“Follow your blisters”

There’s an apocryphal account that Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and mythology and originator of the ‘follow your bliss’ saying, was unhappy with the hedonistic misinterpretation of his theme, and exclaimed:

I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.’

The original quote was apparently a reference to the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda: the threefold attributes of Brahman as ‘being’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘bliss’; not, it seems, an injunction to pursue freelance writing, or become a professional baker of cupcakes because that’s where you feel happiest.

Nonetheless, that’s how most people seem to understand it: do what makes you happiest and the path will open, and there are plenty of stories of successful people who took a chance based on doing what they loved.

But Campbell’s follow-up is equally apposite, because the whole point about doing what you love is that you are able to throw yourself into it more fully, to derive meaning from it, and therefore stand a better chance of excelling at it.

Take writing, for example: I’ve put more effort into two months of writing than I did in six to nine months of regular paid employment. It’s not that I shirked my responsibilities, just that initiative was not encouraged, and the work we were given was rather tedious and mediocre.

But because I love writing, I can put in comparatively huge amounts of effort and it feels like nothing. The effort still takes a physical and mental toll, but love of the work leaves me strangely oblivious to it, until I start wondering why I can no longer form sentences and my eyes feel like they’re filled with fine sawdust.

The fact is that Campbell’s transcendent Upanishadic triad of ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ and the more mundane idea of doing what you love do converge. In doing what you love, practising your art and your skill, pursuing something of the utmost meaning, you do in fact approach an experience of transcendence that accelerates and deepens your efforts. You love it all the more because it takes you beyond yourself, and brings you back with an even greater determination to transform this mundane reality, ordinary life, into something far more special, blisters and all.

Happiness ensues…

A friend just sent me this article on the work of Victor Frankl and the idea that pursuing meaning is more important than pursuing happiness:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,”

http://www.businessinsider.com/a-lesson-about-happiness-from-a-holocaust-survivor-2014-10?IR=T

My only criticism of the article is that it describes the utility or benefits of having meaning in life, which seems to undermine the whole point of looking for meaning over happiness. Is it just me, or shouldn’t the value of meaning be self-evident?

What does it take to be a writer?

My goal at this stage is to make enough money from my writing that I don’t have to return to the kind of absurd job I just left.

That might sound like an impossible goal, or at least a very difficult one, but at this stage merely ‘surviving’ as a writer is highly preferable to the kind of situation I was in previously.  If I could earn half of my previous income from writing, I would consider myself very fortunate.  If I could earn a quarter, my family could survive comfortably.

Whether that is plausible, or sustainable in the long term remains to be seen.

Here’s what I’ve achieved so far:

In a little over a month I’ve spent more than 80 hours working on articles.  That’s just over 3.5 solid hours of work each weekday.

I’ve written 10 viable articles, 5 of which have been published so far.  Including drafts, I’ve written more than 20,000 words.

This doesn’t include research time, general reading time, and all the other things I spend my time on, such as my Phd, and changing dirty nappies.

It’s a huge amount of work, and I find I have to keep reminding myself how much I’ve done so I don’t wander around wondering why I feel so fatigued.

I’ve been rejected several times, and while it’s disappointing, the greater frustration lies in not being able to keep working.  A successfully published article brings me a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.  It confirms that I’m on the right track, and motivates me to write more.

It’s important not to get too dejected when the work slows down.  There are always other things to do, like reading and study to expand your knowledge and enrich your understanding. Even though being unable to progress leaves a bad taste in your mouth, it’s important to do something productive, even if it’s just taking a walk or relaxing with friends.

At the same time, dissatisfaction is part of what motivates writers, or at least it motivates me as a writer.  I write in part because I am dissatisfied or perplexed or frustrated by aspects of life that aren’t what they ought to be.  Writing is a way of trying to bring down to earth a more ideal vision of how the world could be.  It’s rarely that explicit, but there’s always some glimmer of excitement and joy at the possibility latent in the language.

 

 

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.

The unexamined iphone is not worth buying

Reader dtcwee, keeping me honest, notes in regard to the previous post:

I think there is a type of shallow goal that still needs investigation. That of a shallow goal which ‘normal’ society earnestly believes is worthy. There is no intended deception or wilful negligence here. Indeed, this could be quite important, for how would you otherwise know if you have embarked in good faith towards a goal of no substance?

So far we’ve looked at naive people pursuing genuine goals with shallow efforts, and duplicitous people pursuing shallow goals that masquerade as genuine.  But what about people who, under the influence of societal norms, accept and work towards shallow goals in good faith?

Implicit in the question is a critique of societal norms, and hence a rejection of mainstream assessments of shallowness.  While we’ve looked at naive people and duplicitous people, either category could potentially be recognised as shallow by the mainstream given the right circumstances.

But critiquing mainstream norms as shallow is clearly not something the mainstream can accept.  Things are getting serious…

Firstly, critiquing mainstream norms in any fashion is likely to annoy or upset a lot of people.  Secondly, despite criticisms mainstream norms do have certain benefits: it’s better to be obese when the mainstream is obese than to be an unusual obese outlier with a set of expensive medical requirements. Anyone with a rare disease can tell you that increased incidence translates into all sorts of indirect benefits, while rarity may leave you with underdeveloped research and under-subsidised treatments.

Or in terms of mainstream financial choices: if a bank can be too big to fail, can an over-mortgaged majority be too big to face the consequences of bad decisions?

Importantly, the critique of mainstream norms has to come from somewhere; we need a vantage point from which to say that the mainstream is shallow.

