This is not very scripted, but I was on private retreat at a house by the ocean, and I set the phone recording and spoke out some of things that rose to the surface of reflection....
"Take the stoic option...." A reflection directed at a scared millennial.
These videos explore the effect of virtue on suffering from two opposite ends. In the first case is a person who is tempted to cheat on his friend in order to diminish his suffering (his loneliness). Rather than deal with his own suffering - and become a better person in the process - he passes it on. Suffering expands. Virtue would have limited and even ended it. The second video takes the perspective of that friend who has been betrayed, and asks, what might he do in response to his newfound pain, to that denial of truth and goodness? How might he use virtue to transform it?
Freud thought that neuroscience would eventually explain many of his ideas, and he was right. For example counselling or psychotherapy changes your brain. Which is also to say that it changes your unconscious. It changes the unconscious associations within that you cause so much mayhem. It does this through the therapeutic relationship.
I recorded this while hiking through southern Tasmania, on a very windy day, so the sound is a little scratchy. Nonetheless, here it is. I script what I want to say quickly, which means my videos tend to be imperfect in terms of how, after more reflection, I would put things. But I think the main point comes across. A key takeaway form this is that nihilism is generally the expression of value, often in the context of pain. It bears a clear implication of non-nihilism within it. So if you are struggling with nihilistic melancholy and despair, you are not experiencing a fundamental truth, but rather a secondary experience, and there is a way out. The way is less intellectual than you might think, it is more 'lived', as are all the deepest truths.
“To give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation.” -Carl Jung
For some of us, so much of what Jordan Peterson says is a repetition. We have heard the essence of these thoughts many times before. I say this as praise. During my undergraduate days I attended a party with a friend. We were introduced to another philosophy student, dressed in post-modernist chic, and when my friend mentioned that he was mostly interested in Aristotle, she exclaimed with contempt, “Aristotle is so passe!” That attitude marks so much of postmodern philosophy: ideas as fashion items. Ideas as postures, ideas as signals of intellectual or moral status, ideas as markers of cool. The tradition which Peterson by contrast represents, is not the assertion of personality, but rather the humble, determined pursuit of truth. It is the ancient practice of paying attention to reality beyond oneself. And with respect to that, learning from, and carefully handing down, the wealth of wisdom built up through countless generations prior to our own.
This tradition is unafraid of new insights or paradigms, but it takes a synthetic approach. Peterson is deeply influenced by the psychologist Carl Jung. This means that he engages in a rapprochement between ancient wisdom - both philosophical and mythological - and modern science. An example of this synthesis is the notion that the insights about life, character, tragedy, morality, and so on which are embedded in those traditions and passed down culturally, also represent the distillation into symbols and practices - or archetypes - of accumulated human experience and learning which is encoded into our bodies and minds through the slow process of evolution. In short, much of our wisdom for living is unconscious. Some of that is in the domain of the personal unconscious - your particular psyche versus mine - but much of it is at the level of the collective unconscious, which is to say it is universal among human beings. It is our evolved wisdom. As I often say to my counselling clients who are bereaved and who fear that there is some process to grieving and that they will get it wrong: for the most part you don't need to know, rationally, how to grieve in order to get it right - you already know unconsciously how to do this, so focus on listening to and understanding yourself, rather than imposing a theory of grief on yourself. This notion of unconscious, symbolic wisdom is why, regardless of your perspective on religion, Peterson’s recent lecture series on The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories is so interesting. Peterson often speaks of problems as "religious," and by that he is expressing an insight best articulated by the philosopher Wittgenstein, that our perspectives and the the things we then believe and say, reflect basic outlooks which precede evidence and argument.
One of the early points that Peterson makes in that series is that Being is good. It is at moments like this that Peterson shows he is a true philosopher in spirit, for here he combines that rare capacity to invest deeply in an idea - to live it out - while also maintaining not only wonder but shock that it might be possible to believe such a thing. The assertion that Being is good, such that it is also good to exist, has a lot going against it. The world has always been a bloodbath of tragedy and evil. And as Nietzsche noted a century ago, it is now a place where the old belief systems, which nevertheless enabled faith in the goodness of Being, have collapsed. “God is dead.” We are spinning in nihilism.
