Thoreau on Waking Up

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 11.10.30 AM.pngTo be awake is to be alive…. We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious effort.

From Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” p. 74


Lines Composed During Overnight Camp, June 13, 2018

While the parents are standing, waiting on the grass,
A steady line of children continues to amass
We slowly load our things and get on the bus;
Meanwhile, the kids are still making a fuss
Making sure our seatbelts are on, we ourselves seat,
And we open the windows to let out the heat
We pass by beaches, forests, towns, and more,
Protected overhead by towering trees galore
Time passes on its own terms, at its own pace,
Such that it leaves its ghostly trail for our grace
The children, though, are restless and restive:
They want to get up, move around, be festive
What’s to them an eternity, is a second;
Yet when it’s over, it’s like match to flint
For landing, finally, at Camp Jones Gulch,
They dance ’round excitedly on the mulch.

But let us pause and appreciate Nature
We’ll bask in the sun, and ourselves the day inure
Everywhere we look, there are tall, majestic trees,
The sights whereof invite us to ponder and freeze
Solitary, regal, they reach high to the sky
Oh, imagine what it would be like to fly:
Soaring weightlessly, looking down with bird’s eye view
Surrounded by an infinite sea of blue,
Within whose depths you could see the whole world,
Entrapped by mighty trees that upward curled,
So that all of life were in Nature’s cradle,
And nurtured by Her, by Her ladle.

Here we are, returned to our old home,
Around which, with discretion, we roam;
But having been from her disconnected so long,
Having journeyed forth too far, we’ve forgotten our native song:
We don’t look upon Her children with curious eyes;
Instead, we ignore them, and so lose our ties
It’s as though we have been ripped from our Mother—
Now aught’s that not technology’s considered “Other”
Mother Nature’s been from us strangely estranged
—All is foreign that is not within Wi-Fi’s range
A dose of Nature’s medicine is what we need,
Lest we our apathy to it concede.


So how do we regain interest in whence we grew?
Firstly, by giving up what we took in lieu:
This means we must give up our devices,
Which also brings with it clearing our vices
For instance, we have succumbed to accedia;
Consequently, we accede to exceed in a
Temperament of mild intemperance
—And tempered so, have severe severance
To turn a new leaf, we foster compassion
As such, environment becomes the new fashion
And soon enough, conservation spreads like wildfire
Hopefully, this way, Nature will not tire,
Having suffered through our tire-less neglect
We’ve reneged on our promise, which we must re-elect
Our duty to uphold and love Nature—we fail
Oblig’d to make her travel her own trail of travail
This, the trail littered with our own trash, o lowly path;
Wherefore we have fated ourselves to her wrath
So, when She to us doth Herself disclose,
Acknowledge that She has Herself exposed
Her self-disclosure, methinks, is, to us, a gift
From hence to drift, is to betwixt us deepen rift
If Man’s legacy is not to be Nature’s reaper,
Then it is up to us to be Her keeper.

Nature we ought to embrace with open arms,
But if we close ourselves off, then it harms
This uttermost disgrace, I doth opine
To deal such disrespect to a tree—oh Pine!
Unto you all, to my clarion hark:
Denude not the trees, and rip not their bark!
Upon the banks, tread cautious ’bout the leaves;
As Nature appealeth to he who to her cleaves
With patient hands, preserve Her precious twigs—
Or prepare to be privy to what She rigs
Though its bathos be blue, keep Her waters see-through,
And do your best not to dirty her lands, too
Of the birds who in spring sing their songs, stay clear
Admire their distant-heard tunes, sincere
Nature’s rocks are old and full of stories,
So be mindful not to make out of them quarries;
Because even if to climb be your knack,
Surely, your mindlessness will cause in them a crack

Nature, you’ll observe, is full of beauteous sights,
But just like us, Nature, too, has Her own natural rights;
Therefore, let us in Nature enjoy our stay,
And for the whole day, we’ll have fun in our play.


What is Dreaming, What Do Dreams Mean, and Why Do We Dream?

170419.jpgMartin Luther King, Jr. once had a dream—and last night, so did I. At the end of a long day, we all get in bed, close our eyes, and go to sleep. Then the magic happens. It is as if when our eyes close, the curtains of the mind are opened, and a lively and magical performance begins on the stage of our unconscious, with dances, songs, and monologues. Bright, intense, and nonsensical, these images in our heads visit us every night, although we are quick to forget them, as they soon fade away, almost as though they never happened. Dreams feel real, yet they are unreal, illusory. Sometimes they capture things that have happened to us, but sometimes they show us things that have not yet happened, and sometimes yet they show us things that are happening. Dreams are the greatest mysteries of the night, which is why they have attracted so much attention, both from individual thinkers and collective civilizations, who have attributed to dreams some sort of importance. What are dreams, really? Why do we dream? Do other animals dream? These are all questions psychology has been asking and will continue to ask. As of right now, none of these questions has a confident answer, but is constrained to theory. We humans will not rest (no pun intended), though, until we get the answer; we will refuse to just “sleep on it”—literally, because we cannot. So in today’s post, we will be exploring the science behind dreaming, the history of dreaming, and the different interpretations of dreaming that have been proposed. Although no definitive answers will be yielded, we will still gain some valuable insights on the nature of dreaming.

What is dreaming?

Types-of-brain-waves.jpgIt is not like we start dreaming as soon as we get into bed. Instead, sleep has to pass through several stages in order for dreaming to initiate. Researchers study brain waves with electroencephalograms (EEG’s)—a fancy word that refers to the skill of finding and interpreting electrical activity in the brain at a given moment. With these brain waves, psychologists have found that there are at least four stages that occur in the sleep process: First, in our everyday waking lives, our brain produces beta waves, which are released when we think, usually at 13 or more cycles per minute (cpm); second, when we close our eyes and start to relax, alpha waves start to kick in at 8-12 cpm; third, theta waves are produced at 4-7 cpm when we enter light sleep, or NREM, and begin to feel drowsy; fourth, we experience delta waves, which are 4 or fewer cpm, created during deep sleep, known as REM. It is in this last stage, when Delta waves are produced, that we experience most of our dreams. But what is a dream?

A dream is “a sequence of images, emotions, and thoughts passing through a sleeping person’s mind.” In addition, “Dreams are notable for their hallucinatory imagery, discontinuities, and incongruities, and for the dreamer’s delusional acceptance of the content and later difficulties remembering it.”[1] One important thing which is to be gleaned from this definition is the fact that dreaming is not just confined to visual displays and imagery in pictures; rather, dreaming can involve many other senses. A lucid_Dreaming.jpgquestion many people are curious about is whether blind people can see things in their dreams, or deaf people hear. What has been found is that people with blindness, because they have never seen anything, dream using senses other than sight, and the same thing applies to deaf people. In other words, people with congenital blindness, who were born blind, can hear or smell different things since they have been exposed to such stimulation, but not with their eyes. Another interesting thing about dreams is that, besides not just being about pictures, dreams can also communicate intentional states, i.e., motivations, fears, desires, etc. Dreams are set apart from waking life due to their being illogical. Whereas there is a logical cause-and-effect and sequence of narration that follows a common story in real life, there are random and disorganized events in dreams. As such, they are characterized as fantastical, belonging more to fantasy and fiction than reality, adopting unrealistic exaggerations and possibilities, more incredible than realistic. When we say there is a uniform narrativity to life, we mean there is a set plot, with a beginning, middle, and end; but with dreams, there is no such narrativity, for there is nothing that links events together in any reasonable way.

Now, regarding what actually happens during dreaming: Once we reach deep sleep, once the brain starts putting out Delta waves, we switch between two stages, REM and NREM. REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” and there are about 4-5 of them that cycle through the night, 90 minutes at a time. While we are in REM, brain waves paradoxically Unknown.jpegresemble those that happen when we are awake. If we were to look at the brain when we were awake, then it would look just like how it is when we are in REM—despite the fact that REM is deep sleep, when the entire body is paralyzed and in total relaxation. This is a kind of “dream-state,” as psychologists like to refer to it, in which animals who undergo it are very stimulated. All mammals, not just humans, experience this dream-state. The only difference is how long each animal spends in the dream-state; depending on the average lifespan of the animal, they will dream more or less. We humans are in the middle. The reason REM is named so is because the eyes literally twitch rapidly while shut, which seems to contradict all logic, and the reason why psychologists are so puzzled about the phenomenon. Speaking of puzzling phenomena, some people experience “sleep paralysis” when they regain consciousness during sleep, only to find their bodies rigid, unable to move, as if stapled to their beds, their throats pinched. Why we wake up randomly, we do not know. Why we are paralyzed—this we do know: Psychologist Michel Jouvet found in an experiment that the pons, located in the lower region of the pons2.jpgbrain stem, actually inhibits all motor activity, meaning the muscles are completely stopped. He performed a study in which cats had their pons removed, and then he watched them at night to see what happened. Because he got rid of the part of the brain that stopped muscles from being used, the cats, he observed, actually moved around quickly and ferociously, in a predatory manner, because they were, Jouvet supposed, dreaming about catching mice. What this revealed is that, if the pons were not activated during sleep, there would be many more injuries at night. It has been reported by a number of people that they experience a sort of “falling reflex”; upon falling in their dream, they wake up, as if reacting to the fall and catching themselves. Imagine, then, what would happen to many of us in some of our more threatening dreams, if it were not for the pons in the brain stem.

What about NREM? NREM stands for “non-rapid eye movement”—I know, creative. As is to be expected, NREM is not called “deep sleep” for a reason; NREM is a lighter form of sleep that is not as engaging. To better illustrate the difference, take people who can Unknown-1.jpegsleep through their alarms, and those who cannot; the former are in deep sleep, the latter in light. For a time, it was thought that dreaming only occurred during REM; however, later studies disproved this, stating that dreams do occur during NREM, just that they are less memorable and exciting. Other things that have been found about dreaming regard the environment and dream content. The external environment of a sleeper has been discovered to affect their dreams. For example, a case had test subjects enter REM-sleep, then the tester would spray them with water. Upon waking, the subjects said they dreamt of some form or another of water, be it seeing a waterfall or swimming in a pool. What surrounds a dreamer or what they touch can create associations related to the outside stimulus, or effector. Such dreams are “self-state dreams,” since their content is centered around the state in which the self finds itself. Sometimes, self-state dreams can also lend insight into future actions. One thought-provoking fact is that 80% of reported dreams are negative (Domhoff, 1999). Accordingly, for every five dreams we have, only one of them does not involve bad things happening to us.

Another subject of inquiry—one which is unbelievably trippy—is lucid dreaming. When dreams are very high in lucidity, or clearness, we are aware of ourselves as dreaming. lucid-dreaming1.jpgLet us put it this way: Lucid dreaming is knowing that we are dreaming. But are we just dreaming that we are dreaming? If you want a quick look at the philosophical problem of dreaming, then you can read here! Aside from the armchair philosophy of dreaming, there is a little more substance to lucid dreaming. For instance, lucid dreamers feel like they have no sense of touch, allowing them to pass through otherwise impassable obstacles, and they also apparently lack any other sense beside sight. Lucid dreams are also said to be more bright than regular dreams. When aware of dreaming, dreamers can ignore natural laws, doing things that defy logic and physics. All of this raises the question of why we even dream in the first place. If sleep is necessary for us to rest our bodies, then why not just sleep, why have hallucinatory visions at night? Unfortunately, we have no solid answers. There is only speculation. I will discuss these speculations in further detail at the end, but for now, here is a brief overview.

  1. Wish-fulfillment. According to this theory, dreams are symbolic representations of repressed, unconscious urges that are mostly erotic. The problem with this theory is that, surprisingly, dreams with sexual content are actually quite rare and uncommon (recall that 80% of dreams are negative).
  2. Memory storage. Those who support this theory argue that because memory is improved during REM, it stands to reason that the purpose of dreams is to filter out the day’s experiences. If you have ever heard that it is unwise to study right before going to bed, then it comes from this. Just like your body, your brain needs time to recover, so if you jam it with knowledge right before bed, then you will overload it, and your learning will not be as effective; the brain works more efficiently if it takes in smaller chunks over a longer amount of time.
  3. Neural pathways. Random sensory information from outside stimulates the brain as it sleeps, strengthening their neural connections. Thus, this theory says dreaming’s purpose is to solidify our neural pathways.
  4. Biological model. Activation-synthesis is the theory that the brain stem creates random imagery that is interpreted by the limbic system, which colors it. Hence, seemingly meaningless visuals are turned into emotional, colorful images that resemble conscious life.
  5. Cognitive development. For some, dreams reflect our cognitive development. As evidence, they use the fact that children have relatively simple, crude dreams, whereas adults have more complex, egocentric dreams. The complexity of dreams depends on how much knowledge one has.

A History of Dream Interpretation

Egypt ba.jpgSince the earliest civilizations of man, dreaming has held an important place in our culture. If we explore the human mind over 4,000 years ago, then we will find the earliest records of dreaming to date. A document known as the “Chester Beatty papyrus” was excavated and is dated to be from around 2,000 B.C. On it are written 200 dreams that were reported and interpreted by the Egyptians. Based on Mesopotamian mythology, and adapted from Assyrian sources, this Egyptian dream codex reveals the universal nature of dreaming. The fact that these three great civilizations—Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria—all gave such immense attention to dreams, that they were related in study, shows how intimate dreams are to the collective conscious of a people. In all three societies, dreams were ways of contacting invisible realms through the guidance of either good or bad spirits. Then came Abrahamic monotheism. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all interpreted dreams as coming directly from God to them in their sleep. Understandably, these dreams were heavily filled with religious metaphors and symbolism.

