Category Archives: philosophy

Ancient Wisdom | Excerpt From ExMormon’s Search For Meaning

The below is a chapter from ExMormon’s Search For Meaning, available to purchase on Amazon.

As a believer I enjoyed seeing the church announce its membership statistics at each general conference. Every year the numbers went up, so, the church was true. One of my first points of interest after becoming a non-believer was to understand how to refute the claim that Christianity’s unlikely triumph is proof of divine favor. Searching for books on Amazon revealed one that was asking my exact question: The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart D. Ehrman.

While Ehrman’s answer was in itself interesting (Christianty simply out-competed paganism: it wasn’t closed to women, it embedded social welfare into its doctrines, it claimed ultimate truth that foreclosed devotion to all other deities and also included proselytizing in it’s doctrine so that while the growth looks incredible, in fact it’s simply the result of an exponential curve) that wasn’t what caught my eye.

My indoctrination had always included viewing people who were not religious as also not being very moral – how could they be? They don’t believe in God! I was dumbfounded when I learned that the Romans prior to Christianity had morals. God and acting morally were not one in the same? Pagans had no concept of a God that required worshipers to acknowledge the validity of certain truths or live a life that the Gods would deem acceptable. Pagan religions were all about cultic acts: a ritualized practice like animal sacrifice that was done out of reverence to the gods. Ehrman explains, “It is not that ancient people were less ethical than people today; it is that ethics had little to do with religion. Where ethics played a role was in philosophy. Philosophers talked a lot about how people should act toward one another; as members of a family, in relationships, with friends and neighbors, as citizens of a city. Good behavior was part of being a worthwhile human being and a responsible citizen. But it was generally not a part of religious activities.”

To learn morals one need not defer to supernatural deities. Instead, philosophy! Philosophies have two components: they tell us what things in life are and aren’t worth pursuing, and they tell us how to gain the things that are worth having. The result of a particular philosophy is found between your philosophy—how you interpret things, what you think is important—and the quality of your mental and physical health. 

I’d always thought philosophers were just people in universities with patches on their elbows who came up with obscure thought experiments. I’m not alone in this judgment. Donald Robertson in his book The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy relates that in ancient times the ideal philosopher was a veritable warrior of the mind, but in modern times, “the philosopher has become something more bookish, not a warrior, but a mere librarian of the mind.”  Philosophy has always been about transforming the life of the philosopher, in a manner that resembles modern psychotherapy or self-help. As far back as Socrates, philosophy has been compared to the art of medicine for the mind or soul, what we now call psychotherapy. Philosophy isn’t some esoteric thought exercise that you need a degree to understand, it speaks to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

I may have lost interest in the demands made by supernatural beings, but I haven’t lost an interest in self-improvement. I am very comfortable acknowledging that I am selfish, prone to overindulge, quick to judge, fixated on possessions and status, and hesitant to help other people. Given my faults, repetition of simple, even childlike lessons that I used to get at church on how to conduct myself are not only warranted but welcome. I don’t consider myself above the lessons and reminders that religion pushed, I’m just over the need to be threatened with hell or bribed by the Celestial Kingdom to comport myself in a way that is best for me. My forgetful self needs a constant diet of lessons on how to live well, no matter how many times I’ve heard them before. Philosophy provides the means to that end, no superstitions required. 

I decided to become a philosopher in the ancient sense of the word. I would develop a path to morals, and potentially meaning, that didn’t rely on God, that was practical and based on my own empirical evidence. Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Seneca, Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius would be my new teachers.

Explaining Gatekeeping

Ernest Becker’s Denial Of Death provides the best explanation for the phenomenon of “gatekeeping” that I know of. Gatekeeping, as defined by Reddit, “is when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.”

A good example of gatekeeping can be found on Reddit in the many iterations of defining a “real man”:




To start, it’s crucial to first accept that we humans are animals who, over the course of millennia and as a means for self-preservation, have evolved the ability to know that we exist. This ability has treated our species well, evidenced by our ability to subjugate all other species. But it is also the universal human problem. It’s a problem because knowing that we exist also means knowing we will someday cease to exist. The realizations that death can occur at any time for reasons that we could never anticipate or control along with the point of view that we’re insignificant and no more enduring than an insect or a tree would understandably render our ancestors totally demoralized and paralyzed with overwhelming dread. But we managed to mitigate that overwhelming dread by constructing culture. Culture is the humanly constructed beliefs about reality that we share with people in groups to minimize anxiety by giving us a sense that we are persons of value living in a world of meaning.

