Self-Development: Critical Thinking Matters

In our discussion of social evolution we need sometimes to remember that the very perfection of society must always appear as imperfection; for a highly developed society is dynamic. ... A static society ... is in a condition of arrested development; Its growth has ceased, and its perfection is that of death.1

D. Starr-Jordan, Footnotes to Evolution

David Starr-Jordan reminds us that the world has always faced challenges, and always will. The challenges and limitations faced by societies and individuals at every stage of their development are particular to the developmental niche that they occupy. The challenges that the young child faces in her environment are specific to children. The teenager no longer deals with childhood challenges, but those specific to her place on the spectrum of development. The only way that the child can overcome her particular challenges is to mature beyond the level of development that permits them to flourish. This growth is self-development. So it is with society. To move beyond its existing limitations and challenges, a society must address its current level of development. Societal development is individual development. Thus, the challenges of society today demand individual self-development.

Defining Self-development

Self-development is a term that is widely used and has a range of meanings. A profitable discussion must outline the meaning and intention of this term. Understanding self-development requires first an appreciation of the philosophical description of the human personality and the mechanism of human experience. This can perhaps best be understood by examining the mechanism of Receipt-Reaction-Response2.

The human personality comprises two aspects: Self and matter. The Self within is the unchanging aspect of one's identity, and is essentially the subject of all experiences. The matter component comprises body-mind-intellect. The physical body is the outer personality, and houses the organs of perception and action. The inner personality comprises mind and intellect. Mind we define as the non-rational or indiscriminate aspect of the personality: the seat of likes and dislikes, impulses, desires, feelings, and moods. Intellect is the rational or discriminative aspect: the capacity for objective observation; the ability to think critically, reason, and decide.

In the mechanism of human experience, stimuli from the external world are received by the organs of perception. These stimuli react with the inner personality, and according to this reaction we respond back into the environment, executing the course of action that we deem most appropriate. The nature of the inner personality determines both our reaction to circumstances and the choices we make in life. Thus our reactions and responses to the world can be led either by intellectual discrimination or emotion and impulse. A simple example serves to illustrate the distinction between mind and intellect.3

Consider a diabetic who has a strong liking for sweets. When he sees a plate of sweets there is a reaction within the personality. The mind blooms at the sight and reaches out to the sweets with the feeling of I like it, take it! The intellect reasons that to indulge in sweets is harmful, despite the immediate gratification it brings. If the intellect is weak, it is overpowered by the mind and he eats the sweets. If the intellect is the more powerful, it overrides the mind's preferences and he makes the healthier choice. So it is in life. At every moment we are faced with a world of sweets, and a world of choices. The question is whether choices will be based on the feelings of the mind, or the discrimination of the intellect.

Self-development encompasses two aspects of the human experience. First is growth in our intellectual ability to effectively observe, understand, and manage our own mind. We employ the intellect to govern our reactions and responses, attitudes and choices such that they promote our subjective wellbeing and continued growth, others' best interests, and genuine social cohesion. Second is the maturation of the individual's worldview, the natural shedding of immature perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors. The Vedantic tradition describes three broad disciplines that promote self-development (read more on these self-development practices). These practices are directed to the three components of the personality. This blog focuses on jñāna yoga, the path of intellectual development and intellectual enquiry.

Self-Development 1: The Need for Intellectual Development

Although the mind has beautiful qualities that allow us to experience and express our humanity, it is not without limitations and challenges. Of primary consideration is the fact that the mind is the seat of self-centeredness. Further, being non-rational, it can neither investigate causes nor evaluate evidence. It cannot critically evaluate different outcomes, strategize towards a specific goal, nor predict consequences. There are four broad aspects of the mind that, left unattended, have a deleterious impact on human life:

  • Likes & dislikes
  • Rambling into past & future
  • Desires
  • Attachments

Although a full description of how these aspects impede subjective wellbeing and self-development is beyond the scope of this blog4, we may summarize briefly:

When we function under the sway of likes and dislikes, the mind develops unrealistic expectations. When these static expectations meet an ever-changing world, the mind experiences the inevitable 'friction' of disappointment. Also, what we like or dislike bears no necessary relationship with what is in our genuine best interests. Permitting choices to be based on likes and dislikes alone results in a violation of our own happiness.

The natural tendency of the mind is to ramble into the past and future. Thus we lack concentration and fail to apply our attention maximally to the present task. We further expend valuable mental energies in unproductive thoughts, feelings, and actions. The rambling mind is frustrating to live with, and leaves us fatigued.