A little later and the Greeks would become fascinated with dreams. The Greeks had their own religious groups—some might say cults—called “Mysteries,” and many a Mystery was focused on dreaming. In order to have better dreams, Greeks encouraged sleep to each other with oils and drugs, so that they would be more immersed. An important aspect of Greek life was the oracle: Each day, hundreds of travelers would go to oracles to have their fortunes told. Dream interpretation was done in the same manner. Specialized interpreters would have a place in the temple, where they were surrounded by natural smoke that they would read and decode, then pass onto the dreamer. During the Archaic period, though, a shift occurred. The Pre-Socratic philosophers began to steer away from religion and toward scientific, rational thought. Mystery and dream divination, or magic (oneiromancy), would be replaced with more empirical observations. Each of the following philosophers accurately predicted modern-day conclusions by themselves.

  • Heraclitus (c. 535-475 B.C.) claimed dreams were nothing more than day residue, i.e., recollection of things that happened throughout the day.
  • Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.) thought dreams were the result of the external environment acting on an individual’s consciousness.
  • Plato (428-348 B.C.) proposed that dreams were a manifestation of wish-fulfillment based on repressed desires in the soul. He also thought dreams were the divinely inspired and could grant people creative impulses.
  • Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued against prophetic interpretations, instead declaring dreams to be the result of sensory stimulation that could potentially affect our future actions based on their content.

Unknown-2.jpegThus, the study of dreams officially became scientific in nature. Artemidorus, coming 400 years after Aristotle, born in the same country as Heraclitus, wrote the largest encyclopedia of dreams for his time, the Oneirocritica. In it, he distinguished between two types of dreams: Insomnium and somnium. Insomnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the present. These are dreams that deal with current problems and daily occurrences. Somnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the future—self-state dreams, in other words. These dreams are “deeper,””more profound,” than insomnium dreams because they give us insight. But Artemidorus came up with even more fascinating idea, one that has hitherto been neglected and still does not receive a lot of merit today: Dream interpretation reveals more about the interpreter than it does the dreamer. Apparently, according to Artemidorus, by gaining the background of a person, by interpreting their visions in light of this, we gain insight about ourselves because we mix in our own beliefs and symbolism that they would otherwise miss. Contemporaries of the Pre-Socratics in the East—the Chinese, Buddhists, and Hindus—were the heirs of the Egyptians forasmuch as dreams were glimpses of a higher realm, a truer reality, to them. In their dreams, they would experience the transcendence of their souls from the corporeal world.

The scientific study of dreams would come crashing down in the Middle Ages, which saw a reversion back to religious symbolism. Only this time, the underpinnings were moral and theistic. The problem of interpretation came down to the whether the dreams were communicated by God or not, in which case it was either angels, and therefore holy, or demons, and therefore wicked. Thus, medieval dreamers had to discern between truth and untruth. A few hundred years more, and we get the great rebirth, the Renaissance. It is from the Renaissance that we get our contemporary connotations of dream interpretation, for it was during this time that divination once again became dominant. The Renaissance saw a surge of interest in practices like occultism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, prophecy, and hermeticism—in a word, magic. Nowadays, these associations still carry over, so when we hear people talking about interpreting dreams or discussing horoscopes, we tend to brush them off as useless, arcane magic.

Fast forward 400 years to the Modern Age in the 19th century. Still traumatized by the Renaissance, people in the 1800’s were hesitant to study dreams or consider their importance seeing as dreams were seen as “unscientific” and therefore unworthy of serious thought. The magical side of dreams was not wholly abandoned or dismissed, contrary to what some might think; literary geniuses celebrated dreams for their Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster_edit2.jpgcreativity. Famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his unfinished poem “Kubla Khan” after an inspiring dream, but he never finished it because he was interrupted by a mysterious “person from Porlock”; novelist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde based on a dream he had, too, in which he saw his hidden, unconscious urges battling his outward, conscious behavior; and Edgar Allen Poe also said his dreams contributed to his works. Around this time, in the mid 1800’s, anthropology was becoming a much-studied topic, so anthropologists were traveling around the world studying primitive tribes. What they found predated Jung’s theory of archetypes, and they also found that these tribes usually made their decisions based on dreams they had—the resurgence of prophecy. Next comes the 20th century and the rise of psychoanalysis, dominated by two figures, Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung, to whom we shall presently turn.

Modern Day Dream Interpretation Models

maxresdefault.jpgBefore discussing the psychoanalytic tradition, we will first return to the earlier models of dream interpretation (the cool name for which is oneirology) we discussed. The first model is the cognitive model, according to which dreams are a means of thinking about the day during the night. When we dream, our mind is thinking just as we normally would, but with multiple layers of metaphors emphasized unconsciously. In this way, everyday imagery is “translated,” so to speak, into metaphorical forms that stand in for ordinary things. These forms, furthermore, are colored by our emotions, so that they reflect our inner world of moods and feel significant to us. This theory also groups together the cognitive development one, so dream quality will differ based on one’s brain development. Some scientists contend that dreams are important for problem-solving. There is a scientific basis for the phrase “sleep on it,” after all. When we sleep, our unconscious and subconscious are most active, so thoughts we did not know we even had float around, and some by chance end up back in our conscious, while those in our conscious sometimes drift off into the Unknown-1.jpegsubconscious. Either way, ideas move around. A friend of mine told me the story of how he lost his headphones, only to dream about how he lost them two months later, whereupon he found them in the exact location of which he dreamt. How did something so insignificant, something that happened two months in the past, chance to occupy his dreams? The best explanation, I told him, was that after a while, his brain, by its own whims, conjured up the memory of where he left it. Why it took so long, I do not know. Whether timing is important or not and how long an average memory takes to resurface are also questions worth asking. Over time, the brain will relax, and things that were troublesome and problematic will be relieved, I can only theorize. This leads to the next idea, namely that dreams reflect our current state and condition, environment, gender, age, and emotions, according to the cognitive model.

Another model we discussed briefly was the biological model. In light of biopsychology, dreams are nothing more than mere creations of neuronal firings processed by the thalamus into visual displays that make no sense. As such, interpreting dreams is useless considering they have no inherent meaning. Personally, I am not proponent of the biological method for two reasons: First, (I know this is a terrible reason) it is too bland and boring, and it is too reductive for my tastes; and second, if these neuronal firings are so random, then how can they create coherent (in the sense of “being familiar”) images that do make sense and that resemble complete narratives and sequences? This is not to say that the cognitive model is more correct than the biological model—not at all. As I have said, these are just theories, and neither has been verified indubitably.

Freud-b.jpgMost famous, hands down, is the psychoanalytic theory, first propounded by Freud, and then expanded upon his student, Jung. Starting with Freud, he described dreams like this: “Dreams are the means of removing, by hallucinatory satisfaction, mental stimuli that disturb sleep.”[2] In Freud’s eyes, dreams arise from the irrational, hidden side of ourselves—the unconscious. As a result, dreams need to be interpreted by a therapist. Dreams work through association, creating nonsense connections between ideas that are seemingly unrelated. Since dreams are irrational and incoherent, interpreters use a technique called “free association” that Freud loved to use. The analyst says a word, and the patient says whatever comes to mind. The logic goes that if the dream is formed by associations, then the intuitional associations said by the patient will point to their roots. Having done this, the analyst can then find associations of which the patient was initially unaware. One thing Freud did that remains of a subject of interest is his splitting of dream content into manifest and latent content. Manifest content is the storyline of the dream, the surface-level meaning. On the other hand, latent content is the deeper, symbolic, underlying meaning of the dream. Whereas the dreamer has access to the manifest content, only the analyst has access to the latent content, because latent content is unconscious and therefore hidden from view; it has to be uncovered through free association. What is this elusive latent content, and why does the mind go through the trouble of disguising it? Freud said that dreams protects us from waking up due to “mental stimuli”—but to what kind of mental stimuli was he referring? He believed that the latent meaning of dreams were repressed, unacceptable ideas.

The basic formula for a Freudian dream is “any kind of trivial occurrence + a traumatic childhood memory.” Subsequently, dreams take some kind of ugly truth and dress them up with ordinary occurrences. This is why Freud said that dreams protect us from disturbances. If these unacceptable ideas were to be shown to us in full light, then we would never be able to sleep; we would be too disgusted or traumatized. Dreams prevent Unknown-2.jpegus from waking up by playing out fantastical scenarios that reflect our wishes, goals, and fears. By hidden means, the dream releases our repressed memories. Freud posited a theoretical “censor” inside the mind, a kind of watchguard that makes sure nothing from the unconscious creeps into the conscious. Obviously, then, a feeling of aggression cannot be made manifest; instead, the unconscious is clever, so it disguises the feeling of aggression, such that it is able to sneak past the sentry and make it into the conscious in the form of a dream that makes no sense, but which nonetheless has a deeper meaning. This explains why dreams are confusing and unclear, yet meaningful. How the unconscious goes about disguising the repressed ideas is called the “dream-work.” Its four methods are condensation, displacement, symbolization, and secondary elaboration.

  1. Condensation is what happens when two or more ideas are merged together into a single thought.
  2. Displacement is what happens when an emotion is misdirected toward something other than its target.
  3. Symbolization is what happens when an object is made to stand in for another.
  4. Secondary elaboration is what happens when the subject tries to recall their dream, only to distort the facts.

Unknown-3.jpegBy using all four tricks, unconscious impulses manage to invade the conscious mind. Freud went further and identified two types of dreams. Dreams of convenience are dreams related to one’s day. Closely linked to day residue, dreams of convenience focus on some kind of fear or wish that occurred during the day visually. The other type of dream is one of wish-fulfillment, for which Freud is most well-known. Basically, he said that dreams are a way of satisfying our desires with our imagination. Because we cannot satisfy these desires in reality, we are forced to do so in sleep, in ideality. These desires are either erotic or aggressive. To use an example, one night I was really thirsty, and I went to bed on my trampoline (for fun, of course!). I dreamt I got out of the trampoline, went all the way inside the house, got a drink of water, walked back to the trampoline, and fell asleep. When I woke up, I had no memory of getting up, and I realized that I could not possibly have gotten water, as it was far too cold, and it was a long walk. Thus, I came to the conclusion that I dreamed about getting water in order to satiate my thirst before going to bed. To summarize, here are Freud’s ideas about dreams:

  1. Repressed childhood memories are revealed through associations.
  2. Said memories are either painful or unrefined, which is why they are repressed.
  3. Dreams are illogical, resembling an infantile imagination.
  4. Dreams have sexual and/or aggressive themes.
  5. Dreams are disguised wish-fulfillment.

6534180_orig.pngThe reason we no longer believe in the psychodynamic model of dreams is because, simply put, there is no evidence at all that supports it. Carl Jung was Freud’s student, although he would later distance himself from his teacher’s ideas in order to develop his own in more detail. To begin, he classified dreams into three categories. The lowest level of dreams are day residuals and just focus on things that happened throughout the day. Above these are self-related dreams, dreams that are about us, our mental states—stuff like that. The highest dreams, however, are archetypal dreams, which are the deepest ones possible, for they connect us with each other through the collective unconscious. I feel the quickest way to present Jung’s views are by enumerating them and then contrasting them to Freud’s:

  1. Dreams are essentially creative.
  2. Dreams are a part of the collective unconscious. Each of us, no matter who we are, shares the same symbols and universal characters, or archetypes.
  3. Dreams reveal the personal unconscious, too. We learn about the hidden parts of who we are through dreams.
  4. Dreams give insights into the future.
  5. Dreams are positive and constructive, providing insights to the self.

And as contrasted to Freud:

  1. Dreams are meaningful in- and of-themselves, not by interpretation.
  2. Dreams represent present, not past, problems.
  3. Dreams are best interpreted based on patterns and recurrences rather than individual interpretations. Rather than look at each dream by themselves, it is better to look at them together.
  4. A holistic analysis of dreams is more efficient than free association.
  5. Symbolism is not repressed, but archetypal.

If we want a quick summary of the psychoanalytic model, then we can say that Freud’s focus was sexual, and Jung’s archetypal. But while they differed in many respects, they also had these traits in common with the modern world:

  1. Dreams give clues to life.
  2. Dreams bring the unconscious to the surface.
  3. Dreams are based on day residue.
  4. Sensory stimulation affects our dreams.
  5. Universal archetypes are a part of our collective unconscious.
  6. Dreams are a.) repressed or b.) creative.

1370918.large.jpgIn conclusion, while there is a rich history of studying dreams, there are also countless unanswered questions regarding dreaming. Will we ever know them? Who knows. Until then, we can only dream of what they might be. Since the Egyptians, who believed in otherworldly journeys, to the modern psychoanalysts, who believed in hidden symbols, there have been many views of what dreams are, and many revisions, too. What we can see from the history of oneirology is that how dreams are interpreted depends upon the culture in which one finds oneself. Where one lives, how one lives, what language one speaks—these can all affect how we interpret dreams. Does this mean that there is no objective meaning of dreams, that the purpose of dreams differs between peoples? The question remains of whether dreams are even meaningful in the first place, or whether they are, in fact, just biological accidents created by the brain. These questions create a living nightmare for psychologists. One thing that is for certain is that dreams are very personal, intimate things that happen to all of us, that are unique, and that are private to us alone. I have my dreams, and you yours. (Get ready for the cliché ending…). But then again, what if this is all a dream?  



