Saturday, February 17, 2024

On How the Transcendentalists Searched in Nature What They Could Not Locate and Find in Themselves

View from of green and trees from an old cabin window
One of the main features of American transcendentalism was its quest for and refuge in nature. Both Emerson and Thoreau purposely as well as spiritually and physically turned their respective backs on what was shaping up to become an urban lifestyle and instead decided to search for peace and quiet in and within nature. Mind you we are talking about the 19th century before the advent of the noisy hustle and bustle of traffic and way before the clutter of the Internet, smartphones, and Artificial Intelligence. Their technology looked puny and rudimentary in comparison to today and to be honest, there was hardly much to speak of in that regard, as there was no television and not even radio.

And yet, these thought leaders felt the push and pull to move away from even relatively small crowds, partly because they could; they had the means and the choice and opportunity to do so. In the wild expansive nature of the North American continent, which was still largely unexplored and undeveloped, they still had pristine places to roam and delve into, unlike the much more restricted and relatively set geographical areas of Europe, for instance.

Let us also not forget that they had the means to live and survive in the wilderness. In fact, it is more often those who possess at least a moderate amount of income who would even dare and contemplate such a crazy idea, to begin with, namely, to seek a different and more minimal and austere lifestyle away from the comfort of one’s home. In the somewhat paraphrased words of the French singer-songwriter Soan, I’d like to sleep under the moon but only when it is my choice. Unlike many wanderers, nomads, and homeless people, both Emerson and Thoreau had a home to return to in case things went south, i.e. if they encountered dangers, ran out of food, or simply did not enjoy the experience anymore. People less fortunate would not have a backup plan to fall back on.

But such ideas do not come out of nowhere and are not created in a vacuum or on a sporadic whim. In fact, French thinker and philosopher Rousseau was quite influential in propagating this idea of a type of return to nature and the (supposedly and allegedly) simple rural life of peace and tranquility. In certain ways, they are also echoes of Jefferson’s dilemma regarding the American spirit, should the nation embrace a rural life and lifestyle or bend towards an industrialized urban life of workers and factories?

This was driven by a general dissatisfaction with the status quo of the rapidly growing and changing cities and it seemed like a viable option or a kind of refuge from the madness to venture far from the madding crowd and into the arms of Mother Nature.

On the other hand, this ideology was also expressed in the work of Spinoza and became a quasi-religion. Nature was regarded as a pantheistic phenomenon with an apparent return to more “primitive” and original beliefs of spirits living in trees and blades of grass. Although Spinoza stressed reason and rationality, he made it all part and parcel of nature, which was seen as a type of Mother goddess, the origin and pinnacle of creation, and the continuous ever-flowing source of nourishment and subsistence.

These views hearken back to a collective experience we all have and which psychoanalyst Otto Rank talks about in his books and writings ever since his quintessential and revolutionary publication of The Trauma of Birth a hundred years ago. It is the dreamlike and fantastical prenatal world and experience of the womb. In a certain sense, the turn to nature represents a return to the maternal womb, the place where one felt still, at ease, sustained, fed, nourished, and at peace. This longing has driven us from the world of crowds to the stillness that nature embodies or at least that we imagine and presume it (or she) does.

That said, it is not only an idealistic view of nature but a very romantic one and perhaps even dangerously so. The romantics who stressed feeling and all things emotional over the rational and logical embraced the natural world but failed to see it in its entirety, which included not only beauty and grace but also the power to destroy alongside other destructive forces.

This idealization of the natural world is a dangerous human fallacy that ended up costing various lives and it can be illustrated by two real-life stories depicted in two forms of art, a movie as well as a documentary. First off, we have the insightful and moving documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog where self-proclaimed American environmentalist Timothy Treadwell dissatisfied with his own life and struggling with mental health issues decides to go to the Alaskan wilderness to live with bears.

He preferred their company over their human counterparts and was perhaps inspired by his affection for his cute and cuddly teddy bears in his childhood. In other words, he denied these furry animals their wild and beastly qualities and saw and idealized them as peaceful and loving beings and not as bears that would be driven more by instinct and less by reason.

