Taking Control of Life

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By Mark Lundegren

Have you taken control of your life? 

You may wonder why I ask this question, and exactly what I mean by control.  Maybe you even wonder if the idea of taking control is a realistic one, given the many demands of modern life, or the fact of our natural and cultural conditioning, or simply the scale of both the human and natural worlds in which we live.

It is true that some people speak of feeling a lack of control when asked about their life, when asked to describe the flow of events and experiences, and the flow of thoughts and feelings, passing through their lives each day.  For many of us, it is even probably not difficult to think of someone we know who seems genuinely out of control, who does not have a clear handle on their life, however we might define control.  That person may be someone very close to you, or even you yourself.  People not in control of their lives can of course regain control, and in both cases teach us a great deal about the nature of control and what we need to do to ensure it in our lives.

You may have responded to my question by thinking that you have partially taken control of your life, which is different than feeling or being out of control, but it also implies a feeling of being partially not in control too.  Regardless of how people might respond to my question or to formal research questionnaires, I suspect that most people experience life this way, perhaps reflecting the actual facts of their life or because they have not considered the idea of control carefully enough to be definitive.  I should add that you may be in another camp altogether and feel you are very much in control of your life.  In research on human feelings of control, a significant number of people report feeling this way and consistently so.  Here lies yet another lesson in life and control.

If you do feel a high degree of control in your life, you have of course knowingly or unknowingly taken some things off the table.  You have framed your control, so as to exclude things not subject to your command or span of influence (the weather, economic cycles, actions of strangers, the fate of athletic teams), as well as things not subject to your understanding (the distant effects of our actions, the facts of the future, the opportunities imbedded in Einsteinian physics).  This framing is of course inevitable in any affirmative feelings of control, since our personal sphere of control and understanding has physical limits, although the true extent of these limits is impossible to know (and likely changing amidst human progress and evolution).  As I suggested, like people lacking or regaining control, people who feel solidly in control of their lives are enormously instructive to us – especially in the fact of their creative use of framing and in their general decisiveness within these frames, whether intentionally or not in both cases, since in my observations this is just where many people struggle with issues of control in their lives. 

For now, let me simply ask you to take a few minutes to reflect on any and all areas of personal control and lack of control you have in your life.  It may be helpful to organize and list out these areas in three categories: 1) things you can control and do, 2) things you can control but do not, and 3) things you cannot control (try as you might).  As with life, and our framing and decisions themselves, perfection is not required for this exercise to be effective and useful.  Even when completed quickly and if some areas are overlooked or miscategorized, the exercise may help you to into the conditions or reasons for your feelings of control and lack of control, and even may allow you to name the source of your feelings of control for items in the first category. 

As we will discuss in a moment, without more conscious awareness of and personalized involvement in those areas of our lives we can control, we risk acting without true and optimal levels of control.  We risk acting through unexamined feelings and ideas that are not of our own making or choosing, and living in conditions of lower awareness and with no more than the appearance or illusion of control (and perhaps not even this).  All of us act unconsciously and automatically to some degree, and thus all have aspects of our lives we can become more conscious of and personally involved in – and thus all have areas we can potentially better control.  But this insight only returns us to my original question of your own degree of personal control in your life, and our need for a working definition of control, opening the way for us to begin to better understand and then increase control, well-being, and fulfillment in our lives. 

Since it is empirically true that we all feel, think, and act unconsciously and semi-consciously to a greater or lesser degree, and therefore can never be completely in control of life, even without considering forces and events truly beyond our influence or understanding, a definition of control is critical to our discussion.  A good working definition of control sets the stage for us to better appreciate our untapped opportunities for control and increase control and happiness in our lives, but a definition may also limit control if it is not accurate or optimal. 

Since we all seek joy, health, and fulfillment amidst a world and lives we only partly understand and control, and in a world that only partially aid us in these pursuits, maybe I should have started by simply asking if your life is a happy one – if your life is engaged, creative, and joyful.  In the end, these three specific attributes are important and revealing about quality of life and our most urgent natural imperatives for control.  When we have these three things, they are often definite signs of the form of life control I would like to talk about and recommend to you.

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In this article, I build on themes inspired by the work of psychologist Ellen Langer and initially explored in another writing of mine, entitled “Our Natural State.”  The principal idea of my earlier article was the importance of our understanding our natural human condition – our varying natural human state of life and mind – and experiencing what I have called our natural center.  In the earlier article, I encourage each of us to consider the many contradictory and imperfect ideas about our human nature and natural human life, which often exist as unexamined and influential forces in our minds, lives, and communities, and which often greatly limit our control.

In seeking greater awareness of ourselves and the world, including our human past and social context today, we can create new momentum and increased attentiveness in our daily lives.  This attentiveness can evolve into a process of living increasingly intimately and openly with oneself and one’s environment (though it can also engender our becoming immersed in new and more elaborate fixed categories, at least for a time).  With perseverance and an open attitude, our cultivated attention leads us to the experience of our natural center, directly and for ourselves. This potential for progression in our awareness, for our finding higher and more attentive states of mind and then reaching the point of a new self-possession, has of course been known to practitioners of meditation and other humanistic teachers for centuries, and is now finding footing in modern psychology and neuroscience. 

