This post is going to be the first of several where I hope to look at the connections that lie between ourselves, our communities, our actions in them, and the greater whole to which we all belong. For that purpose, I want the reader to look at themselves as the center of a series of concentric circles. They are in the center, their immediate social circles (family, friends, religious community, etc) are close to them, their wider communities are further out, and the broader the idea we are looking at is (one’s country, humanity, life on earth, and so on) the further out the circle is. Yes, it’s a bit of a strange model to use and I’m not absolutely sure myself how this pondering is going to go, but hey, you’ve been warned that it’s my musings, so it’s time to let the mind wonder.
“Know thyself.” That was the command of the god Apollo inscribed above his temple at Delphi. But what’s the mission that Apollo was sending his devotees on? Some attempt to be “comfortable” or to “accept” themselves, as is the message of a thousand and one self-help courses today? Perhaps an intro to some sort of meditation exercise?
For that matter, what does he mean when he says “yourself”? Perhaps the divine Apollo has the capability of knowing himself at the deepest levels, but what can that do for humans like us, ever changing and limited in self-perception? (For the record, I don’t believe that Apollo is up there on Olympus waiting for us to come to him. He is a myth. But then, as Stephanus of Byzantium said, a myth is a story which “never was, but always is”). Looking back, we can remember a time when our dreams, attitudes, emotional state, and habits were very different from what we observe now. Does that mean that some fundamental essence of our soul underwent a change? When we were very young, we always thought we wanted to be an astronaut or a dinosaur or [enter your childhood fantasy here] when we grew up. We usually have a different idea in mind now. Does that mean that that hope was never really part of who we were, but just an illusion? If that’s the case, how do you know that the love you feel now, the dreams you have now, or the hopes you currently possess are real?
It’s a shocking thing to realize how much of what you think is so important to you can change with the years. We are temporal in nature, after all. We don’t last forever, and the many facets which make up our egos also change every second. The passions which give us pleasure, the sorrows which cause us pain, the potential that every person possesses in them to excel. These desires are often played on in order to get something from us. The marketing executive, the government propagandist, and the artist who wants to stir something deep inside us all have this in common. It is not always a bad thing, but many times it will not be to our benefit. To be aware of this aspect of ourselves is, then, the first step to fulfilling Apollo’s command.
Now, this might be all very interesting to reflect on while reading a blog post in your spare moments, but what impact does this have on us beyond those fleeting moments? Well, just ask yourself: is it useful to let your emotions be manipulated by others, to have your passions played on like a piano by those who make money or gain power from it? Even in our personal lives, how often have we allowed ourselves to be blinded by hate and anger, or hopelessness? Why is it that we keep on buying products that we know harm us and our environment, justifying it by saying that “well, I can treat myself. Why not?” or “I’m just one person, I’m not making a difference anyway”. Why do we give blind allegiance to political candidates and parties we support, favoring them even if we feel a twinge of unease or disagreement with something they said, or feel that perhaps “the other guy” might just have a point? Developing recognition of these irrational patterns that occur in our inner lives allows us to develop an awareness of when such emotions may be blinding us from a rational course of action, or stopping us from reaching our full potential. Imagine how much richer political debate could be if we could be aware of when a tribal attachment to our ideological band is preventing us from looking at the facts, and if emotion was recognized as playing a role, and thus not confused with reason. I want to cut short any protests of “yeah, sure, but that’s unrealistic because no one would do that” by saying, I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about you. Stay focused. This sort of awareness is only possible through habitual introspection, of course. As Murti says in Central Philosophy of Buddhism:
“Spiritual culture is self-culture … the essence of self-culture is the bringing about a change in oneself, not in the environment… Spiritual culture must be further understood as an intense and sustained self-reflection, self-criticism. It is a ceaseless watchfulness of one’s doings—speech, bodily and mental action. Passions overpower us because of our self-forgetfulness, we are not self-possessed. With mindfulness regained, the passions cease to have hold on us. … the dialectic on the intellectual side is the reflective criticism of the inveterate tendency of the mind to speculate and spin theories …”
Having seen how much ones inner life has an impact on us personally, and, through our interactions, on society as a whole, we can see that it may be in not just our own interests, but also the interests of all society to encourage such introspection. To gain this self-knowledge is not to make judgements on it, not to condemn it as evil or to have a haughty sense of self-importance at ones superior “rationality”. Emotions and passions and dreams, irrational thought they may be, have a great role in defining how we act as humans, and can certainly be for our benefit. But we do not want them to harm us, if this can be avoided. The Bhagavad Gita gives the striking image of Krishna, the incarnation of Divinity, the pure Intellect, holding the reigns of a chariot firm in his hands and guiding the warrior Arjuna in his actions during a great war. In the same way, it is for our benefit that we have awareness of our inner lives, so that we can remain steadfast when passions might lead us to ruin, and when in the most stressful times in our lives we can hold firm when we might be tempted to despair.
The question might come up, of course, as to what sort of direction we want to take if we develop this sense of awareness. What sort of inner life should we be striving to develop? What path should the lifelong evolution of our own selves take? I think that those who are at all inclined to make the sort of introspection discussed here, and consider the question of their own personal development at all, will be naturally inclined to try and better themselves, to practice what I can only call “living intentionally”, that is to say, seeking experiences that will better them, that will test them physically, mentally, and even emotionally and spiritually. The German philosopher Nietzsche described the process as turning life itself into a great work:
“One thing is needful. — To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed — both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable.”
That goal, the goal of living well and living intentionally, is in its essence what I believe that the good life (the buen vivir) can and should aim toward. This is the key to displacing the consumer desires of homo economicus as the master and foundation of our economic order, as the common thing uniting communities and used as justification for this or that policy. When the market, the State, the leader of a nation, and the values of our culture(s) are judged by the extent to which they allow the individual, each according to their own nature, to develop a fulfilling life, one in which they develop fulfillment, character, and inner discipline. In the words of Marx, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
What sorts of societies can achieve this? What sorts of economic and social arrangements? How do we solve problems among the members of a society? Are there any that are already heading in this direction, forging their own path beyond the sphere of Western hegemony…or for that matter, rebelling from within the West against the consensus? We’ll continue this stream of thought as these posts continue. Do add your thoughts to the comments.