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The Age of the Spectacle

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Is this the real world or is it fantasy?

Glowing billboards. ‘Reality’ television. Instagram influencers. Golden yellow arches crowding large city centers. Fake bodies, fake personalities, fake plastic trees.

Flooded with information, memes and seductive advertisements.

McDonalds – I Am Lovin’ it.  Nike- Just Do It. Coca-Cola – Taste the Difference. Apple – Think Different.

Manufactured desires. Manufactured appearances.

Passive spectators. Passive consumers.

Welcome to the age of the spectacle. A world of carefully crafted images and illusions. Fiction becomes reality and the ‘real world’ becomes undesirable.

In modern societies do we think of ourselves as ‘humans’ or mere ‘consumers’? We see an endless stream of advertisements persuading us to buy more and more stuff Source

Even prior to the advent of the internet and social media, French theorist Guy Debord recognized modern societies obsession with appearances and images. In his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord critiques consumerism and the advent of mass media and marketing which came to dominate our day to day lives beginning in the latter half of the 20st century.

He tracks the evolution of social relations from being into having and subsequently from having into appearing.

  1. Being into Having: This transformation represents a shift in human relations where the focus is not one’s character or temperament (ie. who one is), but rather what they own. Their social status and stuff that they have.  
  2. Having into Appearing: A second shift occurs in modern societies when prestige and recognition becomes dominated by the world of images and appearance. That is, the representation of a thing or event take’s precedence over one’s own direct experience in the moment. Images and appearances are now of paramount importance. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach summarizes this concept nicely,

…the present age… prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence… truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

Amongst the numerous examples of this phenomenon, the most obvious of course is the addictive social media apps we all know and love. Every minute of our lives comes to be meticulously recorded, carefully crafted, edited and posted online.

Satisfaction in one’s life does not come from our direct experience with the world, but rather from the likes, comments and shares we get from our pictures and videos. Think of those who go to concerts only to watch the whole show though the screen on their smartphones.  

A copy of a copy – Image Source

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The spectacle shapes and influences our desires, goals and aspirations. It tells us who we are and who we ought to become. If only I could look like the athlete from the latest edition of Sports Illustrated with his toned body, big smile and perfect lifestyle. We think to ourselves, “perhaps if I purchase a BMW I will become as attractive, sleek and confident as that man in the commercials.”

Further, the spectacle affects how we think of personal, romantic and professional relationships. We desire for our dating experience to be as dreamy as those couples from The Bachelor or our marriages to exemplify our favourite romantic film.

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Happiness can be bought, one purchase at a time. Image Source

Ultimately, all these endless spectacles and advertisements we see on a daily basis distort reality, and hinder our ability to think critically about issues. We become alienated from ourselves and to others as everything becomes a commodity. It becomes increasingly difficult to live in the world authentically when corporations and their marketing departments shape our interests, beliefs and consumption habits.

The spectacle permeates not just through seductive marketing campaigns, but also has become the norm in our ‘news’ media and politics. Entertainment, viewership and attention becomes more important than genuine policy discussions or analysis.

Recall in the movie Gladiator, how the Emperor Commodus used the gladiator games to distract the public of the various crises across the Roman Empire. This strategy of entertainment and diversion has not changed much from the past, we just have more sophisticated means of distracting the population.

The spectacle prevails.

Are you not entertained?

The political theater that we’ve all become exhausted from isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon per say, but it is just far more apparent with our current crop of politicians. Further, it becomes amplified with the range of digital technologies now available to everyone.

Humanities fascination with the world of images, illusions and representations has been well documented throughout history by philosophers, most notably in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Just like the prisoners fixated on the shadows, we ourselves have become detached from the ‘real world’ ,and our direct observable experiences with our endless digital distractions.

As technology advances, will we continue to become mere spectators in this world of images or can we cultivate the wisdom and self-awareness to break free from our chains?

To pull the plug and leave The Matrix , turn away from the spectacle and embrace the ordinary.

To love and cherish the one world we have.  

Plato’s cave in the 21st century, Image Source

When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for hypnotic behavior.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

This article is brought to you by Facebook. Let us “bring the world together.”


Coca-Cola – Saving the world one healthy beverage at a time
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A Life of Virtue Turns One: Some Thoughts About the Current Crisis

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When I started this blog a year ago, I didn’t really have a clear idea on what direction it would go or how it would evolve.

I was inspired by thinkers and organizations who were applying philosophical ideas to the many issues we face in our modern societies. This led me down the rabbit hole to discover channels such as Alain De Botton’s School of Life, Rebel Wisdom as well as John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series.

It is exciting to see communities emerging like The Stoa who facilitate dialogues with a wide range of unique thinkers and practitioners trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world.

A World in Peril

We live in strange times.

Very strange times.

There is a general skepticism, made particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, that our social, economic and political institutions are not well suited to deal with many of the issues that we face in the 21st century.

Some have questioned if the current path we are on as a society is desirable or even sustainable.

Do we have the right ‘tool kit’ and systems in place to deal with the many global problems and existential threats we face?

To name a few: 

As a society it seems like we are running faster and faster into the future without a clear direction of where we are going.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

In a highly competitive globalized environment that prioritizes status and consumption, short-term thinking takes precedence. We lose sight of the consequences of our actions that extend past our limited horizon.

These issues are compounded by our broken information ecosystem in which it is getting more and more difficult to have consensus on basic facts. Reality thus becomes filtered down to us through politicized news media or our personalized social media feeds.

We are forced to ask, who is truly looking out for our best interests?

The Need for Philosophy in the Modern Age

In times of deep uncertainty, philosophical inquiry can be used to help us understand some of the problems we face as a society more deeply.

It may not provide concrete solutions or answers, but it does force us to slow down and think.

Ideas matter. They are like the glasses we wear to interpret the world around us.

This is why critical thinking is so important. In an age of information overload and false information, we can turn to the ancient wisdom of Socrates.

Socrates famously said “I know one thing – that I know nothing.” This idea, coined as Socratic ignorance, helps us resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or conform to the popular beliefs of the time. Socrates asks us to rigorously question and examine our beliefs, compare and contrast different viewpoints and engage in honest good faith dialogue with others.

This is how we find truth and cultivate wisdom.

The American sociologist and education scholar Peter W. Cookson Jr. argues that this type of multidimensional and critical thinking is needed to address many of the interconnected crises we face in the 21st century. He notes that our education systems should be transformed to promote interdisciplinary learning rather than teaching subjects in rigid silos or compartments. The industrial education model of memorization, conformity and standardized testing in no longer sufficient for the modern era.

Rather flexibility, creativity and the ability to look at problems from multiple different angles should be prioritized. In sum, we need to learn how to navigate through complexity.

As the challenges facing the globe become increasingly complex, our frames of reference must be flexible, expansive, and adaptive …

By looking at a challenge from multiple points of view, we are more likely to arrive at a realistic, effective solution.

What Would Socrates Say?
Peter W. Cookson Jr. , Educational Leadership
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The Role of the Individual and the Need to Look Inward

The future ahead may seem daunting.

We may be inclined to cling our existing beliefs, support a certain political ideology or be attached to our personal grand narrative of how society must change.

Technical or political solutions may be necessary, but we should first do our own homework. Look inwards and take ownership and responsibility of our lives first. Examine your own beliefs and biases, and prioritize the truth rather than the desire to be ‘right’.

As the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire noted, we must first “cultivate one’s own garden.”

Only then can we learn to be a proactive rather than reactive.

Robert Pirsig eloquently reflects on this idea in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  

Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert Pirsig

 Going forward in this next year in the blog, I hope to continue to explore how philosophy can be a useful tool in fostering critical self-reflection and helping us make sense of a seemingly chaotic world.  

I aspire to work towards the virtue of humility, to be open to new ideas and perspectives. To be able to examine my own belief systems and change my mind on an issue if the evidence requires me to do so.

Thank all for following the blog, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the content.

Here’s to another year of writing and philosophical inquiry.

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To Be Human

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Below is a poem I wrote on embracing the human condition, and all the beauty and terror that comes with it.


Humans such fragile beings
A desire to be heard
A desire to be seen

A vast longing to be loved and understood

Driven by ambitions and lofty goals
Riddled by confusion and anxiety

Grasping, clinging for any sort of certainty
Building great towers to protect our vulnerable egos

Prepare we may, prepare we can
But Nature will not cede to our demands

Where will you take shelter from the storm?
Where will you go when the flood rolls in?