[1] Myers, Psychology, 8th ed., p. 285
[2] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 499c*

*From Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 54


For further reading:
The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior Vol. 1 by Robert M. Goldenson (1970)
Psychology: Mind, Brain, & Culture 
2nd ed. by Drew Westen (1999)
In Defense of Human Consciousness 
by Joseph F. Rychlak (1997)

Introduction to Psychodynamics by Mardi J. Horowitz (1988)
Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought
by Ruth L. Munroe (1956)
The Secret Language of the Mind
by David Cohen (1996)
8th ed. by David G. Meyers (2007)

Anamnesis—Why We Know More Than We Think We Do: A Polemic

We know more than we think do.

Plato was an innatist. He believed in innatism, which states that all knowledge is “innate.” It comes from some Latin words meaning “born into,” so for knowledge to be innate means for it to be present at birth. This is the basis for his theory of anamnesis (ανἀμνηση), otherwise known as his theory of recollection. Because he believed in the immortality of the soul, and because he posited a transcendent realm of Forms, Plato wrote that the soul of an individual leaves the body upon death and enters the realm of Forms where it is able to see all them in their perfection; and having seen these Forms, having seen and retained them, it returns to another body in another life to start anew. Still endowed with the memory of the Forms, the soul is tainted and stained by the foulness of the physical world, which causes it to forget the Forms; or rather, it represses them, and they enter the unconscious, to put it in psychological terms. These ideas are latent within the soul; they are resting, waiting to be awoken or excited and so elevated to consciousness.

In his dialogue the Meno, Socrates—Plato’s teacher—discusses the nature of virtues and whether they are teachable, but is caught off guard by an argument that goes like this: If you are asking about the definition of something, then it means you do not know if, so Unknown-2even if you were to find it, then how would you know you had found it, since you do not know for what you are looking? On the flip side, if you already know the definition of something, then why ask about it? In other words, there is no point in trying to learn. Socrates says in response, “[S]eeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection” (Meno, 81d). Virtues are knowable, Socrates argues, because we already know them; it is just a matter of re-collecting them. To defend his position, Socrates asks for a slave of Meno’s, a boy who has not been educated at all. Socrates proceeds to question the boy about the area of a square, slowly but surely getting him closer and closer to the answer. During this demonstration, Socrates never actually tells the slave anything directly—”There is no such thing as teaching, only recollection” (Meno, 82a)—but only questions him, which guides the slave through critical thinking, allowing him to arrive at the answer without ever having done math. Thus, Socrates shows that knowledge is innate and is always present, but it needs to be awakened within the soul through the pursuit of knowledge.

In today’s world, the theory of recollection seems like spiritual nonsense. Not many believe in a soul, much less the immortality thereof; however, it has been suggested by a number of scholars that Plato’s anamnesis is actually mythical in nature, which would mean that it is not literal in its telling, but metaphorical, told through a spiritual lense, not for credence but interest.¹ So what would this mean in the real world, to apply anamnesis, the theory of recollection?

The reason why many of us do not think we know as much as we really do is that we seldom think in the first place. As a result, we underestimate our abilities and ourselves. Now, this is a generalization since many do think well, but my target audience here is Generation Z, who, in my opinion, is rather thoughtless (which, I realize, is a generalization in itself). Notwithstanding, my point is that the majority of us in the 21st century do not think. The kind of unthinking of which I am talking is not simply having thoughts—this thinking is done by everyone. No, the thinking with which I am concerned is something like analytical or critical thinking, a skill that has been missing lately.

unnamed.jpgThe best examples I can provide come from school, where a lot of thinking should, but sometimes does not, occur. Oftentimes, the teacher will call on a student who is not paying attention, either because they are daydreaming or thinking about other things or because they are doing something else, like playing games on their devices. More often than not, these questions are pretty basic, yet they catch the student off guard. It hits them like a cold water balloon. Looking up at the teacher, dozens of pairs of eyes looking at them, the student blinks, goes blank, and maybe after hesitating blurts out some answer they know is not correct, but which will get the attention off of them. Although they are met with a few laughs from the class and a disappointed look from the teacher, they are relieved; thereupon, they go back to whatsoever they were on before they were “interrupted.” Obviously, this will continue in a cycle, because as soon as they return to the distraction, they will continually be called out. However, let us not get caught up in the cycle, for we wish to pause at the moment—freeze frame it—when the student tries to avert the focus.

History and math are common classes in which non-thinking occurs considering both involve lifeless, impractical facts that are usually just memorized. As such, the person who is called on, after asking to hear the question again, thinks, Why me? in two senses: First, they are confused and irritated that the teacher chose them; and second, they do not understand for what reason they have to know whatever the question is asking. Hence, the student detaches themselves from the question, creates distance between them, a distance that is thereafter insurmountable. Once detachment happens, there is no hope of reconciliation. They are lost. In order to quickly de-escalate this perceived threat, the student, instead of thinking, instead of paying attention, hardly tries and so says something they “think” is correct, whether or not it is.

This is what it looks like not to think. Not thinking is not trying to solve the problem at hand. Again, this is a generalization on my part: Sometimes people do know the answer, and the teacher catches them off guard, such that they blank or get nervous and forget images.jpegthe answer—this is totally fine because we are human, and we make mistakes; or sometimes, the question is a hard one. But besides this, the blatant unthinking that goes on in and out of classrooms is overwhelming and far more frequent than the type I just described, which can best be called a mistake. The difference between unthinking and a fault in human nature is that the former is intentional, whereas the second is accidental, given that it is outside of our control. All of us, when asked to think, have the choice of how we will respond. Not only is unthinkingness intentional, but it is also indifferent. To respond unthinkingly reflects on a person because it tells you that they do not care to think about since it is not worth their time or effort. But what should take place when we think? When we think, we think back. When we think back, we remember, we re-collect. Of course, this takes time and effort, I have said, so it is the harder of the two paths. Now I will explore some more examples and their implications:

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 11.51.19 PM.pngOne time, my friend and I were doing our Spanish homework together. I got through mine relatively quickly, so I went over to check on his progress. He was a few activities behind, although he was completing them fairly well. As I watched him, I noticed he was not actually doing the activity inasmuch as he was just guessing. He would glance at the question far faster than he could comprehend it, then he would put a random word in the blank space and check on Google Translate to see if his answer was correct; if it was not, he would repeat the process until he got it right. I told him to try to do the next problem without using Google Translate. Immediately, he stared at the screen, frozen, not knowing what to do. His crutch had been taken away, so he was leaning on his own weight. Then I said, “Alright, first try translating the sentence word by word, so you know Unknown.pngwhat it’s asking.” He slowly read out each word, replaced it with its English equivalent. “Oh, I get what it’s asking. This is so easy!” he exclaimed. I smiled as he looked at his options and chose the one that fitted the blank. During the next one, he did not know the meaning of one of the word choices, so he opened a new tab and was about to type it in when I told him to close it and do it himself. Once more, I gave him a little push: “Well, you know what these words mean, so through process of elimination, you can probably say it is not the ones you know, otherwise they’d work.” He nodded, chose the next word, checked it, got it correct. I said, “See, you can do Spanish if you actually try. You have it in you, you just need to think it through.”

My friend told me he was not the greatest in Spanish, yet he did totally well on his own. He underestimated his own abilities; he thought he did not know much, when, in reality, he was fully capable. Later in a conversation, I told him that this could be applied to all his classes: Imagine if he depended more on himself and felt confident he knew the answers—because he did have the answers. My friend knew more than he thought he knew; it just had to remembered. This prompted me to ask the following question: If he Unknown.jpegknew it all along, and if he was fully capable of summoning this knowledge, then why did it require my coming to help him? Why could he not have had done it himself? It is analogous to the student playing “.io” games on their computer while the teacher is lecturing, only to close out of the tab or hide it and get on their classwork as soon as the teacher comes behind them. It is similar in that they could easily be doing their work themselves, but it requires some kind of authority—in this case, the teacher, or in mine, me—to enforce it. Why is it that people feel like they can get away with not thinking? Why do they scheme and choose the easy way out?

Another example is one that particularly annoys me on a personal level. Whenever I tell friends or classmates about my blog and ask them to read it, they always come back to Unknown-1.jpegme saying, “Wow, it’s so cool… except that I didn’t understand any of it,” and I reply with a sad face, both over text and in person. In reality, what the person is really saying when they say “I attempted to read it” is “I did not try to read it fully, attentively, and thoughtfully.” One specific instance: A classmate who runs track with me, who is very intelligent and hardworking, came to me during practice and told me he did not understand my blog on whether babies exist or not. He said he tried to read the first few sentences, but did not understand them. Right away, I knew he did not read it with his full attention seeing as the first few sentences had nothing to do with philosophy, but were a part of an anecdote. But then he said he was confused by the “Descartes-I-Think-Therefore-I-Am” part. I asked him to break it down argument by argument how Descartes came to doubt everything, leading him to declare that his existence was of absolute certainty, whereupon my classmate said he understood it. “Not so hard, was it?” I told him. After thinking it through, he arrived at Descartes’ Cogito argument. He knew more than he thought he knew; he just had to remember it. To be fair, though, I understand that my blog can sometimes be hard to read, which is no one’s fault but my own. As such, while the philosophical knowledge I share is not innate, the cognitive capabilities for understanding and learning it—Socrates’ definition of recollection—are.

And lastly, a scenario we have all experienced: Math class. Whether you love it or hate, you are inevitably going to have difficulties in it. Even the smartest people in math get tripped up on a problem that stumps them. But there is something unique about math that makes it different in terms of thinking. Say you are trying to solve for a right triangle, which requires the Pythagorean Theorem and some trigonometric ratios. You 14608107_1180665285312703_1558693314_n.jpghave no idea how to begin because you are so overwhelmed, so you ask the teacher for help. The teacher comes over, and the first thing they will ask is for what you are trying to solve. While it seems obvious, solving for a right triangle, repeating the objective reminds you where to begin. Next, they ask, “What is the formula?” As if expecting some kind of trick, you reply, skeptically, “a^2 + b^2 = c^2” and “tangent of x is opposite over adjacent.” You then plug in the values, do some calculations, and—something clicks—”Ah!” you shout excitedly. It all makes sense! The teacher, having done their job, moves on to the next student. It feels as if you are Archimedes when he discovered water displacement and cried out “Eureka!” You have had a eureka moment. Eureka, traditionally translated, means “I found it,” so it is as though you remembered it; in searching the back of your mind, looking here and there, under this pile and that, you finally found it, re-collected it—recollection. What makes math unique is that it has formulas. With these schemas, we can easily and efficiently find the solution to a problem. In a sense, the answer is innate, is already in us, or in the formula, and we just have to educe it by plugging in the values. As with my friend and Spanish, the answer can be found by oneself, yet one does not do this, relying on something external to push them. For instance, in math, one only thinks as soon as one is vulnerable, when one is put on the spot, forced to think for oneself and put their mind to use.

Unknown-3.jpegSo why do we not think? Why are we not self-sufficient in the 21st century, and why do we depend on external enforcement or pressure? Importantly, pressure is the only means of encouraging thinking, it would seem. Implied by this is the idea that we will naturally resist thinking; until pressure is applied will we be forced to fall back upon ourselves and think. In a talk with my friend—the one whom I helped with Spanish—he suggested that not thinking is like a defense mechanism, an idea I found interesting. Just as Freud and his daughter Anna proposed “ego defense mechanisms” designed to protect the conscious mind and conserve its energy, so my friend proposed something like a “rational defense mechanism” designed to protect the thinking mind and conserve its energy. We have gotten to such a point when thinking is “too much,””too draining,” that we must defend ourselves from it. The thought of thinking tires us. We dread going to school because we have to use our brains. We would rather keep our peace of mind and ignorance than think hard to answer a question in class. We would rather look stupid and not waste mental energy than actually think and get a simple question right. There is a word, malinger, which means to pretend to be sick in order to avoid working. Unthinking is comparable to malinger, except that it is a very real sickness of the mind, a mental laziness, an apathy.

Unknown-4.jpegA student in my history class said, “I’m jealous of naturally smart people,” a remark very characteristic of this attitude. Whether people are naturally smart or not is for another blog for another time; regardless, while some people may be predisposed toward or may have an advantage in intelligence, implying that oneself is not among that population is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a detrimental one at that. The people who are “naturally smart” are perceived as such because they think. Ought this be discouraging? No, encouraging. If one gets to thinking, “I’m not smart, I can’t study, I’ll never be as smart as so and so,” if one compares one’s grades to another, then one will ineluctably study worse and perform worse on tests.  By comparing oneself to another, one stops oneself from focusing on what one needs to do. Consequently, such disaffected students decide not to try at all, thinking they will never succeed, thinking they will never be able to think as well as others, so they do not think at all; they are allergic to thinking and will run from it. Stubborn, unyielding, they will not try, will not care, unless forced, pressured, or expected. It is all the more intriguing that this same student, if alone with a teacher, will perform better—yet then again, this is to be expected. Without the assent of their peers, without the freedom to not think, the student is forced to confront themselves, and they can be guided by the teacher.

