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.
People often say that life is meaningless, but they are wrong. Sometimes they say that out of a deep boredom, but more often what they mean is, “I am suffering, and I don’t know what to do about it.” The reason suffering can be so painful is because of its meaning. Pain is incontrovertible proof that life has meaning, it just may not be the meaning that you want. But that is okay to, for it is a signpost to better meaning.
What do you do about the fact that your pain can make life seem meaningless?
As I have just suggested, most people don’t understand their own suffering very well. They don't know how to interpret its meaning. So that they might know what to do about it. So that is a good place to start. What is the meaning of your apparently meaningless suffering? What are the implicit messages about what you need to do, inwardly and outwardly?
You might also take the question up one level of abstraction. What is the relationship between suffering and human life? If you can answer that well, you have doubled the power of your capacity to live well in the face of any hardship. This is another aspect of life that people don't think truly and deeply enough about. We want to pretend that life can be a BBQ. But the Buddha, one of the wisest people who ever lived, said that “Life is suffering.” He also said it can be nirvana, but he was clear that it is a mixture of heaven and hell and that there's plenty of the latter on offer. Looking at Western spirituality we see the same thing: the paradigm image of a human being is a man stripped, beaten, and bleeding to death on a cross. It is as though all these stories are trying to tell us something. The first step is to accept this truth in your life - you will suffer, your suffering is a part of life - and then to do something with it.
As you look more deeply at the place of suffering in human life, you may notice that its baseline is very high. To use the reverse image, that is to say that you can suffer very deeply. It is in this that we find the answer to our question:
You need to do something with your life which justifies the depth of your suffering.
It needs to be as deep, or deeper, than your suffering. You need to predicate your life on that. It may take religious, or spiritual, or philosophical content, or you may not even think of it in those terms - "I am serving my children" - but you need a radical depth of meaning, which transcends you and your will.
You cannot live a superficial life and expect to respond virtuously to affliction. Remember that you don’t know what suffering is coming to you. The worst of it may catch you by surprise. It is this kind of suffering - which fits least into our expectations and worldview - which hits us the hardest because alongside the pain it can radically challenge our sense that life makes sense and has meaning.
You need to aim for a value that is high enough, or deep enough, to make life worthwhile in the midst of profound suffering. To do this properly you will need to increasingly embody that value, which is to say you need to build your character. This is no different to training for a sporting challenge, except the challenge is life, and living it well. Your character is a shell, an armour, a body of muscle, that enables you to sustain your commitment to something beyond character, the radical value(s) on which you predicate your life. You need to come to the point where you are able to say “Yes: natural disasters, diseases, the death of loved ones, the loss of my faculties and the breaking of my heart and shattering of my hopes - nonetheless it was all worth it.”
And if you currently find your life worthless, then you need to ask what you need change so that this is no longer true. You can most certainly do this, and if you disagree then I am happy to say that you are wrong. I know this from experience, as do many, many others, alive today and populating the folds of history over millennia. They stand shoulder to shoulder with you, you are most certainly not alone in this, but you need to open your eyes, regardless of how painful that might be. This is where our hurt egotism can trap us - beware! You have far greater potential than than you realise. To create a heaven or a hell out of your life. Your suffering does not make you unique, it simply makes you human. And human nature is profound.
Of course all of this can be very hard, but that is how it is. Many of us have suffered deeply and have had to face this fact, and do the work. And because it is up to you, the achievement does not lead merely to a neutral accomplishment, but rather a position of strength and confidence, a place of proper pride about who you are through what you have worked to become. Just as a general feeling of meaninglessness follows from a life predicated on inadequate values, living by the highest value(s) you can find will shape your emotions accordingly. And when deep suffering comes, as it no doubt will for you, you will be able to say, at once you have picked yourself up: “I accept this, because it is all worth it.”
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.
People who experience life as meaningless often make the mistake of seeing that as a philosophical problem. And it is true that philosophy guides and deepens us, but they are wrong: it is first of all a practical problem. Do you want to live a meaningful life? Then work out what the most meaning things are that you can do with your life, and do them. In hindsight the problem of life's meaning vanishes, at least for any psychologically healthy person. However there is more to a good, flourishing life than creating of meaning. There is what philosophers call "the problem of evil": the denial of meaning and the suffering that is inflicted by some people on others through callousness or malevolence. When a person experience that, in a way which harms their life, it is often through an encounter with a narcissist. You may experience such people in your work, romantic life, friendships, or family. To deal with the effects on you requires multiple ingredients, and today I talk about some philosophical ideas which can help you protect yourself or heal, by helping you to think about the meaning of narcissism.
