Life: Horse Race, Rat Race, or Amazing Adventure?

Notes on the Cryptographic Key to Creating a Self

Posted Mar 19, 2016

This essay takes a look at reflections gleaned from over forty years of psychiatric practice. It spans comments of adolescents through octogenarians. Communal themes of achieving nothing meaningful, driven competitiveness, mindless dependence on electronic devices, discontent, burnout, and wanting “to reach beyond” are common enough to call for putting these vexing matters down as collective concerns---gestational pauses---that span the lifecycle. In essence, the question is: What constitutes leadership---self-leadership?

Life's Colorful Journey, original oil, F.J. Ninivaggi
Source: Life's Colorful Journey, original oil, F.J. Ninivaggi

A Look at Human Life from a Psychiatrist’s Eye

Everyday living is layered with routine demands---often reflexive and sometimes dull. How much decision-making is determined by free will; how much by hidden variables? If asked, would we say we do what we do because “that’s my job,” “that’s what I’ve always done,” “I’m a mom,” “I’m a dad working to put my kids through college,” “I just do what I’m told,” and so forth?

Am I pandering to my baser self out of fear? Telling myself what I want to hear to pacify---tame?---my creativity and blunt my freedom? 

Convention, competition, ambition, impression management, social acceptability, conformity---these are typical motivations. These implicit and explicit values, often socially defined, shape routine lifestyles. These socially determined identities become ingrained and guide behavioral choices. An individual’s deep desire for personal harmony manifests as habituation to group conformity, avoidance of change, and more than a modicum of passivity. “Individual self” used here contrasts to any “group” idea or material reality whether large or minority. "Self" reduces to the lone individual, reflective and contemplative.

Moreover, being “politically correct” often forces one to follow systems and establishments in complacent, bystander, yet mindless ways. The point: living in a recurring world of mummified and decaying non-expectations numbs the soul to a present moment. It blunts the capacity to feel “happy.” Importantly, this jaded emotional sensitivity robs one of their birthright: a responsivity for burgeoning self-realization.

This stolid complacency can cause self-sabotaging, dysfunctional decision-making ending in a split: conscious self from its deeper unconscious roots. Coming closer to one’s mental “unknown” is often too threatening; storms of anxiety keep states of mind “in the dark.” Splits are fragmentations in the self that show up in a disconnect with one’s awareness of the body---and a reverence for it. Overweight, smoking, illicit substance use, and being unfit disrupt the harmony of body, mind, and spirit. These are destructive because they lead to hypertension, cholesterol and triglyceride abnormalities, cardiac infarctions, and cancers. The resulting mental and emotional anguish is often harsh.

Most learn to become satisfied with the established course of their lives, immune to the possibility of a “higher” self-development. The pursuit of turning off “auto-pilot” is seeking more of one’s unexplored essence behind its conventional residue. Often, the impulse to change is prompted because one feels a failing state of self and what it has to offer.

This idea, however, of “going beyond” has a long, complex tradition. “Beyond” hints at an unconscious reserve, an untapped potential scarcely glimpsed in the wonderland of dreams, and conscious aspirations never made material. It denotes an internal motivation that is entirely self-generated and connotes discovering profound values, a vision statement previously unvoiced.

Whatever “self” hints at, it evokes a mysterious, personal possession, a moving target that defies grasping yet envelopes one’s entirety. The contemporary phrase, “personal development,” is similar but not as intensive. Its meaning involves setting shorter term, more tangible goals, for example, losing 5 pounds, going to the gym every day, and advancing one’s career.

Yet, others ask, “Is there more?” For them, at unexpected times, a psychological breakthrough occurs. Inner eyes open. Put differently, some pensively ponder: “I feel conflicted,” “I don’t want to be just a number,” “I don’t want to be an item on an assembly line,” “I’m not a cow; I’m not plastic, I’m a person with a mind and a heart---and I dream.” “Is there a way out of this mindless conformity?” becomes a leading thought.

The universal urge behind humans gravitating toward such grand pursuits as religion, art, philosophy, and science is undeniable. This impulse is “epistemophilic:” an attraction toward understanding imbued with loving, if not aesthetic, qualities. This intimate aspiration---a “cryptographic key” ---seeks to unlock a harmony of sensation, perception, and feeling. Moreover, humankind's profound tie to the best that its faithfulness to moral aspirations---and choosing life---have catapulted it toward civilization, culture, as well as the conflicts so evident at this moment.

Using various strategies, people have superimposed upon their lives meaningful values. With these values, salient lifestyles have been crafted. Energetic, creative, and thoughtful decision-making becomes generated. A self-made adventure voiced as “This is the life I choose to create for myself!" echoes loudly.

