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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Ignorance and Evil

If you try to cure evil with evil, you will add more pain to your fate.
| Sophocles

Ignorance and Evil

Socrates states in the Protagoras that no one knowingly does the wrong thing, that all evil is the result of ignorance. It is a generous view to say the least. In the Gorgias, however, Socrates argues that ignorance does not absolve the wrongdoer of responsibility for his actions nor mitigate the need for appropriate punishment. In fact, he goes on to say, it is imperative that the perpetrator be punished for to commit evil and get away with it is a harm in itself of the most grievous sort, since until the debt is paid, the wrongdoer carries a spiritual burden. Doing wrong thus harms the one who so acts, and as no one knowingly acts against his own interests, all wrongdoing, all evil, must be the result of ignorance. Socrates maintains, therefore, that we always act in the service of what we believe in the moment to be our greater good. One example of this might be a man who steals bread to feed his family. He knows that stealing is wrong, but under the circumstances, believes that he is acting in the interest of a good cause.

The argument has merit and more than a little appeal in cases where those who commit evil have a conscience. Dismissing their better knowing, they act out of ignorance due to blind reaction, shortsightedness, or what Socrates called “false opinion,” and by so doing, set up interference patterns in their psyche that they may experience as guilt, shame, remorse, the fear of reprisal, and so on. But what about the many cases where conscience seems to be absent, and we see something more like a fully formed evil intent operating? The sociopathic personality, for example, may derive pleasure from deliberately and knowingly inflicting pain. Depravity along these lines seems to know no limits, as anyone can attest who has perused the voluminous records of the Nuremberg trials or read with horror how the stormtroopers of repressive regimes have tortured and murdered children in the enforcement of a heartless ideology. In Socratic terms, the Nazis could be viewed as seeking what they regarded as the “greater good” of Aryan hegemony and the extermination of “inferior” ethnic groups. Like the thief, they are seeking “the good,” but taking Socrates’s claim this far seems to reduce it to absurdity, since good and evil become indistinguishable.

It is not a trivial question whether we are to regard a certain act as proceeding from ignorance or from a deliberately evil intent. If we side with Socrates, our response would be to educate, to enlighten, to rehabilitate. If, on the other hand, we conclude that the act is born of evil intent, then the appropriate response would seem to be some form of punishment commensurate with the seriousness of the wrong done. The entire criminal legal system tries every day to sort out just such matters. We do not want to execute someone who acted in ignorance, but neither would we want to attempt to rehabilitate someone whose character may be so deformed by the will to do harm to others that he or she is beyond rehabilitation. In such cases, Socrates’s argument in the Gorgias that punishment, though painful, is good for the soul of the wrongdoer, seems naive.

In a famous series of articles written for The New Yorker in 1963, entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt describes how surprised she was at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem to see that this architect of the Third Reich with its deportation programs and death camps and mass executions was not a sociopathic fiend or monster but a most unexceptional sort of man, one motivated not by ideology or malevolence but by careerism and obedience, a stupid man with no thinking life who had accepted the clichés of the Nazi regime and was simply “following orders,” who murdered innocent people by the thousands, stacking their bodies as routinely as any office worker might stack documents, then went home at the end of the day and kissed his wife and children, sat down for the evening meal, listened to music—all without a thought about the enormity of his actions. According to Arendt’s account, it was this banality, this complete lack of moral thought and reflection, that enabled Eichmann to carry out the innumerable crimes against humanity for which he eventually was hanged.

Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as banal rather than monstrous has been contested, in part because she attended only four days of the trial, relying largely on the transcript to write her report for The New Yorker. Her critics claim that during the parts of the trial that she missed, Eichmann was exposed as someone far more driven by anti-Semitism and ideology, and that as the testimony showed, he had been well aware of the immorality of his actions. There also were allegations that Arendt was laboring under prejudices of her own that may have slanted her journalism. These controversies aside, the point here is that Arendt’s conclusion—that evil can result not from the intent to do evil but from the failure to think and consider and hold one’s choices and actions up to a moral standard—seems consistent with Socrates’s claim. If genocide does not count as evil, it is hard to imagine what would, and it does seem that Eichmann’s banality and moral vacuousness, as reported by Arendt, constitute an extreme example of what Socrates calls “ignorance.” But where does this leave us? Was Eichmann ignorant or evil? More generally, what is the proper response? To educate or to punish?

One could make the argument that the ability to “look the other way” while committing atrocities, to suppress every native impulse of empathy and compassion and fellow feeling, is precisely where ignorance becomes evil. Aristotle, disputing the Socratic ethic, holds that it is possible to knowingly do wrong, a state the Greeks called akrasia, translated as “weakness of will.” In such cases, evil would not be the result of ignorance but of a failing of character. Socrates might reply that akrasia follows from not understanding that the good and right and virtuous course of action is always the only workable and sustainable one, not to mention the only one consistent with longterm self-interest, in which case akrasia would amount to another form of ignorance.

To muddy the waters a bit more, there is the relative nature of good and evil. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Whether an act constitutes evil or serves some greater good depends largely on whom one asks. It is possible to adjudge a suicide bomber in an open-air café to be the very embodiment of evil while justifying the dropping of a nuclear bomb on a city in the name of saving lives. We can avoid moral relativism to some extent here by considering the question in the context of excesses. Even in those cases where someone commits a wrong in the belief that some greater good is thus served, there would be moral limits to how far the wrongdoer could go without committing what we might think of as an unjustifiable act. To kill the enemy in war might be defended as a “necessary evil.” It would be much harder if not impossible, however, to justify the use of torture. Even allowing that people see things differently, evil remains evil, and the question of its nature remains.

