Love | Ecstasis

Note: I had originally meant to write this as a post on my post-rock blog about a beautiful song regarding love, but as I started writing about the philosophical concept of ecstasy, I had a lot more to say about it than I realized, so I’m going to make two separate posts on my two blogs and link them together. This post will line out the ecstatic aspect of love in Western philosophy and how that has spiritual aspects. The other post will resonate with these ideas by focusing more on Buber’s I-You relationship and associating that to a spiritual path and a post-rock song.


The Greek word ἔκστασις (ecstasis – the root for our word, ecstasy) etymologically breaks down to meaning standing outside oneself. What do we make of this? It’s maybe not immediately obvious because like so many words, the fullness of meaning of a term is watered down in everyday usage. In it’s fullest – being in the trance of ecstasy is a unique experience of consciousness where our consciousness isn’t merely intensive positive stimulation and joy, like it’s usually used, rather a rapture that pulls us outside and beyond ourselves. It’s both a peak experience and a limit experience because in it our consciousness expands to being greater than ourselves. In a very real sense, ecstasy offers a transcendental opportunity to have new and greater insight – a perspective that sees the big picture and our place in it by stepping outside of the bounds of our subjectivity.

Although everything I’m saying resonates well with the understandings of absolute truth, interdependent origination, and the insight thereof in an experience of kensho from all the various threads of Buddhist thought, this resonance speaks more, perhaps, to true insight into human experience and epistemology that overarches both of these different traditions rather than some sort of conceptual relationship between the two. I emphasize this to point to how much this concept of ecstasy is rooted in the philosophical and spiritual structures of the Western tradition.

The concept I’m bringing forward is delineated poetically and strikingly in Plato’s Symposium. In a way, this dialogue may be taken as an archetype for the purpose of philosophy in the Western tradition, and it’s nothing short of transcendent realization of truth beyond bodily subjectivity that changes the philosopher’s understanding of and relationship to existence; to compare it to another Platonic dialogue, The Republic, getting sight of the Good, of Wisdom, changes one’s understanding of everything enough to see that the basic objects and experiences of perception are but like shadows on the wall of a cave where one has been shackled, unquestioningly. Ecstatically rising to the realm of seeing the Good is a liberation from said shackles (now riffing just a bit on the Phaedrus as well, but it’s worth noting here that the Phaedrus‘s charioteer also has an idea of rising to see the Good, and this tells us something about this conceptual framework and the way it is expressed a la Metaphors We Live By). Such an experience leads to the only conclusion of seeking a life out in the sunshine, walking unfettered, rather than sitting in subjugation to the unexamined life. Socrates explains how one climbs from one’s bodily experience of beauty to a love of beauty as a love of the Good – thereby climbing to the love of wisdom that is philo (love) sophia (wisdom). He learns this all from a midwife named Diotima, and the philosopher is supposed to act as a midwife, helping others give birth to the experience of seeing Wisdom, as she does for him, and which acts as an explanation of the Socratic method throughout the Platonic dialogues. It’s worthy of note that the experience of Truth/Wisdom/the Good is an aesthetic experience in Plato – it’s an apprehension of something beyond us that is the true, pleasing form of all that is. It is Beauty, and in a way, it’s beyond Logos – it’s immediate and not perceived as “a piece of reasoning or knowledge”.

“Try as hard as you can to pay attention now,” she said, “because anyone who has been guided and trained in the ways of love up to this point, who has viewed things of beauty in the proper order and manner, will now approach the culmination of love’s ways and will suddenly catch sight of something of unbelievable beauty–something, Socrates, which in fact gives meaning to all his previous efforts. What he’ll see is, in the first place, eternal; it doesn’t come to be or cease to be, and it doesn’t increase or diminish. In the second place, it isn’t attractive in one respect and repulsive in another, or attractive at one time but not at another, or attractive in one setting but repulsive in another, or attractive here and repulsive elsewhere, depending on how people find it. Then again, he won’t perceive beauty as a face or hands or any other physical feature, or as a piece of reasoning or knowledge, and he won’t perceive it as being anywhere else either–in something like a creature or the earth or the heavens. No, he’ll perceive it in itself and by itself, constant and eternal, and he’ll see that every other beautiful object somehow partakes of it, but in such a way that their coming to be and ceasing to be don’t increase or diminish it at all and it remains entirely unaffected.”

“So the right kind of love for a boy can help you ascend from the things of this world until you begin to catch sight of that beauty, and then you’re almost within striking distance of the goal. The proper way to go about or be guided through the ways of love is to start with beautiful things in this world and always make the beauty I’ve been talking about the reason for your ascent. You should use the things of this world as rungs in a ladder. You start by loving one attractive body and step up to two; from there you move on to physical beauty in general, from there to the beauty of people’s activities, from there to the beauty of intellectual endeavors, and from there you ascend to that final intellectual endeavour, which is no more and no less than the study of that beauty, so that you finally recognize true beauty.”

Plato, The Symposium, trans. Robin Waterfield (pp. 55, 56)

We can see, then, that the philosopher’s journey to the “final intellectual endeavour” is climbing a ladder to greater, more abstract understandings of Beauty that move farther and farther beyond his bodily subjectivity. In other words, this is an ecstasy that is provoked by relating to the beautiful with love. In a very real sense in this dialogue, the idea that “philosophy begins with a sense of wonder” (this is an idea that Socrates propounds in Plato’s Theaetetus) resonates here because our curiosity and desire for further understanding of the form of what is is that which propels us to take further steps on the ladder, one by one, and furthermore, that wonder is charged with love – love for understanding, love for experiencing the hidden wonders of further beauty. We are propelled outward from ourselves by love, an initial seed of love that pushes us to a love of all. Such a love clearly takes a particular stance, propensity, effort, and vulnerability, perhaps even the right mentorship, as nurturance to open and blossom into its fullest form. Foucault, building on Hadot’s analyses of ancient philosophy, is very right in my opinion to take elements like this as his point of departure in The Hermeneutics of the Subject and thereby tie ancient philosophy to spiritual practices that focus on how one then works to open oneself up to the truth, to enable oneself to climb the ladder to the greater ecstasy (further and further expansion beyond one’s bodily self) of access to Truth.