Flow with the current of life
Dance with danger, tango with terror

What else can we do but love our difficulties
Keep them near, let them change you for they are dear

Beware of those who seek refuge in digital utopias
Seduced by the grand illusions of fame and fortune

Ignore the screens, those cold machines
With perfect bodies, perfect smiles, perfect lives and perfect teeth

What is a human but a flawed being in search of transcendence?

We can still embrace and overcome
We can rise above rough waters and high tides

We can still be human – after all

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Embracing the Art of Play

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We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:


The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

Photo by Daryl Wilkerson Jr on Pexels.com

Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

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The Great Illusion of Separation

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In modern industrialized societies it is easy to forget about our inherent connection to the natural world. Our finite attention is drawn towards our devices as media companies compete for our screen time. The online world has become ever more pervasive in our daily life as we have come to focus more and more on the images on our online profiles than the direct experience to the world around us.

 Further, the dense cities, crammed highways and large skyscrapers separate us from the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.  

Since the Age of the Enlightenment, humanity became convinced the it was the masters and conquerors of nature.  Nature wasn’t something that ought to be venerated, but rather used as a resource for our personal gain. It was humans who learned that we can use our brilliant technologies to increase their influence and control over the planet.

Separation

The writer and activist Charles Eisenstein notes that our view towards the natural world, and to others around us is influenced by ‘The Story of Separation.’ In modern societies, we don’t view ourselves as beings immersed in a multitude of interdependent complex systems. We see ourselves rather as separate individuals absorbed in a game in which we are competing for finite resources.

Economics theory tells us that we are rational utility maximizers who each seek to increase our material possessions in the search for everlasting happiness. The creed of individualism convinces us that we ought to adopt a competitive mindset in our personal and professional lives. We hear the echo’s of the mantra ‘Greed is Good’ – what is more for you is less for me.  

The more power we influence over natural process the more powerless we become before it. In a matter of months, we can cut down a rain forest that took ten thousand years to grow, but we are helpless in repulsing the dessert that takes its place.

James P Carse – Finite and Infinite Games
Photo by Matthis Volquardsen on Pexels.com

Interbeing and Connection

What this modern narrative misses however is the complexity, connectedness and interdependence of the world.  This is something that is deeply ingrained in the worldview of some Indigenous cultures and religions such as Buddhism.

Indigenous peoples have a reciprocal and spiritual relationship to the earth. They understand that the health of the planet is directly correlated to our wellbeing. This attitude towards the world enables them to practice humility, reverence and reciprocity for all living things. Resources are used in a way which respects the natural environment consumed as something that is sacred. Likewise, there is an awareness of the necessity and responsibility towards future generations.

Similarly, the tradition of Buddhism recognizes the interconnectedness of all existence, rejecting the notion of an independent self. That is to say that the world is fundamentally molded and shaped by a myriad of relationships and connections.  

The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh talks talks about this idea in his term ‘interbeing’. We are immersed in the systems and networks, and shaped by the qualities and characteristics inherited from our ancient ancestors.   

Our body is a community, and the trillions of non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. Without them, we could not be here in this moment. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to think, to feel, or to speak. There are, he says, no solitary beings. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

A helpful example to expand on Thích Nhất Hạnh’s idea can be seen in the important role bees play in maintaining our ecosystem. These little creatures pollinate approximately 70% of our crop species which feed about 90% of the world. What this implies is that their decline will have a domino affect in impacting food for the animal species who rely on those plants, and eventually inhibiting our own food supply.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If we understand this idea on a personal level we begin to realize that our wellbeing is directly linked to the quality of relationships that we have with not only other humans, but other living beings as well as nature itself.

Our egos can begin to breakdown at the realization that the world we inhabit is composed of sophisticated systems and networks relying on the functioning of each organism and unit to function properly in harmony.

 A Shift in Values  

With the number of issues that we face in the 21st century, it feels like we are drifting further and further towards this ‘winner take all’ and ‘us against them mentality’.

However, we are in an era when our economic, political and social systems are becoming more interconnected .This becomes increasingly obvious to us in a global recession, war or in time of pandemic. 

So the key question I think that must be addressed in the 21st century is:

How can we shift from zero-sum (winner/loser) to positive-sum (winner/winner) relationships and build systems that encourage co-operation rather than fuel division?  [1]

Of course, this seems like a daunting question, but the answer begins with a shift in values from selfishness and greed to co-operation, from individual identify to empathy and community.

The responsibility falls on each and every one of us.

What kind of world do we want to create?

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[1] Of note, this question comes the writer/researcher/activist  Daniel Schmachtenberger who explores existential risk and the future of civilization in his research.  More information on his ideas can be found on his website: http://civilizationemerging.com/


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The Modern Alienated Individual: A Closer Look at Fight Club

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We achieved everything we ever wanted and more. We’ve built technologies which elevate humanity to the status of gods. We’ve tamed and controlled nature to align with our needs, and built industrial playgrounds for the flourishing of economic progress and industry.

Yet underneath the bright screens, fancy clothes and luxury cars lies an individual who is deeply disconnected with the world. They pride themselves in their status but are unable to authentically connect with others. They feel like strangers in their own society, feeling the pull to conform with the latest trends in consumer products.

I do not wish to seem naïve or ignorant. I of course value the comforts and opportunities that living in the 21st century has afforded me. However, despite all this exponential progress, I think we have to remember what we have lost in modernity. With our laser focus economic growth and individualism we have abandoned our need for genuine connection, community and wisdom.  

One of the movies which explores the issues that we still wrestle with today is Fight Club. Originally adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club tells the story of a depressed middle-aged man who desperately seeks to escape the chains of a monotonous consumer-based culture. The narrator and his imaginary alter-ego (known as Tyler Durden) starts a fight club as an attempt to liberate themselves from nihilism and existential dread.

Let’s look at some of the key quotes and themes of the movie to see how it applies in our modern-day society.

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Consumerism  

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, and the things you own, end up owning you.

The endless flow of advertisements that we are flooded with in our day to day lives try to subvert the distinction between want and need.

We too easily fall into the trap of the hedonic treadmill.  The luxury items we purchase soon loose their glamour, status and prestige. We feel like we have to keep up with the latest trends to gain acceptance and approval from our peers.

In an attempt to gain status or recognition from society, we needlessly spend a fortune on luxury brands when much cheaper goods can fulfill the same exact function. A Rolex and a plastic watch purchased from a convenience store, while widely differ in price, both perform the same purpose of telling time.

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It is like we are running after a moving target.  

However, few realize that no purchase can ever fully quench our desires – the void remains unfilled.  

Alienation and the Loss of Community

This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. If I didn’t say anything, people in a group assumed the worst. They cried harder. I cried harder. Look up into the stars and you’re gone. Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.

To deal with his insomnia the narrator frequently attends various different support groups. Devoid of any social life or genuine friendships, these groups provide him with a sense of connection , community and companionship.

Despite the low cost of connectivity in our society, the issues of loneliness and isolation in our society have been well documented. A trend which is  most prevalent with middle-aged men.

The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about a decline in what he calls ‘social capital’. That is, the social bonds, connections and networks which he argues is responsible for a loss of trust in political and societal institutions.

Putnam notes that the social fabric, that ties us together as individuals in a society, has been eroding in the later half of the twentieth century. In his book Bowling Alone, his research points to several trends which he claims are responsible for this decline including: the proliferation of electronic entertainment, suburban sprawl and changes to family structure.

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The consequences of this for our individual and collective wellbeing are dire.  Perhaps this has been most evident in recent years, as we have become more polarized and divisive, unable to compromise and empathize with others.      

Yes, we have gained more individual freedoms and liberties, but we have become more isolated and egotistical. We have pursued individualism and self-interest at the cost of meaning and belonging that comes with being in a community.

Nihilism: The Loss of Meaning

We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.                    

The irony of the film is that the men who joined Fight Club as a means to escape the chains of consumerism, end up being drawn into another ideological group, Project Mayhem.

We must ask the question why are our minds so easily manipulated? Why do we so easily move from one dogma to another?

When individuals lose purpose or meaning in their lives, they can be more suspectable to be seduced by extremism and reactionary political ideologies. The most frightening examples of this of course can be seen in the rise of the totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.

