Mental Skill

Chapter 9

No consideration of mental skill can escape the Question of Our Time, which is: how does it make you feel? Since many people avoid developing mental skill on the grounds that it would make them feel bad, the question is relevant, even if the answer is obvious.

Does mental skill mean having a steel trap mind that chews people up? Does it mean exchanging empathy for cold-hearted logic? If so, then mental skill is a limitation of your mind rather than an improvement. Is it really possible to hold such an inverted view of mental skill?

For those who claim belief in the mind-body split, it is inevitable. For them, emotions are the link between mind and body. They observe the mind making an evaluation, and the body responding with physical changes. This directly contradicts the idea that mind and body are separate, so they call emotions an exception—a link. Logically, the next step is to regard feelings as superior to logic, since they integrate body and mind.

In fact, you consist of your body and all its functions, including energy production and thinking and feeling. Every cell in your body is doing many things all the time, while working with other cells to do many more things all the time. You can mentally form all these actions into two classes, if that will help you to think about them. You can call one class mind, or spirit, or soul. You can call the other class body, or physicality, or material being. The two classes are epistemological entities—mental units you make to help you keep things straight. They are not metaphysical entities. What exists in reality is you, with all your parts and all your functions.

Thus the mind-body split is a confusion of epistemology with metaphysics. This confusion produces the idea that feelings and logic are opposed or antithetical or incompatible. They are as incompatible as eating and digesting, or talking and breathing.

So the real question is not "How does mental skill make you feel?" The answer to that is obvious: it makes you feel efficacious. The real question is, how does mental skill deal with feelings? The answer is, the same way it deals with everything: by analysis.

The essence of negative emotions would be losing values, and the essence of positive emotions would be gaining values, so you would sort them out according to the amount and manner of loss or gain. Annoyance would be one negative range, with measurements omitted within the range; anger another range; rage another, and so on. Once you sort them into concepts, you can analyze.

To analyze is to think: to differentiate and integrate, or take things apart and put things together in the mind. Analyzing emphasizes the first part: distinguishing the elements of a subject. But it is not mere dissection; the parts are examined in relation to one another and to the whole. Skillful analysis identifies the essential elements and the causal relationships.

Emotions are easy to analyze when the elements are directly available to introspection. The elements of fear, for example, are a value and a threat. The elements of anger are a value and an injustice. The emotion comes after the evaluation, and involves your whole being in preparations to protect the value or correct the injustice. When you know the relationships, then you can decide if the value is real or imagined, and if the threat or injustice is real or imagined.

You could analyze jealousy into elements: a right to a value, and a usurpation of that right. Then you could decide if the right was real or imagined and if the usurpation was justified or unjustified.

Since they are a response to evaluation, emotions are not controlled directly by the will. You cannot order yourself to feel this or not to feel that. If, because you pretend to believe in the mind-body split, you order yourself not to feel an emotion, you can succeed only by making a further pretense. You have to pretend that you don't feel what you feel. You do this by refusing to identify the emotion. You may see that your teeth are clenched, your face flushed, your breathing changed, your muscles tensed—but declare that this is not anger. You may feel your body contract defensively, but declare that this is not fear. You may feel yourself expand as if to encompass a supreme value, but declare that this is not love. If you have formed the habit of taking arbitrary declarations seriously, you may even believe it.

If the ability to watch what you do is limited by a habit of refusing to identify, then emotions are hard to analyze. You need to infer the elements from whatever clues are present, and perhaps get help making identifications. When emotions are hard to analyze but impossible to ignore, they seem to be in charge of you. They seem to appear for no reason, and torture you to no purpose. You feel bad after a success, good after a failure. It's enough to make you regard emotions as a threat.

That's what people do who claim that mental skill operates in spite of emotions: they regard feelings as a threat. Reasoning must be logical and unfeeling, they declare; good thinking requires that you "control" your emotions.

This could be true only if mental skill were a parlor game, unrelated to matters of life and death. Reasoning is a process in which observations get identified, integrated, evaluated—so that by looking at what is, one determines what to do. Since evaluations can be matters of life and death, it is vain to pretend that they could fail to bring on emotions. What would it mean to identify a threat to your life, but feel no degree of fear or apprehension?

Skilled thinking is by nature full of emotion. A skilled thought never begins with evaluation; it begins with looking for the facts. But it always ends with evaluation—a decision that something is true or false, good or bad, relevant or irrelevant. That is another way of saying that skilled thinking keeps the context. Whatever the conclusion of a thought, it is seen in relationship to standards of value, of importance, of action. With evaluation comes emotion.

There is no real thought without feeling. A process of reason that is logical but unfeeling is an academic exercise unrelated to actual living, divorced from actual values. Values are those things that make your life better. What would it mean to feel nothing when getting or losing a value?