Plato’s works are always literary drama that presents concepts. It makes it difficult to fully understand and deconstruct what is being presented. It should be pointed out that Socrates’ coda in terms of the progression of the concepts of love presented in The Symposium (he is at the top of Diotima’s ladder) comes right after Aristophanes’ much more influential depiction of love. Aristophanes presents us with a myth in which human beings previously were the odd beasts of two bodies fused together at the back with two heads, sets of arms and legs, etc. We were whole with our other half in this myth, and the gods eventually split us apart. Thus, the concept of romantic love as being a finding your missing piece and thereby reaching completion through your other half into a unified we is at least 2300 years old in Western literature. This granddaddy version of romantic love resonates throughout our current age in the concepts of “soulmates” and “my person”. Socrates’ much drier dialogue with the midwife describing a metaphysical structure to truth and love as the impetus of the pursuit towards it stands in stark distinction not only as a counter-concept but also as something more sobering, rather than the intoxicating, dramatic words of the playwright.

Recent posts have returned to Stanley Cavell and Wittgenstein, to the idea that there are concepts which overflow beyond our usage, demand more in meaning than we have mastery of, and love is one of those concepts. With this and the preceding discussion of Plato’s ecstatic love of wisdom in mind, I would like to posit one aspect to a fuller movement towards a relationship with “Love” in our world in a way that such concepts would “bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us.” (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 173). A fuller weight-bearing concept of Love should be one that draws us beyond ourselves to a greater perspective: just like I’ve previously argued in my recordings that it’s a fairly basic understanding of ethics and concepts of good and evil that evil tends to be a selfish, zero-sum perspective where things are done at the expense of others. Love is generally presented as a concept in line with the aspects of the greatest goods in human existence. As such, it shouldn’t be something about me vs. others, selfishness, and zero-sum competition. Rather, it should be about something that sees greater patterns, connections, and breaks down boundaries in sharing and caring (in my last recording, I spoke in part about the etymology of care being about taking on others’ pain and problems as your own). From a set of contrasting Greek perspectives in Aristotle which I have written about before (virtue ethics and an inspired metaphysics), we would end up in the same place: love should be something that inspires us to grow into more excellent versions of ourselves, and this includes more excellent ways of behaving in the world towards the variety of people we deal with – it should make us more patient, kinder, and more giving. In this way, we can nod again towards Buddhism and point to the fact that in the Mahayana compassion and wisdom are one, intertwined endless knot.***

In summary, the ecstatic concept of love is at the core of the Western philosophical tradition. It is precisely what launches the philosopher, the greatest of lovers, on the way (the desire in philo is that which pushes the seeker towards sophia), and we can see aspects of this that should inform us to fuller and healthier concepts of love in general and fitting connections with the two guiding aims of the bodhisattva in Buddhism: wisdom and compassion.


*** I was quite dismayed when reading about the Tibetan lojong slogans last night that a variety of Western philosophical and spiritual thinkers basically balk at the concept that compassion can be enhanced or even necessary if we take emptiness and no-self as legitimate. To put it simply, they could not comprehend how we could have any incentive to be kind to each other unless we have souls and the potential for eternal reward or punishment as well as a permanent benefactor of said deeds. This seems lacking in intellectual and existential courage, not in line with our experiences (do you really hold on and recall your deeds with these motivations at all in your daily life? I doubt it.), and the least mature form of morality in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. I’ll probably have to write further about this in the near future.

Philosophy Riffing | Virtue Ethics Revisited, Interdependent Origination, & Kindness

I return to philosophy riffing after a long hiatus. This session had a lot of meandering ideas. I’m not sure I expressed much succinctly, but I enjoyed the associations and efforts to explain some things. If nothing else, I think this was sweet, well-intentioned, and inspirational of some fresh thoughts and learnings for others.

Philosophy Riffing | Ethics cont. – evil is mistaken choice, a challenge to that, virtue ethics and friendship/relationships, and choosing a partner

This was another meandering exploration of this topic with a payoff in the particular of our connections to others and how they should enhance our excellence. I take a lot of time in the first half of exploring the Socratic position on evil and my problems with it. There are also examples of the Buddha prior to giving the sermon on the Four Noble Truths and some further commentary on the bodhisattva ideals and goodness as well.

An aside: I wanted to include this brief poem by Yung Pueblo somewhere along the line, but I didn’t remember to place it anywhere in the discussion. Adding it here for it’s brief, beautiful resonance with the second half:

it is not love
if all they want
from you
is to fulfill
their expectations

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 12

I just found this other great poem when looking through as well.

when passion
and attachment
come together,
they are often
confused for love

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 24

And as promised, here is the link to the previous post I reference in the second half: Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship.

Philosophy Riffing | Ethics – excellence, ethics vs. morality, good and evil, and a spiritual expansion

This was a meandering recording that pulled up a lot of details I didn’t originally have in mind and left many others unsaid that I had originally intended. May come back with a part 2 soon. I hope this gives others many things to ponder or at least some ideas/sources for them to go look at further. Feel free to ask questions in comments.

Note: At about an hour and 10 minutes, I make a mistake with Carl Schmitt. He described the distinction that grounds the concept of the political as the friend-enemy distinction.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 6: The Sage/The Wise

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The previous chapter opened with whom to avoid as a seeker; whereas, this chapter tells us which friendships we should cultivate. The basic advice is to value friends who teach us in what ways we could become wiser. A true spiritual friend to a walker of the path is one who will challenge us to be better, wiser.

