Having a Purpose
A Sermon to Countryside Church UU
Community Ministry Sunday, February 2, 2014
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
I believe that everyone has a purpose: something we are on Earth do. It might be a big thing like running a business or having a career. It might be a more modest thing such as being a great partner or parent. But everyone is valuable and if we all do what we should, I believe we’d have a happy and just society. If we can find a way to do what we are here for, we’re happy and fulfilled.
My sermon today is about how to take control of what is in your mind so you can live the way you want, instead of the way someone else wants. It’s not easy. There are powerful forces that are trying to shape you and that’s why the world is as messed up as it is.
I want to start by talking about a man who influenced me. Some of you might recognize him, W. Clement Stone (1902-2002). Stone was the President of Combined Insurance Company (now Aeon Corporation), one of the richest men in the world and a Chicago philanthropist.
Stone made his vast fortune rising from “rags to riches” by putting into practice the principles of a self-help writer named Napoleon Hill. Some of you may know Hill’s work, because his most popular book, Think and Grow Rich has sold over 70 million copies and is still in print today. In fact, Clement Stone would say not long before his death in 2002, "One of the most important days in my life was the day I began to read Think and Grow Rich in 1937.”
Stone loved the ideas of Napoleon Hill because Hill taught a way to control the mind. Hill believed that most people are unhappy because they defeat themselves by uncritically accepting ideas and principles learned from others. The result is that we live our lives holding up the purpose of other people, instead of our own purpose. Usually, that doesn’t work out well.
Hill’s books are about taking control of our thinking so that doesn’t happen, and W. Clement Stone credited all his personal success to that process.
I met Clement Stone only briefly and in passing and I doubt he even remembered my name. But he invited me to the founding meeting of the Napoleon Hill Foundation. One of my prize possessions is a leather bound copy of Hill’s major work, The Laws of Success, which was a personal gift from Clement Stone at the organizational meeting of that Foundation. I employ the principles of Napoleon Hill in much of my personal and professional life. While his books are classist, dated and sexist, I still recommend them because they contain insightful ideas and realistic advice.
It’s fashionable for Unitarian Universalist clergy to make fun of Napoleon Hill’s ideas. He argued for a “Horatio Alger” philosophy saying that if you just keep a Positive Mental Attitude, put the Golden Rule into sincere practice, and do more than you are expected to do, you will prosper.
It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with that. There are complicated social and psychological dynamics regarding labor and oppression. There is a lot more to economic justice and equality that all the positive thinking in the world can correct. Hard work is not always rewarded, the deck is stacked against some of us, and socio-economic class distinctions keep a lot of people down. Some people can’t get ahead because of no fault of their own.
But that is not to say that there isn’t something to the conviction that people tend to do better if they are sincere and honest, try hard, don’t stop at the first problem they encounter, and avoid the behavioral pitfalls of addiction, lethargy and peer-group entrapment into gangs, cliques or social class. And that is a lot of what Napoleon Hill had to say and I believe there is value in that, regardless of class, race or socio-economic standing.
Outwitting the Devil
The year after he published his blockbuster book Think and Grow Rich in 1937, Hill wrote another book titled Outwitting the Devil. He wrote it to explain why some people seemed unable to break free from self-defeating behaviors and ideas, even when there was plenty of evidence that what they believed and thought did not serve them well. They knew what they needed to do, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
In Romans 7:19, Saint Paul bewails his own tendency to do this, writing “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Hill asked “why”?
The resulting book was so controversial in its social and political criticism that the publisher refused it. After Hill’s death the manuscript was inherited by his daughter, Annie Lou, who also refused to publish it despite the best-seller status of all the other books written by her father. When she died, she willed the manuscript to the Napoleon Hill Foundation which published it just three years ago along with an explanatory commentary.
Outwitting the Devil is an amazing book. Like The Screwtape Letters written by C. S. Lewis, the book is a demonic dialogue. The dialogue takes place between the Devil (addressed as Your Majesty) and Mr. Earthbound (who apparently was Hill himself).
In this book Hill argues that the most fundamental divide between people is that some people struggle to take control over their minds, while others are content to comfortably allow external forces to shape them. He called this “drifting.”
Even if you put into practice every other thing Hill wanted to teach you about the habits of highly successful people, if you are letting external forces program your mind, you will fail. The linchpin is a willingness to take responsibility for what gets put inside your head.