Examining the world and our own attention, and then experiencing our natural center, involves becoming more conscious and aware as people and then finding our true place within our awareness – the attending and mediating part of our self, the part of the self that can observe the self, and thus the most central or most aware domain of the self.  In our natural center, we become not just more conscious but more self-conscious too, more aware of both the world and the workings of the self, our sublime ideas and primitive emotions, and thus are juxtaposed to them and better positioned to influence them.  We become alive more forcefully as an observer and chooser in the world, and perhaps paradoxically can create a world that is more or more deeply engaging to us.  In our center, we are consciously present in our awareness and can become more creatively at work in our feelings, thoughts, and lives, rather than being overwhelmed by and succumbing more passively to the workings of our mind and environment.  Empirically, we are far healthier and happier, and may even live longer, when we learn to live in a sustained way with such more engaged, intimate, and personal outlooks.  Through the practice of living more deeply and personally in our lives – of living more “mindfully” in the words of Langer – we even take control of our lives in important new ways.

A related idea in my earlier article, also important to our discussion of control, was the importance of understanding our natural social state, especially our innate potential for and the more optimal condition of self-reinforcing human cooperation (transparent and reciprocal altruism).  This natural state of cooperative life occurred within and often between our small nomadic human bands in wild nature (relatively intimate natural groupings of perhaps 30-50 people).  Cooperative social arrangements involve and foster our potential to live and work collaboratively with others, to live providing and receiving care and support.  Cooperation thus can be seen as encouraged by, encouraging, and corresponding in many ways to attentive and intimate individual life.  Our natural state of cooperation was of course a dynamic state of give and take, as it is today.  It is stressed when resources are scarce or perceived this way or when non-cooperative behavior surfaces.  Cooperation and intimate life of course is not the only state of human affairs possible, as a survey of our history and world today gives testimony. 

Often, because of actual or perceived environmental stress or inadequate transparency in our social setting, we decline or are forced to decline from cooperative life to live competitively and less intimately in the world, coexisting with others and guarding ourselves from their potential to harm (and nurture) us, in a way of life that is distinct from and materially and emotionally poorer than cooperative social life.  At times, we and our human conditions can decline even further and become far worse, to the point where opacity, violence, and brutality dominate our relationships, reducing us and others emotionally to near inanimate or instrumental objects for manipulation and the application of force.

As we will discuss, these initially separate or only loosely linked ideas of relative intimacy with oneself and our level of cooperation (or intimacy) with others are actually quite related.  Increased personal attentiveness provides us with unexpected new outlooks on life and others, including our need for new forms of esteem and the imperative of intimate and nurturing life, to promote or foster attentive living in our lives.  In the same way, increased social cooperation on its own can produce profound changes in our emotions and the intimacy of our relationships with others, personalizing the people around us and ourselves in new and even startling ways, and thus fostering a more secure, engaged, and attentive experience of life generally among the members of the social group. 

Taken together, attentiveness and cooperation can be seen as aspects of the same phenomenon: our ideal human state, a natural and health-promoting state of controlled human life.

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Achieving greater personal engagement and increasing cooperation with the people around us might seem straightforward at first, more a matter of personal resolution than revolution.  I have in fact found that both practices are nearly effortless and self-catalyzing, if always dynamic and unfolding, once achieved and practiced for a time.  But, in practical terms, this more controlled and richer way of life is often more difficult to first reach than people realize.  This is true in part because of the many distractions and perturbations of our modern world, a world more inclined to coexistence and competition, which work subtly to pull us away or keep us from the quiet harmony, attentiveness, and personal control of our natural center. 

Underlying the distractions of our environment, and the task of living more naturally, joyfully, and in control in general, we must all also contend with the great force in our lives that centuries of civilized living inevitably is.  Though fixed civilization offers important material and intellectual benefits, and now much more peaceful and prosperous conditions, it comes with physical constraints on our natural behaviors and important influences on our natural emotions and life perspective.  Most important is the tendency of civilized life to create artificial epicenters of focus or preoccupation in our lives, moving us away from our natural center and this more basic and intimate experience of life, and placing us under the control of our culture – whether other people or their ideas.  The most extreme form of this loss of control and movement away from our natural center is psychological and physical dependency, conditions opposite to self-possession, when we live subject to sustained feelings of fear or greed through the influence of abuse, drugs, poverty, or conditioning.

Reaching our natural center and taking control of life are therefore deeply interwoven ideas, each informing, supporting, and proportionate to the other.  This may not seem intuitively obvious at first.  After all, we have been conditioned to think of our natural or unacculturated state as barbarous, in the west by icons ranging from Moses to Freud, and in the east from Confucius to Mao, with a long list of proponents between, historically and geographically.  As mentioned before, there is no doubt that humans are naturally able to unleash horrific brutality on one another, in the wild and in the midst of civilization, if conditions are right (or rather, wrong), if primitive passions are invoked and we are unable or unwilling to examine them. 

