The Intuitive Self – A Discussion with Dante

The nature and question of the sacred has been contemplated by humanity since the dawn of our species. Philosophers, mystics and theologians have spent countless hours in an effort to develop rituals and frameworks to establish a path towards the sublime.

This begs this question however if the notion of the sacred can be fully comprehended by the finite individual. Perhaps rather it is a feeling, emotion or instinct that can only be known by our intuitive, self outside the scope of the rational mind. One of the most explicit representations of this idea can be found in the Tao Te Ching, Daoism’s seminal text. 

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name

Lao Tzu

I will explore this notion in future posts, but for now I will introduce Dante who provided his perspectives on spirituality, and introduced us to his contemplative practices in the interview below. I met Dante through Rosemary and we connected over our mutual interest in Nietzsche, particularly the notion of Amor Fati (love of Fate). I asked him some questions and he provided his responses below.    




  1. How would you define spirituality?

It varies from individual to individual, so I will give you a definition that only applies to my perspective.

Spirituality is a sensitivity towards recognizing reality from a position independent of the ego.  The ego (or subjective sense of self), is blinding towards the state of things as they are.  There is a famous quote: “we don’t see things the way they are, we see them the way we are”.  For one to be “spiritual” one must only have this sensitivity, a desire to see things the way they are.  I don’t see it as inevitably seeking some truth or reality. Rather it is more akin to seeking the discernment to recognize reality when it is presented.  I make this distinction because the truth may come, or it may not, but the ability to recognize it is where the value lays.   

2. What types of spiritual practices do you engage in?

Since abandoning all the major world religions one after another through my childhood, I’ve learned to simplify my practice.

A daily meditation practice is the crux of my practice.  I take my meditations from a variety of sources, and practice what I need to practice.  It takes pieces out of Vedanta, Buddhism, Yoga and secular neuroscience, and blends them into an East-West hybrid that suits my needs quite well. 

One can only sit in quiet meditation for so long before going broke and getting kicked out of their apartment, so I’ve adapted to apply my meditative practices into my vocation.  Modern neuroscience shows states of “flow” in activity induce similar brain function as compared to states of deep meditation.  So when I am doing a job I really enjoy, I find flow states very meditative. This is important to me because I like living in the city.

Finally, I think the most valuable part of my practice to me is the practice of service.  To me, the real value of my practice is the ability to do good in this world.  Volunteer work, mentoring, a kind word, a piece of advice, or even picking up some trash in the park, is an irreplaceable part of my spiritual practice.

3. The Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow said “Science has made a house cleaning of belief.” One of the predominant paradigms in the 21st century is that of technology and scientific progress. How do you reconcile scientific fact with spirituality?

This is an important question for me.  As a scientist and an engineer, I have found many challenges in diving into spiritual practices. 

As I continue to learn more about both in my practices, I have decided for now that the two need not be reconciled.  To me, it is like the night sky is to the day.  The two exist on different planes, have different purposes, don’t understand each other and perhaps never will. But they both have an important place in the world, and thus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, should be appreciated and admired for the value they bring.

4. As we grow older, we develop more rigid patterns of thinking, and it can become easy to fall into mundane routines of everyday life. How do you deal with these issues, and maintain a connection to your spiritual purpose?

Learning stops once the mind perceives existence as mundane. 

My solution to this is to remain childlike (to recall Nietzsche’s famous allegory).  The child “is innocence and forgetting…a sacred Yes”.  In this state one is able to create, to will existence through the creative energy the child wields so freely.  Children are capable of learning at an astonishing rate, and psychologists have linked this to their sense of wonder and play.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment.  We’re biological meat sacks flying through infinity on a rock.  There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky that keeps us alive but can also give us cancer.  Looking at the world through this childlike perspective keeps me from falling into the trap of growing up in the conventional sense.

5. It seems like spirituality and eastern contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga have become increasingly popular in recent years. How do you make sense of this trend? 

I think every human has an intrinsic sensitivity to spirituality as I have described it in question one.  Since the beginning of time, people have sought to understand our state of existence.  We find a strange solace in seeing that is bigger than just our selves (or our egos).  This is just a swing of the pendulum of human consciousness.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment. 

On the Duality of Life

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Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final

Ranier Maria Rilke

Regardless of who we are or where we are born, we cannot escape one of the most inevitable experiences in life, the certainty of suffering. While we desperately try to find stability, we soon realize the inherent state of change and decay in the world. Birth and death, love and loss, pain and pleasure – life is an intricate interconnected web of opposing forces. 

