Why do we love animals so much? They are unapologetically and unselfconsciously so utterly themselves — something we humans rarely, if ever, manage. This is true even of dogs, who desperately try to please their masters, having lost their independence through generations of selective breeding. So, our animal cousins rely far more on their instincts than we do. They roll from moment to moment without second guessing themselves. At some level, we crave this freedom. Freedom from the war between instinct and intellect. Perhaps that is why we adore our pets and animal cousins so dearly.
Hiding in the shadows
Other animals do not have our intellectual capacities, as such they are spared our many difficulties. The human animal has no such luck because it does not rely purely on instinct. We have the ability to self-reflect and to shape our own behaviour, to combine instinct and intellect.
So, our motivations and behaviours become a complex brew of conscious and less-conscious impulses. And, the less-conscious is of course shaped by our environments and experiences since the day we are born. Hiding in the shadows of our minds, what is less-conscious drives so much of how relate to life without us even realising. And, that makes it all the more important to notice and investigate what is going on within.
A war between instinct and intellect
Whatever ‘knowledge’ you think you have won’t matter, if you don’t really know yourself. If we were simply creatures of instinct, things would be far simpler. Things would just be, what they would be. But, our capacity for learning and un-learning means a potential war within. A war arising due to so many contradictory ideas and narratives colliding and jostling for dominance. Narratives that become beliefs through repeated exposure over time.
You may hold certain beliefs so deeply that they feel instinctive. These beliefs were of course learnt by you at some point, either consciously or non-consciously. And many of these beliefs may be fundamental to how you live. They may govern how you relate to so much — to success, to love, to society, to yourself.
The reality is that we rarely experience a kind of ‘internally consistent brainwashing’ in life. Many of our beliefs and values often turn out to be contradictory because we adopt them at different times in our lives and in response to different situations. So, it is only natural that they mix in strange and contradictory ways. Very natural, but it also makes things very confusing for us!
To reflect is to doubt
Our ability to self-reflect can make us aware of things that don’t feel right, even if we are only very dimly aware of them. For example, you may strive for mainstream success, while feeling deep down that it is all fake. You may seek the approval of friends and family, while knowing that they don’t deserve your time if they can’t accept you as you are. You may crave the freedom of self-employment while also craving the security of a corporate job.
Life is often full of double binds, and it is the human animal’s peculiar ability to create them! To tie itself up in psychological knots of hesitant, anxiety and self-doubt. But, that is our nature — we are human and can’t be like other animals. We can know that we know, therefore we doubt.
To be human is to combine instinct and intellect
While we do not have the gift of freedom that is pure instinct, we have the gifts of great mental athleticism and creativity. Yet, for these to truly shine, we must become awake to our own weird and wonderful nature. Otherwise, we behave almost as if we were like other animals, but without their grace and freedom!
We become like confused and tormented bulls in a ring, pulled to-and-fro by the noise of a savage crowd. Because we have not become open to our nature — that there is an interplay between intellect and instinct. And, that we call instinct may often be learnt behaviour that is bolstered by non-conscious beliefs.
Only by becoming awake to the nature of your mind, and what is at play within, can you skilfully flow through whatever comes your way. This is the path of self-knowledge.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.