I am thankful I had this conversation with my friend, as he always thinks from different angles. He interrupted me and asked the following question: “So you’re saying that we actually think better when a teacher or parent is near. But if we have a parent, teacher, or Google always at our fingertips, ready to help us, then won’t we rely entirely on them?  Like, let’s say I’m doing math—what’s to stop me from having my mom or dad solve it for me? Doesn’t having someone to help guide us make us risk losing our self-sufficiency because we’ll be tempted to use them?” I formulated my response accordingly: Educators, be they parents or teachers, are much like the training wheels on bikes insofar as they are the prerequisites for learning to function by oneself. Before a kid can Unknown-5.jpegride their bike by themselves, they must first use training wheels to get used to riding; then, when they are good enough, they can ride by themselves, will be independent, and shall forever remember how to ride. Likewise, before a person can think for themselves, they must first have a guide to conduct them; then, when they are thoughtful enough, they can think by and for themselves, will be independent, and shall forever remember how to think. Now, this solution of mine is not a perfect solution, but a solution nonetheless. How does one know when one is ready? Is there an age whereat a thinker is mature? Does it differ between people? Surely. These are all questions for further consideration, further thought.

Unknown-6.jpegWho is the educator, and what is their role? To educate means many things, yet it originally meant “to lead or guide out (from),” for it derives from e-, “out,” and ducere, “to lead or guide.” What exactly this means and whether it even clears anything up deserves attention. To lead what out of where? This phrase, “to lead or guide out from,” can be interpreted in two ways: First, in light of the Socratic tradition, it can refer to the dialectic, known as elenchus, whereby the teacher and disciple arrive at the answer through question-and-answer. As Socrates said, “[I]f the question is put in the right way they [the student] can give a perfectly correct answer, which they could not possibly do unless they had some knowledge and a proper grasp of the subject” (Phaedo, 73a). Put another way, the teacher as the Socratic ideal guides the student along the path of thinking without actually intervening. Think of it like a blindfolded man in a maze and his partner on the outside who has to guide him. The partner on the outside cannot give direct help, but he can guide the blindfolded partner indirectly. As the Socratic gadfly, the educator guides out from the student. Guides out what? Knowledge. It is the job of the educator to lead the student to Unknown-7.jpegrecollection. By helping them to bring their knowledge to the fore, the educator conducts the disciple to thinking. In the Meno, Socrates guides the slave to solving the geometry problem by probing him. When helping my friend with Spanish and my classmate with reading my blog, I asked them indirect questions, which led them on the right path, on which they embarked by themselves—I was merely their compass. Second, in light of the Platonic tradition, “to lead our guide out from” can refer to the Allegory of the Cave, in which sense the educator takes the student and leads them by hand out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of reason, where reside the Forms. Symbolically, the student is the prisoner shackled to look at shadows, but as soon as they ascend, as soon as they behold the sun as the Good, they are beholden to a new, elevated kind of thinking. And having grown used to thinking, the newly bloomed thinker can try to help others to think, with varying success.

Unknown-2.pngIn the end, two things about these two interpretations remain constant: Maturity and curiosity. Like training wheels, the educator is eventually outgrown. After much distortion and misattribution, a quote comes from Plutarch that likens education more to the lighting of a flame than to the filling of a vessel. In other words, the purpose of the educator, contrary to modern day expectations, is not to fill their students’ heads with facts but to inspire within them a burning passion and curiosity for learning. Thus, the student will seek knowledge by themselves without having to be asked. Socrates states that it was only by stumping the slave that he was able to conduct him. This way, by leaving him in confusion, by leaving him with an unsolved problem, he was able to alight within him a flame. All of Socrates’ interlocutors are frustrated by the time they leave, for they are always defeated by his thinking. We in math class are just like they are, because we feel frustrated when we cannot solve a problem. Our heads hurt, and we feel stuck, as though in mud, but we know there is an answer—it is just a matter of finding, or rather, recollecting, it.

In conclusion, we live, as I have said before, in an unthinking age. Students all around the world are unsatisfied with education and are left with a sour impression of school, leaving them deprived of its fruits, both bitter and sweet. Jaded, cynical, they Unknown-2.jpegunderestimate themselves, compare themselves to others, and give up trying. Thinking becomes too demanding a task, and they would much rather preserve their image than uphold their dignity and fight for the mind. Knowledge is transformed from power into weakness, a disease that causes muscle atrophy and mental exhaustion, and so that must be avoided at all costs. Questions become interrogations, problems torture. Yet times are such that interrogation is the only means whereby we can be made to think, for we almost certainly do not do it of our own volition; we must be forced into doing it. When students contend they “don’t know the answer,” they really mean, “I’m not thinking hard enough—if at all.” They refuse to think back, to remember. Their chronic short-term memory loss is acute. The problem lies both with the disciple and the educator because both have failed, and the institution along with it. Not only have we forgotten loads of knowledge, we have also forgotten how to think in the first place. But whereas knowledge can be recollected, thinking must be re-learned.

We just need to remember:

We know more than we think we do.

¹Friedländer, Introduction to Plato, p. 340n7 

The Consolation of Adversity’s Sweet Milk, Philosophy

Unknown.pngWe all have our bad days. Life is going well, and everything falls into place neatly and conveniently. Then, in the blink of an eye, life flips upside down, becomes inverted, seems foreign, and your whole outlook changes. A small change in fortune can have monumental consequences, many of which are outside of our control. Nobody is exempt from misfortune; we all endure it from time to time because we have to—our cards are dealt that way, whom or what by, we do not know. The idea that some kind of external force controls our life, whether it be fate or fortune, destiny or chance, has captured our attention for as long as we can remember, from mythology to science. But some also believe in man’s autonomy, his free will, and his ability to use that will, in contrast to said outside forces. These problems have been addressed by literature ever since signs and symbols were invented. One man who discussed this problem, hailed as one of the greatest English writers, lived during the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: William Shakespeare, in whose famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet he writes about the problem of fate and misfortune. Yet another comes a millennium before Shakespeare, a Roman Neoplatonist scholar named Boëthius (c. 477-524). He wrote an enduring book that was well received during the Middle Ages called The Consolation of Philosophy in which he describes how he came to cope with his misfortune. Together, Shakespeare and Boëthius, a playwright and a philosopher, explain how, when faced with struggles and suffering, we can all benefit from, and be consoled by adversity’s sweet milk— philosophy.

Romeo-Montague-1968-romeo-montague-1968-26656721-1152-1008.jpgOur consolation begins with Romeo. Young, romantic, and honorable, Romeo is a citizen of Verona and a member of House Montague. He has cool friends with whom he hangs, and he lives a safe and privileged life. Another thing he has going for him is his love for Juliet, a member of House Capulet. Although they are of different families who hate each other, their love transcends these boundaries. They end up getting married. It would appear, then, that Romeo has everything for which he could ever wish, and life could not be any better. Similarly, Boëthius was a well-to-do politician and scholar. He had the good fortune to be adopted by a good man named Symmachus, and Boëthius would marry a wife and have kids who were obedient, and who would go onto serve both as consuls. Well-known throughout Rome and rich, Boëthius was in his prime. Both men had reached the apex of life: They had good families, a solid fiscal situation, and success in their public and private lives. Nothing could get in their way. Then, one afternoon, Romeo’s life flashes before his eyes. Upon marrying his true love, he encounters her cousin Tybalt, with whom he gets into an altercation, and whom he kills out of anger. The prince of Verona promptly banishes Romeo from Verona, and worse, from his love. In just a few hours, he loses his family, his Unknown.jpeghonors, and his North Star, his raison d’ětre—Juliet. Compare this to Boëthius, who defended a friend of his in court, only to be betrayed by a few corrupt politicians. He ended up being thrown in jail (in Verona, coincidentally) by the very king he was loyal to, forced to rot in prison, without any hope, his possessions and titles stripped, his life essentially over. Eventually, he was executed while in jail. From the highest point of his life, Boëthius had the carpet pulled out from beneath his feet, so he was made to fall to the very bottom, to the bottom-most depths of human tragedy. In each case, the two men suffered a reversal of fortune, a tragic fall, much like those found in the Ancient Greek tragedies. Hence, Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and the life story of Boëthius could have been called The Tragedy of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius.

While weeping in grief after the prince’s pronouncement, Romeo is offered solace by the man who married him to Juliet, Friar Laurence: “‘I’ll give thee armor to keep off that image-20150727-7653-s9wpej.jpgword [banishment], / Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy, / To comfort thee, though thou art banished’” (3.3.54-56). Why does Friar Laurence call philosophy “adversity’s sweet milk”? The answer, I believe, is twofold: First, milk is a product, something produced, as when we milk a cow, meaning that philosophy is the product of adversity, that which we get when we “milk adversity,” so to speak, or endure difficulties; second, milk is good for its nutrients and especially for its calcium, which is necessary for growth, both for the calf and the human baby, strengthening the bones and the skeleton, providing strength—when we speak of nurturing, we think of feeding milk, so philosophy is what nurtures us. If we synthesize these two interpretations, then we get that philosophy is that which allows us to learn from and grow after enduring difficulties, helps us to recover, nourishes us, for it is like milk in that it strengthens us. When we undergo adversity, we end up learning from it; we get stronger from it, like a muscle after exercise. Friar Laurence introduces philosophy by calling it “armor,” because when armed with it, Romeo can protect himself from the inevitable scarring and suffering of adversity. Philosophy is a shield, an ægis that provides cover from him and that deflects the pain of memory.

Boëthius went through almost the same exact thing. In The Consolation of Philosophy, he imagines a conversation between him and a personification of philosophy, whom he Unknown-1.pngenvisions as a beautiful woman there to comfort him in his grieving. She, like the friar, tells him not to cry, saying, “'[I]t is time for medicine rather than complaint…. Are you not he who once was nourished by my milk and brought up on my food; who emerged from weakness to the strength of virile soul?’”[1] Notice how Philosophy uses the metaphor of “milk” for her teachings, just like Friar Laurence did. Both people take on the role of the mentor offering advice, and they both talk of philosophy, comparing it to the nutritious, nourishing drink we all love—milk. Again, the usage of “milk” in this quote suggests and further supports my claim from earlier: Philosophy is a salutary drink, a drink which we know is good for us, but which we are hesitant to take, a drink that can cure us of our problems and sorrows, a drink that we literally thrive upon, that strengthens us and makes us grow, not physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. When I read “and brought up on my food,” I thought of ambrosia, the food of the gods, for some reason; and if we take that as what she is saying, then that means philosophy is on the level of the divine, and it is equivalent to the drink of the gods, nectar, whose definition includes “sweetness,” from which we can see the connection in “sweet milk” used by Friar Laurence. In Roman times, a popular metaphor was the images.pngphilosopher as doctor. Hence, Philosophy tells Boëthius that, instead of crying, he should take his “medicine”; i.e., philosophy. Philosophy thus takes on the role of healer, a medical professional in whose best interest it is to heal Boëthius’ mental wounds. Boëthius used to be a strong, healthy man, but tragedy made him weak and servile, as he no longer practiced what he preached. Philosophy questions him, asking why it is that, despite studying her wisdom, he does not heed any of it while in prison. The doctor is in, and having diagnosed her patient with ignorance and self-pity, she prescribes him adversity’s sweet milk—philosophy.

Part of Philosophy’s diagnosis is the fact that Boëthius does not know how the universe is governed. While he concedes that God (for the remainder of the essay, feel free to substitute God for whatever you believe [or don’t] in!)  is the rational creator of the universe, he does not acknowledge the role played by the goddess Fortune. According to Philosophy, Fortune is fickle. Like Janus, the god of passages, Fortune is two-headed and bestows either good or bad fortune indiscriminately. And much like a coin, she can show either of her faces upon a single toss. Fortune balances out goodness with badness, misleading many who attribute constancy to her. This is a foolish error, Philosophy Unknown-1.jpegargues, because to think that one has “good fortune” just because a series of good things has happened, does not guarantee that, in the next moment, something good will happen again; it is Fortune’s nature to change rashly and unexpectedly. It is as though there is a cosmic equilibrium. Fortune is a little bit like Karma, except that it is not caused by free will, but by fortuity; by this, it is to be understood that, whereas in Karma a good action is followed by a good consequence and vice versa such that it equals out in the end, Fortune grants good fortune and elevates so long as she feels like it and then can level her victim with bad fortune at the flick of a hand. Whatever she does, whether it be good-good-bad-bad or good-bad-good-bad—it will always end at 0. Therefore, everyone will reach their high point, be able to enjoy it for a time, then reach their low point, wallow in it, and repeat. Sometimes we have bragging rights, others we have pity rights. What remains constant is this: None of us is responsible for our fortune, good or bad. This is what causes so much unhappiness. Many of us blame ourselves or others for our bad fortune, when really, it is outside of our control. Or, we’ll praise ourselves for our good fortune, when, in reality, it was dispensed external to us.

