Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, “You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.” Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one—whether the impression relates to those things that are within your power, or those that aren’t within your power; and if it relates to anything not within your power, be ready to reply, “That is nothing to me.”
| Epictetus, Enchiridion
Philosophy is all about wisdom, and not wisdom in some esoteric sense removed from everyday life but practical wisdom—common sense, good judgment, discernment, self-possession, reasonableness, and other such qualities worth admiring and emulating. The Greeks called such wisdom “phronesis,” a term that summarized living so skillfully that one’s life becomes like a work of art. About a century after Socrates, the Stoics added courage, justice, and temperance to wisdom, but as Marcus Aurelius noted, wisdom in the sense of phronesis really implies the other three, for if we are wise in this practical sense, then it follows that we will demonstrate the courage to be truthful even when doing so may cost us personally, the justice that responds to situations and others in appropriate measure, and the temperance that allows us to remain steady even in times of adversity—especially and centrally in Stoic thought, in the face of forces and conditions beyond our control.
Simply remembering to ask ourselves whether or not a situation involves forces that lie within our power or not can be saving, provided that we’re willing, as Epictetus advises, to make the only sane choice in those cases where effort on our part will be futile or worse, counterproductive—that is, to disengage and divest ourselves of all further concern over it. The Stoic declaration of “nothing to me” doesn’t mean that we don’t care, only that our caring is tempered by the wisdom to recognize when there is nothing more for us to do, and to refrain from blind reaction. Put another way, continuing to exert our will in situations that are, as the Stoics put it, “indifferent” to us is a kind of insanity, a denial of reality, and a failure method that can only leave us frustrated and spent. If we wish to be sane, to be wise, we will do what we can, then stop doing. In this release of the will, we leave room for unexpected solutions to make an appearance, and in any event, spare ourselves the punishing consequences of excessive, self-defeating effort. The “impression” presenting itself may convey a sense of urgency—but it makes no sense to undertake urgently what it lies beyond our power to undertake at all. In such cases, choosing to remain indifferent is inspired by wisdom and in this sense, divine. This is why Epictetus counsels us to repudiate such impressions, to deny any claim that believing in them would place upon us, and to respond to them with appropriate indifference.
Many clients come to philosophical counseling sessions suffering for no other reason than that they have unwittingly strayed across this boundary and become caught up in vain attempts to control what they cannot control—another person’s choices, circumstances that need more time to resolve, or conditions otherwise indifferent to their will. The more they try to force solutions, the more the situation resists them. It hardly occurs to them that they can step back, disengage, and ask the fundamental Stoic question, the truthful answer to which not only can restore us to sanity but also to the wisdom that recognizes when effort is misplaced. Even if we care greatly about a particular outcome, there is something liberating about shaking off the sleepwalk of willfulness and coming home to the simple truth that we have reached a limit, and now must leave the matter in the hands of life to work out.
If you find yourself facing a “disagreeable impression,” you may benefit greatly by asking yourself before taking action whether or not the thing lies within your power to control or influence. If it does not, the wise course is to turn away from it. It is not a matter of letting go, for if a situation lies beyond the reach of your will, it is not in your hands even to release. Circumstances as a rule unfold, and are rarely what they seem to be in the heat of the moment. By refraining from acting that is forced, precipitous, premature, or inappropriate, you not only will spare yourself and others considerable suffering, but also, by getting out of they way, will make room for a greater agency than human will to operate, and in a moment innocent of will and effort, when you have forgotten all about the matter, you may discover that an ingeniously favorable outcome has arrived unbidden.
27 August, 2019
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is written to be read beside the body of the newly departed with the aim of guiding the soul through the various bardos or regions of existence between death and rebirth. One of the recurring instructions in this remarkable manual urges the soul not to be taken in by apparitions that might distract it on the path of liberation from the karmic wheel and lure it back into the world of separation, impermanence, and suffering. If the soul allows itself to be seduced by these images, at some point, it begins to entertain sexual fantasies, whereupon it is drawn back into a womb, and the cycle begins again.
The after-death bardo stages are akin to dream states. When we’re immersed in a dream at night, as a rule, it doesn’t occur to us that we’re dreaming. The dream experience is convincing and seems as self-evidently real while we are dreaming it as do the events and encounters of our life when we are awake. Yet the people and situations that present themselves to us in our sleep are constructs of our consciousness. Having no existence apart from us, they are not real, at least in the classical sense, though we certainly may allow that they constitute real experience. This is an intriguing distinction—that we may have a real experience of something not real. A hallucination, which we might think of as a dream we can have while awake, is another example. A man with delirium tremens may “see” snakes slithering along his arms and legs that no one else sees. The snakes are imaginary, yet his experience of them is real enough to be terrifying. Immersed for the moment in this psychotic state, he has no access to the liberating wisdom that would remind him that what he is experiencing is not real, or as one associate of mine put it, under certain conditions, it’s normal to be crazy.
