In Search of Meaning
By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
For thousands of years in all cultures and in all places, our ancestors have sought to find out what is virtue, good behavior, and how to attain it. Much of the search for goodness has been clothed in religious terms: the practice of piety and the avoidance of sin. The rest of the search and findings were philosophies in weighty volumes, or in the simple sayings of ordinary people known as folk wisdom. We have known for a long time what it takes to achieve a measure of peace, happiness, and a fruitful life for ourselves and our societies. What we have lacked has been the will, the capacity to act with reason, carrying out what we know is the right course of action. We often ask ourselves when we mess up our lives, why or why do I do these things that are bad and why don't I do this thing I know is the right thing to do for me and my fellows? For example, why do I smoke, drink too much alcohol, take this illegal drug, or why do I sometimes hurt people I love? Why don't I work harder to succeed, instead of wasting my time with trivial pursuits? My answer is--because we don't stop long enough to think as we pace our habitual dog run; we don't pause in our pursuit of comfort and pleasure; we don't listen to the source of our being; we don't deliberate, but rush ahead with what we have always been doing. We tend to react, distracted by others, friends or adversaries, to do what we have been accustomed in doing, with little conscious thought, planning, and foresight. For nearly all of us the problem is not ignorance of how to act, but the drive to act virtuously. How do we find the will to do what's right? I propose to you praxis, the art of virtuous action.
Praxis balances ataraxia: inner peace, coping well with whatever happens to us, a stoical stance. Ataraxia says whatever may befall me, I can handle it, even enjoy it, because my happiness is up to me. Praxis, by comparison, is action towards my goals; it's the application of theory to practice, the realization of plans, the fulfillment of dreams, the contact with what religious people call God.
Parents, teachers, bosses, and preachers, and all the gurus of success from Napoleon Hill to Anthony Robbins have lectured us on how to succeed. Now you and I will search for the secret of praxis using our own peculiar reason and intuition. We're after that which connects-controls-couples what we desire and intend with what we actually cause to happen. We want to cause an effect, the same way gravity causes water to flow in a channel. We want a strong coupling of our purpose to our desired action, so that action is free to flow in the channel of our intention, without events or people interfering or blocking the flow.
Suppose, for example, we're fat and want to be lean, which is going from a given state A to a desired state B, the statement of any problem. We want to cause the effect getting lean, which cannot be done overnight except with liposuction. We need to reduce this problem so it's subject to the inevitable laws of nature. We know that taking in more calories than we can burn adds fat to our bodies and taking fewer calories reduces fat. We set up a calorie budget to that effect for each day, say 1400 calories; now we have reduced the problem to changing our behavior so that we stay within our calorie budget. Over time, we'll inevitably reach our desired lean state.
Wait, you say, changing our eating behavior, that's not so simple. Aye, there's the rub. How do we make this change in behavior inevitable? We do this by relying on an established behavior, which is inevitable in all of us except in thieves. Don't we always pay for a meal at a restaurant? Put 14 pennies in your left pocket when you wake up in the morning, each penny worth 100 calories. When you eat, for each 100 calories put one penny in your right pocket. The right pocket is the restaurant's money; it doesn't belong to you until tomorrow morning when you will put the 14 pennies back in your left pocket. When your left pocket is empty, you have no more money to spend on food today. You have effective control of your behavior on eating.
But what's to stop me from borrowing pennies and spending the borrowed money? Nothing will stop me except my will to succeed, to get lean. Yes, I depend on my will, about which thinkers debate whether it exists or not.
I say the will exists, because I can feel it when it's on, the same way I can feel anger, sadness, or love. When expressing my will, I may appear to others as stubborn, obstinate, unreasonable--a bulldog. I'm like the English in 1941 facing the Nazis. I define the will as the emotion which moves me to do what's right even when I'm alone, uncomfortable, pained, or terrified acting this way. It's the same emotion of the will which stops me from doing something pleasant, enticing, even enthralling, when it's not right, harmful to me or others. My will is tied to my moral sense, a strictly human trait, and it's my connection with the source of life and consciousness deep inside me and beyond.
If you are new to the will, it will be uncomfortable for you at first. Activating the will is stressful, producing tension, even anxiety. Preparing to act under the force of the will can even be painful, as it is when we make up a list of things to do, meet deadlines on the way to our goal, or face the necessity of changing our long-entrenched habits to succeed.