Furthermore, the early lines of this chapter stand in contrast to the final lines of the last chapter. We shouldn’t cultivate relationships with fawning or subservient subordinates; rather, we should associate with ego-challenging equals or superiors. This is the path of wisdom.

After outlining proper companions and their role in awakening, the chapter states what the work of the wise is and relates it to this advice about relating to companions on the path:

Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
Sages tame themselves.

As a solid mass of rock
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is unmoved
By praise or blame.*
-Trans. Fronsdal (80-81)

The tamer of mind doesn’t seek out (previous chapter) nor does she react to praise or blame. These are concerns that center on self and reputation. They are part of the engine of samsara. On the contrary, the sage seeks friends who assist in the task of cultivating wisdom. Again, as I discussed briefly in the last commentary, this fits well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship. For him, true friends act as companions in developing our excellent qualities, our virtues, through practice and effort. These qualities are something developed over time through repetitive action, and that also makes his understanding of taming character similar to Buddhism. If interested in exploring further, see my discussion of his ideas of friendship here.

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The rest of the chapter speaks about these virtues of the wise and how they take delight in developing them and in hearing the Dharma. This comes to its culmination with the reiteration of the focus of taming the mind from the first chapter: cleansing the mind of the three poisons and ending clinging:

Those who fully cultivate the Factors of Awakening,
Give up grasping,
Enjoy non-clinging,
And have destroyed the toxins,
Are luminous,
And completely liberated in this life.
-Trans. Fronsdal (89)

To close this discussion of the virtues of the wise, I’m including the whole footnote here by Fronsdal about some of the particulars in this passage, as it is helpful to understand the entire path as well as the set of qualities that one who tames the mind cultivates (i.e. the Factors of Awakening):

The Factors of Awakening are mindfulness, investigation of dharmas, effort, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The personal cultivation of these factors was considered important in the spiritual practice by the Buddha. “Toxins” translates āsava, which is sometimes rendered as “effluents,” “intoxicants,” or “cankers.” It seems that the word originally meant both the intoxicating juice of a plant and the discharge from a sore. In the psychological meaning used in a Buddhist texts, it usually refers to the craving for sensuality, becoming or existence, views, and ignorance. “Having destroyed the āsavas” is the most common description of an arahant, a fully liberated person.
-Fronsdal (notes on translation)


May this help you choose excellent friendships that establish your best qualities in cultivating wisdom.

Gassho!

*The Tao Te Ching has similar comments about how the sage is not moved by praise or blame.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 5: The Immature/The Fool

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The title of this chapter should give us pause, as it offers us an opportunity to confront some problems that come with the overlap and distinction of concepts and where those semantics may differ in a different language, particularly an ancient, Eastern language in comparison to a modern, Western one. As Fronsdal notes: “Bāla originally meant a young child who is not yet able to speak. It is therefore sometimes translated as “the childish” (Fronsdal, notes for chapter translation). Indeed, the first translation I read was by Easwaran, and he translated this as “immature”, a translation that I very much like, as it feels less judgmental and limited in scope than “childish” but also less static than “fool” or “foolish”. What I mean by this is that “fool” as it is used in English is a word that strikes me as a character trait — one that is more or less impossible to overcome. As I hope is clear by now, that kind of understanding of “human nature” (in itself a problematically laden term for us in this philosophical journey) runs contrary to the insights that the Buddha’s teachings are emphasizing for us: one of progressive development and training the mind through effort. I feel that “immature” fits this well, as it is an inherently developmental word. An immature person can mature with effort, and in this case, it’s an effort driven by a spark of insight about nirvana and slow growth into wisdom. I will not change all of the quotes to reflect this distinction below, but keep it in mind as we go through this chapter.

An interesting piece of counsel that appears in this chapter is about walking the path with others. For companions on the spiritual path, we want either mentors who can help teach us in the ways of wisdom or at least friends who share an equal interest and effort in attaining liberation from samsara:

If, while on your way,
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone,
There is no fellowship with fools.
-Trans. Fronsdal (61)

Interestingly, this focus on inequality in the dynamics of companionship fit very well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship, and while I don’t have the space to discuss that at length here, I’ve gone over it before in relation to romantic relationships in this post. Compare that to the current counsel, and also ponder the dynamics of inequality in a mentor/student relationship (clearly how better and lesser would work here) and how that would work in a relationship of one following the path. This counsel rings as potentially harsh when thought through — a kind of solitude is being advised as the best way for one putting the effort into reaching nirvana because clearly most people will not be equal or better, and hence, most will not warrant fellowship.

A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise,
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.
-Trans. Fronsdal (63)

This resonates with another famous thinker from ancient Greece: Socrates. In Plato, he regularly is described as knowing that he knows nothing, and this is precisely why the oracle said he was the wisest in the land. If we twist the translation with “immature” and “immaturity” here rather than “fool” and “foolishness”, the meaning transforms into recognizing how much more room one has for growth of wisdom rather than how much one is a fool. By extension, this cuts through a problem in the term “wisdom” that exists in English. For myself, the distinction between “wisdom” and “knowledge” is usually vague at best in English and, depending on who is discussing the two, seems completely opaque at worst. If we think of this in terms of “maturity” though, it’s no longer related in any way to “knowing” a set of facts, like knowledge is. Instead, it’s the result of having grown aware. This makes it a process-oriented term, rather than a measurement of the data of knowing.

Much of the rest of this chapter has to do with pointing out how foolishness abides and thrives in not yet having felt the consequences of one’s actions. Here we see foolishness and wisdom in relation to karma. Karma is the Sanskrit term for action (kamma in the Pali of the Dhammapada). The key with action as it is meant with the term is that action brings consequences — there are entailed results, but unlike the determinism of the physics of reaction and counter-reaction — Newtonian motion in billiard balls — it’s more like the growth of a tree from a seed when the conditions are right for it to grow. It takes time sometimes for something to fully grow, and as such, the results of karma may take time to be felt and cause regret. That immature state (in terms of personal view and unrealized karma) may make the future regret of poor action completely unforeseen. This is the delusion of foolishness, of immaturity. A proper view of action sees how karma unfolds and how our actions will bring joy or regret. This is wisdom.

