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Metaphysics & Psychology

Psi of Regret: Pitfalls of Prophecy from Paul Muad’Dib to Patanjali

It’s been over twenty years since I last read Dune, but inspired partly by the phenomenal documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, I recently re-read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and a few of the sequels. Although the latter are uneven, I need hardly say that Dune itself holds up magnificently. It is still the one novel I would put in the hands of a teenager—even more than anything by Tolkien (even though Tolkien’s “literary worth” is probably greater)—because of the priceless seeds the book planted in me when I was the age of its main character, Paul. (For instance, “the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It’s shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn …”—that’s a powerful message every adolescent needs to hear and I am ever thankful I paid attention; and the “litany against fear” was incalculably important to me.)

Although the Dune books are about many things, it is sometimes forgotten (amid praise for Herbert’s world-building and his anticipation of American-Mid-East relations in the 70s and beyond) that they are significantly about seeing the future; the sequels, particularly, are basically an extended thought experiment about the siddhi of precognition and the pitfalls of prophecy. Thus I couldn’t help read them now in the light of my interest in psi research and the nexus of science fiction and the human potential movement being newly examined by writers and scholars like Jeffrey Kripal (whose Mutants and Mystics and Authors of the Impossible I can’t recommend highly enough).

According to Kripal, the notion that humans are on the threshold of the next phase in our evolution and that psychic abilities will be a big part of it is an idea that goes back to Frederic Myers in the late 19th century. Myers likened our nascent psychic powers to the “imaginal characters” or structures present in a caterpillar that hint at its future transformation into an aerial being. This imminent metamorphosis has remained a dominant meme pervading comic books, of course, most famously in the X-men, not to mention sci-fi visionaries from Alfred Bester to Herbert to Philip K. Dick.

But despite the democratizing impulse in modern writers on psi, like Russell Targ and Dean Radin, who emphasize that we all have latent psi abilities that we can develop if we choose, it is important to bear in mind some important social and maybe even evolutionary reasons why certain forms of psi—especially precognition—are not already more widespread than they are, why they may actually not be part of our species’ birthright, and why they may even not be such a great idea in the larger scheme of things. Herbert keyed in on some of these reasons in his novels; the ancient yogis like Patanjali keyed in on others.

Muddying the Waters

A rarely considered pitfall of prescience that Herbert used brilliantly as a plot device in Dune Messiah is that if more than one individual can see the future, it tends to negate both of their abilities. In a conspiracy to assassinate Paul Muad’Dib, the plotters involve in their plans a Guild Steersman, whose spice-induced oracular vision effectively cloaks the whole affair from Paul’s mental futurescape.

The reason for this effect is simple when you think about it: If precognition is not seeing the future as such but seeing some vague and shifting topography of possibilities in a butterfly-effect universe (as Herbert sort of characterizes it), then the possibility and usefulness of foresight become radically limited once it becomes shared by others. A glimpse of the landscape of future possibilities by one freely willed being capable of altering that future must inevitably muddy the temporal waters for other precogs/prophets.

When you start to multiply the number of people with oracular vision (and thus freedom to alter what they see through even minor actions), then the seen, malleable future breaks down rather quickly. Even a few rival seers would tend to negate each others’ powers; if a whole species could exercise prescient abilities, the time stream would become a hopelessly opaque and deceptive mush. In such a state of affairs, there would clearly be diminishing utility in being able to see the future at all. You would be better off blind to all but the present and past, so as not to be distracted by prophetic information that was probably wrong.

Restraining Bolts

There is a paranoid belief that someone or some force is keeping us down psychically, keeping us unaware of our true natures and working to thwart the development of our true ESP capabilities. Remote-viewing inventor Ingo Swann confided to Jacques Vallee in 1979 that “There’s a non-human system that keeps the human race under observation to make sure it doesn’t develop psychically … You become aware of the barriers erected by this system as soon as you try to develop your psychic abilities.” This seems to be a standard Gnostic suspicion, echoed in comic book mythologies: Extraterrestrials or Archons fear our psychic potential and have thus installed some kind of restraining bolt in our minds. The sense of some ancient psychic lock being blown off or removed, opening floodgates of forbidden information, seems like a common sentiment among the psychically awakened—for instance Philip K Dick in his 2-3-74 experience, or the Scientology-steeped remote viewers at SRI (it’s all about “clearing blockages”).

