Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Magical Personal History

Another aspect of the magical thinking I described in my elaboration of my introductory post is the way I think of my personal history. In the magical mind state, I see my past as a series of discoveries that promised to be the answer – going to grad school, doing the Gurdjieff work, Buddhist practice, psychotherapy – and them not working out. So the past, in this view, is a series of attempts at salvation. Disappointment and despair set in because experience seemed to have taught me that nothing works, i.e. nothing saved me. I was looking for something that would be It, what I would do, so that I wouldn’t have to search anymore or have to question things fundamentally all the time.

It's an essentially religious, or magical, way of constructing personal history because it is based on salvation and redemption. Some bad (read: sinful) way I am would be transformed by finding the true path.

The alternative view is that my life is a process, a development, and these were encounters I had which I was drawn to, learned from and some of which I incorporated into my present way of being.

A therapist was talking about my process of self-development. I told him that I don’t know if I have a process. He said, “your process is finding out whether you have a process or not.” It’s a curious, profound, contradictory intervention. On the one hand, it leaves me still struggling to make something meaningful about my life, and yet it also suggests a way of understanding even that struggle as that meaningful path. But on the other hand, the struggle itself doesn’t allow the belief in the meaningfulness of the struggle.

Monday, August 15, 2005

This Blog's Purpose

I want to present an examination of myself. A description and analysis of the workings of my psyche. All the mental and emotional workings that produce the day-to-day life of this person. The recurring thoughts, the moods, the life situations and the reasons why those particular thoughts, moods and situations keep arising.

It’s an uneasy mix of the personal and the analytical. It reveals what’s personal but in such a way that the personal becomes data for the analytical. It’s an odd way to relate to oneself and this way of relating could be part of the cause of the psychological problems I describe. Each self-characterization is a way of life.

In my psyche there is an effort to change the psyche itself. So much writing about self-development doesn’t include the details of the process of self-change and how it works. I’m curious about the very fabric of the reality experienced by each person. What are the forces at play that cumulatively produce this person?

In the process of trying to create some fundamental change in my life there will be a clash of worldviews. We’ll see how opposed worldviews interpret each other using their particular vocabularies in order to make and maintain their differing experiences of reality. This occurs everyday when people are confronted with someone who disagrees with them.

Beyond the evaluation of this particular self, larger questions arise. If each perspective internal to a person sees a different reality then the nature of reality becomes multifarious. How does mood, conditioning and one’s interests affect the way the world appears? Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus, “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” In what way and to what degree is this true?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Three Important Writers For Me

Only three times in my life since I started reading seriously have I become a devotee of a particular writer. In October of 1982 I became captivated by Noam Chomsky's political writings. I had always been confused about how people chose between being a Republican or a Democrat and why the US, which wanted to promote democracy, overthrew and undermined a number of democracies. I couldn’t understand it until I read Chomsky. Basically, although it is a subtle view despite the attacks against Chomsky in the mainstream press, democracy, liberty and morality are not factors in leaders’ decision-making. Power, control and economic advantage are the real motivators. Ideological rhetoric is just an overlay for the real motivations. Chomsky’s view of things has mostly been mine since I first started reading him. I’ve sought out criticisms of him, but I think his view still stands.

In the mid-80s the philosopher Richard Rorty's writings had a significant impact. I had always yearned to know the Truth and gain certainty, but Rorty’s writings made me see the limits of reason and how the Truth and certainty could not be gained, at least by Reason. He was an Analytic philosopher undermining Analytic philosophy. He argued that there is no way in which we determine whether language – our medium for knowing things - gets the world right because we can never step outside of language and compare it to the world. The world is always language-infused for us.

For the last three months the philosopher Stanley Cavell has captured my attention. The difference this time though is that I’m not sure how or if Cavell will fundamentally change my beliefs the way that Chomsky and Rorty did. While I love reading Cavell, I keep wondering what am I getting out of this and is it changing my beliefs? Reading Cavell is a kind of practice, in the way meditation is a practice. I set aside a time for it and become entranced. Particular observations of his reverberate through me and have an experiential affect. They seem to illuminate a way to go in life, but never quite give explicit directions.

But it’s not as if after reading him I now believe this rather than that, or that I can neatly formulate his view of things. But one formulation is that Cavell is countering the specialization and technicality of the dominant form of philosophy in American and British universities called Analytic Philosophy. One way he counters the dominant philosophy is by describing an alternative philosophical history which includes Emerson and Thoreau, people not considered philosophers by the academic establishment. Much of his writing is in the form of interpretations of other writers, but the best essays contain startling and moving insights about understanding and leading a life.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Elaborating Upon the Introductory Post

In my introductory post I described one fundamental way I characterize my life struggle. I struggle between striving to be a somebody and fearing ending up a nobody. I don’t experience the possible third alternative which doesn’t exist when living in the exclusive somebody-nobody world. The third alternative is simply to be myself.

The other main way of comprehending my life that I’m subject to is what I call magical thinking. The idea takes many forms, one is that if I just do what I like everything will fall into place. This is the “do what you love and the money will follow” mentality. I guess it could work for some, but in my psychic economy it leaves me reading things I like with no money following. It acts as an illusory or magical way things will change.

Another manifestation of magical thinking is the belief that somehow something will happen that changes my life so that I can be at ease. Like believing that I might suddenly become enlightened. Being at ease can be a great life goal, but it depends on one’s vision of ease. There is also the ease of not doing anything, having no people impinging upon one, and the final ease of resting in peace, R.I.P., or death.

