As a qualifier, this is not so much a critique on de Becker or his book per se, but rather an expounding on a topic akin to a variation on a theme.
There are a couple of lines in a chapter of Gavin de Becker’s famous New York Times bestseller The Gift of Fear that really struck me as quite “spiritual” (in the esoteric way) that I wouldn’t have suspected in such a pragmatic “how-to” manual. Though that is not to say things of a spiritual nature are completely lofty.
After spending a few pages outlining the many “warning signs” of our intuition that we fail to recognize as humans, privileging logic over emotion, Gavin writes this:
“The truth is that every thought is preceded by a perception, every impulse is preceded by a thought, [and] every action is preceded by an impulse....”
I would find this statement particularly lucid even in the holiest of spiritual texts.
For one, it is very much a practical listing of the sequencing of our actions from the idea to the outcome.
At first, he states the “truth”, a well-reasoned deduction of what is versus mere speculation. Mere speculation of course is complete wishy-washy, waffling statements that wind up getting people nowhere fast.
“Every thought is preceded by a perception…”
One can wonder whether this is a chicken or egg scenario of what occurs first, the thought or the perception that comes before a thought. However much I like this statement, I am inclined to think that thoughts generally arrive in normal day-to-day life without much understanding of where they come from; quite literally out of nowhere. Of course, if you are in the midst of a particular action your thoughts will generally derive from whatever you’re doing; this is essentially the idea of “focus”.
However as most of us know who meditate; especially in the midst of meditation, the sometimes very wild and bizarre thoughts that come into our mind that are completely random. They have very little attachment if at all to what is happening now.
It is similar with our dreams. The physical body itself is cannot perceive at all, even mimicking a death-like state, though our minds are certainly active thinking wild and strange things.
“...every impulse is preceded by thought…”
Now here is the real meat and potatoes. This is what all the thought-manifesters talk about. All of our actions originate as a thought in the mind. Of course on the surface, and in a very general and elementary way looking at it, is correct. The lightbulbs that we freely screw into sockets was once an idea in Edison’s mind. The automobiles that fly off the assembly line are quite literally due to Ford’s forward thinking.
We must not however confuse directed drive with impulse. A true impulse is very much a move towards something with no conscious thought process to do it. If you lay your bare hand on a hot stove, the body has evolved such a subtle precision to bypass the brain altogether and quite literally jerk your hand away; all unbeknownst to the thought centers of the mind. The body itself knows that the “brain” can’t be trusted to act in all cases when it is necessary to do so.
Which brings us to the end of his statement,
“...every action is preceded by an impulse….”
Well certainly not “directed drive”. The great originators and innovators; the brilliant engineering and technical minds both in the realm of mechanics and in the realm of thought had a special quality that sets them apart from the huddled masses.
The painful self-flagellation of difficulty, mistake, failure, and beration is the fertile soil from which the world’s horn of plenty is filled overflowing the brim. Achievement is not for the faint of heart; blood, sweat, and tears have made the technology and the systems we use and live under day in and day out. There is no room for “impulsion”. Impulsion takes you away from the task at hand; the task of which the end in sight might be unseen, but nevertheless still feel driven to work. Impulsion is for the children that flit from one thing to the other in their innocent curiosity.
There is no time to be skipping through things aimlessly when you put away childish things and strive for goals, hold values dear, and create yourself into a being of integrity.
Our world is made of “matter.”
Let us look at what this means first with a brief sketch on matter itself. That which we can sense, by touch, by sight, and by taste we call matter. Sound and smell, are related to physical matter, but they do not constitute matter outright like the other three senses do. We may smell matter, or hear matter, but we do not consider it matter just because we can smell or hear it. We may infer there is matter given only smell or hearing, but those senses are not enough in themselves for us to call something matter. Seeing, touching, tasting. These give us matter. Without them there is no matter (additionally, we might add the sense of weight and balance).
Given this little bit of information of matter and the senses, let us see how all these concepts mesh together with this very perplexing idea of the Self. The idea that you are you. The idea you are an agent in this world, with an identity.
What is this thing you call "yourself"? I can tell you it is intimately connected to the senses, as all knowledge is.
So let us look.
Is a tree, you? You say no. And why not? Because it is an object outside of you, which means something which is matter, which you can see, taste, and touch. It is outside of you because you touch it. The idea of you is beginning to be constructed. You are the one who touches matter, who senses matter. The things you touch are the matter, and the objects. The one who senses and touches is you.
Focus on the membrane of your skin. That is the dividing line, isn’t it? Outside of your skin, you can feel, you can sense. You call those things “not you.” You say they are objects. But inside of your skin you cannot feel. And so this becomes “you.” You become the body. Or at least, it is your. Isn’t this how we think?
I will tell you, I do not know for sure, but this very well may be wrong.
Think of this now: When you do this, you make “you” dependent on your senses. Lose your sense of touch, and no longer is your body you. Now what is you? You would say the eye, or the ear is you. The body would become something which moves about of its own accord, it slams into walls and feels nothing just like a vase. If you closed your eyes, the body might move into a different room without you even knowing it. Only by virtue of our sense of touch can we call the body ours.
The eye is the same. Take away the sight and no longer are you the seer. When sight no longer exists to you, you cannot be the seer, because the sensation of the eye is not there to provide you with a basis of assuming you are the one using it as a sense.
If your eyes did not see, it would be much like how your elbows see now. Since it does not see, we never think of the elbow as a source of the self with regard to sight. We say the elbow is ours not because it sees, but because it feels. Without sight in the eye, it would be the same. Without feeling in the elbow the same.
And so it is the senses which allow the basis of you, because you assume there is somebody behind them, somebody doing the senses. So if you think you are the one behind your senses, well, how is it then that you come and go right along with them?
But suppose there is nobody really back there. Suppose you are the senses and that’s the end of it. The idea of you is so tightly tied to them; that they are not you is difficult to imagine. But if you had no senses, would there still be a you? You may say you will still have your thoughts, but thoughts are sensed just like sights and sounds. In fact it is by virtue of your sense of thought, particularly the thought that you are behind your senses and not your senses themselves, that you think you are apart from your senses. You've elevated the sense of thought above the rest. You've chosen to believe that the thought is you, but that for the other senses you are merely the one behind them.
See how arbitrary you are in this way. Are you justified?
Take away your sense of your thoughts, take away too your sense of balance, take away all the senses and away you go with them. To be alive is quite literally to sense. The two are one and the same. Life is to sense; to sense is life. The scientists will say a single celled organism with no ability to sense is still life. Not so. This is a self-replicating chemical, a biological quirk, as conscious and alive as a rock.
Let me give you one last proof that you just might be your senses, and not behind them. Assuming we are that which senses, we must be the body because the body senses. But ah, the eyes can sense the body, so the body becomes an object to the eye and you are the eye. But you can smell the eye, or hear the eye blink and so you are no longer the eye but the ear.
None of these things are you and all of them are. A paradox.
Every sensory organ creates objects out of that which it senses, and in doing this you assume there is some "non-object" you. But if you look close enough “you” become lost.
What’s the truth of the matter?
In future journals, we will resolve this.