In order to deal with this inevitable fact, Philosophy gives Boëthius two choices: Accept Fortune, or ignore her. The first choice is amor fortuna—love of one’s fortune (my spin-off of Nietzsche’s amor fati—love of one’s fate). With this choice, we realize that we cannot change our Fortune, but that Fortune changes of her own will, so we might as Unknown-2.jpegwell go along with it. Because we cannot expect anything from Fortune, there is no purpose in reasoning with her. Unlike the other gods and goddesses, Fortune does not listen to our prayers, for she acts independently. Consequently, we cannot blame Fortune, per se; instead, we should be grateful for the good fortune we are bestowed. This, or we can go with the second choice and ignore Fortune entirely. If we are to ignore Fortune, then we are to not blame her for anything. Romeo shouts in despair after killing Tybalt, “‘Oh, I am Fortune’s fool!’” (3.1.98). Of all the people he could have killed, it had to be Tybalt, the cousin of his wife. A series of events transpired that led to his killing Tybalt, a series that was greater than he, that was outside his control, and that he could not foresee. Realizing his misfortune, he cries out against the goddess Fortune, condemning his role as a puppet, a mere thing to be flung around for her amusement. Philosophy ties it all up by arguing that, although misfortune is inevitable, it is endurable. Primarily, present suffering is temporary; it will not last forever. Secondarily, misfortune, we have said, is but a small cog in the Wheel of Fortune. Present misfortune is succeeded by unforeseen good fortune, and so on. It is just that, at the moment, we are so transfixed by our suffering, we fail to see clearly what lies ahead.

But all of this does not explain the Problem of Evil, objects Boëthius. If God is indeed the creator of this world, and He governs it with His perfect, beneficent reason, then why does He not only let evil men succeed, but permit Evil itself to exist? It seems as though everywhere we look, injustice prevails and justice shrinks away. Good men stay in the shadows while evil men run amok in the streets. Boëthius points out that he was a virtuous politician who acted morally, yet he was arrested and belittled by vicious, corrupt politicians. Where was the justice in that? And Romeo was banished because he avenged his friend Mercutio’s unfair death. Tybalt provoked Romeo, but the latter did not give in, so his friend fought instead, only to suffer a wound that killed him. Romeo, like a good friend, wanted to avenge his friend, because to do otherwise would be to let a murderer go free. As a result, he went after Tybalt and slew him. While it was not the most rational thing to do, surely there was justice in avenging his friend. Did good prosper, or did evil? Either way, two men died. These two good men—Boëthius and Romeo—had good things going for them and long lives ahead, but in one moment, all fortune became misfortune, and good succumbed to evil.

Unknown-3.jpegIn response, Philosophy claims that bad fortune is actually better than good fortune, contrary to popular opinion. This is because good fortune is deceptive. Whenever something good happens, we expect more good things to happen, and we become excessively prideful and optimistic. Of course, it is a good thing to be optimistic, but to be Panglossian, to see too much good—this can cloud our judgment, leading to poor expectations. We are led to believe that we are having good luck for a reason. However, such is not the case. Bad luck, on the other hand, is realistic—harsh, but realistic. It teaches us the realities of life. Not everything is happiness, smiles, and rainbows. Misfortune lets us have reasonable expectations. From bad experiences, we learn lessons. If we do something stupid, then we learn what not to do in future scenarios. Often, we judge others, and others judge us based on chance and random circumstances, but not on our character. Philosophy assures Boëthius that the good are powerful and that the evil are weak; it is just that we do not see it that way. Only the good can in theory be happy because they can get what the want, whereas evil men are always frustrated due to their ignorance. Thus, when we see evil men succeed, we must remember that it is but a single chance event, and that, deep down, they can never get what they desire.

What is happiness? Boëthius does not give an exact definition, although he states in agreeance with Aristotle that it is the highest good, the summum bonum, which all men seek. Happiness is not equivalent to fame, possessions, glory, power, or pleasure; happiness is a synergy of the aforementioned traits. Stated in another way, one can have Frans_Francken_(II)_-_Mankind's_Eternal_Dilemma_–_The_Choice_Between_Virtue_and_Vice.jpgfame, things, glory, power, and pleasure and still not have happiness, but someone who has happiness necessarily has fame, things, glory, power, and pleasure. Happiness transcends these individual traits. Drawing from Plato and Socrates, Boëthius says that everyone, even those who are evil, seeks Good (happiness), but many of us do not know how to obtain it because we are ignorant. In this light, Evil is viewed as stemming from ignorance; it is the classic Scholastic view that Evil is the absence of Good. Because we do not know the true nature of the Good, we are misguided in our efforts, so we end up seeking the wrong things, resulting in vices instead of virtues. An evil person, without knowing it, desires happiness, but they mistakenly equate it with, say, power, so they focus only on getting power. This focus on a single aspect spirals into a narrow-minded pursuit that ends up turning into vice, then corrupting into Evil. Another may be distracted and focus only on possessions, working to acquire as much wealth as they possibly can; but little do they know that this will not get them true happiness, but more problems. Good men, contrarily, learned, knowing what happiness is, will take a balanced approach, not focusing on one aspect more than the others, but pursuing them all equally through virtuous action, which is good in itself. Everyone, even with good fortune, is never 100% happy at any given time. Circumstances cloud our judgments constantly so that we may miss out on opportunities. Ultimately, happiness contains all lesser goods, so if you have happiness, then you have glory, power, fame, possessions, and pleasure.

OrderedUniverseimageWEB.jpgEverything is controlled by God, contends Boëthius. He asks Philosophy if there is such a thing as “chance,” defined as an uncaused event, to which she replies no, since God is the maker of everything, and nothing is uncaused therefor. The only thing not controlled by God is man, as he has free will. This explains why man is allowed to stray from his virtuous path and toward vice, even though it is against his better nature. Boëthius is content with having free will, yet he is afraid that it is made impossible by the fact that everything is predetermined by God. There is a logical inconsistency: If God can see all things in the future, then how can man make his own decisions? God, responds Philosophy, acts through Providence and Fate. To put it simply, Providence is God’s plan, the bigger picture, and Fate is the specific events, happenings, and occurrences which make Providence possible. Providence is what happens, Fate what makes it happen. Providence is to a blueprint what Fate is to a builder. Philosophy, addressing the problem of predestination, says, “For even though … events are foreseen because they will happen, they do not happen because they are foreseen.”[2] What does this mean? Philosophy is saying that God can certainly see what we humans will do, but his knowing what we will do is not what causes us to do it. An important concept to understand comes a bit earlier, when Philosophy asserts that God is eternal, by which she means that God lives eternally in the present. In other words, there is no past, present, and future, but only a continuous present for God. For sake of understanding, picture God watching over you while you make a decision: When deciding to get a drink of water, He is constantly keeping watch over you, staying with you in the present, and when you decide to get a drink of water out of free will, He presently watches as you make this decision, and therefore foresees it happening in His present. Just because God knows you will get water, does not mean it is He who caused you to: You acted out of free will—He merely observed you making it. Hereby, Boëthius manages to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human freedom.

220px-Romeo_and_juliet_brown.jpgRomeo is awaiting his punishment when Friar Laurence comes in and tells him, “‘Not body’s death, but body’s banishment’” (3.3.12). To Romeo, banishment is equal to, if not worse than, death, because “‘There is no world without Verona walls’” (3.3.18). The friar reprimands Romeo because he ought to be grateful for his situation: He is still alive, and he still has possibilities and things for which he is fortunate. Friar Laurence suggests as a remedy philosophy, but Romeo dismisses it, “‘Unless philosophy can make a Juliet, / Displant a town, reverse a prince’s doom’” (3.3.61-63). Because philosophy is wise and Friar Laurence is trying to help, he likens Romeo to a madman who will not listen to reason. He asks to reason with Romeo regarding his condition. Linking this to the story of Boëthius, Philosophy compares the philosopher to a city-dweller: He who lives in a city sets up his home there, and thence he cannot be exiled, unless by force, in which case it is of his own volition. Even if he were forced to leave the city, it is he on whose legs he leaves—no one else’s. As soon as he settles down, he is never in exile unless he wants to be, unless he tires of it. There is safety within these walls. The mind is one’s city. Philosophy then makes the case that philosophy need not be practiced exclusively in the library or in books; no, philosophy is practiced exclusively through mental and spiritual actions. Happiness does not come from outside, happiness comes from inside, from the self. The mind is our citadel, a fortress into which we can retreat, safe from the outside. It is true that Boëthius was a smart man studied aright in philosophy; however, Philosophy argues that his books could teach him only so much, that true philosophy is put into practice. In reading all his philosophy, Boëthius should have the wisdom to brave out his exile, because therein lies his contentment—in himself.

Unknown-4.jpegBoëthius was influenced by the Stoics, and he can be best described as a Stoic-Neoplatonist. Interestingly though, early in The Consolation of Philosophy, he criticizes the school alongside Epicureanism for not living up to the Socratic ideal. Notwithstanding, his thinking clearly borrows from Epictetus. Speaking of the great Stoic sage, he knew of a man similar in mind to Romeo. In his Discourses, he recounts of Thrasea, who said he would rather die that day than be banished the next, for which he was reproved by his master, Musonius Rufus, because neither punishment was in his control; thus, he ought to have settled with either willingly. Another, Agrippinus, awaited calmly his trial, going through his daily routines, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. When he got the news that he was banished, he asked when, was told the next day, and replied, “Let’s have dinner,” because he was in no rush, and it was just a regular day.[3] This is the attitude we should adopt toward all circumstances, Epictetus and Boëthius believed. Like Thrasea, Romeo preferred death to banishment, and Friar Laurence, in the role of Rufus, lectured him for his foolishness. Romeo, evidently, has many wrong beliefs, which are the true causes of his sorrow, not his situation. First, Romeo is not dead, which is good for several reasons. One, he is not dead. That is pretty good in itself. To be alive is a good thing. This means that Romeo has possibilities, seeing as Heidegger defined death as the end of all possibilities. Since he managed to escape with his life, Romeo is able to explore the world, do all the things he has ever wanted to do without constraints. Even if he were to die, it would not be bad from a Neoplatonist perspective, which would be taken by Boëthius, but which has little bearing today, considering death was viewed as good: It meant the pure soul would reunite with the One, or God. Second, Romeo mistakenly believes that there is nothing good beyond Verona. Having grown up in his hometown of Verona, Romeo has not seen anything beyond his home. Imagine all the sights he could have see in Mantua! But he Verona.jpgneed not have been constricted just to Italy, either; he could have explored Europe by himself! Banishment means creating a new life, which is difficult, but also liberating. There all kinds of opportunities in creating a new life while still young and in love. Cicero was exiled several times in his life. The first time, he was scared and hated it. He thought of exile negatively, just as Romeo did. Over time, he got used to it and actually learned to enjoy it. He viewed exile as an opportunity to get out of Rome, write, and be productive. Exile for Cicero was about rebirth rather than death. While Romeo is right that philosophy cannot undo what had happened, he is wrong that philosophy has no use: He could have used it to cope with his situation, to move on with his life, to make sense of what was going on and what had happened. Despite being banished from his home, he still had the possibility of being with Juliet, had he sticked around long enough. If he had the patience or wisdom borne from philosophy, he could have been with his beloved Juliet. In a sense, philosophy could have made him Juliet, could have displanted a town, and could have reversed a prince’s doom—if only he had the reason to heed Friar Laurence and drink from adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.

Unknown-5.jpegFrom a Renaissance dramatist and a Medieval philosopher we have learned some important lessons. In spite of their abstractness, difficulty, and age, they have ideas that in this day and age should be studied, read, and lived. Both writers explored the human condition, and internal struggles faced by us on a daily basis, and they showed how free will and responsibility can coexist with a universe governed by unflinching, uncaring chance and fate. While there are things that happen outside of our control, there are things we can control—a Stoical doctrine. Sometimes things do not go our way, but we must be on the lookout for better days, of which there are plenty coming our way, each and every one of us. And when we do have a bad day, it is important that we look back at what we have had the good fortune of having, because misfortune is fleeting. Happiness is not a singular pursuit, remember that. One ought to be well-rounded in their virtues and avoid Unknown-6.jpegvice at all costs. These are all great lessons to use in our lives, but greater still is the appeal of philosophy. Philosophy has been looked down upon for years, though it has been getting a small resurgence lately. Even Shakespeare, renowned mostly for his contribution to literature, was a philosopher at heart, an explorer of ideas and of the inner terrain of man. The lot of us have missed out on the beauty and wonder that is philosophical inquiry. Many today know not the consolation of philosophy. Many today know not adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.

[1] Boëthius, The Consolation of Philosophy, p. 6
[2] Id., pp. 105-6
[3] Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1

For further reading: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (2011)
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boëthius (1962)

A Phenomenology of Sprinting: 1 – Introduction

My favorite description of what it means to be a sprinter comes from John L. Parker, Jr.’s novel Once a Runner when the narrator starts by commenting on long distance runners and throwers:

images.jpegThere was great unspoken respect between the weight men and the distance runners that was understood but never examined closely. They all dealt in one way or another with the absolute limits of the human body and spirit, but the runners and weight men seemed to somehow share a special understanding, and there were good friendships among them.

The sprinters and jumpers were quite another story. Their art revolved around a single explosive instant during which all was gained or lost. They were, perhaps, the spiritual descendants of the assault troops who leaped trenches and scaled barricades to lead the attack. They were nervous, high-strung, either giddy with success or mired in swamp funk. They were the manic-depressives of the track world. They constantly puffed themselves up with braggadocio, either to bolster their own flagging courage or to intimidate their opponents. The intensity of their competition was ferocious, even cruel…. A sprinter’s race takes only ten seconds…. Cassidy pitied them the intensity of their contests, but at the same time was envious (Parker, Once a Runner, pp. 17-18)

As a sprinter, whenever I read this passage, I can always relate and get a laugh out of it. It so clearly delves into the mind of the sprinter, I cannot think of a better way to write it. From the emotional to the temporal aspect, the writing covers the sprinter’s world.

