Why We Do What We Do


I was researching some of my old posts the other day and realized there is a synergy among three of them that I hadn’t recognized before. This article will attempt to pull them together to create a theory for why we do what we do.

The three articles are:

1. From last December, my article Intuition, Chemistry and Heart-Sense explained how our emotions dominate our decision-making. As the drawing above describes, our senses inform our instincts, our emotions and our intellect, and both our instincts and our intellect inform our emotions and our decisions (though our instincts do so immediately, before we think, while our intellect takes its time, and, with the advantage of hindsight, second-guesses and sometimes overrides our initial decisions). Meanwhile, our emotions dominate our decision-making most of the time. Our chemistry (e.g. pheromones) is the result of the interplay between our instincts, senses and emotions, while our heart-sense (what our heart “tells us”) is the result of the interplay between our intellect, senses and emotions.

2. In a pair of recent articles entitled Too Smart for Our Own Good (part one and part two), I attempted to illustrate Eckart Tolle’s thesis, that wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right diagram above. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted. By contrast, as an unintended consequence of our very large brains, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left diagram. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, irrational denial, irrational hopefulness, nostalgia, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events and memories (real or imagined), and the ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us, which leads us to be unhappy for no reason, or complacent and unrealistically expectant (and then shocked and disappointed). Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

3. Many of my articles over the years have explained what I call “Pollard’s Law“: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. This is my observation about how we prioritize the things we want to do. This is not a criticism of human nature — all natural creatures behave this way because from an evolutionary perspective this has proved to be a successful strategy for living. But what it means is that we never have time left over for the things we think we “should do”, especially the larger, longer term projects, because they are always pre-empted by the needs of the moment. The “what we must” in Pollard’s Law is very personal — our imperatives are a mix of instinct, emotion, sense and intellect, and they are volatile — they may include finding love, or doing something out of a sense of outrage that impels us, or even giving up our lives. They may be tainted by our egoic mind and pain-body. But for most of us, many of the things we would love to do, or think we should do, never reach this level of imperative, so we hold back — we wait; we hope; we dream.

Put together all three of these models of who we are and what we do, and you end up with the complex, holistic model in the diagram above, which, I think, can be used to understand (and perhaps even change) what drives us to do what we do (and not do). Here’s how this model applies to me at the moment:

  • I have relearned in recent years to trust my instincts and live naturally (my hedonism, nudism, exuberant idealism, love of wild places and wild creatures and creature comforts are lifelong personal attributes). But although I am working to get attuned to my senses and emotions , I am still very much possessed by ego, still not truly present except in rare moments.
  • The primary stories I tell myself (the ones I need to let go of if I hope to become present) are about a world of lost beauty, cruelty and suffering, about gaia’s death and a coming long and painful civilizational collapse, about people’s unreasonable, cruel, unfair, manipulative, wilful, ignorant, irrationally expectant, power-abusing and dysfunctional behaviours. These stories trigger feelings of anger, indignation, grief and despair (my pain-body reactions) and, when I realize later my anger was overblown, feelings of shame and self-hatred. One consequence of this is that I became so stressed after being triggered four years ago that it precipitated a latent chronic disease, ulcerative colitis, that I will now have to live with for the rest of my life.
  • A related, second set of stories I tell myself are about perceived dangers and uncertainties. These stories trigger feelings of anxiety and fear (of loss or suffering). Thanks to my great imagination, I am very good at imagining the worst, and reacting to those fictional worst-case stories as if they were real and imminent.
  • A third set of stories I tell myself are about my propensity to, in one way or another (and with my procrastinator’s best of intentions, of course) promise what I cannot deliver. These stories trigger feelings of self-dissatisfaction (letting people down) and self-loathing.
  • On top of all this, I suffer from recurring social anxiety tinged with misanthropy (notably triggered by crowds of strangers). Sartre said we human beings project our worst fears and most deeply disliked personal characteristics onto other people rather than facing them inside ourselves, seeing in strangers the worst of what we perceive in our own personality. I’m not yet clear what the stories are behind this anxiety and misanthropy (which date back to my early school years), nor am I able to tease apart my frequent loathing of strangers from the often-accompanying self-loathing. This may all be related to the second and/or third set of triggers and stories, but maybe not. Whatever it is, it’s another strong influencer of my behaviour.