That said, some humans may seem wilder and more unpredictable than animals but that is a different story, which leads us to the sad story of another nature-enthused individual who is cinematically depicted in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

This idealistic but depressed young individual Chris McCandless who also went by the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp” decides to take a deep dive and plunge into the wilderness by (apparently) rejecting the materialism and consumerism of his time and era. At the same time, despite being good at school and having the opportunity (and means) to study at a prestigious university, he throws all potential and caution into the wind, burns cash, drives to live in nature, and eventually dies there due to accidental food poisoning.

Again, this seeking of nature is less a going-to-somewhere but rather a running-from-something. The same may be said of all the individuals mentioned here whether it is Thoreau (whose philosophy of civil disobedience ended up influencing Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.) or Emerson (whom Nietzsche considered “the most gifted of the Americans”) as they had their own motives to move away from traditional society, religion, and thinking.

At the same time, the transcendentalists served as the inspiration and role model to young idealistic but tormented individuals like Chris McCandless to embark upon a recklessly dangerous trip while using their books as a guide, source of inspiration, and motivation throughout the journey. They build upon Rousseau’s apparent dialectic between what is human-made and what is natural and organic and that the latter is what one should and needs to always ideally strive for.

In such dualism, we may overlook various segments of life where both can interact for the benefit of us all. This is very clear in the case of science, in particular, medicine and medicinal advances that have helped us survive the various onslaughts of naturally occurring diseases and circumstances. In that sense, a full and unprepared return to nature as in the above cases could and should be construed as foolish and misguided and certainly not beneficial to the body, mind, and spirit of all and any of those involved.

As mentioned earlier, they all had the means and the luxury to renounce a comfortable life for a lifestyle of unease and unpredictability. At times, it may feel not so much as a form of liberation but perhaps a kind of self-punishment stemming from one’s feeling of enslavement when faced with pain and trauma that one wishes to numb or escape from. Be it as it may, the notion that they are free in the wild and can howl like wolves or run around naked without necessary consequences comes from a romantic past and heritage. And yet, it is fraught with danger and each of them would have to wrestle with their own demons sooner or later.

This is not to say that the rich and wealthy cannot have insights; they can and indeed have, and it is perhaps best demonstrated in Siddhartha Gautama who gave up and sacrificed a life of comfort for his spiritual endeavors. However, I find it rather interesting to contrast the Buddha, a wealthy and privileged prince to Jesus who was born in a manger next to farm animals, rode a donkey, and died with few if any possessions, which I believe is food for thought for another and different kind of post.

Yet this does underscore that although it is important to embrace nature whose majestic beauty we do not appreciate enough, we should not use it as an excuse for not facing our troubles and personal issues. Though being in a retreat or a monastery may provide temporary relief and shelter and serve as a potential incentive for peace and calm inside of us, true peace and happiness await us and come from the inside and that could transform any place and dwelling to make us feel at home by even turning a simple nutshell into a luxurious palace.


Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Power of the Individual: Being Yourself and Increasing Your Personal Psychology of Difference

Person alone watching across English Bay
Be yourself no matter what they say. This revolutionary piece of advice is embedded in Sting’s tune “An Englishman in New York” which by all accounts and purposes depicts a relatively mild-mannered Englishman who walks around with a cane, drinks tea instead of coffee, and prefers his sliced bread toasted on one side only. In these small things of everyday life, he stands his ground and as he himself proclaims a gentleman will never run.

By today’s standards, you may not see his stance even remotely as revolutionary or significant, and yet, it is quietly subversive and perhaps much easier said than done. Western culture, which prides itself on individuality, at least in theory and ideology, hardly demonstrates this in practice and in real life. If anything, it is indeed closer to a culture of uniformity and conformity than subversion.

In fact, even those who would stand out before and used to be considered and judged as “weird” or “strange” have now become, for better or worse, embraced and assimilated by the mainstream; now they tend to be if not commonplace then only minimally different from the rest. In a twist of irony, in contemporary society in which weirdness appears to reign and have the upper hand, it is the common, the traditional, and the ordinary that soon shall be standing out like a sore thumb.

