The Labyrinth in Hogsback, South Africa. Just a cool image, it doesn’t have anything to do with consistency. Or does it….
Photo by: Jethro Watson
It is said there is no substitute for Consistency. But consistency of what, what was it that led to the changes in my life and to my achievements in climbing? It wasn’t consistency of climbing, that’s a bit vague. To understand what consistency is we need to look at three things: The Present, the Past and the Future. With an understanding of this temporal space, I’ll start to piece together how I think consciousness functions to create habit and why the consistency of monitoring this process is critically important to achieve a life of meaning.
Our conscious awareness allows us to build habits, habits of thought and habits of action, this process of habit allows us to act in a way that brings about our desired future. The synergy between the meaning of habitable or habitat and habit cannot be overlooked, we use habit to create a habitable space for us to live in. Said another way, we use habit to create the future.
Humans have an odd ability which often leaves us quite confused about a specific variable in this universe: Time. We possess an ability which allows our minds (not the same as our brain) to be ‘in’ a different temporal space to our bodies. It allows our minds to be in the Past and the Future (and the present when we are fully aligned). We can switch between these temporal spaces with great efficiency and alarming speed. If we are mindful we can train this ability, often when we do not and it trains us.
What do we know about the present? Well, if you’re thinking about the present, you’re actually not in it. You’re actually ‘in’ the past. To be truly immersed in the present is to be in that space where the infinite regresses of the Past and the Future meet, its not a space you can think about, its a space you have to be in! The way I see it, the present only exists when we call it into being using focus and attention. When we concentrate sufficiently on the moment that our minds are neither in the past nor in the future. This ties in with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow. A state where time actually becomes distorted.
This focus and attention, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the ability to change the present, it just is. The immediate future, the very next micro-moment, is the only thing that we can change (and the past to some extent, but we’ll get to that). We change the future by acting in the present, by using our agency in this world to make a change and bring about a possible future. A future that we have created, first and foremost, in our minds. But how does this process of agency work? We think that in the present, we make decisions, choices between various different options and occasionally creative solutions to problems. I don’t think this commonly held view is quite what’s going on.
In my experience our thoughts and actions in the present appear more as a continuation of habit rather than conscious decisions. Our focus and attention merely let us observe these thoughts and actions for later review. For a time when we are oscillating between the Past and the Future. This idea was born in part from my observations of myself in the present and part from my fascination and research into free will. Whilst I still doggedly believe that we possess this free will, I’m uncertain where this manifests. It doesn’t seem to manifest in the present. Ill give you just two examples.
When I was trying to quit smoking and failed to exercise self restraint, I noticed a kind of duality of being. What I wished was not to take out a cigarette, light it and smoke it, but sure enough, there I was doing just that. I would sometimes observe this in a detached way and ask, ‘where is my free will here, surely if I am acting of my own accord I could stop this behaviour?’. But, alas, that task took me years. Another time I noticed this autonomous, habitual reaction to the present which was contrary to my conscious desires was whilst climbing. Both before climbing a sport route and sometimes during, I would be totally overcome by fear, my consciousness had seemed to decide that it simply couldn’t get onto the climb or do the set of moves that were clearly terrifying. But oddly enough, there I was watching myself performing the actions of tying in and lifting off the ground or automatically engaging with the set of moves. What was going on here, I wasn’t deciding to do these things, so who was? The answer I came up with was that it was in fact my previous self that had made the decision and had prepared my mind in a consistent way that it acted out of habit. My mind was either re-running practiced engrams or was making creative adjustments to previous experiences of a similar nature. My mind had done this before, or at least something similar and faced with the present moment in which I needed to act, it produced an action out of habit.
But are these not specific examples of the present where we are influenced by some internal struggle for self control? If we had the will power, surely then we could overcome the addiction or the fear? To answer this question, lets have a brief look into the idea of free will. A great deal of our society is predicated on the idea that there is some kind of personal identity with a ‘will’, a force which allows that identity to be self determining. From a subjective level this makes sense, we hold people accountable for their actions as if they have free will and we all believe that we should be able to determine our own futures. But how much of this is just a fiction we created to help us in this world of chaos and how much ‘will’ do we actually have? I’ve listened to Sam Harris on this topic and his thoughts are hard to dismiss: when we think a thought, where did it come from? Did we think ‘I’m going to think the following, and then actually go and think it?’. Its unlikely. So which identity decided to think the thoughts we think? We might think them but did we decide to think them? Again the answer I came up with for this strange question was the same, my previous self did.
So who is this previous self, he too doesn’t seem to manifest in the present and if he doesn’t exist in the present, does he exist at all? And if there’s a previous self, is there a future self? We can use our minds to put us ‘into’ the Past, essentially reliving present moments gone by. It is in this ‘Past Mind’ state that I believe my previous self exists, not focused on the present but focused on the Past. Its as if we allow our consciousness to be consumed by memory and experience the Past as a very real ‘present’. We use the same process when we are ‘in’ the future. We can think of this as the ‘Mind’ state of being. It’s the opposite state of being to the present and I think on average we spend most of our time in this state. Although this layer of thoughts are actually experienced in the present, I see it as a separate state to the reality outside of our minds, the very real Present. I think of it this way, in mathematics some outcome can be defined as the function of a set of variables, so if thoughts and actions are the outcome, then this ‘Mind’ self is the function which gives them form and the variables are the Past and the Future. So how do the Past and the Future influence what we do in the present? Lets dig into what the Past and the Future are in our minds.