But evolution itself (social if not biological) provides ample reason why such mutations or experiences may not herald some new evolutionary phase in human development and why the forces of psychic inhibition may be far more mundane (and even beneficial) than Swann suspected. Because of the Dune Messiah logic I mentioned, there may be completely natural, homeostatic mechanisms working to limit our cognitive receptivity to future events or possibilities, causing such a sensitivity to atrophy and be selected against in the population. There would be social pressures not to be precognitive, and we might even evolve some kind of biological blinder mechanism to block it out, on the model of Bergson’s reducing valve.

I don’t have any insight into what the biological/genetic basis for precognition or its inhibition might be, but the social mechanisms inhibiting foresight and prophecy are plain enough. Ostracism, persecution, and violence against people accused of witchcraft and sorcery are still endemic in many societies and surely go back to the dawn of history. Witch-killings are still rampant in many parts of the world. A leader of a Papua New Guinea village I visited in the early 1990s had spent time in jail for disemboweling a suspected sorcerer with a machete; it still happens all the time in that country. It doesn’t matter that in most such cases—as in Europe in the Middle Ages or in early America—“witchcraft” was a broad brush with which to tar all kinds of personal enemies and social outcasts, such as the old, the poor, and women. The point was, it was a serious deterrent to deviance of all kinds, including psychic deviance.

Societies provide strict, narrow social channels to a career in prophecy, such as the accepted shamanic paths that exist in traditional cultures, and it’s a dangerous career: You better be damn sure you are perceived as using your powers for healing, not harming. The threat of ostracism and violence must act as a powerful check on “developing your ESP abilities” (i.e., having truck with the spirit world) if you live in a traditional community.

In our enlightened society, psi-inhibition takes less disturbing forms, namely rabid skepticism and materialism and ridicule of the paranormal. But even if it is less violent than traditional social controls, such ridicule is still a very powerful deterrent. Writers encouraging people to develop their remote viewing abilities, like Targ, emphasize that simple “permission” to remote view is a crucial first step. Even those intellectually persuaded of the possibility and eager to learn often have massive unconscious inhibitions that get in the way.

Thus, there is no need to invoke non-human, extraterrestrial, or Archonic interference to explain lack of widespread psi ability: Social expectations that psi not only does not exist but that it is actually ridiculous do a fine job of keeping people from peering into the future.

Prophet Motives

There’s an interesting kicker of course: The more “beyond the pale” psi and prophecy become, the more effective they would be for those able and brave enough to exercise these abilities. Even if the barriers against psi were rooted in our genes, chance and mutation would dictate that enhanced precognitive ability would arise from time to time; although there could be no group, society, let alone species of prescients, there might be a rare individual, a mutant who saw the future and capitalized on it. A prevailing present- and past-mindedness in the masses would create a relatively unmuddied futurescape navigable by a gifted individual able to capitalize on the herd’s future-blindness. Indeed, through this evolutionary logic, those who benefit the most from the social suppression of prophecy would be the prophets themselves.

There are good analogies to this in evolutionary biology, one of them being sociopathy. Because we are socially dependent animals and society is built on trust, humans have evolved to essentially trust each other. It’s a very sound long-term evolutionary strategy, but it also makes us vulnerable to occasional manipulators who are able to cynically capitalize on that trust. Such individuals only arise at relatively low levels in the population, because when there are too many untrustworthy people in a community, people stop trusting, and the community breaks down. But when they arise, they tend to rise to the top. (Research shows many CEOs and politicians are sociopaths, for example.)

Prophecy might work the same way, as a “frequency dependent, socially parasitic strategy” (to quote George Dvorsky in an article on sociopaths). Despite the “democratizing” impulse of contemporary psi teachers and enthusiasts, some of these talents may only work if they are rare and most people don’t practice them or don’t believe in them. There are various ways in which the paranormal erects a barrier between the herd and an elect, and this is one of them—another variant of what I call the “anamorphic wedge” that seems to operate in other domains like UFOs.

