The greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of

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Adam Frank, NPR: Let’s be honest. When most of us talk about philosophy — the hard-core, name-dropping, theory-quoting kind — we’re talking about a particular lineage that traces back to the Hellenistic Greeks.

But consider, for a moment, the fact that over the last few thousand years there’ve been a whole lot of smart people born into a whole lot of highly sophisticated cultures. It is, therefore, kind of silly that we limit “philosophy” to mean “philosophy done by dudes who lived in Europe a long time ago.” That gripe was the main point of a very pointed piece in The New York Times last month titled: “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is.”

Of course, given how much my field of physics owes to the rich philosophical tradition of “The West,” I do count myself as a big fan. From Plato’s Doctrine of Ideals to Spinoza’s Ethics, Western philosophic perspectives laid bare core issues that were transformed into really good things, like science and democratic political thought. But as The Times piece shows, it doesn’t do much good imagining that Europe cornered the market on creative thinking about being human.

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What consciousness wants

What does consciousness want? I don’t mean what do “you” want. I mean, what is consciousness fundamentally about? What is it trying to do? What is its nature?

Consciousness is undefinable. We can look at the brain with fancy machines and see activity going on. We can study neurons and understand the physical processes by which, for example, vision takes place. But how actual experience comes to arise on the basis of this is something that isn’t understood. This has been called the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness because scientists and philosophers don’t even know how to begin to think about this.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Alva Noë has said that consciousness is co-extensive with life itself. This doesn’t define consciousness, since we can’t even define life. But Noë’s argument is that all life has some kind of awareness of and ability to respond to its environment.

I believe that the consciousness that animates an amoeba or a yeast cell is fundamentally the same as that of a human being. There is only one kind of consciousness.

Yes, there is a difference as well. Although there is only one kind of consciousness, it performs in different ways depending on the nature of the being in which it is manifesting. An amoeba lives in a relatively simple world that includes food and toxins. It moves toward and engulfs food, and avoids toxins. It almost certainly doesn’t have thoughts or emotions. A wolf has a more complex nervous system, sense organs, and body. It has things like feelings, a sense of social hierarchy, needs for affection and companionship, etc. It is capable of more developed memories than an amoeba. It can plan and anticipate the future. A human being is more complex still. Our nervous systems are capable of seeing meaning in life, for example, and we’re able to construct stories, culture and technology (memories passed from generation to generation).

But the same fundamental consciousness is expressing itself through these various channels. Consciousness is like water or electricity. The water that flows through a stream is the same “stuff” as the water that flows through the trunk of a redwood tree, and the electricity in lightning is the same “stuff” that flows through our nerve cells when we remember our first date. Similarly, consciousness is all the same “stuff” whether it’s manifesting in a paramecium or a person.

Consciousness will naturally try to express itself as fully as it can, within the confines of the physical structure in which it’s manifesting. But the way in which consciousness expresses itself is always going to be limited because of those structures.

Consciousness, I believe, fundamentally wants to flow with the least resistance possible. When I say that it “wants” this I don’t mean that this is a real desire, any more than water has desire when it flows downhill. Water, if given the “choice,” will flow along a wide straight channel rather than along a narrow, twisted one. Electricity does the same, “choosing” to flow along a wire with low resistance, rather than one with high resistance. “Choice” here is just an analogy. All we’re saying is that this is how water and electricity behave.

I believe that consciousness “wants” to “flow” freely. Unfortunately, in the human brain/mind it rarely gets a chance to do this. The structure of the human brain leads to internal conflict, because various “modules” have different strategies. For example, in order to promote survival (and thus continued wellbeing) the amygdala prompts us to behave aggressively when it detects a threat. On the other hand, the neocortex recognizes that aggression frequently creates conflict and thus threatens our wellbeing. These are mutually incompatible aims. Consciousness is thus like water where the flow is turned back upon itself, causing turbulence. We experience this disturbance as dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. Craving, aversion, and delusion are all sources of this turbulence.

The ultimate state of peace to which consciousness “aspires” is the calm state that Buddhism calls “equanimity,” where the mind has been harmonized, and consciousness doesn’t react to stimuli in ways that cause unnecessary disturbance. This state is also called “compassion” because relating compassionately to other manifestations of consciousness is the most peaceful way that it can function socially. This state is also called “wisdom,” because consciousness at rest recognizes that craving and aversion are simply flawed strategies for finding peace, and because consciousness expressing itself in one physical form recognizes how consciousness as it manifests in other physical forms is simply trying to find peace.

