Mental Skill

Chapter 8
The Split

If you decide to improve your mental skill, will that be a way to live a more successful life, or will it be a parlor trick to impress your friends?

Most attempts to build up thinking skill result in displays of brilliant logic without application to daily life. The reason is that mental skill is regarded as a function of the mind, while living is regarded as a function of the body. Mental skill is theory, life is practice. People conceive not of thought leading to action, but of thought versus action.

The idea is that you can act morally, or you can act practically, but you cannot act both ways at once. You can obey your mind, or you can obey your heart. The moral and the practical are in conflict, and life consists of balancing things out between them.

So you have your spiritual side and your worldly side, your business side and your social side, your giving side and your taking side. Your good side dominates on Sunday, your bad side takes over on Monday. You are split down the middle—and so is everybody else.

How can we find the essence of this idea? Try comparisons. A skilled mechanic is said to have a practical skill. The same is said of a skilled plumber. A skilled philosopher, on the other hand, has rejected practicality in favor of high-flown theories. The difference is that the mechanic and the plumber work mostly with their hands, while the philosopher does not. There is a split between the mind and the body: doing things with the body is regarded as in some way fundamentally different from doing things with the mind.

To confirm this, consider a skilled athlete. No one would seriously claim that skill in playing a game is automatically practical. That's so by definition: you play games to escape from practical cares. Nevertheless, the athlete is classed with the mechanic rather than the philosopher; his skill is called primarily physical rather than mental. That this is an arbitrary classification is demonstrated daily by every sportscaster extolling the qualities of mind needed for great athletic performance—determination, concentration, attention to detail, willingness to make the effort, and so on.

The essential point for our purpose is that everyone assumes two classes of skill: physical and mental. That is the mind-body split. To develop mental skill that applies to your life, you must get rid of the mind-body split.

Start by considering the case of a skilled pianist playing a Beethoven sonata. Beethoven is said to be an intensely intellectual composer. To do his music justice, one must grasp it on a philosophic level as well as on an emotional level. But the playing is done with hands and feet. So playing Beethoven cannot be classed as a purely mental skill, or as a purely physical skill. It is like the athlete, only more so. Bringing the plumber into the comparison, you notice that his skill consists largely of what he knows. The mechanic is skilled not because he can tighten bolts, but because he can figure out which bolts to tighten. In fact, nothing can be classed as a purely mental or physical skill. The classification is arbitrary. It has no cognitive significance.

Mental skill consists of the ability to see each detail of reality in its relationship to the whole of reality. Relationships must be real rather than arbitrary, or else you try to live in a fantasy. The real relation between mind and body is not an artificial split, but obvious cause and effect. Thinking is something you do, like talking. Your mind is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the system of cognitive and emotional phenomena and powers that constitutes your subjective being. It is a function of that one thing, you.

If this is so, how does it happen that most people, when they observe themselves, directly perceive a split between body and mind? They observe their own minds giving orders to their own bodies, and they judge whether or not the orders get carried out.

But wait, let's look again. We described not two entities, but three: the mind, the body, and the observer. Is the observer also split? If so, is the observer of that split also split—and so on to infinity? If not, then the true self is the non-split observer aware of his own actions. What is being experienced is not a split at all, but simply the ability to do more than one thing at once.

In order to perceive a mind-body split, you must first create it. You do that by giving yourself orders. You regard having an intention to do something as a method for getting it done.

When adults order kids to "stop fidgeting!" they ignore an obvious fact: a child does not know how to stop fidgeting. The assumption is that if the child wants to stop fidgeting, the fidgeting will stop. This is contradicted by every shred of evidence. There are methods for managing the excess energy that results in the fidget, but adults rarely provide them; they just yell. So the child does the same, echoing the orders internally.

That is how you created the mind-body split: you yelled at yourself. You tried to maintain the intention to be good, as if that were a method for being good. You tried to keep the intention of focusing your mind to think, as if that were a method of thinking. You formed a habit of saying that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

Once established, the mind-body split forms the basis for a ruinous splitting of all cognition. If it's moral, it cannot be practical. If it's earthly, it cannot be spiritual. If it's emotional, it cannot be reasoned about. If all you've got is mental skills, forget about making money.

