The knight of faith against the absurd

There’s an amazing analogy in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about what he calls the knight of faith. This is the summary from wikipedia:

Kierkegaard’s Silentio contrasts the knight of faith with the other two, knight of infinite resignation (infinity) and the aesthetic realm’s “slaves.”

Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world. A person who is in the aesthetic stage would abandon this love, crying out for example, “Such a love is foolishness. The rich brewer’s widow is a match fully as good and respectable.”

A person who is in the ethical stage would not give up on this love, but would be resigned to the fact that they will never be together in this world. The knight of infinity may or may not believe that they may be together in another life or in spirit, but what’s important is that the knight of infinity gives up on their being together in this world; in this life.

The knight of faith feels what the knight of infinite resignation feels, but with exception that the knight of faith believes that in this world; in this life, they will be together. The knight of faith would say “I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” This double movement is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility.

“But by faith, says that marvellous knight, by faith I shall get her in virtue of the absurd.”

There’s always been this tension in Christianity between faith that can “move mountains” and the ideal of saying to God “thy will be done.”

There’s a tension between Christ saying:

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

And:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’ve never seen this tension resolved in an elegant way until Kierkegaard – or how I’m interpreting him.

The usual interpretation I’ve seen is that we’re like kids asking our parents for something: we can ask and ask nicely, and keep our hopes up, but in the end we have to accept whatever our parents decide.

In other words, it diminishes the “whatever you ask for in prayer” side of things so as not to unduly upset the “thy will be done” aspect.

God’s word is final. Maybe your father wouldn’t let you go to the beach with your friends like you wanted, but he’s still your father and you still have to maintain a relationship with him. So acquiesce. Submit.

Faith and the absurd

I think what makes Kierkegaard’s answer different is that the subject of his desire – his love for the princess – is not something chosen or elected. It’s not as though Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is praying for God to help him win the lottery.

Instead, the knight of faith is in love with the princess. It’s a state he finds himself in by God’s will. He didn’t choose it. He didn’t look around and think “a princess…now that would be pretty sweet.”

The knight’s faith is that he and his love will be together in the finite world despite the apparent impossibility of such an outcome.

“I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”

This faith arises not in tension with “thy will be done” but in complete conformity with it.

Kierkegaard depicts Abraham sacrificing Isaac as the epitome of the knight of faith, because God had promised Abraham his descendants would number like the starts in heaven, He had given Abraham a son despite his wife Sarah being beyond child-bearing years, and then…then He demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son to Him.

Abraham’s faith was complete because it was grounded in God’s promise to him, in God’s own will. God had given him a son, and God then asked him to sacrifice the boy while having promised Abraham descendants numbering like the stars. It was absurd. And the only answer to absurdity was faith.

I think Kierkegaard framed it differently, and to his own tragic suffering (and that of his beloved Regine) he failed to overcome the absurdity of a finite world where self-doubt and persistent melancholy drove him to abandon his princess.

For me the answer is close to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. When we consider what God has given us in life – the love we bear in a finite world full of apparent obstacles and reasons to fear and doubt – we have a choice.

Is the world absurd? Or do we have faith in God’s promises, in the goodness of his will?

In all aspects of life we can doubt and fear and convince ourselves to accept the circumstances of this finite world as definitive. Like Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, we carry on our hopes and our loves internally, in a spiritual aspect.

Like the insipid notion that the dead live forever “in our hearts”, or that Christ’s resurrection is a metaphor for how his spirit was “kept alive” by his disciples…

If you have faith in the power that creates and sustains this finite world, then infinite resignation really is absurd.

Either our hope and our love are the will of an all-powerful and loving God, or this world is absurd.

Faith or absurdity. It’s an easy choice, but most of us get lost in objections, complications, doubts and fears, without realising that entertaining these distractions is itself a choice.

I can’t imagine how life will work out. But in faith I know that it shall work out, and work out joyously, because otherwise the entire thing is absurd. And I already know it’s not absurd.