Life runs on fundamental habits, inherited or grown mostly by the age of five. Habits lead us to inevitable actions. You can be confident that people will behave according to their basic habits, their characters. People are predictable in what they do if you know their charactersStudy a person's character well and you'll know how that person will behave with a high degree of confidence. People as a rule don't change their habits, the good habits, the indifferent ones, or even the bad habits which they see as such. Only under great internal or external pressure will people change habits with great difficulty and slowly, if at all. Acting contrary to habit is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, requiring much effort and concentration.
People don't like to stop, think, and concentrate on changing, life rushing on them as it does these days, demanding money and gratifications. They tend to avoid breaking long-held habits; they slip instead into old grooves, especially when they find pleasure in the actions. You can bet profitably that people will not change their ways.
Still, people need to change sometimes; it may even be a matter of life and death for some people to chuck a bad habit, like smoking for example. How do you change?
First, when a habitual routine is coming on, be on the alert and stop or hesitate before moving into it. Hesitate and become deliberate, choosing to recall your goals in life, and decide if your habitual routine will help or hinder your goals. If your habitual action serves these goals best, then continue with it; otherwise, re-orient yourself like the captain of a ship checking the stars, compass, or GPS. Listen to your inner voice; if you cannot find a better way, then do nothing but meditate. Then deliberate. To deliberate means that you slow down your thinking, feeling and action, slow down enough to move surely to the next step in what you want to do. It's like parking your car in a difficult space, where you don't want to hit anything. You'll not move fast this way, but you'll do it right.
Second, you can change by strengthening your will, confronting temptation, letting the intellect engage in the struggle and call on the emotion of the will to counter the temptation. You can feel the emotion of the will stirring, stiffening like cold anger in your heart. If you're a smoker quitting your habit, you feel the cool anger of your will when you put out a cigarette you just lit. Once you have experienced the will, you can call it up as needed and nurture its growth. Each time you activate the will, you make it stronger. Each time you act with the will to counter a bigger temptation for pleasure or greater fear of pain, you make your will more potent.
Intellect alone is impotent; the emotion of the will links what you know must be done with what you actually do. Feel the rise of the will then when it's needed and let it run with full strength to change your behavior in critical times. When you have done this long enough, you will have extinguished a bad habit or reinforced a good one; thereafter, you'll run free in the right direction without effort under the force of habit. As Verdi might say, la forza del destino is the force of habit.
Third, you can change habitual behavior by blocking and channeling its flow before it occurs. For example, if like me you're prone to overeating, keep little food in your refrigerator and pantry; use a small plate, fork, and spoon; shop food less frequently; avoid restaurants, especially buffets, and engagements where the hostess serves food too lavishly; wear tight pants and belt; go to bed early to skip night eating; eat slowly, chewing thoroughly, setting your fork down after each bite until it's gone down your gullet; drink water one hour before sitting down to a meal; don't sit down to a meal, but grab a snack, and so forth. You can devise similar tactics for other habits you want to change. These tactics are cheating the will, but they work in the long run, because a habit is a repetitive action, and if not repeated it's bound to become extinguished. Similarly, you can set up channeling of desirable behavior, reinforcing a good habit. For example, if you want to get up earlier to attend to your duties, set a loud alarm earlier, out of reach unless you get up and out of bed.
We have found how to couple what we want to achieve to what we are doing, praxis, the exercise of the will, the force of life itself.
Now, let's think about life's purpose. Our purpose is to serve: to work and serve ourselves, our family, our community, our species, all species, Nature, God if you like. If we are children of a Creator, our purpose too is to create, to work, to build, to design, produce new interesting patterns, and to reduce the chaos, the disorder (entropy) in the world. Seeking pleasure, even happiness itself, is a lowly goal, unfit for us. Even less of a worthy goal is avoiding discomfort, pain, even agony if necessary in doing our work. Not that we want to seek out pain, damaging our bodies, beating our backs with chains like religious zealots. We want instead to enjoy as best as we can whatever comes from doing our duty; that's fine and good. On our deathbeds, we shall accept the utmost pain and carry on with our work if possible.
In our work we have primary goals: to achieve success in our chosen career, making enough money to feed, clothe, and house ourselves, to marry and raise a family, to win and influence people enough for social acceptance or even fame, to help cure the evils in the world and promote justice. We need to observe a number of supporting goals also: to promote our good health and fitness, to keep learning new skills and knowledge needed as the world changes, to save money and property for our security and retirement, to perform our civic duties, such as voting, tax payments, jury duties.