Culture gives meaning by providing us with an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions of appropriate conduct and some hope of immortality either literally in the form of heavens, after-lives and reincarnations or symbolically through having children, amassing great wealth or producing art or scientific discoveries. While we may not be here forever we are comforted by the possibility that a tangible manifestation of our existence will persist over time nonetheless. As Becker explains,

“This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of status and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

If a fully accepted culture provides something as important as the ability to ignore our insignificance and avoid being paralyzed with overwhelming dread, then it stands to reason that we would avoid situations or information that could cast doubt on it at all costs. But in the 21st century we are unavoidably bombarded by alternate world-views on a daily basis. As a result, we are inclined to constantly define and defend our cultural worldview that provides us meaning, A.K.A. gatekeeping.

Being exposed to information that does not fit with our beliefs about the nature of reality or meeting other people that do not subscribe to the same symbolic vehicle we use to maintain our self-esteem are fundamentally threatening because when we admit to the legitimacy of another’s alternative conception of reality we necessarily undermine the confidence with which we subscribe to our own views. When we do that we expose ourselves to the very anxiety that those beliefs were erected to mitigate in the first place.

Someone who has embraced a “manly” cultural worldview gleans their self-esteem from meeting or exceeding the standards associated with “manliness”–owning a tightly scripted wardrobe, using a charcoal grill, driving a stick-shift, owning a gun–which helps them keep mortal terror at bay. The first line of psychological defense employed when these “manly” worldview holders run into others who are different is to denigrate or disparage them by continually pointing out the cultural rules that they play by so as to firmly plant themselves as winners of their invented game.

While it is exhausting to be a gatekeeper, the alternative of becoming aware of the lie gatekeepers are living is worse. As Becker says,

“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem.”

Painful, but also necessary. If one isn’t aware of the cultural rules that they are in servitude of as an attempt to earn the ability to ignore their insignificance then it results in making them ripe for manipulation. Take the below advertisement:

This company knows that if their ad works they stand to make a lot of money, not by successfully providing a solution to a real need, which is much harder in the 21st century, but by placing themselves within the cultural conception of what is considered “manly”. If they can convince those who derive their self-esteem through the management of what is and isn’t “manly,” then their product will succeed by being a solution to a cultural perception without having to actually solve anything at all.

This realization shouldn’t be taken as something to shove in the face of all gatekeepers, but should cause us to shudder at the thought of what inventions we believe in that make us susceptible to manipulation. What gatekeeping do we participate in to keep the terror of reality at bay? Gatekeeping is like propaganda: the only propaganda you can identify is the propaganda that isn’t working, when it’s working you don’t call it propaganda; you call it the truth. Ask yourself what Becker calls the most liberating question of all:

“How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?”

A Reliable Path To Being Present — Hobbies

Ancient philosophy teaches that the present is enough for happiness because it allows us to satisfy our simplest and most necessary desires. The idea is that there are natural desires, and unnatural desires. Natural desires are always available, or at least very simple to obtain in the present — such as a desire for water when we are thirsty can be easily satisfied. Unnatural desires, like wanting status and money cannot be easily obtained and are not in the present — therefore they cause unhappiness. Furthermore, a person who applies all his attention and his consciousness to the present will obtain the highest and genuine type of happiness — the pure pleasure of existence.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations has this to say on the topic:

“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”

Sitting there blissed out on existing is not an easy mental state to get into. I think a more reliable way to achieve it is in doing things. Particularly things that are interesting to you, that are intellectually compelling and that you enjoy doing — also known as hobbies.

 

Yet hobbies are under threat.

 

One reason, explains Tim Wu in the New York Times article In Praise of Mediocrity, is that we feel like we need to be good at them.

“There’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.”

Tim Wu goes on to say,

“In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.”

Stephanie Buck in an article, Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it, describes another reason besides demanding excellence in all that we do that hobbies are becoming extinct: we’re turning hobbies into businesses.

“For many of us, the hobby is dead. Our work lives have merged with our free time, and hobbies are now often indistinguishable from second jobs. In a culture obsessed with productivity, the hobby has become the next venture.”

William Deresiewicz, in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, tells us that this indoctrination of measuring time spent only by monetary return-on-investment starts early:

“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.”

In losing our hobbies, we’re losing our humanity. We’re being conditioned to love our jobs, equate career with leisure, turn hobbies into side hustles and then feel self-conscious about our performance when we do them. Not only our humanity and the ability to living in the present are at stake; we’re also being robbed of simple pure joy.

Again, Tim Wu explains,

“But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.”

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, echoed this sentiment in his 1990 Kenyon College Commencement speech. In college he decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room.

“Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.”