We live in an age which Nietzsche described, where at one level value is theorised out of our lives, because at a deeper level the old structures which held it in place have crumbled. This has serious consequences. It is no accident that the rate of suicide has risen 40 per cent since the 1970s. One thing that is so wonderful and important about Peterson for our moment in time, is that he does not counter this nihilism with a mere theory. The world is already full of armchair intellectuals and chatter. Nor does Peterson respond by blindly attacking others and things outside oneself, as many childish Marxists do. Rather, like the Buddha three thousand years ago, he appeals to your experience to prove his assertion of the value of existence: he invites you to live a certain way, and so to find out for yourself.
The only proof that life is worth living despite all that is terrible, lies in living in such a way that the assertion of its goodness becomes fundamentally and experientially true. Philosophical nihilism then means nothing, for this whole thing is not an intellectual question, but rather a lived one. Peterson invites you to “come and see”, to transform yourself from within and through how you live in the world. I often see depressed clients who want me to convince them philosophically that life is meaning as though that will solve their depression. They are expressing the belief that their problem is an intellectual one. And partly it is, and partly it isn't. It is an intellectual, emotional, active, interpersonal, transcendental problem - a problem in living. Connect to meaningful things, let them into into you, and you will find life increasingly meaningful.
The philosopher Plato believed that a richly meaningful life might be based on the contemplation of certain things. He thought this because he saw that contemplation means paying attention, and that sustained attention transforms us. You can find an example of this idea in his dialogue The Symposium. You can also find the idea repeated and worked out by philosophers like Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and the Australians Raimond Gaita and Christopher Cordner. This is not an intellectual notion of attention - that thinking will transform you - for often thinking paralyses you or provides an excuse for inaction. It is a far deeper notion of attention which grips one's whole being. You act out what you love.
Those philosophers are among my greatest influences, both professionally and personally, and in this connection all of them often speak of three values as the highest things we can conceive of, and the best things to pay attention to in the particulars of life: truth, beauty, and goodness. Let us consider the first value. One of the ways that Peterson invites us live, one of the things he says will transform your life and make it worthwhile in the face of the world’s tragedy, evil, and nihilism, is speaking the truth.
If you are an agreeable person like me, then you may let many things slide in order to keep the peace. Perhaps you secretly fear that you will rejected for speaking your mind. Or that you will unnecessarily hurt others. Violence or other abuse in your family, or your parent's family, might have made you like this. You may feel that you have been weakened and harmed and have even become a little resentful in consequence of this difficulty. The answer to this problem is age-old: the truth will set you free. As Peterson says, in words which the DJ Akira the Don put to music. Speaking the truth will untangle many of the knots in your life, both within yourself, and between you and others. It will lead to clarity, for much of the distressing confusion in your life is a consequence of your failure to be utterly truthful. Speaking the truth will make you stronger and more courageous. You will gain the respect of others and even become a force to contend with.
Truth speaking is fundamental to counselling work, or certainly to my counselling. I believe in truth. As Peterson himself insists, and as any philosopher knows, truth is a complex concept, a difficult thing to wrestle with. Nonetheless the effort must be made. Pop-philosophies like relativism may seem easier but not only are they dogmatic and incoherent, they lead to meaninglessness and eventually despair. We speak the truth to gain clarity. To gain insight. To gain courage. To make things happen. To create justice and goodness in life. For this reason counselling is a heroic endeavour. It is transformative because truth is transformative. Peterson has spent decades studying totalitarian oppression and has much to say about the importance of truth in speech at the political level, but as a Jungian psychotherapist he also points to the fruits of truth speaking in our personal lives. These fruits include clarity about the unconscious forces that shape your life. For example Peterson points to the fact that we all live out certain stories, or myths, and warns us that, were we to actually examine it, we might not want to live out the particular script which currently directs our life. Perhaps you are living out a tragedy and you don’t want that to be the case?
I was powerfully struck by this idea years ago, during a very dark time in my own life. My family going back generations were always very poor, and more than that...I have a collection of newspaper articles involving fists, knives, guns, and fights with police in Carlton streets (the same suburb where today I have my counselling office). My grandfather met my grandmother in an orphanage. When World War Two broke out he lied about his young age and fought on the front lines until 1945. He was left a broken man. But he was also a brilliant man. Before he died young, my grandfather spent time in hospital due to his physical and mental afflictions, and for occupational therapy he painted. He produced The Wreck of the Hesperus, a depiction of a shipwreck. My mother was three years old at the time, and he said that the painting was intended for his first grandson - me. He never painted the ropes on the ship because he died, only a few years older than I am now. That painting sits on my wall, beautifully framed. As a stared at it one evening, during a time of personal tragedy and despair in my own life, I realised that I was living out a repetition of my grandfather’s story; that I had become identified with him within my family or certainly in my own mind, designated to carry forward his story as the talented one but that somehow - it’s hard to verify these intuitions, but they are real if you know how to pay attention - this meant suffering a tragic fate too. And I did not want that. So I made a conscious choice. I handed my grandfather’s fate back to him, where it belonged, with the old inchoate sense of tragic destiny which had accompanied it within me, and decided that I would aim for a different story with my own life.