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The final lines in this chapter make it clear that fools, or the immature, focus on the recognition of ego-fulfillment in action. They look to companions to praise them for their actions or follow their commands. This too is unwise. It’s a clinging to a self-identity, a glorification of it, not being aware of the ephemeral nature of the “self”, and even more so the temporary status of public recognition of the self. With this in mind, let us close again with the final line of the chapter, another poetic line that echoes the recommendation that we choose solitude rather than foolish companions and that we do not cling to recognition or any form of material gain:

The way to material gain is one thing,
The path to Nirvana another.
Knowing this, a monk who is the Buddha’s disciple
Should not delight in being venerated,
But cultivate solitude instead.
-Trans. Fronsdal (75)


May this bring insight about what wisdom is, how to approach it, and how to consider self and friendship on the spiritual path.

Gassho!

Meaning and Health in Life

Personal events in my life recently reminded me of how true it is that all composite things are impermanent. This is a famous phrase from Buddhism, and the unstated extension from science is that everything is composite — you, me, both as bodies and psycho-social-emotional identity constructs, even atoms: all of these are impermanent. I quote this line often as a piece of wisdom in relation to discussions with others, but it’s easy to overlook in one’s own life.

For Christmas, I went home to see my family. For those of you who have read my blog regularly for a long time, you may recall that my father died this year, and this was the first winter holiday season without him. In the time between, my grandmother has struggled with his death, and the loss has driven her into an assisted living home in her local hospital. I went to see her while I was home.

Let me take a brief aside to provide some personal background and a perspective on psychology and philosophy. A few years ago, I completed a masters in clinical psychology. The program I was in had an existential-phenomenological theoretical stance. This meant that we looked at human experience holistically with an emphasis on personal meaning and the flavor of experience, rather than reductive methods and techniques (nothing against those by any means). One of the first books we read in the program was Viktor Frankl’s famous work Man’s Search for Meaning.  This is a book by another Austrian psychotherapist who was a contemporary of Freud and Adler. In the book, he talks about his experience in surviving the concentration camps and what he saw in the psychology of himself and other survivors: he saw that these prisoners perceived a meaning in their lives, a goal to work towards that gave their horrors in the concentration camps a limitation, a transcendent reason of some sort. That may sound religious or profound, a “Meaning of Life”, but it doesn’t need be. For the author, his was that he was convinced that his family was alive, and he needed to live to see them again. Frankl references a line from Nietzsche from Twilight of the Idols:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”***

Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 847-848). Kindle Edition.

The prisoners in the camps who lost this future goal, the simple purpose of seeing life holistically as some greater gestalt with projects above and beyond the life in the camps, were the ones who withered away and died or stopped trying to not be picked for activities that would lead to their deaths. In other words, existential despair of perceived meaninglessness in one’s own life can lead to a nihilistic idea that I may as well be dead. In fact, on a greater scale, this is precisely one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns in modern culture as a whole — a loss of the values that have informed Western society till now could lead to a threat of a nihilistic willing of self-destruction. I’ve never seen it read this way, but we could easily read another famous quote by Nietzsche in just this manner:

“Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. ” – Jenseits von Gut und Böse – retrieved at Nietzsche Source

“And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks back also into you.”
– my translation^^^

We could see this as the problem of an emptiness looking into us, becoming intimate with us, emptying us. The line before warns us that fighting monsters leads to becoming a monster, and apparently, we can surmise that staring at the yawning chasm of death that an abyss is leads to us being either more abyss-like or more tempted to jump in to our death: willing one’s own destruction in seeing oneself as an abyss.

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Maybe looking down doesn’t have to lead to anguish and despair

Returning to my story: I was concerned about my grandmother right away after my dad’s death. I called her not long after to make sure that someone was paying attention to her and giving her the room to express her own feelings about what had happened. We usually had fairly long phone calls and talked about books, the world, and the challenges I faced in growing into an adult, but this time, the call was brief, and my grandma said something along the line of not seeing much of a point anymore to things. My therapist senses tingled with concern — she had no meaning. She didn’t see any future to her world anymore.

I told my mom to make sure that my grandmother was OK, and it didn’t take long before she had to be taken to the assisted living facility. I knew all of this when I walked in to see her over the holidays, but I didn’t expect the dramatic change, the marching forward of impermanence in such a brief period. It had only been about 9 months since I had last seen her, but in that span of a baby’s gestation, she had aged seemingly 20 years. She’s lost 30 pounds and a lot of her faculties. I recalled an ex girlfriend telling me that when her dad fell off a horse (his passion) and broke his wrist, he aged years in the few months it took to fully heal. Clearly a trauma, physical or emotional, can really shake the stability of older people’s lives, and as Frankl noted, the loss of meaning can shake one’s life so critically that it begins to fully unwind.

I’m not sure I have a solid point or piece of wisdom to share in this post. I could counsel you to be aware of the meaning that you build in the narratives of your life and to be aware that the structures around which these are built will end, and the meanings you currently have will need to be amended. This is normal — you’ve likely changed course and built up new projects in the face of your own future and death several times, but it’s something else to realize that an intense personal trauma may wipe meaning off the table to the extent that you cannot readily amend your narrative and your meaning. Perhaps, the counsel is simply this: all of us, and all things we know will die. The mountains outside your window, the oceans you visit, the cities you grow up in — all of these are impermanent, having risen and fallen before, and they will do so again. This also applies to the people you know and yourself. Try to find your peace with that and be open to finding your way in the world without those people and places if they come to a sudden, unforeseen end, no matter how difficult it may be. I say this with no judgment for anyone — myself, my family, or anyone ever. This is perhaps the largest challenge one faces in life.

May this bring new meaning to all those who read it.