Kierkegaard didn’t make it. I wonder if he got stuck in infinite resignation, putting too much stock in the restrictions and constraints of the finite world, putting too many conditions of his own on God’s will.

But if we’re promised that faith can move mountains, then infinite resignation must cease. We can’t stay resigned to the apparent impossibility of God’s will being fulfilled. Nothing is impossible for God.

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

I’ve never been a faithful person. But circumstances have brought it out of me. I’ve never had anything that forced me to challenge the apparent absurdity of life, but God’s will gave me something at last.

“Nothing will be impossible for you” is not about being powerful or some promise of spiritually-charged landscaping. It’s about knowing the will of God and the rule of love, unfolding and expanding through this finite reality.

Nondualism and working on yourself

The aim of contemporary nondualist teaching is to change the way we interpret our experience of reality.

I remember as a young child returning to school at the start of a new term. The teacher asked us to share with the class what we had done for the holidays.

I still recall the sudden and startling realisation that these children had all gone on with their lives while I was going on with mine. They had continued to exist even when they weren’t part of my experience. While I had been visiting relatives interstate, they each had their own experiences and adventures unfold at the same time.

This realisation represents what Joel Morwood from the Center for Sacred Sciences calls ‘reification’: turning a thought, an impression, or a form into a thing.

In that childhood moment, my friends and classmates went from being aspects of my experience, to becoming nascent things – people in their own right with their own equally subjective inner worlds.

I began to think about how I appeared in their experience, akin no doubt to how they appeared in mine.

This is the path we all take as we develop and grow in life. We form deeper conceptual representations of a reality extrapolated from the rules and regularities of our own experience. I’ve never seen inside another person’s head, but at some point, by induction, it made sense to believe that there is such a thing as the inside of other people’s heads.

This isn’t a bad or false conclusion to reach by any means. The aim of nondualism is not solipsistic, that “I alone exist”.

The problem is that our world-building, our reification of our own experiences and extrapolation into an external reality begins to overshadow the immediacy and character of our actual experience.

We start to imagine ourselves as isolated individuals operating in an objective reality of which we partake imperfectly through our senses and our consciousness.

We develop fears, cravings, anxieties, and doubts as well as hopes and dreams that all depend on what feels like our understanding of objective reality, but is functionally indistinguishable from imagination.

Our experience is dominated by rules, expectations, and doubts that are disconnected from experience itself. Like a child whose personality is shaped by early trauma, we take aspects of early experience and keep them alive as thoughts, beliefs, imagination, until they constrict and distort our present and future experience also.

What nondualism wants us to do is to step back from the reification of elements of our experience, and begin to recognise our conscious experience itself as primary.

It wants us to recognise that most of what we call ‘reality’ exists only as beliefs or imagination derived – often haphazardly – from past experience. We put too much stock in these often emotionally-loaded beliefs and imaginings, when the truth of our experience is far richer and more fulfilling.

The details get a little esoteric, but what motivates nondualism is the realisation that the true character of our experience is one of love and bliss. The relationship between our own consciousness, the forms we experience, and the creative power or God behind it all is described by the various mystics as non-dual. Yet there exists the illusion of duality, and in that illusion suffering and fear and misery all arise.

In my own life I’ve found time and time again that reifying my experience exacerbates all my problems and my struggles. It leaves me thinking and feeling that the causes of my problems are “out there” in the world, rather than in my own heart and mind.

Because on closer examination, it is always in my own heart and mind that resistance, error, fear and mistrust reside. I might see hurt and rejection coming to me from other people, but on reflection I find that any external manifestation of these painful events is preceded by my own internal embrace of hurt and rejection.

It’s as though I approach life expecting to suffer and be disappointed, and in subtle ways this expectation leads me to want things I know I can’t have, or approach people and events with unconscious resistance and defensiveness.

Viewing life first and foremost as my experience, to the extent of my field of consciousness, forces me to take responsibility for the underlying causes and influences within me.