As mentioned in several of my other articles, John Vervaeke as well as many other thinkers, attributes this crisis in meaning to the loss of wisdom and spiritual practices that were provided to us mainly through religions. With the erosion of many of our spiritual and cultural traditions through the secularization of modern society , many of us come face to face with what Victor Frankl called the ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl says these feelings of existential angst are manifested through boredom and distress. While our modern culture tells us we ought to fill this void through the pursuit of short-term hedonistic pleasures, Frankl reminds us that the solution rather is to pursue what is truly meaningful for us.

Conclusion

Admittingly, this article presents a pretty gloomy depiction of modern life. However, I do see the emergence of philosophies, spiritual practices and communities that aim to help us deal the existential issues we are dealing with in the modern era.

From the re-emergence of interest in Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga, to the revival of ancient Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and to the research being done in the possibilities of psychedelics to address the mental health crisis, I see a thirst for wisdom and meaning on the horizon.   

The present may be grim, but I remain an optimist.  

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The Ignorance of the Modern Man

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In this section, I will be exploring the current philosophical issues we face in the modern age.

How has our relationship to others, and to nature changed?

Why is it that so many of us feel alienated and disconnected in the world?

We have attained great material and economic progress, which of course I am grateful for, but what have we lost in this instrumental and rationalist view of the world?

Finally, I want to look at what is emerging, and how people are responding to these perennial problems. Innovative models and ways of life that promise more than a life of status and consumerism.

To kick things off, here is a short poem I wrote called The Ignorance of the Modern Man.  


O’ Modern Man, Modern Man, how you stand up tall with your undeserved pride.

You hold infinite knowledge in the palm of your hand,

Control nature, much more than it can withstand.

Is there anything you can not know?

No place where you can not go?

Why are you so serious modern man?

Don’t you see life is a great mystery.

Is there still wonder in your eyes?

Is there any passion still in your soul?

Look towards nature, and you will find reprieve.

Bathe in the forest, admire the beauty of the trees.

Stand in the stillness under the stary sky,

Look inward for solitude, for purpose and your why.

Life is just a game we all must play.

Just let go for a while, and you will see,

How effortless it is to be free.

Life is a great mystery, a great mystery.


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The Myths That Shape Our World

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Every day, every hour and every second, we are exposed to a sea of information from the world around us. How is it that we choose which pieces of information we prioritize?

What becomes salient to us, and which data points are discarded in the mental models that we develop of the external world? 

It is simply an impossible task to account for the infinite number of facts that we encounter over our life time.

Thus, we need intermediary and interpretive structures which allow us to sort all this information to make sense of our day to day experience.

Stories and myths don’t just make for entertaining tales we tell around the campfire but play a role in contextualizing and filtering our experiences into digestible narratives that we can comprehend. They help us understand our place in the world, where we stand in relation to others, and to nature.

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The Realm of the Storytelling

Derek J Fiedler in his article The Symbolism of Story provides some useful examples that help drive this point home.

Imagine you are tasked with writing an obituary for the passing of a dear friend. You must take on the job of sorting through the historical information of their life to prioritize what to include in your speech. Fitting a lifetime’s worth of data into a 10-minute speech can be very difficult to say the least.

So, what makes the cut? Including random incoherent moments of your friend’s life would be absurd and seemingly inappropriate.

Rather it is values esteemed by a particular society and the meaning we give to events which helps us discern what is important. The ideal obituary is one that uses qualitative judgement to pick events and stories which capture the essence of your friend’s character.

We look for meaning, and select for quality over quantity.

When told well, a story leaves out countless details. And yet, nothing seems to be missing.

Derek J Fiedler

Get to the Point

We’ve all suffered through a boring lecture or class where the teacher expects us to memorize a countless number of facts to score well on the test. We sigh in disarray and frustration as we can barely remember the first thing about the topic.

Compare this to how we are able to so easily absorb the contents and message of a well told story. It is memorable because it resonates with us on an emotional and visceral level. It can get the message across far better than any intellectual argument or essay ever can.

We don’t just remember the contents of the story, but recall how it made us feel.

The story speaks to you at the level of the unconscious, and communicates knowledge and wisdom in an effective and efficient means. This is why so many of the great religious and spiritual teachers communicated messages on wisdom, ethics and meaning in life in story or parables. 

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Higher Truths

Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World

As I mentioned in earlier posts, the goal of myths to point to higher fundamental truths about the human condition. Truths that are beyond the limited capacity of language, reason and the intellect. 

Myths provide us with a north star, an ideal to aspire to, a horizon of possibilities that inspires you to venture out into the unknown. They enable us to rise above the mundane of everyday existence – to contemplate the mystery of the cosmos.

We are not perfect, in many ways far from it, but if we immerse our self in the great myths at least we have a path laid out for us.  As the great fantasy writer J.R.R Tolkien reminds us,

Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of evil.

J.R.R Tolkien

Admittingly, this is a complex philosophical topic and this article just touches the surface of the issue. An interesting debate that gets at the heart of this issue I am trying to outline here is the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Peterson articulates for the mythopoetic viewpoint that I am trying to get across in the article.


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A Short Meditation on the News

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Scroll. Swipe. Click. Share. Repeat.

Your heart races and you start to breathe heavier. Internal tensions flare as you are confronted with the world’s latest catastrophic event.   

How can one possibly maintain a sense of calm or equanimity while watching the news?

One quickly becomes mentally and emotionally exhausted by the constant reminder of our grim and dark Hobbesian world. We ponder, maybe Thomas Hobbes was right when he noted “life is nasty, brutish and short.”

Attention, our precious finite resource, is constantly hacked by the continuous shocking headlines. Curiosity and terror grip your mind scrolling through the latest articles in your news feed.

Your imagination runs astray.   

I empathize with all the suffering that is displayed in the news, but how much compassion can a heart hold?

In a fragmented media environment, the reasonable person is bound to ask – who is right, who is wrong, what is truth?

Fact becomes fiction, and fictions becomes ideology. Who am I to trust in the battle of narrative warfare?

Facts are cheap, and they come easy when they are just one Google search away. But wisdom, has become far scarcer.

I have nostalgia for a time when things moved more slowly. A time, perhaps in the past, when having access to instantaneous information seemed like a lifetime away. Call me naïve, but I do perhaps romanticize the time where people communicated through hand written letters.  A time when you had the luxury of processing and digesting the words you were reading.  

Must I need to know everything? Must I have an opinion on every topic? Ignorance is bliss they say, but I wish it was acceptable in our time.   

I care not to impress others with knowledge of superfluous facts about politics or the stock market.

I do desire, however, to remain informed of what is important, namely of what affects my day to day life. To be a responsible citizen.

But first, let me take care of things internally. Let me cultivate my mind, and find inner calm.

So, I plead, give me knowledge and literature from the great authors of history.  Give me the works of great philosophers, and the insight to distinguish knowledge from opinion.

But please keep me away from the news. 

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The Hero Within

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Why is it that hero stories continue to capture the human imagination?

While we have no shortage of action-packed Marvel films, the archetypal hero myth is manifested is different cultures throughout history.

If you pay close attention, you’ll start to realize similarities in structure and pattern across different stories and mythology. Achilles in the Homer’s Iliad, to Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films and Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings are all connected in their journeys of adventure and personal transformation.

For the mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell, the ubiquity of these stories reveals some fundamental truth about the human experience. He calls this framework commonly found in our literature, stories and films the hero’s journey.

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The Framework

In the Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell lays out the 17 steps of the hero’s journey which can be summarized in three key stages:

  1.  The Departure

The story begins with the hero in the ordinary world when they receive a call to adventure. The hero is hesitant at first due to the great risk and danger that the journey entails.

However, with the aid and persuasion of a mentor, they accept the task that they are called to do. The hero embarks on the journey leaving behind the comforts of the everyday life to enter the unknown world.

Venturing from the ordinary to the un-ordinary, offers the opportunity for personal and spiritual transformation.

2. The Initiation Act

Throughout the journey the hero is continually faced with trials and tribulations that must be overcome. Further, they are presented temptations that attempt to distract and derail them on their quest.

Using the skills and wisdom learned thus far, the hero is able to conquer their greatest fears to   overcome adversity to complete their task.

Their final struggle usually represents the climax of the plot. Think of Frodo destroying the ring or when Harry Potter defeats his enemy Lord Voldemort.  