*** The original line in German is: “Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” I would translate this more as: “One who has their own “Why?” for living bears almost any “How?”.” Humorously enough, Nietzsche ends the phrase with a joke that only the English strive for happiness, which leaves me with many questions about how Nietzsche read Aristotle.

^^^ Interestingly, Sartre also talks about the sensation of what is felt when standing at a ledge over a fall (I believe inspired by writings by Kierkegaard rather than Nietzsche, however). He describes the sense that you have the potential to jump, that you could choose to leap to your death, as anguish.

Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship

Change is a dynamic engagement – a process of unfolding. I spoke about this in a recent post. Some of the best “life philosophies” offer insights into self-cultivation to live a more fulfilled life. Cultivation is growth, and self-cultivation is forming one’s own growth into the best version of yourself that you can be. I don’t mean this in the ways of modern self-help books of the business/marketing variety, although not to completely dismiss those either; rather, I’m trying to focus on how does one live a wise life? A compassionate life? A connected life?

This question may seem at odds with the abstract ideas of philosophy ranging from Plato’s forms to ideas of différance from Derrida. However, philosophy hasn’t always been abstract conceptual play. The best of it for the average reader has had a grounded concern about how to take care of yourself and your life. As Socrates famously said in Plato’s Apology: “For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.”

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This issue of taking care of self-cultivation comes up perhaps most strongly in our relationships with others. In grad school, we discussed Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” from No Exit, and the instructor countered with the idea that Heaven is other people. I think that this is simplistic to some extent, but there is a complete facet of our being that is revealed, enhanced, and informed by our interactions with others. In other words, if others are the set of forces that restrict and objectify us (“Hell is other people” — the point that Sartre is really making), then they are also the opposite — an interaction that opens possibilities and propels us beyond our limits (we might compare seeking advice from others in Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism). We are born into a world with other people and are the result of millions of years of evolution as well as a long development of human cultural groups. We are born into a long history and are part of it. Our possibilities as well as the horizons of our comprehension (what I can and cannot see, understand, and think) are shaped by this historicity — for example, no matter how much I read about the ancient Greeks and how well I might understand the norms of ancient Athens, I cannot live or see the world as one of them as a modern-day, American, heterosexual male. My “prejudices” (as Gadamer would call it) give me another understanding, another interpretation of life that I cannot simply fully replace by reading up on an alternative one. In any case, all of this and more are the set of extended corollaries to Heidegger’s lines in Being and Time: On the basis of this with-bound being-in-the-world, the world is always already the one that I share with others. The world of Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others” (trans. Stambaugh, p. 115-116).

Our modern ideals of romantic partnership are the most intensive of these possibilities. This is because modern romantic partnership has come to be conceptually formulated as a complimentary partner, a “soulmate”, who is meant to act in more or less all the standard ideas of friendship and more. Even if you laugh at my usage of “soulmate”, you probably have some view of romantic partnership as an idealized friendship and communal exchange of energy, support, and resources for achieving life goals and projects, and it’s important here to point out that this modern paradigm was not always the case — this concept has changed over time due to various pressures — and that again, the muddy concept of “love” comes into play here, a point I will touch on below but feel it worth linking another post I’ve written previously now.

With this in mind it’s worth looking at these things from a slightly different perspective — taking some old ideas and seeing what they can reveal for us about the difficulties and opportunities of romantic partnership — how it can be a restrictive hell or an opportunity for self-cultivation, heaven.

Aristotle discusses philia — friendship but also a particular kind of love, and isn’t friendship an instructive thing for us to consider regarding love? — near the end of his Nicomachean Ethics. His discussion is too nuanced for me to go over in-depth, but there are some key points I’d like to point to:

  1. Aristotle argues that there are 3 different forms of friendship, and furthermore, 2 of the 3 are only pale cousins of the form that is true friendship. True friendship is between good, excellent people (people who have developed excellent qualities through effort and deliberation — what the rest of the book is about), and it is based upon their recognition of each other’s excellence and their attempt to support that excellence. In other words, it’s friendship based on good in itself. The other 2 forms are: friendship based on usefulness and friendship based on pleasure.
  2. Friendship is an engagement, an economy of giving and receiving, and friendship is in the act of loving, not in the act of being loved.
  3. Friendship is akin to justice, which Aristotle discusses at greater length earlier in the book. As such, equality is an issue in friendship’s stability. Inequality only belongs in certain friendship dynamics (such as between a parent and a child), but that’s due to the specific roles at play, and these are arguably not the standard of friendship in general.

Here are a couple of quotes that strengthen these points:

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good. (trans. Sachs, p. 150)

So the friendship of people of low character becomes corrupt (for they share in base activities, not even being constant in these, and become corrupt in becoming like one another); but the friendship of decent people is decent, and grows along with their association, and they seem to become even better people by putting the friendship to work and by straightening one another out, fore they have their rough edges knocked off by the things they like in one another. Hence the saying “[you will learn] from what is good in the good.” (trans. Sachs, p. 180)

All of these points are crucial to what I’d like to say about long-term romantic relationships. These relationships, in our modern version of them (please watch the video I posted above), have grown to be a particular life venture that is both for our personal happiness and the success of personal home-life (the word “economics” is actually derived from ancient Greek as welloikonomia meaning “household management” and is discussed in other ancient philosophical texts), not to mention the usually monogamous relationship focused on sexual pleasure. In that sense, this relationship is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all three different kinds of Aristotelian friendship.