A question I have always had is: How can I combine two things I love—sprinting and philosophy—two things so seemingly unrelated and incommensurable, and put them into a third thing I love—writing? Is there a way that I can take the experience of running, philosophize it, then write about it? I like to say there is a philosophy behind everything, but I could never find a way to encounter “philosophy of sprinting,” until I realized that the experience of sprinting itself, the happening of sprinting, is itself philosophy. Mid-run, one is in the midst of philosophy, yet it is hard to explicate. images-1.jpegPhenomenology, simply put, is the study of phenomena, or experience. If I were to ask you, “What is an experience? What is an experience like? What is it like to experience something?” how would you respond? Such is the objective of phenomenology, whose goal it is to analyze and explain the nature of experience, no matter what of. Experience itself. But immediately there is a problem: Sprinting is such a short, intense activity—how can one possibly study the experience of it? I am crouching in the blocks, hands spread on the track, head down, when a loud Crack! echoes, and I find myself flying out of the blocks, only to cross the finish line in what feels like the snap of a finger. But did I retain anything? How could I in so short a burst of time? It is like being put in front of a screen that flashes images in microseconds, then having someone quiz you on what appeared. It seems difficult to imagine that the brain can keep up with a short, action-packed instant. Fortunately, the brain, although limited in its power, can retain a lot, if not some, of these fragments. Also to my advantage is the fact that there are hundreds of sprinters in the world, all of whom can attest to similar experiences, thus forming a phenomenological study.

Therefore, in the future posts, drawing on personal experience and experience gathered from other sprinters on my track team, I will be discussing a phenomenology of sprinting. This has long been an ambition of mine—combining sprinting with philosophy—and I am finally setting out to do it. Track and field is an interesting sport in its own right, and perhaps avid fans might be wondering what it is like to run from the sprinter’s perspective. For the next several posts, we will be exploring the inner world of the sprinter—the philosophy of the sprinter.


Heidegger and Mindfulness

Unknown.pngIn the last post, we learned what it means to think, or rather, what It is that calls upon us to think It. As such, the “thinking” Heidegger describes is not thinking in the traditional sense, as in logical and rational problem-solving, which we in our everyday lives employ; on the contrary, he states thinking is the hardest thing for us rational animals to do, despite its being a natural endowment of ours, an ability with which we are gifted—for the precise reason that it is the easiest thing to do. But, as was concluded previously, the nature of this thinking still remains elusive. What, exactly, is thinking as Heidegger conceived it? Is it just another obscure theory of his, shrouded in obtuse language and opaque rambling, or is it actually a practical activity, one which will benefit us and deliver us from an approaching void as he advertised it? Does Heidegger’s thinking stand up to history as new, original, and groundbreaking, or does it resemblant of other modes of thinking? These are all important questions to ask when reading What is Called Thinking? In this post, which is the second of three installments, I will propose that, despite the seemingly impenetrable and impractical nature of thinking, what Heidegger calls thinking is really an accessible, highly practical, and much-needed mode of living similar to mindfulness. Thinking is being mindful. Because it is the simplest task, it is also the hardest task; and with it, we can learn to value and appreciate life for what it is in this high-speed world of ours.

flowering_tree.jpgTo best illustrate what is meant by “thinking,” Heidegger asks us to imagine a tree in a meadow. According to our normal notion of thinking, to think is to create ideas, to ideate. When you or I think, when we create ideas, we usually see them as immaterial mental images that are superimposed over our vision, as if they are “out there.” If you close your eyes and think of a table, then it as though the thought of the table is projected forth from your mind, in front of you. This theory is known as idealism. It states that reality is a creation of the mind, that all substances are really products of the mind. Because the mind is internal, it means the ideas, too, are internal, meaning, then, that our representations of the world are experienced internally. All experience of the world is essentially private and internal. Everything exists within ourselves, and nothing exists independent of us. Hence, when I look at the tree in the meadow, the tree is not truly there, nor is the meadow; rather, they are ideas in my mind—I think them—and so are within me. This is a Berkelian way of looking at things: Esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. But in reality, what is really happening—is the tree out there in the meadow, or are both in my head? If the tree is on the meadow, and if the meadow is in my head, then neither is real. Heidegger proceeds to ask whether it is we who meet the tree, or the tree that meets us. We say we encounter the tree, by which we mean we come face-to-face with it, in which case it is a two-way experience, not just a one-way experience.

Even science, which likes to clarify problems, cannot lend help to the problem at hand. If anything, it worsens the problem, Heidegger asserts, because “science does not think.” In saying this, Heidegger points to the fact that science deals with objective facts, and in its pursuits, it becomes stuck in its ways, stubborn and unwieldy, unable to accept any other viewpoints, set in its ways, confident in its validity. Eventually, this leads to scientism, the belief that science is the only source of knowledge and that science can solve every single problem presented to man. What eye_xsection_01.jpghas science to say regarding our encounter with the tree? The unquestioned verdict of science is that our encounter with the tree is quite simple: It is reducible to certain mechanisms that go on in our brain, causing a complex series of neurons to fire, finally producing the image of the tree before us. What this means is that the tree, the meadow, the sky—everything is illusory. The tree is not really a tree since it is a construction in our minds. In fact, the brown bark and green leaves are neither of those things, because the light reflecting from them is everything but those colors, and the image of the tree itself is heavily diluted and reversed and edited by the retinal system so that it is everything but what it is. The tree becomes anything but a tree. We are not content with this, though. As a result, science reduces the tree further, breaking it down into mere atoms, which are about 99% empty, and which are divisible into quarks that zip around emptiness. At the quantum level, neither the tree nor I exist. If anything is experienced, Unknown.jpegthen it is at most an illusory construction in the mind. Not only is the tree reduced, but I, too, am reduced to a measurable quantity. My brain waves, behavior, and physical composition can be analyzed and reduced to nothing. Heidegger rejects this representationalism. He thinks it unrealistic to view things idealistically or representationally. For him, percipi est esse, to be perceived is to be. In other words, for something to be seen, it must in the first place be there. It must exist, foremost. Before science can analyze a tree, a tree must be there to be analyzed. By analyzing the tree, scientists are effectively looking past it. They are missing the tree. They are neglecting the tree for what it is—a tree. Therefore, Heidegger can be said to be defending common sense. I see a tree in a meadow, and that is what I see. This kind of perceiving is pre-scientific, even pre-conceptual; in a word, it is naïve, in that is both unsuspecting and natural. To look at a tree as such is to look at it without judgment, without second thoughts, without trying to peel it away, as if to reveal a second, deeper layer beneath. I behold the tree and just look at it. In Buddhist psychology, I could be said to be perceiving rather than conceiving. Instead of labeling, categorizing, and analyzing the tree, I see, acknowledge, and accept it. It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, a face-to-face encounter. It is just the self and the tree in the meadow. The self, perceiving the tree, “grounds” itself literally because the self finds itself planted firmly on the earth in the world, and figuratively because the self is established in relation to the tree and finds itself oriented thereto. Thus grounded, the observer is present. The observer is said to “awaken to reality.” They are aware of the tree, and they do not just regard it as a passive, lifeless presence-at-hand. There is a connection. As Heidegger puts it,

When we think through what this is, that a tree in bloom presents itself to us so that we can come and stand face-to-face with it, the thing that matters first and foremost, and finally, is not to drop the tree in bloom, but for once [to] let it stand where it stands. Why do we say ‘finally’? Because to this day, thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.[1]

Importantly, Heidegger writes that the tree “presents itself to us.” He does not just mean that the tree is there for us to see; he is also implying that the tree, of its own, shows itself to us, reveals itself for us to see it, makes itself manifest. Heidegger’s word for this is the Greek Aletheia (αλἠθεια), which means “unconcealment.” The tree, previously concealed, images.jpegis unveiled. Usually, though, we “drop the tree in bloom,” meaning we do not see the tree for what it truly is but for its mode as an object. Just like how we wake up every morning and neglect our bed because we are so used to it, so we regard the tree as “just another object,” and so pay no attention to it. After all, what makes this tree so significant? It is just there. Heidegger is saying that we do not really see the tree as a tree-in-bloom. As a default, we live in a mode of everydayness, in which life seems to drag on, and everything in it unravels itself before us. We lazily make our way through life without giving heed to anything in the background. Things are mere objects. We ignore them, never acknowledging them, but just pass by inconsequentially. We have not the time for such trifles as a tree-in-bloom. Now, compare Heidegger’s example to that of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s:

When reality is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection, an almond tree that may be in your front yard may reveal its nature in perfect wholeness. The almond tree is itself truth, reality, your own self. Of all the people who have passed by your yard, how many have really seen the almond tree? … If your heart is not clouded by false views, you will be able to enter into a natural communion with the tree. The almond tree will be ready to reveal itself to you in complete wholeness. To see the almond tree is to see the way. One Zen Master, when asked to explain the wonder of reality, pointed to a cypress tree and said, “Look at the cypress tree over there.”[2]

Unknown.jpegIn this passage, Nhat Hanh mentions the tree “reveal[ing] its nature in perfect wholeness.” It is easy to relate this to Heidegger’s concept of unconcealment. For both thinkers, the tree is a very real entity, one which is capable of being shown to us. So real is the tree, that it is wholly independent of us, because it is unconcealed “in perfect wholeness”; in other words, the tree is presented to us because of its being a substantial tree. The tree reveals itself in “wholeness” considering it is complete in itself. The tree as a tree is ready to be seen by us. It is readily unconcealed. In Greek, the word for nature is phusis (φύσις). Heidegger translates the word from its origins to mean “self-emergence.” For this reason, to say the tree “is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection” is to say that the tree emerges forth from within itself. The tree is perfectly whole as a tree, and so it presents itself. Nhat Hanh goes on to ask how many people “have really seen the almond tree?” referring to everydayness. Imagine you have said almond tree in your front yard. You have been living in this house for 10 years, and every morning, when you drive to work, you walk out the door, stroll past the tree, get in your car, drive to work, drive back, walk past the tree, go to bed, and then repeat. Even after a month, you most likely will have gotten used to the tree, to the point where you are even tired of it. The brain, adapting to the repeated stimulus, decides to block it out and simply stop processing it. As such, every morning, you ignore the almond tree for the simple reason that you are so familiar with it. But familiarity breeds contempt. Consequently, you do not give it the time it deserves. And think about a jogger who passes by and sees the tree, or someone driving through the neighborhood who notes the almond tree in your yard—although they see it, can you say that they really saw the almond tree? How many people, in the middle of b17338ee1086cbc142c1d070ba6a77af.jpgtheir days, stop what they are doing to simply look at a tree, think, “That is a tree,” and silently, thoughtfully, admire it for its natural beauty? Sadly, the number will not be high, if at all a number. The point of this illustration is to show what everydayness looks like in contrast to mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exact opposite. Being mindful allows one to enter into “a natural communion with the tree,” as Nhat Hanh writes. The mindful observer is not filled with “false views”—internal ideas, concepts, scientific prejudices, representations—but readily sets the tree up for an encounter. Whereas the average, everyday observer is inattentive, distracted, and remiss, the practitioner of mindfulness opens themselves up to “the wonder of reality.” And what is “the wonder of reality,” you ask? Nhat Hanh cites the Zen parable of the teacher pointing to a tree and saying, “That is a tree.” Upon a first reading, the reader will find this story silly and anticlimactic. However, given this background, we know that this a much deeper truth. The Zen teacher is not just pointing to the tree, but the tree is revealing itself to the Zen master, so they enter into a “natural communion” “in perfect wholeness.” This wonder, this astonishment, is the key to being attentive. Wonder plays a big role in Heidegger’s later philosophy. To wonder at reality is to be overcome by the bare fact of existence; to wonder is to be mindful of Being.

Parmenides in forest.pngHow does one think, or how does one be mindful according to Heidegger? The answer, we found, lies in the following sentence translated (heavily) from Parmenides: Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι, or “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too, the presence of what is present.” What this means, we shall examine phrase by phrase. Λέγειν, or legein, means “to say,” or “to lay out,” in the way of explaining something. Therefore, legein is to let-lie-before insomuch that we take something before us, and we leave it as such. An example Heidegger uses is of a mountain range: After taking a long yet beautiful hike, we stop at a plateau, and we look out at the mountains across from us. During our admiration of the mountains, we notice that they “stand out,” so to speak, in that they emerge in the midst of the background, where we let them lie, arranged in the way that they are arranged. Our stopping to look at the mountains is an act of letting-lie-before. We leave the mountains to themselves where they stand, simply watch from a distance, letting them be, without interference. Literally, we are letting them lie before us. It is not as though the mountains are asking, Unknown.jpeg“Can we lie before you?” and we say, “We let you,” however, as though we are the ones “letting” them. What the “letting” refers to is our passive, unintentional attitude toward the mountains. Simply put, we are enjoying the view of the mountains in nature. This is a basic orientation of mindfulness: To let-lie-before. If you can, then take a moment right now, wherever you are—just a minute—and be mindful by using this technique. Sit, stand, or lie down, and take into view all your surroundings. Breathe in and out, counting the breath, looking around impartially, letting things lie before you as they are. The chair you are sitting on, the ground you are lying or standing on—as they support your weight, you are simultaneously letting them lie beneath you. Notice, then, that which grounds you. Being mindful involves attending to things with full attention and allowing them to exist.

