~ Sensei Wirth
If you want to go east, go east. If you want to go west, go west.
If there’s somewhere you need to be, you need to start walking.
~ uncertain; possibly Lao-Tzu
Each of those quotes expresses a certain commitment to beginning; to taking action; to moving in a direct way. But what really is commitment? I thought I knew what commitment was, until I started to think deeply about it. Now, I’m uncertain.
There are some things to which I am deeply, unshakably, committed; Take breathing for example. At first glance this seems trivial since it’s a physiological imperative managed by the body. But if I imagine a scenario where someone is trying to prevent me from breathing, I can easily imagine myself consciously acting — wildly, vigorously, berserk even — to achieve the goal.
What would it mean to be that committed to something of my own conscious choosing?
What does it mean to “be committed to” a new habit?
Sure! I’m committed! I like this new idea — this new habit. I’m going to really stick to it! I have goals, and a plan. Let’s do this!
…and a month later the habit is nowhere to be seen. Does that failure mean I was actually not committed when I thought I was? Did my commitment evaporate over time? Are there degrees of commitment? Is there some minimum level of commitment necessary at the beginning to achieve certain goals? Does commitment need occasional inputs of energy to keep it going, like a spinning top? Or is commitment a simple binary — yes, or no?
Perhaps understanding commitment would be easier if I tried to untangle a simpler type of commitment. What does it mean to “commit to” a physical action in the very near future?
This jump scares me. But I know I can make it; I’ve definitely jumped this distance successfully many times. I know there’s value in doing this jump. I should do this. I want to do this! Okay, I’m committed! I’m ready! Here I go! abort! ABORT!!
What happened? I thought I was committed? Was I lying to myself when I said, “Okay, I’m committed”? What would it mean if it was possible to lie to myself– to truly believe myself when I was lying? Did my commitment somehow evaporate in the moment just before I aborted? Did my body — my physical corpus separate from my mind — somehow, literally, physically refuse my mind’s directions? Is that even be possible?
Here’s another experiment I’ve performed countless times: I get set up for a jump which pushes my limits. There are some consequences to missing, some real bit of danger is present, but it’s a good jump, something I know I can do. I’ve checked my surfaces, and I’ve explored and thought out everything to look for unknown-unknowns. I’m ready. The thinking-me-brain commits — really commits — we (the me-brain and the body) are ready to do this! And then I notice that my palms are sweating. Wait- What? Who called for sweating palms?!
Therefore I’m forced to wonder: Does my body have a mind of its own? In fact, I believe this is the case. We know the brain — the entire central nervous system — is an amalgam of layers. The thinking me’s consciousness is just the topmost layer, and there are deeper layers, sometimes called the “lizard brain”, performing fully autonomous functions. Performing many autonomous functions.
After all of that thinking and experimenting, I’m starting to believe that commitment is actually easy. The thinking-me-brain is good at committing to something after a bit of reasoned consideration. Committing may be one of its greatest skills, in stark contrast to the body’s short-sighted visceral behaviors.
So what then is hard?
Learning what level of control I am in fact able to exercise over the rest of my body is hard!
My commitment evaporates when my body rebels; When it literally, physically refuses my thinking-me-brain’s commands. My commitment evaporates when unconscious triggers, and reward/feedback loops, guide my actions when the thinking-me-brain isn’t actively paying attention. The teacher leaves the classroom and the students start throwing paper airplanes. “I thought we were committed to reading our studies! …why all this fooling around?!” I thought we were committed to this jump! Why have we not jumped?! Why are our palms sweating and heart racing?!
The more I examine this situation, the more it feels like the thinking-me-brain is a tiny little prisoner who has very little control over almost nothing.
“Commit to the move,” the book says. The tiny, weak, thinking-me-brain would love to practice talking the body into doing things it doesn’t want to do. So let’s — thinking-me and the body — let’s go out and see what we can agree to commit to!