Why do I want hurt and rejection, or disappointment and struggle to be part of my experience? In what way have I internalised and kept these elements of past experience alive into the present? What would I prefer my experience to reflect? Do I truly want love and joy as the foundation of my experience, or am I subtly resisting and rejecting them?

How would I really feel if there was no more hurt and struggle in my life? Would I be content? No, not yet. So why is that?

This is the great work of “untying knots” in our minds and hearts until the true nature of our experience can shine forth uninhibited. If you want to know why there is too much struggle and not enough love in your life, ask yourself. Don’t let rules and principles you’ve extrapolated and imagined keep you from finding the love and joy intrinsic to this experience.

Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

Your beliefs do shape your experience

Every experience tells a story. Every experience has something to teach you.

I’ve been turning these ideas over in my mind lately, and in the past day or two it’s become even more important to me.

An example I like to use is when my wife and a good friend were having a conversation and I suddenly felt left out and ignored. I waited, but they continued to ignore me, both in the conversation and in terms of their body language.

I ended up feeling put out by this, and later I brought it up with my wife and my friend separately.

My friend said “if you felt left out, why didn’t you join in?”

and my wife said “actually I was waiting for you to join in the conversation but you didn’t for some reason.”

So why hadn’t I just joined in?

The truth (though I had to search for it) was that I was too afraid to jump into the conversation in case they didn’t want me to be a part of it. I had read distance in their body language, and that made me anticipate a risk of failure if I came close and tried to take part.

But the irony is that I was already standing back from them from the moment the three of us met. My own body language was retreating from the engagement, leaving a vacuum that they filled with their own conversation.

The weren’t distancing themselves from me, they were responding to my own distance, which I had failed to acknowledge in myself.

How many times do we create the circumstances we fear?

Time and time again I’ve noticed in hindsight that I had produced, or imagined, the challenges and obstacles that shape my life for the worst. I have unwittingly created the very incidents and experiences that reinforce my pessimism, my hostility, my self-pity, and most of the time I haven’t even stopped to question the beliefs and assumptions behind those experiences.

In all aspects of life, my experiences are a reflection of my own beliefs about reality and about the way the world works.

My sense of what is possible and what is impossible. My sense of what is proper and improper. My attempts to ‘read’ other people’s attitudes to me….The truth is that we don’t know what is possible and impossible, and from that point every other assumption is thrown into doubt as well.

Every experience I have is reflecting something about my beliefs and my expectations within that context.

For instance, right now I’m brewing a beer. Brewing takes about four hours, and though it’s very much a worthwhile process, for me the experience feels like work. It’s a chore, and I fully expect to be tired and worn out by the end of it.

But why?

If I examine it more closely, there’s no reason I can’t relax and take it easy while still brewing. It’s not physically or mentally demanding, so long as you’re organised.

If you set a timer, you can forget about it until the timer reminds you. You don’t have to keep watching the clock.

You can worry about whether you’re doing the process correctly, but if you’ve already researched it then further worry is just a choice.

What is this experience telling me? It’s telling me that I view work as something burdensome and incompatible with a happy and relaxed frame of mind. Work is not enjoyable. Work is hard, monotonous, dull, and stressful.

There are aspects of brewing beer that are intrinsic to the process, but countless components of my personal brewing experience are entirely dependent on my choices, which are in turn dependent on my beliefs about life and reality.

Every instance, every experience is like this. I can’t fault or blame the experience or reality for being the way that it is. Or if I do, I am once again creating a situation that reflects my beliefs and expectations. If I want to feel helpless, then I need only believe that I am.

If I want to feel that life is difficult and challenging and ultimately disappointing, if I want to believe that all good things must fail, then I need only act accordingly.

You’d be amazed at how efficiently and unfailingly an individual can sabotage their own life so as to feel the disappointment and suffering they expect to find.

But what’s the alternative?

Well, I firmly believe (and so increasingly experience) that if we become aware of our own stake in these conflicts, our own role in creating them, we will gradually cease to create them this way.

When something good in your life looks like it’s coming to an end, must it really be so? Isn’t it reflecting back to you your own deepest expectations and beliefs about life?