I’ve argued previously that there’s a dark elitist undercurrent to sci-fi Gnosticism that can be seen plainly in its most famous manifestation, Scientology: L. Ron Hubbard was the Ayn Rand of psychic human potential, preaching pure selfishness with a sci-fi twist. From what it is possible to glean of its methods, I don’t doubt their efficacy. It was in an out-of-body experience during early Scientology training that Pat Price’s formidable psychic abilities, dormant for a half century of life, awakened: “I was asked to sit down and look at some other guy for period of time and do nothing. After about three minutes I found myself outside of my body, looking at him looking at me. It was very interesting.” (John L. Wilhelm’s excellent 1976 book The Search for Superman is a great resource on Price, Swann, and the SRI work with Uri Geller.)

The superpower benefits that arise through Scientology training may not be accidentally related to the clear and obvious drawbacks of that lifestyle: Namely, intellectual isolation and social ostracism as a result of being, lets face it, kind of an asshole. Scientology training includes exercises (like the one Price mentioned) designed specifically to break down or cleanse the participant of social anxieties and emotions that we possess for a reason, thus turning the “operating Thetan” into an intense, intimidating, “aggressive” savant who may not thrive outside the company of other Scientologists. Real X-men could potentially look a lot like them: out of touch and megalomaniacal, but with some authentic supernormal abilities as a kind of grim consolation prize.

Fear is the mind-killer…

Despite lifelong skepticism, I have become persuaded of the reality of psi in general and of precognition in particular. Once you take even the slightest interest in the subject, fate provides ample confirmation in the form of uncanny premonitions and synchronicities. Having followed J.W. Dunne’s protocol in An Experiment with Time, I have confirmed to my own satisfaction (which seems all anyone can ever hope for in parapsychology) that his thesis is correct: In any given week of faithfully recorded dreams, a consistent minority of dream elements encode future experiences, usually of the subsequent day but occasionally farther out, exactly the same way the majority of dream elements encode recent past experiences—and through exactly the same “art of memory” logic I have described elsewhere. In dreams we are remembering the future as well as the past. Hypnagogic imagery and voices are also a rich source of precognitive material, and plain-old remote viewing of tomorrow’s New York Times can also produce interesting results.

Invariably in my case, these bits of future information are fragmentary and useless from the standpoint of planning or guidance. I’m no prophet—and I’m not sure I’d really want to be. Another “inhibitory” function I’ve discovered in my venturing imperfectly down the psi path is simple existential fear. While omnisicence and expanded consciousness sound totally awesome to my inner 10-year-old, I’ve discovered that my outer 47-year-old is deeply fearful of learning too much about the future. There are too many dark terrors that objectively lie in wait for us all—illness and death of self and loved ones are biggies—and the temptation to dwell unproductively on ominous signs (like a strange cough or unfamiliar pain) is great enough at times without the added burden of trying to decipher scary symbols and portents gained through psi channels. Among the siddhis described by Patanjali is the yogi’s ability to see his/her own death. No thanks.

Because the energy of psychic phenomena is trauma (as Frederic Myers discerned in the 19th century), it makes sense that death and destruction would be dominant themes in our prophecies. And sure enough, the bulk of my precognitive dream material does concern something at least slightly negative, usually just uncomfortable or unpleasant social experiences but also news of crimes, disasters, or death. This focus on the negative gives rise to an ironic and unwholesome logic: The eagerness for psi to work or to confirm your own powers causes one not only to focus on negatives but even at times to hope for them—for example, having a strange dream about a certain celebrity and then eagerly checking some news site to see if they died or have been involved in some scandal. Obviously, “eagerness to find out someone died” is not at all a congenial frame of mind to be in if you aspire to be a spiritual or positive person.

Thus I think there really is some way in which precognition is “toying with dark forces,” although it isn’t anything as grandiose as “opening up doorways to other worlds” or awakening evil or Tricksterish energies (even if those are real too). It’s simply a matter of reinforcing unwholesome aspects of the ego—plain old negativity, which is bad karma (and unhealthy) no matter how you look at it.