I want every year of my life, every day, every hour, every minute to be dedicated to my goals and actually be used to further these goals. How about rest and recreation? Some time should be given over to R & R, scheduled for that purpose as needed and no more. When tired, rest; when rested, work. Needed fun for relaxation is helpful to a career; excess fun is damaging. What should I do about the arts—literature, drama, cinema, music, dance, painting, sculpture, interior and exterior design? Art can enter every phase of life--work, family, society—because art is an emanation of the life force, invigorating everything we do. I would like to integrate art into my activities as much as possible, into my eating, exercising, traveling, sleeping, socializing, loving, and work. How about laughter, adventure, and spontaneity? I will allow for these also, otherwise, life becomes boring, but I don't want the pursuit of trifles, pleasure, comfort, happiness even, taking over my life, distracting me from my purpose.
Felicity follows function follows fulfillment. Fulfillment, my life's purpose, determines how I function, how I behave, and such behavior makes me happy, joyful, and serene.
I expect fulfillment in experiencing sensations and feelings, as well as thoughts in exploring on this our planet. I see myself as a robotic probe on Earth, my consciousness a transmission from another place, another dimension. My body is very valuable, a complex mechanism at my disposable to get around on the surface, much more sophisticated than the surveyor craft on Mars. But my body is not I. I belong elsewhere and will go there again to join my transmitter and be debriefed fully after my body has ceased to function. My body is like a candle holder with a burning light. As the candle is used up, the light goes out to infinity like all radiation. Seeing myself thus, I have set my goal while living here to learn as much as I can—skills, knowledge, wisdom, right behaviors—to explore the world, seeking adventure without terminating my body too soon, experiencing all the activities this body is capable of tackling: swimming, dancing, loving, singing, playing, laughing, knowing other human beings intimately, and accomplishing things of value to me and others.
Primarily, however, my goal in life is to think, with the sharpest reasoning my brain is capable of exercising, about the fundamental problems of existence and the universe. And to write down my answers to the big problems with the best art and artistry I can muster.
That is the purpose of my life. I hope my work is of value to other people. In any case, my efforts are valuable to me. What is the purpose of your life?
A definite major purpose in life, perhaps some secondary goals also, enable praxis, the control, the wheel and rudder in steering your body in turbulent seas. Your purpose must be concrete, definite, and well defined. You cannot tie effective action to a vague, tenuous purpose. Your purpose must be vivid, foremost in your mind when planning and executing your actions. Repeating frequently to yourself and others, in writing and speech, what you want to accomplish, reinforces your vision for the success you want. Detail your goal, embellish it, picture it in your mind's eye often; it will help couple your goal to your daily activities and you'll be less likely to be thwarted by adverse events and people.
The world around us is often turbulent, chancy, even mad. People fail us, contraptions fail us, nature fails us. We begin by exercising ataraxia, complete inner peace with a smile. We submit for a time to the will of all-powerful, compassionate, and wise Jupiter, Jehovah, or Allah. We accept momentarily whatever fate dumps on our heads, we resign, relax, and remain calm in the eye of the hurricane. We no longer feel pain, have no need of pleasure, and enter a state of perfect mental tranquility. That's ataraxia, taught by Epicurus, another concept, taken up elsewhere. For now, we go the way of praxis, powerful action in the face of adversity. We want firm actions, day in, day out, hour in, our out, to take us out of the storm to our port of call. Actions that inevitably follow from our intention, premise, or axiom, like a logical or mathematical argument, like the laws of physics: gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces.
Praxis is a method for controlling your time and life, directing your energies to succeed in your goals. Your day has twenty-four hours, eight hours or so of which are given to sleep and dreaming over which you have little control. You still have sixteen hours remaining for goal-driven actions. If you use your waking hours effectively, you'll find your sleep and dreams may also be productive in ideas. Working effectively each hour, you push towards your goals. What you may control is the push, the action you're able to take, not the result you want, although your aim is to hit your target.
In your daily schedule, do set up your target, but mainly plan your actions and later record what you actually did each hour. Stick to your planned schedule, unless you find a good reason to change course; don't vacillate. At the end of the day, study how you have deviated from your planned actions and how to correct your behavior next day. Praxis doesn't come at once without practice, like an epiphany; you perfect praxis gradually with constant and devoted training, like any other discipline. You may only control in the world what you feel, what you think, and what you do; the rest is up to the dice and toss of nature.