I guarantee that if you look at it this way, if you ask yourself why you haven’t done things differently, why you accept the limitations, or why you feel powerless to change, you will arrive not at absolute obstacles but at your own self-imposed limits. You’ll discover that you’ve ruled out any alternative answers already, and so you’re not willing to try anything different.

Ignorance blinds us.

I didn’t know that I had distanced myself from my wife and my friend long before I felt excluded. Once I knew that I had done that, I could choose not to do it.

Maybe your mind works differently, but for me this is always the case.

I didn’t realise I had already decided that brewing must be onerous and time-consuming and must monopolise my attention for four hours. It doesn’t have to. There are steps where I have to pay attention, but there are also periods where I can ignore it. Likewise, if the time commitment really bothers me, I could buy equipment that would make heating and cooling much faster, or automate parts of the process. But that would touch on a whole slew of complicated beliefs about money!

The moral of the story is that our experiences are shaped far more than we realise by our own beliefs and expectations. Accordingly, our experiences can teach us a great deal about those beliefs and expectations.

We worry about external things, but our understanding of those external things – even our experience of them – is profoundly mediated by our beliefs and expectations.

We think we know how people will act and react to us. And so long as we act and react in the same old ways, we’re probably right. But the moment we change, everything changes.

When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.

What is your experience?

I’ve been thinking about acceptance lately and trying to write about the what it means to accept or reject our experience.

But I got stuck, and, as often happens when I’m stuck, I checked the meaning and etymology of the key term: experience.

I was using ‘experience’ to mean the sum total of one’s impressions. But the origin of the word makes it closer to ‘experiment’, with the implication of knowledge gained from a test or trial.

One of my untested theories is that the etymology of words can have unconscious implications. We don’t need to know what ‘experience’ really means to be influenced by its etymology. And even though the use of words changes over time, the real meaning is never truly erased.

Maybe it’s just me, but the moment I thought about it I realised that the ‘ex’ prefix meant ‘experience’ was coming out of somewhere. Intuitively it doesn’t have the ring of an all-encompassing state of affairs, does it?

So what do we call the sum total of our impressions, if not ‘experience’?

We could call it ‘reality’ but that somewhat begs the question. Reality means the quality of being real, from res meaning matter or thing.

But we don’t really know if these things are real, or if our impressions are things, do we?

Even if we call them impressions, we’re still assuming there’s something external making an imprint on our minds.

Other words like thought, think, ken, know, cognise, consciousness, and so on are all quite basic. They point to the everyday experience of people having mental states that represent to themselves the world around them.

The language is not really built for skeptical introspection. So we have to talk around it, pointing out that we do not know on the basis of thoughts and impressions what the true nature of reality is – the external world that presumably leaves these imprints on our minds (assuming that we have minds).

That’s why nondualists end up simply positing “consciousness” undergoing endless forms.

One source I’ve been reading lately asserts that there are three things: formless consciousness, the discriminating power, and the distinguishing forms that arise through this discriminating power.

At the same time, these three things are not separate. They may be different functions of the same thing, or in Buddhist terms: form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Why this power would bother to create forms that resemble the author sitting at his desk mired in the illusion of a biographical existence while pondering his own unreality is a bit of a mystery.

Regardless, that’s the nondualist answer. You are not really you, just a collection of passing forms. Consciousness alone is unchanging and real, and capable of knowing itself.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy vs spiritual event-horizon

Matthew asked about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in relation to my recent posts on acceptance.

I heard about ACT roughly two years ago, as an emerging alternative to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Here an article about ACT helpfully describes the differences between CBT, psychotherapy, and ACT:

Imagine the situation for the client who says, “I feel so anxious about going out on a date. I’m so afraid that I won’t have anything to say, or that I’ll say something really dumb.” Through the use of CBT techniques we, as counsellors, could help the client dispute the negative beliefs that she is a poor conversationalist or a boring date, replacing her anxious thoughts with positive, affirming ones, such as that she is interesting, good at conversation, or a worthy social companion.