The hero reigns over the villain, good defeats evil, chaos is tamed and order is restored.

After successful completion of the journey, they are rewarded in some capacity for their work. This gift, commonly gold or a treasure, represents the hero’s personal triumph, spiritual transformation and enrichment.

3.  The Return Act

After the victory, the hero returns to the ordinary world transformed by their adventure.  They impart their wisdom and knowledge to the next generation.

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Can we be Hero’s Too?

While the hero’s journey can give us insights into the narrative structure so commonly found in mythology, what morals or lessons can it teach us about how we ought to live our own lives?

Campbell argues that we all go through our personal hero’s journey as we transition from childhood to taking on the responsibilities of being an adult,

To get out of that posture of dependency, psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection, and that is the basic motif of the hero’s journey. Leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Throughout our lives, we are called to leave behind the familiarity of the status-quo and move towards the unknown in hopes of evolving into more capable, responsible and mature human beings.

The hero’s journey inspires us to overcome our fears to pursue something meaningful – something greater than ourselves. It provides a roadmap enabling go rid ourselves of self-doubt, and actualize our full potential. Further, and most importantly, to face our inner demons head on.

In the midst of the craziness and uncertainty of 2020, perhaps we are all forced to take the path of the hero. Our sense of normal has evaporated. We no longer stand on stable ground.

However, every crisis represents an opportunity. We can either throw our hands up in resignation or willingly plunge into the depths of our fears – into the great unknown.

It may seem daunting at first, and we may tremble with trepidation. However, if we look within, we can find the courage, bravery and resilience we never knew we had.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh

So maybe we don’t have any superpowers or wear any costumes, but we all can be hero’s even if it’s ‘just for one day’.

 Now cue that David Bowie song.

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Ramblings on Personal Sovereignty

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I aspire to be an independent thinker. One who adheres to a clear set of authentic principles, and can hold their own against the tyranny of the majority.

I long to be free from ideology and dogma, free from the imaginary boundaries and limitations of this group or that group in the time of the culture wars.       

Why should I pursue endeavours purely to appease others or act in a way contradictory to my nature?

A term I feel particularly drawn to during this time of chaos is personal sovereignty. As Jordan Hall describes it,

Sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.

To me, being a sovereign individual entails being in the driver’s seat – being in control.

It means having the awareness and insight to be able to cut through the noise and find the truth in a world that is increasingly politicized and divisive. 

That is not to say, I must reject conformity or social norms at all costs. Rather it is to use discernment and reason to act on the most logical course of action.

This has become increasingly difficult in a time where corporations, the media and politicians are constantly fighting for your attention, dollars and votes.  

Who to believe?

Who to trust?

Where can truth be found?

My hope is that the practice of mindfulness and Stoicism will allow me to see things more clearly, as they are – from an objective standpoint. To not be thrown around emotionally by the headlines, but have greater control and autonomy over my reactions to external events.

It is difficult to flow against the grain, to risk being wrongly accused and be viewed as an outcast. However, this is what a commitment to Truth requires. As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us,

Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Diving into the Mythopoetic: A Personal Story

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It is easy to be dismissive of mythology in our modern-day secular culture. With the tools of logic, science and reason at our disposal, we arrive at our ideas of truth through rigorously testing our hypothesis with hard evidence and data.

It was around the time when I was completing my undergraduate coursework in philosophy when I started to look at the world through a more fact-based empirical lens. Consequently, I began questioning some of the core tenants of my religion, and previous assumptions I once took for granted.

Put simply, I felt that I could not accommodate or make sense of the religious stories that I learned about as a child with the scientific world view.

Reason Rules

During this time, I listened to the to the talks and YouTube videos of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – the so called ‘New Atheists’. These speakers demonstrated their intellectual prowess and intelligence through their lectures and debates which demeaned irrationality, wishful thinking and religion on the global stage. It was clear to me during this period of my life that science and reason was the far superior method for arriving at truth and generating knowledge.

Yet, something felt empty. The disenchantment of the world, that is viewing reality strictly though empirical facts felt cold and hollow – devoid of meaning. This ‘rational’ paradigm which is responsible for the great feats of the modern world could not provide me with a sense of purpose, a why.

The Classical and Romantic Divide  

For centuries philosophers have wrote about the tensions in our psyche between emotion and reason.  

In the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig presents this dichotomy in worldviews using the metaphor of a motorcycle.

The narrator, who has a keen interest in the technical nature of the machine’s operation, represents the classical mode of thought. Using a systematic and rational thinking, he is able to understand the nuanced mechanics of the motorcycle, and fix it when it is in need of repair. Broadly speaking, this character embodies the scientific way of looking at the world, detached from emotion and inner subjectivity.

On the other side of the spectrum in the novel are the Sutherlands – the romantics. They don’t take an interest in motorcycle maintenance, but rather see the machine as a thing of beauty – a spectacle. They prioritize the ascetic value of the experience synonymous with how an artist see’s thing, embracing creativity, imagination and visceral emotion.

Left vs Right Brain: Image Source

The question remains however if it is possible to appreciate and reconcile these two different world views. Moreover, must ‘truth’ be confined only to the realm of scientific inquiry in the modern age?

Two Different Worlds

It was upon reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth where I was first introduced to the cultural and symbolic meaning of myth.

Drawing upon the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Campbell argues that myths and symbolism embody the wisdom of the past, and provide a useful roadmap to help us navigate our inner psychological world. Campbell says that we shouldn’t view myth literally, but rather metaphorically.

Science describes accurately from outside; poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Having observed similar themes and motifs across different cultural myths across the globe, these reveal some fundamental truth about the human condition. Whether it’s a cautionary tale about greed, a romantic love story or a myth of personal triumph – these stories capture the core of our inner experience.

Greek Mythology: Image Source

Conclusion

Perhaps this framework of interpreting myths and symbols as practical guides to wisdom provides the missing piece in the puzzle that I was searching for. 

I can embrace the rational capacity of logic and science whilst viewing myth as stories as vehicles which contain deep-seated wisdom and guides to higher truths.

Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society

These two different approaches to interpreting the world can co-exist.  

The mythic paradigm provides a way to interpret different stages in my life, and offers inspiration to to venture unknown to overcome challenges and slay those proverbial dragons. 


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The Awesomeness of Awe

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I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.

It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.

We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.

Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.

It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.

As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.

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So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events? 

While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.

Need for Accommodation

Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms

This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’    

Vastness

Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.

As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,

The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.

                                                                

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Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.

Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.

Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.

This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.

Humility

While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.

In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.

Mental Health in a Time of Crisis: An Interview with Your Mind Matters

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In some earlier blog posts I have written about the rising concern of the mental health crisis in modern societies. In particular, I argued that the malaise and discontent we experience in our culture can be partially attributed to the individualism and consumerism that is promoted and admired in the West.

On a broad level, our sense ‘common purpose’ has fractured, as we have become more polarized and divided by our politics and individual differences. The social glue that once held us together has begun to fade.

Modern societies are facing a set of interwoven crises which Professor John Vervaeke says are symptoms of our loss of meaning and connection to the world, and to others. We’ve seen the following mental health issues scattered through the news headlines over the past few years. [1]

These existing issues of course will be compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

So, how can we cope during this difficult time? What insights can we learn from ancient wisdom and modern psychology?

I asked Vanessa from the mental health-based organization Your Mind Matters for some clarity. Part 1 of the interview is recorded below.  

 1. Tell me a bit about your organization and how you got started.

Your Mind Matters is a non-profit organization and mental health platform for mental health awareness, education and support. We provide information and resources to educate people about mental illness and provide peer support to individuals struggling, particularly youth.

I started it when I was in my undergrad at the University of Toronto and I was really struggling with mental illness and my own mental health problems and saw that so many others around me were as well. I then decided to start a student group on campus to raise awareness, inform students about mental illness and the prevalence for youth especially in a university setting, and provide resources on campus relating to mental health.

In doing this, I realized how important this work is and decided to practice mental health advocacy beyond university, so I turned Your Mind Matters from a student mental health awareness club into a non-profit organization.

It goes without saying, but my own struggles with mental illness fueled my passion for mental health advocacy and pushed me to start this organization.