You can improve control of your behavior by rehearsing your planned actions enough times until what you're going to do is very vivid, certain, and real in your mind. Think of yourself as an actor preparing to go on stage to say your piece, because "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
Unavoidably, some of the time you'll be busy with necessary supportive actions: dressing, eating, exercising, resting, cleaning and nursing yourself. Enjoy what you can of these activities, but fit them in the interstices of your work schedule by making them brief. For example, eating is something we do too much; affluence leads us to overindulge. The adult human body requires few calories and nutrients in a few snacks: each day, sixty grams of protein, thirty grams of good fat, thirty grams of fiber, with traces of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and anti-oxidants, which you can best get from delicious vegetables and fruits with complex carbohydrates for clean energy. Any excess food goes to waste or to body fat. We tend to eat too much and too fast. Less eating will give you, paradoxically, more energy--also better health, and a longer life. Eat little, slowly, and enjoyably, focusing on fine, fresh, food for ten minutes between work periods of fifty minutes, like a psychiatrist's hours. If the needed materials, like ready foods, are available at hand, you can fit most of your support activities between your fifty-minute productive sessions.
Begin your work on the hour and take a break for supporting activities ten minutes before the hour. Even exercise can be fitted in ten- minute sessions; the health benefits are the same as for longer exercise periods. Next to eating, we allow too much time for exercise if we are health conscious. Sweating in the gym for hours to lose weight is a waste of time. You can lose weight best by eating less. For body building, you need to work out more; but as for staying fit, three ten-minute sessions of exercise a day are sufficient, if they include aerobics, weight training, and calisthenics for flexibility. You can set an egg timer to remind you of work and break intervals.
With regular breaks, you will have more productive work periods and more stamina to work hard till the end of the day.
You need to work hard each day to achieve important goals. Praxis is a discipline of feeling, thought and action, empowering you to work hard, enabling you to do what promotes your goals in life and to avoid what is harmful or wasteful of your time and other resources. Why do we often neglect work we must do and indulge in actions that we should avoid? First, we seek pleasure for the sake of pleasure, instead of utility. Second, we run away from necessary discomfort or pain. Third, we lapse into apathy, even depression, neglecting what we need. Fourth, we submit to damaging habits, wasteful customs, or addictions, debilitating modes of behavior, such as overeating, smoking, gambling, drinking alcohol, shopping excessively, or fornicating indiscriminately.
Praxis will set you free from such chains of behavior, leading you to greener pastures, because praxis is a belief system, a faith not necessarily tied to religion.
To achieve, you need to have faith in yourself, in nature, and in your ability to succeed in getting results you deem worthwhile. Motivational teachers have called this attitude positive thinking. Positive or constructive thinking, enthusiasm, motivates us to move, to exert ourselves, and to achieve. Certainly, negative or downbeat thinking does the opposite, but it has its place in life too; it's conservative. When you practice negative thinking you fall into a passive state, lethargy, inaction, sleep, conserving resources, sometimes your very life. That is the evolutionary advantage of feeling low, dejected, defeated, or depressed. Positive thinking, on the other hand, pushes you to expend resources liberally to get to your goal, because you believe you can reach it, sometimes risking your money, or your eye and limb. You may end up with irrational exuberance, or mania. Your nervous system firing neurons, your glands secreting hormones, and your muscles contracting all act together with positive feedback into larger and larger swings to resonance, causing sometimes a complete breakdown.
Negative thinking and feedback are beneficial when breakdown threatens. Go then into ataraxia with laughter, or at least a smile. It's all a game anyway to be enjoyed, this sporting life, acting on the stage of the world, having our exits and our entrances.
But while forging ahead with your daily goal-directed schedule, be prepared to counter distractions from your body, your negative mind, your bad old habits, your well-meaning friends and relatives, as well as those who mean to waste your time and damage your life. You'll be working intensely, doing much good work, when suddenly sleepiness will hit you, a friend will call to chat, or a salesperson will pounce on you. Be prepared to firmly resist these intrusions, pushing ahead with the things you have scheduled to do. This is the time to be stubborn, obstinate, pig-headed, projecting your powerful will.