The Structure of the Mind
You have a conscious mind. It’s the part of you that thinks.
You have an subconscious mind. It’s the part of you that acts.
Most of what you do is controlled by your subconscious mind because it’s not possible to think your way through your life. We all use our habits of thought, feeling and behavior to automate what we do.
I do not make a decision every morning about which side of my face I will start shaving on today. Once upon a time I did, but I’ve done that behavior so often that I no longer think about it. I just do it. It’s subconscious. Most of what we do, think or feel is the result of things we have programmed into our subconscious minds.
Your subconscious mind is the greatest goal achieving instrument ever evolved. Once your subconscious mind has accepted something as true, it will do everything in its power to insure you behave like it. It doesn’t think. Only the conscious mind thinks. It simply uncritically acts on what it has accepted as fact.
For example, a person who is overweight due to emotional eating has somewhere in his or her subconscious mind a principle that “When I am upset, should eat something.” Because this idea has gotten into the subconscious mind, the subconscious mind will act on it. An upset person reaches for a donut without even thinking about (or sometimes without even remembering) what it is doing and eats unmindfully.
In fact, I saw this wonderful poster the other day of a young woman in a leotard folding on a yoga mat in a perfect lotus posture. She was deep in meditation. the caption said, “Today I will be mindful of the Present Moment. Unless the Present Moment is unpleasant, in which case I will eat a cookie.” Well some people with weight issues think like that. They’ve programmed their subconscious mind that eating a cookie is the way to get through difficult times.
It makes no difference to your subconscious mind what you consciously say you desire or want. It is much more powerful than your conscious mind. It will act on what it has accepted as true, regardless of what you say you want but have not really accepted.
Therefore, it’s very important that we be careful about what we accept as true.
Who Programs Us?
According to Hill, that’s the problem. Just about everyone wants to program your subconscious mind for their own purpose: the Governments, the Churches, the Political Parties, the Media, your Family, your Friends, your Spouse, your Minister (please don’t quote me).
Just about everyone has a vested interest in manipulating you. They want to surround you in a blanket of explanations and unquestioned ideas to lure you into a comfort zone that will make you easy to manage and manipulate.
Hill’s scathing critique of big business, the schools, established religion and politics is what kept the book from publication in the years since 1938. It criticized all the political parties, all the churches, all the schools, all the politicians calling them merchants of self-serving mind-control, and the work of his metaphorical Devil.
Most of us wind up programmed by the media, political parties, establishments and elites that have a vested interest in having us shut up, do what we are told. So we find our heads filled with mush. We live according to their purposes, instead of our own.
What To Do?
Hill’s solution? Trust nothing. Question everything. Believe nothing anyone tells you, including me.
Evaluate every assumption you have and if you decide the assumption is wrong, update your thinking. As the Napoleon Hill’s Devil says, “accurate thought is the death of me.” The problem is that correcting our thinking is really hard to do.
The Critical Factor
You all know that I’m a Consulting Hypnotist. I make my living and base my community ministry on putting people into a trance and telling them what they need to do in order to change something that isn’t going well.
When I do this I’m not controlling them even if it looks like it. They will accept no suggestion from me that they find fundamentally wrong. What I’m doing is conducting a specialized discussion with my client’s subconscious mind to give it new information, or make it question information it already believes correct.
Because the subconscious mind simply acts on what it believes is true, it is protected by a guardian. Hypnotists (following a name I believe was created by Gerry Kein) call the guardian, “The Critical Factor” or “The Critical Faculty.” This is what messes us up and makes it really hard to break out of the comfort zones we have drifted into.
The Critical Factor is a primitive part of your mind that arose from the survival instinct. The Critical Faculty wants the future to resemble the past, because it knows you have survived the past. If the future resembles the past, the odds are you will survive that too. Therefore, the Critical Factor resists all change, even desirable change.
How the Critical Factor resists change is by comparing any new information presented to your awareness with the old information your subconscious process has accepted.
If there is a match, it allows the new information in, as reinforcement and compounding. If there is not a match, it rejects the new information by causing you to ignore it, deny it, or minimize its importance.
Let’s say you spent your childhood being programmed by your parents to think that you were stupid and worthless. As an adult your Critical Faculty discounts any information that contradicts the belief in your stupidity or worthlessness. It attends only to information that reinforces the childhood belief.