I suspect all these factors may have played into ancient teachers’ disinterest in the siddhis and into modern teachers’ reluctance to discuss them. Patanjali warned not to get attached to superpowers in your meditative practice, and he’s not just talking about showing off (as Radin suggests in his book Supernormal). Attachment itself is the root of suffering; attachment to psi may bring its own unique sufferings and doubts that are simply not wholesome to harbor, such as those I’ve mentioned. So, while the 10-year-old me is incredibly glad that the paranormal and supernormal are gaining legitimacy through the work of Kripal, Targ, Radin, and others, I also would hope that we not lose sight of our basic humanity in our quest to become superhuman. Sometimes it’s also awesome to be (merely) normal.

 

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Study Finds Fans of Dark Humor More Likely To Be Intelligent

By John Vibes / Truth Theory

Are you a fan of dark humor? If so, research has shown that you might be more intelligent on average, and less aggressive as well. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Cognitive Processing, people who enjoy dark humor are more likely to be intelligent, and also less likely to be aggressive.

The experiments took place at the Medical University of Vienna, and involved 156 people from a wide range of different social and educational backgrounds who varied in age, but had an average age of 33. The participants were given a set of intelligence tests, and then monitored while being exposed to cartoons that contained what many would consider dark humor (or black humour, as it is known in the UK, where the study was conducted).

The researchers should not have been very surprised to see the connection between dark humor and intelligence, as other studies in the past have shown that people with high levels of intelligence are more likely to suffer from conditions like depression or anxiety. However, it likely did come as a surprise that the intelligent dark humor fans in the study were actually less prone to aggression than the test subjects who were upset or offended by the material.

The study showed that the people who were most upset by the jokes had average IQ scores, but they were also more prone to aggression in other scenarios as well, and likely had shorter tempers than the other participants in the study.

The authors of the study concluded that:

“Whilst a positive association between black humour processing and intelligence can be shown, aggressiveness and bad mood apparently lead to decreased levels of pleasure when dealing with black humour. Black humour processing is seemingly a complex information-processing task that depends on cognitive and emotional aspects. It can be hypothesized that these cognitive and emotional demands directly influence the mental operations underlying humour processing as they lead to an increased or decreased information-processing capacity but also facilitate the adapting of humour processing strategies in a quick and flexible way as humour processing is dependent on the content and structure of a joke.”

The researchers also noted that differences in things like age and gender did not seem to have any impact on how a participant felt about dark humor, as there was a range of different responses among people of the same background, and many shared responses among those from different backgrounds, although, the study did suggest that levels of education did seem to have an impact on a person’s response to dark humor.

Image credit: Volodymyr Melnyk

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Scary modern cases of witch hunts and sorcerers

Screenshot: The Wizard Of Oz

It is believed that in those dark ages, a lot of innocent women suffered because of the blindness of ignorant people who saw witchcraft in everything strange and unusual and sincerely believed in curses and malevolent damage from the evil eye. However, such “ignorance” is found in our days, as are cases of reprisals against witches.

10. Mexican killings

In April 1998, an enraged elderly man burst into the house of Modesta Navarro Nieves, in the small Mexican village of Guadeloupe del Cobre, and began to accuse the woman of being a witch and that she cursed him. He had a heavy club with him and he began beating the woman with it.

The attacker stopped only when Modesta’s husband returned who attacked him with a stick and, having being hit a couple of times, he rushed to run away. When the doctors arrived to help the battered Modesta, it was already too late, the woman died from the wounds inflicted on her.

‘Only’ 11 years later, the police managed to get on the trail of the killer and detained him. It turned out to be the 78-year-old Santiago Ineges Olivares. And a year before his arrest in another part of Mexico, an unspecified woman was attacked and killed after accusations of witchcraft.

9. The Gambian Witch Hunters

In Gambia (West Africa) in 2009 there was a massive campaign against local witches and sorcerers. The Witch Hunters, accompanied by police and soldiers, walked from village to village and took away all suspicious people, most often the elderly.

