Making Conscious Choices, Part II

by Mike Sententia on July 26, 2012

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I wrote recently about making conscious choices: Effortfully deciding what to do while I’m exhausted from jetlag, to maximize my very limited resources. You should read that post, and my discussion with Ona in the comments, before reading this one.

This post is about some thoughts prompted by Ona’s last comment:

I’m also fascinated by the occasional studies that imply we actually make all our decisions before we are consciously aware of them, and then go through the reasoning process afterwards, so we *think* we are deciding deliberately but it’s really all a bit more spontaneous. (overview of the idea: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will)

I’m familiar with this research. (I have a degree in psychology, actually.) It’s pretty compelling: We register a visceral reaction before we’re consciously aware of the decision, then we rationalize that visceral reaction. This is part of why we’re so bad at making decisions: That snap judgement sometimes gets it wrong, and no amount of rationalizing a wrong choice will make the choice right.

After Ona’s comment, I started thinking about how it feels to consciously choose, and I think it feels like re-evaluating what I actually want. Like triggering the unconscious process to evaluate how much I like something, using new data. In essence, I think that consciously deciding is about consciously thinking about all the angles — how will the decision will impact my schedule, when I get to sleep, my tasks tomorrow, and so on — and then re-running the unconscious decision based on those considerations.

I hadn’t thought of this until reading Ona’s comment, so it’s a suspicion, not a strong model. But it does feel accurate, and since I developed this as my tentative model, it’s easier to consciously trigger a re-evaluation. And, when a model makes the task easier, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track.

Now, I’m not sure how much this belongs on a magick blog, because it’s not really magick. I’d say that it’s mental gymnastics made easier by magick training, because I have a ton of practice triggering unconscious thought processes to do magick. But this, itself, I think is just normal psychology.

Thoughts?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ananael Qaa July 26, 2012 at 6:34 AM

Personally, I think one of the effects of magical practice is that it develops your ability to intentionally make decisions. Aleister Crowley postulated that most people do not generally make willed decisions at all but rather just acted according to their conditioning, which is why he made the famous statement that “every intentional act is a magical act.” I suspect that what the neuroscientists are measuring when they see things like readiness potential is the conditioning signal being issued to the “thinking” portion of the brain. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my practice I certainly experience those signals – they happen before I take an action and they definitely feel like an “influence” pushing my mind in one direction or the other. And a half-second before I take an action is probably about right. I would say that the reason experimenters can see the direction a movement is going to take before it happens is that most people go along with those signals most of the time – which could give a correlation on about the level that’s being measured.

One of the most important effects of meditation is that it allows you to experience thoughts arising earlier in the process. I think that’s something most people will experience after a few months of practice, and it’s extremely useful. By cultivating awareness of conditioning signals, you can develop a greater ability to make choices that are less encumbered by them. In psychological terms, magical practice could be regarded as aiming at a mental shift in which your conditioning serves you and not the other way around. First you work at breaking free of your conditioning by becoming aware of it and intentionally choosing from moment to moment whether or not you want to follow its tendancies, and once you accomplish that you can start working at creating new conditioning loops that work the way you want them to – kind of like programming a computer according to specific software requirements.

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Ona July 29, 2012 at 1:24 PM

Ananael said: “One of the most important effects of meditation is that it allows you to experience thoughts arising earlier in the process. I think that’s something most people will experience after a few months of practice, and it’s extremely useful.”

That’s very true. To give an example, most people might see their boss come into the room and slam down a report and instantly go to “oh my God, he hated my report, I’m going to get fired and then how will I pay my rent…” etc. In other words in a split second one is in a state of anxiety and getting ready to have an argument.

Meditation, after some time, allows you to see the full play of the interior reaction: visual/sounds of boss’s action received by ears and eyes, flinching of body in reaction to sudden movement/sound, recognition that these represent boss being upset, tension arising in body in anticipation of conflict, mind beginning to produce anticipatory stories about being yelled at or fired… which totally kills the automatic anxiety response, and instead gives you plenty of time to be calm and thoughtful about a response. It’s beneficial in a bizillion situations, and generally leads to a much greater level of patience with day to day stuff and much less “instinctive” self-defensive type reactions (which rarely result in anything productive, but just generate a state of stress).

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