Emotions are a threat to thought on one condition only: that they are regarded as a substitute for thought. Some think that having a feeling is as useful to them as making comparisons, omitting measurements, making units, and knowing where each thing fits in relation to all things. They say that a feeling is faster and more reliable than a thought. They might as well say that instead of putting up a stop sign, just yell, "Red!"

To say, "I follow my heart instead of my brain," is to say, "I follow the results of my evaluations instead of my evaluations." Feelings are not disembodied spirits that enter your body; they are one of the many attributes of what you do. Actions are not experienced as disjointed combinations of thought, feeling and movement; they are experienced as actions. To distinguish a part of the action and then arbitrarily declare it the best part or the worst part is not analysis but fantasy.

Inappropriate feelings are useful warning signs. They show that you are hiding from yourself a contradiction. You are claiming to like something you hate, value something that does not make your life better, or accept something unacceptable. Mental skill wastes no time in guilt over unwanted emotions, because they cannot be directly changed. Instead, it looks for the thinking process that led to the evaluation that produced the unwanted emotion. It looks for the element of action that can be directly changed. It finds the contradiction, and resolves it.

Skilled thinking is a joyous activity not in spite of emotion, but because of emotion. It replaces frustration with satisfaction, doubt with certainty. It feels effortless for the same reason that emotions feel effortless, which is the same reason that breathing feels effortless. It is part of the integrated activity that is called living.


To practice analyzing emotions, start by analyzing actions. Suppose you start to cross the road, see a truck bearing down on you, and jump out of the way. Keeping the unity of mind and body firmly in mind, you can distinguish the elements of the action of jumping out of the way of the truck. The first element was identification of a threat. You saw the truck, recognized what it was, and by analysis determined that it was not likely to stop short of you. That took a small fraction of a second. The second element was fear. Your body reacted to the evaluation with a spurt of energy production for the third element, which was physical movement. Each of these elements could be analyzed into further elements, like determining the speed of the truck, pumping air in and out of the lungs, keeping your balance while jumping, and so on.

Now compare the analysis with what you thought after you jumped. You probably did not say to yourself, "Wow! When I recognized that threat, it made me feel really scared, and that energized me so I could jump out of the way!" More likely you said to yourself, "Wow! That truck scared the hell out of me!" You experienced the action as it was: something you did to escape a threat. It was a single action: a jump. The many elements of this action were not separately experienced while you acted—or else the action would have been too slow.

That is the key to analyzing emotions: remember that it is analysis that separates the many elements of what you do; you do not do them separately. You do not make an identification, then stop and make a note of it, then make an evaluation and pause to make a note of that, then develop an emotion and take note of that. We can see by analysis that you would have no way to feel fear until after you had used reason to identify a threat, but your experience of the event was that you got scared.

Remember that unity of action when someone says, "I was so scared I couldn't do anything! I was just paralyzed with fear!" Does this mean that if the truck you jumped away from were bigger, you would just stand there and get hit? Or does it mean that the entire event must be analyzed to determine what caused paralysis? Did a habit of substituting emotion for thought come into play? Did a habit of doubt and uncertainty come into play? How would it be possible for emotion to cause paralysis? Would it be more reasonable to suppose that paralysis caused emotion?

To say that reasoning must wait until an emotion has run its course is to demonize emotion. Either reasoning produced the emotion, or else the devil did it. To say that fear propelled you to think about that truck is to reverse cause and effect. To say that you acted in spite of fear is to assume that fear is suicidal.

Emotions are the energizing component of action, so they are often the most striking part. That they are not the most important part is shown every time someone goes into panic. In panic, there is much energy and much emotion, but movement is random. Rational action does not exist, because the most vital element is twisted into itself. A process of thought identified a threat and so produced fear—and then attended to the fear instead of the threat. To inoculate yourself against panic, get rid of the habit of regarding emotions as threats. An emotion is not a threat; it is an energy source. For confirmation, consult any serious athlete.

In analyzing emotions, you are practicing the skill of introspection. This is an adventurous skill. You may find things you don't like. You may find that it takes courage to identify hidden evaluations that produce unwanted emotions. If so, you will be demonstrating that mental skill is not for the timid. Remember that the basic inductive process of making units by grouping similars together is a bold and courageous process. Nothing in reality gives you express permission to do that; you give yourself permission to do that, because you realize that doing that will put you in control.

That is the way mental skill handles emotion. By analyzing this element of action, it takes control. By staying alert even in the midst of emotional storms, it keeps reason firmly in the driver's seat. It does not confuse the energy source with the controls. It appreciates the value of the accelerator, but does not try to steer with it.

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