Although mental illness sometimes knocks me down and pushes me around, it inspires me to make a change and keep pushing forward despite it all. It also keeps me going knowing how many people out there are struggling, and my own experiences have made me realize how hard it is and I never want people to feel that way, so I’ve decided to do what I can to help others.


2. In my personal experience, a lot of internal tension comes when you act in a way that does not align with your core values. What does the concept of authenticity mean for you, and how can we live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief?

Authenticity is so important to me and something I value very deeply on a personal level. To me, authenticity is stripping yourself down and taking off the mask and all those external layers and getting to the root and true essence of who you are, unapologetically and without shame or fear.

Think of it like an onion: you peel the layers one at a time and it makes you cry. But, when you strip all those layers and get to the root of who you are, you’ll find our who you are at its core and hopefully learn to accept and love that person underneath all the layers.

Authenticity and to be fully yourself is the most vulnerable form of bravery, but to me it’s the only option. It means knowing who you are and what you stand for and not straying from it or compromising yourself or your values. It’s having a clear sense of what your values are and upholding them however and whenever you can. To live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief, we first need to dig deep and learn about ourselves.

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We need to fully understand what these beliefs are and why we have them. We need to discover our intentions and our deeply rooted core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. And then we need to decide how we’re going to live a life that is congruent with our beliefs. It means doing things for yourself and not fearing judgment or ridicule and letting go of shame and guilt. Some people will not agree with us or like us for who we are, but that is okay. It is better to be who we are than to transform into someone we’re not just to satisfy someone else.

This means getting to know yourself and liking the person you are and then it’s being that person as much as you possibly can. It requires not really caring what anyone else thinks because your foundation is so strong and your values are so clear and concrete that no one can shake the core of who you are.

Authenticity is doing things because we’re intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated. It’s not having ulterior motives except being who we are and doing what we believe in on a fundamental level. It’s saying, “this is me, take it or leave it” and not caring if they “leave it” because you know that it’s their loss and that decision is more about them than it’s about you.

Being authentic is so hard these days and not easy to come across, but being an authentic person is such a valuable and coveted feat. There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.

To use another metaphor: it’s like a tree with roots that run so deep and that are extensively intricate and no matter how hard you try and shake the tree, it will not move. It is so strongly rooted and firmly planted in the ground that no external factors can shake it. That’s authenticity to me.

Having such a strong foundation that no one and nothing can shake. When you have roots that strong, it’s hard to be inauthentic. I think it’s important that we start appreciating authenticity as being the strength that it is, because it’s not seen often but it is needed so badly to create a world of more honesty, compassion and deeply rooted and upheld values.

There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.


3. Social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is easy to fall into the trap of judging our lives and our accomplishments in comparison with our peers. Do you have any advice on how we can be more accepting and kinder to ourselves?

As a disclaimer, I’d like to state that I should not be the authority on this topic because I absolutely am one to fall into the trap of comparison via social media. However, it’s something I am trying to unlearn. Self-compassion and acceptance are two big focal points of most of my therapy sessions and have probably become the overarching theme in most of them.

One thing I learned and have implemented that’s pretty life changing is talking to myself the same way I’d talk to a friend. It’s not easy, but if you think of it I’m pretty sure you’ve said some pretty mean things to yourself that you’d almost never say to a friend or someone you love. So then the question is, why do we say these things to ourselves? We need to start holding ourselves up to the same standard and treating ourselves with the same love and respect as we treat those we love.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough. We’re bound to make mistakes and be imperfect. What matters is that we learn from them and move on. Let yourself let go of the idea that you are inferior or less-than for whatever made up reason you’ve concocted in your head.

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Also, a note about social media: it’s all fake and nothing is at is seems. Trust me, I used to post nicely filtered pictures of me travelling and eating and acting all happy and like I was “living my best life” (a myth that I will not get into right now because then I’d never stop talking) when really on the inside I was hurting so deeply. It’s important to note that what’s on social media doesn’t actually represent people’s real lives at all and it’s harmful to think it does. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s a filter. And one last thing while we’re on this topic: comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t do it.

You can compare yourself today to who you were yesterday and that’s it. Comparing yourself not only to someone you’re not but someone you’re only seeing little curated and filtered snippets of through a screen is a recipe for unhappiness and low self-esteem. Look in the mirror often and learn to like what you see (and I’m not just talking about looks). Look inward. That’s where you find love and acceptance and self-compassion. Don’t expect anyone else to do this work for you.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough.


[1] Of note, I won’t get into the statistics here, but I will link to the relevant studies if your interested that show these trends.

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Stoicism: You Always Have a Choice

Writing about the horrors he endured during the holocaust, Victor Frankl reflects on a principle that is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states that:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. 

Frankl writes about the immense suffering that he and his fellow prisoners experienced in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. He nonetheless maintains that even in the most dire of situations, we still have the freedom and autonomy to decide how to react to external events.

This idea aligns with the Stoic notion of the ‘dichotomy of control’ which I explored in an earlier post. That is, we should focus our efforts on our inner dispositions, namely what is in our power. We ultimately can not dictate how the events in the outside world will unfold. However, the value judgements and perspectives that we assign to our circumstances is something that is up to us.

As the modern Stoic writer Ryan Holiday notes, difficulty does not have to be seen as a sign of weakness or defeat. Rather, challenges and obstacles offer unique opportunities to develop new skills and may provide us with the wake-up call we need to change our course of action. Sometimes what we initially perceive as failures may turn out to be ‘blessings in disguise.’ One of the more notable examples of this is the case of Apple founder Steve Jobs who was initially ousted from the company he created. Jobs didn’t let this define his life however. He used this as an opportunity to create and reshape existing companies (NeXT and Pixar) and critically examine his leadership style. Upon return to Apple in 1997, he led the charge in making Apple largest companies in the world.

The ability to step back from our emotional impulses and view things from a rational and objective viewpoint is an important skill to develop to navigate the ups and downs of life. Furthermore, we must always be aware of what we can and can not control. If one considers the key aspects of their lives, they will realize that many things are outside our scope of influence. We don’t choose our parents, our up bringing, the country or socio-economic status that we are born in. Stoicism can help us make the best out of the hand that we are dealt with in life.

Stoic philosophy can act as an antidote to a world that can sometimes feel chaotic and unpredictable. In fact, many principles of Stoicism are used in modern day cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat mental health issues including anxiety, substance abuse and depression. Some of similarities between the ancient school of philosophy and CBT[1] include:

  1. Using logic to question our irrational beliefs, assumptions or emotions
  2.  Accepting our circumstances, and refraining from assigning value judgements to events.
  3. Understanding what you can and can not control

In sum, both CBT and Stoicism emphasize the importance of constantly challenging your initial impressions or reactions towards events or circumstances. Furthermore, both doctrines advise us to slow down, look at events from a rational perspective and refrain from impulsive behaviour.

I will end this post with a quote from the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius which provides a good summary of key points in this article:

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII

Hope you enjoyed this week’s post. I will dedicate one more post on Stoicism and then move on to the philosophy of mindfulness.

AA


[1] If you would like a deeper dive into the similarities of CBT and Stoicism I recommend reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

A Look at Modern Spirituality: An Interview with Rosemary

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One term that seems to increasingly capture the values and belief systems of individuals in the West is ‘spiritual.’ Survey data from both Canada and the United States shows that more people are identifying themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

While organized religion provides its believers with a set of ethics and rigid practices, spirituality seems to be more fluid, subjective and open to interpretation. Consequently, this results in some ambiguity surrounding the term.

Personally, I have been thinking about how to define this term, and contemplating the meaning and implications of a spiritual life. Perhaps it means the belief in something greater than yourself or following the moral imperative to treat all of humanity with inherent dignity and respect. At its core I think spirituality is an attempt to find meaning, purpose and connection in the world. As Robert Fuller notes in his book Spiritual But Not Religious,

We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As part of this blog, I wanted to explore this concept of spirituality, and what it means to different people.

I met Rosemary in a yoga studio where she was one of my instructors. At the end of each class she would read quotes touching on topics of spirituality, some of which deeply resonated with me. So, I asked her a couple questions about what spirituality means for her.

1. What does the word ‘spiritual’ mean for you?

For me, the word spiritual means to be connected with your deepest self. I know that this word is pretty broad – but I think that it means exactly what comes to mind for the person it’s being asked to. For me, it’s finding your true purpose – and perhaps that’s just finding something to believe in (I.e. religion), or pursuing your true passion, or career path. We are all put on this earth for a reason: big or small – and we are all on a journey to find our purpose. Once we realise this, the person can become more spiritual as they connect with their spirit and deeper self.