However, there’s a problem with this. Aristotle’s delineation of the excellent person describes a difficult life. Even if we aren’t purists and allow that other sociological formations could engender more or other key virtues, the problem remains that it requires a very practically engaged and examined life to be aware of these, value them, and develop them over time. In a sense, the likely mistranslated/mistaken Aristotelian quote of “Oh, friends! There are no friends!” is accurate: it seems impossible to be a “good” person up to the standards of the text, nevertheless to come across another such impossible being. As such, let’s take Aristotle’s ethical engagement that leads to excellence as an ongoing work in progress that cannot be said to have been successful until others look back on your life after death. It’s an aspiration for how to live a good life with others and how to become the best person you can be within that world with others (this is another possible reading that I take of Aristotle, personally). In this regard, a romantic partner should be interested in you in recognition of this project for happiness in this life: enhancing one’s personal excellence and becoming the best you can become. This would be loving the good as good in another person, and it would be recognizing that people change in relationship to the challenges and periods in life that they face — a process of engagement rather than a static entity. There’s a couple of popular misconceptions on romantic relationships and identity that I’d like to address before returning to the other two types of friendship.

You’ll often see memes on social media, or hear others speaking, about finding someone who accepts you for who you are, who deals with your insanity, or who loves your flaws, etc. There is some amount of truth to this. There should be compatible interests and styles in a romantic relationship, including patient support and acceptance, but the wording of many of these positions indicates that people think that a partner should give the speaker a blank check so to speak, allowing them to dig into these flaws as much as they want and just accept them as is. Furthermore, it assumes that these are core, permanent aspects of who we “are” that cannot be changed or should not be changed. There’s no talk in these of becoming a better person, working to treat the accepting partner better over time, or anything of the like. One could say that this emphasizes being loved over loving, almost to the extent of complete exclusion of the work entailed in a relationship to love the other back. That’s where these sayings become maladaptive and toxic, rather than good, and that’s not even real friendship based on my points above from Aristotle — failing to emulate true friendship (i.e. no interest in one’s excellent qualities or those of the partner), to emphasize loving as the key of relationship rather than being loved, and to engender equality in a relationship’s dynamic. While these sayings might sound nice in a sense of self-acceptance, Aristotle would tell us that we should focus on selfishness in relationships insofar as we choose our self-enhancement through relating with people who push us into our best, boosting up our excellencies, rather than passively looking for identity stasis in being loved without any need to change.

There are a couple associated problems with this that are also common misperceptions. Love isn’t just a passive feeling, and everything is not solidified and completed once it’s there. I’ve read recently a couples therapist’s advice that love is a verb, and Aristotle would concur. It’s an ongoing effort. That’s part of the exchange in the dynamic: the effort of showing up to the relationship and doing one’s part to honor and continue it. As Buddhism would tell us, all composite things are impermanent, and this especially holds for relationships that have no effort going into them. If love is a verb, then there’s action involved, and if friendship is in the loving rather than being loved and is about exchange, then one must do the action of love in order to maintain friendship/relationship.

This brings me back to speaking about the other types of friendship. They are both considered unstable because as we and our situations change in our lives, what brings us pleasure or is of use changes. Aristotle even relates these to lovers as examples, so it’s clear that it fits. There can be no stability of friendship in these types, and as such, a romantic relationship built predominantly on one or the other will struggle more to endure over the years. The only stability in friendship to be found is in the engagement with the good in another person as such. Ironically, seeing another person for who they are and accepting them is stable in them doing the same for you to both enhance your strengths and mitigate your flaws, not to simply “accept” them. Think on it: the most powerful and enduring friendships have a dose of tough love to push you beyond your faults, not those that endlessly enable them.

It seems, then, that for a relationship to succeed and for happiness to be found within it, love must be based in seeing the best that the person has in them — both already developed and as potential — and helping them to fully become that person; however, it must also balance this with the give and take of the other key aspects of this particular kind of relationship — going through the give and take and negotiation of what’s fair in terms of usefulness and pleasure. In this case, these will gravitate around income, spending, chores, pastimes, shared endeavors, and of course, sex (even whether sex and other particulars of these aspects of usefulness and pleasure will be completely exclusive between the couple or not). If over time, one partner feels neglected, taken for granted, or overlooked for usefulness and pleasure, the exchanges of these aspects of the relationship need revisited, discussed, and addressed, or growing resentment and feelings of inequality will doom the relationship: friendships cannot endure inequality unless its a specific dynamic that has been discussed and agreed to, for only then is it just and equal. These agreements could even be cultural in some cases: some cultures see the roles of man and woman in a relationship to be quite different, and it can even vary from region to region within parts of a supposedly hegemonic “Western” culture. For instance, some cultures would see it as the man’s role in such a relationship as to provide with the woman to look pretty, do chores, and offer emotional and sexual support. Those gender roles within a relationship are hardly so clear in more progressive cultures/regions, requiring a lot more discussion around how partners should support one another regarding the stresses of money, work, health, and sex. We could note here that these cultural differences of roles are where Aristotle’s evaluations of friendship in marriage differ from these, as he has dramatically different historical and cultural understandings of these roles, but even then, these analyses that draw from him fit his position that what is expected in a relationship of friendship depends on what is just for the roles in that relationship.

Love in long-term relationships is an elaborate balancing act of all the aspects of friendship with the deepest aspiration to change together with another person over time to the best potentials that each has within them. This is a tall order and yet a beautiful aspiration. One of the problems in relationships is that we don’t clearly perceive it as just that project, treating others merely as one or both of the two inferior forms of friendship (aiming to just pass time together as companions with someone else is not enough. That’s also a form of usefulness and pleasure without necessarily reaching the act of symbiotic self/other-development). If one is not able or willing to approach a relationship with these practical engagements with change, work, activity, exchange, and equality, a relationship will likely not last long and may not end well. If there’s any hope of inverting Sartre’s gloomy maxim that Hell is other people, it requires this emphatic activity of a friendship that manages life together and improves the excellence of each partner together.

Gratitude and Connection in Loss

I don’t usually make this blog about myself. It’s more about ideas, insights, moving forward on an ongoing path of wisdom and compassion. However, sometimes, what’s going on in my own life is key to that sharing – to potentially helping others find further progress and acceptance on their own. Furthermore, it’s healthy for my own processing of the confusion I’m going through.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had very few brushes with physical death (versus the death of an idea, a relationship, a period of time, etc. with which I have much experience). I’ve had pets die and some great grandparents who were not particularly involved in my life regularly. A classmate died in high school. A family friend or two died over the decades. Otherwise, I’ve been more or less spared. However, now, at 35, I’ve experienced significant loss. My dad died a couple days ago.