Religious and philosophical perspectives have served us well in this regard, from Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, to Christ’s “But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”

The most basic level of critique falls in line more with Socrates than with Christ, and that is the simple question of whether our goals are chosen by us or chosen for us by the mysterious processes of societal norms.  To have unexamined goals is to have no personal role in determining the value of your objectives. It is, in a sense, to be slave to the will and whims of the majority.  It’s almost as though one’s true goal in such circumstances is to want what everyone else wants, or simply to take the ‘safest’ route of following conventional wisdom, trusting in the security of numbers.

In this sense, the shallowness lies in one’s acceptance of conventional goals, the unexamined life, the reflexive urge to do what everyone else is doing.  In this context, the critique from a position of depth is that one is not truly thinking about or engaging with one’s goals and actions, and as such the goals and actions are not truly one’s own.

This is neither a shallow effort at a genuine goal nor a shallow goal masquerading as a deep one, but a shallow approach to goals that, ideally, ought to be closely examined and existentially integrated.

Some people copy the mainstream for purely pragmatic reasons, fully aware of what they doing; a minority examine life and decide that the mainstream norms are truly what they want. But for others there is, perhaps, a common characteristic of self-deception: the failure to acknowledge that you might be simply buying into the hype and marketing of a lifestyle and goals the merits of which are, to you, ultimately unknown.

 

 

Style over substance

Intrepid commenter dtcwee asked:

what role does the goal play in determining whether an endeavour is shallow? What is a shallow goal? And can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

Appearances are always more shallow than reality.  The phrase “style over substance” is pejorative because we take for granted that substance is almost always more important than style, such that an inversion of priorities is contemptible.

Goals that invert or disrupt natural priorities may be considered shallow, like putting style before substance.  For example, an academic whose goal is to obtain a high number of publications, but who isn’t concerned with the quality or significance of his work.  A singer who wants to be high on the charts but doesn’t really care about how he gets there.  Or a multitude of bloggers, youtube account holders, and other social media fanatics who desperately want to somehow get rich, but don’t have any genuine motivation or inspiration behind their content: – these can all be considered people with shallow goals.

But is this really different from the previous post where we defined shallow endeavours as instances where “the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal”?

I think they are different, because in the examples given above the goals are quite specific and oriented toward the defect we are calling ‘shallowness’.  These are not cases where the academic mistakenly thinks his shallow efforts to merely get published are appropriate to his position.  No, a shallow goal contains a kind of duplicity or deception, like a shoddy good masquerading as something of quality.  Whereas a shallow endeavour might see someone totally out of their depth, a person with a shallow goal is quite able to achieve it.  The value of the shallow goal lies in deceiving people, finding shortcuts, cutting corners, and so on.

But as with the previous case of the shallow endeavour – a shallow effort directed toward a genuine goal – it is only with the benefit of greater knowledge that we can label the shallow goal as somehow deficient.  It is ‘shallow’ relative to the normal expectations, in the same way that a product or service is considered defective according to established norms.

I’m sure we’ve all come across situations where people have, in good faith, attempted to undertake a project vastly beyond their abilities.  But many of us have no doubt also come across situations where people have, in bad faith or cynicism, tried to pass off a half-arsed job as the real deal.

The terminology here is far from definitive, because the original intention was to clarify depth rather than shallowness.  In that case, what really matters is that we have so far described two cases of insufficient depth – one intentional and one unintentional.

In this context, how should we answer the second part of the question:

can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

In theory it can, though the scenario would be somewhat comedic, in that it would imply a person so dedicated to a shallow goal that their efforts become disproportionate to the goal and do approach depth.

Take, for example, the Swedish film ‘The Swimsuit Issue‘ in which a group of middle-aged Swedish men become involved in synchronised swimming as a joke, but start to take it seriously and end up competing in major competitions.  There are other examples that will come to mind later, but the point is that there can indeed be depth in the pursuit of a shallow goal, however, the depth seems to engage and transform the character in new ways, such that by the end the nature of the goal itself has changed, and is perhaps no longer shallow.

 

 

 

 

Lost in the Process

In a previous post on the challenge of communicating ideals, we noted that:

It is counter-intuitive for someone in the midst of their philosophical journey to turn to others and say “You see how much I have gained? You see the skills I have developed and the rewards those skills have brought me? You see how satisfied I am in my pursuit of philosophy?”
Instead the philosopher is intent on the horizon, on the limits of his understanding. It is hard for someone always focusing on his limits to start telling others about his strengths.

This is what we might call being lost in the process, except that ‘lost’ conveys a negative impression, and ‘process’ a far too neutral one. It would be much better to say that what began as a minor interest or limited pursuit with clear motives or distinct goals will, given sufficient time and attention, become ingrained in your life without clear limits, motives, or goals. Years later, you may have forgotten why you started; you may have no idea why you continue; you don’t know where it will end.

But if you turn your mind to it, you might find the right perspective once you put aside the usual justifications or utilitarian rationalisations. I realised, for example, that I could not to my own satisfaction communicate the value of philosophy under the guise of a ‘search for answers’, since it appears that one’s readiness to proclaim answers diminishes in proportion to the duration of one’s search. Nor could I defend philosophy as a means of developing one’s critical capacity, since this would imply I had some other important field of work for which philosophy was merely preparatory.

To be honest, the most appreciable value of philosophy is that it has become for me a source of deep and unparalleled enjoyment. The search for answers is part of it, as is critical thinking, imagination, history, insight, perspective, struggle, and accomplishment. In short, it is an adventure, one more thrilling than any work of fiction and more real than the superficialities of daily life. It costs next-to-nothing in financial terms, nor can it be purchased and enjoyed except through the serious commitment of one’s own time and intellectual resources.

It may be a little hyperbolic, but the next time someone asks me why I study philosophy I can tell them sincerely: it’s an adventure; I love it.