Our potential for violent and senseless living is perhaps the most acute manifestation of what Langer calls mindlessness, our acting from unexamined and unchosen thoughts and feelings.  In a degraded personal or social context, most of us are capable of profound insensitivity and even unexpectedly violent behavior, of capriciousness and cruelty, approaching the world instrumentally and as an outlet for primitive uses of power.  Some of us may even be selected with a bias to live in this way – one explanation for the persistence of criminality and sociopathic personalities, of people lacking normal conscience and social emotions, when this is so obviously irrational as a general model for social organisms like humans (but not as an exceptional state).

But is brutality and amorality our true natural state?  Is it natural and inevitable that we crush a helpless insect with our foot?  And is this a state of control?  There are alternative thinkers and icons from our history – Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Gandhi, to begin another long list – who saw our human nature more favorably and our potential for insensitivity and brutality as a sign of a corruption of our spirit and reduced health, rather than its fulfillment.  Looking at this broad range of more favorable thinking and their proponent’s recommendations for our lives, I commented in my earlier companion article that higher states of human beneficence can be promoted either through personal learning and growth, through attentive and chosen life as we have discussed, or more crudely through the force of ideology.  As we explore the idea of taking personal control of life, it is of course in the direction of personal insight and self-discovery that I am steering, rather than ideology, be it an old or new one, since all ideology draws us from our natural center and replaces conscious choice with stereotypic thinking and behavior.

Unlike the narrow and self-reinforcing conceptual and environmental confines of ideology, the path of personal insight and attentive, intimate life is the route to a natural human life of freedom and principled choice, and not simply to adapted behaviors and attitudes that resemble this natural and higher form of human life.  Choice is the gateway to self-sustaining control of our individual minds and lives, and even to new forms life that are more natural, personal, and beneficial, even as they are more open-ended, and uncertain and requiring new or modified forms of social organization (and thus frightening to some of us today).  Understanding that we are free to attend to each moment of our waking life, and to make self-directed choices in each of these moment, is to begin to live more mindfully, more fully, and more in control.  It is an awakening and a higher state of life, even as we live in the same world as before – a physical and experiential world where we can control only so much, and where social conditions and obligations to others might change over time but will always be a force in our lives.

In this new way of approaching our lives, our human nature is neither good nor evil, but a dynamic and functional aggregation of thoughts and impulses we are capable of shaping through our conscious self, even as our nature works to shape the thoughts and feelings moving through us.  As such, we are all capable of a broad range of personal expressions across many contexts, depending on our perspective and level of mindful or self-conscious control.  In conditions of brutality, we are apt to be, ourselves, brutal, unless we consciously chose an alternative.  In a context where love and nurturing are the norm, we naturally receive and give these gifts, and even can transcend this life and natural tendency though new choices – to give, for example, without thought of receiving.  Though the reverse is true too.

Often today, of course, we find ourselves between these extremes of brutality and nurturing, in conditions of what I have called stalemate and coexistence, where we are generally fair but guarded with other people, fearing the worst and preparing continually to defend against it amidst the vagaries of competitive life.  In this approach to life, though we are not brutal, we unconsciously depersonalize ourselves and others, and greatly diminish the quality of our life and our opportunities in the world through our narrowed and often parochial perspective.  We generally live without substantial self-conscious control, and unintentionally influence the social environment and perpetuate this way of living around us, re-enforcing conditions that are neither the worst nor best possible states of human affairs.  We may suspect that better approaches to life and our relationships with others are possible, but may genuinely be at a loss as to how to make certain progress in this direction. 

When I talk about taking control of life, it is of course about personally reaching a new state of self-conscious living and choosing as I have described, from whatever conditions we are in today, creating and fostering more open and personalized ways of living, while still protecting ourselves from true brutality.  It is our universal challenge to live through the force of our own consciousness and to access the power contained in our own opportunities for more conscious and self-conscious choices.

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As we begin to pursue greater control of life, developing our awareness and the power of mindful choice we have in each moment, we quickly and importantly realize that this goal entails being far more present in and careful with the moments of our life than we may be accustomed.  To live mindfully and in control, we must become an attentive companion and even a mentor to the flow of external and internal events that is our life and mind.  Like most intimate and beneficial friendships, beginning a relationship with the moments of our life can take time to develop the trust and confidence, and keen insight and fluidity, involved in all great friendships.

Taking control of life is a change from accepting and reacting to each moment of our lives, to reflecting and attending to these moments.  In this change, the degree or extent of our normal acceptance and reactivity often becomes quite and even painfully apparent, but then diminishes as we learn to attend to and makes conscious choices in more of our life, and as we see recurring patterns to emerge in our life and the choices we face and make.  This can be a substantial change in our approach to life and ourselves for most people, and requires new personal focus to achieve initially as I suggested.  Importantly, because language and thinking can both enable and be a barrier to our full immersion in any moment, it is important to gain perspective on the words we are use to describe this alternative approach to daily life.  Words are words, after all, and we risk creating yet new categories with them, new epicenters and ideology, keeping us from true intimacy in the moments of our life and the position our attentive natural center. 

