Notes to Myself: My Struggle to Become a Person - by Hugh Prather

The way for me to live is to have no way. My only habit should be to have none. Because I did it this way before is not sufficient reason to do it this way today. I can have a self or I can have consistent behavior. I cannot have both.

Because the results are unpredictable, no effort of mine is doomed to failure. And even a failure will not take the form I imagine. "It will be interesting to see what happens" is a more realistic attitude toward future consequences than worry. Excitement, dejection, and irritation also assume a knowledge of results that I cannot possess.

I say to people, "I always do so-and-so," or "I never do so-and-so," as if being my self depended on such banal consistencies.

"Next time I will …" "From now on I will …" --What makes me think I am wiser today than I will be tomorrow?

Perfectionism is slow death. Idols and ideals are based on the past. If everything were to turn out just as I would want it to, just as I would plan, I would never experience anything new. My life would be an endless repetition of stale successes. When I make a mistake I experience something unexpected.

I live from one tentative conclusion to the next, thinking each one is final. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm confused.

Do I really think there is anything more profoundly true about my interpretation of the situation, now that I'm wide awake in bed, than there was when I was in the middle of it this afternoon?

For me, thinking seems to act at times as a defense mechanism, a way of avoiding some insight, away of not looking at the situation. This is especially true during social encounters, when I tend to lead with my head. My trouble is I analyze life instead of live it.

I have two sets of emotions, one based on the past, which keeps the world the same, the other reached only from the present, which is immune to my habitual interpretations. Although thought precedes emotion, thoughts are frequently unconscious, and a given emotion is often the first clue I have as to how I have been using my mind. My past-based thoughts have a natural, random flow, as do the feelings that follow. The mistake is to fixate on only one thought or interpretation, because this instantly makes me a victim emotionally of what other people do and say. When I defend my emotions, I am actually defending the lesser part of my mind.

I was just asked to go somewhere. I said, "I can't. I have to stay home. Gayle's sick." Clearly, I was not accepting responsibility for my actions. Next time I want to be more honest and state that I do what I do because I want to do it.

I notice that I sometimes think, "I ought to do so-and-so," in order to hide from my desire to do it. If I "have" to do it, I don't have to admit that I want to, or look at my motive for why I want to.

When I examine my fantasies for the values they express, I'm surprised at the pettiness. The unstill part of the mind travels from one trivial issue to another, avoiding the present and avoiding love. I don't think the answer is to try to reform it, rather it's to stop taking it so seriously. It's just a soap opera playing in another room, the voices rising, falling, now filled with deceit, now horror, now outrage, now reason. Its effect on me is minimal as long as I don't try to make out the words.

Fear is static that prevents me from hearing my intuition.

The way to be most helpful to others is for me to do the thing that right now would be most helpful to me.

Analysis is condemnation. I ask myself, "Why do you want to do that?" This question is ill willed. I am seeking a motive that I have prejudged unworthy of me. Second-guessing my motives undermines faith in my own mind and leads to a decision to thwart the desire I had. A healthier approach would be to accept the desire and simply seek to learn its direction, seek to clarify it rather than judge it.

Sometimes the only way for me to discover what I want to do is to go ahead and do something. Then when I start to act, my feelings begin to clarify. This much, however, is certain: When I act from fear or when I act from condemnation, the results contain a disturbance.

If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing then the desire is not to write.

I am noticing that when I am bored I think I am tired of my surroundings but I am really tired of my thoughts. It is trite, repetitious, unobserved thinking that is producing the discontent. Adopting a quiet awareness, a kind of listening attitude, usually freshens my mind and brings the situation I am in to life.

It is not always necessary to think words. Words often keep me from acting in a fully conscious way. Fear, indecision, and condemnation feed on words. Without words they usually die. When I am trying to figure out how I should relate to someone, especially a stranger, if I will stop thinking words, and listen to the situation, and just be open, I find that I act in a more appropriate, more spontaneous, often original, sometimes even courageous way. Words are at times good for calling the mind back, but they are distracting when I need to respond to the present.

If I feel disapproval of someone, if I find myself ignoring or turning away from someone in a group, I am probably avoiding in myself what this person represents that I believe is true about me.

The criticism that hurts the most is the one that echoes my own self-condemnation.

I have two principal ways of discovering the areas where I fail to see myself. The first is acknowledging the qualities in others that irritate me. The second is acknowledging the comments that have made me defensive. To discover what irritates me, I merely review my latest encounters, but I have more difficulty recognizing when I am defensive. I can sometimes identify it by the following syndrome: I answer quickly. I feel an urge to say more than I need to. I explain, try to persuade, and feel impatient when interrupted. I feel frustrated even if I appear to succeed, as if the damage has already been done. I am incapable of taking the other people's comments any way but seriously; their words never seem light or funny (yet when my reaction becomes apparent, they often take the situation lightly).