In the waking state no less than in the dream state, moving through the world, we project constructs of expectation, assumption, meaning, and intention that appear real and independent of us. It hardly occurs to us that we are seeing the world, in the words of Anaïs Nin, not as it is but as we are. “Hallucination” is a more radical and unsettling word than “construct,” but it is not overstating the matter to say that when we are immersed in these states, we are in a sense hallucinating or dreaming. Much of philosophical counseling involves piercing the veil of unexamined assumption and exposing these constructs as such, not as inherent features of reality but as features of the projected reality we have, wittingly or unwittingly, chosen or accepted. By deconstructing them, we are able to provide something like the transcendent perspective encouraged in the Tibetan guidebook, only in this case for the living. The experience for the client in session is not unlike waking up from a dream, and seeing things as they are for the first time.
Often, these constructs contain overlays that distort reality, leading to experiences that then “prove” or reinforce them so that we end up reincarnating into the same situation, the same bad relationship, the same financial crisis or health issue again and again, never suspecting that we ourselves are the cause. In such cases, and especially when we have reached the end of our will to cope with these problems, philosophical dialogue can be saving, because the counselor is not immersed in the client’s hallucination, and can call him or her out of the construct so that the client can relate to it rather than from it. When we can catch a hallucination in the act, as it were, it loses its credibility, and we can begin to move through our dramatic infatuation with it to the higher ground of a clear discernment of reality. As with the soul navigating the bardo states, the effect can be immediately liberating.
Deconstructing reality is not for the fainthearted. It requires courage and the willingness to question elements of our experience that seem so obvious, it might never occur to us to question them. The codependent partner or parent whose reality demands that she “help” others even at the expense of self-care, trampling boundaries, never understanding why those she works to serve so selflessly invariably end up resenting her, may find it challenging to unpack the seemingly innocuous word “help” and be willing to relinquish the contradicted payoffs of enabling, but this is precisely what she must do if she is to emerge from her hallucination and return to reality. The martyr, the victim, the rescuer, the persecutor, the individual who must win at any cost, the one who cannot feel and so has no empathy—these are common hallucinatory states that give rise to suffering, to rebirth into the same, relentless circumstances despite all effort of the will to break free.
“We are near waking,” writes Novalis, “when we dream we are dreaming.” To understand and overcome our reality, we must understand and overcome ourselves. We must see through the convincing hallucinations that have had our unquestioning allegiance, and by refusing their claim on us, in the blink of an eye, wake up to the truth that has been waiting patiently within for us to come home.
26 July, 2019
I’ve suffered greatly in my life.
Most of what I suffered never happened.
The ancient Stoics understood that happiness depends not on what happens to us but on how we meet what happens. This crucial distinction in the great experiment of living what the Greeks called “the good life” arguably anticipated the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant and subsequently, the discovery of quantum entanglement—the idea that the world of objects and events is informed by us at a deep level of our consciousness, and thus does not exist “objectively” in the traditional sense of independently of us, that the experience is a priori shaped by the experiencer. Along these lines, Anaïs Nin writes, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
To the philosophically uninitiated, the Stoics, Kant, and quantum entanglement may seem far removed from everyday problems and concerns, but it takes no formal training in philosophy to understand that what one person suffers as setback or defeat, another will experience as direction, instruction, perhaps even the opportunity to rise to the occasion and prevail. Adversity calls us to courage, resilience, and perseverance, and it is often in enduring the worst that we discover the best in ourselves.
What accounts for this difference? Is it temperament? Mindset? Genetic predisposition? Luck? Why, when facing a serious illness or other crisis, will some succumb while others rally their resources and recover? What impact do our beliefs and assumptions have on the outcome? Can they beat the odds dealt by the hand of fate—and if so, how?
During philosophical counseling sessions, I listen not just to what clients say but also to how they say it. This requires a dual awareness that is simultaneously focused and expanded, which allows me to attend to form as well as content. Most of the direction for the session comes from this formal depth through, surfacing in such elements as pace, implications, tone, asides, and so on. Of these, one of the most revealing is the “volume” of dramatic charge, i.e., whether the client’s assessment or reaction to a situation is proportionate or exaggerated. Sometimes, the client is habituated to high level of drama, often characterized by a readiness to blame others, adopt a victim stance, or play the rescuer. Drama, of course, is predicated on conflict, so someone with a need for a lot of drama is always having to put out one fire or another and consequently may come to feel that fate is going out of its way to make life hard, that he or she can’t catch a break, and so on, which adds another layer of drama, and so on. Once the client is aware of this unwitting commitment to drama, it becomes possible to interrupt the self-escalating cycle, turn down the volume, and refuse the old inner promptings. The rush of whitewater emotion that used to trigger constriction, doom thinking, and overreaction abates, and situations become what they always were, nothing more.