The Past is complicated for sure. It involves using memories of experiences which both we and others have experienced. Memory can be a fickle and unreliable thing to begin with and we haven’t even got to our biases and potential pathologies yet. But be that as it may, memory and the past is crucial in determining our actions. We can review, analyse and make changes to this ‘real’ Past replaying in our minds. Changes which determine how we might remember things in the present when we need the information to think and act in a certain way.
Each time we recall an event or even an idea, we rebuild a memory in our mind, we can use this ability to analyse the memory and learn from it. We can also change that memory in certain ways, we can alter the memory, we can see the memory with new experience and alter how we feel about it, sometimes we can even forget or, put another way, fail to recall a memory either in part or in full. All these tools help us build repetitive recollections of the same type of memories, grief, our religious convictions, patterns of behaviour, negativity or positivity, who we are and the engram used to climb a certain route. As a climber we go through this process of changing the memory which we will later recall as we make changes to the Beta we use to try to send a route or problem.
In this ‘Past mind’ mode, we have far greater control of our thoughts but there are still restrictions. For example we may recall things erroneously and we cant think an idea we have never been exposed to before (although I think we can synergise ideas and improve upon them to create ‘new’ ideas, this process is subtle and whole new concepts or groups of concepts don’t just spontaneously appear in our heads). So we do need to continually review and question our thoughts to ensure we minimize the errors, this includes having some humility to admit our errors (to ourselves and others) . We also need to go exploring, exploring usually comes in the form of challenging your own ideas, seeking out ideas which are strange or contrary to your own and thinking about them, testing them against what you know and experience and then deciding if they are ideas you want to incorporate.
If this process of Past analysis and habit forming is so important, which ideas should we incorporate then? How do we decide which thoughts to think consistently to form these important habits of thought? That’s where we turn to the Future.
Fist off, its important to note that the future is a created space, created by us. Everything that we have done is first created in our minds and then brought into being, it might not be brought into being in exactly the way we envisioned it when the future collides inevitably with the restrictions of the present, the restrictions of reality. However, the process of mental creation or dreaming is vitally important in guiding us to create the right habits.
So is this just a question of goal setting? I think that’s too simple a way of looking at it. A goal is a valuable milestone for sure, but what happens if you cant reach it or, even worse, if you do reach it? Without a framework to set new goals, you’re doomed to disappointment or the tragedy of stagnation and egotism. Again, I think Dr Jordan Petersons view on this idea of creating the future is the best description I’ve heard to date: Take Aim. He describes a kind of feedback loop which allows you to track and change course as your knowledge and experience deepen (that’s the Past influencing the Future) and as life throws its proverbial curve balls at you.
An important aspect of the Future is that we create multiple versions of it, so many in fact that if we didn’t ‘set our aim’ we would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of possibilities and would flounder in the sea of futures ahead of us. I think many people are caught in this state where the future is too vague. Their decisions and actions in the present tend to be erratic and random, leading them nowhere. Sometimes we build several promising futures and are then forced to sacrifice one or more of them to make space for the most important of our dreams. Its in this ‘Future Mind’ mode which we are able to perform this task.
Consistency of Thought
Okay, so at this point I can almost hear you asking, so what? What does this have to do with consistency? When our minds and body are aligned, we are in the Present, experiencing, recording and acting from habit. When we are in the Past or Future, our minds are analyzing and creating. If we purposely put ourselves into this ‘Mind’ state, we can control the process of analysis and creation, we can eliminate those thoughts which do not create in our mind the future we desire and eliminate those past memories which will not build the habits we need to achieve these futures. We can then go exploring for new ideas which will fill the void of those ideas which we have stopped thinking. If we do this enough, we create habits of thought. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, described much this same process in companies which went from good companies to companies which outperformed their competitors for years on end: Dedicated Thought and Dedicated Action. This same concept applies to our mental space. We should mindfully enter the ‘Mind’ state and consistently think about the future we want to create and cultivate the right thoughts and ideas that will get us there, simultaneously we should eliminate the unnecessary. If we then enter the present mindfully we can be prepared to think and act in a way that allows us to physically create the best future given the constraints of the present. If we monitor and repeat this process with sufficient consistency then we can achieve amazing things.
Pay full attention to the present when necessary. Mindfully allow the Past and the Future into your consciousness. Consistently create the future you want and analyse the past strategically in your mind to create habits of thought. Repeat Process. Its actually that simple, in a complex way.
This process has helped me to send climbs I though weren’t possible for me to send; it’s helped me to stop smoking and change my diet when I started consistently thinking of a better climbing future, it’s helped me to make decisions on my work status to allow me time for climbing and training, it’s helped me to rely on my schedule and train when I was having a down day and it’s helped me to think the right thoughts to get me through the day of the accident when my body and mind where overwhelmed by the present. A state where I didn’t have the time or ability to rationally decide what to think and do, a state where I could only act from habit.