In a world where most people drink their coffee at Starbucks, Sting’s Englishman is different and outstanding indeed. Otto Rank talks about this constant push and pull, if not love-hate relationship between the psychology of sameness and that of difference. Yet individuality by definition must exist, develop, and thrive via difference. I cannot be myself if I am predominantly just like you.

Akin to the proverbial black sheep of the family, it is the true individual who carves his or her own and often unique path away from the mob and the masses. In that courageous act of defiance, as a matter of course, these individuals will be scorned, envied, and rejected by all the others who have been caught and lulled in the comfortable web of conformity. Their scorn is also equivalent to a type of punishment for straying from the preset established course set by most people.

Put differently, it is easier (i.e. takes much less effort and courage) to conform and to be like anyone else. Seen from this perspective, the person who does not go along but actually defies the Hitler salute during Nazi Germany (depicted extensively and masterfully in Malick’s true story of A Hidden Life) is a rebel but in today’s world in the background of which any such display is discouraged, frowned upon, or even morally and criminally punished, one could potentially construe the opposite. Morality and commonsense aside, it is the addition of context that defines the act as either cowardly or courageous.  A less extreme case would be males coloring their fingernails, which in the past was rather unusual and would have raised an eyebrow or two, while under current circumstances it has been sufficiently norm-alized and become rather a standard fare in most places.

Yet in either case, the above examples are not necessarily individuals who are living and acting following their true nature, but rather people who engage in isolated rebellious acts meant to merely defy the norms. It is like the child who more out of spite than personal conviction opts for the opposite of what the parents tell them to do. And defying norms just for the sake and thrill of defying is not a sign of individuality. In fact, it could be even a sign of conformity if you wish to gain the respect of your clan, tribe, or clique; this is regardless of political affiliation because they are driven by the psychology of sameness and use their supposed demonstrated difference only to fit in, curry favors, or please their own crowd, no matter how big or small that group may be.

In any case, these acts and behaviors are not their own nor unique in the sense of individuality nor are they being themselves in a deep and meaningful fashion. In fact, these types of people are as fickle and perhaps chameleonic as fashion itself as they are being driven and compelled by what is in and trendy at a specific moment of time. Being yourself this is certainly not; it is more a quest for a desperate substitute self because if you are acting in accordance with who you truly are, you are not being guided or swayed by the latest fashion but by your inner guide and compass.

Incidentally, a more extreme case of this would be the attention-grabbing narcissist who would do anything to stand out and be seen as different even though they may not even have a self to begin with or identify with. Full-fledged narcissists tend to copy and paste from others, borrowing what suits them most at a given moment and discarding what does not benefit them personally. They are not themselves, and sadly, they may never be able to be so.

The question arises how you can really be yourself in a culture that pays lip service to individuality while in reality, it discourages and even tends to punish any divergence whatsoever from its fixed and rigid standards and expectations. Anyone who dares to speak differently is under the threat of being expulsed, and this has been more pronounced in the wake of cancel culture. It does not matter what your group or political, ethnic, national, or religious affiliation may be, if you dare to challenge adopted views, you are more often than not excommunicated. Evolutionary speaking, inflicting and receiving this type of reputational damage would be seen and treated as a death sentence.

Returning to our opening statement, it is easy to say it does not matter to us what others say but we do care what others think of us. Since we cannot please everyone (believe me, I have tried for many years), it would be best to become shunned, canceled, or a persona non grata at least for a cause or something that truly resonates with you. The trouble is that you may think and believe something resonates with you or that something is truly worth it but deep inside, you may not really care for it after all, and you may just do it because it makes you look good in other people’s eyes and to artificially increase your self-esteem.

In terms of evolution, we seek and depend upon community, hence sameness, for our physical survival. We also seek sameness and the norm for evaluating and maintaining our sanity because psychologically speaking, being normal means following and adhering to the norm. The norm has undergone many changes and what is seen as outlandish and crazy in the past may be considered as perfectly normal today, and vice versa.