2. What authors, ideas or practices helped shape your idea of spirituality?

Growing up Catholic, I was always inclined to believe in something more than just the physical. Once I started practicing yoga, I started to go a bit deeper and delved into my inner self. And that’s when I found Alan Watts. I was so drawn to his philosophy and adored his lectures that I began to play him in yoga classes that I taught. His work was such an inspiration to me, and through researching more about him, I discovered Eckhart Tolle (duh).

3. What does one living a spiritual life seek to accomplish?

I believe that they are seeking to accomplish either: discovering their purpose in life, or pure and sheer happiness/enlightenment.

4. Many contemplative and spiritual traditions touch on the concept of ego dissolution. This idea is that our sense of the ‘self’ is an illusion. Does this concept resonate with you at all?

Yes – I don’t believe that we are our ‘self’. I think that we experience our self, and that are souls are the true being.

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5. How does this idea of spirituality connect with the pursuit of happiness for you?

Back when I was completing my masters, I had countless moments where I kept asking myself, “what next” and “what’s the purpose of life”? I struggled with these questions almost every day. What’s going to happen after I graduate? Will I find a job? What’s the purpose of all this? Why are we here?

It wasn’t until I realised that we are just all on the pursuit of happiness.

6. Spirituality has gained a lot of attention recently. Any advice for people trying to find their footing and navigate this complex space ?

Our spiritual journey is ever-lasting and will constantly change. As you continue to explore your spiritually, some things will land on you, and others won’t. Be open to anything that comes your way – signs, books, readings, people. Hey, maybe even reading this article was a sign you needed.

If you are starting to find your foot, or if you ever feel lost, close your eyes and simply ask yourself, “who am I before anyone told me anything?” or “what do I believe in”?

It wasn’t until I realised that we are just all on the pursuit of happiness.

Navigating Polarization: A Roadmap

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One of the things that the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is the interconnectedness of the humanity. Technology has enabled us to develop global networks making the world much smaller. 

This has made it clear that many of the problems we now face are global in nature ranging from climate change to international finance.

Yet, our politics and dialogue have become more divisive. We retreat into our social media echo chambers failing to entertain opposing views.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I think philosophy can play a role here in mending polarization in society through carefully examining our beliefs and using reason and logic to come to sensible conclusions. Crafting the space for dialogue and accepting the degree of vulnerability necessary to have authentic conversations can enable us to be more tolerant of opposing views.

In order to do this however we have to adopt an earnest commitment to seeking truth. Yes, we can ultimately come to different conclusions after our own analysis. However, we don’t need hold resentment or contempt to those who oppose us.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that

Martin Luther King

Of course, there is no silver bullet response to this issue of polarization but here are some approaches which can help restore more authentic and genuine dialogue.

Socratic Questioning

If you have ever taken an intro to philosophy class you probably have come across the peculiar and intriguing figure known as Socrates. A man of ancient Greece, Socrates would openly challenge conventional wisdom and societal norms through rigorous questioning and dialogue.  

The Socratic method is meant to unpack our beliefs to assess whether they are backed by evidence and logically coherent. Through this we can identify potential inconsistencies and counter arguments for our convictions. 

This approach teaches us to assess our opinions with curiosity and inquiry like a scientist testing out various different hypothesis. Furthermore, it requires us to approach problems with a degree of humility and cultivate the willingness to change our minds if we are confronted with evidence that requires us to do so.  We can peel away the layers to expose the core values underpinning our beliefs, and perhaps start to see those whose opinions differ from ours with a sense of empathy and understanding.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates
Source : Max Böhme

Mindfulness and Non-Judgemental Awareness

As humans, we are fraught with bias continually jumping to conclusions without a thorough examination of evidence. Mindfulness and self-awareness can play a role here as an antidote to self-deception.  This practice allows us objectively be conscious of our passing emotions and sensations. Under stress, pressure and intense dialogue we often act on instinct rather rational thought.

If we were to take a brief pause to observe our bodily sensations, we can be aware of our racing heart rate, sweaty palms and maybe the fiery burning sensation in our chest. Rather than acting out on this, we can become mindful and accept these feelings and allowing them to pass.

Through awareness and acceptance, we can be in the driver’s seat to have greater control over our emotions during a heated conversation.  We can distance ourselves from these uncomfortable feelings and respond more rationally.  

Rule Omega

The notion of Rule Omega is an idea put forth by Jordan Hall, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jamie Wheel on the Rebel Wisdom channel. It holds every statement, even if it is contrary to our core values, contains some ‘signal’(truth) and ‘noise’(non-sense). Rather than focusing on the areas where we disagree, we can shift our attention to the aspects of our opponents’ statement that we can understand and sympathize with.

Andrew Sweeny summarizes this idea nicely below,

We desperately need to pay attention to people who are outside of our information bubble or ideological group. A good practice Schmachtenberger suggests we expose ourselves to multiple sources of media on the right and on the left. For example, a liberal could watch Fox News occasionally and a conservative could read The Guardian…………

The point is to venture into the places that make us uncomfortable, and try to see what part of the truth those ‘enemies’ hold. Sometimes a holy grail of truth is buried under a mountain of lies.

Source

One of the traits I want to cultivate through this blog as well as through my mindfulness practice is to try and look at issues from an unbiased and objective standpoint – to distance myself from my internal biases and judgements. Of course, this is not easy and will take practice and time as I strive towards the virtues of empathy, compassion and understanding.

I encourage all who are reading this, try stepping out of your information echo systems and make a genuine effort to try and understand different opinions and beliefs. You never know, you may see things in different light.

Authenticity and the Supply Chain

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Most of our lives are mediated by the unwritten rules of social convention. Our fashion, interests, language and ambitions are all in some way shaped by our desire to conform with the group. This deep-seated longing of course finds its roots in our evolutionary history. Previously living in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, being in good standing with the tribe was often a necessity of survival.  

This desire for social acceptance comes at a cost however. We become alienated from our authentic selves and become afraid of being open, honest and vulnerable. Many of us fear embracing our inner nature, and instead senselessly adhere to the conventions and path set out by society. This may perhaps bring us short-term pleasure as we attain social standing and status, but this strategy will eventually lead us to existential angst as the façade begins to unravel.

The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.

Jim Morrison
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As our realities our becomes increasingly shaped by the fictions glowing at us from our screens, we develop an unrealistic idea of what it means to be ‘normal.’ Social norms inform that we have to check off certain boxes and achieve certain milestones before we can feel justified in having a sense of accomplishment.  This pressure to conform to certain ideas is compounded by social media, advertisements and marketing try to shape our desires and sell us a certain lifestyle.

Pick up any newspaper or magazine, open the TV, and you’ll be bombarded with suggestions of how to have a successful life. Some of these suggestions are deeply unhelpful to our own projects and priorities – and we should take care.  

Alain De Botton

There is nothing inherently wrong with adhering to the expectations placed on you by society. I think it is important rather to be self-aware and cognizant of the underlying motives and rationale behind these decisions. Through critical self-examination we can get to know our selves a bit better in order to understand if we are truly acting and living authentically.

However, we must exercise caution and self-awareness in order to distinguish fact from fiction. Through marketing, advertisements and self-help gurus, modern society is fixated on the notion that we ought to be authentic, think different and ‘be our-selves.’ The risks we face in identifying with these ideas and brands is that they are attempts by advertisers to sell us a product (perhaps a new MacBook or a new pair of Nike sneakers) and have an influence on who we are.  

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This begs the question, what exactly is authenticity, and how can we live lives that are more attune to our inner desires, feelings and emotions. One way to do so is to acknowledge our vulnerability, and to come to terms with the fragility and flaws of the human condition.

Rather than hide from our mistakes or our strange idiosyncrasies, we can accept them. This is what makes us unique after all, and enables us to share our distinct perspectives about how we make sense of the world.    

No matter what your work, let it be your own. No matter what your occupation, let what you are doing be organic. Let it be in your bones. In this way, you will open the door by which the affluence of heaven and earth shall stream into you.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Due to digitization, interconnectedness and polarization of society, it can sometimes be more difficult to be authentic, truthful and vulnerable. In our social media driven world in which we express ideas in 140 characters or less, we can often be misunderstood or misinterpreted.  This incentivizes us to ensure that we are on the right side of what society deems to be ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable.’ [1]

Respectful and open dialogue is not only necessary for building social trust, but is also imperative for allowing us to discover and unveil our authentic selves.