In total, about a thousand people were captured. Threatening them with pistols, they drove them to a special shelter, where they forced them to drink a toxic hallucinogenic “medicine” in order to deprive these “witches” of the ability to conjure. Many people died, having been poisoned by this swill, and those who survived were expected to be beaten, tortured by electric shocks or at best, bullying.

The main “witch hunter”, later assured that all this was done with the blessing of the president of the country. Such a “hunt” caused a great panic among the villagers and the people began to flee en masse to the territory of neighboring Senegal. Entire parts of Gambia were deserted before the witch hunters abandoned their activities.

8. New York Voodoo

On a cold January night in 2014, NYPD received a call to Estrella Castaneda’s house. Near the house, they found 44-year-old Carlos Alberto Amarilla with a Bible in his hand and it turned out that he had called 911 and confessed to the murder of two women in this house.

When the police went inside, they found Estrella Castaneda lying on the bed, dead with a pillow on her face, and her daughter Lina lying on the floor in the next room. Both women were brutally hammered to death.

In a statement, Amarilla described that he had met with Estrella and was her boyfriend, but then he allegedly suddenly found out that both of these women were dangerous witches who performed voodoo rituals and wanted to use black magic on him. Amarilla received two life sentences for double murder of the first degree.

7. Executions in Saudi Arabia

In 2011, a resident of Saudi Arabia, Amina Bint Abdul Halim Nassar, was convicted of “practicing witchcraft and sorcery”. In her house, bottles were found filled with a kind of “witchcraft” liquid.

According to anonymous sources, Nassar actively traded these potions, and for the creation of witchcraft potions in the country under the Sharia law, the death penalty was imposed. And despite requests for clemency from international human rights organizations, the woman was soon executed by chopping off her head.

In 2007, pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim was likewise charged and beheaded after accusations of using magic. Allegedly, he entered the bathroom with the Qur’an and read something strange there. After this incident, a special anti-witch detachment was established in Saudi Arabia, which began to carry out propaganda among the population against the use of magic and witchcraft.

By the end of 2019, about 118 people in Saudi Arabia were accused of magical manipulation of the Koran and all this disinfo spread through anonymous scammers. What happened to these people is unknown.

6. Assault on a village witch

This incident slipped into the media in the late 1990s and occurred in an unspecified village somewhere on the Russian-Ukrainian border. A local resident, Sasha Lebedkin and his nephew, Sergei Gretsov, turned to the so-called grandmother, to ask her to remove the spell that supposedly hung from Sergei.

According to Gretsov, he was bewitched by 22-year-old Tanya Tarasova, who tried to force him to marry her, and when he refused, the girl decided to apply witchcraft. The sorceress tried to remove the curse, but then said that it was too strong.

Then, Gretsov and Lebedkin decided to take revenge on Tarasova. On the evening of February 22, 1997, they broke into Tarasova’s house and attacked her and her relatives with hammers. Tanya and her three younger brothers and sisters remained unharmed, but Tanya’s mother was killed in the attack.

At the interrogation, Gretsov and Lebedkin stated that they could not kill Tarasova because she “set fire to their eyes and sent strange animals to them.”

5. The killing of “damned” children in Benin

In the remote villages of Benin, a poor African country, there is still a terrible belief that a baby born with its legs forward is a damned sorcerer. The tradition obliges to take such a child to the forest and kill it by striking his head against a strong tree.

More compassionate parents “just” leave such a baby in the forest under the bushes, where it soon dies of hunger and thirst or from the claws of wild animals.

“A child whose birth deviates from the accepted norm is damned and must be destroyed,” say people in Baatonou, Boko and Peul.

Infants whose teeth begin to grow too late, who were born after prolonged and painful contractions, or were born head first but facing the earth, are also suspected and the same fate awaits them. And if the child is completely normal, but because of the poverty of it’s parents, from the youngest years starts to steal food because of hunger, then it is also considered damned and can also be easily killed.

Western researchers who have visited Benin are horrified by such traditions and call them barbaric and completely inhuman. However, they cannot do anything, because such a practice is fully supported by the Benin authorities.