If you want to accomplish anything extraordinary, you'll run into opposition; it's in the nature of the world. The world is jealous of achievers because most people are not. You'll need practice to defend your time and other resources from those friends or adversaries apt to waste them for their own aims or no aim at all. You have to possess the force of will to overcome the enemy, most of the enemy being within yourself, your lethargic slothful self, demanding to be pampered, comforted, pleased. The core of praxis, cold anger (thymos I call it) drives you on; it's what they call in marketing circles aggressiveness. You're not hurting anybody, but you extend yourself, projecting your objective on your own actions and those of others. Thymos, (aggressiveness or assertiveness) is that cool, calculating, controlled, enterprising push towards the goal, plainly seen in sports and business, but also energizing the arts, politics, professions, and sciences.
I'm not implying you should be devoting every hour of your day to your job, except for necessary rest periods. You have other goals and interests besides your career: family, friends, community interests. Give these interests their due--but no more, if you want personal success.
The desire for personal success will lead you to exercise praxis, part of which is the right self talk. What we think affects how we feel and how we feel affects what we do. Psychologists say that cognition does not usually occur in an affective vacuum, that is, thinking is tied up with feelings. On the athletic field or in business meetings you get pep talk from the coach or the boss. As an independent performer, you need to supply pep talk to yourself. "I can do this." "I can handle it." "It's a piece of cake." "I'm going to win this." "I'm going to make it through this." Keep talking to yourself until you have built up enough drive inside to act, unless it's time for conservation, and negative talk: "I need a little rest now before I begin again." "Look out, you're over extending yourself."
If pep talk fails to motivate you rightly to solve your problem, if nothing works for a time, relax, fall back on humor and laughter with the aid of ataraxia. Counteracting thymos humor is an easing up, spontaneous and frank, a play with friends or enemies you approach lightly, with laughter the relaxing reflex letting go of tension and stress for a while until you recover your balance to press on again with praxis.
Praxis is mainly intentional living, tied to goals not amusement, leading promptly to fitting and efficient action, as opposed to a casual and passive lifestyle directed by others, in which most people indulge, settling in mediocrity. Spiritually, praxis is the immediate and personal contact with the divine, a taste of the source guiding our destinies.
My lifestyle is a simple one as dictated by praxis, dedicated to purpose, integrity, conscience, ethical and frugal living in a village community, respect for the environment, mostly vegetarian eating, beneficence to all people and living things, resistance to ostentation, commercial appetites, and excessive money making. Like you or any human being, occasionally I'm assailed by doubts, anxiety, even despair about my life, family, the whole world. Then I quickly respond with praxis, blocking such feelings and thoughts and substituting the mind set which leads me to thrive and to help others. The human mind can entertain one powerful emotion at a time; therefore, I bring on thymos banishing frustration, self-pity, fear, or despair.
When praxis with thymos is on, I know that every moment is a kernel of the future, my destiny, which must not be derailed by a foul mind set. As a rule, thymos transforms me to act with fortitude and enterpriseIf in doubt of my next move, however, I stop and meditate, doing nothing, better than making the wrong move. I seek guidance in the silence of my spirit. I know that each moment my actions should bring closer to my goal, or else I pause and reset my mind. I may approach people I know who can influence me in the right direction, or read a passage or two of wisdom from my favorite thinkers, Plato, Marcus Aurilius, St. Augustine, Descartes, Russell.
Contact with good minds leads to good actions. I always seek to guide my steps with logic, sound reasoning, taking into account what I feel, but never to follow my emotions blindly. I program my actions towards my goal, visualizing each step in detail, in full color, rehearsing my movements enough times to completion; then I stop again, listen, attend, and repeat the sequence of actions in my mind, never allowing distraction, until I'm satisfied my course is right, firm, and inevitable.
The core idea of praxis is self discipline, a very different concept than discipline imposed on us by others. Self discipline leads to true freedom of mind and such success in life as is possible for us mortals in an indifferent, often hostile, world, ruled as much by caprice as by law.
Born and raised in Greece, Basil came to America when he was 20 to study engineering. He earned a Masters degree in Engineering Science from CIT and a Ph.D. from USC, worked in aerospace for a number of years, then taught at the California State University for ten years. Upon retirement I have been writing on a variety of subjects, self publishing a philosophical book on religion, "The God Connection", and a card game manual, "The Biriba Game," available at newvistasmedia.com.