In a neurologically complex being, such as a human being, consciousness has the ability to observe and assess its own functioning. It also has the ability to change the physical structure through which it operates. When consciousness observes that, for example, compassion is a valid way to move towards a state of peace, and that aggression isn’t, the brain changes in ways which make compassion more likely to be expressed in the future. New habits create new neural pathways. Abandoning habits leads to neural atrophy in unused circuits.

Consciousness does not take place within a self, but the self—or the idea of the self—takes place within consciousness. One of the things that happens in a complex consciousness is that stories are created in an attempt to explain the past and predict the future. One of those stories is that there is a “self” which contains consciousness, owns consciousness, and of which consciousness is a part. In reality, of course, the “self” happens within consciousness, as a simulation.

When a consciousness recognizes that one of the limits that has been hindering its expression is this imagined self, it can then begin to test the illusion. It can look and see that there are no stable experiences. All experiences are impermanent. Thus, there is no way for a stable self to exist. Eventually the imagined self is seen as what it is, a story representing something that doesn’t exist. At that point there is a major shift in how consciousness operates, and in its ability to move toward a state of rest and peace. We call that shift “Awakening.”

Other aspects of the functioning of the being are also questioned—not just whether craving and aversion can ever work at bringing about peace (it’s been largely seen that they don’t), but whether in fact there is any “thing” to be grasped or avoided. Progressively, craving and aversion cease to function, because they’re no longer taken seriously. The very idea of separateness (I versus the world, me versus you, experiencer versus experienced) fades away.

Gradually, consciousness is able to express itself more and more freely, without painful turbulence, and just as gradually, consciousness moves toward a state of graceful expression characterized by wisdom and equanimity, and expressing itself as compassion.

We can summarize all this by saying that when the physical universe becomes complex enough, life (and consciousness) arise. Give a star enough time, and it starts to wonder why it isn’t happy. Part of the universe ponders the rest of the universe, and wonders what it’s all about. Why am I here? What happens then I die? How can I become happier? How can I have more of the experiences I like and fewer of those I don’t like? It thinks of itself as separate.

Give this apparently separate part of the universe a bit more time and it’ll learn to untangle, unwind, and relax the habits that have created its sense of separateness. It then becomes simply another part of the universe, flowing, clearly aware, without delusions of separateness, and with the compassionate desire to help other deluded expressions of consciousness to reach the same state of rest, peace, and wisdom.

Just Sitting is an important part of this process. It allows consciousness the time and space to become aware of its own functioning, to create the conditions for removing the “turbulence” of craving, aversion, and delusion, and so to come to a state of pure, unobstructed flow.

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Check out Stoic Week 2014


Stoic Week 2014 is an online international event taking place from Monday 24th to Sunday 30th November. The week is part of a multi-disciplinary project called Stoicism Today, which is helping to revive the ancient philosophy of Stoicism in modern life.

I’ve mentioned stoicism on this blog before, in articles based on quotes by Marcus Aurelius, who I’ve described as “the original Western Buddhist” because of stoicism’s striking similarities to Buddhism.

Stoicism inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and modern resilience psychology, and is a powerful philosophy for helping people flourish in the face of adversity. At a time when many schools and companies are interested in teaching resilience and character, it’s never been more relevant.

Modern fans of Stoicism include Derren Brown, Adrian Edmondson, Elle MacPherson, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Newhouse (CEO of Conde Nast International). Stoic Week will hopefully help more people discover the practical usefulness of this ancient philosophy, and while allowing us to measure its therapeutic effectiveness.

Anyone can participate in Stoic Week by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2014 Handbook, which will be made freely available online. Over 60 schools have already signed up to take part, as well as philosophy groups, mental health charities and a prison philosophy club.
There is also a one-day event being held at Queen Mary, University of London, on November 29th, with places for 300 people, at which leading experts on modern Stoicism will be speaking.

More information on Stoic Week 2014.

More information on the London Event.