4. Attacks in Zambia

In January 2017, an 80-year-old Zambian resident traveled to the northern province of Copperbelt to visit her grandson. But as soon as she came to him, her little great-grandson, the son of her grandson, suddenly became ill and died suddenly.

Very saddened by the loss of his son, his father consulted a local healer and he blamed his great-grandmother for the death of the boy. He indicated that the illness of the child arose precisely with her arrival.

Early in the morning, all the neighbors of this family woke up from the heart-rending screams of a woman, her own grandson brutally beat her with a stick and shouted “Now it’s your turn to die, witch!”. After Beating the old woman, he then pushed her right into the fire. A little later, the grandmother died of wounds and burns.

A similar case in Zambia is far from uncommon, a lot of elderly people are attacked by their own relatives, who accuse them of causing damage, evil eye or other witchcraft. In 2017, about 25 old people and old women were brutally killed for this reason.

3. Lynch Courts

In 2008, in Papua New Guinea, villagers broke into a pregnant woman’s house and dragged her outside, accusing her of witchcraft that led to her neighbor’s sudden death. They threw a rope around the woman’s neck and hung her on a tree.

Fortunately, the rope was tightened ineptly and the woman managed to stay alive. For several hours she was hanging from the tree, struggling with the rope, but then she managed to free herself. Her unborn child was not injured either.

Similar cases in Papua New Guinea occur regularly, only in 2019 there were about 50. Local tribes are very superstitious and still believe in their own religions, and treat everything strange and unusual as an intervention of Evil.

In 2009, there was an absolutely terrible case when a crowd of teenagers accused one of their peers of witchcraft. They dragged her to a landfill, where they stripped her naked, beat her, and then tied her to a pile of tires and set them on fire.

The unfortunate remains were discovered only a few days later, when local residents began to complain about the unpleasant smell of burnt flesh, which was distributed throughout the district.

2. The killing of albinos in Tanzania

In Tanzania, albinos are considered supernatural beings associated with the world of spirits and magic. Therefore, every part of the albino’s body is worth its weight in gold, because it can bring good luck or cure diseases.

Because of this, albinos, especially girls, are literally hunted. There are frequent cases when murderers burst into the houses where the albino lived and chopped the child alive into pieces right in front of it’s relatives. In 2014 alone, there were more than a thousand cases of attacks on Tanzanian albinos and, according to human rights defenders, they will only increase.

To save albinos, they are trying to put them in special boarding houses, which are well guarded, but there are still very few such houses from benefactors.

1. Nightmare Christmas

At Christmas 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu was visiting London with his 29-year-old sister Magalie and her boyfriend Eric Bikubi. Everything was quite normal and suddenly, at some point, Magalie and Eric attacked Kristy in a rage and began to beat him, and then tortured him with knives, a broken bottle and a hammer.

They demanded that Kristy confess that he was a sorcerer and that he wanted to harm them with ‘kindoki’ -or witchcraft. Kristy at some point, could not bear the pain and did it.

After that, the torture became even more cruel. With the help of pliers, the sister and her friend tore off Kristie’s ears, and then they dragged the bleeding teenager into the bathroom and threw him into the water “in order to expel the evil spirit from him.” However, tortured Kristy drowned immediately.

The court decided to give Eric Bikubi and Magalie Bamu prison sentences of 30 and 25 years, respectively.

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Not exercising? Forget motivation. Consider the economics…

‘I’m not lazier than my fit friends’ I tell myself, peering over a double chin at the crumbs on my bloated gut. I made a commitment to start swimming three days a week- Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Only it’s 10pm. It’s Friday. And I made that commitment a week ago.

‘Get up.’

‘Get going.’

‘Get at it.’

A noble Jiminy Cricket keeps telling me.

Doesn’t work.

Well, it hasn’t worked for me. Terry managed. We made the commitment together, only he’s swum Monday, Wednesday and… my smartphone vibrates under a swamp of sofa cushions. It’s a message from Terry.

’30 lengths :)’

He’s a smug fish.

