Yesterday my Tai Chi instructor asked a question after about twenty minutes of class, during which we'd repeated the short Five Animal form several times.
"Did the Five Animal feel differently the first time you did it, compared to the last time?" I was one of the first to answer.
"At first," I said, "I was thinking about how to open and close my rear foot, among other things. But eventually it seemed like my body was doing what it need to do by itself, naturally, no thinking required."
Other people made similar comments. By and large, with one exception, my classmates -- along with the instructor -- felt that their monkey minds had slowed down after they'd settled into a Tai Chi groove.
This got me to thinking about an interesting passage that I'd read not long ago in Timothy Wilson's "Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious." His book is about how our conscious minds are just the tip of a much larger brain iceberg that decides how we behave, feel, and so on.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett notes that this view equates consciousness with the press secretary than with the president. The press secretary can observe and report on the workings of the mind but has no role in setting policy and is not privy to many of the decisions made behind the closed door of the Oval Office. It's an observer, not a player.
How can this be, you might ask, when it so often feels as though we are consciously controlling our actions? Recent work by Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley suggests an answer: the experience of conscious will is often an illusion akin to the "third variable" problem in correlational data.
We often experience a thought followed by an action, and assume it was the thought that caused that action. In fact a third variable, a non-conscious intention, might have produced both the conscious thought and the action.
My decision to get up off the couch and get something to eat, for example, feels very much like a consciously willed action, because before standing up I had the conscious thought "a bowl of cereal with strawberries would taste good right now." It is possible, however, that my desire to eat arose nonconsciously and caused both my conscious thought about cereal and my trip to the kitchen.
This makes a lot of sense to me. It fits with how I see my daily life unfolding.
Faced with a choice, a situation where I'm uncertain what to do, often it seems like my conscious awareness is a step behind an unseen "intuition" (for want of a better word) that propels me in a certain direction.
Meaning, I've already decided by the time a thought arises, "I should... ."
As I become more and more aware of how unaware I am of where my intentions come from, life seems a lot more lively -- less predictable, more spontaneous, marked by an energetic flow that bubbles out of who-knows-where.
Well, I'm pretty sure about the general location of this nonconscious current: my brain. Such also is the conclusion of modern neuroscience, which doesn't find any evidence of a nonbodily source of human consciousness.
Religious believers, of course, consider that those hunches, feelings, intuitions, unexpected thoughts, and other mind messages that appear unbidden come from God (or some other form of divinity).
Doubtful. And unnecessary. As Pierre-Simon Laplace said about God:
I had no need of that hypothesis. ("Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là", as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn't mentioned God in his book on astronomy.)
Religion, spirituality, and mysticism mostly operate in a sphere of conceptual thought. So can I when I'm doing Tai Chi, but it isn't necessary.
I've found that, in accord with the above-mentioned third variable hypothesis, both Tai Chi and life in general go along just fine when, as much as possible, I let things unfold in accord with nonconscious intentions absent conscious thought.
For example, I can simply have a unspoken feeling that this is a good place to park my car without thinking "I should park here." Religious believers should give this sort of wordlessness a try.
Instead of constantly praising God, thanking God, seeking guidance from God, a guru, or another manifestation of godliness, go through life without trying to figure out where an intention, action, or feeling comes from.
As Wilson explains in his book, the adaptive unconscious is a mystery to us. We have no access to its workings. Ditto with God. But the hidden side of the brain is real, whereas God -- so far we know -- isn't.
We indeed are being guided by a Higher Power. It just happens to be inside our cranium, not far off in a heavenly realm.