To be thorough in our considerations of these things, we have to allow not only that there may be a point past which ignorance becomes evil, but also that evil acts, even those committed with the full intent to do wrong, the awareness that such acts are evil, and with no weakness of the will involved may yet presuppose a type of ignorance. In such cases, the ignorance lies not in banality or a failure to recognize the nature of the act, but in the assumption that through doing wrong, one can bring about some desired end. In other words, the evildoer may be ignorant of a profound truth that history has demonstrated time and time again, i.e., that evil as a method is doomed to fail, since it relies on force and on imposing one’s will upon others, strategies that invariably backfire. Beyond this, there may be yet a deeper current of ignorance at work in the assumption that one can achieve any good end by manipulating worldly conditions. Tyrants do seem to be ignorant that happiness and “human flourishing,” as Socrates tells us, are states of the soul, not the world. Using force to drive the world to its knees, in the end, leaves one far worse off in every way that matters. The mentality that tries to use force to exploit the world and others is rooted in ignorance, viz., the failure to understand that happiness is an inside job. It cannot be wrought through conquest and domination. In light of this broader perspective, Socrates may have been right, after all.

Whether we side with Socrates and his idea that “no man knowingly does evil” or subscribe to the view that there are those who, whether through thoughtlessness or cruel intent or weakness of will, commit acts of evil with full knowledge of the nature of their actions may matter little in the end. How we respond to such acts, however, matters greatly. It is crucial that we understand that in reacting to evil, we run the risk of committing evil ourselves, and it is not overstating the matter to say that the future of humanity may well depend on our steering clear of this danger. Evil, however it originates in the human psyche, begets evil. Especially in what many moderns now think of as the “age of terrorism,” with acts of evil erupting in the headlines regularly, we may feel so outraged and threatened that we deny the humanity of the evildoer and unwittingly become the thing we hate. Some exploit this dark potential. They stoke the fires of fear and in the name of law and order and security, make a bad situation worse while wiser courses of action are swept aside. To deal with inhumanity humanely; to meet evil with clarity and measured determination; to hold to a higher ethical standard than the worst among us; to respond to those who do monstrous things without becoming monsters ourselves—these are the virtues of what Socrates calls the “well-ordered soul,” the only real remedy to ignorance and evil, in others and in ourselves.

30 July, 2016

Displaced Pain

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
| From the film “War Games,” spoken by Joshua, a supercomputer after running all permutations for “Global Thermonuclear War”

Displaced Pain

As a rule, destructive behavior will lead to painful consequences for the perpetrator, but in relational systems, the resulting pain is dynamic—that is, it can move to someone else within the system, provided the host is willing to accept and carry it. Since painful consequences are inherently instructional—if only in teaching us what not to do—appropriating someone else’s pain preempts his or her opportunity to learn, self-correct, and develop. It is an act of meddling that interrupts the natural circuit of another’s evolution, deforms love and compassion into martyrdom and victimhood, creates a closed system of chronic imbalance and disorder, and leads to potentially harmful outcomes for everyone involved.

Destructive behavior ranges from rash or reactive judgment and ill-considered choices to more damaging forms, such as antisocial acting out, passive-aggressive manipulation, narcissistism, victim thinking, and the aberrant interpretations and justifications of the sociopathic psyche. In all cases, such behavior gives rise to increasingly adverse consequences—”increasingly,” because life lessons deferred by the displacement of pain tend to become more insistent the longer one puts them off, due to the dialectical nature of experience.

In philosophical counseling sessions, we see this most among parents who are carrying responsibility for the choices and behavior of their adult children. The weary mother whose adult son or daughter keeps ending up in an abusive relationship or in trouble with the law, the father of the drug user or shoplifter, the grandparents who, seeking to insulate their grandchild from the inevitable adversities of growing up, unwittingly interfere with the child’s development are examples of how pain can move, since in each case, the well-meaning parent or grandparent pays the price of taking on the displaced pain in the form of emotional, financial, or even physical suffering. As if this weren’t enough, the one to whom the pain rightly belongs may come to resent the one who has taken it on, because—good intentions notwithstanding—usurping another’s pain is an insidious form of interference in his or her life curriculum and development—which is why it’s been said that “the one for whom you do the most resents you the most.”

The mother who lets her teenage children control her through tantrums and the withdrawal of their love may suffer the displaced pain of this mutiny so deeply that she becomes an emotional hostage. It may not occur to her that the pain she’s carrying is not native to her choices or actions but originates in her children, that they count on her to be in pain as proof that they have power over her, and that her enabling distracts them so they never deal with the painful consequences of their destructive behavior. The woman who suffers in silence while being verbally abused by her husband is carrying displaced pain. In some cases, the displacement is obvious; in others, it may be difficult if not impossible to map, but in all cases, pain resulting from the actions of someone within the system is being appropriated by someone else in the system, enabling continued destructive and irresponsible behavior.

