"Those who apply themselves too closely to little things often become incapable of great things." Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Formative Foundations To Build On

“The loftiest edifices need the deepest foundations.” - George Santayana

 “It is only by imitating the vices of others that I have earned my misfortunes.” - Marquis de Sade

Principles to live by are only as strong as the foundation that nurtures them.  And if you don't live by principles than what do you live by?  There is a doctrine that lies deeper than any manuscript or group orthodoxy.  It is biology itself.  Our physiological makeup is an engineering marvel that is still being unraveled.  The first part of tweaking this apparatus of ours begins with our nervous system.  More precisely, the habits imbedded within it.  And still more precisely our awareness in configuring some specifications and programs to work in our favor.  

I can go on and discuss some the processes and ideas behind configuration of our habits, will, self, volition, intentions, or what ever other modern word you prefer to use to imply self-governance.  I will, however, reach into the archives of one of my heroes - William James.

From his book Psychological Foundations, famous for introducing his "stream of thought" analysis...this is James on habit:

“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.  It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.  For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.  The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.  There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subject of express volitional deliberation.  Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.  If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.”

On discipline, action, and character:

“No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.  With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.  And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down.  A “character,” as J. S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life.  A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain “grows” to their use.  When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit it is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.  There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.”  

On testing oneself and self-denial:

“Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.  That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in lettle unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may fund you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.  Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods.  The tax does him on good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return.  But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin.  So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things.  He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.” 

Well said Mr. James.


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