When I talk about personal control and choice, of intimacy and immersion in moments, and specifically of finding and experiencing (and then experiencing life from) our natural center, I intend to point to a personal reality that is independent of these words.  I mean to highlight a direct experience of daily life that we each can have and then return to again and again throughout our lives.  This personal experience is very basic and elemental, one that re-grounds us in the underlying and natural reality of our life and our perceptions.  Though we may struggle to locate and hold a steady gaze on our natural center, our center is an experience we can attain and then use whenever we want to inform and take control of our life and life choices, and to live more freely and creatively, literally moment by moment.  This deeper personal experience of one’s own life, as you might have guessed and can experience, can be spoken of and pointed to, but ultimately must be experienced firsthand, without intervening words, by each of us for ourselves. 

To begin the process of more deeply experiencing life and yourself more attentively, and of finding the natural center of your awareness, you need only begin.  If you want, you can create a moment of special awareness at any time, even right now, a moment that may perhaps become free of thinking about the moment, a moment of only perceiving both your environment and yourself.  To help you in this, examine your surroundings and begin to consider why they are as they are.  You might select two or three things around you and think through some of the steps that allowed each to be precisely where and how it is.  A next step is to do the same thing with your thoughts and feelings.  Examine them and their existence, perhaps picking two or three thoughts or feelings and considering how they came to be in you, precisely as they are.  In this examination of world and self, you will likely begin to have new perspectives on each.  The goal is not to find final answers, but to realize that our world and selves are altered and made richer and more compelling simply in our attending to them more closely. 

As you can learn through exercises of our awareness and attended moments like this, we personalize ourselves and others, and live more intimately and gently in and with the world, when we attend to and examine them more closely.  We invoke new and more humane emotions with our new perceptions, simply by becoming more attentive in our experience – attending to and exploring with greater care the moments, people, and things in our lives.  In your own exploration of attentiveness, you may realize that this richer experience of self and world is bounded in all final judgments we might make about them, even though judge we must sometimes to live (though perhaps we can learn to do this with more awareness and less sense of finality, with more feelings that our judgments and choices are creative acts).  This is an old discovery about our awareness that opens up the world and ourselves to us in new ways – it is the examined life and meditative life.  From this more attentive state, we can locate or sense the point from which our attention originates, a point that is apart from our thinking and feeling, which I call our natural center.

As you begin to more deeply examine your surroundings and self, as you begin to attentively explore the moments of your life, you can next choose to leave things as they are or to change things.  You can leave alone or re-arrange the items on your desk or table, for example, and even the thoughts and feelings within you (for example your plans for later in the day or for tomorrow morning).  In doing this, in attentively examining and then actively changing or not changing your environment and yourself, you take the first steps to a new and more attentive position in the world, to life in a more central or higher place within you, where you are capable of new attentiveness and choosing at all times.  This is your natural center, though perhaps only your true first glimpses of it for yourself.  It is the source of your natural freedom, and the act of conscious choice is the natural and naturally evolved function of this aspect of yourself.

Once you being to seek out and create moments of special attentiveness in your life, you will learn that this practice can be done in a quiet setting or a noisy one, when sitting or walking, alone or with others around you.  The truth is that, with practice, all moments are available to us in this more attentive way.  We need only learn to reach them and seize the opportunities they contain for new choices.  After you have trained your full awareness on a moment and glimpsed your inner center, the next steps can come at any time, even if they seem awkward at first. 

Whenever you want, you can find other moments and explore them in this same more attentive way, and develop confidence, competency, and greater depth in this way of looking at the world and yourself.  As important issues in your life surface in your thoughts, try examining them in this alternative manner, attentively considering them and their sources and the creative choices that may be possible, alternatives to your dominant or more intuitive or impulsive ways of thinking and acting.  Sometimes, it is even interesting to consider opposite thoughts and actions to our normal ways, or to generate three alternatives (but not ones made of straw), simply for learning and even if we eventually stay with our original ideas.

As these moments of special attentiveness add up, or more rightly multiply, in our lives, they become more familiar, we begin to see consistency in them, we are increasingly be able to return to and regularly act from them, and they become a part of us and our identity.  We gradually uncover and begin to live from our underlying natural center, and to realize the opportunity we have to examine our self and existing preferences, the power of new personal choice and control of life, that we have in each moment.  We may realize, that even though we cannot control all things, we often think and act with far less consideration and control than we can and should, and thereby live less freely and optimally, and far more passively and unconsciously, than we might.

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If we consider the range of emotions, thoughts, and actions of which we are capable – from brutality to benevolence – we might conclude that it is inevitable this spectrum of human experience and behavior will occur in us, that a devil and angel exist within each of us and that each must find their way to the surface.  You may feel we and others are imperfect and potentially dangerous beings, and thus incapable of true control in any desirable sense of the word.

