“This work on yourself is necessary; this ambition justified. Lots of people let themselves be wholly absorbed by militant politics … much more rare are they who, in order to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.” – Pierre Hadot
I was seduced by philosophy when I was 18. I was a punk, and an anarchist. I lived by a tacit imperative to rebel, to question all the worldly ideas I had inherited, to transform my own desires, and trust that the world would crumble in their wake. The first time I read Plato, Spinoza, Nietzsche or Foucault their words answered to some inner call, to something I already felt deeply but could not adequately express. And then, somewhere along the way, as I was squeezed through the institutionalized drudgery of college and graduate school, I fell out of love. I believe it is academic philosophy, the professionalization of the passionate quest and its transformation into a discipline, that is responsible for the negative stereotypes most people have when they hear the word philosophy: something disconnected, hyper-intellectualized, obscure, pedantic, boring, and completely irrelevant to everyday life.
Recently I stumbled upon my first love again, after abandoning it for many years. Decades, actually. And I beheld it with different, more mature eyes, after the trials and tribulations of quitting academia, spending a decade as an activist, going through a life crisis and emerging through to the other side as a Buddhist and a closet mystic. And it was precipitated by a chance coincidence, or a synchronicity as Jung would call it, of coming upon two books. The first was Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. The second was Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, the catechism that had first molded me into a radical, and which I had forgotten for so long. But I won’t talk about the second one just yet.
It was in the 1970s that Pierre Hadot began describing what ancient philosophers were doing as “spiritual exercises.” Foucault discovered these obscure writings and popularized the concept as “care of the self.” At its inception, philosophy was not a series of abstract thought experiments but a process of radical transformation, of turning one’s life upside down, born out of a profound dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s environment. And it was practiced both as a form of therapy – of freeing oneself from bad desires and conditioned behaviors – and as an art of living – of experimenting with different techniques in order to recreate the self. Practicing philosophy was inspired by a kind of self-help ethic, but the self was not understood in isolation. Small, anarchist-like groups, which Hadot called communities of research and mutual assistance, formed the arena for collective experimenting and learning.
“Spiritual exercises” isn’t the most fortunate expression Hadot could have used since it invokes a spirit/matter dualism that seemed foreign to ancient philosophy, which was as much bodily as it was spiritual. The exercises included attention to the present moment, journal writing that subtracted personal tastes and even the pronoun “I”, fasting in order to break habits, and experimenting with states of excess and privation. Although there were parallels with Buddhist practices, and even speculations about direct influences, the main difference was that the Greeks and Romans focused on the continuity between the psyche, the body and the community. During the march of history, as philosophy moved increasingly into universities and became a specialized discipline, there remained a few heretical voices on the margins, who didn’t make their living as “philosophers” but for whom it remained a burning passion, a form of rebelling against idols and inherited ideas, and a practice of self-therapy that re-created the self as a higher being capable of acting ethically and living joyously. And what I saw in the musings of these heretics, across a mirror that was both timely and eternal, was the reflection of my own becoming.
I. Self-observation / breaking identification
From Stoicism to Buddhism, and Marxism to anarchism, different traditions have depicted our lives as snared in illusions that prevent us from truly living. Charles Tart described our normal state of consciousness as a “consensus trance” similar to hypnotic induction. Gurdjieff used the term “sleepwalkers” to emphasize that although we believe we’re conscious and have free will, we live like automatons and our personalities are just a sum of mechanical responses to programmed codes. The names for overcoming this mechanicalness were different – prosoche, vipassana, self-remembering – but they all depicted a similar process of breaking identification with habitual behaviors and inherited ideologies. It is by observing our behavior without either becoming absorbed by it or condemning it, that we can view our conditioning impartially, like cells under a microscope.
Our identifications aren’t just on the level of ideas. They’re reflected in our bodies, in our daily habits, posture and nervous ticks. What becomes obvious at the start of self-observation is the extent to which our ideas and behavior are influenced by negative emotions, such as fear, guilt, shame and resentment. Spinoza and Nietzsche diagnosed how these affective states are trained in us because those who exercise power over others (power as domination) need to create sadness among their subjects. The sad passions represent the lowest degree of our power (power as potential to act); they separate us from who we are and what our bodies can do and they alienate us from each other. It’s when we are most alienated, at the lowest ebb of our power, and at the mercy of circumstances and feelings we can’t control, that we’re delivered over to the mystification of rulers. The effects of the sad passions on the body are obvious. The discipline we internalize as children teaches us to paralyze the diaphragm, to hold the breath, to hunch the torso – creating what Willhelm Reich called a muscular armour that blocks openness, communication, spontaneity and pleasure. Negative emotions also disrupt the body’s natural rhythms and energy flows and impair the function of the organs; even science has come to acknowledge that many illnesses have their source in the sad passions. Most people live in opposition to the flow of life, which cripples their bodies, affective power and relations with others. By contrast, when we’re in harmony with this flow, we feel joy, the body tingles with pleasure and the company of others delights us because we glimpse in them what is best in ourselves. It’s because we have all experienced these moments of spontaneous joy that we can recognize our conditioning as conditioning and desire to break free of it.
