Mind over matter, or vice-versa?

During a class last Sunday on the text of Mesilas Yesharim, just as the rabbi was citing an example in the context of marriage, a small-scale debate arose between the rabbi and one of the students over the issue of whether one should control one’s thoughts in order to control one’s actions or vice versa.

Indeed, the RaMBaM in Hilchos Deos does state a very counter-intuitive psychological law, that one’s internal world can be shaped by one’s actions when one disciplines oneself to act rather than react instinctively in a certain way during certain situations. A simple example would be if one trains oneself to smile to the world even when one feels unhappy, one inevitably feels happier as time goes by. Another example, which is more important, would be when one trains oneself to love another, especially including the weaknesses of another, by acting givingly to the person, even when the “feeling of love” is not present, love will end up growing strong in the relationship. The student, a married Jewish lady holds that specifically in the context of marriage, there exists situations where one cannot merely do this in order to solve a deep-seated problem. Rather, she believes strongly that the couple has to routinely talk things over in order to change the thought processes that entailed the behavior in question.

I find myself agreeing with both the rabbi and the student, especially when I view it in the context of the particular part of the text of Mesilas Yesharim we were learning together that day. In the context of which is higher up the ladder of difficulty in controlling, thoughts or actions, it is actions, as opposed to what many may think, that is lower down the ladder. Thoughts exist in an abstract realm which has no physical boundaries and limitations, and is not observable by people, thus making it easier for us to transgress and more difficult to control.

However, if the question begins to revolve around which has a higher degree of control over the other, to the extent that it drives the overall way one lives one’s life – the way one functions as an entire person – spirit, mind and body, it truly depends on the situation at hand, whether it involves a 2nd party or not. When the situation involves a 2nd party, in certain instances, especially when the problem is deep-seated and crucial, it is a more effective way to sit down together to talk it over in order to change the thought processes that generated the problem in the 1st place. However, another principle should be invoked – that it is more incumbent upon us and pragmatically-speaking easier to change ourselves before we demand change in others. As such, the 2-body problem reduces to a 1-body problem. When we consider only how we change our own selves, disciplined actions do have the power to change our overall personages. Moreover, the changes we effect in ourselves has the power to start a positive chain reaction in the people around us.

This does sound overly simplistic especially to people who are involved in relationships, but I think the RaMBaM poses a valid hypothesis in asserting that matter does possess control over the mind. As a scientist, I would look to experiments to see whether the hypothesis is right.


~ by musafiremes on June 16, 2007.

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