Through longer, psychotherapeutic processes, we could help her to discover the experiences in her past (probably early childhood) which created the sense of her as socially inept. Psychotherapy takes a long time, however, and even when the effect of past history on present experience becomes known, there is still the “war of words” as the various voices within her – the critical ones and the affirming ones – clamour for attention.

The ACT principle of expansion/acceptance works differently. It would ask the client to imagine that she is about to go out on a date. She would then be instructed to scan her body, observing where she felt the anxiety most intensely. Let’s say that she reports that she experiences a huge lump in her throat. She might be then asked to observe the sensation of the lump as if she were a scientist who had never seen anything like it before: to notice the shape, weight, vibration, temperature, pulsation, and other aspects of it. She would be invited to breathe into the lump, making room for it, allowing it to be there (even though we would be highly empathetic in understanding that she did not like it or want it there!).

There’s more to ACT than just the acceptance component, but from descriptions such as those above I suspect it is aiming at the same kind of practice I’ve described as acceptance.

I haven’t undergone ACT, so I’m not in a position to recommend it, or criticise it. But I wonder how it manages the paradox of acceptance and change. On a therapeutic level, ACT must promise certain beneficial outcomes for its patients. In my experience, such promises are the biggest obstacle to practicing acceptance.

I tried acceptance and mindfulness techniques in the past, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see that those efforts were fixated on change rather than acceptance. The net result was that despite repeated efforts to ‘accept’ reality, I was still motivated by the desire for change, for a different reality. For example, the article above states:

By opening up and allowing them [unpleasant thoughts and feelings] to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention, we find that they bother us much less. They also move on more quickly, instead of hanging around and bothering us

This is precisely the kind of promise I would have clung to in the past, and attempts to ‘accept’ in such a way would be rendered fruitless by the underlying desire for change.

Perhaps this is a personal quirk, or I may be an extreme case. Or maybe an astute ACT therapist would recognise the contradiction in my efforts.

I can only speak for my own experience, and in that case the therapeutic aspect of acceptance seems accidental. The more significant motive for accepting my reality is simply that there is nothing else I can do about it.

Going a little deeper, I am my reality and my reality is me. Somehow, my reality has begun to shift in a way that is best described as acceptance. And the more I accept my reality, the more evident it becomes that nothing has really changed except my reaction to it.

Take the simplest example: people often tell me that I think too much, and in the beginning I struggled to think less. Later I struggled to understand the causes of my overthinking. Later still I tried to justify my overthinking in some terms that would be meaningful to normal people (‘underthinkers’?).

Now, as this acceptance thing slowly takes root in my mind, I’m gradually realising I can simply say “yes, I overthink everything.” I can accept it, without that acceptance implying any obligation to change, any further shame or humiliation, any loss of self.

Of course, if I’d sought that outcome in the beginning I’d have turned it into a struggle.

 

The great denial

My house is very messy.

I freely admit it, but even so I forget how it might be discomforting to someone who prefers a tidier home.

It’s amazing how your mind can become so accustomed to a pile of magazines, a cluster of toys, or even a row of empty wine bottles (I’m going to reuse them, I swear!) that they barely register in your consciousness.

Yet as dtcwee points out in a comment to the previous article, this is an instance of denial.

Acceptance in this instance would mean accepting both that the house is actually very messy, and that on some level I don’t like it being this messy.

By contrast, denial seems to intervene by saying “I’ll tidy it later” (not unless I really have to), or “I have more important things to do” (watching tv is more important I guess). The purpose of denial is to stop me feeling bad about the mess. It’s an alternative to accepting the bad feelings that exist in me because I don’t like the house being this untidy.

Denial injects unreal thoughts into my experience, shielding me from the full force of reality. It takes me into a false world, a virtual reality made up of thoughts, excuses, rationalisations, and imaginary futures.

Don’t feel bad about the untidy house, imagine that you will clean it tomorrow when you have more energy. There now, doesn’t that feel better?