It was during this time that I realised, that although I was a good and kind person, as I had striven to be, yet various problems in my life stemmed from not integrating the darker parts of my psyche and using those forces productively. I was too agreeable, too self-sacrificing, and needed to become more of a fighter. I was compensating for the violence and trauma in my family’s past by trying to burn away the evil within, rather than accepting its inevitable presence and turning its energy to good use. Among other things, I realised that my need for a stronger, more substantial way of being included a need to start speaking the truth, no matter what the cost. No matter what it cost me personally or professionally. This led me on an adventure, which in my case included growth through the psychological and spiritual use of Jungian archetypes, a journey I am still very much on. As an example of this change, I sat down with my father some time back and spoke out everything I have held to myself, about how I think he sees me and about the burden I have carried all my life because of that. I told him that I did not need a reassurance, an agreement, an apology, or anything - I simply needed to speak the truth of my experience to him. Fortunately he responded well and helpfully, and I achieved a certain freedom from some internal struggles which have plagued me all my life. Which is a highly significant thing! As a further consequence I am now closer to my father than I have ever been before - failure to speak truth put a distance between us. Interestingly I am now also more confident around other men (and women) too. The truth sets you free, in so many ways. It builds you up.
I have gone on a bit of a journey in this reflection, touching on just one (major) point that Peterson makes. Imagine what your life might be like, if you made a commitment to telling truth no matter what. I am not talking about expressing your intellectual ideas or joining political protests - these can be so important, though just as often they constitute mere distractions and avoidance - rather I am talking about how you live with yourself, foremost, and then with others, at an individual level. Imagine also, if you spent time getting clear on what the highest, deepest good(s) is that you can live out, that you can dedicate your life to, and if you then sacrificed whatever it took to serve that. Who would you be, five, ten, twenty years from now? Truth, beauty, goodness...you will hear these words with Peterson, just as you will Plato and many of the great sages. Centre your life on these and see what happens....
In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
When a person's world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within, when they must answer that question.
When the world punches a hole in us we can lose a sense of all meaning and value. Is life any longer a good place to be? Is there goodness in me? Will that be met by the world? And by others? Or will they betray me? Not see me? What kind of world do I live in now?
At another point in the movie a question is asked: “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this? Who is killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
These are questions appearing in language. We need language and symbols to navigate the shattering people can suffer. For at such times everything is in disarray, and so we cannot find our footing or bear the load. Our very body cannot seem to hold what is inside us. But language is form-giving. The words may not come for a time. Sometimes they do not come at all, but even this can be contained and navigated, only by different kinds of symbols, a symbol which can hold the mystery of this evil that has stolen into life while transcending it. This is what crucifixes, Buddhas, and secular saints do for us. I think this film, as with Malick's other masterpiece Tree of Life, does the same as a work of art.
Goodness will not protect you from suffering. Rather an absolute commitment to goodness will enable you to accept your suffering, because your sense of meaning will thereby go deeper than your suffering. Socrates asked whether it is better to suffer evil than to do it, and he concluded that it is. Some people thought him a fool for that. Others were profoundly struck, but rightly found the thought astonishing, hard to hold. We can lose sight of how miraculous such a perspective is. But it was an assertion of radical meaning in a world which can be terrible. It is a question we should all ask ourselves, knowing that our answer won't save us from suffering. It could save us from despair in our suffering, as Simone Weil pointed out in her essays on affliction, and the difference between those two states is the difference between heaven and hell. Even in the midst of hell.
The getting of wisdom is a three-stage process, according to many Buddhists: “Before my Zen training I thought that rivers were rivers. When I advanced in the training I came to see that rivers were not rivers. Now that I have realised enlightenment, I see that rivers are rivers.” This is a classic picture of how insight develops which is repeated in many wisdom traditions.
For years my friends and I were critical of any notion which claimed that "we should be good mainly because of the consequences." There were various reasons we thought this was wrong. The central one was our conviction that you should be good simply because goodness (along with truth) is the highest value. As the highest value, it trumps other values and so other reasons for action. Your values are the bedrock on which you build everything else, and this conviction can give a deep meaning to life.