...Placed on the Dean’s List did you? Well, that was just dumb luck.
...Got a promotion? Heck, you’re really got them fooled, I wonder how long it will be before the figure out you're really a fraud?
...Your lover told you that you are beautiful or handsome? That’s just because you're putting out, and that will vanish as soon as you get older. Just wait.
It works in the other direction too. If you grew up being told you were precious and could do no wrong, you’ve got a storehouse of belief inside of you that is sure to cause trouble.
...Your lover asks you to be more considerate? Heck, time for a new lover because there’s nothing wrong with me.
...What do you mean I can’t cheat on a test to get an easy grade? Everything I do is supposed to be right.
...Work hard? Pay my dues? Start at any entry level job and learn the company from the bottom up? Why should I do that? I’m moving back in with mom and dad because I’m supposed to be indulged, not held accountable.
There is not a single experience or proposition that your Critical Factor cannot find a way to discount, in service to what you already believe.
Achieving what we call “Critical Factor Bypass” is what you pay a hypnotist to do. We smuggle information past the Critical Factor so that old limiting beliefs and bad thinking are subverted and positive beliefs are encouraged.
Critical Factor Bypass
I really do believe that most people are good. They are trying their best to do the best they can with the cards in the hand that life has dealt them. You meet the occasional Card Sharp or Cheater, but most people try to play by the rules in the Great Game of Life.
Some people play the hand better than others. Some are lucky to have better cards in their hand than others. But everyone is basically trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
In all cases, success or failure, happiness or misery, will be in large measure determined what what beliefs and principles we have in our subconscious minds, because that determines how we play those cards. Those beliefs and principles can limit us or, make us stronger.
So where do those beliefs and principles come from?
Initially, what gets into the subconscious mind are the lessons of childhood. What parents say, what teachers say, what Presidents say and, (God help us all) what ministers say.
In an effort to control this process, our species has developed education. The purpose of education is to expose us to Great Ideas, Best Practices and the Lessons of History. It’s also the purpose behind great preaching, lifelong religious education and what enlightened parenting can accomplish.
Unfortunately, as Napoleon Hill pointed out in Outwitting the Devil, our system of moral and philosophical education is profoundly busted and we are trapped within it. Even when you realize that, it can be hard pressed to fix your thinking.
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Little has changed in the two thousand years since those words were written.
There are three ways to get corrective information past the Critical Factor and into the deeper mind where it will do us some good.
First, hypnotism works. That’s the whole reason the craft exists. But enough about that.
Second, any idea accompanied by strong emotion has a good chance of getting past the Critical Factor. That’s why a person can develop a fear of flying after one scary airplane ride. It’s why a lifetime of positive experiences with the opposite sex can be outweighed by one abusive experience. It’s why Fox News uses every rhetorical trick in the book to make it’s news broadcasts emotionally charged, and what motivates political speech by both parties.
Finally, the Critical Factor can be overcome by repetition. This is the least effective technique but it does work and it’s the one we all can use. If we struggle with something over and over again, eventually it gets into our thick skulls.
This is why we should attend church regularly. It’s why we should go to class when we’re in school. It’s why lifelong religious education is important. It’s why a regular spiritual or psychological practice is helpful.
The more we expose ourselves to ideas that make us pause and reconsider, the less likely we are to drift in accordance with the purpose of others.
You may not always like it, but the sermon you found a little bit upsetting. The class that left you unsettled, the book you profoundly disagreed with, the argument you lost; these are the things which shake up your preconceived opinions. These are the things that allow us to fight back again the many institutions that would prefer we drift and serve their purpose rather than our own.
You probably get more out of the ideas and experiences that make you uncomfortable than those that glide past your Critical Factor because you already agree with them.
I realize I’m talking to people who are no strangers to the positive use of skepticism. Ninety percent of the people who fill Unitarian Universalist congregations started out in some other denomination or no denomination. We’re here because we found that being in a place where ideas are questioned and beliefs are challenged is good for us.
We attend church regularly because by repetition we get better ideas into our heads and that provides a tonic to the dreck others would pour into our minds. This allows us to liberate the greatest goal achieving instrument ever evolved, our own subconscious. And that allows us to live our lives in accordance with our own purpose instead of the purpose of others.
And that’s my sermon.