We need to follow the advice of Austin Kleon in his talk, How To Keep Going,  and make everyday Groundhog Day. Consider yourself Phil Connors and ask yourself,

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

Phil Connors had to live in the present. He had no future, and the past was irrelevant. Paradoxically, only when he gave into the present was he able to move into the future. We too must realize that only when we disavow outcomes, let go of expectations and get lost in the present with our hobbies do we stand a chance at achieving the pure pleasure of existence.

The Price Of Facebook

We tend to believe that we are rational, profit-seeking, self-interested, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. Therefore the only things we would spend time and money on are things that we believe are worth more than they cost. Who would be stupid enough to consistently waste time and money on something that didn’t give more value back in return?

Look at all the time spent with our phones and social media. Over two billion people currently use Facebook. And since we only spend time and money on things that we believe are worth more than they cost — and since Facebook is free, no matter how minor the benefits, they’re still more substantial than the cost…right?

Well, as Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, says,

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

Well-funded marketers are working overtime to take advantage of our psychological vulnerabilities to confuse and deceive us about the anxiety, personal freedom, independent thought, outrage, democracy and certainly time that Facebook costs. Yet thanks to our bias for ignorance, if anyone asked, “why Facebook?”, many would reply, “why not?”

In the New Yorker article Why Facts Don’t  Change Our Minds, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how cognitive scientists are able to demonstrate just how ignorant we are of our ignorance — in this case when it comes to our stances on political issues. Multiple kinds of studies show that even when you give people evidence that refutes their beliefs, they still fail to revise them.The ignorance only begins to crack when people are instructed to explain, in as much detail as they can, the impacts of implementing their stance.

“Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.””

So, in the case of using “free” services online, if we spent less time swiping, liking and posting and more time trying to work through the implications of social media use, we’d realize how clueless we are and stop hurting ourselves.

Let’s try it:

Seneca said,

“Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.”

This is similar to a quote from Henry David Thoreau,

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Put another way, “the value of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” So let’s look at the record: what would your calendar say about what you value the most? Does the amount of time you’ve spent online align with your values? Is your life, as Seneca points out, worth less than the paltry friend requests, status updates and clickbait?

Ancient Stoic philosophers believed that the key to having a good life was to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

William B. Irvine, in Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, attributes Marcus Aurelius to saying,

“Because we have it in our power to assign value to things, we have it in our power to live a good life.”

By assigning things their correct value we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety. Consider a handful of values one could choose from to lead to a good life: honesty, hard work, confidence, love, creativity, adventure. How does time on Facebook support these or any other quality value?

For me, questions like these help me put Facebook and all other types of social media in their proper place. The information we consume changes us. Facebook isn’t free. Your life is more valuable than social media.

Making the habitual conscious and the conscious habitual

How much of your life is a result of unconscious beliefs and values?

We generally think that the things we feel, believe, perceive and the way we behave are some kind of natural essence of who we are. Further, we also tend to believe that all of that stuff just happens by itself and isn’t really in our control.

As a result, our emotions feel like they’re attached to our identities. Bad feelings make us think that we’re bad people. Negative identities lead to bad choices which further entrenches us in more bad feelings. This is a lot like what depression feels like – an inescapable spiral of slipping self-worth with no hope of change.

The way out is to realize that the way we react to things we feel, believe and perceive can be, to some degree, chosen. Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher, said,

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

It’s difficult to choose feelings but you don’t have to take them seriously. Learning to question feelings leads to unraveling their source which, in turn, leads to an ability to relate to feelings differently.

By default we absorb the values and beliefs of our parents, culture, or society and tend to accept them unquestioningly (a tip on discovering your absorbed values: What gets questioned the least? The moment something is most widely accepted is the moment it should be questioned the most). Overcoming these tendencies and deliberately choosing the beliefs that are the most helpful to us is one of the biggest challenges of life. David Foster Wallace explains in his 2005 commencement speech that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
He goes on saying,

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

The challenge is to make the unhelpful, inherited values and beliefs that we habitually lean on conscious, and, after analyzing them, make the consciously chosen, helpful values habitual:

  1. Watch your mind without necessarily believing everything you think
  2. Discover your unconscious beliefs, examine them and their triggers
  3. Decide if they helpful or not helpful
  4. Create a plan so that when the trigger occurs you’ve got an alternative helpful explanation ready
  5. After enough practice, in any situation we’re in, we naturally feel the helpful emotion instead of the unhelpful one and do the right thing.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
John Gardner, Personal Renewal

What Does Greatness Have That Mediocrity Doesn’t?