Unfortunately, this respite from bad feelings is based on a delusion. It is a refusal to accept the reality of the present and the reality of unpleasant feelings.

What if I accepted it all instead?

I would accept that the house is messy, and accept that I don’t like it being messy. Next I would accept that I feel bad when I tidy the house, and that’s why I continually put it off as much as possible.

Now if I proceed with tidying despite my bad feelings, I’m going to discover a whole lot of internal clutter that corresponds with the external. Having to deal with piles of stuff will inevitably bring up a range of worries and insecurities: guilt over things I was meant to read or fix or work on but never did. Indecision over how to dispose of items without feeling irresponsible. Insecurity at throwing away things I feel I might need at a later date. Compounded lethargy in the face of tedious tasks I might have put off for years. Shame at not being more organised, more efficient, or more hard-working.

The clutter might as well be symbolic, but that’s often the case with parts of reality we deny.

 

Dieting Tips

Trying to reinvigorate my diet after letting it slide for a few months, I’m slowly remembering the key points.

Firstly, normal diets attempt to “cheat” in some way. They control quantities, but allow you to eat whatever type of food you like. Or they control the type of food, but let you eat as much as you like of those types. These diets avoid the pain of refusing to indulge your appetite.

Secondly, we like to indulge our appetite because it allows us to escape from painful, dull, or otherwise unpleasant experiences of reality. Escaping from such experiences means we do not address the underlying disquiet or suffering or lack of enthusiasm in our lives. It is important to recognise that flavours, mouthfeel, texture, temperature, rituals and even the physical activity of eating can all be used as a distraction from reality.

Thirdly, food is not intrinsically enjoyable. The experience of eating is something we create actively with our own minds. Enjoyment requires attention, energy, and a degree of complicity as we actively savour and relish the eating experience.

This approach to dieting is painful and powerful because it goes right to the heart of the problem: identifying eating as a means of escaping from unpleasant aspects of reality.

For most of us, being overweight is an expression of our escapism.

Yet such escapism is self-defeating. The physical and psychological suffering will come back to haunt us in the form of illness, shame, and more unpleasant experiences. Escapism simply defers the pain, and deferring the pain is painful in its own right.

The thought of never again escaping into food and eating can be terrifying, and raises the prospect of a life empty of the significant enjoyment provided by food. But as the third point identified, this enjoyment is actually provided by our own minds, not by the food itself. Food merely provides us with an opportunity to focus on something that is safely detached from the unpleasant and complex problems and feelings we are trying to escape from in the first place.

The truly painful thing is that we cannot imagine living without the constant escape provided by food.  The actual amount of food required for us to continue living is very small, relative to what we typically consume. And yet the thought of giving up eating-for-enjoyment terrifies us.

Most of us feel bad when we see our own overweight bodies in mirrors or photographs. And there’s a push in society to stop feeling “ashamed” of our bodies, and to reject the unrealistic ideals provided by media and marketing. We’re told to love ourselves as we are.

This is good advice, but if we are eating to escape then we are not loving ourselves as we are. I used to feel bad when I saw how overweight I was, but when I think about dieting and escapism, I begin to see the fat as representative of how frequently I am escaping into food. I start to see it not as some horrible imperfection or source of shame, but as letting myself down by avoiding the unpleasant realities or thoughts or feelings that motivate the escapism in the first place.

Dieting seems extraordinarily hard because we imagine ourselves having to endure the painful realities of life without our favoured escape. But those realities remain painful precisely because we keep trying to escape them. It’s less painful to eat than to acknowledge that we feel life is going nowhere. But it’s far, far healthier and more empowering to acknowledge such fears and feelings than to escape into the temporary distraction of food.

What do we wish to become: someone good at escaping, or someone able to face our fears? This diet is, after all, not really about dieting. It’s about facing the fears, the stagnation, the difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories* we’ve been trying to escape.

*Some people’s realities are more painful than others’, and I’m obviously not a doctor, not even in philosophy, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help when dealing with painful, traumatic, or otherwise difficult experiences.