I’m not sure if I’m in shock or have handled this great life transition with a modest amount of grace. I cried and was upset for the first few hours after having heard but moved on to feeling grateful for having had him as a father and feeling grateful that his suffering was short and that he died, rather than surviving his ordeal as a debilitated shell of himself — I feel that may have been harder for he and my mom to bear than saying goodbye on a high note, albeit sudden and tragic.


Sighs, creaks, heavy heart
Yellow blossoms spring to life
Greetings at the window

The morning after, I saw exactly that – the yellow blossoms of spring that grow alongside the Japanese cherry trees. This was my first time seeing them this year, and I immediately thought of the cycles of life and death, of how everything comes to an end — and how it might be painful, cold, and dark — but in the end, something new comes to be. Everything that we see and experience is in flux. As Dogen, the famous Zen philosopher, described it — it’s all being-time. The ashes of the burnt wood are no longer the wood, but they are the subsequent state of change linked to but inherently divided from the past — a paradoxical threshold that shows the process, the lack of inherent essence to things: that point where the wood is not-wood and not-not-wood. In other words As Ovid said in The Metamorphoses (a title that in itself captures the dramatic changes of existence):

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (Everything changes, nothing perishes.)

Yellow tree

The same tree in my front yard around this time last year.


I’m extremely lucky to have had my dad as a father. I can’t claim that he was always great, kind, or insightful; we had our difficulties — as do all relationships. That being said, few people have had the quality of excellence that he had. I’m taking this opportunity to take some inspiration from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in evaluating that my dad had a happy life and that he was a man with excellent qualities which are rare to find, an evaluation that can’t really be done until a life is complete.

I’m actually lucky to have both my parents as my parents. They’re equally amazing but in different ways. In an odd way, they’re like yin and yang – my dad had a keen mind which tempered an overwhelming greatness of heart and emotion. My mom has a warm heart that tempers an extremely powerful mind. Through the cocktail of their genetics and growing up with them as my models and teachers, I learned both of their strengths. My dad gave me the emotional warmth and calm that draws many to me, generating feelings of support and understanding, and he also taught me that these depths of feeling are not weaknesses unlike our current understanding of masculinity in American culture. In looking back on my time with him and his life outside of me, I have so much more to learn from him still, whether he is physically here or not. As above, he’s still “here” just as a different aspect of the process, a different being-time.


Our lives are not written. We write them. However, as we write, our story takes shape, and certain words, plot twists, and styles of expression become more and more likely to follow. We create words, a story, a voice in the universe which shines and reverberates forth as an unfolding path of neverending light — ever-changing, dynamic, but with direction. Rather than the gloomy story already decided, the tangled yarn of fate as usually understood, fate is both defined and indefinite, deciding and decided, bound and boundless, free choices made within discreet limits and an open future limited by the karmic consequences of choice. It is the paradox of luminous emptiness and karmic interdependence.

– From a previous post: “Fate???”

The term “karma” is very misunderstood in common parlance. It’s not about “what goes around, comes around” or mystical mojo. It’s a succinct and insightful understanding that our actions, even our thoughts, have effects. The word karma in Sanskrit means “action”. That’s all. However, karmic theory emphasizes that actions bring about associated events. It’s not quite the billiard balls of cause and effect that we modern Westerners might hold onto from the scientific advances from the Enlightenment. Think of it more like planting seeds. Planting a seed doesn’t mean it will grow into anything, but if you plant it, water it, and place it in favorable conditions, that likelihood goes up.

I can hear you crying, “Get to the point, good sir!” Well, my point is: I don’t believe in anything like a soul. The entire universe is a constant flux. All composite things are impermanent. I think that the concept of a soul is an attempt to make us feel better about our egos no longer existing. In a sense, it’s a natural reaction to facing death with self-consciousness. Yet, my dad will live on forever. How so? His actions, his karma, will resonate through the universe in countless, myriad ways both subtle and immense. This will happen through the people he influenced and the people they will subsequently influence, through the choices he made, and through anything else he shared in his time here — both “good” or “bad”. This applies to all of us, we are all resonating instantiations of being-time, not objects, things, or souls, as much as a human becoming — an unfolding event of a human life that is intertwined with the entire history of the cosmos.


Raucous ribbits ring
Croaking Casanovas’ cries
Dark hides spring’s embrace

When I was running last night, inspired by memories of my dad to go running — an interest we shared, I ran through a sea of frogs’ voices, almost as loud as the similarly raunchy goings-on of a college house-party. It was thrilling to hear them crying out so loudly, so lustfully displaying nature’s vibrance — not even bothered by my feet clunking nearby.

These natural signs of change are quite meaningful to me in understanding the changes of life that are brought about by my dad’s death because nature was certainly his greatest passion. I can imagine him being just as awed as I was by the crazy cacophony of croaks that we lacked the wetlands and temperatures to hear in my home region. If he were a disembodied spirit, trying to console me (because he certainly wouldn’t want me to be sad or miserable), he would point to moments like the frogs to show me the wonder of the universe that is all around me, that change is an ongoing thing that brings both joy and sadness — it’s merely our interpretations of them that bring those feelings, not the cycles themselves.

Whatever he is now, whether merely an echo reverberating throughout the universe’s unfolding wonder or in some sort of afterlife I have yet to know, I’m grateful that this excellent person was so directly connected with my life and that he imparted his own kindness, heart, and wonder to me. I still have much to learn from my memories of him.


May anyone who has lost a close family member find their own peace and wisdom in these words, insufficient and cerebral though they may be.