What can be done to restore the open and honest dialogue needed to cultivate a greater sense of understanding, community and authenticity? I’ll explore this in another article but if you have any thoughts let me know in the comments.


[1] If you want to dive deeper on how mass media shapes and maintains conformity I highly recommend looking into Jordan Hall’s article Understanding the Blue Church

An Inner Voyage: Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

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People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul—

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book 4


Amidst the chaos and uncertain times we are living in during this global pandemic, I wanted to reflect on some wisdom from Marcus Aurelius that can help us reframe events and shift perspectives.

In this quote Marcus reflects on the notion that despite our external circumstances we can always find solace within.

Many of us seek to escape our day-to-day realities through retreat or travel. Travel can provide us with an opportunity to explore new landscapes, ideas, histories and cultures. Moreover, it offers us a temporary distraction from the ‘rat race’ and daily routines, in which we often operate in auto-pilot mode for.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world is directed to reside inside, refrain from travel and remain in isolation to stop the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, I think we can use this time as an opportunity to cultivate solitude, and become more acquainted with our inner selves.

Rather than finding peace or tranquility though retreat, Marcus urges us to find it within ourselves. This can be done through living in the present moment, self reflection and contemplation. We can become aware of beauty and intricacies of life that we often ignore because we are too busy to do so. In the horrors of the Holocaust, Anne Frank was able to relish in the simple pleasures that life had to offer at that time. A glance at nature to recharge, find stillness and take a glimpse at the sublime.  In her diary she writes,

“As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
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Once we learn to find contentment within ourselves, in the mundane, we can find it anywhere.

Stay safe, and remain resilient.

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Shaking the Snow Globe: A Theory of Psychedelics

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Admittingly, I was first hesitant to write about psychedelics. For better of worse, these substances have become associated with the anti-establishment and counterculture movements of the 1960’s. Consequently, psychedelics carry a lot of stereotypes and cultural baggage from the past. Nonetheless, after reading Michael Pollan’s fantastic book, How to Change Your Mind and looking into additional research I became convinced of the potential of psychedelics to bring about transformative experiences. If used under the guidance and supervision of trained medical professionals, psychedelics have been shown to have significant positive effects in mental healthcare.

Psychedelics which include substances such as DMT, LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) produce altered states of consciousness resulting in temporary changes to cognition. At a rudimentary level, psychedelics appear affect the brain’s serotonin system, fostering new neural pathways in the brain.

You may still be wondering, how one experiencing these peculiar and strange altered states of consciousness can have lasting effects on one’s perspective of the world, and effectively address a range of mental health issues.

One of the leading theories that seeks to explain how psychedelics affect the brain is Robin Carhart-Harris’ Entropic Brain Hypothesis. The theory develops a model in which different states of consciousness are ordered based on their level of entropy, or rigidity they encompass.

Many mental illnesses including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessions and eating disorders are characterized by inflexible thought patterns and fixed narratives we develop based on how we conceptualize the world. These illnesses narrow of perspectives, in which we become terrorized by our own destructive ‘egos’. Our incessant fears or past traumas become filters to how we shape our lives and view reality.  

On the other end of the spectrum are high entropic states of consciousness which are embodied by chaos. These states are characterized by disorder and flexibility.  Examples of high entropy mental states include infant consciousness, sensory depravation and psychedelic states. A basic diagram depicting this model can be seen below.

Robin Carhart-Harris Entropic Brain Theory

Psychedelics are particularly useful for individuals with on the ‘low entropy’ side of the spectrum.  They help disrupt negative patterns of thought which have become ingrained in our minds by introducing more flexibility – more entropy. Observed by scientists, when an individual is on psilocyn “thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information.”  A visual representation of the difference between a placebo (image A) versus a brain on psilocyn (image B) can be seen below.    

Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks 2014

 A hallmark of the psychedelic experience is ‘ego dissolution’, the disappearance of our sense of ‘self’, and a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Michael Pollan describes his experience with ‘ego dissolution’ on psilocybin

The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content.

 From a neuroscience lens, psychedelics decrease activity in the default-mode network which is considered to be region of the brain which is synonymous with ‘the self’ or what we call ‘I’. When activity in the default mode network falls off, the ego disappears temporarily liberating us from the excessive and unproductive ruminations of the mind. When this occurs, we can rid ourselves of destructive stories and ideas we hold dear, and have the opportunity to craft new narratives. 

Psychedelics may be a shortcut to achieving what long experienced meditators have been training years to attain, the relief from what Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ or the ‘no-self.’ In this state we are liberated from attachment, and the separation between subject and object disappears. At a minimum, psychedelics show us that there exist many different forms of consciousness and unique perceptions of reality that we can experience throughout our lives. This offers us a unique opportunity to view the world from a different lens.

  To quote William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience,

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness

William James: Author of The Varieties of Religious Experience

These are no doubt powerful substances which if used in the wrong context can have negative repercussions both on an individual and societal level. Nonetheless, if used in as a medicine rather than as a recreational drug in a safe and regulated environment, psychedelics can perhaps give us a momentary glimpse of enlightenment.

Next time I’ll explore in more detail what the clinical trials are revealing about the therapeutic use of psychedelics in mental health care. 

Till next time,

AA

The Torchbearers of Flow: A Mind like Water

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Interview with Silvio

‘Mushin’ is a term in Zen Buddhism which roughly translates to ‘no-mindness.’ It shares similarities to being in flow in that it describes a state of consciousness in which an individual experiences full concentration and mental clarity. In this state one is liberated from emotion and thought, and fully awake in the ‘now’. The movie icon Bruce Lee expands on the importance of flow in martial arts: 

“Flow in the total openness of the living moment. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.”

 I met Silvio in university, and after watching some of his karate performances online I immediately connected the dots between the practice of karate and flow state. Success in martial arts requires the delicate balance between surrender and discipline. Only through hard work and a dedication to one’s craft can a martial artist fully be present during their routine. Intuitive action and the flow of the routine relies on the muscle memory developed through extensive training.  

In this interview Silvio touches on the importance of karate in his life, how he approaches a competition and the connection between the flow state and his practice.

Silvio’s full responses were provided below.


  1. How did you first get into karate and how long have you been practicing?

I first started training kempo karate when I picked up on the fact that my father was always going. I naturally wanted to follow in his foot steps at 4 years old, and fell in love with the art ever since. I earned my blackbelts in both the styles of kempo and shotokan since then. I would train quite frequently when I was younger, on average 2-4 times a week. It was difficult to keep up at this pace during my university years, hence I would try to attend 1-2 times a week. My martial arts training has therefore expanded across 23 years.

2. What do you find most enjoyable about karate?

There are many aspects about karate I enjoy, however it really comes down to my personal journey of seek-perfection (the primary rule of shotokan karate’s dojo kun – rules of the training facility). I have used the skills and disciple of martial arts at various stages of my life, it just does not start and stop from one moment to the next. For example, the capacity to learn numerous katas (forms) is an incredible gift that allowed my mind to expand at an early age. Karate has also given me the confidence to break out of my bubble whenever the time has called. I have been blessed to also have lifelong friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds. Lastly, the tournaments are always a fun time where I can put my skills to the test, and travel across North America as I have done.

3. The flow state, other wise known as being ‘in the zone’, requires a delicate balance between surrender and discipline. With the high pressure of your routine, how do you exercise control and remain grounded in the present moment?

The more work and preparation I have put into performance has always produced great results. One has to accept standards, and work towards the level of basics that is needed to go beyond them. I like to work backwards and vision the goal ahead of time. I build on the foundation from there because the work you do prior to being in the zone will show. Whether it is a day, week, or months, your time and practice will speak volumes and says a lot against more naturally gifted individuals when the time arises. The practice of control and grounded naturally come the more and more I train, similar to anything.

4. When your in peak performance, and everything goes according to plan, how does it feel both during and after your routine? Does this relate to any of the ‘flow state’ characteristics?