Smug, but is he right to be? Does he really have more motivation, more self-discipline? Is he really (dare I think it for the risk of choking on my thoughts) more virtuous?

No.

I’m the one who suggested that we start exercising. I’m the one whose brother just had a heart attack. I’ve seen what that’s done to my sister-in-law, Julia, and their kids. Let alone Mum and Dad. Terry and I are both motivated by our sad reflection in the mirror but I’m also motivated by the vivid memory of my brother, Andrew, laying in a hospital bed- also my reflection, but in a crystal ball. Friends and family insist that if I don’t change my lifestyle, than I too, am staring down the barrel of a shotgun. As far as I can tell, Terry isn’t going through a family crisis. He’s not suffering those thoughts. He has no warnings to heed.

I’m more motivated than Terry.

And yet, he’s going to the pool. I’m not. Why?

Terry and I are the same age and in the same physical condition. We both know how to swim. My physical ability is not restraining me. At least, not any more than it is Terry. Neither my motivation nor my body is holding me back. The mysterious forces keeping me away from the pool, therefore, are not internal but external. They exist in the ether, somewhere between the sofa and the changing room.

When I take a step back, observe my situation and then compare it with Terry’s, it doesn’t take a fine-toothed comb to unveil some glaring circumstantial differences:

Like differences in proximity. Terry lives nearer his local pool- just over a mile, in fact. Mine is five miles away. Not far, but further. On Monday, when I actually went for a swim, I was stuck in traffic for over thirty minutes.

Terry’s pool might be closer to home, but mine is much nicer. Yet does a fancy facility increase my participation? No, because the high standard of the pool attracted the British Water Polo League and now they use it for training and matches. This makes lane availability limited and unpredictable. I have to check the billboard to see when the pool is open to the public. Swim lanes were available on Wednesday and I would have gone, but Joanna was angry with me for not telling her sooner and suddenly abandoning her with the kids. So I stayed home. Terry’s pool, on the other hand, is open to the public all day, every day, eight days a week. Unlike me, he can swim whenever suits.

The price difference is also noteworthy. Terry paid a £30 monthly membership, whereas the superiority of my pool puts a premium on the entrance fee, with each and every admittance costing £6.00. There’s no cheaper monthly subscription. Every time I think about swimming I shudder at the thought of the £72-a-month it would cost me.

And lastly, stringent management makes my gym a little less accessible. When Terry goes for a swim, he just waltzes past reception. The staff at the Cheadle Sports Centre never checked his medical history. Whereas when I went into Lytham Baths, I had to fill out a tedious, time-consuming liability form. Apparently I’ll need to fill one in next time, too.

Call them excuses, but that won’t help. The fact of the matter is that this has nothing to do with swimming. Forget the actual exertion of my body. Forget about tiring my arms and legs, wet stroke after wet stroke. I could plan on spending an hour floating on the surface like a grazing manatee and it wouldn’t make any difference to my participation. Because before I can even dip my half-naked body into the pool, I need to sacrifice more time, energy, money, and the quality of the relationship with my wife, than Terry does.

And what do I need to make myself expend more time, money and energy on an activity? What do I need to choose the pool over getting a bollocking from Joanna?

Motivation.

And that is exactly what we tell fellow couch dwellers they lack. If only they had more motivation and more self-discipline, then they could live healthier, happier more virtuous lives.

Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes we lack motivation. But comparing my situation with Terry’s shows me that motivation isn’t the whole picture. If my motivation is stronger than Terry’s and yet I am the one not swimming, then motivation can only be part of the equation. It is not, as pop culture would have us believe, the magical fuel that is solely responsible for all human accomplishment. On the contrary, in the machine of life that manufactures our behaviour, motivation is just a small cog.

What are the other cogs?

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that,

‘love toward the economics is the route of all virtue.’

That’s right, Shaw doesn’t say that motivation is behind our virtuous behaviour, but instead, it is the economics. Instead of looking for more motivation- or waiting for my brother to have another heart attack- could I change my behaviour by adjusting another behavioural cog?

What if, instead of berating myself for a lack of motivation, I used the motivation I did have efficiently, making adjustments to the economic forces of Proximity, Availability, Price, and Accessibility?