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Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself…”

Marcus Aurelius

We can’t choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how to respond to it. This piece of practical wisdom is found in the Buddhist tradition, but was also a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. Bodhipaksa explains how we can untangle ourselves from the stories we tell ourselves about our experience.

Marcus Aurelius is my favorite Stoic philosopher. The Stoics, if you’re not familiar with them, were a school of philosophy who started about 300 BCE and who continued teaching until 529 CE, when the Christian emperor Justinian I banned pagan philosophies.

Although we use the word “stoicism” to mean something like to “grin and bear it” or to “suck it up,” Stoicism wasn’t a macho pose of unemotional toughness but a well-developed practical philosophy based on living with an awareness of impermanence. For example Marcus said, “Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things … sweep past us and are carried away”. The stoics worked to live ethically, to eliminate negative emotions such as ill will and jealousy from their lives, and they even meditated. Marcus again: “Allow yourself a space of quiet … and learn to curb your restlessness”. Sounds like Buddhism? Yes it does. I think it’s a tragedy that Stoicism was killed off before it had a chance to encounter Buddhism; I think Buddhists and Stoics would have had a lot in common.

Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius’ advice to look to our responses to events in order to pinpoint the cause of suffering in order to eliminate suffering parallels some important Buddhist teachings. And here’s the crucial thing: It’s not what happens to us that causes most of our suffering, but how we respond. In the end, we cause virtually all of our own suffering: not all, but most of it. A Buddhist analogy is the man who is shot by an arrow, and who responds by shooting himself with yet another arrow. It sounds weird, but that’s what we do all the time.

See also:

Some things in life are going to be painful, but we amplify and repeat the pain through the way we respond to it. Let’s say that something painful happens, like someone saying something unkind to us. Without mindfulness, the mind is likely to proliferate thoughts: blaming the other person; thinking about their faults; wondering over and over, why me?; telling ourselves we’re stupid for having got hurt; wishing things were otherwise; repeating the painful words we heard over and over. There seem to be endless possibilities for multiplying thoughts. This proliferation of thoughts adds yet more pain, but this time it’s self-inflicted.

We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them.

With more mindfulness we’re able simply to accept that we experienced pain in response to another person’s words. If necessary, we respond appropriately without obsessing about it. We might tell the other person how we feel, for example, or suggest another perspective. Or we might decide that no action is the most appropriate action. We let the matter go quickly without obsessing. The mind doesn’t take the original arrow and plunge it into our bodies repeatedly.

Marcus says that “the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it.” We create distress in response to external events because of the way we interpret them. We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them, based on our habitual tendencies. We assign meaning to them. So when we say hello to someone and they don’t seem to acknowledge us we might jump to some assumption about how rude they’re being and how they’re trying to snub us and think they’re too important to reply and so on and so on, and then those thoughts may lead to memories of similar incidents and we move on to telling ourselves stories about who we are and our importance or lack of importance in the world. Proliferation!

Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves.

A lot of the time these stories we make up bear little resemblance to reality. And we know this (or should) because we’re often characters in other people’s dramas. You know, where you have one of those weird conversations where everything you say and do is taken the wrong way? What’s going on there can be more obvious for us. It can be easier to see that a story is being made up that doesn’t match with reality. But we do this ourselves all the time.

One thing that’s really ironic is when we get into thinking hateful thoughts about another person in response to something they’ve done, or that we think they’ve done. Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves. Isn’t it crazy? To “defend” ourselves we hurt ourselves!

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice. When we start watching them unfolding we can quickly see that they are repetitive. It’s like we have a limited repertoire of stories that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. And when something goes wrong we automatically put on a “recording” of one of those stories. It might be the “poor me” story or the “why am I surrounded by jerks” story, or one of a thousand others. When something hurts us we often reach for one of these stories. They’re comforting, in a way. They give us a reassuring sense of who we are in relation to the world. But they’re also a cause of pain.

So noticing these stories is a good first step in moving towards a more satisfying way of living. Eventually, as we hear these stories for the umpteenth time, we start to take them less seriously. They still may have an effect on us, but it doesn’t go as deep. Part of us is unaffected by the narrative, and we’ve become more free. Eventually, particular stories can just die away. They’re just not needed any more. Something painful happens in life, we notice it compassionately, and we move on. We’ve stopped interpreting life and started living it.

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