I counter magical thinking with the idea of having to take practical steps to make something different happen in my life. Right now I’m trying to do that by taking practical steps to make a career switch. I work as a social worker now and don’t want to do that anymore and am trying to find a line of work in which I can use more of my skills. But my pervasive despair about life makes me think this kind of change is impossible. So I’m struggling to just take the practical steps despite the negative view I have of the whole project. The despair needs to be understood as a part of the old mindset or old regime which appears to be the truth of the world.

I am trying to counter a conditioned way of seeing and understanding the world with a new regime or way of life. What’s difficult is that aspects of the new way are continually interpreted in terms of the old way. For example, I try to be myself, be my unique self, as opposed to being a somebody. But to the old interpretive scheme being myself looks like being resigned to being a nobody, giving up the struggle. Being like the dumb masses who can live with anonymity. What is that quality of life of being myself that is not just being a nobody, a nothing, a failure?

It’s even hard to write this. What’s the point? I know this stuff already. Why tell it to someone else? And in all probability no one will read it anyway. But if someone does then it must be so well done that it has a chance of impressing someone, maybe the right someone. So here is an example of both the “become-a-somebody” mentality and the magical thinking. No thought (except this one) of just writing about myself to share it or learn from it.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Introductory Post

I’m interested in the confluence of philosophy, self-development and autobiography and have written a paper about it. My thoughts revolve around certain particular questions and I think it important that a questioning person identify just those questions which captivate them. There is something about those questions which are particularly yours and, when stated precisly, they pertain to your unique life situation. Some may say that this would lead to idiosyncratic egocentricity, but there is another way of looking at it, stated by Emerson, that by delving deeply into your deepest subjectivity you can express something universal. I’m drawn to reading, mostly philosophical texts, and part of my search is to understand what it is I’m looking for. What need am I trying to satisfy? Who do I need to become?

There are different paths of self-development. There are experiential paths that use mysticism and various psychotherapies. There are intellectual paths of study. After approximately 20 years of looking I’ve honed a path that includes some of all three. The use of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha, psychoanalytic psychotherapy for recovering and altering my life outlook and process, and reading philosophy.

Upon reading what I just wrote it feels like I’m giving the impression that I’ve arrived somewhere and now, at least, know the tools of my path. But in actuality most of the time I feel hopeless about ever gaining satisfaction in life. Oddly though, if what I described is an accurate description of my situation – that I have settled on my favored methods – then I should regard that as a positive and hopeful situation. Yet I don’t experience it that way and simply use these techniques in order to survive and try to make things better. I’m so immersed in a hopeless view of things that the aspects of my life that could inject some positivity into it cannot be remembered and incorporated into a happier life outlook. A friend of mine said, You have a wonderful wife and you have a nice house, aren’t those signs of progress in life and your process? I said, Yes it is, but day to day, moment to moment my internal world is not constructed with those positive things as a backdrop. I can imagine some person, born materially deprived, who became a success, having a fundamental appreciation in life. I’m the opposite. Whether good occurrences in life do form a positive backdrop to one’s ongoing experience could have to do with whether the things gotten or accomplished are valued by the person as what’s valuable in life. The poor child who struggles to make it and experiences that struggle as the fundamentally important task in his life will, if he does make it, feel that life has treated him well and that it is a good thing. I think I, because of my psychic makeup, do not value the right things. Or do not value what my friend brought up as signs of my progress. I value, centrally, becoming a somebody. Correspondingly, I fear and am trying to lift myself out of being a nobody.

The specter of being a nobody haunts me. As the days of my life pass I feel that my chance at being a somebody is slipping away and a desperation descends. The somebody-nobody struggle is pervasive and intricately interwoven into my ongoing experience. And I don’t need to become just any somebody, it has to be a certain kind of somebody. My therapist asked, Is Katie Couric a somebody? I grimaced and said "Nooo". To be a somebody by my standards requires the creation of a brilliant and original piece of intellectual work that is recognized by respected peers and gives one a place in society as the creator of this great thing.

I imagine two reactions to this somebody-nobody struggle. One reaction is recoiling at the superficiality and narrowness of it. And when I look at it from a healthier viewpoint it does seem quite pitiful. I can take that viewpoint and see how limited a view of life that is, neglecting relationships, pleasures, new experiences, meaningful work and doing good works; yet I can’t make that stance my lived experience. It doesn’t alter its grip upon my consciousness. The other view is that wanting to create something valuable and be recognized is an ok need to have. And I can understand that reaction too. The issue is how large a role does this occupy in a persons’ psychic economy? For me nothing else is really important.

So, if it’s that important why not just put all my energy into making it happen? If I fail, I will then have to move on. If I succeed I’ll see whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be. A reasonable sounding solution, but it neglects the countervailing forces at play which struggle within me for a different life and which couldn’t stand to fail at this greatest of tasks. A friend of mine is an aficionado of the subtle manifestations of narcissism and he made an interesting observation about me. He said that my narcissism is that of the 19 year old, still in college, who thinks that his possibilities are limitless because he hasn’t confronted the realities of the world. Melville had tacked to his writing desk, so that he could be reminded of it everyday, “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth”. It’s a good maxim to follow to avoid living a compromised life. But I seem to have mangled this maxim into “Keep dreaming that you have the possibilities of your youth”. I’m continually trying to keep these possibilities alive because, I guess, losing them would be too crushing. And so I can still maintain the fiction that I could be great. Anything to avoid being a permanent nobody and wasting my one chance at life.