Those carrying displaced pain may at times feel half crazy. Their experience doesn’t add up, because it isn’t their experience. One way philosophical counseling can help someone immersed in the murky waters of displaced pain is to ask questions that encourage “surfacing” into an awareness that the suffering isn’t original but appropriated. Some of these questions are:

  • Whose pain is this?
  • Where did the pain of this situation originate?
  • Is this pain being carried for someone else?
  • What would follow from refusing to carry the other’s pain?
  • It’s wise to keep in mind that a relational system that’s been deformed through the displacement and misappropriation of pain has been significantly compromised, and that solutions aren’t likely to spring up overnight. It may take more time that we’d like for those in the system to get the message that the rules have changed, that the old configuration no longer will be accepted. That said, the relief of refusing to participate as the usurper of another’s pain can be immediate and profound. Refusing to take on another’s pain restores order in the soul, puts the perpetrator on notice that destructive behavior will no longer be enabled nor the consequences deflected through reframing the system in terms of power, and frees the one to whom the pain belongs natively to experience both the consequences and the instruction implicit in them.

    We give a priceless gift to those we love when we remember that love is not a license to interfere. One of the greatest forms of love is respect for another’s curriculum and timing. Getting out of the way so we aren’t standing between our loved ones and the lessons they need to learn takes clarity, strength of character, and a deep and abiding conviction that, as Michael Crichton writes, “Life will find a way.” There is a distance in all genuine closeness, and no buried treasure is ever found without the hardship of digging.


    Individuals dealing with domestic violence should contact local law enforcement, social services, abuse shelters, or other community resources for immediate intervention.

    20 June, 2016

    Practical Wisdom

    Practical Wisdom

    The ancient Greeks recognized that, while pure wisdom (sophia) is exclusive to the gods, we humans can achieve a practical wisdom they called phronesis, which involves discerning the appropriate response in any situation, bringing the force of one’s character to bear for the greater good, encouraging others to virtuous action, and so on. Those who pick their battles demonstrate phronesis, as do those who make skillful compromises. Cultivating phronesis allows us to live a life of beauty and excellence, so that our being-here becomes not unlike a work of art.

    One good example of phronesis is this business of picking one’s battles, because the ability to do this presupposes a certain self-overcoming or self-possession. Picking our battles implies choice under fire—that is, the clarity that allows us to act deliberately rather than by default, to respond rather than react, and this requires that we gain a certain mastery over the more prevalent tendency to react, which is often destructive. One fascinating thing about this is the immediate impact it has on the world and others. Racing into battle in the heat of reaction tends to escalate conflict, whereas remaining cool and reasonable have a mitigating effect. This appears to be the point Lao Tze makes in the Tao Te Ching in the statement: “The sage cannot be beaten because he does not contend.” Phronesis is, in this case, disarming. It “stops thing when they’re small,” as Lao Tze puts it, and therein lies the art of it. One doesn’t need to dodge bullets that were never fired.

    Think of road rage. In most cases that cross the line into tragedy, we can imagine something like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. There is usually an opening, however brief, to disengage, to “lose” in the confrontation and by losing, to skillfully prevent the thing from becoming something far worse. For those lacking in phronesis, disengagement is difficult if not impossible in practical terms. Ego presses us on, into meaningless violence, past points of no return. But ego and phronesis do not speak the same language, any more than do foolishness and wisdom.

    Disengaging when confronted with belligerence turns out to be a wise thing to do for many reasons. Belligerence, for one thing, is the favorite posture of fear. The bully, for all the pain he inflicts on others, is a scared child. It is almost always the victim who victimizes. While reaction might insist that we condemn and retaliate in the face of belligerent behavior, phronesis prompts us to respond with understanding and compassion. In that wiser choice, we dodge the bullet that, if it struck us, might make us a victim, too, in a vicious cycle that can end only in the self-overcoming of phronesis. So are we saved by the cultivation of our character, and our example may well serve to save others.

    On the path of phronesis, we do not shrink from those tests of character that can appear without warning. Indeed, we welcome then, since they show us where we stand, and where further self-work is needed. It helps to remember to breathe, to slow down, to take a step back. Living deliberately is challenging, but the self-overcoming that allows us to live beautifully and well is the foundation of meeting and overcoming all other challenges. We are wise to take it up with a willing spirit, and without delay.

    30 May, 2016

    Let It Go, Let It Come

    Let It Go, Let It Come

    Popular wisdom advises us to “go for the gusto,” and in the pursuit of happiness, which it mistakes for this or that arrangement of outer conditions, to “make it happen.” This exaltation of the will may be one of the greatest errors of modern thinking, one that flies in the face of centuries-old wisdom that instructs us to release our will and let things happen. It is an odd idea to the mind steeped in traditionally Western assumptions that have led to “taming” nature (think deforestation, the ozone layer, frac sand mining, etc.), splitting the atom (was that a good idea?), so-called Manifest Destiny, “globalization,” and the invasion, conquest, and exploitation of whole cultures whose only inferiority to our own was military. Those who assume it is our place to exert and impose our will are likely to hear any suggestion to let go of willfulness in favor of allowing things to unfold and find their level as an invitation to passivity, even sloth—one of the seven “deadly sins,” and our natural reaction—or what seems to us natural—is one of aversion.

    It hardly occurs to us that the whole universe got here, and at least for the time being, is moving in its course, without our managing things, without our agendas, timetables, and strategies. We did not create the Earth or set it spinning in the void of space or set the clock of the seasons or the rhythm of the rolling tides. Indeed, the arrival of modern humankind on the great geological timeline took place only the barest fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second ago, and the opaque, driven infatuation with our will made its appearance even more recently. Whatever creative and organizing principle has been operating since time and space first “banged” hardly could be called passive, yet nowhere in the cosmos do we see the slightest evidence of anything resembling the exertions and presumptions of human will.