Do themes of achieving nothing meaningful reflect identity issues, neuroses, maladaptive personalities, malcontents---or are they normative human concerns---and is there more? Let’s take a look at two common examples that embody these questions: “the rat race,” and “the horse race.”

The “Rat Race” Experience

Expending exhausting efforts running around, but ultimately achieving nothing meaningful is the “rat race.” This phrase is used about work, particularly when excessive and competitive. Put simply, if one’s perception is that he or she works frustratingly much, one is in “the rat race.”

This terminology implies that people experience work as a seemingly endless pursuit with little reward or purpose, both boring and meaningless. The increased image of work as a "rat race" in modern times has led many to seek better alternatives and a more harmonious work-life balance. Long hours, unpaid overtime, stress, time commuting, and less time for family and friends have led to a disgruntled workforce. Yet, nowadays, economic constraints force people to continue to work and endure these pressures.

The “Horse Race” Event

Experiencing life as a horse race implies several things: competition, ambition, gambling, and chance. The excitement of a horse race typically is that the competition is close or---toward the finish line---it is razor thin. The exhilaration felt is a "dopamine rush" akin to the effects of drugs. Competing to win occurs from the schoolyard, the classroom, the workplace, through the political arena.

The added lure of randomness looms in the background to stimulate one’s appetite for potential success—a prize, the enticement of gambling and chance. Ambition and competition, when modulated, are healthy and productive. Viewing life as a game of chance or luck is not a reliable guide for one’s life.

Moreover, using nonhuman, animal analogies to describe human experiences dehumanizes people. It reflects a de-”person”-alization of one’s life and is a perilous step before experiencing the self as an animated “device” ---robotic in nature and mechanical in function. Individuals who do wake up to their humanity and potential uniqueness go beyond merely protesting. They are not just rebellious and oppositional like an angry child. They seek answers and strategies to individuate, self-create, and humanize as fully as possible.

Rat race and horse race reek with one of the essential psychological roots of conflict: manipulative control. “Who really controls who?” we may ask. At heart, although it always appears that others are controlling us, we are the controller and the controlled. For many complex reasons, we---in the end---wallow in a morass of uncontrollable self-sabotaging impulses that enslave and lead to envy, greed, and jealousy.

An Alternative: Life as a Self-made and Meaningful Adventure

Creativity may lie in finding the right problems to solve. This requires being eccentric to some extent---partially outside the circle of convention. It means being receptive to grasping the breadth of life’s connections and their multiple perspectives.

Given that ours may be the best of all possible worlds, we---as self-conscious “persons” ---can gradually understand the meaning of what we feel, what we do, and how we behave. This denotes not merely descriptions of how we perform and what our mechanical actions are, but their motivations.

By definition, individuals and human culture are embedded in and survive because of connectedness in the fabric of social networks. Flexible group cooperation in this civilized collective, rough and evolving as it may be, is part of the human biomental genome. Being a self-activist and a lifelong contrarian does not mean going against all conventional wisdom. Far from being subversive to social networks, it revitalizes and refreshes the collective experience. Individualism means: “being in the world, but not of the world.” Being in the world is full engagement in one’s community. Interactive and interdependent sharing is a natural result. Such embeddedness can occur without becoming robotically dependent and becoming desensitized to “smelling the roses” ---the nuances of one’s own needs for continued self-improvement.

Moreover, the adage “all politics is local” may suggest that what is global and important ultimately reduces to its source---the individual. The whole of the social network is composed of each individual member, each elemental unit---the person. The individual—how he and she behaves and treats others—is vitally important. The key here is the everyday, concrete behavior of the individual with others---one-to-one in real time---deemed similar and particularly “different” or “not my kin(d).” Kindness contrasted with selfish, mean, exploitive, unempathetic, and manipulative interpersonal control is seen and remembered by others for what it is. This underlies xenophobic exclusivity and perpetuates envy, greed, jealousy and defense mechanisms against them that lead to the callousness that makes running in the rat race tolerable---for a while.

Beyond Fatalism

All are born into the world by forces not our own. For us, indeterminism is our birthright. Far from being fatalistic, this truth is a glorious and magnificent endowment from great nature. It is a plenipotential uncertainty laden with hidden variables. Born to specific parents of a particular ethnicity, culture, race, and religion in a particular geographical location, each one is dominated by non-deterministic probabilities of becoming unique in our development. Layer upon layer of hidden variables exists that contribute to our emerging “becoming.” The environmental complexity in which we live also influences us through exposure to many possible states of feeling, thinking, and opportunity that come and go over time.