Another reason we were critical of such consequentialism was our rejection of the idea that, if you are a good person then, by some law, good things will happen to you. The corollary of this is that, if bad things happen to you, then that is your fault. Any decent person can see the problem with such an attitude. Life can cut you off at the knees for no good reason. Bad things happen to good people, and it is wrong (it is terrible) to blame them for that. By way of rejecting this idea, my friends and I would insist that there are no fruits of character, that instead it is a matter of chance whether your good actions bring good or bad consequences. This is to see that rivers are not rivers. It is to rise to the second stage, beyond the foolishness of the first.
As I continue to look hard at life, I have come to reject that second stage as well. To put the matter one way, people often believe myths which are false at a crude level, but which at a deeper level express profound truths about life, which we have not yet clearly articulated at a rational level. A myth might speak of humans as divided by godly forces within. Then a dramatist like Shakespeare raises that insight to a higher level of abstraction, picturing people as confused and divided against themselves. Then a psychologist like Freud lifts that insight into the empirical concepts of science, as a notion of the unconscious. And so it is that the crude error that my friends and I rejected, prefigures a more profound truth that we did not clearly see.
To illustrate this, consider one of the most destructive things that people can do in ordinary life: betrayal. If a person is betrayed by somebody they love, betrayed deeply enough, then their life is changed and they will never be the same again. But neither will be the person who betrayed them. One way to think of this is according to the existentialist insight that you are the sum of your actions, that you create who you are through what you do. You cannot undo what you have done: you have been a traitor at some point, even if you do not continue to do so. (You can take responsibility for your past, and change who you are, which can shift the meaning of what you have done - your remorse may have a healing effect on your victim - but that is a different matter.) This is a fine way of thinking about these things, but it does not get at the deeper insight contained in the notion that all actions have consequences.
Another way of thinking is to say that, not only is there a physical reality, which we must all contend with whether we like it or not - indeed whether we admit it or not - but that we also all exist in a human reality, whether we admit that or not. We are forever finding ourselves confronted by the complex and deep reality of what it is to be human. Confronted from within as much as without. Subjectivity is nowhere near as free as we sometimes pretend, as anybody who has suffered knows. And it is here, as we make mistakes and learn, that we discover that all of our actions have consequences.
One of the most profound explorations of this idea is found in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The protagonist Raskolnikov tries to live out his nihilism, his denial of values, to be "authentic" in some degenerate existential sense. And so he murders a horrible old woman. If there is no such thing as human reality, include inward reality at the level of subjective experience, then perhaps we can merely narrate ourselves as suits us. I can decide that I feel fine about murder. We all hear people go on and on about how everybody just sees things differently and that's all there is to it. Except that Raskolnikov finds this is not so. He becomes distraught, to the point of confessional delirium. His experience reminds me of Freud’s observation that “When I set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden within, I thought the task was a harder one than it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." Raskolnikov the arrogant young intellectual thought that he knew everything, but he was blind to the basics of his own being, to the human realities in which he is situated, the experiential or subjective realities which as a human being, with a human nature, he cannot escape.
This situation is on repeat in every person. When we perform some action, it resonates through material space, but also it has effects and consequences at the psychological and subjective world. The subjective world is the domain of experience. The psychological world is the structure of perception and experience. It is also at this level, and not only at the physical, that you can try to stretch reality, but because it is real it has its laws and will only stretch so far before it snaps back at you.
Like any reality, if you disregard it, you will suffer. You will discover that rocks are hard. And that conscience is painful. Or (if you keep pushing) that the drowning of conscience is a kind of death within. Or, if you go even further, that such a murder and cover-up results in a kind of madness. And at that point you can no longer see the cause of your affliction - or even that you are afflicted - so much have you blinded yourself to what you have brought upon yourself. Hence the self-righteous narcissist, who never sees the truth, and seems to walk away unscathed, but do they ever really live, do they ever know true peace and contentment (no they do not), do they ever really know love? The bitter fruits of character indeed.
There are many reasons that people suffer. Many people who suffer are innocent. But you have to look carefully and ask yourself some hard questions. Many a melancholic, fearful, or resentful person is largely, or partly, living out the fruits of their character, the consequences of their actions or mode of being in the world. These consequences are, at their deepest, immediate. Your inward life changes when you betray somebody, or when you turn your back on what life calls for from you. Conversely, a life lived in accordance with reality is not only a life that might work well, it is a state where joy and hope and courage can exist. Other people are real. Deep values exist. It is okay to to die in the end, it was all worth it. The world becomes a place that meets you as an opportunity rather than simply as a hindrance, at least enough of the time.