    Moreover, while the universe in its natural state is beautiful—wild, sometimes violent, madly prolific, yes, but beautiful nonetheless—willfulness is flat-out ugly. There is nothing graceful or elegant or attractive about it. On the contrary, willful personalities are off-putting. Full of themselves, they lack empathy and the willingness or ability to listen to others. They are grandiose, constricted, and overbearing. The more willful a person is, the more complacent and strident he becomes, until his very presence seems to crowd out those around him. One can see it in almost any political debate these days. Willfulness, fully entrenched, is always absolutely right and anyone who disagrees absolutely wrong, and in this, there is nothing even remotely appealing. One can only imagine how it looks to the world, when a nation will not stop willfully declaring its greatness, or when the poster child for this sort of arrested development (around age two, cultivation of the will is a good and necessary stage) is a U.S. Presidential frontrunner.

    Beyond aesthetics, willfulness can become dangerous, even deadly. It contains within itself the means and mentality to despoil whole ecosystems, even while our best scientific minds are telling us that the very survival of our planet is in jeopardy. Willfulness drops bombs on hospitals, because it lacks the essential humility to acknowledge its own capacity for error. It pursues the development of weapons that can kill entire cities, never considering whether a thing that can be done should be done, or what the longterm consequences of doing it may be. It walks explosive vests into nightclubs and flies commercial airliners into office buildings. Myopic, awash in hubris, it has no idea that there is a principle operating in the world that rewards the willful use of force with unpredictable and unwanted results.

    If passivity were the only alternative to “making it happen,” then willfulness might have a case. But it isn’t. There is another, much overlooked third possibility, one in which we, recognizing the limits of our will and having learned the painful lessons of what happens when we force situations or timings, step back and give things room to resolve, while we remain alert and responsive, open to creative solutions and directions—not passively, never passively—neither laying back nor marching blindly into battle but engaging through willingness. A pause is a powerful thing. In an argument, it can break a spiral of escalating resentment and reaction. If one will simply stop and take a breath, stop and disengage the will, something new can show itself. Letting go is often the first step in letting something come.

    It is a beautiful thing when what we want comes to us. Whether this takes the form of a spontaneously reciprocal love interest, good fortune in business, or civilized international relations, the unfolding of events is so much more satisfying when we have abandoned the role of the pursuer, the hunter, the one who “makes it happen” and let the thing we want come to us. In his commentary on Patanjali’s Yogasutras, Satchitananda talks about this in terms of the siddhis—the powers that the yogi inherits on the path of yoga. These powers, Satchitananda states, should not be the reason for spiritual study or practice, which is never self-aggrandizing. He then raises the question of why Patanjali even mentions them. Wouldn’t it be better to have left them out, and let the yogi discover them on his own? Satchitananda goes on to explain that the siddhis are beautiful—if the yogi lets them come by themselves at the right time. The instruction is clear: A good thing, when it is pursued, becomes untimely and a disadvantage. Conversely, even an adverse situation met with willingness can be instructional and beautiful. Socrates says essentially the same thing in the Republic. Happiness, then, is not just an arrangement of outer conditions but a state of order, balance, and harmony in the soul, made effective by release of the will, a state without which even good things fall from our hands, and with which, even “bad” things improve our lot. How well we live, it seems, is determined not only by the path we’re on, but by how we walk the path.

    The release of the will is an experiment worth making. Perhaps there’s something you’ve been wanting, doing all you could to “make it happen,” pursuing, pushing, working every angle, all from within an exhausting state of preoccupation. Why not see what happens if you release your will, take a breath and a step back, disengage, and allow room for what you want to come to you? Not pushing does not mean adopting a passive stance. When we let something go, we go about living our life. We don’t sit around waiting for the thing to come to us, which would be passive. Such passivity is just as willful as trying to force outcomes; it is simply willfulness sitting quietly in a chair with its hands folded. Getting busy with other things helps. Staying alert and responsive in the grand experiment of “letting it come” doesn’t mean watching the pot. It means more than anything else, resting in the confidence that when life knocks at your door, you’ll be there to open it—self-possessed, beautiful in willingness, and ready to be pleasantly surprised.

    30 April, 2016

    Nothing Personal

    Nothing Personal

    Once I saw a greeting card with these words on the cover: “The secret to happiness is…” and on the inside: “Try not to get too personally involved in your own life.” I consider this a fine bit of wisdom, rarely found in greeting cards or anywhere else these days, because this habit of taking things personally seems to have infiltrated our national character to the point that people kill each other over parking spaces. In the age of terrorism, with violence escalating on both sides of the law, we’re all a little jumpy, and would do well to take a deep breath and a few steps back. It is possible to “fight fair,” to find common ground, and along the way, to disagree without being disagreeable, to discuss charged issues without raised voices, finger-pointing, or churlish swagger.