Perhaps, in some dimension of these ineffable layers is the seed to awaken into a uniquely self-conscious individual: relatively self-dependent, responsible, accountable, empathetic, and socially conscientious. Waking up in this way evokes a thoughtfulness that stirs the epistemophilic impulse to search for one’s personal truth.

Cracking through ossified layers of convention, conformity, and habit equates to submitting to one’s helplessness and previous rigidity to mindless routine. Emancipation from the anxieties of everyman and everywoman’s “stereotype threat”---the tendency to perceive and  be pressured by negative stereotypes about one’s social/group category, e.g., age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, political affiliation, religion, mental health/illness condition, and so forth. Un-securing the ordinary mind’s lock on consciousness may be a key to one’s personal truth of life, liberty, and the pursuit of self-realization. It is unleashing inhibitions on the road toward a free-flowing psychological adventure.

The search for personal truth starts precisely where one is, materially and psychologically. One does not have to find a Himalayan cave or turn on with exotic hallucinogens. One is not required to find a guru, mystic, esoteric guide, or professional teacher---at the point of entry. Perhaps, before that point, some preparation variously termed pre-contemplation, contemplation, coaching, mentoring, guidance, running, physical training, psychotherapy are useful, as they typically are. Compelling as these quantum boosters are, deep inner motivation in one’s current setting becomes the fundamental and sufficient tipping point. When the window of self-realization opens, it does so with no drama, no bravado---only a thoughtful pause---in utter isolation.

Exercising thoughtfulness is a good strategy used to explore this sentinel event. Thoughtfulness here means pausing, being verbally still, silent, and not overly intellectual. Akin to a personal audit, thoughtfulness starts with quiet introspection, pensiveness, free associations, perhaps periods of no-thought, grasping feelings, feeling feelings in-themselves, and then not trying to do anything for a while. Perhaps, this is akin to a meditative awareness.* Perhaps, this is being receptive to one’s intuitive self-awareness. Maybe, it is tapping into the content of the dream process with its own pre-linguistic and archaic wisdom.

On this foundation, it is important that one makes a structured inventory of individual core values: ideas that are foundational, important, and govern behavior, and then assign them in a hierarchy of priority categories. The levels set forth here may not be original, but their integrated synthesis is unique to the author’s perspective. Such an outline helps organize in a visual way lifestyle values, a rubric, statement of purpose or function, or matrix ranging from critically important to discretionary. A rubric is a scoring guide with criteria that helps evaluate performance. Others have used similar prioritized systems to organize tasks, responsibilities, and “to do” lists.

Five Levels of Values Significance:

Level 1. Important and high priority.

Level 2. Important and not urgent.

Level 3. Important and urgent.

Level 4. Valuable but of lesser importance.

Level 5. Routine but necessary.

Level 1 values are those that are important and of high priority---“core values.” Important is a key term in levels 1, 2, and 3 and denotes essential short- and long-term quality-of-life goals. In Level 1, important and high priority denote critical, essential, fundamental, and exemplary. These important and high priority values orient and create lifestyles---the smaller picture experienced within “the big picture.” They are the compass guiding one’s life’s goals, morals, and behavior. Important denotes qualitatively effective in bringing about results. Level 1 values are those that need consistent attention and enduringly broad focus. “Front burner” attention is needed. Values here hint at long-term planning, strategies to achieve related goals and meaningful relationships. They can never be ignored. From here, value statements, vision statements, and mission statements can be planned. Level 1 values need 90 %+ consideration all the time because their influence cascades into at least 80% of all else that is done.

Level 2, important and not urgent, values adds the time-based aspect of requiring ongoing day-to-day but not one-time immediate attention to the above understanding of importance. These are “back-burner” or more subliminal orientations.

Level 3 values are important and urgent values that are time sensitive; thus, they need immediate or at-the-moment, instance-specific implementation. Level 3 often include tasks on a today’s ‘to do” list. Urgency here does not mean life or death. For example, high urgency means best done within about twenty-four hours; low urgency means best done within forty-eight to seventy-four hours.

Level 4 values are those that are worthy of inclusion in one’s lifestyle profile but do not rise to the upper levels of 3, 2, or 1---at least for now.

Level 5 are those routine values that include personal self-care, interpersonal responsibilities, activities of daily living, discretionary activities such as leisure and recreation, and so forth. They are not mindless, but rather customary and adaptable. While these are valuable and necessary, they may not make up the circumscribed focus of special attention that one gives to one’s as yet aspired to, untapped potentials.

From these exercises, lifestyle trajectories can be drawn and imaged, even reconfigured into a matrix or grid. Central to all these is including significant relationships---partners, children, parents, and so forth. Including a line for one’s occupation also adds dimension.