To complicate matters, anyone who stands out from the crowd will instill fears and doubts in the common majority. This is the power of the individual, but it is also its inherent danger because these individuals are an easy target, and they will be attacked from all sides for being different or having a different and less popular opinion. Difference can be physical or psychological in nature but instead of shying away from it, we must not only embrace it within ourselves but also encourage it in others.

At the same time, when all dress and think alike, whether the colors and jerseys of a given sports team or the scary uniformity in clothing and thinking of cults and sects, the one person that is not in alignment will be seen as hostile and is considered the “other”. Our survival instinct comes with the pledge and desire to protect our own kind, be it relations of blood and kin or geography and nationality or culture and religion. It is pitting us against them and living in constant tension and fear of being attacked and eroded by the other or at least imagining and believing these outcomes. This is Otto Rank’s fear of death projected onto the ones that we see as different to ourselves and by extension, our group and supposed immortality comes from identifying with and propagating our own kind of people, whatever that may be for the given person.

With all this comes paranoia and hysteria. Whether it is alleged communists, supposed terrorists, or what-have-you, anyone who does not fit into this predesigned box is seen as a potential threat and danger to the status quo or toward the aims, goals, and ambitions of the specific group. When these emotions mix and blend in with one’s own feelings of anxiety and of wishing to be accepted by our fellow beings, it can get very tricky to just be yourself.

Yet this is the moment where it is important to be setting our own boundaries, affirming, and confirming our own beliefs (not just mindlessly or rapidly adopting or swallowing the beliefs of others but honestly questioning and scrutinizing them), and increasing the difference and potential distance between ourselves and others.

As long as you are true to yourself, to who you are deep inside of yourself, after turning off all the voices that push and pull you in different directions or trying to grab, label, and put you in specific boxes, the voice deep inside of you that remains is your true one. If it is allied and aligned with your intuition, which would be naturally inclined to act out of love and bend towards the highest good, then you are good to go and can be yourself no matter what they say.  

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Benefits of Saying Heartfelt and No-Holds-Barred Prayers

Picture of medieval knight in prayer
Prayers work wonders. Our prayers are with you, we see them partly for reassurance, and partly because we believe in their inherent power or potential healing properties. Let’s pray on it and see what happens, we comfort ourselves and others as we are looking for an answer or wholeheartedly desire a specific outcome. Our reactions to and involvement with the act of praying can range from those who devoutly espouse it using prayers before every meal and as part and parcel of their bedtime routine like brushing one’s teeth, and others who vehemently dismiss and reject it, considering it as humbug, a waste of time and a useless activity in wishful thinking; they may shun it like the plague paradoxically treating it as it were the devil incarnate.

Yet replace the words prayer and blessing with gratitude and compassion as well as God with the universe, and all of a sudden, we are all good and fine. Regardless of whether you call it a kindness meditation, a meditation of loving compassion, or a prayer, it can equally arouse positive emotions in the core of your being and increase the feeling of warmth and joy around your heart. We may not speak the same language nor use the same words and practices, but the feeling is essentially the same.

We may resort to prayer or meditative contemplation in situations that are clearly not within our control. Yet in all other cases and situations, this cannot be used as an excuse nor a quick and easy way to assuage our conscience nor a substitute for taking appropriate action. Praying for a good grade without studying is not only futile and misguided but also a waste of time, energy, and resources. And yet, a combination of both may increase your chances and odds or at the very least, it would do no harm. By studying, you decrease your anxiety of failing, and by praying you increase your level of good feeling. Plus, there is also the potential for supernatural help and guidance throughout the process whether you are a believer or not.

In cases and situations that are out and outside of our control, then prayer may be our only hope and comfort. As it does not do any harm but could potentially do good for oneself and by extension for others, why not engage in it? Wishing someone else well has a positive impact on the praying or meditating person by filling them up with positive emotions while at the same time good vibes are being sent out in the direction of the addressee of the prayer, which may or may not be received by them but no matter, it feels good, nonetheless.