Faced with the negative aspects of this duality we are given two options – to escape or to embrace. Nietzsche argued that personal transcendence and fulfilment require us to overcome our difficulties. To affirm both the good and the bad experiences is to accept and acknowledge our existence as human beings. As Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays,

We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of dischords as well as different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.

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The French philosopher Albert Camus reflects on the story of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was condemned by Zeus for his deception and immoral behaviour. His eternal punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down once he reached the top of the summit.

Camus uses this story as an analogy of his philosophy of absurdity. The Myth of Sisyphus represents the conflict between our innate search for meaning and order and the seemingly random and indifferent nature of the universe. Despite the absurdity of Sisyphus’ punishment, he writes ‘we must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ Camus believes that the best alternative for Sisyphus is to accept and come to terms with his circumstances embodying the notion of amor fati – loving one’s fate.

We can also opt to find meaning in our suffering, and seek for the lessons it can teach us. We can tolerate these hardships if they are the necessary steps, we must endure to reach a higher-level goal. Fulfilment comes to us not when we take the path that is most convenient but rather the road less travelled.

Compare the euphoria one gets after a tough hike up a mountain versus an individual who takes a car or gondola. It is precisely the trials and tribulations we endure during the difficult hike which makes our enjoyment of the peak so much more meaningful.

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An appropriate metaphor for these philosophical ideas is that of the artist. An artist can use difficulty and hardship as resources for their creation. They turn melancholy, sadness and confusion into beauty and awe. As Nietzsche brilliantly writes,  “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” We are attracted to great art because it accurately depicts the vast range of emotions we experience – from hope, to sorrow and self-understanding.

Alain de Botton notes in his book The Consolations of Philosophy,  

What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.

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Hence, I think it is important to remember that what seems immediately pleasurable to us may not be good for us down the road, whereas unpleasant experiences may be help us cultivate the positive virtues we need.

Amor Fati and The Acceptance of What is Necessary

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This idea of surrendering ourselves to something beyond our control is foreign to our natural inclinations as human beings. At our core we are meaning making creatures who tirelessly seek to rid the world of uncertainty, and have power over our natural environment. We develop myths, rituals, belief systems, and socio-political institutions all in an attempt to influence the outcome in our favour – to shape our own destinies. According to the author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the development of culture is humanity’s attempt to reduce the inherent unpredictability of the external world, to make order out of chaos.

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Despite the sophisticated technologies and narratives we develop, we remain at the mercy of Fate.  Our attempts to tame and influence the external world to our favor are futile at best. A friend gets suddenly ill, a natural disaster tears apart our community, we don’t get the job that we think we deserve. Through this we learn about the indifference of the universe. This idea is further exemplified in Seneca’s brilliant prose,

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves…….. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within

Seneca: On Tranquility of Mind

What philosophy and ancient wisdom teaches us is to embrace hardship and uncertainty rather than run away from it. Rather than seeking comfort or security, we must willingly plunge into the abyss – the great unknown. Leaning in to fear and discomfort is where growth and personal transcendence happens.

Plagued with a life of hardship and illness, Fredrich Nietzsche found solace in idea of Amor Fati, the love of fate. In his book Ecce Homo he writes,

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.

Nietzsche is not asking us to endure what happens to us, but embrace it – love it. To accept times of embarrassment, despair and remorse is to comprehend that every experience shapes who we are and who we become. To embrace Amor Fati is to come to terms with who you are. It is not a call to resignation nor apathy. Rather it is an understanding of the inherent vulnerability of the human race, and an acknowledgement of the fact that there are things we can and cannot control. 

When I first came across this concept I was completely captivated, so much so that I wanted to get a tattoo (still forthcoming) of the phrase to have the opportunity to constantly be reminded of its significance. It’s a prompt that will encourage me that we always have the power to reshape or reframe events to give them a new meaning.  

We are too quick to judge and interpret situations without taking a broader perspective. Both Buddhism and Stoicism teach us that events in themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. Rather it is up to us to decide how we can interpret them.  While a time of hardship or difficulty may seem insidious in the present moment, you may look back on this period in retrospect as one of transformation and personal growth.

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Like the Stoic philosopher Seneca alluded to, in some shape or form we are all chained down to something beyond ourselves – be it the will of Nature, Fate or Fortune. Instead of engaging in a senseless fight against what is outside of our influence why not embrace it with open arms. Why not take ownership over it and imagine this was something destined for you?

 In times of doubt, chaos or uncertainty , remember Amor Fati. I can see of no other way to live.  

Till next time,

AA