To live in accordance with reality takes sacrifice, of course, and so a preparedness to suffer, potentially deeply - though I will reflect on that another day - but the rewards are worth it if you have ordered your soul (your psyche) well enough that you can experience them. Then you will see that rivers are rivers, that material existence fits your hands, that life can work, and that maybe you can be deeply happy, loved, and be a force for genuine good in the lives of others. Instead of melancholia, joy; instead of fear, courage and hope; instead of resentment, gratitude and the strength of becoming your true self, able to look life, others, and yourself, in the eye. The best fruits.
I am endlessly excited about the work done in psychology today, which confirms age-old ideas about what makes life meaningful, and deepens our understanding of them. Research published earlier this year is a case in point. What leads to an assertive way of being? Is it a sense of entitlement? That's what we all fear; that narcissists are happier and more successful. Well I am happy to say that this research suggests it is something else, something we should all aspire to.
Researcher Daniela Renger distinguished self-assertion from aggression, and then across several large studies tested whether it was 1) self-entitlement, 2) self-confidence, 3) a sense of competence, or 4) self-respect, which led to assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for yourself, to let others know when they are doing wrong by you, to assert boundaries in word and action, to say No to unwanted demands. If you lack assertiveness you know exactly what I’m talking about, for it's no joke to struggle with that. You are stepped on often, especially by aggressive types. But you don't want to be like them, so entitled - you want to live better in the world. Well there is good news for those who fear that narcissists are happier: entitlement led to aggressive behaviour, but not to assertive behaviour. And plenty of studies show that aggression tends to hinder people rather than lead to success - in reality we tend to reward competent people who treat others well - so despite popular myths, it does not pay to be a pushy narcissist.
Renger defines self-respect as “a person’s conviction that they possess the universal dignity of persons and basic moral human rights and equality.” Her test questions are themselves ways of unpacking this notion. This is a central and profound insight that lies behind much of what is good in modern civilisation, but it has been debased in some bad social experiments of recent decades. For example many of us were raised on the notion that self-esteem will not only make us happier, but more assertive (as opposed to aggressive). However Renger has found that that is not the case, that it is self-respect which seems to do the work. This is important given the possible connections between the self-esteem movement and the age of entitlement. Self-esteem is an attitude of concern for myself as an individual, different to others, whereas self-respect sees me as one among others, in community with them.
In further accordance with the older, profounder, and deeper notion of human worth, Renger also found that it was not self-competence which led to assertiveness. This is a trickier issue, for it seems to me that many of the ills of young people (and plenty of older people) have to do with not being provided, socially, with a meaningful sense of heirarchies of competence. And so they do not see a worthwhile use for their energies, a place to get to which is deeply worth striving for, and so they fall into dispiritedness, into a lack of direction and purpose. If you want to create meaning with your life, start by lifting a load, and learn to do it well. When people develop competence that makes them useful in the world then, insofar as it is woven through with genuine values, they typically become happier, more energised, and more assertive. Unless something deeper is wrong in them. At least this is what I have witnessed. But at the same there is a danger in basing your sense of worth on your abilities and achievements. What if you are disabled? What if you have foregone outward achievement to serve somebody, like you your children or an ill relative. What is the society does not provide clear structures of competence-development like it used to? At that point you have to return to what it means to be a human being, in a world which may not work well, where you may do everything you can to stand up and yet fall down, or be knocked down, yet again.
So it seems to me that if you want to become more assertive, then you should deepen your sense of what it means to be a human being. If you are somebody who respects others but devalues yourself, you need to do a 360 and turn that lens of respect on yourself. That is not egotism when it is done as expansion, treating yourself as one among others and giving respect to all. The highest value in you is not something you created or earned; and your life is not something you own, rather it is all a gift for which you are merely a caretaker. In this context, self-assertion is speaking up for what is true and what matters, values which are the source of genuine conviction and courage, which are the ingredients of proper self-assertion.
In the film Donny Darko we are presented with a self-help guru with a simple-minded solution to life's problems.
As usual his mindless followers dogmatically push the message.
Released in 2001, I think of Donny Darko as a typical 90s film - nihilistic, cynical. The teenager is the only one with open eyes. Adults are moronic at best, and often corrupt.
When I first saw the film I was struck by an ancient Zen saying:
Before my Zen training, I thought that rivers were rivers, and mountains were mountains. When I deepened my training, I saw that rivers were not rivers, and mountains were not mountains. Now that I have realised the way, I see that rivers are rivers, and mountains are mountains.
