magnanimity that enlightens our perceptions and judgments, we bring to bear an environment of significance, joy and acceptance that nurtures those who depend on us and presses to the fore the possibility of redemption, reconciliation and reciprocity.
What makes possible such a creative and rewarding life is transcendence. But not an otherworldly transcendence. We’re not referring to a non-physical or spiritual realm that exists outside of the material universe where we humans, made of mundane chemical compounds, fluids and cells, live.
This transcendence is learnable, doable and intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. More exactingly, it is the cognitively and pragmatically unified discipline from which willpower, self-command and fulfillment are enacted.
To start with, we need to address immediacy and willfulness. In the main, what I mean by immediacy is that which has not been reflected on. Immediacy comes from a largely programmed or foreordained piece of the brain. It generates the type of fight/flee and biorhythmic maintenance (eat, sleep, reproduce) responses that promote the survival of the animal. The human brain, home to the same immediacy of other animals but capable of history and language, too, is not all hard-wired. It can, to an appreciable extent, be taught, and recursively teach itself, to mediate or temper the immediacy.
However, this extra intellectual capacity also makes possible a human-made, protocol-filled social world that can be as confrontational and rivalrous as the natural environment in which other animals find themselves. Faced with conflicting — sometimes aggressive — claims for what’s right, decent and sustainable, we don’t always know when to fight. Or flee. Or submit. Or try to escape to a rock garden.
In animals, human and otherwise, immediacy’s initial feel is a prodding anxiety. In humans, a common, reflexive response to the feeling is an antagonistic willfulness. Although this might seem to be the natural response to feeling subjected, intimidated or outraged by all the assaults on our personal authority and peace of mind, it’s often ineffective and ultimately unsettling. After all, isn’t our measure and experience of life elevated by our track record with integrity and fair play, generosity and toleration and a resilient and courageous spirit or mettle?
Which is where transcendence comes in. Transcendence does not offer an escape from the peopled world. By exceeding the programmed limitations of immediacy, transcendence creates an in-the-world opening for reflection, decision and choice. It also inspires the development of the strength, backbone and heart that give dimension and heft to willpower, personal authority, authenticity and leadership.
For us, not fated to endure mean and little lives that millions of those less fortunate living in oppressive conditions must face, our biggest obstacle to an enriching and fulfilling life is our own deeply instilled and inveterate willfulness. We frequently, stubbornly and counterproductively refuse to transcend the immediacy that limits the way we respond to life. For myriad reasons, some of them punitive and vengeful, some of them naïve, indulgent and, perhaps, self-pitying, and some of them fearful and defensive, we mistake a chronic, obstinate willfulness for self-command, self-control and self-discipline.
When we do, we’ve got it wired up wrong. Locating our heart and mindfulness in such a primitive and indiscriminate intelligence, we barely scratch the surface of human possibility.
That being said, there is nothing passive about total peace of mind. Inner mastery requires authority — commitment, nerve, work, heart, competence. Such mastery is generally unavailable via ceremony or ritual or through the acquisition of stylish stuff. In fact, peace of mind is dynamic and its resource kept vital by a creative and disciplined mind.
But despite our computational brains, how we learn isn’t usually linear. We know that experience, thinking and practice can change the brain. New neural pathways that affect how and even what we see, hear, feel and understand are created. As such, experience, thinking and practice affect our judgment, decision-making, choices and options.
But experience + thinking + practice doesn’t compute in a formulaic way. Rules carved deep in our genes and rules gouged deep by culture still influence how we live out our lives. Atavistic fears and desires punctuate our subjectivity at least hourly and society’s imprint weighs heavily all day long.
To achieve peace of mind in our modern world we’ve much to do.
- Cognitive and pragmatic tools to acquire;
- principles to stand for;
- nerve and heart to put to the test;
- sympathetic consideration to extend;
- and love and kindness to bestow.
These are the fundamentals of good conscience, of peace of mind, and of an open-hearted, clear-eyed take on the countless problems that day in and day out present themselves for resolution.
You know what’s next. The hard part. This life we want — this life as deep, contributory and expansive as the reach of our autonomy, imagination and love — is far more than a concept. It’s a physical leap. It happens in our minds and in our guts over biological and cultural pressures that don’t serve our larger visions for ourselves and those who depend on us.
And it’s a physical leap that we have to do over and over — sometimes when it’s the very last thing we actually feel like doing. But it is repetitive effort and incremental progress in service of our transcendent vision that bring into existence and make familiar the competence to enact it. Our brains then use this repetitive effort to perform and build the neural correlates to summon and privilege the creative response to anxiety, rivalry, challenge.
Yes, there will be challenges. Yet, there is great pleasure in our quest for inner mastery and peace of mind, in our transcendent reach for humanity’s most decent and dignifying sentiments. With imagination, discipline and heart, we exceed the immediacy of brute survival, give outward expression to inner grace, and increasingly delight in the wonder and the emotional and intellectual reward that accompany our transcendent achievement. It is here that we experience total peace of mind.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.