Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Diminishing Returns of Self-Discovery

Personal enlightenment is a fabulous thing, at least in theory. It's something I think all intelligent people strive for at some time in their lives, to one extent or another, and through a combination of that effort and various occurrences beyond their control, I think most people achieve some degree of it, or at least enough that they reach a kind of equilibrium between the things they wish for and the things they have.

In my own journey, I have a long list of both intentional efforts and accidental consequences (cataclysmic and otherwise) that brought me to my own state of self-awareness. It hasn't always been pretty, but I think I can safely say that it has been effective. I know myself pretty well; I think better than the average person of my age and background. I can't always tell the difference, but I know people around me notice from time to time, and that's a more accurate measure of growth anyhow.

However, not all progress is permanent. I have the unfortunate flaw that I am human, and so frequently relapse into previously unenlightened States of Self. I am prone to the effects of brain and body chemicals, as well as core input, that alter my states of well-being. Many a potentially life-changing resolve made during the morning shower or commute is lost to fatigue or minutia by the end of a day. This is why I haven't yet painted the hall, finished my degree, made a stock portfolio to speak of, built a 50" chest with 17" biceps, bicycled across the state, or written my many novels.

Of course, this is one major reason I maintain this blog: to stick pins into those ideas and experiences I think are worth saving in the hopes that they won't fall off the map, and maybe (just maybe) they'll help me figure out what I'm doing on this rock. In a discussion with a friend about her own very similar journey, it occurred to me that despite my best efforts, I may never quite reach my Optimum Self, if only because my brain/core capacity isn't high enough to hold onto everything I learn along the way. I suspect that once I reach a certain level of self-discovery, diminishing returns start to kick in.

As an analytical person, I naturally think of this in context of the phenomenon's origin: mathematics. Diminishing returns is the idea that a thing's effectiveness will decrease after a certain amount of it has been gathered.

See Figure 1. Point α along the x-axis theoretically represents the optimum point of self-awareness, after which the relationship between the self-awareness and the benefits thereof is no longer linear (assuming it begins that way at all), and learning more about oneself has less and less positive effect.

Figure 2 shows the many possible shapes of the graph after point α.
  • "A" shows true diminishing returns, where the y-axis continues to increase, but at a decreasing rate. It continually takes more and more self-awareness to have the same effect as a lesser amount previously.
  • "B" is what I imagine happens in an environment without diminishing returns, such as a monastery. Obviously, these are ideal conditions, and not a realistic scenario with a modern Western lifestyle.
  • "C" is what I typically do: get to a certain point of understanding, then become distracted, or disenchanted. Whatever the cause, I fall off the wagon.
  • "D" is what I'm going for: even if my quality of life isn't continually improved, I want to keep learning who and what I am. I think if this path is followed, the graph will eventually turn north again and I will reach another period of growth.

Well, now that I've beaten this horse to death with imaginary mathematics that probably don't apply anyway, suffice it to say that I'm still learning not only what's happening inside, but why I even make the effort. It's a noble one, to be sure, but I still have a lot to learn about how to apply the lessons I gain along the way. Wish me luck.

Another disclaimer: It may have become glaringly obvious during the reading, but I don't have an education in philosophy, psychology, theology, medicine, counseling, or energy healing. I write what my gut tells me. While I welcome your input, any disrespectful attempt to call me out on a point of my own ignorance may result in undesired consequences. You have been warned.

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