    To illustrate: Sometimes in couples counseling, one person comes to the session with the complaint that the other did some hurtful thing, and in the cases where the suffering runs the deepest over, say, having been lied to or disregarded and so on, part of the narrative invariably is, “I can’t believe he/she did this to me.” You see, this “to me” is the bit that confesses that the hurtful action is being taken personally. So, the first thing we try to do is see what happens to the complaint if we subtract this “to me.” We step back and take a deep breath and ask the one who was hurt by the act to reframe it so it becomes simply, “He/she did this.” When we make this little change, what else changes? Suddenly, a space opens up around the problem. Reactions slow down; there’s an easing of the constriction, and it becomes possible for the hurt party to look at what happened more on its own terms. As the firestorms of personal reaction subside, both parties become less defensive, and the one who committed the act can take newfound responsibility for its consequences. Most of us don’t do things “to” anyone. We do things. We have our reasons. Sometimes those reasons come out of inner contradiction, unexamined assumptions, life script imperatives, or pathological imbalances that never got addressed and resolved. When the wounded person lets go of the “to me” and considers the hurtful act in this broader light, it becomes possible to take it less personally, less as a betrayal, and perhaps even to begin to understand it, to see it for what it was, and in this seeing, compassion enters the conversation. The act was destructive. It was thoughtless. Maybe it was a deal breaker. But it wasn’t personal. We can hold to our human and ethical and emotional requirements without making ourselves a victim and someone else the “bad guy.” I’m not saying hurtful actions are never committed with the aim, wittingly or not, of inflicting pain of one sort or another, but this sort of thing appears to be rare. In those cases, where it actually is personal, the problem is more serious, and a different sort of intervention is needed.

    Which brings to mind the current political climate here in the U.S. One can hardly turn the television off fast enough, as there seems to be no end to how low candidates are willing to go in taking things personally, name-calling, and puerile posturing. It is not something the electorate should tolerate. We have a right to expect maturity, disinterest, and self-possession from those who claim to be fit to lead the nation. Most of what these candidates have shown us about their character should have disqualified them months ago, but their belligerence and demagoguery seem to have captivated and rallied the disenfranchised. These days, more than ever, we need our national leaders to be mature, thoughtful men and women who can engage the issues calmly, consider diverse approaches and creative courses of action, encourage real dialogue between polarized factions, and bring people together to work out inclusive and healing solutions, to “build not walls but bridges,” as Pope Francis put it recently. In a volatile world where violence has become increasingly hard to predict and prevent, the last thing we need is a volatile president fighting wars of arrested development and taking matters of state personally. I, for one, certainly hope that come November, the national electorate will prove to be at least as wise as a greeting card.

    27 March, 2016

    What Am I Adding to the Canvas?

    What Am I Adding to the Canvas?

    As a philosophical counselor, I often speak with clients who are immersed in an issue that has left them raw with pain and struggling for resolution to a point past exhaustion. At such times, I’m reminded that a problem can’t be solved at the same level that produced the problem. Invariably, what these clients need is a paradigm shift, a new and liberating way of looking at the situation that has them stuck fast, and the history of the sort of work we do offers many examples of brilliant facilitators who were able to evoke a realization or “reframing” that allowed the client to shift from contradiction and constriction to realization and release. Milton Erikson, Carl Jung, and Viktor Frankl are three that come to mind. I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering ways that such a shift can be effected. No method works for everyone, of course. Philosophical counseling demands that the counselor remain mindful, alert, and intuitively open to the requirements of the client, the timing, and the situation at hand, and no formula can cover the endless diversity of variables.

    One thing I’ve discovered that can help a client out of immersion and at least open the way toward the liberating paradigm shift is to step back from the conflicts with which he or she has been struggling and regard the situation as a painting that all of those involved are creating together. From this new angle of vision, right and wrong or true and false tend to fall away as the standard of the good, and the beautiful is allowed to come forward. It is a thoroughly Platonic approach, one that demonstrates how relevant and powerful Plato’s work still is today. The client, then, rather than thrashing about in the self-repeating details of an inadequate paradigm, tossed on waves of self-doubt and speculation, gets to ask a different sort of question: What am I adding to the canvas? The idea here is to add something good and beautiful, to assess one’s participation aesthetically by holding one’s choices up to whatever standard—generosity, nobility, compassion, detachment, serenity, kindness, etc.—speaks to the client as the most meaningful and humanly beautiful.

    Here’s an example: Imagine two people in conflict. Each is convinced that he or she is right and the other wrong. Their perceptions, interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions are locked in a fight to the death. When such situations arise, it usually involves two people who care deeply about each other, such as romantic partners, family members, or close friends, since only two people who care deeply about each other will earn each other’s rancor. Rather than trying to solve (or resolve) the problem at the level that produced the problem, we ask these individuals to consider what they are adding to the canvas of their experience. Are they painting in the dark and depressing colors of blame and recrimination? If so, is this what they want to add? What might they add instead? What happens if they take a moment to recognize and take to heart each other’s pain, grant that something humanly valid is motivating the other, whatever it might be, perhaps even something long unresolved that has little to do with the seductive and intransigent context in which they are immersed, and put down their swords?

    There is a story about an African tribe that deals in the most remarkable way with those who violate the social order. Instead of putting them on trial to determine a fitting punishment, they bring the perpetrator before the whole village. One by one, the villagers recount experiences they have had in which the one “on trial” behaved in a way that was heroic or selfless or merciful or noble or wise. Instead of retribution, they invite recollection of all that is good and beautiful and worthy. That is what they add to the social canvas. The effect, as you might imagine, is profound, for never is the good in us called forth and quickened more powerfully than when it is recognized and appreciated by those we love.

    The resolve to honor the beautiful lifts us up, out of immersion and into the clear air of inspired thinking and acting. Note that such resolve is completely consistent with self-respect and self-care. Allowing that even the thief running in the night has his story and his reasons in no way obligates us to associate with thieves. We can extend compassion and forgive trespasses from a safe distance, and in this regard, I do not see much value in testing ourselves. There is no question, however, that remembering to ask, “What am I adding to the canvas?” and assessing our choices against the standard of beauty and goodness rather than right and wrong, can elevate us to the realm of truth that sets us free.

