Monday, October 25, 2021



Intentional is a gameplan... 

By David Amerland


Live your life the way you want to. Manage stress better. Be more resilient and enjoy meaningful relationships and better health. We all want that. Such life leads to better choices, better jobs, loving romantic partners, more rewarding careers and decisions that are fully aligned with our aims.

What stops us from getting all that is the complexity of our brain and the complicated way in which the external world comes together. The misalignment between the internal states we experience and the external circumstances we encounter often leads to confusion, a lack of clarity in our thinking and actions that are not consistent with our professed values.

Intentional is a gameplan. It helps us connect the pieces of our mind to the pieces of our life. It shows us how to map what we feel to what has caused those feelings. It helps us understand what affects us and what effects it has on us. It makes it possible for us to determine what we want, why we want it and what we need to do to get it.

When we know what to do, we know how to behave. When we know how to behave we know how to act. When we know how to act, we know how to live. Our actions, each day, become our lives. Drawn from the latest research from the fields of neuroscience, behavioral and social psychology and evolutionary anthropology, Intentional shows how to add meaning to our actions and lead a meaningful, happier, more fulfilling life on our terms.

Here is the first truth in a book of truths: you can't be everything to everyone. At some point you need to make a choice of what truly matters to you and why. Fair warning: it’s an approach that will lose you a lot of 'friends'.

There is little point in trying to define what ‘life’ is. Philosophers and, surprisingly, even some biologists, have never agreed on it.

Biology however tells us that life is: “defined as any system capable of performing functions such as eating, metabolizing, excreting, breathing, moving, growing, reproducing, and responding to external stimuli.”

The moment you think about this definition you know that there is little point in trying to adapt it to concepts such as “living a good life” or “a life well-lived”, yet it is by those that most of us intuitively try to measure and understand what it is we mean when we mention “life”.

As it happens I will give you a much better definition but before I do I will start with an obvious truth: we all struggle with the exact same thing that is, knowing how to behave.

In trying to live a life, good or bad, we all seek to find, discover or accept a set of rules that basically tell us how to behave in any given situation. When we accept social mores, religion, the law, tradition, culture, a code of conduct, a belief or an ideal what we basically engage in is a direct attempt to find our personal rule book that tells us exactly what to do when we need it.

I am a sucker for mindless action flicks that spike my adrenaline levels and shower me with eye-candy special effects. If you’ve never seen Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman, then I strongly recommend it, not least because in one of his over-the- top cinematic speeches delivered with that all-too-familiar authoritative deep, tonal voice Freeman’s character declares:

“Insanity is wasting your life as a nothing when you have the blood of a killer flowing in your veins. Insanity is being shat on, beat down, coasting through life in a miserable existence when you have a caged lion locked inside and a key to release it.”

He goes on to give the requited spiel about a fraternity of super- assassins that take it upon themselves to guide history by killing selected people “for the greater good” and he finishes it with the memorable line: “This is what has been missing from your life Wesley: Purpose.” I did say it’s over-the-top. At the same time the speech has a point. A life lived without a purpose is a life mostly wasted. And purpose is frequently defined by knowing what we should do and being actively engaged in doing it.

Whether we realize it or not, we all feel the need for this kind of guidance that gives us a deep sense of purpose. Because we are born physically helpless we have evolved to latch onto and work hard to understand our immediate environment and the people around us. This makes us, as we grow older, intensely pro-social. At the same time it provides us with a ready-made set of expectations, rules and guidelines to guide our behavior that arise from the collective behavior of those around us.

That behavior is the culture we experience and the traditions we abide by. The problem with this is that rather than defining for ourselves what is important to us we accept that which is given to us. That which is given to us is rarely what we want, but it can very easily become what we settle for.

Settling is an evolutionary-programmed trait. Let me explain: Life is hard. It really is. Even if we happen to have the extraordinary luck to be born into a very rich family whose legacy gives us everything we need to live comfortably for the rest of our life, maintaining that fortune and navigating through life is going to be fraught with risks, traps and constant upheavals.

We need other people. Other people need us. That is a truth. But the reasons for this mutual need are usually contradictory or, at the very least, sufficiently at odds with each other to make trust an issue and turn cooperation into a risk-assessment exercise.

All of this takes inner resources. It takes attention, thinking, planning, mental and psychological effort, perhaps some introspection. It frequently is emotionally painful and psychologically costly. We are programmed to avoid it because it adds to the intrinsic difficulty that is life.

If you want the definition of life here it is: It is a game plan that emerges from the collective activities for survival of everyone around you. That is, everyone. It is difficult because it is unpredictable. It is unpredictable because no one knows the rules. In an emergent game plan things change spontaneously according to the same principle that guides us to settle for what we are given: conservation of energy. When ‘witches’ threaten our communal beliefs, the stability of our governing institutions and the perceived natural order of the Cosmos it is required of us to hunt them down and publicly burn them.

The act, however, barbaric, painful and seemingly inhuman restores the perceived natural order of things, reinforces the power of our institutions to safeguard our way of life and impresses upon us the value and desirability of accepting what we are given. Life goes on much easier then.

When the public burning of witches however marks our way of life as brutal, our religious leaders as misguided, fanatical zealots whose actions endanger us all and our institutions as unbending, power- hungry instruments of control, we become more enlightened. More accepting. Our society becomes tolerant. Our horizons broader. Life goes on much easier then.