Living with the volume cranked up to level ten is so exhausting, we may wonder why anyone would be willing to live in the constricted state of perpetual dramatizing. But we need to remember here that the histrionic stance is as a rule unwitting. “Drama queens” believe and so experience that the intensity of the relentless conflicts that seem to dog them is not of their own making. Because they do not see the decisive part they are playing in causing and perpetuating their suffering, it seems to them to be “out there,” objective, a feature of reality, and they often feel that life has singled them out for misfortune. Jung tells us that what we do not bring into conscious awareness always seems to come to us as fate. Through the willingness to examine unexamined assumptions, we come to see that the hands about our throat were our own, that nothing was doing anything to us, that we were doing it to ourselves all along, and that life had no choice but to fulfill our requirements.
26 June, 2019
The ancient Greeks regarded the Good, along with Truth and Beauty, as attributes of the divine. Like three facets of a diamond, these qualities belonged to each other, a philosophical view that led to the development of the “virtue ethics” of Socrates and later, the Stoics, and to the Greek ideal of phronesis—a term that denoted living one’s life with the sort of practical wisdom that imbues it with the beauty we might associate with a work of art. To this day, the values of goodness and truth inhere in our sense of what it means to live well, and even those who seem tone deaf to the virtues espoused by the Greeks such as humility, courage, temperance, social responsibility, and so on—most notably those in positions of political power and influence—do so under cover of lies and dissembling, thus confessing that at some level, even they are aware that it is prudent to at least give the appearance of acting in service to the good. The truth, however, is not so easily cast aside, for hubris, lies, and hypocrisy have a bad smell that cannot be concealed for long. This is the lesson brought home by the great Greek tragedies. Those who foolishly exaggerate the power of their will and flout what is true and good and beautiful unwittingly create a culture of ugliness that eventually turns on and destroys itself.
For many of us, good never seems to be good enough. The saying, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet,” reminds us to be grateful for the good that is ours. Without a measure of such gratitude, we may find ourselves chasing happiness, believing it to be ever somewhere else, and squander our days missing the sometimes transforming truth that there already is much in our lives that is good and beautiful. Remembering to appreciate the good that life has brought to us is indispensable to living well, a gem of wisdom that led the 13th century mystic Meister Elkhart to declare, “If your only prayer were ‘thank you,’ it would be sufficient.” Along these lines, Voltaire offers this cautionary observation: “Better is the enemy of good.”
Of course, good is also the enemy of better. This has to do with the downside of comfort zones, becoming complacent, settling for the merely acceptable, and so on. Life evolves. It seeks to become more, express more, find new forms, and if it were not for this ontological restlessness that drives and prods and reaches for the stars, we might all be blue green algae swimming about in a stagnant primordial pool. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for,” Browning reminds us. So, there is a balance between gratitude and striving, between the truthful acknowledgment of all we have accomplished and the gravitational pull of our dreams. Phronesis discerns and lives this balance, so that we never allow our contentment to make us complacent, nor our desire for more to make us victims of ingratitude.
I often work with clients who haven’t yet arrived at this discernment. Struggling with a decision to move to a new city, quit a job, end a relationship, or make some other big change, they bring to the session a list of reasons that make their current situation wrong—as though one has to condemn where one is standing in order to move to higher ground. It hasn’t occurred to them that they can appreciate where they are, be grateful for what it has brought them and taught them, see its value in the longer arc of the story of their life, and either make the change or not from a place of willingness and nonresistance. It is possible to move to a new city or job without hating the old one, to leave behind a situation that one has outgrown with a sense of appreciation for how it served. Good and better don’t have to be enemies.
As with so many aspects of phronesis, this comes down to a matter of moving with the currents of experience rather than against them—in this case, with both our present situation and the natural tension that calls us to be, achieve, and realize more. The living present doesn’t stand still; it moves on, urging us to follow, to strive naturally, not chasing anything but simply allowing, following, and trusting the inner imperative to evolve—in these choices, good and better converge, rekindling the enthusiasm of youth and illuminating the path of human flourishing.