The first and third perspective look the same - rivers are rivers - but they are very different. The first stage is naive. Then in the second stage the student is no longer a fool - they think critically. In the third stage they come to recognise a profound truth, best expressed in the original, simple statement.
This is how it is with the reduction of life to Swayze's "love and fear." It appears naive, but the cleverness which sees through that naivety is itself blind, even if it is more sophisticated. There is a deeper truth. The trouble with the critical adolescent is that they have not yet achieved the insight that comes with a properly adult response to one's own suffering. And many people do not make it beyond adolescence, despite their grey hair.
The highest good in life is love. Not any love of course - not selfish desire or fantasy - but love that shows itself in purity of intention, courage, truthfulness, justice, and a determination toward such as these. It is the highest thing we know. Love is the essence of the virtues. Genuine love gives strength to your heart and hands, and clarity to your mind.
And the opposite of love? Profound thinkers like Hannah Arendt, who wrote of "the banality of evil," do not believe that it is hate. Rather its opposite is fear. Smallness of heart. Pusillanimity. I think this issue is more complicated, but I am willing to say that love has two opposites, one being malevolence, the other fear. And fear is the more common.
The person who fails to stand by what they know is right or true, usually does so out of fear. Likewise, the person who betrays another usually does so out of cowardice - it takes courage to look at the corruption in one's own heart and to restrain it. The person who fails to rise to the challenges and opportunities of a full, adult life - instead becoming dependent or resentful - generally does so out of fear.
Cleverness is often the refuge of cowards. Like the boy in Swayze's infomercial, you can choose love, and stop wetting your bed.
After months of planning, the Life Direction & Purpose program is launching in January 2018!
The Life Direction & Purpose program is a six week, small group intensive. It will help you create a clear vision for your direction and purpose in life, and make that a reality. Direction refers to what you are doing - and will do - with your life, in terms of career, relationships, and passions. Purpose refers to the value and meaning you can find in life. Drawing on recent psychological research we will assess your specific strengths, deepen your understanding of them, and use them in the design of your direction and purpose. We will then focus on putting your vision into practice. I will guide you in digging down into yourself, rather than providing answers for you: all of this will reflect your deeper values, desires, and strengths.
This is both for people who have a strong sense of their life but want to sharpen their vision and increase their efforts, and for people who feel they have no idea where they are going.
The six weeks consist of the following themes:
Week 1: Understanding and using your signature strengths
Week 2: Developing your direction
Week 3: Developing your purpose
Week 4: Strategies and practices
Week 5: Creating your philosophy of life
Week 6: Overview and the future
We will use strategies from positive psychology and philosophy. You will reflect and write, sharing your progress with the group (and drawing on the camaraderie). There will be written reflections and activities in between sessions. You will walk away with a clear, written plan to guide you in the coming years.
The course runs across six weeks, meeting weekly for 1.5 hours. This is an intensive program with a focus on real substance, leading to greater depth and change in your life. The cost of the course is $450 - only $75 per week. The first program begins late January 2018. Contact me to book your place.
This passage is from Maps of Meaning, by the psychologist Jordan Peterson. It is from early in the book where he describes some of the turning points in his life as a young man. His experience may sound odd at first, but he is showing that insofar as he lacked adequate truthfulness in speech, he was divided: there was an urge to truth deep within him, and it would not let him be.
One of the basic ideas of counselling is one of the basic ideas of Western civilisation: truth is curative. In recent decades this idea has been thrown into question within the affluent West, in the context of postmodern and relativist philosophies, but it is rarely in question in places and times where life is harder and people suffer more. A life of truth gives you strength and courage in the face of harsh reality. It makes you more oriented to the good in contexts where it is even more tempting to look after number one. And in reality, whatever the circumstances, it is the only way to create a genuinely meaningful life. We all need to listen to the voices of truth within us.
I can imagine the young Peterson visiting a superficial therapist. The therapist might tell him that his problem is a lack of self-esteem. They would probably assume that such esteem is mostly a feeling, albeit one which is necessary for functioning well. They would view self-esteem as something to be cultivated through techniques. It might never occur to them that the root of self-esteem lies in how you live your life. Do you want to respect yourself? Then do things that you respect! Instead they would teach a young Peterson to subdue, discredit, ignore, or distract himself from this nagging voice.