Instead of letting the shaming voices of friends and family echo in my conscience, could I start changing my behaviour by considering a simple mnemonic? Could I try, instead, paying a little more attention to my P.A.P.A?

Eureka… my motivation could dwindle and I’d still be virtuous. We are, after all, not creatures of motivation but of convenience.

If motivation is a fuel, then here are four easy steps to ensure you’re using it as efficiently as possible:

1) Keep the activities you love in close Proximity. Attendance data from multiple sports clubs and fitness studios show that there’s a limit to how far we’re willing to travel to exercise. I thought that I was motivated enough to travel to the swimming pool, but according to the ‘Encyclopaedia of International Sport Studies’, 90 per cent of users of urban pools travel from within just three miles of the pool. It’s not that I have less motivation than regular swimmers. It’s that I had a one in ten chance of breaking the mould. From now on I’m going to acknowledge my limitations, respect my range, and ensure that where I exercise is within a distance that I, and everybody else, would routinely travel.

2) Choose activities that are Available when you are. (if they’re not, search for consistency). According to the book ‘The Economics of Sport and Recreation’, when people are asked why they don’t participate in sport the single biggest response is ‘I don’t have the time’. On Wednesday, I didn’t have the time because Joanna left me with the kids. But if I’d known in advance when the pool was available, I would have given my wife a fair notice. She would have been more understanding and it would have been easier for her (and I) to set that time aside. If I swam consistently- at the same time every week- there’d be little argument. By scheduling consistent exercise, life’s other obligations are less likely to interfere. Sure, if I had a pool in my living room available to me 24/7, then I could swim eratically, at any spare moment of the day. But I don’t. So next time my local facility or fitness class aren’t available on the same day, same time, week in week out, I’ll either suggest that they offer more consistency or I’ll be forced to find a coach, class or facility that does.

3) Keep the Price low (but not too low). The economic ‘law of demand’ states that: people consume less of a good or service when its price increases. My pool is more expensive than Terry’s. It wasn’t less motivation; just simple economics helping him get his feet wet. Had he paid an annual membership, it would have been cheaper still. However, instead of seeing him swim more often, a one-time annual fee could have hampered his participation. A study of 8,000 gym members titled “Paying to Not Go to the Gym” found that ‘new customers who chose a monthly contract were 17 percent more likely to stay enrolled than members who signed up for the entire year’. From now on, whenever charged, I’m paying for exercise monthly.

4) Improve Accessibility; avoid the obstacles. Obstacles are any other hindrances that force me to expend more time, energy and effort before I can even start exercising. Obstacles are often physical- like the limited parking outside of the yoga studio, or the inadequate public transport to the local dojo. But obstacles might also be mental- like a confusing gym website that makes signing up to a HIIT class a mental labyrinth or, as in my case, a tedious accident liability form that racks my brain before I can plunge into the pool. Only easy access makes for regular practice. It’s clear that either I avoid the obstacles; figure out a way to remove the obstacles; or else I am doomed to stay right here, sat on the sofa.

On Monday evening after work, whilst my brother Andrew lay in a hospital bed, I actually went to the pool. I sat in traffic for thirty-five minutes. I waited another twenty for the polo team to clear out. I clenched my jaw, handed over six bloody quid and then carefully read each question on that tedious liability form.

– ‘Any history of heart disease in the family?’ So glad you ask…

Is there any wonder I only did that once?

On Tuesday Andrew left the hospital and those depressing, vivid images of him peeing into a urine pot began to fade. By the time Wednesday evening arrived, I was still motivated. Just not motivated enough to overcome what are now some glaringly obvious economic restraints.

Call me lazy or accept that swimming was a bad economic choice. I don’t care.

Either way, at the start of this coming New Year, I’m not going to rely on a resolute surge of motivation. I know that it fades by January’s end.

Instead, I’m going to start by making participation in my next healthy hobby a little easier; use my motivation a little more efficiently. I’m going to take heed from a 19th century Irish playwright, give the economics a little more consideration and show my P.A.P.A a little more love.

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