Assigning Values to the Five Levels of Significance

The term “values” here is shorthand for hinting at complex levels of imagination. It ranges from one’s dream and its roots in unconscious night processes to the more preconscious daydreams and conscious aspirations fuelled by hope and the motivation to expand. Values always connote practices.

Examples of individually-inspired values are self-development, balanced life, confidence, self-discipline, creativity, family, relationships (specific), security, fulfillment, patience, forgiveness to self and others, gratitude, health, peace of mind, self-care/hygiene, grooming, integrity, security, self-reliance, interdependence, service, non-violence, occupation, helpfulness, sharing, flexible cooperativity, empathy, compassion, non-kin loving kindness, success, personal truth, and wisdom. All these are important. I always offer patients the option of adding a value or two that I may not have suggested. This personal choice is indicated with brackets [  ].

Most people maintain up to five core values (benchmarks and standards), mainly found in the first two levels that have importance as a feature. Level one, however, remains the foundation and compass for all else. Up to five values +/- establish a workable chunk that is pragmatic and can be remembered over a substantive period that remains dynamic and flexible. Choosing less than five top core priority values depends on one’s temperament and the context of the moment. After a time (several months to a year), the five-level grouping and one’s top core “up to five” can be reconfigured. The seeker after truth never feels a smug sense of “I’ve got it right, now; that’s it.”

During the above process of formulating one’s Five Levels of Values, which may take days to weeks, another stimulating technique is turning statements into questions. Alternating between open-ended questions requiring lengthy answers and closed-ended questions typically requiring one-word answers varies the perspective. It prompts going forward.

Although the above may have simplistic and formulaic qualities, it is merely a suggestion, a start both for the beginner and a refresher for the demoralized veteran who wants to refresh open-mindedly. This exercise is a syntax that helps order and meaningfully arrange the elements of one’s life. It is a beginning, the first endeavor toward exploration.

Examples that are Representative Though Not Exclusive at Different Ages

Age 18.

Level 1. Relationships. Family. Self-reliance. [being liked by others].

Level 2. Education. Success.

Level 3. Confidence. Grooming.

Level 4. Occupation.

Level 5  Self-care.

Age 35.

Level 1. Relationships. Occupation. Success. Confidence. [my husband listening to me].

Level 2. Occupation. Relationship. Success. Self-care/Hygiene.

Level 3. Confidence. Security. Fulfillment.

Level 4. Cooperativity. Family.

Level 5. Self-discipline.

Age 65.

Level 1. Personal Truth. Wisdom. Gratitude. Relationships. Health. Family. Forgiveness to self and others. Empathy. [staying relevant and mentally coherent].

Level 2. Self-care/hygiene.

Level 3. Balanced life. Peace of mind. Compassion. Sharing.

Level 4. Everything else.

Level 5. Everything else.

Creating a Lifestyle is a Self-made Adventure

Everyday living is layered with a complex array of demands often felt as routine and boring. Habit becomes insensitive habituation in a meaningless, vicious circle. For some, however, an unexpected psychological breakthrough may occur. Self-realization is an ever-unfolding creation.

I have termed this cryptographic key the “epistemophilic impulse:” an attraction toward understanding imbued with loving, if not aesthetic qualities. It embodies striving for an intimate comprehension of the harmony of the spheres of sensation, perception, and feeling: meaningful values. Meaningful here means juicy---the élan vital of spirited enthusiasm. With core values, salient lifestyles can be created. Values count. They are the compass to guide choice. They can drive behavior---into the ground, into brick walls, or into as yet unimagined vistas.

For some, this essay evokes familiar experiences. For others, it may act as a provocateur. Others may find it amusing but not relevant to their lives---or “practical” enough to call for serious consideration. All points of view are valid to their authors.

In Defense of the Self!

Not knowing is the most intimate!

Not knowing is the experiential equivalent not of a failing state---of self---but rather of an underperforming and unclaimed self-territory. Not knowing is dropping one’s “participation trophy” in life and treading on the elusive “improvement pillow” ---sometimes of clouds, at others, of rocks and soil.

The cryptographic key is the elusive epistemophilic impulse that unlocks the realization: life is not an emergency; it is an amazing adventure, a process of creating a self---a self-identity. This key shuts off autopilot while releasing conscious self-direction. Self-direction is self-leadership. It is forging a declaration of independence from mediocrity and allegiance to and keeping up politically correct group appearances.

No man or woman is an island, we are all parts of the whole. For the whole to embrace vital integrity, each part must have self-integrity---an orienting compass toward recovery from priority blindness. And, self-integrity is the hallmark of a self-activist who has been successful in discovering, uncovering, and realizing a self-made, meaningful life.



*  'The cultivation of consciousness,' pp. 221-242, in Ninivaggi, F.J. (2010). "Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West." Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield.