The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self

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9780757316425: The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self

Legions of self-help authors rightly urge personal development as the key to happiness, but they typically fail to focus on its most important objective: hardiness. Though that which doesn't kill us can make us stronger, as Nietzsche tells us, few authors today offer any insight into just how to springboard from adversity to strength. 

It doesn't just happen automatically, and it takes practice. New scientific research suggests that resilience isn't something with which only a fortunate few of us have been born, but rather something we can all take specific action to develop. To build strength out of adversity, we need a catalyst. What we need, according to Dr. Alex Lickerman, is wisdom―wisdom that adversity has the potential to teach us.

Lickerman's underlying premise is that our ability to control what happens to us in life may be limited, but we have the ability to establish a life-state to surmount the suffering life brings us. The Undefeated Mind distills the wisdom we need to create true resilience into nine core principles, including:

--A  new definition of victory and its relevance to happiness

--The concept of the changing of poison into medicine

--A way to view prayer as a vow we make to ourselves. 

--A method of setting expectations that enhances our ability to endure disappointment and minimizes the likelihood of quitting

--An approach to taking personal responsibility and moral action that enhances resilience

--A process to managing pain―both physical and emotional―that enables us to push through obstacles that might otherwise prevent us from attaining out goals

--A method of leveraging our relationships with others that helps us manifest our strongest selves 

Through stories of patients who have used these principles to overcome suffering caused by unemployment, unwanted weight gain, addiction, rejection, chronic pain, retirement, illness, loss, and even death, Dr. Lickerman shows how we too can make these principles function within our own lives, enabling us to develop for ourselves the resilience we need to achieve indestructible happiness. At its core, The Undefeated Mind urges us to stop hoping for easy lives and focus instead on cultivating the inner strength we need to enjoy the difficult lives we all have.

 

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About the Author:

Alex Lickerman, MD, is a physician and former director of primary care at one of the world's most prestigious universities, the University of Chicago. He is also a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and leader in the Nichiren Buddhist lay organization, the Soka Gakkai International, USA (SGI-USA). Dr. Lickerman is a prolific writer, having written for medical textbooks, national trade publications, and even for Hollywood with an adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost. He has extensive speaking experience, having given lectures at high schools, colleges, and medical conferences, and was recently selected by the Consumers' Research Council of America as one of America's top physicians in their publication Guide to America's Top Physicians. Dr. Lickerman's blog "Happiness in this World" is syndicated on the website of Psychology Today, and receives over one hundred thousand unique visitors per month. Please visit his website at www.alexlickerman.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Meaning of Victory

We are, all of us, meaning-seeking creatures. We may begin life as pleasure seekers and pain avoiders, but as our brains develop and language begins flowing from our mouths, we soon begin demanding to know the why of things, as any parent can attest who's been subjected to the inexhaustible energy children have for asking why the sun shines or the sky is blue. Yet the difficulty we face as parents in providing good answers becomes immediately apparent when we turn to science for help, perhaps murmuring something about thermonuclear fusion or the way the Earth's atmosphere scatters light. 'But why do hydrogen atoms fuse?' we'll inevitably hear next. 'Because of heat and pressure,' we answer. 'Why is there pressure?' they ask after that, and so on, each successive query sounding less like a follow-up question and more like a reprimand for our foolishly offering how answers to why questions, reminding us that when children ask why something is, they're actually asking to know its purpose.

At first glance this seems an innocent wish―even charming―so it's one we're willing to indulge. But if we chase the answer to any 'purpose' question far enough down the rabbit hole, inevitably we'll come face to face with the frustrating truth that we can't answer the simplest one even to our satisfaction. We don't know why the sun shines or the sky is blue―or if such questions even make sense―any more than we know the ultimate reason for anything, including, most importantly, ourselves.

Which doesn't stop us from trying to figure it out. As we grow from toddlers to children and our thinking becomes more self-reflective, at some point we narrow the scope of our investigation into the purpose of things down to one overriding question: 'For what purpose do we live?' And while some of us may only be asking how we'd like to spend our lives, others are asking about the meaning of life itself, seeking not just an answer but rather the answer, the ultimate reason for which we were all born. Undaunted by the possibility that no such ultimate reason even exists―that we simply are―some of us try mixing varying proportions of intuition, reason, introspection, philosophy, and religion in an attempt to uncover a purpose with which we've been endowed. Yet even if we eventually choose to place our faith in an omnipotent maker who's bestowed upon us the purpose we seek, belief in that maker's existence brings us no closer to knowing it. (Despite the protests of the faithful to the contrary, belief in a creator grants us no firsthand knowledge of that creator's intent.)