One of the most difficult things to self-observe is the general disharmony that hangs over us like a dark curtain of background static. We’re not a unified self, but harbor splits and fractures, some arising as defense mechanisms from our childhood, others from roles we pick up along the way. Nietzsche described the self as a multiplicity of contradictory drives or “disquietudes” that pull us in opposing directions. Gurdjieff referred to them as the many I’s or multiple selves that succeed each other haphazardly, triggered by external circumstances. One evening we make a promise to begin a new routine and we seem to have an iron resolve, but the next morning it’s as if a different person has invaded us and invalidated all our prior decisions. Because we think we are a unified self we feel ashamed of these inconsistencies; we chastise our weaknesses, and live in a state of constant irritation and inner conflict. The key to achieving harmony (or sovereignty, as Nietzsche called it) is recognizing and integrating the multiplicity that dwells within us.
II. Sovereignty / re-creating identity and connection
The limits of mindfulness and self-observation are that it tries to break free of the mind by using the mind and that it cultivates an ascetic, detached observer. For all of Gurdjieff’s injunctions to disown our many I’s and refer to them as “it” – these subpersonalities are like wounded children and chronicling them patiently from the other side of the room is not the best way of resolving their tantrums. Self-observation is a necessary first stage for breaking identifications, which are false connections arising out of fear and lack. But once these identifications are dissolved, something else is needed to re-create the self as a sovereign being capable of genuine connections based on empathy and generosity.
There’s a similar limitation in Spinoza’s Ethics, for which the main distinction is not between sad vs. joyful passions, but between passions, which are passive reactions to accidental circumstances, and creating joy actively, from one’s own power. Spinoza’s formula for achieving active joy is through the mind’s power to analyze, dissect and reason from cause and effect. But creating joy actively needs another kind of intelligence. The intelligence of the heart – the electromagnetic field around the heart, which is thousands of times more powerful than the brain – has been studied by science, and is the common focus of many yogic practices, Buddhist metta meditation, and the intoxicated love cultivated by the Sufis. In terms of embodied practices, it means shifting from a detached self-observation (of breathing, bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions) to exercises that activate the heart chakra to induce affects of love and ecstatic communion. This heart focus is also common to therapies that connect to one’s inner child – both in order to allow it to heal and to tap into the innate joy children have, their magical sense of life as an unexpected gift and their ability to give without expecting anything in return.
For Nietzsche, sovereignty is about creating a free individual who has integrated the many I’s and has learned to live without inner conflict and the sad passions. Weak individuals who can’t harmonize their contradictory drives are dissatisfied with themselves and view their world with resentment. Unsure of themselves, they need to either blame others for their problems or gain recognition from others in order to feel good about themselves. They have a negative and reactive self-valuation based on lack, which Nietzsche called slave morality, even thought it’s also common to “masters” who need to dominate others to acquire a sense of their own worth. By contrast, those who have integrated their multiplicity are content; they live from the fulness and richness of their own being, which overflows naturally to others. Sovereignty is not achieved through asceticism, discipline or repressing the drives; it’s an organic harmony that emerges spontaneously out of a profound self-knowledge. Nietzsche saw sovereignty as analogous to creating the self as a work of art, of giving each element its due so that even one’s dark shadows are transfigured and contribute to an overall harmony. Bataille extended this insight: sovereignty arises from the suspension of the ego that lives through calculation, measuring, criticizing and judging; it is attained through laughter, poetry, gift giving, ecstasy and love – through those moments when rationality is exceeded in a gratuitous affirmation of life, contingency and the body. This affirmation of life results in an openness and generosity towards others. It also produces a different experience of love, which is not based on neediness and possession, but radiates outward, without asserting itself or demanding anything. The starting point for this transformation is always our inner experience. But this inward turn necessarily leads outward and has the potential to found a different kind of community, by breaking down the walls of separation, competition and the rule of exchange.