Many hold this view and, as result, recommend great care with people and our social contexts, delimiting how people are raised, educated, should behave, and must be coerced by social institutions.  This effort is of course well-intentioned, but inadvertently and ironically works to pull us from our natural center of personal attentiveness, self-control, and creative and life-affirming choice (where principled and socially affirming behavior might naturally ensue from positive and self affirming environments and in turn reinforce them).  Guarded ideas about our nature, whether in the form of traditional or more modern ideologies of social organization, encourage us to live in less centered and attentive ways and help to move people into an in-between state of mind and human affairs, into a stalemate between our potential for true good and evil – for fully principled and unprincipled life. We thus live predominantly on guard against brutality in both ourselves and others, even has other excess are permitted and even encouraged that may promote brutal behavior.  Our concern for brutality, and ambivalence to irrational social behaviors that reduce our quality of life, are often far from levels that are objectively necessary or optimal (which we can estimate through natural experiments and computer modeling of conditions of sustaining cooperation), to the point where we can longer find and in truth shield ourselves from the wellspring of our natural attentiveness and beneficence.   Our fate becomes life amidst personal natures and corresponding environments that are artificially constructed and less than ideal, conditions of human life that are not naturally centered and not optimally open, sensing, attentive, creative, and joyful.

A more contemporary and scientifically-grounded view is to see our human nature in a different light, as a complex of evolved impulses and semi-autonomous processes struggling for expression and fulfillment.  In this alternative perspective, our personal natures and their expression will be subject to certain obstacles or background conditions, to things we often cannot control: our genetic and cultural scripting, our physical and psychological make-up, the structure and inherent incentives of social life, the effects of earlier life experiences, and other physical impediments and constraints in the world.  A common conclusion from this view is that it implies these factors not just influence, but fully determine, our personal outlook and choices.  Our genetic coding and social environment are seen or feared as restricting our ability to control of our lives, and the self is seen as less free than in traditional views (though still potentially dangerous and thus in need of coercion).  With this view often comes a general resignation to our life and times, despite their being significant changed improved over previous centuries, and the unhealthy and banal sense of ennui and meaninglessness that is common in the world today.

Many students of human nature, however, take a different and more humanistic and open-ended view of modern scientific findings.  Since we are naturally reflective and ideating entities – endowed with the “neural systems for conscience, deliberation, and will” in the words of psychologist Steven Pinker – nature has afforded us degrees of freedom in proportion to our intelligence and awareness, even amidst our conditioning and many automatic and self-restricting processes (thus the great importance of developing awareness in seeking further human freedom and control).  As we can know in our own experience and through experiment, there is always the potential for novel and richer perspective by the self, and thus always the opportunity for new conscious choice and active and more creative control of life.  What often prevents us from achieving this control are limitations in our outlook and awareness, rather than our biology or environment, recognizing the general but not strict correlation between these things.

In this emerging new view of ourselves – grounded in evolutionary science and seeking new progressive opportunities for both individuals and society – creative and destructive, and unconscious and conscious actions are possible in all settings, from biblical paradise to the horrors of war and forced internment.  This includes free, reasoned, and principled choices, which are seen as preferable to identical choices when coerced or ideologically driven (if only for the simple reason that we each would prefer this for ourselves, revealing it is as a universal and more beneficial state).   However, given our science and the formidable and often manipulative natural constraints on our freedom and self-control it has now cataloged, this new humanism recognizes it must move beyond its older expressions and seek more scientifically-informed goals and methods. 

Though still coalescing, this view suggests that our selves must be more actively cultivated, strengthened, and made more attentive of culture and cognitive processes, if we are to act progressively and find new footing in the world, individually and as a society.  Similarly and especially with this cultivation, the emerging view has begun to explore how we may often (but not always) need be more subtly coerced, incented, and constrained than in the past to ensure cooperation and more optimal life generally, further suggesting the possibility of greater human freedom and control of life.

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Our responses to life take can a great many forms and have many cognitive dynamics.  For the sake of our discussion and to highlight our opportunity for cultivation and new awareness and control, we might say that people can respond to their environment and cognition in two general ways. 

As discussed before, the first is according to our cultural and genetic scripting, according to the way we have come to think about and act in the world based on our culture and circumstances, our past and recent life experiences, and our human physiology and innate nature.  In a sense, all but the last of these three things are external to us and phenomena of our contemporary civilization, one that has not yet achieved widespread attentive and self-conscious life.  We might thus view these external influences with special caution, as potentially actively hampering our movement to our natural center and perhaps generally reducing personal control of our lives.  But we are just as right to be attentive to our innate nature and its important biases and inhibitions on free choice (including our natural sense of self-righteousness, which I probably have just invoked with this comment, revealing our need to examine both environment and self in our quest for new freedom and control).