Judging by most people’s behavior, I would say one of the the biggest fears we have in our culture is of being mediocre. People don’t just jog, they become marathoners; they don’t just exercise but go to Crossfit in order to compete at being the best at it. Workaholism is a badge of honor, reversing centuries where it was the poor who worked while the rich rested. And once adults feel like they’ve peaked, they can begin building their competitive kids. Being average is being an uninteresting slacker who won’t commit 10,000 hours of practice to something.
Is greatness everything it purports to be? I’m skeptical. Or maybe I’m trying to justify my own sense of inferiority. But when I look at what makes greatness so tempting, I see some holes. First off, here are the reasons I can come up with as to why greatness is so great:

  1. The belief that the activity we are engaging in could be more enjoyable if we were the best at it — winning feels better than losing.
  2. In our search for meaning, our current state isn’t cutting it so we reason that it must be because we haven’t reached some higher level where meaning occurs. If we were the greatest at something, that uniqueness would grant a new sense of meaning only endowed on those who are the greatest — we can earn happiness by earning greatness.
  3. We long for status. Greatness = popularity = influence = money = happiness.
  4. For some reason we feel like we don’t belong and greatness would prove to everyone that we are worthy.

Greatness, in essence, is a study of ourselves compared to others. So really, greatness is a perception more than it is a reality. That perception can be manipulated by who we compare ourselves to and what metric we use to compare with.

Malcolm Gladwell has explained that in elite universities many students seek greatness by competing with others to be accepted only to feel like they lose their greatness once they get in.

“When you are in the 99th percentile and you’re up against someone in the 99.99th percentile, you feel stupid.Then you go back to the real world, and you’re smart again. So why would you artificially put yourself in a situation where you feel so dumb that you stop doing the very thing that you went to school to do?”

Gladwell goes on to explain his experience working for a mediocre student newspaper:

“I had a way better experience than I would have had if I was at the highly competitive newspaper. I’ve never forgotten that. By virtue of being this lame, forgotten thing, I got to do more fun stuff and have a much better time than I would have at the proper newspaper.”

The satisfaction of greatness is solely inside your mind and can be achieved by manipulating the input of who you compare yourself with just as much as reaching a certain level of achievement.
Winning is something that is not completely within your control. So to use an external outcome outside of your control as the metric for success is setting yourself up for greater disappointment. Better to use an internal metric to measure yourself against that is in your control — like doing your best. The decreased anxiety of using an internal goal will increase enjoyment during the event and satisfaction afterwards.

 

Releasing yourself from the goal of greatness and reveling in the mediocrity of multiple interests might just be the thing that actually leads to greatness.
Steven Johnson explains in, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation,” Innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin favored working on multiple projects simultaneously, in a kind of slow multitasking mode. One project would take center stage for days at a time, but linger at the back of the mind afterwards too, so connections between projects could be drawn. Breakthrough ideas don’t come out of the blue. They are found at the intersection of  all the other ideas smashing into each other in your head.

“Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.”

I have a hard time watching those talent shows on TV like American Idol. The contestants are demonstrably talented but singing songs written by other people is ultimately not what we want. One focused on greatness in music or any other field might become an expert, but greatness isn’t expertise, it’s originality and insight.

Adam Grant says,

“Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music. No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight.”

In this context, striving for greatness can be seen as just a competition of who can be the best at conforming. Some entity sets the rules and then it’s a test to see who is the best at subjecting themselves to be the best at those rules. Being the best at meeting some requirements really isn’t greatness despite what the people who made the rules say — of course they’re going to say that’s what greatness is, it puts them in a position of greatness.


“Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.” ― Ryan Holiday, The Ego Is the Enemy

 

The term “hedonic treadmill” is what social scientists call the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. In other words, the happiness that is awarded those who achieve greatness is fleeting.
There are many people who reach a level of greatness only to feel empty and vapid. Jim Carrey is quoted saying,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So why strive for greatness if the reward is so unfulfilling? If we’re not content with our current status then there’s a good chance that no level of greatness will make us feel any better. Or to say it another way, we stand just as good a chance of being content with ourselves in our current state of mediocrity than in being great — actually we have a greater chance since it’s a place much more accessible; we can reach it within our own minds.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t take effort to be happy in our current state. Getting over our sense of inferiority is not easy. Our default setting is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, often to the detriment of the present moment.
Ancient eastern Buddhism and western philosophy both concern themselves with practices and mindsets that teach us how to let go of the past and future and live in the present to achieve a feeling of true greatness — being ourselves. To hope for an increase in pleasure from a future of greatness is to be ignorant of pleasure’s very nature. We can achieve stable pleasure only if we know how to limit ourselves to what we can obtain within the present moment, without letting ourselves be swept along by the unreasonable limitless needs of our desires.
This isn’t another way of convincing ourselves to be okay with settling. The present is everything.  Seneca said,

“He who enjoys the present without depending on what does not exist…he is without hope and without desire; he does not hurl himself toward an uncertain goal, for he is satisfied with what he has. Nor is he satisfied with little, for what he posses is the universe…like God he says, “All this belongs to me.”