If it's afterwards that my defensiveness surfaces (usually because I have been chewing on what was said) my mental state has these characteristics: I think hurriedly. I think in circles, replaying the scene and endlessly revising my part. I look for ways to justify attacking back--never fully admitting my true motive. And I feel a strong resistance to stopping and implementing a procedure (any procedure) that would change my mental tone.

Why this need to divide up, classify, and neatly package every new acquaintance? For me to try to classify something so complex as an individual human merely demonstrates my own shallowness. A judgment of another person is an abstraction that adds qualities which are not there and leaves out what is unique. When I classify individuals I turn them into objects. The only way for me to contact other people is to experience them, not think about them.

This: It's such a chore to talk to Bill. Why is he such a drag? Versus this: I make such a chore for myself when I talk to Bill. How do I make it so hard?

Whenever I find myself arguing for something with great passion, I can be certain I'm not convinced.

I find it almost impossible to make a strong declarative statement in conversation without feeling little nagging doubts and reservations.

The question I could ask myself after receiving criticism is, "Does this statement give me any insight into myself?" not "Is it true?" If I say, "That's true," those words really mean, "I think about myself in the same way." No one is in a position to know whether or not it is true.

When I swear, I am being something rather than saying something. Profanity fixes the other person's attention on my words rather than my thoughts.

Sometimes my contacts with people, even people I'm close to, are frustrating. Afterwards I feel dissatisfied, or sad, or even slightly irritated as if I have been wasting time. Surely these feelings must arise from a thwarting of my expectations. I go wanting something from the person and do not get it. Things I might want: approval, help, fun, entertainment (escape from boredom), recognition, love, sex, justification. If I went wanting to be a friend rather than to have one, my want could not be frustrated.

Standard greetings and the formalities of politeness are often phony. It is a mistake, however, to conclude that following social conventions is dishonest, even if a convention is an empty form. If I am clear that my motive is to make life easier on other people, the content of the convention is honest.

If I want to communicate with you I must keep you informed of my feelings. A question often hides my feelings. It's sometimes my attempt to discover your position before I reveal mine, or it may hide a criticism I don't want to risk stating. If I ask you, "Why do you say that?" or "Is that what you really think?" I show you little of what I am feeling. Instead, I put you on the defensive without making clear what it is in me I want you to respond to.

"You ought to" means "I want you to," so why not say so? When I say "you should," I avoid committing myself. I am referring you to some supposedly objective standard and saying that circumstances or decency or whatever dictates that you do this, while I pretend to stay out of it.

Whether written or spoken, the more deeply personal and the more uniquely applicable people's thoughts are to their individual lives, the more I find that what they say has meaning for me. There is usually more meat for me in a writer's journals than in his or her essays.

I get angry at Gayle when she asks me to do something if I sense that in refusing to do what she asks I will demonstrate that I am not the way I like to think of myself.

Feelings may demand action but they do not require it. I am free to choose what my body represents. To act out does not "get it out." In fact, acting it out often reinforces the emotion and imprints it more deeply on my mind. One thing only is predictable about emotions: They will change. I don't have to "honor" every passing feeling as if an opportunity for self-fulfillment were actually slipping from my grasp.

I don't feel "I want." I feel "I lack." I decide "I want."

"I don't care what people think"--that is perhaps the most dishonest sentence I say to myself. Do I say it because I want to believe I don't care, or merely to give that appearance? And why is the appearance of not caring any better than vanity?

A stimulus can be used any way I decide. The sight of another person can be my cue to relax. The sight of a crowd can be my cue to peace.

I learn most about myself by observing myself in relation to others. When I examine myself by myself I am actually examining the results of a previous encounter.

Do I avoid looking a stranger in the eyes because I don't want to make him uncomfortable, or do I turn my eyes so he can't look into me?

One thing has become quite clear. All acquaintances are passing. Therefore I want to make the most of every contact. I want to quickly get close to the people I meet because my experience has shown we won't be together long.

Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene supernal. I can take them out and look at them, they fit in books, they lead me down that narrow way. And in the morning they are there. Ideas are straight-- But the world is round, and a messy mortal is my friend. Come walk with me in the mud...

The writing in this book is an expression of insights on my current problems. As I write I am in a state of learning, becoming, arriving, and not in a state of knowing and having arrived. I write about communication because I find it hard to talk to people. I write about my sexual desires because I am learning to cope with them. Therefore what I have here is of necessity imperfect and halting, a grasping for knowledge but not knowledge.