    28 February, 2016

    The Obstacle Is the Path

    The Obstacle Is the Path

    Various spiritual traditions extol nonresistance as a path for living. Jesus admonished his followers to “resist not evil.” Five hundred years earlier, in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze tells us, “Because the sage does not content, no one can contend against him.” Gandhi turned nonresistance into a political movement that freed India from colonial rule. Yet there may be no general spiritual doctrine that is more misunderstood. For many, the word, nonresistance, implies passivity. A student of Florence Scovel Shinn, for example, hearing her teacher espousing nonresistance, expressed the worry that if she took this path, she would be a “doormat,” that everyone would walk all over her. Shinn replied that if she truly practiced nonresistance, she could never be a doormat. Perhaps Shinn was saying that there are certain natural assertions of our being that we would have to resist to allow people to “walk all over” us. In other words living passively involves resistance. If we truly adopted a nonresistant stance, these natural assertions would have a clear channel. We’d express them honestly, because there would be nothing in our psyche blocking that expression. We would say yes when it’s yes, and no when it’s no. The only thing lacking might be the aggressive posturing that we may feel we need to add to whatever we have to say in those cases where we don’t have our own permission to say it. But without self-resistance, there would be no need to “protest too much.” The practice of nonresistance proves that bowing to our own nature never makes us weak. On the contrary, it is the source of our true strength.

    The same holds true when the obstacle presents itself in the world. In the Field Project Course, which I wrote from 1993-1997, I put it this way: “The problem and the solution are the same thing. Resist one, and you resist the other.” This is a far-reaching idea that quickly takes on the force of a revelation if one puts it into practice. As it turns out, the only real problem in any situation is resistance itself. If we resist something in our experience, that thing shows up as a problem. The moment we accept it, we step through a different door, and the problem becomes instruction, direction, guidance, illumination—in other words, it becomes a solution. Then we may see that the thing we were resisting was trying to help us all along; it just needed our cooperation. As Buddhism puts it, “Embrace your thousand angels, embrace your thousand demons.”

    The Zen saying, “The obstacle is the path,” expresses the same idea nicely. For those committed to self-work and the ongoing improvement of their consciousness, there really are no obstacles, only instruction awaiting recognition. Nonresistance is not a skill one acquires overnight, perhaps, but it is well worth practicing. The path bends around each so-called obstacle and is shaped and determined by it, so that seen from above, as it were, the obstacle and the path are inseparable. If everything that we used to think was frustrating us, impeding our progress, or derailing our plans turned out to be nothing more than the path winding in an unexpected direction and calling us to take it, how effortless our life would become! How quickly our problems would reveal themselves as solutions, and our demons, unmasked, would be seen at last as angels we had been unwilling to embrace.

    21 January, 2016

    The Wisdom of Ignorance

    The Wisdom of Ignorance

    The more I live, the less I know, or perhaps the more I know how little I know. But this “ignorance” is strange, because historically, ignorance suggests darkness, as in, for example, the Dark Ages, and knowledge is associated with light, as in, for example, the Age of Enlightenment, yet I’ve found that my ignorance gives off a light, and that this light reveals a spaciousness in which things can stand forth and be seen for what they are, here and now, in the uncluttered present.

    This has proved highly instructional, more so than any university course or program of study I ever undertook. No one in all of history has been a better student or teacher of this wise ignorance than Socrates, who spent his life in what proved to be a futile attempt to disprove a statement uttered by the Delphic Oracle, which, when asked by Chaerephon, Socrates’s friend, if anyone was wiser than Socrates, declared that Socrates was the wisest. Learning of this, Socrates was puzzled, since he knew that he possessed no wisdom, and so he set out on a lifelong mission to find someone who was wiser than he, with the idea that he would take this person back to the Oracle as irrefutable proof of the error of its pronouncement. Things, however, didn’t go as he’d planned, since everyone he engaged in dialogue who claimed to know this or that, to be wise in this sense, turned out not to know at all. One by one, as reported in Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates’s interlocutors, having been bested by his relentless philosophical and rhetorical virtuosity, took their leave of the conversation disabused of false notions. It began to dawn on Socrates that, while he knew nothing, he also knew he knew nothing, while other men, knowing nothing, believed they knew, and that therefore, he was, by that slight measure, wiser than they. The Delphic Oracle, it turned out, was spot on.

    Today, the wisdom of the old Greek is needed more than ever. My counseling clients often get stalled on an unexamined assumption or false conclusion that has sent them racing, sometimes with great conviction and passion, in an unhelpful direction. They want to know what to do next, how to resolve this or that problem, but in a way, knowing is the problem—or at least thinking they know something they really don’t know at all. If they can come to see that they’re at a loss, a space opens where something new can show itself. The situation that led them to schedule a counseling session may seem daunting, overwhelming, even hopeless—yet often all that’s needed is to expose the imposter that has taken them hostage. It’s a great relief to put down the burden of false knowledge, and this is something that philosophical counseling is designed expressly to do. It takes away our misguided conclusions, and in this subtraction, creates an opening where before there was only constriction. In a manner of speaking, it exposes the most fortunate sort of ignorance, and in so doing, leaves us that much wiser and better off.