On the other hand, if we're willing to accept that we don't have an endowed purpose but rather an evolved function, we can begin from any one of the many desires that populate our everyday life and follow it back through all the desires that lie beneath it to find the answer we seek. We may rouse ourselves out of bed one day to study for a test, the next to help a troubled friend, and the next after that to run errands, but in every instance our motivation arises from some other, broader reason; and if we ask why that reason rouses us, we'll find the answer in yet another, even broader reason, and so on. We want to study for our test to pass it. We want to pass our test to get a good grade in our class. We want to get a good grade in our class to get into a good college. We want to get into a good college to get a good job. And if we continue asking why, like the child we once were, trying to excavate down to our most rudimentary ambition―a time-worn exercise―we'll eventually find all reasons lead to the same place, to the one core reason for living we'd sought all along, the core reason against which we measure the value of everything we do: to be happy.

Our Desire to Be Happy

Here, though, evolutionary biology would raise an objection, arguing that the ultimate end toward which all living organisms aim their activities is survival and reproduction. And though true for the vast majority of life on planet Earth, not so I'd argue for Homo sapiens. For when we evolved the ability to have thoughts and feelings about our thoughts and feelings (for example, the ability to recognize we enjoy football more than baseball), we gained the ability to form judgments about our experiences and make choices about which ones we'd rather have―choices, observation suggests, that are driven less by the desire to survive and reproduce than they are by the desire to become happy. (Though the desire to become happy undoubtedly evolved to promote survival and reproduction, with the advent of self-awareness, the relative strength with which we're motivated to become happy and motivated to survive and reproduce has reversed.) A sizable minority of people, for example, choose not to have children at all, believing that parenthood will lead them on balance to less happiness rather than more.1 In addition, in circumstances in which the drive to survive is pitted directly against the drive to become happy―that is, when people perceive the need to make a choice between the two―the drive to become happy (or, at least, to avoid suffering) typically proves itself the stronger. We see this, for example, in patients suffering from intractable pain who have been known to make the reasoned choice―meaning in the absence of clinical depression or psychotic delusion―to end their lives. And though we may be tempted to believe that patients with chronic pain who choose to suffer it rather than kill themselves do so because they want to survive even at the cost of their happiness, the more likely explanation is that their personal degree of pain tolerance enables them to remain happy despite their discomfort. Either that, or their hope to be relieved of their pain is great enough to sustain their hope that they'll become happy one day in the future.

An Irresistible Pursuit

We actually have as little choice about wanting to become happy as the heart does about pumping blood. We're incapable of wanting not to become happy. The pursuit of happiness isn't merely an inalienable right with which we're endowed or an activity we're capable of choosing; it's psychological law we must obey. Even people who appear to want nothing to do with happiness, like those so immersed in self-hatred that their principle aim becomes self-sabotage, will say they haven't lost their desire for happiness so much as ceased to believe they deserve it. Similarly, people suffering from severe depression who seek their own destruction typically do so only to escape the pain they're feeling, not because they no longer want to be happy. They may no longer believe they can be happy and therefore stop behaving as if they want to be, but that's because depression often leads to a state of learned helplessness (once convinced that happiness is no longer possible, continuing to take action toward it becomes next to impossible). Just as the heart's function continues to be the pumping of blood even when it starts to fail, our minds aim toward happiness even when they appear to stop seeking it or even wanting it. Whether we want this to be true or even realize it is makes no difference. Like the heart, our minds are built a certain way to perform a certain function we can't change, one that by virtue of our sentience and self-awareness we just happen to be able to perceive.

But if happiness is indeed our primary function, why is it so difficult to achieve? Perhaps for at least two reasons. First, because merely desiring happiness more than anything else doesn't itself teach us how to achieve it. And as we're all capable of believing things without evidence, many of our beliefs about what makes us happy will simply turn out to be wrong. How many of us, for example, consider happiness to lie in the unmitigated pursuit of pleasure? Certainly pleasure plays an important role in contributing to happiness, but to appreciate how an existence can be overflowing with pleasure and still be miserable we only need look at people for whom certain pleasures (sex, gambling, drugs, and so on) send all other considerations spinning off into the distance and often cause the collapse of the very lives they delight. Further, too much pleasure can be paradoxically unpleasant (a few jelly beans are delicious, but too many make us sick), something happiness, by definition, can never be.

Loss Aversion

Which brings us to the second reason happiness is difficult to achieve: it requires not only the presence of joy (meaning a positive emotional state), but also the absence of suffering. Unfortunately, we often fail to appreciate these things as separate and focus most of our efforts on finding things that bring us joy rather than on preparing ourselves to withstand hardship. We may think things that bring us joy―a good job, money, a loving spouse, and so on―simultaneously immunize us against suffering, but if anything they actually make us more vulnerable to suffering by providing us more attachments to lose.

 

©2012. Alex Lickerman, MD. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Undefeated Mind.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442

 

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