Friday, November 27, 2015

The Art of Self

One of the inherent frustrations among Westerns in modernity is the quest to discover one’s purpose, sustainable contentment, and further making a livelihood out of meaningful work. Daily we are subject to an overwhelming barrage of scripts that promise to make us safe and happy yet fail to do so.  Hence the notion of happiness is generally connected to moments in a day that must be maintained by rising above boredom or repressing chronic, internal anxieties or stress that would quickly exhaust the average person if it were not for material consumption, the technologies created to “save time” and the need to be always doing something. God forbid that we try to contemplate the reality of death or sit in silence for more than five minutes which are the kind of moments that lead us closer to moments of awakening.  

Carl Jung said that with all this resistance and distraction, consciousness is still pressing forward "to its own inertia, but the unconscious lags behind, because the strength and inner resolve needed for further expansion have been sapped." Hence there is a disunity with oneself that breeds discontent. A critical atmosphere thus must develop—the necessary prelude to conscious realization. This is a quiet call from within to listen, to pay attention to the hidden, to possess the secret imprisoned in inescapable egotism yet gradually to be revealed by way of discovery, a natural progression within all of us that often goes unnoticed or unheard until it is late in life. It is the inner voice that begs your reflection now and over time and promises wholeness, completeness, human flourishing.

While I have been on this path for some years, I recently came across an exercise in Friedrich Nietzsche’s  Schopenhauer as Educator that essentially was written to provide a starting point to youth or any searching individual who is willing to chase a set of probing questions over time as a method to assist in the cardinal yet byzantine task of knowing oneself. Nietzsche begins, and I recommend as a threshold this project.   

How can one know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, an individual may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, "Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside." It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one's being. How easy it is thereby to give oneself such injuries as no physician can heal. Moreover, why should it even be necessary given that everything bears witness to our being – our friendships and animosities, our glances and handshakes, our memories and all that we forget, our books as well as our pens. For the most important inquiry, however, there is a method. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: 
Here is Nietzsche’s method laid out in the form of questions. I suggest take several weeks to do this--there is no time line. Lay out your musings on paper or document; keep coming back to it and lay it out, expand it as described below.  The numbering is mine for which I recommend following a process that follows natural steps. I have provided some alternative translations in the brackets.

[1] "What have you up to now truly loved, [2] what has drawn your soul upward, [3] mastered [dominated] it and blessed [uplifted] it too [at the same time]?" [4] Set up these things that you have honored [revered objects] before you, and, maybe, they will show you, in their being and their order, a law which is the fundamental law of your own self. [5] Compare these objects, consider how one completes and broadens and transcends and explains another, [6] how they form a ladder on which you have all the time been climbing to your [true] self: for your true being lies not deeply hidden in you, but an infinite height above you, or at least above that which you do commonly take to be yourself.
Nietzsche embodied and laid credit to Schopenhauer for the challenge and insight to always pay attention, study and know our personal life/self that we might come to see our true selves. If not we are thus prone to become like the masses, exposed to the dominant scripts enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology that promise to make us safe and to make us happy, yet have and will fail.*  In order to escape the gravitational pull of the dominant societal narratives that cannot begin to support the project of knowing one’s self, we must become de-scripted so that over time we might relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.  In a real sense, we must construct over time a counter script. A counter script in the words of William Stafford is conveyed with a metaphor of the “thread” in “The Way it is”.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
 William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

Furthermore, Nietzsche’s method guides one in this needful process of de-scripting and re-scripting by way of what Robert Pippin describes as Nietzsche’s defense of a . . .

 . . .novel conception of genuine selfhood as a never-to-be completed process of self-development and self-overcoming, a philosophical project that recognizes the elements of truth contained in both essentialist and existentialist theories of the self, while committing itself fully to neither. The 'true' self, according to the author of Schopenhauer as Educator, is neither an externally given and unchangeable 'essence' (such as Schopenhauer's 'intelligible character’) nor an arbitrary and freely-willed 'construct'. My 'true' self is something I have to 'become', but it is also what I already 'am'. (Introduction to Nietzsche, R Pippin, Ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012, 80)
Nietzsche further exhorts,

No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of yourself: you would put yourself in pawn and lose yourself. There exists in the world a single path [the tread] along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it.
If we do not discover and claim our selves, which includes ours gifts, knowing our true talents and place in life, embracing and following our star or call, we will never unite in the words of Frost (“Two Tramps in Mud Time”),  

My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.


The failure to know one’s self is to be disembodied, disordered and confused, and unable to pass beyond ourselves among the psyche’s struggle to silence the secret voice of anxiety in order to discover through contemplation our true self, what Thomas Merton named the “hidden wholeness.”  This may well be a way of describing a place of human flourishing when we discover ourselves being fully actualized as we are meant to be. (T Merton, The New Man, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 1961)

Finally Nietzsche: “There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud — but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.” Here (the method above) Nietzsche gives us a place to start to consider those who have informed use over time, the various people and actions of others that have influenced us and have in part breathed life into us or imparted to us a model of what we intrinsically view as genuine and worthy of holding on to which may well inform us about the person we are and wish to be.

Image, Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin's Heart
* While there are various dominant scripts and ideologies, one rational summation of the scripting in our society is a script of "technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative". (Walter Brueggemann)