Unknown.jpegNext, Heidegger talks of “taking-to-heart” from νοεῖν, or noein. Noein comes from nous (νους), mind. Insofar as nous means mind, it brings connotations of the logical, the rational. Despite this connection, Heidegger actually takes noein to mean “to perceive” rather than “to think.” This move should bring to mind the distinction between perception and conception. Whereas the mind is usually rational, Heidegger sees it as the emotional in a way, to the extent that it is a passive process. To perceive is to grasp something, to literally take it into view. If you think about it, Heidegger explains, then perceiving is a kind of passive reception. The tree in front of us presents itself, and we perceive its unconcealedness—we receive the tree’s emergence. It would be wrong to think that perception in this sense is wholly passive; Heidegger does not want to take this approach, but rather contends that perception is both active and passive: To perceive is to both receive something passively while at the same time caring for it actively. Elsewhere, Heidegger writes, “Apprehension [perception] … denotes a process of letting things come to oneself in which one does not simply take things in, but rather takes up a position to receive what shows itself.”[3] Here, he explains the twofold nature of perceiving. Because perceive comes from capere, meaning to take, Heidegger plays on the word “take,” taking (sorry, I had to) it to be both passive and active, as a “taking-in” and a “taking-up-of.” Purposefully, he says perception is “a process of letting” in which we “take things in.” In viewing something, we “take it in” or receive it. We say we “take in” a puppy when it is lost; we receive it. In another strain, we “take up” a disposition, or, as Heidegger puts it, a position. During discussions, we “take up a position,” by which we mean we adopt it and adhere to it faithfully. From this, we get that noein means “taking-to-heart.” A matter is Unknown-2.jpeg“taken-to-heart” because it is important to us, so we hold it close. We receive something while protecting it. In terms of mindfulness, this is being appreciative of things. Practicing mindfulness has a big component of appreciating the moment. Going for a walk is a great form of mindfulness meditation. Walking, we get to see nature all around us, and we get to perceive it unendingly. In perceiving it, we are receiving it. By receiving it and noticing it, we slowly learn to appreciate it and take it to heart. We want to care for nature. But caring does not necessarily mean you have to go out and join some kind of activist group; caring can be as much as simply enjoying nature and spending more time with it. Spending more time with something shows that you care about it. When you care about something, when you love it deep down, you feel it in your heart. Spending time in the present disposes us to taking-to-heart.

Now, taken together, we have “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too.” Legein and noein are co-dependent. One cannot occur without the other. With regard to the almond tree, we let it lie before us by becoming aware of it. And once we are aware of it, we receive it and take-to-heart. Conversely, Heidegger says that when we care for something and take it to heart, we are implicitly letting-it-lie. We do not go about

leaving something where it lies while we pass by indifferently…. By taking to heart and mind, we gather and focus ourselves on what lies before us, and gather what we have taken to heart. Whence do we gather it? Where else but to itself, so that it may become manifest such as it of itself lies before us.[4]

Alright, so what does that mean? Let us be mindful of the tree: The tree is still there, no matter what happens, even if we do not pay attention to it. But if we stop, take a second to really look at it for what it is, then we will let it lie there while gathering thought about it. Here is another way of paraphrasing Heidegger: Passing a tree, attending to it, setting our gaze upon it, we do not “leave” it “indifferently,” regarding it as just another object, but we notice it as being in our line of sight, whereupon we gather, or attend to, thought, although not just any thought, but thought directed only toward the tree as it stands before us. I could pass by an orchard and not see a single tree. The problem, Heidegger Unknown-1.jpegthinks, is the opposite of the classic phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees.” For him and practitioners of mindfulness, it should really be “can’t see the trees for the forest.” Going to and from work every day, the average person will not care to give his time to a tree. He will continue on his way, with no time for silly distractions. Many of us, even when we want to give time to things, do not give them our full attention. We confuse the whole with its parts. We refuse to acknowledge the tree in its full presence. We do not see the tree for itself. Something we need to do, understandably, is to stand before a tree and think about it—think about it not in terms of representations, but in terms of mindful thinking. Thinking about the tree, we “gather” it, as Heidegger says. We gather our attention to the present and regard the tree solely.

Finally, what are we to make of “the presence of what is present,” the ἐὸν ἔμμεναι, of Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι? The presence of what is present is the closest thing to a synonym Heidegger’s “Being of beings” has. It is what makes present things present. But what does it mean to be present? What are we letting-lie and taking-to-heart? In class, the teacher asks a name, and the student replies “present,” meaning “here,” “not absent,” “existent.” Presence is derived from praeesse, meaning “being before” (prae/pre = before, esse = to exist). The “before” is not temporal but spatial; it is not saying the thing exists before we do; it exists right here and now, be-fore us, in front of us, instant, immediate, accessible. Presence pre-sents itself to us; it lies before us. Phenomena, experienced things, are revealed and made manifest from unconcealment in the midst of unconcealment. This description does not really help. If anything, it only muddies the waters more. Presence, as with many of Heidegger’s terms, can best be explained Unknown-3.jpegthrough illustrations. Gestalt psychology argued that humans perceive things in terms of wholes and parts. Perception then involves a figure and a ground. The ground is the background, or what gives context, the scene, and the figure is what occupies our attention—it is the main attraction, the distinct thing in front of us. In many paintings, for example, there is something in the center to which our eye is quickly attracted, while the rest of the painting fades into the background. Imagine a bowl of fruit—this is the figure, while the table upon which it rests is the background. The thing is, the figure and ground can be switched. We can look at the table, thus obscuring the bowl of fruit, making it the background, and the table the figure. Presence presents itself in what is present, and unconcealment unconceals itself in what is already-unconcealed. Take a mountainscape: The mountain range is within our field of vision, meaning it is unconcealed, considering it is seen by us and not hidden, but it is only so within the context of the whole scenery, from the sky to the ground, i.e., what is already there, behind the mountains. Heidegger says the mountain range’s Unknown-4.jpeg“presence is the rising entry into what is unconcealed within unconcealment, even and especially when the mountain range keeps standing as it is, extending and jutting.”[5] To paraphrase, the mountain range “rises” up from the ground, where we see it must clearly and distinctly, in the background of the environment. Before we can see the mountain, we must be able to see the context in which it presents itself. Accordingly, the mountain must reveal itself after everything else has already been revealed. The figure—the mountain—and the ground—the sky, ground, trees, etc.—are dependent upon one another. Heidegger states that the mountain most naturally “keeps standing as it is, extending and jutting.” A mountainscape is thus most widely recognized. Indeed, when we look at any mountain, whether it be in Yosemite or the Himalayas, we can certainly confirm that, in the context of a ground and sky, the mountain, in being a mountain, shows its strength in its awesome magnitude as it extends and juts.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 12.49.06 PM.pngLooking out at the mountainscape, we automatically perceive the mountain (rise) and become aware of it (entry), but we do not notice this subtle perceptual shift itself as it happens, but let it stand there. It lies there, present, so long as we look at it, and it keeps being a mountain in our view (continuance). But as it stays in our view, in the forefront of our attention, it can at any moment fall risk to becoming a part of the background, thereby concealing itself, as when we look somewhere else, and it vanishes (coming and going away). As it appears to us, presents itself to us, it is what it is (radiance) in its manifestness, in its simply existing, and remains so, temporally enduring as a mountain (duration), where it is thought about and acknowledged as laying (gathering). These traits, Heidegger says, are the traits of presence. It consists in “unconcealedness, the rising from unconcealedness, the entry into unconcealedness, the coming and going away, the duration, the gathering, the radiance, the rest, the hidden suddenness of possible absenting.”[6] Mindfulness practice can apply this to the present moment, to what Unknown-1.jpegis present, in meditation. Notice, when you look around, that everything sort of just appears, or presents itself, while in the midst of a melange of other items all scattered about, although none vies for our attention, since we must direct it ourselves, giving us the power to choose what we want to focus on, what we want to present itself in presence, as it radiates before us in its sway, and how, when we are tired of concentrating on one thing, we can leave it, concealing it, and turn our focus on something else, whereat it is unconcealed in its own. Meditation enables us to engage our senses in order to receive a greater experience of what is present. The Ancient Greeks, thought Heidegger, were mindful of their surroundings and wondered about Being. They asked about presence and found the above traits, but nothing of the traits themselves, seeing as presence is what is presented through them.

“Thinking is not so much non-philosophy as post-philosophy,” writes Lee Braver, an interpreter of Heidegger.[7] This is an important concept to understand. Heidegger’s mission is to disassemble Western metaphysics, a tradition which involves a lot of rationalism, conceptualism, and objectification, all of which he deems dangerous. Thinking, then, is not some kind of antithesis to philosophy, but a revolt, or, more fittingly, a revision. Heidegger is trying to reform philosophy by returning it to its original form. The Presocratics did not care about whether reality was objective or not, whether they could analyze language—all they cared about was why we existed and what reality was. Thus, Heidegger wants us to examine these questions once more. He wants us to think about existence, about Being, about what it means to be. It is a Unknown-5.jpegdivergence from the normal route of philosophy, and its goal is to attain “grateful wonder towards presencing rather than explaining and controlling present entities.”[8] Grateful wonder is a form of curiosity and amazement at the world. Thinking about existence fills one with gratefulness for existing and a wondrous awe for all that exists. Importantly, it is about gratefulness, rather than explanation and control, as he says. Science, we have noted, does not think, because it tries to objectify beings and impose quantitative calculations on them, thereby controlling them, subjecting them to countless experiments, seeking to explain its whences and wherefores. What science does not try to do, is wonder at beings and be grateful for them. A scientist may proclaim to be grateful for a tree’s existence so that he may study it, but then it is degraded at his hands as soon as he begins to analyze and dissect it. Technological exploitation and manipulation, prevalent in the modern age, only further this agenda. Again, Heidegger’s mindful thinking must be distinguished from regular thinking as we take it: “[T]hought in the sense of rational-logical representations turns out to be a reduction of the word that beggars the imagination.”[9] Re-presentation means putting a semblance, a false reality, an imitation, in place of what something really is. We take what is present, and we re-present it, thereby changing its form, making it into something it is not originally. This form of thinking removes magic and in so doing systematizes and imitates, like Plato’s idea of art in The Republic. When we represent beings, we “drop the tree in bloom.” Reality is left bland, and we are ungrateful toward it.

In the previous post, I wrote about the connection Heidegger makes between “thinking” and “thanking.” Even in English, the words show a very close similarity, both visually and phonically. As it turns out, they come from the same roots. Somewhere along the etymological tree, there was a split, resulting in thencan and thencian, which became, respectively, thanc and thonc, then finally thank and think as we now know them. A thought consists in giving thanks. I used the spirit of Thanksgiving to best show the relation: On the holiday, we give thought to those we love, by which we give thanks to Unknown-6.jpegthem. It is a meaningful consideration. Thinking is having grateful thoughts. This function is related to sorge, care, which is what constitutes man’s existence in Heidegger’s other work Being and Time. We humans are always concerned with something, be it a person, relation, or duty. As such, thinking is a form of care, in which we give with intention and intentionality. When we think, we heed the gift given to us to think. The gathering of thought is memory. Back in the day, memory meant “mindful.” To have in memory meant to meditate upon and keep in one’s mind. When we retain the past and present, we are said to re-call thoughts, to re-collect them, to bring them back into the mind, where we can gather them and focus on them. “As we give thought to what is most thought-provoking, we give thanks,” writes Heidegger.[10] The most thought-provoking thing is existence, or Being. When we think about Being, we thank it. We give thanks for a being’s Being, but since beings are everywhere being, we are giving thanks to Being itself. To think Being is to thank Being—to thank Being for what?—for being what it is, for being what is, for being qua Being, for being Being. You see, in order to thank Being, we must be, or exist, in the first place, which would not be possible were it not for the fact of Being, wherefore we must give thanks to it.

Heidegger gives us more hints: “The human will to explain just does not reach to the simpleness of the simple onefold of worlding…. The first step toward such vigilance is the step back from the thinking that merely represents—that is, explains—to the thinking that responds and recalls.”[11] This quote reinforces the conception of thinking forwarded by Braver earlier. Both speak of the perils of explanation. Braver said that we should aim at grateful wonder instead of controlling and explaining, lest we lose the opportunity to appreciate Being, and Heidegger says that explanation not only misses images.jpegsimplicity, but it also represents. Representation is closely related to explanation, Heidegger reports. By saying “the thinking that…,” Heidegger furthers the dichotomy between rational thinking and mindful thinking. The one is negative, the other positive. The one is explanatory, the other grateful. This only serves to widen the rift. Scientific representational thinking gets in the way of the simplicity of Being, therefore. In order to counteract this modern technological attitude, we must, as Heidegger instructs us, first “step back from” ideational thought and “step toward … vigilance.” Vigilance is careful watch. A vigilant person takes care of and nurtures whatever they are watching over. In this case, similar to taking-to-heart, we humans, mortals, must take up our place as the shepherds of Being—we must take Being to heart and nurture it. Mindfulness asks that we not explain, just experience. On an afternoon walk, we need not analyze everything we see. The path beneath our feet need not be studied, only felt; the birds in the trees need not be photographed, only heard; the clouds in the sky need not be categorized, only observed. We must take-to-heart what lies-before-us nonjudgmentally, with appreciation and gratefulness, whither we attend thought. Of the images-1.jpegpresent, we must be vigilant, always keeping a watchful eye on presence, lest it escape our view, or lest we end up objectifying it. Living in the moment prescribes thinking. Heidegger says true, mindful—that is, gathering—thought “responds and recalls.” The dirt path, the singing birds, the wispy clouds—we are not here to box them in, but to set them free in their own way. All of them are to be revealed in unconcealedness. Their radiance is supposed to be brought forth from us so that they can endure in their gathering, rising into view, entering into perception, prompting our reception of them into our hearts, when we can give grateful thoughts to them, thank them for existing, thank Being for being, dwell on the fact of their being, and direct wonder at them.