On Friendship: Views of a Philosopher and of a Zen Priest

At times, I have been dismayed at how readily others are called friends. In this post, I’ve taken passages from Aristotle and Katagiri Roshi to examine what deep friendship is. Aristotle shows us that there is only one complete friendship–one that is an equal and mutual giving that comes from the desire to better the excellence, the good, in another; while Katagiri shows that while we walk alone through life, we can encounter true friends who show us wisdom and noble action. Katagiri tells us how to recognize them when we encounter them and how to act toward such true friends. On some level, these two expositions are dramatically different, but on some level they are the same. Katagiri emphasizes how one could be a friend for the universe with the example of the Buddha in mind. This goes much beyond the rarefied virtue of those magnanimous souls that, rare indeed, can share this equality of virtue enhancement a la Aristotle, yet is it not true that such a friend, the true friend in line with the example of the Buddha, seeks to uphold the best in all that exists, the basic goodness that underlies every sentient being, taking pleasure in this simple act of goodness for its own sake? Both indicate that this friendship is rare, but it is also clear that this is what friendship really is: sharing a deeper truth with someone who brings it out in you as well.

hands-compassion

So there are three species of friendship, equal in number to the kinds of things that are loved; for in accordance with each, there is a reciprocal loving which one is not unaware of, and those who love one another wish for good things for one another in the same sense in which they love. So those who love one another for what is useful do not love one another for themselves, but insofar as something good comes to them from one another. And it is similar with those who love on account of pleasure, since they are fond of charming people not for being people of a certain sort, but because they are pleasing to themselves. So those who love for what is useful have a liking based on what is good for themselves, and those who love for pleasure have a liking based on what is pleasant to themselves, and the other person is loved not for what he is, but insofar as he is useful or pleasant. Therefore, these are friendships of an incidental kind, since it is not insofar as the one loved is the very person he is that he is loved, but insofar as he provides, in the one case, something good, or in the other case, pleasure. Hence, such friendships are easily dissolved, when the people themselves do not stay the way they were, for when the others are no longer pleasant or useful they stop loving them. And what is useful does not stay the same, but becomes something different at a different time. So when that through which they were friends has departed, the friendship is dissolved, since the friendship was a consequence of that.

But the complete sort of friendship is that between people who are good and are alike in virtue, since they wish for good things for one another in the same way insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves. And those who wish for good things for their friends for their own sake are friends most of all, since they are that for themselves and not incidentally; so the friendship of these people lasts as long as they are good, and virtue is enduring. And each of them is good simply and good for his friend, since good people are both good simply and beneficial to one another. And they are similarly pleasant since the good are pleasant both simply and to one another, for to each person, actions that are his own and such as his own are according to his pleasure, while the actions of the good are the same or similar. And it is reasonable that such friendship is lasting, for all those things that ought to belong to friends are joined together in it. For every friendship is for something good or for pleasure, either simply or for the one who loves, and is from some sort of similarity, and in this sort all the things mentioned are present on account of themselves, since in this sort the people are alike, and all the rest of it; and what is good simply is also pleasant simply, and these things most of all are loved, and so the loving and the friendship among these people is the most intense and best.

But such friendships are likely to be rare for such people are few. Also, there is an additional need of time and intimate acquaintance, for according to the common saying, it is not possible for people to know one another until they use up the proverbial amount of salt together, and so it is not possible for them to accept one another before that, or to be friends until each shows himself to each as lovable and as trusted. Those who quickly make gestures of friendship toward one another want to be friends, but are not unless they are also lovable and know this, since wishing for friendship comes about as something quick, but friendship does not.

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as in what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good.

–Selections from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapters 3 & 5, translator: Joe Sachs


The Buddha also taught that if you come across a true friend–one who is noble, fearless, thoughtful, and wise–then walk with that friend in peace. If you find such a friend, you can walk together for life. But don’t be too eager to find such a friend. If you become greedy for such a friend, you will be disappointed, and you will not be able to live in peace and harmony with others.

Learning to live alone also means that, whatever the situation, you have to live quietly. All you have to do is just walk, step-by-step. It’s not so easy, but it’s very important for us. And if we are not too greedy, the good friend will appear.

In ancient times in India, people would look to find such a good friend meditating in the forest. If they found such a person, they would sit with him. This is how it was with Buddha. As people began to gather around him, he called them shravakas, which means “listeners.” The relationship between the Buddha and those who came to listen to his teaching was not like that of a boss and an employee or a parent and child. It was more like that of a master and an apprentice. If you go to see and listen to such a wise friend, you are not a student, exactly; you are just a listener. The idea of being called a student came about in a later age.

At the time of the Buddha, there were four castes of people, and depending on caste, there were many formal rules for how people should address one another. But the Buddha was beyond classifying or discriminating among people. He used the same kind, gentle, and polite form of expression to address everyone, no matter what the station. He only said, “Welcome.” That’s it. People didn’t go through any particular ceremony that certified them as followers of the Buddha. They just received this simple greeting. This is the origin of the sangha.

In Sanskrit the term sangha literally means “group.” It was used to refer to religious groups as well as political groups. When the Buddha visited different regions, the people would gather together to listen to his teaching and to practice together. Then, after he left, they would settle into small groups or take up traveling.

Today, how do we find a wise friend? I don’t know. There is no particular pattern. But even though you might not find a good friend in the world, still you can find a good friend in the example of the Buddha. And if you do come across such a friend, walk with him. Just remember, if this person is a good friend for you, he is also a good friend for others, so don’t attach too strongly to him.

You can feel something from such persons as you walk with them. And remember, though they are human beings living now, through them you can meet the Buddha. And through the Buddha, you can see such a good, pure friend.

–Dainin Katagiri, You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight, pp. 54-55.


May this set of thoughts give you insight into friendship and how to act as a friend. May you aspire to being a noble, fearless, thoughtful and wise friend who takes pleasure in the good of others rather than the incidental connection of usefulness or mundane pleasure.

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