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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — November 2014

Speed Traps

The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
| Proust

Speed Traps

The drive south from Gainesville to Ocala over U.S. Highway 441 is an idyllic, meditative run of some 30 miles that takes one across the sprawling Paynes Prairie savanna, and over a gently rolling, divided highway lined with Florida’s rich forestland. Most of it is 65 mph, except for the towns of Micanopy and McIntosh where the speed limit drops suddenly to 45 mph, and the police along that stretch keep a keen eye out for interstate visitors who, unfamiliar with the area, get caught in these “speed traps” well known among the locals.

There’s another kind of speed trap that we see in philosophical counseling sessions, one also characterized by going too fast with a particular kind of unawareness. This “going too fast” may be regarded as racing ahead of the truth, or even simply as a kind of habitual agitation that leads the client to miss important details of his or her experience. Much of this comes down to immersion in unfriendly assumptions about life, oneself, the world, or other people that seem so obviously true to the client that he or she might never think to question them, and it is this invaluable self-questioning that philosophical counseling brings to the conversation. The relevant assumptions, taken together, inform the client’s mythos or paradigm, which is the fundamental stance that the client has assumed. Paradigms tend to be immersive, and it takes an exceptional kind of person to be willing to challenge this immersion and “surface” into the light of a more expansive, richer, friendlier stance that takes more into account than did the old one. The difficulty inherent in this sort of self-work lies in the fact that paradigms get us moving at a certain speed, one almost designed to prevent the relevant self-examination, so that in this sense, the stances we assume tend to be self-perpetuating, We don’t adopt them without good reason, but the payoffs they serve may be obsolete, such that persisting in them takes a toll on us and works against our happiness, our peace of mind, our clarity, our best interests now, and our efficiency in the world and in our associations with others. Caught in the trap of a stance that one has long outgrown is like persisting in fighting a war that one does not know has ended. It is always remarkable to see someone pressing on in this self-justifying, self-perpetuating cycle of self-combat. Why, after all, would we expend so much of our energy and resources in the service of something that works against us? Yet we know that our psyches are not driven primarily by logic but by beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, the stories we keep telling ourselves, and by constructs that have authority in our lives simply because it does not occur to us to question them.

One of the ways that our mythos may blind us to self-questioning is by inducing a kind of speed—in our thinking, our reaction time, our way of being. We can understand this in terms of a simple model demonstrating centrifugal force. Imagine an iron ball secured to the end of a rope. Swing the rope in a circle over your head and the ball moves out to an orbit determined by the length of the rope. If you don’t impart enough force, the ball won’t be able to achieve this orbit, but get it going fast enough, and the effort required to sustain the orbit becomes minimal. In a similar way, a stance is sustainable only because we move within it at a certain speed. Often a great deal can be accomplished in a philosophical counseling session simply by inviting the client to slow down, take a breath and a step back, ease his or her foot off the gas of a problematic assumption and coast for a few minutes. Some clients find this startling, as they haven’t slowed down in many years. Suddenly, they see things differently. They notice things that had been there all along, hiding in plain sight. And even this much can open up a new direction, a new choice, a new world. Things that were stuck, that seemed immoveable a moment before, begin to move.

Even outside a counseling session, we can do a great deal to help ourselves simply by slowing down. On the inner highway, the speed traps are set by our own unwitting and outworn commitments, but they are no less enforced than they are on Highway 441. Taking a moment to slow down, to let in some stillness, to set aside our conclusions and question our assumptions—this alone can free us from the traps of the unexamined life and return us again to the open road.

November 16, 2014   Comments Off on Speed Traps