By Ciaran O'Regan
Life as a video game character
I see my time as a temporarily assembled cluster of atoms as a game. As such, I see the attributes of my body and mind like those of the skills of video game character. Essentially, my mental and physical attributes are alterable and thereby upgradable in whatever directions I choose. The idea of altering your physical attributes is easy to grasp. Want to get stronger? Strength train. Want to get more flexible? Do appropriate forms of stretching and mobility. Want to get better at running? Run. Want to lose weight? Be in a caloric deficit. Simple right? The idea of altering your mental attribute's, however, is one that you may not have put much thought into.
I like to refer to how our minds perceive the world as our "operating systems".
Over the last few years, I have put serious study into developing my own operating system (OS). What started off 3 years ago as a curiosity into a book by a Japanese swordsman, has now morphed into a full-fledged desire to upgrade how my mind operates during every aspect of my day to day existence. I now deliberately study how my mind processes everything. Things like happiness, grief, difficult people, setbacks, boredom, excitement, addiction to stimulus etc., are all down to perception. If you accept that everything that affects you is perception, then you accept that by altering your perception, you alter how something affects you.
“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius
WHAT OS ARE YOU USING TO PERCEIVE THE WORLD?
Are you using an OS that includes aspects of perception that you like? Are you using one that includes aspects of perception from certain people or schools of thought that you admire? Are you using one that you have put any actual conscious thought into?
All you are as a human is the result of how your own genetics have been expressed through your exposure to environmental and social experiences. Thereby, if you are not using an OS that you yourself have put conscious effort into developing and installing in your own mind, then you are most likely using a mish-mash of other people's (potentially shite) operating systems that you inadvertently picked up over the years of interacting with other humans.
SO WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY AND WHERE DOES IT ENTER INTO THE EQUATION?
“Philosophy (from Greek philosophia, literally "love of wisdom") is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” – Wikipedia
While technology and civilization have changed quite a bit over the years, there are no emotions and feelings we can experience that people will not have experienced before. Due to societal changes and technological innovations, the stimulus for potential emotions like fear, anger, joy, and love have changed. The emotions and feelings, however, are still exactly the same.
If anything that can be experienced, has been experienced, then it only makes sense that by sheer probability, some very smart people have sat down and basically put some thought into thought. Some of these very smart people have even (thankfully) put some of their energy into actually writing these thoughts down. Some of these writings on thought were intended for publishing like those of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some were the private diary entries of the most powerful man on earth like "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius (which in my opinion is the most important book ever written). Regardless, there is an absolutely immense body of amazing knowledge and insight to study and benefit from. Studying philosophy essentially offers access to a collection of wisdom and knowledge that you can pick and choose elements from in the quest to design and install your own OS.
How we perceive the world has already been seriously thought out by some Seriously smart people.
Hugely important concepts and ideas such as how to deal with adversity, how to deal with the idea of your own death or that of a loved one, how to perceive stress, and how to express gratitude: have all been long thought out and fortunately written down.
Here are just four examples of situations in which the study and internalization of philosophical principles available in books can be useful to you:
1. Want to learn how to deal with suffering? Study a work like "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl.
Frankl spent years living in concentration camps during the Second World War. He was exposed daily to the most horrible shit that is possible to experience as a human. He survived physical stressors like torture, starvation, and disease, as well as mental stressors like watching his friends die while maintaining not just his life, but his sanity. He did this by seeking "meaning" in his suffering and using the suffering to his advantage. This was essentially a form of stoicism and is outlined in his fantastic book "Mans Search for Meaning". While you hopefully will not ever end up in a concentration camp like Frankl, other very bad shit will most likely happen to you throughout your life. Do not leave how you will perceive this bad shit up to random chance. Learn from Frankl and be ready for it when it happens.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” - Viktor Frankl
2. Want to learn how to deal with Fear? Study works on Samurai culture.
Imagine you were told that you were eventually going to end up in a fight to the death with a 3-foot long razor blade, would you be afraid? How would you prepare for such an event? How do you deal with fear as a whole?
A common practice in Samurai culture was to meditate on their own demise. They would regularly visualize the scariest ways of dying they could imagine and become comfortable with the potential that this may occur. This practice then allowed them to approach actual combat in a cool and collected manner thereby allowing them to perform at their best. Essentially, the more comfortable they became with their death, the more they could get out of their own way, ironically decreasing their chances of actually dying.
What the fuck can the average person ever do in their own life that is more intense than a sword fight to the death? These were guys who knew a thing or two about mental preparation and fear. Learn from them.
"Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death" - Miyamoto Musashi
3. Want to study leadership philosophy? Study: "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
Jocko and Leif were long-time Navy Seals. They were involved in many military operations including the famously brutal battle of Ramadi. Leadership does not get more intense than leading people in actual warfare. To paraphrase Jocko: warfare is life but just amplified and intensified to the maximum. The life or death decisions these men had to make on a regular basis while fighting a brutally violent and dangerous foe in urban warfare, led to them developing and refining their approach to leadership to a razor's edge. Their book, "Extreme Ownership", is by far the single greatest book on leadership philosophy I have ever come across. It is very well structured and thought out with immediately practical philosophy and principles. It will genuinely change your approach to not just how you lead, but how you approach every social interaction (if you deeply study and work to internalize their teachings). Learn from them.
“Extreme Ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.” - Jocko Willink and Leif babin
4. Want to learn about discipline? Study the work of Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus was the Roman emperor between the years 161 and 180 AD. Being Roman Emperor in those days meant he may as well have the master of the universe. His book "Meditations" was written while he was at war. He was himself a student of philosophy and a very deep thinker. What is most fascinating is that his book was never meant to be published and was simply a diary of his which he presumably used to organize his own thoughts. As such, we get a glimpse into the mind of a man who could have literally gone wherever, and done whatever he wanted, but still sought to live a life of focus, restraint, and self-discipline. Learn from him.
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
‘—But it’s nicer here…’
So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doings things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
‘—But we have to sleep sometime…’
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat.
Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.” - Marcus Aurelius
Philosophy is Useful as fuck.
Naively, I used to think of philosophy as this obscure thing that only super-intelligent academics, or pretentious gobshites used to demonstrate their intellect. Little did I know it was so practical and useful and would become such a huge part of my life.
Thus far; the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Miyamoto Musashi, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are those to have resonated with me the most and given me the most beneficial tools. However, as my frame of reference changes over time, teachings from other philosophers may or may not become more important and useful to me.
This is not about completely altering your whole personality immediately, but about finding the concepts and schools of thought that most resonate with you right now and making them a part of your OS. An absolutely fantastic resource I have come across that will offer a really accessible window into the world of practical philosophy is that of The School of Life. Alain de Botton has done a beautiful job with "The School of Life" of making philosophy seem not just very accessible, but more importantly, practical. He has essentially removed the smoke and mirrors generally seen to be surrounding the field of philosophy.
Studying good, practically applicable philosophy is a tremendous way to put together your own toolbox of useful ideas or concepts. This ever improving toolbox, will then bit by bit make up the OS through which you perceive the world. Do not leave the quality of your OS up to random chance. Instead, upgrade your real life video game character by putting conscious effort into assembly and installation of your own. The conscious effort you will put into identifying not just how your mind works, but improving how it works, will reward you every day of the rest of your life.
"The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts." - Marcus Aurelius
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