Like most other people on Planet Earth, I’ve spent much of my life pursuing things that make me feel good, attempting to perpetually live in my own personal Goldilocks Zone. Early on, I thought it was worthwhile to use speed, need and greed to acquire the most toys.
By the age of 20 I owned my own business, car, house, boat, motorcycle and I was exploring going partners on a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane. The pursuit of toys-iness however, lost its charm in early adulthood much more quickly than it did in childhood. Now what?
Conor, Conari, Conatus
The answer to that question for me can be found in one uncommon word: conation. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:
Conation stems from the Latin conatus, meaning any natural tendency, impulse, striving, or directed effort. It is one of three parts of the mind, along with the affective and cognitive. In short, the cognitive part of the brain measures intelligence, the affective deals with emotions and the conative drives how one acts on those thoughts and feelings. (It is) the area of one’s active mentality that has to do with desire, volition, and striving.
So, with the thrill of toy-striving vaporized, it would have to be replaced with something more compelling in order for me and my brain to remain healthy and sane. As someone reasonably well-grounded in present-moment reality at the time, when I found myself reading a little book by J. Krishnamurti entitled, Think On These Things, I immediately knew what I would subsequently be pursuing: spiritual maturity. And so I have been for lo these last 40+ years (for the record: it’s clear to anyone who knows me that I still have quite a long ways to go).
One thing I really liked about Krishnamurti was his refusal to become an icon or false idol for any of his students. When he found himself immersed in a spiritual organization growing up around him – The Order of the Star of the East – Krishnamurti deliberately disbanded it. He apparently knew the power of organizations to distort and compromise truth. I suspect he also knew the power of people in organizations to surface traumatic memories for one another. And with few effective ways to bring them to resolution, people in organizations tend to gang traumatic memories one on top of another – something less than ideal for optimal brain integration (Can you imagine what a challenge working at a company like Facebook must be – all those naive, left-brain-dominant kids running around triggering traumatic memories stored unconsciously in the right brain over and over again?).
One of Krishnamurti’s most famous observations is: “Truth is a pathless land.” A core part of Krishnamurti’s teachings centered around how various thought patterns can drive us to any one of three different funky ways of operating in the world. As Buddhist teacher Alan Wallace writes about eloquently in his book, The Attention Revolution, one funky way involves a conation deficit.
A conation deficit shows up when I experience apathy in the pursuit of genuine happiness and all its authentic causes. In a way, the end of my desire for toy acquisition could be considered a conation deficit – acquiring material things above and beyond what I might need for daily living. Such pursuits will inevitably lead away from authentic happiness. The Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh once tried traveling that road in spades when he had members of his spiritual community go out and purchase 93 Rolls Royces – the epitome of expensive toys. And yet, they did little to prevent his own and his followers subsequent profound suffering.
A second aspect of conation involves hyperactivity. This too, could be represented by my rush to acquire all the things I did before the age of 20. They say that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Well, it’s true for small fortunes as well. I did many deeds I’m not proud of as a young man in order to obtain the money I needed to buy those toys. I burglarized houses, sold LSD and pot, negotiated one-sided, exploitative contracts and lent money at usurious interest rates. Doesn’t sound too hyperactive happy, does it?
The third element is conation dysfunction – the pursuit of things that don’t lead to authentic happiness for ourselves and others, while simultaneously failing to desire and strive in directions that will result in genuine happiness for me and other people. And the “other people” piece turns out to be key: none of us can be happy in isolation. Even if, like Larry Ellison, we buy our own Hawaiian Island, unless others are joining us in our joy, it will be short-lived.
So there you have it: conation in a nutshell. When striving and desire are done skillfully, everyone benefits, especially our own hearts and brains. Which is what many people, including social neuroscientists are discovering and confirming with research like this: Constructing a Conation Nation. Feels like a place where people care; and they’re creating a world where I’d like to live.