“Easier” is what we have been programmed to seek because it increases the chances of our survival. What made sense in pre-historic times when the outside world could easily kill us has, in our days, evolved into a complex dance of what we believe and what we reject, what we accept and what we actively seek. We have created a world that pretty much guarantees our survival. Yet, for most of us that is no longer enough.

We lack the deeper sense of purpose that makes us feel truly alive. We have the key to releasing the “lion” inside each of us but choose not to use it. This makes our life a complex weave of small advances and retreats. Victories and losses that are designed to keep us in place until we no longer care and it no longer matters.

I say “designed” when I describe the constant churn of victories and losses that are life, but that is a mislabel. Life is a system. Like any system it seeks stability in order to function. Stability demands conformity. Almost like a biological organism, the system that we call “life” rewards innovation and change (i.e. mutations) sufficiently to progress but makes it hard enough for them to become established so that it is never severely disrupted.

It is no accident that in our lifetime we shall each experience only one great innovation or upheaval. More than that and it may truly be the end of the line for the experiment called “Human life on Earth”.

This need to live by choosing “the path of least resistance” because it allows us to use the least amount of energy to coast through life leads to some pretty convoluted mental acrobatics. We are, for instance, perfectly at ease with a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde transformation where we present a different face (and maybe, even values) to those we work with and a completely different set of behaviors to those at home or our friends at the pub.

We can use ‘morality’ to ostracize and dehumanize fellow human beings who are different from us, because their existence creates perturbations in the social system we directly experience that require greater energy in order to deal with and may, even, challenge our own sense of right and wrong with our own life choices.

The ease with which we can turn on anyone not of our own religion, social caste, skin colour, ethnicity, neighbourhood or area is testament to this. History supplies a long list of such instances that range from the destruction of Carthage in pre-history to the genocides that took place in Rwanda and Bosnia in the closing years of the last century.

In each case the ingredients are the same incendiary mix of social stress, political polarization and a dehumanization of the ‘other’ that is different, strange, outside our own group and therefore the enemy who deserves to be eradicated.

The irony that this is the same game only with different players escapes its participants who had they been capable of such awareness would have behaved differently anyway. The irony is rich here because in order for this game of life called “division” and “ostracism” to work its players must be capable of exhibiting the same behavior when confronted with the same set of circumstances. The oppressed turn oppressors just as easily as the victims can turn into aggressors. Given similar circumstances and capabilities we are usually pretty good at coming up with justification of our behavior and if you need a living, breathing example of such role reversal look at the atrocities, injustice and demonization of the ‘other’ carried out by none others than the Israelis upon the Palestinians.

A case of role-reversal, where those who history has frequently ascribed the role of victims turn into aggressors and perpetrate on their neighbors the same type of persecution they have, historically, experienced themselves.

Now that we’ve established, on these broad lines, that life is a game whose rules are the same everywhere and we have seen, again broadly, how similar circumstances allows us to behave in similar ways and even make the exact same behavioral mistakes we, ourselves, have condemned it’s fair to ask “what now?” Is this it? Will this chapter be enough to raise questions without providing much of an answer¬? Is everything always grey and in doubt? Is the rest of the book more of the same which would make it no more than a superfluous addition to this chapter required to provide what publishers call “spine value”?

Well, not quite. What follows are the elements, the modalities, if you like, required to make this game of life work. What follows is the prescription you need to live your life the way you want to. This chapter, however, is far from over.

Because all this is serious I can afford to be flippant, though as you will see even my flippancy has a very serious intent. So, I will add here that the one ‘rule’ we all need to keep in mind is that favourite of William S. Burroughs’ from his Naked Lunch “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”. Burrough, of course, borrowed this from Vladimir Bartol, who used it in his novel Alamut. Bartol, himself borrowed it, and slightly changed it in the process, from the teachings of Hassan-i Sabbah who was the founder of the Order of the Assassins, historically known as the Nizari Assassins. The tale, writings and doctrine of the Order was incorporated in the storyline of the popular video game Assassin’s Creed which is where I first came across it and filed it away for future reference which brings us to here and now. You reading what I’ve written.

What do we, what can we learn from this? That life is circuitous but the circuit has polygonal junctures with cultural jumps and bends that require an open mind and a thirst for cultural learning in order for the metaphorical dots to connect? Or, that nothing is truly original, that everything is borrowed from somewhere else and made to fit the moment and its time?

Both, I’d argue. If you are truly living and if you truly feel alive you are aware of both context and history. Moment and time. Alamut was written as an implied rebuke to Mussolini’s fascism. Naked Lunch is a chronicle of the messiness of life and its often unplanned trajectory where the brain makes sense of basically senseless moments of existence. This book is about learning to behave in ways that help you get more out of your life.


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David Amerland is a Chemical Engineer with an MSc. in quantum dynamics in laminar flow processes. He converted his knowledge of science and understanding of mathematics into a business writing career that’s helped him demystify, for his readers, the complexity of subjects such as search engine optimization (SEO), search marketing, social media, decision-making, communication and personal development. The diversity of the subjects is held together by the underlying fundamental of human behavior and the way this is expressed online and offline. Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully is the latest addition to a thread that explores what to do in order to thrive. A lifelong martial arts practitioner, David Amerland is found punching and kicking sparring dummies and punch bags when he’s not behind his keyboard.

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