25 May, 2019
Spring is springing again in the northern hemisphere as though bearing perennial witness to renewal. Here in Gainesville, azaleas and impatiens are blossoming, while redbud and dogwood trees fill the air with color and a heady fragrance, inducing a recollection of the insistence of life that had lain dormant during the long months of cold weather when Nature seemed to be holding her breath, waiting for the sun to reach the point along the ecliptic that crosses the celestial equator. Life on planet Earth is governed by such events, cosmic timings that operate with the precision and inevitability of clockwork, but which may go largely unnoticed until their effects rise to meet us, and we remember once more the power and beauty of all we take for granted here.
This week, I observed the same principle moving through the microcosm of a counseling session. The client came to the call lost in the dismal winter of a problem that seemed irremediable. He had looked at the situation from every angle, and there simply was no way out. Yet it was clear to me that this sense of hopelessness was a function not of the facts but of the beliefs and assumptions in which the client was immersed. Philosophical counseling is dialectical. This means two things. First, it means that the problem in which a client may feel stuck contains within itself the seed of its own resolution. Under the right conditions—those provided by philosophical counseling—that seed can burst forth suddenly into something surprisingly beautiful and liberating. Second, it means that in order for this to happen, the client must be willing to question beliefs and assumptions that seem so obviously true that it might never occur to the client to question them. In other words, the problem can’t be solved at the level of the problem. A transcendence to a higher perspective is required, one that exposes the client’s unwitting participation in creating or perpetuating his or her own suffering. It is not unlike solving a problem in a dream by waking up. As with all processes, this is a matter of timing. We can’t wake up before we’re ready. Once we start waking up, however, we can’t entirely go back to sleep. So we do the work, patiently, exploring the client’s beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, paradigms, and values, and trust that regardless of how bleak things may appear, spring is on the way.
The message of the season is clear. The unfathomable intelligence that set the planets spinning in their orbits, that ignited the sun and scheduled the seasons cannot be thwarted by human hubris. We may be convinced that our situation is irremediable, that there is no solution because we cannot see one. Yet there is always more than we can see. Some relief can be found immediately simply by acknowledging that humbling truth. However lost we may feel, life can find us. There is no situation that lies beyond the power of renewal that is coded into the very stars. The most important thing is to stay open to something unexpected, a new way of looking at things that revises our understanding, the courage to take responsibility we did not know we had denied or overlooked, a little curiosity, an experimental faith in something greater than our will. We are no less a part of the season than the flowers and trees, which in their natural wisdom, offer no resistance to the hands that fashioned them. The same force that renews them can renew us, provided we are willing.
27 April, 2019
Philosophy at its best is natural. It takes place with friends over coffee, provided the friends are the sort who are unflaggingly truthful with each other, who empathize with and encourage and support each other in shedding false opinions and contradictions, none of which requires formal training in philosophy as an academic discipline. In practicing this sort of “philosophy in the marketplace,” as the ancient Greeks did, two qualities are needed: love and courage. Love here refers to the love of wisdom, the very meaning of the word philosophy, and love of the truth beyond one’s beliefs, opinions, conclusions, assumptions, and other holdings. Courage is needed because the truth often calls us out of the familiar into an unanticipated perspective, with no compass heading but the better knowing that lies buried in the depths of us patiently waiting to be unearthed. Socrates describes the process as “recollection,” suggesting that we are already in possession of the truth we seek, but, as he puts it, “possess it in forgetfulness.” The medium of such discovery is dialogue. A trusted friend who, having our best interests at heart, is willing to meet us in dialogue and hold up the mirror is an invaluable resource.
If the truth sets us free, it follows that if we aren’t free, then there must be some truth we haven’t acknowledged. Usually this is because facing the truth lays a claim on us. It calls us to step up, speak up, and bring our outer life into agreement with our inner life. This may mean admitting something we’ve been denying, saying no where we’ve been saying yes or yes where we’ve been too intimidated to say no, taking a chance on ourselves, letting go, moving on, and so on. Whatever the truth requires, we cannot be set against it and flourish.
As a philosophical counselor, I often feel like a professional friend to my clients. My formal training in philosophy gives me a wealth of inspired ideas, memorable quotes, illuminating metaphors, and stories that encourage recollection, but at the end of the day, I know that philosophical conversation does not depend on formal training, and that whatever talent I may have for doing this work comes from the same fascination with the hidden side of things that informed my childhood, and the fact that I’ve been privileged to live as long as I have, which has given me time to develop a certain nose for the truth and the many ingenious ways we humans have for avoiding it. My role is the same as the role of any friend who recognizes that our evolution requires our participation, and is willing to engage others in dialogue in order to reflect back to them the choices and belief commitments they’ve made, often unwittingly, that are set against their innate wisdom. Philosophy at its best happens naturally whenever two or more sit down together to be present to each other, to listen closely, question the obvious, and call out anything that doesn’t add up. With a friend such as that, wisdom can be had for the price of a cup of coffee.
30 March, 2019