A different kind of counsellor, one with greater depth, might ask the young Peterson if he is living truthfully? Has he has gained enough clarity about life? Is he saying what he knows to be true, or just making noise where truth or silence should be? Of course this counsellor would at the same time be listening out for whether Peterson's experience is pathological. Some people suffer under cruel super-egos to put it in psychoanalytic language. But there is a real and deeply important difference between pathological noise and the clear voice of conscience. Throw the baby out with the bath water and you have killed your future. As C. S. Lewis wrote, "We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst."
With respect to Peterson's voice, we all hear - or more often feel - something like that. But some people will push it out of sight and out of mind. This is what the narcissist does to the level of a personality disorder, but we all do it to some degree, and it constitutes one of the great struggles of our lives. Taking up this struggle is what makes you a human being in the profound sense of the word. Somebody with eyes that see and words which speak truth.
Regardless of what you think of philosophical debates about subjectivity and objectivity, the human world is real for any human being: you cannot escape its realities except through death. As a human being, certain things just are reality, whether you like it or not. Pain for example. It may not exist objectively in the universe, but it is an inescapable reality for you. Physical pain exists because human reality is embodied and sensational. Emotional pain exists because human reality is also composed of meanings and values. You cannot escape that except by losing the capacity for speech and thought. Even nihilism - the attempt to deny the reality of meaning and value - is painful in experience (at least, it is so when it is actually lived, as compared to the idle and smug blackboard version). Particular values may be relative, and there may be a range(s) of values, and degrees and hierarchies - people often avoid the challenges of navigating such complexity by believing in simplistic philosophies - but evaluation itself is not relative, the truth that human thought and feeling and action is evaluative is a fact that you cannot avoid. Certainly not in practice or in experience. The point of all this? There are realities in which, as a human being, you move and breathe and your being. The are the realities of human nature, of the human condition. And among them is embodiment within value and meaning. Flout these realities in certain ways and your life will go badly and you will suffer.
For those who consistently flout the fundamental realities of life, whether at the level of facts or values, reality will so to speak take its revenge. Such consequences may be subtle or they may be coarse. It may take the form of disaster in your outward life, or it may be that you live as a fundamentally superficial being, which is never to have really lived. Or it may be that a rot sets in - fear, resentment, melancholy - which accompanies any life that is not nourished by contact with truth and goodness; a life that has ignored or crushed that voice within which calls for better.
Like Peterson, and Socrates long before him, we need to listen to the voice of conscience. If we create a life that ignores it then we will suffer the consequences. So too will those we live with, for we may become distorted, resentful, callous, and even (in order to justify ourselves to ourselves) malevolent. If we listen to this voice then we will discover depths of wisdom, strength, and compassion within us which we never suspected. You have no idea of what you are capable, if you will only listen to your being and to what life is asking of you, and step forward with the humility and courage to overcome the obstacles to such obedience. The voice of truth inside you can be hard to obey, but it is your dearest friend.
One way of understanding what we are doing in philosophical counselling or coaching is that we living the life of philosophy. I do not mean theoretical reflection, I mean taking an honest and searching look at ourselves. Philosophy, an ancient Greek word, means "love of wisdom." To live philosophically is to commit yourself to living as wisely as you can.
This is why I say that philosophical coaching is like personal training at the gym, only for your mind and heart. You can tell a philosopher by how they lift their hands in the world. What do they do? How is their way of being with others? People sometimes criticise philosophy because they expect it to be easy and entertaining. As though you could sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and grow in physical strength and fitness. Philosophy is about cultivation. This is why Socrates praised the examined life as the best kind. He was a father, a craftsman, a soldier, and he died for his commitment to truth and goodness. His notion of “examination” was concrete, it was a way of living, a way of being with one another, a commitment to becoming what you might be.
No wonder, then, that philosophy makes us uncomfortable. If I was to picture the ethos of the times it would be a finger pointing accusingly at somebody else. We are losing the art of pointing it inwards. We are told that to do so is neurotic, or that it colludes with structures of oppression. And certainly it can. But the health of any civilisation rests on the character of its individuals. And the health of an individual life requires responsibility for oneself. We must stop focusing on changing others, and learn to change ourselves. That's not avoidance, it's the truest courage, and the only way to make our lives work well. Turn the finger around, with wisdom. With courage, face yourself. Ask hard questions. Do it with love and respect, but do it.
What if I am living my life wrong? If so, in what ways? In what ways am I getting life right? How can I make the good better? Am I looking past the distortions of my ego and reaching for something of genuine worth? What are my primary virtues? And strengths? What are my vices and weaknesses? How do I do less of the bad, and more of the good? Am I living a worthwhile life in this shorting, flashing instant that is my existence?
