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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.

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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.

The Design

*Click*…
Right into place
The position of rest
Purpose relaxed
Yet poised
One click away
From action

The pen’s form
Serves its purpose
A design
Essence preceding
Existence
We seek the same
Purpose, aim, meaning
In our lives
Yet they remain
Always already
A design in progress
An essence unfolding
Both hidden and familiar
Emptiness coming into…
Emergence
Don’t grasp
*Click*…

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Identity and Change–An Impersonal Philosophy

Here’s another philosophical jaunt through the open writing of Morning Pages.


I’m sitting here dazed. I was blinded by light as I stood in line. My eyes are still swimming from it.

What if Plato’s metaphor for seeing the truth is singularly inept? By this, I refer to walking out into the light of the sun and escaping from the cave of ignorance in The Republic. What if it’s closer to bad faith? The truth of things is always right at hand, but we don’t want to look at it. Fearing the truth of death, we instead cover it over. We build up the soul in counterpoint to the ultimately impersonal–Death. Death comes for all in every moment. It does not respect us as individuals. Every moment dies. The secret here is that Death has a Janus-mask which has opposite faces–the old, stern, grinning skull alongside the crying baby’s soft face full of potential. Death is a Janus-mask with Birth as Birth and Death come together. Separating them is impossible. Each arising signals an eventual departing. Each departing brings a new arising. The Janus-mask covers the true face: Change.

All of this, Birth, Death, Change, is utterly impersonal. It all happens no matter what we want and, sometimes, despite what we want! However, these events don’t happen due to the consideration and judgment of our personal circumstances by some divine personage who denies or accepts our pleas. They simply happen. It’s nothing personal.

We try to cope with these changes by finding meaning behind them. We ascribe some personal consideration behind them that explains them away. These prayers were answered because God had mercy, but those weren’t because in his infinite wisdom He knew better than I did and is teaching me a lesson, etc., etc., etc. With such explanations, these events have a personal story rather than the mysterious unfolding of a cosmic emergence. They become known to me rather than questions, difficulties, problems that I have to grapple with. It’s a lot easier to cover over the difficult truth–Being is mysterious, and “I” am just another dying process in the middle of it that doesn’t know/understand the significance of the whole thing–than to face it. Facing it takes an existential courage: resoluteness. It takes a willingness to look at it directly and continue despite all the niggling stories, thoughts, and ideas that come up and try to make us look away. These thoughts and ideas churn on in desire, aversion, and ignorance, and they try to make the ultimate counterpoint to this Truth; they aim at building an edifice that will provide undying security from the impersonal cosmic process of Birth/Death/Change. The ultimate security?–A stronghold, a cut off piece of territory from the whole that asserts its independence from the process of change–the sovereign nation of “Self”. It is “identity” in the strong, logical sense of “A = A”. Here Death is denied and fought off, again and again, as the attempted castle crumbles day by day, made of sand–constantly built up anew while denying that this never-ending rebuilding occurs. Identity–a form of bad faith? In a sense, the ultimate form: that which chooses to misunderstand being by overlooking the ongoing impermanence of everything.


It’s been a while since I wrote the entry above. It came out so powerfully, much more charged than many of my posts while riffing off of Plato, Buddhism, Sartre, and Heidegger all in one go.

Please don’t misunderstand, however. I’m not saying that we aren’t individuals. If I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach. However, we grab onto our bodily existence as separate and emphasize this over and above the elaborate interconnectedness and interdependent nature of everything about existence. Your body is a product of an elaborate history that goes back to the Big Bang. Exploding stars, crashing asteroids, mass-extinctions, forgotten civilizations, and so many more moments have factored into your existence, and you breath air, shed skin, and digest other organic and inorganic matter that recycles into the Earth. Light from a nearby star powers your entire physical existence, directly or indirectly-it warms your planet, makes plants grow which feed animals (including you), and makes life on this planet possible. Furthermore, your body releases heat–IR radiation–some small amount of which vibrates out throughout the greater planet and universe. You are part of the cosmos. You aren’t separate at all. Not really. You are like a flower–growing from a seed, turning into a bud, blossoming into a wondrous natural emergence, slowly withering away, and falling off the plant. However, just like the flower, the flower is not separate from the sun that nurtures its growth, the water that falls as the rain, and the dirt which holds the rainwater for the roots and provides nutrients as well, also offering a place for the fallen flower to be shuffled back into the cycle of life. It’s all one interdependent arising. You are a process, an unfolding of the universe–a human becoming–not a thing, not an it, not a permanent identity.

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Our identities are concepts, impermanent by nature. Such concepts are clearly known in the cessation of ignorance. One does not enhance the happiness or compassion of the “I”; instead one sees through the “I” concept entirely. The Buddha said, “The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations [of wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and peace].” In the moment when conceiving stops–especially self-conceiving–we are freed from the selfish hungers, because we are freed from the constructed self-concept that sustains them. In this moment we are freed from what practitioners of Ordinary Mind Zen call “the self-centered dream.” This freedom is possible. Indeed, if we are attentive, we will notice that freedom visits us each time the mind relaxes out of self-sustaining tensions.

These specks of liberation multiply and link together as understanding grows. This is the alchemy of non clinging. Sometimes, too, there is an avalanche of awakening, which may be sustained by the steadiness of mind engendered by meditation. In the moment of liberation, we cease to cling to an imagined stability or security in what is always changing. We cease our quest for pleasure in what is painful and for an enduring identity in the flux of personal and social fabrications. In the absence of clinging something wonderful is possible.

Beyond the hungers and ignorance is a very high happiness. The self is no longer birthed, in this life or in others. More simply, we cease to believe in the dream of “me” that the mind continually weaves. In this joy, rapture and equanimity conjoin. Wisdom vanquishes constructed identities which liberates generosity and love from the anchors of self. There is acceptance without greed, discernment without rejection, and stability without the illusion of permanence. This is an ongoing moment in life’s process that the Buddha described as “beyond reasoning” and “sorrowless” and “the stilling of the conditioned–bliss.” Nirvana is also called the deathless. It is what my teacher Ananda Maitreya simply referred to as coolness. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk and translator, refers to nirvana as unbinding.

It is tempting, almost unavoidable, to idealize this unbinding. We take it to be inhuman, almost sterile in its purity. But logic and the very earthy stories of the Buddha’s later years tell us otherwise. Even when ignorance has vanished as a dominating force in our lives, we still have bodies, and they still defecate, age, and hurt. We still engage in relationships, and it is still complex. The body still hungers, and the mind still constructs. The key difference is that we do not react to the hungers of the body and heart, and we do not believe the constructs of the mind. We remain human–just not ignorant.

–Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 67-69.

May this help others see Truth without being blinded by their own stories.

Gassho!