The present isn’t to be suffered for a future eternal life. It is eternal life.

“Death is not an event of life. It is not experienced. If by eternity we mean not an infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then whoever lives in the present lives eternally.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are tens of millions of people who are better at everything that I do. But I don’t have to compare myself with them, because I’m in a different competition. For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning leads me to unnecessarily see my life as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing the meaning that is available. Loving the process instead of the outcome is the secret to motivation and daily enjoyment of the present.
Reaching an arbitrary level of greatness does not prove that we are great. It’s a false label that inspires our egos to think we’re superior to others. We are all always going to be imperfect and “greatness” can only cover it up temporarily.

“Imperfection is not our personal problem – it is a natural part of existing.”  – Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

I’m not a problem that needs to be solved. I’m neither mediocre nor great. I choose to not affirm myself at all costs against the order of the world and instead delight in the splendor of pure existence.

Wearing Occasions and Practicing Philosophy

Buddhism stresses “mindfulness,” for the Greek philosophers it’s “psychological acceptance.” Both posit that human suffering is not the result of external problems but internal beliefs. Having a nonjudgmental perspective on the totality of one’s experience, learning new information-processing skills and coping mechanisms, reduces suffering and is the path to achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Practicing philosophy means to examine the reasons we have for the values and the beliefs we hold as true so that we can free ourselves from unhelpful traditions, cultures, habits and mindsets. These unhelpful beliefs are what water is to fish – invisible due to their over-familiarity. So how do you study the invisible? One way is to make use of the propaganda thrown at us everyday in the form of advertising. The strategies companies employ to get you to buy their products makes for good brain fodder in how to practice philosophy.

Consider: Consumers have most of their needs met. They also have limited money. What is a corporation with a mandate of constant growth to do? Trying to take market share from competitors is one option. If the pie is only so big, you need to take a larger piece from the competitor if you want to grow. But it’s not cheap. Consumer habits run deep.

Even better than growing market share is growing market size. Increasing market size can take on many forms: for example, a company in the computer business moves into the phone business and then moves into the wristwatch business. Or a low price company creates a tier of luxury, high priced products.

Besides maneuvering into other categories or recreating perceptions of value, the most pernicious way of creating market size is by inventing problems for which the company is the only solution. Create new customer needs and all of a sudden you’ve created more share to take.

This idea is as old as marketing itself. No one knew halitosis was a problem until the mouthwash company told us it was. Who knew wearing white after Labor Day was a sin until fashion companies declared it so? Instead of inventing problems for which the company is the solution — maintaining the problem for which they are the solution is even better. You’re never good looking enough, happy enough, travelled enough or entertained enough as long as the company keeps thinking up new ways to convince you so. In a way, marketing is a personification of the thoughts that we manufacture in our minds – which makes them so ripe for analysis. We also maintain the problematic thought patterns that keep us believing unhelpful thoughts that stroke our egos and pride.

We generally think we’re above it all, that all that advertising doesn’t affect me. Don’t be so quick to think that a thousand cuts won’t kill you. Marketing ideas get our attention by taking advantage of a host of psychological vulnerabilities that we have and then become fuel for the unhelpful values and beliefs that philosophy aims to fix. It is possible to render advertising ineffective and at the same time build our mental muscles to resist. We are awash in marketing messages, and therefor awash in practicing philosophy.

The brevity of marketing messages helps in their perception as being self-evident – too short and shallow to be given critical thought before the next advertisement hijacks our attention. Instead, let the advertisement be your own Socratic questioner. Contemplate the ad’s “call-to-action” with your own opinions and values on the topic suggested and articulate them for yourself. Ask, “who stands to benefit from this belief?” By dragging your values into the light, defending your position against or for the ad’s claim, or just acknowledging you have values will begin to break them down, expose them to the operations of critical intelligence and thus develop that intelligence in the first place. The point isn’t to double-down on your opinions or swallow marketing messages whole, but to put them into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable and endlessly fertile condition of doubt — ultimately to understand that you know less than you think.

So when you learn of a new “wearing occasion” proposed by an apparel company in an attempt to get you to buy clothes that ultimately do the same thing as clothes you already own, consider it an opportunity to teach yourself to recognize it, question it, and think your way around it.