The Artist

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The artist retreats into himself 
He closes his eyes and surrenders to his imagination 
His mind opens a gate to vast inner landscapes 
Time collapses, the heavens slowly unfold 

The artist loathes mundane ‘everydayness’
He raises his brow at the gossip, trends and fashion of the masses 
They are those who walk blindly, who worship false idols;
Who revere fancy things, shiny things, the kind in which envy brings  

For the artist, his path is clear 
He follows his call towards Truth and Beauty 
His pen is the hammer which frees us from the chains of conformity
His art shakes us out of the prison of ‘routine’ 
His words pull us towards the divine, the sacred 

The artist is our liberator 
He lights a flame deep within our souls, and
awakens us from our dogmatic slumber 
This paves the way towards authenticity and self-actualization 

The moment is fleeting yet urgent 
We receive our gift 
A new way of living,
A new way of being in the world

We scrape away the superficial rot amassed in our souls, and
seize the possibility of true freedom

For in order to find ourselves, 
We must first lose ourselves


 
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The Search for Wisdom in the Information Age

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How can we make sense of it all – the cynicism, arrogance and perpetual noise that is becoming ever more pervasive in our culture.

We live in strange times. Despite have access to almost unlimited information at our fingertips, we remain confused and overwhelmed.

Who am I to believe?

Who am I to trust?

The increasing sophistication of technology becomes anxiety inducing without the insight on how to use it to live well or enhance our wellbeing.

It is like we are drowning in a sea of facts without ability to know what is really important. These problems of discernment and sound judgement stem from the failure of our culture to adequately differentiate between knowledge and wisdom.

Although these two terms seem similar at first glance, it would be a mistake to conflate them.

Knowledge: Technical Know-How

Knowledge refers to one’s understanding and mastery over a subject and a certain set of facts. This can be acquired in school, training or other forms of education. Someone who is knowledgeable in a particular field has acquired a specific set of skills and has the capability of coming to conclusions about a given subject area.

However, just because an individual has acquired mastery over these facts doesn’t imply that they are able to make wise judgements about how to use them. We all know examples of those who have a high degree of intelligence but no basic ‘common sense.’ This often leaves us baffled or scratching our heads. Furthermore, intelligence says nothing about one’s ethical or moral foundations. Someone who is a brilliant student can lack kindness and compassion.

Scientific knowledge and technological advancements have given us modern humans great power and control over the natural world. However, without the wisdom to accompany them, these advances have been used towards destructive ends. Building nuclear weapons, addicting consumers through digital media and expediting environmental destruction are all consequences of using technology to satisfy self-centered and egotistical goals.   

Wisdom: Perspective, Character and Judgement

Wisdom is more than the acquisition of merely technical skills. It involves using perspective and discernment to apply one’s unique skills in specific circumstances. Moreover, it requires one to acquire virtues working towards mastering the art of living. Wisdom can’t be learned in textbooks but rather by actively participating and engaging in the world. That is to say it must be embodied in one’s character and disposition.

Through experimentation, experience and trial and error one is able to learn from their mistakes and strive to be in the right relationship to both themselves and others. Wisdom enables us to cut through alienation, self-deception and enhance our connectedness to the world around us. 

The Long and Winding Road

So how do we attain wisdom?

This has long been the role of religions and spiritual traditions. Religious figures such as Jesus, Confucius or the Buddha etc. were exemplars who an individual could aspire to in search for truth, beauty and goodness.

In a secular society however, I think the humanities and liberal arts (i.e., literature, history, philosophy) can offer a means to contemplate the big moral and ethical questions of our time. These subjects provide insight into different ideas, cultures and perspectives offering the learner to consider what it is like to ‘be in someone else’s shoes.’ They provide collective insights into what it means to be human both in the past, and in our current day and age. The humanities also enable us to look at the prevailing social norms and customs of our society with a critical lens. Honest and respectful discussion about the values can inspire empathy, understanding and greater co-operation.

Not all problems are technical in nature. Solutions to complex problems often require shifts in our perspectives or value structures, namely changes in how we see the world. This means that we cannot rely only on scientific advancements for the pressing global issues we face but also need shared wisdom and distributed sense making.

The path towards wisdom varies from person to person. It can not be bought or learned through persuasive yet deceptive self-help gurus. Not every answer to our questions can be found on Google.

Wisdom requires work, action and perseverance.

More importantly, it can only be found within.


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Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

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This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

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