    As we come to the end of another blogging year, we note with a bit of irony that in December, Odysseys “goes dark,” a term heard in theaters after a performance has finished its run. The sets are struck, the green room locked up, and the sound of applause can be heard only in memory. Any theater performance is a collaboration requiring tireless dedication and hard-won offerings of artistic and technical talent. When the show is over, it’s time to rest, and so it is with our little performance. As has been our practice for years, we won’t be posting anything in December. We hope you’ve enjoyed the journeys we’ve shared here, and that we’ll “see you” again in January. Until then, we want to thank you for the time you’ve spent with us. Our most heartfelt wishes accompany you into the new year and beyond, including the wish that you and yours will be inspired by just enough spacious ignorance to be filled with the perennial brilliance and goodness of the season.

    30 November, 2015

    Ghosts

    From ghoulies and ghosties
    and long-leggedy beasties
    and things that go bump in the night,
    good Lord, deliver us!
    | Old Scottish prayer

    Ghosts

    We humans seem to have an unrelenting fascination with ghosts—personalities without bodies famous for haunting unfortunate houses and bringing varying degrees of trouble from mischief to malevolence. Whether there are in fact such things, I can’t say. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were, but such mysteries are beyond my reach. Whether personalities can exist apart from their mortal wrappings is one that I’m happy to leave to those with more of a penchant for the paranormal. There is, however, another sort of ghost—the kind that has no body but has a will, that stirs the waters of misfortune trouble wherever it turns up, that haunts and possesses humans and generally makes life miserable for us. I’m talking here about aspects of our own psyche, divergent streams of consciousness and identity that seem to have the sole purpose of working against us and getting us to work against ourselves, tripping us up, provoking us to destructive choices, and sowing the seeds of disorder and chaos.

    I encounter these spirits in counseling sessions all the time. They may make their appearance in the middle of a client’s sentence, such that the man or woman who starts the sentence is not the one who finishes it. It is very much as though the ghost takes possession of the client’s vocal chords and waylays the conversation, pitching it back toward some impacted repetition that has never served the client well, but which he or she, for some reason, is unwilling to release. The effect, of course, is never as dramatic as we see in Hollywood depictions, with heads spinning around, bodies flying across the room, or normal voices becoming suddenly cavernous and charged with something alien and evil. It is far subtler, so that if I point out the change to the client, and ask who finished the sentence, often the client is startled, then baffled. The very real ghosts I’ve seen, the ones that haunt the attics and basements of the psyche, the ones that rattle chains of perfectionism, self-absorption, belligerence, victim-thinking, and denial are routinely mistaken for the self. They hide in our voice, in the face we see in the mirror, in assumptions and identifications so obvious that we might never suspect them, and from these venues, that dark pantheon usurps and torments us.

    Fortunately, we mortals have an internal barometer of sorts that can alert us when we slip into a momentary possession, even in mid-sentence. Detecting the drop in pressure depends on, above all else, the willingness to do self-work, to question those things that we have taken so for granted that it would hardly occur to us to question them, and to begin to attend to our inner states with the curiosity and diligence of a good student. That barometric alarm is felt in mood shifts. They may be intense or subtle, but in every case, careful attention will reveal a foreign element. This awareness is the first step in exorcising the ghosts of unexamined assumptions and conclusions, angry or frightened voices we introjected early and have been living in our house without our permission ever since. And this is absolutely saving. It means that we cannot continue to be possessed without our permission. Without this assent, no ghost can enter or stay. Most of the time, the debilitating anger or anxiety with with a client is struggling is not native, not his or her own. Its adaptation, its agenda, its intensities originally belonged to someone else.

    There’s an old South African folk tale about a family whose house is plagued by a poltergeist. For months, they put up with slamming doors and cupboards, furniture sliding here and there, and all other manner of annoyance. Finally, able to stand it no longer, they decide to vacate the house. At the end of the story, they’re driving off with all their belongings, and there, sitting in the back of the truck, is the poltergeist, waving as he says, “Bye bye, we’re leaving!”

    Clearly, unless we’re willing to do the self-work that expels our ghosts once and for all, we take them with us. It is wise, then, to pay attention to the barometric changes occurring in the inner weather, and to take the time we need to engage anything expressing itself through us that feels unlike us—a suddenly angry overreaction, an atypically harsh judgment of another, a frisson of apprehension over something that does not seem to warrant it, a surge of perfectionism, a jolt of self-doubt. Not every voice in our head is ours. Even those who live alone may have unwanted roommates. Self-knowledge frees us from adverse influences that may have taken up residence in our psyche a long time ago, restoring a sense of peace and order that we hardly may have realized was missing.

    31 October, 2015

    Life Scripts

    Life Scripts

    The seeds of contradiction are sown early, in “contracts” entered into by parents and their children. Generally, these contracts are written and enforced outside awareness and passed along from one generation to the next through “scripts” internalized and read unconsciously. This idea of scripts comes from a psychological model called “transactional analysis” (often referred to simply as “TA”), a neo-Freudian methodology developed into a therapeutic method by Eric Berne in the 1960s, and presented in his bestseller, Games People Play. TA focuses on social transactions, as these provide a good way to asses the contracts that shape a person’s development. According to TA, the rules for living (permissions and injunctions) are passed along early and will largely determine a person’s life path for good or ill. Among the more maladaptive roles are three identified by Stephen Karpman in something called the “Karpman Drama Triangle,” viz., the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer. Each represents a scripted identity that leads to suffering and self-defeating behavior as the person “reading” the script moves around the triangle, initiating and responding in a set of interactions driven by an ulterior motive (“games”) to a predictable outcome, and switching from one role to the next as the game requires.