Being calls to us to think it, and we answer the call through ourselves. Singing their songs, the birds invite us to answer them, and we do when we heed them, when we listen to their songs raptly and with intention, when we attend to the birds with focus. The clouds, high in the sky, wave to us from above, and we respond to them by passing underfoot. Beneath us, the dirt path opens itself up to us for an embrace, and we recall it by thanking it. Gathered in our hearts is thought. We are not in the past or future, but the present. When we are present, things present themselves as present. Held before us is time in a continuum—it hangs there before us, the present, beckoning us forth, into the presence of what is present, where all things arise. The present isolates us, suspends us between two extremes, between what-is-no-longer and what-is-not-yet. In the present, we can enjoy the presence of presence. Justin Richards on Medium put it eloquently in a well-thought-out essay

Standing in this now we withdraw from our ordinary experience of time, and as soon as the thinking activity is at an end we find ourselves back in the coming and going of past and future, and the now moment withdraws from us again. The Thinking that gathers what is in the inmost heart of one’s being in a saying that lays it before oneself as it is establishes a person’s orientation towards Being; towards the presence of what is present, towards the unique temporal experience of a genuine Now. Infinity before us, infinity after us, and standing here, now, the tree in bloom, a being in Being.

Unknown-8.jpegThe German philosopher and Eastern philosophy have close connections, connections that are oft overlooked, but which deserve careful study and devotion. Combining phenomenology with spiritual practices, Heidegger manages to devise a remedy to today’s accelerating civilization, when all is Now, when values are being lost, and nihilism looms. Discarding modern scientific-technological objectification, Heidegger moves to a more primitive, accepting, and simple philosophy, or way of life, in which we can respond to the call of Being, of existence itself, through wonder and curiosity. If we can take the time to stay in silence without moving, then we can grasp but a glimmer of what it means to truly be, to be in the presence of Being. By not judging, by perceiving not conceiving, by being grateful, by acknowledging, by not dropping beings, by not representing, by letting things be, by being vigilant, by taking-to-heart—we can be mindful of ourselves, others, and life. A mindful moment is all it takes. Psychologists have found that writing down a list of things for which we are grateful every day increases our well-being and happiness. On the top of that list should be “Being,” first and foremost. Consider this: You are alive. You exist. You are. Period. When you wake up, re-call—bring back to mind—the fact that you Unknown-5.jpegare, that you exist, and be grateful therefor. What better gift is there than to be alive? Paraphrasing Thoreau, it is a shame to die only to discover you had never lived. Heidegger asks us to pause and live in the moment and give thanks so that we do not miss out on the magical experience of life. In the next blog, I will discuss in further detail the Eastern connection in Heidegger—but that is in the future. Until then, we are in the present, and we ought to continue living that way mindfully.


[1] Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, p. 44 (Henceforth abbreviated WCT
[2] Nhat Hanh, The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Almond Tree in Your Front Yard,” p. 58
[3] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 147
[4] Heidegger, WTC, pp. 208-9
[5] Id., p. 236
[6] Id., p. 237
[7] Braver, Heidegger’s Later Writings, p. 118
[8] Id., p. 124
[9] Heidegger, WCT, p. 139
[10] Id., p. 146
[11] Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, “The Thing,” pp. 180-1


For further reading: What is Called Thinking? by Martin Heidegger (1968)
The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh by Thich Nhat Hanh (2000)

4 Strategies To Stay Motivated

Unknown.jpegEvery Thursday, we dread coming to class. Slowly, nervously, we walked into the gym, not knowing into what we were walking or what to expect. He calmly sauntered ahead of us, set down his clipboard and music box, opened the door for the girls, and stood there, arms crossed, as if plotting his latest machination—of which we, the students, were the victims. We got in our lines, got through our warm-ups, then stood there dumbly, looking amongst ourselves with frightened eyes, shrugging, asking with our eyes, “What is it today?” with desperation, with full knowledge that none of us would walk out of there alive. Suddenly, after clearing his throat, our P.E. teacher announced, “Alright, get behind the sideline and listen up.” We got behind the sideline. He turned to face us. He gestured. “Today, for your fitness test, you will sprint from here to the sideline and back, followed by a burpee. You will repeat this, each time adding one burpee on, until you get to 10 burpees. When you are done, shout ‘Time!’ and go get some water.” So that’s what our fitness test would be that day. It sounded terrible. In total, we would be doing 20 sprints and… oh god… 55 burpees. I looked at my friend who was next to me. How are we gonna survive? Are we going to die today? These questions would be answered shortly. Until then, it was just I and the present moment—just I and the workout. And the key to it all: Keeping the right mindset to stay motivated and get through it.

images.jpegMotivation, we all know, is a complicated and fickle thing, a thing that usually comes and goes without our willing it, as though a fairy sprinkles her magic dust on us, and we become motivated, only for it to vanish into thin air when we are done, leaving us unmotivated and lazy, incapable of doing anything more. There are no real shortcuts to becoming motivated. Most of the time, it just has to happen. When I say, “I am motivated,” with “motivated” being in adjective form, I say it as such because it is done to me. Really, I am implying that there is something actively motiv-ating me. As such, I am passive. I am the recipient of motivation, whereupon I am motivated to do something. Whether it is doing a fitness test like I have to do every Thursday in P.E. or going to go a job that one hates, the only way to get through it, the only way to survive—is to be motivated. In tough moments, when we are pushed to our limits, when our arms feel like they are gonna fall off, when the stacks of paper that have to be read are piled to the roof, when all seems unbearable, when all hope seems lost—it is at these moments that we need motivation the most. To get through them, we must stick with them and try to stay motivated.

As it turns out, I did not, in fact, die that Thursday after completing my 20 sprints and 55 burpees, although it almost felt as if I died. I got through it, though, by keeping the right mindset. Today, I will be sharing my 4-step method of staying motivated, from which you can hopefully benefit, too! This can be used during exercises, work, or anything else, if you make it work. I have yet to give it a catchy name, but for now, it is the MMAA method:

  1. Macro. The first tactic I used was thinking at the macro, or large, scale. In the back of my mind, I always had an idea of how far I was in the workout. For example, I would remind myself, “I have ‘x’ sprints left and ‘y’ burpees left.” This way, by Unknown-1.jpegthinking about it in terms of the absolute, the ultimate, the whole, I was able to keep track of my progress. Taking inventory of where one is and where one has to go, allows for clearer thinking and planning. The macro aspect is the long-term. It takes into account the beginning and the end, the start and the finish, but not the middle in between, because then one gets caught up in the details; on the contrary, one must keep their eyes set on the whole, the bigger picture, in relation to which the smaller parts stand. Thinking macro is absolute and always directed toward the bigger sets, the bigger picture overall. 

  2. Micro. Second is thinking on the micro, or small, scale. During the workout, once I had established where I was in terms of the macro, I could then break it down into smaller units, into sets, and from there, into individual repetitions. This way, a larger workload became a series of smaller, more manageable ones. The macro makes way for the micro. To use an example: If I had to do nine burpees, then having to do nine burpees would be the macro approach, but the micro approach would be doing three sets of three. The bigger picture—nine burpees—was broken into the smaller pictures—manageable sets, three sets of three—which could easily be completed. The two work together. Illustrating further, if I were still sticking with the 3×3 burpees, and I was completing the first three, then the next 2×3 would then be the macro, and the current three the micro: This is because the micro is oriented, or Mosaic-Magic-840x400.jpggrounded, rather, in the present, in the relative and relational. Micro thinking is always a part of the whole, as opposed to macro thinking, which is the whole itself. The macro makes a mental map, and the micro draws the pathways connecting the landmarks. If one only thought macro, then they would be overwhelmed; if one only thought micro, then they would be lost. As such, the two mutually coexist and are dependent upon each other. Another idea that I touched on is that of the present. Because the macro takes into account the future, the micro takes into account only the present—not what I will do, in the future, what is still left, but what I am doing, right now, at this moment. While the macro image of three sets of three burpees exists in my mind, projected into the future, the micro conception of  “I am doing one burpee at the moment, out of three” is being done at the moment. What this means is that the micro, unlike the macro, is twofold: It simultaneously breaks down the macro and enacts it. In summary, the macro is a long-term projection of the bigger picture and what needs to be done, and the micro is the short-term breaking down of the macro into smaller parts that can be completed realistically.

  3. Action. Next is action. The name does not say anything important, nor does it seem groundbreaking. To be motivated requires that some action be done, does it not? Is not action redundant, then? Only to an extent, insofar as it is never considered in itself. Going back to the fitness test, I would find myself in the second half of the workout frequently asking how I would get through it. On the macro level, I had 10 burpees to do, and on the micro level, I had two sets of five to do. However, as I Unknown-3.jpegjumped, squatted, then pushed myself to the ground, I struggled, both physically and mentally. Already I had done 45 burpees, so my arms and legs were tired, and I was out of breath. Oh, if the workout could just end already! I thought. But this got me on a train of thought: Time is that through which things unfold, and unfolding is an action, meaning the only way to pass time is to act; and what this meant was, the sooner and quicker I acted, the sooner the workout would be over. Let me put it another way: Just sitting there on the gym floor hoping for the workout to end, acknowledging the pain and fatigue I was feeling, thinking both macro and micro—none of these would make the workout end quicker unless I actually did them. So while I knew I was tired, and while I knew I had to push out these last reps, the longer I dwelled on these things, the longer it would take me to finish, meaning the longer I would dwell, the longer I would hurt. Ultimately, thinking too much causes delay. Another way of thinking about action: Overall, the macro plan is to do my final 10 burpees and two sprints, yet having this plan is but what sets me on my way to doing them. Having this big picture in my mind does not change anything, per se. All it does is linger as a thought. It has no potent effect. I could sit on the sideline the entire day repeating to myself, “You have 10 burpees and two sprints,” but those numbers will not go down until I start on them. Until then, the numbers remain the same. Until then, nothing will change. So, in those moments when I found it nearly impossible to finish my reps, and when I asked, “How will I do the last four burpees?” the answer was, “By doing the last four burpees.”

  4. Absurdism. No matter what task it is we are doing, we at one point or another ask ourselves, “Why are we even doing this? Why should I even be doing it? What consequences are there if I do not do them?” That Thursday, in the midst of the fitness test, these questions came up many times in many forms. For comfort, I like to think back to Existentialist Albert Camus’ response to the problem of suicide. In Unknown-2.jpeghis essay, Camus references Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who has been punished by the gods to indefinitely push a boulder up a hill, who, having pushed the boulder to the top, watches it roll down to the bottom, forced to start all over again, ad infinitum. What does this have to do with anything? Well, Camus said that, although this is not the best of circumstances, we must bear it the best we can. Applying this reasoning, we can all find solace and wisdom in our goals: While a hard, laborious, and tedious task may be imposed upon us, and we do not want to do it, we might as well do it happily and do it to the best of our ability. If you think about it, there really is no reason to do it, no overarching purpose. But if we are doing it already, and if it is expected of us, why not jump in and make something of it? Sweating in the school gym, feeling like spaghetti, I knew that I could at any minute stop doing whatever I was doing, give up, forfeit, throw in the towel, call it quits—I could surrender to meaninglessness, to the absurd—or I could overcome the absurd, triumph over it. I could take the meaningless and make it meaningful. I could fight against the pain and turn it from suffering into vanquishing. It is a process of strengthening. There was no universal law that I had to do a fitness test, and by all means, I did not have to do it; but I decided that, despite its purposelessness in the long run, I might as well push through it and prove myself in spite of the void it presented to me and my classmates.

images-1.jpegIn conclusion, motivation is not a singular, simple thing—yet then again, we already knew that. I had conceived of this blog during a nap, and I had planned out a perfect image of it in my head; but as soon as I started writing out the strategies, I found that it did not correspond with the image in my head, and I felt like it had been a waste; I wanted to rewrite the whole thing—but I lacked, of all things, the motivation to do so! Somehow, out of sheer willpower, I managed to jump back and rewrite it; hence, what you are now reading. The MMAA method, albeit widely applicable, is certainly not the approach for everyone, and it may not work for every single task. Howbeit, the four steps need not be taken together as a package, no; rather, you are free to do whatsoever you like with any of the methods, be it adapting them to your own strategy, or taking one or two and starting from there. Ultimately, it is subjective, considering that is the very nature of motivation—it differs for everyone. The main takeaways, in summarizing the four strategies are:

  1. Have a clear idea of the bigger picture, including reference points, and a clearly defined beginning and end.

  2. Think about the bigger picture in small terms, in terms that are doable, that can be done mindfully.
  3. Plan, but do not plan such that it gets in the way of enacting that plan. Reflecting too much on the plan prevents it from coming into play.
    And finally:
  4. There may not be an immediate meaning behind your work, and you have to be fine with that: Make your own meaning, and embrace it. Maybe it is not the best thing to be doing, and yes, maybe you have better things to do, but for now, you might as well have fun doing it!

And yes, many of the ideas expressed herein are not new, and perhaps you have read something similar before; but hopefully, you have gleaned at least something of value that you can apply to your life!

Stay motivated, readers! Keep reading!