Desire is a sense of separation from an object we value, and thus constitutes a state of mental agitation. Unfulfilled desire may therefore be considered the very definition of stress or suffering. Also, desires are endless. No level of desire attainment can satiate desire – it springs forth again. Thus, allowing life to be driven by ungoverned desires brings constant stress.

Attachment = Love + Selfishness. Attachment is mental bondage to an object or being. Though we identify with its beautiful qualities, we relate to them with a sense of What can I get from them? The mind becomes dependent upon the object or being for a sense of security or stability. Our psychological freedom is thus lost, as we allow emotions to be dictated by changes in external circumstances. The mind's inability to accommodate change is grief.

Thus the most important challenge that we face as a species is dealing with our own minds. The mind cannot self-correct or self-govern. Only a developed intellect can understand the nature of the mind, observe its functioning, and guide it appropriately. It is as unhealthy to allow the mind unrestrained influence over our lives as it is to suppress or aggressively silence it. The relationship between mind and intellect can be likened to that between child and parent. There is nothing wrong with a child's nature per se, but it has no capacity for self-governance or self-care. Left to its own devices, a child can innocently adopt a series of harmful actions. The child must remain under the observation and caring guidance of an adult. So too, a mind left without intellectual guidance promotes biases and mental agitations that interfere with our capacity to think, strategize and choose; impede skilful execution of action; and impair connection and empathy with others.

Self-Development 2: Towards a More Mature Worldview

... the unexamined life is not worth living.      Plato5

What do we mean by worldview? To illustrate, consider the September 11 attacks in New York. In the wake of this event one section of society mourned in shock; another celebrated. Years later, news of Osama Bin Laden's assassination brought celebration to some, mourning to others. A singular event is experienced in diametrically opposing ways, according to our worldview: the values that we hold; our beliefs about what is true/false, good/bad, beautiful/repugnant, and so forth. This intellectual-emotional orientation is our worldview.

The majority of the values and beliefs that we hold are unquestioned and unverified assumptions. We passively adopt beliefs about our self, the world, and how life works, and remain unaware that we hold them. These assumptions are seldom dislodged under normal circumstances, and in fact research has shown that exposure to evidence that contradicts our misconceptions can have the effect of consolidating them. Importantly, although unidentified, these implicit biases influence our experiences, attitudes, and behavior.

In the absence of intellectual enquiry, we conflate what we like with what is true and good, what we dislike with what is false and bad. We become credulous, accepting others' opinions or ideas without reason or evidence. We develop fanatic adherence to our own ideas and ideologies, rejecting reason- or evidence-based challenges to them. We further develop antipathy or hatred towards those who challenge them. We privilege faith over reason; we fall prey to magical thinking and superstitions, seeing causation in coincidence. The mind dominating the intellect creates biases that do not serve our growth.

Growing beyond the limitations of our current worldview is facilitated by intellectual enquiry. We must start by taking nothing for granted in life, and cultivate the habit of questioning everything. This does not only refer to the external world of information that comes to us. It is vital that we critically evaluate our subjective world of thoughts, desires, feelings, and actions within a framework of higher values. Higher values refers to those ideas and beliefs that are a more accurate reflection of what is true, what is real. For example, it is true that material wealth is valuable for a sense of satisfaction in life. But it is more true to say that it has a limited and diminishing value, that it cannot enhance (for example) empathy or wisdom, and that it is potentially harmful if related to wrongly.

We turn our power of observation and enquiry back on ourselves, and ask, What do I believe and on what basis do I believe it? What do I know and how do I know it? For every course of action we question, What am I doing and why am I doing it? What is its value in life, and what is it creating? For our subjective experiences we scrutinize, What am I feeling, what is its cause and consequence, what is its value? What am I thinking and why am I thinking it? By consistent practice of this discipline, we become aware of the values and beliefs underlying our reactions and responses.  We come closer to answering the question, What really matters in life?

We must recognize that the answer to this question will change over the course of life, and allow it to do so. What is most valuable to a teenager is most likely not the most valuable thing to that same person when he is the parent of a teenager. The only correct answer to the question What is the most important thing in life? is the one arrived at through our own, independent thinking. The intellectual liberty to think and to self-determine our values is essential in the process of creating a more mature worldview. This is the purpose of education. As Dr. King wrote in 19476:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

1^ Starr-Jordan. (1898). Footnotes to Evolution. Web. p.88

2 ^Taken from A. Parthasarathy. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. Ch.III

3 ^Taken from A. Parthasarathy. (2014). The Holocaust of Attachment. Ch.1

4 ^A full description can be found in A. Parthasarathy. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. A. Parthasarathy, India.

5 ^Plato. Apology. 38a

6 ^ King (Jr), M.L. (1947). The Purpose of Education. Maroon Tiger. Web.