As a result of the pall this casts over me, there is a constant battle going on between (a) who my senses and instincts (the unclouded, trusted, chemical part of me, the part that is a complicity of my bodily organs) tell me I am, and what they tell me to do, and (b) who my confused, easily-triggered and untrusted mind and emotions, the cultural part of me, tells me I am, and what it tells me to do.

My personal imperatives, therefore — my “must dos” under Pollard’s Law, are:

  • To fall, and to be, in love (which, while it lasts, vanquishes the egoic mind and pain-body and makes me whole, present); and
  • To avoid stress, which means not reading or listening to bad news about our world, working to develop my resilience, avoiding vexatious people and situations of tension and conflict, avoiding dangerous risks (e.g. bad weather, especially driving, and loss of freedom or security), avoiding physical discomfort, avoiding crowds of strangers, and avoiding any situation where people have what I think may be unreasonable expectations of me.

If you know me, this explains a lot. It explains why I am no longer living in places that get very cold weather or treacherous road conditions. It explains why I have changed jobs over the years, why I was obsessed for years with achieving financial security, and why I retired early. It explains why Tree had to rescue me during my last bad anxiety attack (and why, when the vicious cycle of egoic mind and pain-body takes control of me, I spiral down quickly into unfathomable helplessness, anxiety and depression).

It explains why I am poly, and why I am vegan. It explains why, whenever I face conflict, even on projects I’m passionate about, I disengage myself and flee. It explains why I’m not personally working on the front lines to end the atrocities of the Alberta Tar Sands and factory farming, although I think I “should”. It explains why I’m not living in intentional community, despite believing passionately that this is the only sustainable and resilient model that can take us through the Long Emergency ahead.

It explains why I have no perseverance, and why I try to avoid commitment and responsibility. It explains why I am still deciding what I want to do/should do/can do, without being broken in the process, months after retiring and having the opportunity to do anything I “want” to do, and why I am afraid to grab the dragon’s tail. The real dragon, I know, is my own ego, and it’s the hardest one to slay. As James Taylor (who has fought similar demons to mine) asks: Where will we hide, when it comes from inside?

In short, this model explains most of what I do, and don’t do, and the disconnects between what I believe and what I do.

At the beginning of this year I wrote a new personal bio, to take stock of who I am now:

Vegan, earth-loving, earth-grieving, idealistic, poly, somewhat unsociable and inattentive, unschooled, self-dissatisfied, nudist, intuitive, corpocracy-hating, anarchist, doomer (about industrial civilization), optimistic (about post-civ society), radical, unspiritual, hedonistic, impatient, easily-discouraged, overly-analytical, comfortably retired (from paid work), generalist writer, dreamer and imaginer of possibilities.

So now you know why I am so. And why, because and despite who I am, I do what I do, and don’t do what I don’t.


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8 Responses to Why We Do What We Do

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why We Do What We Do « how to save the world -- Topsy.com

  2. Rayne says:

    Ah, I think you are very much solving your personal mystery. From the outside it looks like the challenge is a hardware/wetware system which is very tightly tuned, which you are trying to fix with a software patch. Hard-earned progress.

  3. Pingback: Why We Do What We Do - Dave Pollard at Chelsea Green

  4. Melinda says:

    You have ALREADY been immensely useful in your own, beautiful way. Your struggle with yourself, that alone, is already a gift to the world at large.
    Like my battle-weary but unbroken friend says: “Just keep reaching. Keep reaching. It’s the reaching that makes your life what it is.”

  5. Rohan Singh says:

    Hi Dave,
    It was incredible reading this post because I can relate to what you wrote about your insecurities, worries and general dispositions. I was amazed that you’ve written so openly about your life. This is rare!

    Life has never been the same for me after reading Eckhart Tolle some years ago. Reading about the conflicts that you’re facing made me feel at ease knowing that I am not the only one grappling with similar issues.

    Thank you for sharing :)

    Wish you a happy life journey :)

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  7. Syd O says:

    Does living in the present make us more selfish? I can say I struggle with all that you mention here but I feel that if I live in the present I become weaker and not able to cope with harder situations.

  8. Does living in the present make us more selfish? I can say I struggle with all that you mention here but I feel that if I live in the present I become weaker and not able to cope with harder situations.

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