Find the essence of any of those statements, and you reveal it as arbitrary. Each one sounds true only if you believe in the mind-body split. For example, the moral versus the practical. The essence of being moral is being reasonable. Identifying an action as reasonable puts it into the class of actions that make life better instead of worse. Adding that the same action in the same respect is impractical excludes it from the class of actions that make life better instead of worse. It is an arbitrary, meaningless contradiction.

For mental skill, the fatal effect of the split is that intention is on one side, and method is on the other. Skill is purposeful; it must include intention along with method. There must be no split, or else there will be no skill.

While nobody claims that random action without intention is genuine skill, they often do claim that disembodied purpose without action is genuine intention. In all cases, this claim is an arbitrary declaration. It is not something you can observe. You are asked to take it on faith.

Skilled thinkers never do that. If someone says, "I am standing up," while sitting down, skilled thinkers recognize the contradiction and believe what they see. If someone says, "I am doing it," while not doing it, skilled thinkers believe what they see. If someone says, "I intend to do it," while making no preparations to do it, skilled thinkers believe what they see. The process of preparing to do something includes finding tools and choosing methods.

That is why businessmen sign contracts. If I intend to fulfill an obligation to you in ten years, I must take action now to indicate that. The intention is not shown in what I say, but in what I do.

If you study mental skill, but believe in the mind-body split, your enthusiasm will be reserved for the theoretical side. You will feel comfortable tracing ideas back to logical propositions, but not to direct perception. You will want to stay within the realm of "pure" intellect, away from the realm of crass physicality. Since your thoughts will not be grounded in sense perception, you will not feel certain about them, so you will not believe in certainty. You will insist on the power of logic, but not on the power of observation. In short, you will learn all about mental skill, without developing any.


Since the mind-body split is artificial and self-contradictory, it is easily got rid of. You do that by forming a habit: always think of intention and method together. Whenever you consider a purpose, remind yourself to think of methods.

It's an easy habit to form, because it is a habit you already have. If you form an intention to go to a movie tonight, then part of that intention is considering what movie, where it is playing, when, how much it costs, and how to get there. If you tell me that you intend to go to the movie, but you don't care which one, or when, or where, then I will have to conclude that movie-going is not an intention but a method to fulfill your intention of getting out of the house.

The reason that method and intention are always found together is the same reason that red is found only where there is a red object. Red is not a substance; it is an attribute of substance. To consider the color red, we can think of it abstractly, without reference to a red object. But confusion will result if we try to think of it as a mystical presence on its own, separate from any red thing.

The same is true of intention. I see your intention to do something by watching you prepare to do it. I can think of your intention abstractly, without reference to your actions. But I cannot claim to see your intention except by seeing what you do; it is an attribute of your actions. If you announce an intention to cook dinner, but do nothing, then I may suppose that you are making plans in your mind. But only for a while.

If you want, you can declare that your intentions are subjective states in your own mind, not subject to review by others. You know what you intend, and that's the end of it. But look before you leap. Others can say the same. Unless intentions are attributes of actions, they are subjective whims, and you are at the mercy of everyone's personal whims. When that happens, the concept of intention stops being a help to you and starts being a threat.

The mind-body split is an especially fragile contradiction because it requires you to pretend that actions are not actions of entities but just, somehow, disembodied actions. Otherwise, everything in your mind would obviously be something you do. The pretense is aided by noting that many things you do are automatic processes like digestion, or processes automated by habit, like speech. They seem to be split from your will. But the thing people complain about most as being split from their will is something they claim as part of their mind: feelings.

Your indivisible body is full of processes like digestion that you cannot directly control. It does nothing that you cannot control at all. To stop digestion, don't eat. To stop sweating, don't drink. To stop every process at once, don't breathe. If you find that, in spite of yourself, you go right on breathing, then possibly that is because you want to go on doing all the things required to stay alive.

Getting rid of the mind-body split is getting rid of the habit of pretending that it exists. Since the pretense comes and goes, you can spot it by comparing your attitude now to your attitude then. Compare your own intentions with your own actions. Compare physical comfort with mental comfort. Compare "purely" physical activities with "purely" mental activities. Does your mind function differently when you are well rested and well fed than when you are tired and hungry?

If someone asks exactly what the connection is between the mind and the body, your answer is easy. It's the same as the connection between the walk and the feet, the voice and the larynx, or the hand and the handshake. The real question is: have you given as much attention to perfecting your mind as to perfecting your voice?

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