Practically, both our cultural and genetic scripting does increase mindlessness and automatic thinking and behavior, by our definition reducing control of life, but such scripting usually does not turn us into human robots and need not lead to passive resignation to our circumstances (which would further reduce control), let alone to widespread uncontrolled and unprincipled behavior.  It is easy to see why.  In almost any physical setting, excepting perhaps the most extraordinarily controlled or limited ones, there inevitably will be a diversity of personal scripts, a diversity of interpretations of these scripts, and a dynamic interplay of these scripts and interpretations.  In a natural setting of forty people, for example, each with unique personal scripting and three possible interpretations of their scripting, there are numerically over a trillion interactive combinations possible, even without considering environmental and linguistic variation, thus assuring reasonable chaos in human life and life more generally.  This is likely why freedom and the capacity for conscious choice naturally evolved in animals once our environmental complexity and needed cognition reached a certain criticality – the alternative of fully programmed complex natural and social behavior would have required enormous brains and made us easy prey.  Our natural human social conditions, in fact, create the inevitability of rich and novel interaction, require intelligence, and thus create opportunities for discontinuity, learning, and new awareness and personal insight (as well as permit self-deceptive rationalization and moralization and less conscious thinking and action). 

Our personal scripting is often quite useful, to us and others.  It is often informative and intelligent, especially amidst our social, environmental, and biological complexity and the many demands complexity places on us.  But scripting still does greatly limit our ability to respond individually and attentively to our environment and selves, and thus promotes reduced attentiveness and control.  In contexts where scripting is very narrow and deeply reinforced, we do see similarly narrow patterns of human feeling, thinking, and action, though these systems generally require extreme isolation of people and quickly break down in the face of outside influences and increased complexity.  More typically, our scripting is broader than this and more of a background condition for us.  It is functional and allows generalized and approximated responses to the environment that get us through life.  But such responses can never be ideal, since they are always aggregated or generic solutions and are never specific to our specific circumstances.  Our scripted thoughts and actions are never a personalized response to our life and always are an abdication of personal control, even as they are unavoidable in many domains of our life.

An alternative to all scripted responses to our environment is of course conscious choice and active personal control of our lives.  As discussed before, across a dramatic range of human circumstances, we demonstrably have the ability to release ourselves from our genetic and cultural programming, and to deliberate and chose.  We have the ability to chose intelligently, mindfully, creatively, joyfully, even fearlessly, overriding the many imperatives within us (some of them sensible and some ludicrous in our various personal settings, but none every truly personal and specific or ever optimal).  Our ability to transcend our personal scripts is never absolute in a strict sense, but given the fact that much of life today is still heavily scripted, as we soon learn we seek to attend to the moments of our lives, this is a small point.  Most of us are in fact naturally intelligent and creative enough to override our scripts sufficiently and persistently enough, in critical areas of our lives especially, to take control of life in new, important, and substantial ways, especially since much of our scripting produces recurring and discernible patterns in our outlook and behavior. 

We can thus learn to live tangibly, creatively, and fundamentally in new and chosen ways.  We can control and change the course and content of our lives.  We can live and chose mindfully and self-consciously enough of the time, and see enough of the patterns in our existing choosing, to re-create our social context and life potential.  We can reach our natural center and construct higher and richer states of human life, on our own and then with others, and thereby create compounding new cycles of human progress in the world today and for tomorrow.

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If the idea of living more consciously, creatively, and in control has great appeal, which I suspect it does considering the alternative, you (or a part of you) are probably wondering what you must do now to move in this direction.  We have discussed already some specific steps to raise our awareness and to more attentively choose and take control of our lives (the exercise of special attentiveness I suggested and with follow-on practice to explore, increase, and examine our attentiveness). 

The simple truth, as I said before, is that we must simply begin to begin.  Today, in any of the many moments of our day, we can begin to examine more carefully ourselves, our scripts and frames of reference, and our environment and its incentives.  We can begin to center ourselves more deeply in the attentive and observing part of ourselves, examining surroundings and our thoughts and actions before choosing, and not being wholly immersed in, accepting of, and led by these things external to our choices.  Literally moment by moment, we can begin to live more personally, intimately, and attentively.  We can become more mindful, in Ellen Langer’s words, more alert to our thinking and feeling, to the many unseen facts and opportunities in our surroundings, and to the people and greatly untapped potential for new relationships and support around us.  As this articles comes to a close, you might examine what you intend to do next, and why, and then consider three alternatives, simply as an exercise in attentiveness and conscious choice, even if you stay with your original plan (though now it will be more actively chosen).

In beginning or accelerating this process of cultivation of lives and awareness, we must especially become more attentive of the many choices we may be making or deferring to make, mindlessly, joylessly, uncreatively, and inhumanely, in so many moments of so many of our days (since our choices are the currency and final measure of our control). Each moment of our lives of course holds a choice, or more rightly, an infinite number of them.  As we enter the moments of our lives, we enter the choices of our lives, and can consciously examine and then redirect our choosing, the creating that is life.  Imagine human life where choices and choosing was its measure, rather than clocks and calendars.  Such a life would be very different for most of us.  It would be life of greater consciousness, and greater conscious reflection and creation, a life lived more in moments, even as some choices involved the longer-term.  It would be a life of greater control – far more than most of us exercise today – offering the prospect of new human creativity, awareness, and joy.