    Philosophically, we can understand “games” or stances as ways of being rooted in deep and largely unexamined assumptions about the world and our place in it—in other words, reality and identity. During the early years especially, even before they have acquired language, children are keen observers of what appears to work and what doesn’t. Inwardly, they are “taking notes,” learning, and drawing conclusions. As our very survival depends on our being loved and accepted, parental censure or rejection can be devastating, inflicting deep wounds, and undermining the child’s confidence, which can set the stage for lifelong consequences that undermine emotional, psychological, and spiritual health and well-being. Perhaps caught in their own unresolved life scripts, driven by guilt, blame, or shame, many parents may not realize that what they say to their children, especially repeatedly, has the power to bless or curse them, and to impose upon them self-definitions that are hurtful and destructive. Empathetic, encouraging, nonreactive parents who are mindful and respectful of boundaries and give their child room to grow into selfhood and autonomy bless their children with messages of love, acceptance, and support. Parents who are rigid, on the other hand, who impose their will on their children, do too much for them, withdraw love conditionally, or are abusive in any form may unwittingly curse their children with the messages they send verbally, nonverbally, through modeling, or through the assumptions they harbor about the child. Statements such as, “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “You’re always getting into trouble,” and the like become parental imperatives in a child’s logic. These parents may believe they’re lamenting shortcomings in their child’s character, that they’re trying to correct or even protect their child from whatever dire consequences they fear may come to pass, but in fact, in the depths of the young, receptive psyche, such statements become predictions that the child will work unwittingly but relentlessly to fulfill throughout his or her life, even when the consistent results are suffering and defeat. It’s important to add here that TA goes beyond Freudian “life-predictive” theory in pointing out that the script is based on decisions that the child makes in the attempt to deal with the world. The parent has an enormous, irresistible influence, but the scripts are fundamentally decisional. The reason this is important is that it conserves our ability to rewrite these scripts (or discard them) as adults. We aren’t condemned to live out the childhood script once those formative years are behind us, though sadly, many will.

    According to TA, each of us embodies the three ego-states of Parent, Child, and Adult. When adults respond as children in their interactions, they’re reading from a script. Upon being offered a suggestion for improvement from an employer, for example, they may feel blamed. Those who act parentally toward other adults, such as rescuers and enablers, are also displaying “scripty” behavior. The aim of self-work in TA is to strengthen the client’s Adult so the client can be present, making it possible to receive and work with information in a sane and grounded way—and to resolve any “games” that show up when the Adult is “contaminated” by either the Parent or the Child.

    At the end of the day, our full individuation as adults can depend on our tearing up the old life contract that we “signed” in childhood. Getting clear enough to recognize, challenge, and ultimately declare the old contract null and void takes some doing. This psychic coming of age is the business of self-work in many models, not just TA, and it isn’t easy. For one thing, the early agreements may be so deeply rooted in our sense of who we are that they can be tough to identify and call out. Once they have been identified, there’s the further matter of the courage to stand up to them, and to begin to replace them with something more in keeping with self-care. Challenging the old ways of being may uncover deep fears and prohibitions designed to protect the payoffs that led us to agree to the contract in the first place. The feeling is not unlike that of standing up to a bully. The soul that has undertaken its liberation from an old script may have to endure a few dark nights—but if we persevere on the path of self-work, calling forth the needed courage and making good use of whatever support is available to us, the rewards are inestimable. Limitations that seemed to dog us through decades finally can fall away, so that we are no longer tyrannized by old agreements that in serving us, also took us hostage.

    Philosophical counseling is not TA. Its methods are not Freudian, for one thing. Yet the work is remarkably similar to this down-to-earth approach to resolving long held contradictions, examining root assumptions about identity and reality, reevaluating choices—even those that we’ve been making unwittingly—and discovering the inner resources for clarity, resolution, and healing that reside within each of us. One of the features of TA that made it so popular among eclectic therapists was its friendly, accessible language. It spoke to people where they live, working within the premise that mental health problems are readily observable in social transactions, and that any disorder in consciousness can be treated and remedied through methods that resolve Parent/Child contaminations of the Adult and help the individual to come out of scripts and into the living present. Philosophical counseling, in a similar way, works with the client’s current reality and identify commitments to determine whether they are supporting or hindering his or her ability to be present-in-the-world, which means to live a sane, grounded life free of contradictions, self-combat, ancient overlays, and unfinished emotional business. Where these commitments come from is far less important in philosophical counseling than it is in psychoanalytic sessions. Through philosophical self-work, we can gain self-knowledge and become aware of what’s driving us, what’s bothering us, what’s holding us back, what we’ve been believing, what we’ve been allowing to define us, and this self-knowledge can illuminate whatever next step we need to take to begin living a life without childish scripts and old, obsolete contracts.

    Viewed in this light, every problem, no matter how oppressive or intractable it may seem, is an opportunity, a direction waiting to be recognized and taken, a call to self-awareness, and a gift of freedom from old constrictions and compromises that gave us life by taking life from us. TA tells us that the more time we spend “out of script,” the more we loosen the hold of the old contract. Philosophical counseling adds that there is a dialectical element in this sort of self-work, an idea that we may find just as heartening, since it implies that any life-negating script tends to negate itself. This isn’t just theory. I’ve never seen a problem that didn’t contain its own solution. If we will hang in there, reach out for help when we need it, and see the thing through—we can tear up the old contracts, come home to a less sullied self, and at any age, begin again—knowing, perhaps for the first time, how wonderful it can be to be young.

    30 September, 2015