For prayers to work wonders indeed, it is important to be honest and authentic in your wishes and desires. In the same vein, our prayers, if seen as an honest and direct communication with God or the universe, ought to be filled with genuine feelings and not just platitudes. Many believers use prayer as a formal expression of thanks. This is a prayer for a shared meal whether it be on special occasions with family members, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, or if it is part of a daily routine around the dinner table.

What they all tend to have in common is a certain level of formality as if we were addressing a cherished and respected member of the family, our ancestors, or an esteemed person with a commanding presence and authority. Worse, it may become as commonplace as plates and cutlery or a simple repetitive behavior at the dinner table, a regurgitation of slogans and empty words.

Of course, if you are praying to God, the Lord, or Jesus, you would want to remain in their graces and not make them angry in any way or manner, intentionally or not. Your life (happiness and sanity) would literally and figuratively and manifestly depend upon it. But since God is watching us 24/7 and knows our secrets and our innermost thoughts and feelings, why would we not want to utter them freely and without restraint?

I understand that you would not want to air all your grievances, anger, frustration, and dirty laundry in front of your family members but what about those intimate moments when you are asking the Almighty for wishes and personal favors. In a sense, we are like children addressing a parent and if we can point out and remind them how good we are, we would feel deserving of the gift or reward. Our tone and attitude become of importance. We would never demand or ask with a harsh demanding tone because that would anger God and, in all fairness, the Bible does present Him with a rather short fuse.

In the same way, we want to be on the good side with our bosses and supervisors and upper management in general, all of whom may be key and instrumental to us keeping our jobs or getting a much sought-after promotion, we would not want to mess with the ultimate big honcho authority who at a single whim or finger snap can not only make our life miserable and a living hell but our death an eternity of burning flames and endless pain and suffering.

But here’s a crazy idea: Why not regard the Lord as your friend? If you are uncomfortable with talking to the heavenly father in friendly terms, then address his beloved son. With a dear friend, you would not hold anything back but share your true feelings and desires alongside your innermost frustrations and pain. Nothing is off limits because you open yourself up truly and wholeheartedly to a cherished true friend.

What if you replaced all your wishes and desires with how you really feel about things, what really goes on in that head of yours, and what is weighing down your heart? Is that not a sign of trust by confiding everything to the one whom you love and who loves you unconditionally especially considering he has access to everything you are, you have been and you shall be. Does a being who forgives sinners and who loves you all the way not have enough thick skin to handle your minor slights and reproaches?  

If there were anyone you could open your heart and innermost desires as well as your secret thoughts to, it would have to be the powers that be and that can. We are rarely fully ourselves except when we are jotting down our thoughts and feelings in our journals but even then, we are vigilant, slightly paranoid, and even self-censor as we worry that they could fall into someone else’s hand and be read by them; moreover, there may be thoughts that we do not want to acknowledge to ourselves or that we fail to see and notice.

I was rather surprised but very pleased to hear of a Jesuit prayer and practice that involves picturing Jesus with yourself on a boat, which is detailed in Father James Martin’s outstanding book Come Forth. During this imaginary boat ride, you would engage in a conversation with the Lord and tell him all about your sorrows, worries, fears, and anxieties as if you were chatting with a very close friend whom you trusted wholeheartedly. Since Jesus would also be the one in charge of the universe, one could potentially also ask him any favor under the sky and the sky itself would not be the limit either.

This is not meant as a practice of self-indulgence but an openness that we often lack with and within ourselves, others, and even the being we choose to pray to. Pray, if you cannot be yourself with others, then should you not be open and honest and your true authentic self when everyone else is gone? And should you not be honest with the Almighty who is supposed to already know everything on and about you? If you are hiding anything, would it not be an evident act of futility?

And on the other hand, if you can open your heart and reveal your innermost desires in your prayer, would that not open the door for you to become honest with yourself and then by extension with others that matter in your life? It is worth a try and a practice that would be most beneficial to absolutely everyone at hand.