To begin taking control of life in this way, I have found it helpful to approach the task from a position of strength, though I encourage you to begin from where you are, since progress can take time and in any case necessitates our first beginning.  The natural health techniques I advocate aim at creating conditions of personal fitness and vitality that can enable (though by no means guarantee) greater attentiveness, freedom from scripts and stereotypes, and new personal choices in our lives.  These techniques naturally foster new awareness and an expanded sense of oneself and the world.  They take us out of our regular social context and place us periodically in the natural world, forming a new and more expansive counterpoint in our lives. And they help and encourage us to reconstruct our lives more naturally and healthfully, and to consciously consider and change the least healthy aspects of our lives, throughout our lives. 

Through the quest for our natural health, we learn how our human needs for fulfilling and vital life are often poorly misunderstood today, circularly influencing and influenced by our social environment.  We learn that healthy and fulfilling life can be created for many people far more simply and directly than most of us realize or are conditioned to believe.  With a secure environment, many of us need only opportunities to learn and create meaning in the world, to cooperate and have enriching social relationships, to have intimacy and depth of experience in the world – more fulfilling and conscious life naturally and individually follow from this opportunity and work to reinforce these very different conditions from our time.  Extensive possession, fame and unique status, and extrinsic rewards of all sorts become superfluous to our health and vitality in this alternative condition.  These dominant imperatives today and from our history are recast as interpretations and transfigurations of our nature and genetic coding, as only one and as a costly and inartful way of responding to the facts of human life.  In truth, these imperatives are all superfluous and often contrary to our health and well-being, and to our taking control of life and living more personally, intimately, and humanely.

As we begin the work of taking control of life, ideally but not only from positions of health and strength, the most important area for needed focus is on the specific moments and choices of our lives.  This includes our increased attention to the scripts, the conditioning, and everything else around us and within us that keep us from true intimacy with each moment, from our center, and from choosing consciously and attentively at all times.  This is the long and patient work of human liberation, the liberation and progression of both the self and society, but it is work that becomes play, fulfilling and self-fulfilling, in time.  It is exploration of our own personal nature and our human nature, allowing us to marvel at ourselves even as we work to better control and more creatively and universally express ourselves.  In the end, the attentive life is an exploration of all of nature, and of our own nature and who we might be as people.

Beginning today, you can explore the moments of your life and your own natural center, perhaps by experiencing yourself and surroundings in a quiet setting in nature or at least away from familiar territory.  As you observe yourself and experience your life more intimately and directly, including the thoughts and feelings you hold dear but may someday release yourself from, you take control of your life and the many choices we all make, and do not make, in each moment of our lives.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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Stuck In “N”

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By Mark Lundegren

I have been thinking about an idea for some time – the idea of our getting stuck in “N.” 

It is a thought that returns to me in my work for HumanaNatura, especially when coaching people at a particular stage in the development of their natural health.  In this stage, there is a common tendency to become stuck in a certain way, even in a strangely satisfying one, though in truth the path of health and life more generally holds many other risks of comforting entrapment. 

This particular trap is important, since it is quite common in many early natural health practices.  However appealing it may be and though it often comes because of personal progress, it is still a trap, a way for us to get stuck and not move forward.  It is thus a barrier that many of us must overcome to achieve new steps toward our health and well-being.  I struggle sometimes to help people see this personal barrier, and would like to share my perspective with you.  It may help you in your own quest for health, or with others you are helping in theirs.  In any case, I suppose it is just something that has been on my mind and I need to get it off my chest.

The reference I make to “N” may be ambiguous or uncertain to you.  It is a colloquialism that non-native speakers of English may not initially understand, so I do need to explain it.   With this upper case letter, I refer to the now ubiquitous symbol, in the English-speaking world at least, that indicates the neutral mode of an automobile’s transmission.  If one is not careful when starting off or changing gears in a car or other vehicle, it is possible to get stuck in “N,” stuck in neutral, and unable to move forward.

Whether one drives an automobile or not, the expression is used figuratively in many English-speaking circles, and perhaps in other languages as well.  Someone who is not making progress on a project or toward a deadline, or in their life more generally, is often said to be stuck in “N,” stuck in neutral.  In our free-wheeling and freeway-dominated times, the expression often arises in discussions of relationships, work groups, and other endeavors where we have become stuck, unproductive, or otherwise not making needed progress.  It is an easy metaphor that people use and can relate to, and a sign of our times as I said.

My own use of this fairly familiar expression, however, and the suggestive letter “N” in particular, is a bit different in this case and even less literal than usual.  In the context of HumanaNatura and the many people that come to or through our natural health community, I mean the “N” to mean “nutrition.”  One of my most surprising learnings, over the last few years of natural health mentoring, is just how many genuinely health-oriented people are stuck in “N,” stuck in nutrition, and because of this are unable to move forward – in this case, to higher states of natural health and the important new life experiences available to us through our health.

Don’t get me wrong.  Natural eating and nutrition are critical to our health, and I have written and spoken about healthy eating and nutrition on many occasions.  And there are of course worse places to be stuck.  If we don’t eat correctly, we are less likely to achieve even the first levels of our natural health, let alone learn to use our health to catalyze our full potential as people.  Without natural nutrition, we are unlikely to be freed of struggles with our weight and stamina, with common health problems, with unsteady energy levels and emotions, and even with mastery of our priorities and values, so important is natural eating to understanding and unlocking the power of our own natural health.  A healthy diet is the foundation of our overall health, and even a prerequisite to our ability to rise fully to the occasion of our lives each day. 

While natural eating is important, it is also not terribly complicated either, and need not and should not take up much of our time or attention once it is mastered.  After all, what is natural eating?  In simple terms, it is eating consistently with our human evolution and long life in wild nature.  It is a daily diet of what I like to call greens and reds (raw vegetables and gently cooked meats), with just a bit of fruit and nuts, and enough water (or herbal drinks) to meet our physiological needs.  This way of eating, being natural to us, is quite simple in both theory and practice.  It is not difficult to understand and assimilate this dietary pattern into our lives, with just a bit of determination and persistence, freeing and energizing us for new personal perspectives and challenges.  Pre-civilized people gave little thought to this way of eating, after all, and in the sense that it is natural and optimal for us, neither should we.  We should master nutrition and move on to the rest of our lives.

Since natural nutrition is this simple, it is both surprising and disquieting to me to meet the number of people I do who are stuck there, stuck in “N,” absorbed in natural eating and culinary pursuits or mired in arcane nuances of human physiology and digestive science.  I often meet people who feel accomplished in their quest for natural health through a natural diet alone, as though this is all we need do to complete ourselves and find full expression in our health.  It is a superficial outlook on our health, one that sees natural health techniques as augmenting the general life of our times, as our regular life only healthier, rather than encouraging and enabling entirely new and more natural approaches to life today. 

In reality, our natural health involves and offers much more than our old lives made cleaner and longer-lasting.  Our health offers us entirely new and different lives, in our modern times especially, if we want them.  It allows us to live in a more natural and grounded way, and in more conscious and uplifting ways, in our time.  When I meet natural health practitioners who do not yet see this, I suspect they may be stuck in nutrition, temporarily or permanently, and unable or unwilling to move forward to what comes after natural eating:  to natural exercise and a return to wild nature through walking and hiking, and then, to natural living, to the conscious restructuring of our lives for greater health and well-being each day – to the creation of new expressions of our self through our health.

As a friend’s arrival for lunch today reminded me and is covered in HumanaNatura’s natural health program, I should add that natural eating does have important psychological and social benefits, beyond simply meeting our physiological need to be nourished.  Enjoying our meals, alone and with others, and using meals as part of our celebrations of family and community, are definitely not forms of the nutrition fixation I am writing about.  It is very important to eat enjoyably and to use our meals to bond with and enjoy the company of others.  But enjoyment and bonding are really more about natural living than natural eating.  Which brings me back to my topic, and the idea of our getting comfortably stuck in nutrition, when we should be on the road to greater health and new life.

Perhaps like you, I take extended walks and hikes quite frequently.  As I write this, I am just a few weeks back from a long summer hike in the mountains, a journey that included periodic returns to village and city life after time in the alpine environment.  The experience of these returns to civilization, and the narrowness and much lower health and vitality in life there, remains fresh and compelling to me, and I should share this perspective with you while it is still vivid and palpable. 

Moving between nature and society offers a study in how important it is that we all “get out more,” another colloquialism, by which I mean out into wild nature – to better understand and return to our human origins, to know our original place as people in the natural world, and to understand the physicality of human life in nature and thereby better sense our full personal potential for health and well-being.  An extended hike is a reminder that we must not get stuck in nutrition, or in exercise, or in any other narrow preoccupation or imperative that limits the breadth of our life, our openness to new experiences, and growth in our conceptions of our own health

If you think you may be stuck in “N,” stuck in nutrition, whether comfortably or not, I would encourage you to consider the role and place of eating in your life, and if it is a preoccupation and obstacle to your next level of health.  A useful technique, at any time in our quest for greater health and well-being, is to make a list of the three things that most inhibit our health.  Likely, at least one of these things will be beyond the scope of nutrition, and maybe all three things if you are accomplished at natural eating.  There, you can look with new focus and for new sources of vitality.

Be patient and gentle with yourself in this process.  Remember that many people do not enjoy the benefits of natural eating as you do.  But it may be time for you to focus more on the world outside the supermarket and kitchen, to move from what you know to what you do not yet know about your health and well-being, to get out more and to be more.

A world full of new experiences, and new health, waits just outside all our doors and well-worn paths. 

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!