To point your finger outwards creates narcissism, to point it inwards with love and courage creates character and goodness. These days we don’t murder people like Socrates, we just ignore them. Or misrepresent them. Often we just laugh at them. Comedians have become our public intellectuals. Too often we become smug and self-righteous in our apparently 'enlightened' or 'correct' opinions. The impulse to run from the hard questions about ourselves – to look at oneself in the mirror – is as strong as ever. We have to replace that impulse with something better. We need the habit of turning our attention to the questions that really matter, regarding who I am, and who I can become, with respect to truth, goodness, justice, and love. And that can be uncomfortable. But it gets easier in time, as we strengthen the virtues needed to look at ourselves and persevere. Courage begets more courage. Speaking the truth can be hard, but it makes you more truthful. Resisting the urge to defend yourself unnecessarily against foolish attacks makes you more self-possessed. Entering your frightening cave and fighting your the dragon gives you more freedom and strength than you hoped for.
What is the difference between seeing a counsellor versus a clinical psychologist? People are often confused about how the professions differ from one another, and which is best for them.
I am a counsellor
I am a counsellor, with a background (before counselling) in philosophy. I have a bachelor's degree with honours in philosophy, and while pursuing post-graduate studies and teaching at The University of Melbourne, I became interested in the new field of philosophical counselling. So I studied a two-year diploma in counselling at the same time. I discovered a passion for the art and was told that I had a strong talent for it by my educators, several of whom offered me work in counselling or in teaching. I knew that this was the right direction and, eager to get to work, I dropped my philosophy research so as to quickly complete further counselling studies, which I did to masters level. I have now been working in the field for a decade.
What is counselling?
Counsellors are trained to help people with life problems. For example I am a member of the Loss and Grief Practitioners Association and provide bereavement counselling in organisations. In my private practice I help people with issues in their life such as direction and purpose, separation or loneliness, and so on. Counselling involves a range of skills, but in essence the deepest, if seemingly simplest, aspect its honed practice of listening. This means that you can unburden yourself and speak through things, and hear yourself in ways you usually cannot. In doing so you come to see yourself more clearly, so you can guide yourself better. By doing that you also work through problems such as emotional obstructions, both there in the session as well as by slowly practising a new way of being across time. Counselling can be a source of great relief and a fresh start. The counsellor also possesses practical wisdom, both through their way of being in the world - to be a counsellor "in your bones" is a vocation, you walk about with your eyes open in particular ways - as well as through their training. So the point is also for the counsellor to provide suitable guidance. There is a practical solidity about good counselling, a focus on actually making life work.
Psychology and Psychiatry?
Counselling for life's struggles is different to treating mental health disorders. This is the difference between my work and that of a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. They are mental health professionals, working according to a medical model of psychological functioning. They assess, diagnosis, treat, and in some sense manage, disorders and risks of a psychological sort. There are some cross-overs, for example there is debate about whether depression and anxiety should be seen in medical terms, and so counsellors also work with those issues as problems in living, but beyond that if you think you have a mental health disorder or are at risk of harm then you should seek a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. They are trained to assess and treat the great variety of disorders, and they are linked to the many resources of the mental health system.
Philosophy and counselling?
As a counsellor with a background in philosophy, I combine philosophy and counselling. This means that alongside the skills mentioned before, I draw on philosophical insight and reflection. This is not about applying theories to your concerns, rather it is about helping you to develop clarity and perspective; use your talents to their best; develop your character so as to flourish and to serve others and the world; and create a vision, a direction, a purpose, and make it real in your life. Philosophy is about greater truth and greater goodness. It is a striving for a more meaningful life. To combine such reflection with the skills of modern counselling makes for a powerful activity!
In recent years I have developed a passion for a new movement in mainstream psychology called positive psychology. Positive psychology measures many of the concerns of traditional philosophy - the development of character, the creation of happiness and flourishing - and provides guidance on what to do and how to do it, to make the ideal real. So I integrate both into my counselling.
In recent years I have expanded to include coaching in my work. Put simplistically, counselling is for emotional struggles whereas coaching is for creating structured change in your life. In coaching we focus on your goals such as your desire for flourishing or happiness, or your desire to become a better person through building your character and making a positive impact on your world. Coaching is more didactic and directive. This is where my knowledge of philosophy and positive psychology comes in full force. As I put it elsewhere, this is like personal training at the gym only for your heart, mind, and life. It is in this context that I offer six and eight-week programs, which take a small group of people on a structured journey of personal development.