 

Beautiful writing

What makes writing beautiful?

It is not enough to use beautiful-sounding words or avoid crude and ungainly ones. Beautiful writing is more than empty form. Beauty implies a relationship between form and function: beautiful writing is not vain or ostentatious; and since the most noble function of writing is to convey the truth, truly beautiful writing must be true as well.

To write the truth and do it beautifully is a worthy goal. But such writing takes time, effort, and insight. What is it, apart from truth, that makes writing beautiful?

There are evident mistakes: excessive convolutions such as unnecessary adverbs, or an overly confusing structure that includes too many subjects and objects in complex relationship. There is a simplicity to beautiful writing, or rather, simplicity is one aspect of beauty, where simplicity is in proportion to the aim. Beautiful writing should be neither too simple nor too complex for the truth it conveys.

Nothing I have written so far is especially beautiful, and that is because I am not taking the time to fully grasp the truth I wish to convey, and to translate it into its most fitting written form.

I am not taking the time because I do not think it is worth the time, and that in itself reveals assumptions, faults, and errors in my own thinking and attitude. If it is worth doing, is it not worth doing well? If beautiful writing is a skill worth having, should I not take the time to investigate and practice it?

What my investigations tell me is that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

This sentence is not especially beautiful. I can pick its faults, beginning with the word “what”. “What” is redundant. It also subverts the sentence structure, bringing the yet-unknown subject to the forefront.  It would be sufficient to write:

My investigations tell me that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Another fault: it is not necessary to preface the substance of the text with “my investigations tell me”. This reflexive statement is overly descriptive. It brings me twice into the text. It makes “my investigation” the subject, the matter at hand, and thereby diminishes the authority of the subsequent words:

Beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Parsing for additional faults: “should” and “shall” denote obligation. Obligation implies that beautiful writing ought to, but might not reflect reality. Is this what I mean to say?  Would it not be stronger and more accurate to state that:

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

Is it a fault to follow “the reality” with “the truth”? Is either term redundant, or do they together imply more than either would alone?  In this instance, offering an equivalence of reality and truth implies a realist interpretation of truth: reality is true and truth is real. Far from being redundant, the two terms encompass a whole philosophical outlook between them.

Now that we have removed all the obvious faults, we might consider if the same meaning could be conveyed differently. We have reduced the statement to its essential ingredients; is this their best arrangement?

Writing is beautiful when it reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

This arrangement draws our attention to the inclusion of “is”, which subtly alters our focus. It is as if someone has asked “when is writing beautiful?”  Giving the impression of having answered a question can add value to a phrase under certain circumstances. It may enhance the authority of the statement, by bringing to mind the unspoken question. But as an aphorism the former is superior.

Could we go further?

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

I would not change beautiful or writing. I would not change the reality or the truth, since the definite article implies an objective standpoint. What about reflects, or behind?

Here it is useful to consider in greater depth the truth we are trying to describe. In this case, I am trying to describe how beauty relates to the function of language. But the function of language is a controversial subject, and I approach it from a preconceived philosophical perspective. Not only am I a realist, but I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, and a teleological view of language as primarily a truth-telling enterprise. In other words, I believe that:

  1. There is an objective reality.
  2. ‘True’ means ‘corresponding to objective reality’.
  3. The purpose of language is primarily to communicate truth.

The third proposition should be considered broad enough to incorporate or at least be sympathetic to elements of Wittgensteinian “language games”.

In this context, reflects and behind appear to be appropriate metaphors for the relationship between beautiful writing and reality.

People with diverse and divergent philosophies would not agree with my statement that “Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.”  Perhaps they would argue that the beauty of writing is an entirely subjective phenomenon, or a socialised construct, or that beauty itself is a construct, or God knows what else.

I do not undertake this procedure whenever I write. Clearly I have not applied this level of rigour and parsimony to the whole of today’s post. In practice it seems best to aim first for the deepest truth we wish to communicate and to dwell on that truth until we are confident in expressing it as simply, appropriately, and therefore as beautifully as we might.