Absolutely amazing to know I performed a strong, well-balanced routine with the right amount of kime (power), which has developed from the last performance as well has an abundance of energy and confidence. This can be related to many of the flow characteristics:

 Challengeskills based: My martial arts performance seems most relatable to this flow characteristic because it is important to accept the challenge (ie competition), and not feel overwhelmed by who is there. It is also engaging to test oneself against senior, advanced students as a way to improve.

 Clear Goals: It is very natural to have both short and long term goals in karate. One could be achieving different ranks of blackbelt, while striving to always get better at competitions. Regardless, one has a good awareness of what to do next if these goals do not go according to plan. 

Unambigous feedback: Unambiguous feedback, is quite common a lot because the sensei (instructor) are there to teach, provide feedback as one progresses. There are also judges at competitions that can provide feedback and what to improve on following the end of the competition.

 Concentration of the task at hand: Martial arts involve a great deal of concentration at the relevant moves and their appropriate application. It is common to see one who does a move and understands the purpose behind it, compared to one who does something for the sake of just doing it.

 Autotelic experience – It is not unusual to get lost in one’s performance. It is easy to understand whether one is just doing it for the sake of doing it, while bringing an abundance of energy and power to their routine.


Many thanks to Silvio for sharing his experiences. I have a couple more interviews in the “Torbeaers of Flow” series coming up soon.

Till next time,

AA

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Reverse Engineering Bliss: Hacking the Flow State

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:04KJER0243.jpg

High stake situations require complete and utmost concentration. Any distraction or lapse of judgement can shift your attention away from the present moment, hindering your efforts to achieve a state of effortless flow. This could make all the difference in the final moments of a championship game or dictate whether you are in peak performance mode when giving a big presentation at work. In the case of extreme sports, there is no room for error. For athletes such as free solo rock climbers, being in a flow state is a matter of life or death. Scaling a boulder thousands of feet above the ground demands one to be immersed in their climbing, and plunge into the here and ‘now’.

We do not need to perform dangerous or extraordinary feats to achieve a state of flow. Many of us at some point in our lives have achieved these states of consciousness in one form or another. We all have interests and passions that we pursue for there own sake, irrespective of any attention or other benefits we may gain from them. We engage in these activities in which we experience moments which distort our sense of time, optimize our performance, silence our ego and make our actions feel effortless.

For me as a musician, these flow states occur when I ‘let go’ of over analyzing what I am playing, forego the fear of failure and channel my emotions into my guitar. This is why I admire the late great guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. His live performances and remarkable solos are an exemplar of what is means to be in flow. Describing his 1969 Woodstock performance, David Moskowitz in his book The Words and Music of Jimi Hendrix writes,

The guitar solo in the middle of the song illustrated how lost in the music Jimi could be. He played for several minutes with his eyes tightly shut and the solo reached a climax with Jimi returning to his old trick of playing with his teeth.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jimi-Hendrix-1967-Helsinki.jpg

The question thus remains – are these just spontaneous fleeting moments that we experience at random? Moreover, can we attain these states in any sort of systematic way?

Building off the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Steven Kotler’s research identifies four triggers that can help you get in a state of flow.  

  1. Clear Goals:  In order to achieve a state of flow, one must have a concrete understanding of what they want to achieve. Having a clear set of tangible goals provides purpose and structure to your efforts and ambitions.  
  2. Immediate Feedback: Just as a musician knows if they have played the wrong note or the surgeon is constantly aware of status of their patient, immediate feedback is a significant requirement of flow. It enables us to continually alter our actions in response to the situation to achieve our desired result, and meet the necessities of the current situation.
  3. Concentration in the Present Moment: To be in peak performance mode, we must be immersed in the activity. High levels of concentration effectively narrow our attention on the task at hand. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his seminal  book Flow, during these states of consciousness:

Only a very select range of information can be allowed into our awareness. Therefore, all the troubling thoughts that ordinarily keep passing through the mind are temporarily kept out of abeyance. 

4. Challenge /Skill Ratio:  The flow state exists between boredom and anxiety. That is, it occurs when an individual is pursuing an activity that has the appropriate level of challenge for their skill level. For instance, a tennis match is most enjoyable to play when the two players are evenly matched. When a skilled player competes against  an amateur, they get bored as they lack the challenge and competition. They fail to utilize the full capacity of their skills. On the contrary, the amateur is filled with anxiety as they are stretched beyond their present level of competency.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucgaloppin/6324319992

We all strive to experience moments which send shivers down our spine. Moments which provide us with temporary respite from the daily grind – the rat race. Experiencing flow puts you in a meditative state, jolting you into the ‘now’, silencing the nagging thoughts and trivial problems that we ruminate on throughout our day-to-day existence.

We can get to these optimal experiences and experience flow through pushing our boundaries. By pursuing our unquenchable thirst for new challenges.  Through learning new skills, and continually seeking novelty and unique experiences.  

It all begins with finding what activities resonate with you. The sort of things that you pursue because they have intrinsic value to you – activities that you engage it not primarily for fame or fortune, but because you deeply love and admire them.

So, what gets you in the state of flow?

Till next time,

AA

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The Science of Mindfulness

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The practice of meditation may at first seem counterintuitive or foreign to the Western mind. With the abundance of digital technologies and entertainment options available to us, why would anyone abandon these luxuries to sit alone in silence. Surely there are more productive ways one ought to spend their limited time here on earth.

Yet meditation has become a recent cultural phenomenon.  According to one study, the number of people practicing meditation has tripled since 2012. The benefits of meditation have been boasted by a wide range of professions including athletes, musicians and educators. Furthermore, many practitioners have claimed that the practice can aid with a number of physical and mental ailments.

The intention of this article is to provide an objective account of what modern-day science is telling us about the benefits of meditation. While there are many different types of meditation techniques, I want to focus on one of the more popular practices known as mindfulness meditation.  As described by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, the practice involves, 

“A quiet awareness without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sense of ‘non-difference’ between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents – the various sounds, sights and other impressions of the surrounding environment”

Scientific Studies on Mindfulness Meditation

Scientific study into the practice of mindfulness has significantly increased over the past decade. While studies have pointed to a vast array of benefits from mindfulness meditation ranging from alleviating ailments such post traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure, some of these claims have been called into question due to poor experimental design. As Thomas Plante has noted in Psychology Today, many mindfulness studies do not incorporate randomized control trials in which meditation is compared to other established available treatments. 

However, there are a couple of key areas where concrete evidence is stacking up about the benefits of meditation. Some of these include,

  1.  A long-term meditation practice can increase resilience to stress

Meditation enables us to respond better to stressful situations. Studies have demonstrated that meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ reactions to events.  It seems that there are long-term effects in reducing the intensity of stress amongst long-term meditators. As noted in Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s book Altered Traits,

These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”

2. Improved Attention

The practice of mindfulness meditation requires an individual to be conscious of their wandering thoughts and to continue to bring their attention back to their breath. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that this would improve one’s ability to focus. Evidence has supported this claim.  

In one longitudinal study published in Springer’s Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers evaluated the attention span of individuals before and after they attended a 3-month meditation retreat. They found that after the retreat meditators were able to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.  After reassessing these participants 7 years after the retreat, many of the mental improvements were sustained amongst the participants. [1] 

3. May reduce psychological bias 

Humans are fraught with cognitive biases that distort our interpretation of reality. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions in instances where we have little evidence to support our beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,  

The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly upon the quality of the story they can tell about what they see even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence should be critical to our judgement is missing – what we see is all there is.

There is preliminary evidence that demonstrates that mindfulness reduces negativity bias which is our tendency to focus on negative events rather than positive even when they are equal in intensity. In one study, participants were shown images that induce positive (ie. babies) and negative emotions (ie. pain) while having their brains scanned. Participants who actively practiced mindfulness meditation were shown to be less reactive when they were shown negative images than participants who had no meditation practice.

Conclusion  

While research on mindfulness is still forthcoming, it is important to note that the practice is not a panacea for dealing with issues related to mental clarity and wellbeing. For those dealing with mental distress it can work as an aid in conjunction with other scientifically proven techniques.

From a personal perspective, I see the value of adopting a ‘mindfulness mindset’. That is, it enables us to view events from an objective perspective and refrain from jumping to conclusions or devising narratives to make sense of the unknown.  That is to say, it allows us to see reality how it really is.

Hope you enjoyed this article till next time,

AA


[1] Of note all participants in the study reported that they continued to meditate after the retreat to some degree.