I was speaking with a fellow counsellor this morning and he used a phrase, "narcissistic genius," to refer to their ability to manipulate and fool us. He was talking about how several of his clients have developed PTSD-like symptoms after working under narcissistic bosses. In turn I shared the story of a dear friend I had known for years who I thought was a really decent person. That is, until he used another friend's generosity and trust to callously betray him in a deep way. It was astonishing and appalling to all of us, especially over time as details emerged. For example I later heard the same story from several of his ex-partners, who did not know one another, about how he controlled them, trying to end their male friendships and control their behaviour around other women, trying to get them back and then callously leaving them, putting one in thousands of dollars of debt for his cafe expenses, and more besides. Most shocking to me were his malevolent actions which emerged later, and which I won't go into here but which took everything to a different level. Narcissistic genius: he fooled us for years, until he went too far and it all came out. But he fooled himself too - he was utterly self-righteous about all of this. When I confronted him he responded in a detached, high-minded tone, expressing sorrow that other people are so deluded and lacking in resilience. He had said that the friend he betrayed would "be happy for me if he were actually a good man." I suspect he will remain forever self-righteous, going through life repeating his appalling behaviour. The depth with which we thought we knew him has left a number of us reeling.
People sometimes complain that the word "narcissist" is over-used in popular culture, and they can be right, but nonetheless it is an important concept for people to have access to. For people need a map to protect themselves or to take sense of what has happened and to heal. There are also different styles of narcissism, such as the overt kind which most people think of, the vindictive sort who does the most damage when they have power over others, and the covert narcissist - people of seemingly good character, whose covert nature enables them to gain trust and through that they do their harm. My friend was a covert narcissist. I spoke with a young man once, who struggled with the fact that despite his father's cruelty at home, he had also to undergo the constant praise by others to him of what a good man his father was, such a generous pillar to the local community.
I often recommend Sandy Hotchkiss' classic book Why Is It Always About You? That's a work of applied psychology and it's excellent. We need more, however. For when a person encounters a narcissist in a way which harms them, they need to make sense of what they have encountered, and of what it says about life - says at a painful gut level. They need to make meaning. Meaning that can help them heal and live well again in a world of other people. For what they have encountered, which so deeply disturbs them even if they the lack words for it, is the problem of human malevolence, or what philosophers call "evil."
In Dante's Divine Comedy, in the first book the Inferno, the deepest level of Hell is reserved for those who betray. Many people experience the harm of a narcissist through some kind of betrayal. Suddenly so many things that mattered so much - your sense of value as a person, your sense of goodness in life, of what your past means, your ability to trust people, even your grip on who you are - is shattered. Such people are plunged into Hell for a time. They have to make a fundamental choice and work very hard to get out of there, and that can take a long while and be very painful. Of course the alternative is that you become distorted or bitter through from confusion and pain. Fortunately this experience can also be a profound source of growth, but that is a discussion for another day. Whether it is a case betrayal, or bullying, or abuse, we need a way to contend with the meaning of what has been done, with the callousness or malevolence which has harmed us, so that we can once again experience the world as a good, a place with many decent people in it.
The English writer G. K. Chesterton once wrote that "the mad man is not the one who has lost his reason, but the one who has lost everything but his reason." This is the "genius" of narcissism, the ability to weave a convincing tale, to fool us all. But as I say, they also fool themselves. Narcissism is a rigid set of defences against shame and vulnerability, whereby they view themselves as superior, because otherwise they see themselves as inferior in the most terrible way, and by through upholding this self-delusion they become entitled and lose empathy. What confuses people is that covert narcissist can appear to be the opposite - a wonderful person, or somebody full of humility, or self-doubts - but this is simply a defensive function, for when it comes to the crunch they have no integrity and will readily act callously or malevolently. With a healthy person what you see is what you get, but a narcissist has two selves, which in psychology are referred to the true self and the false self. The true self is the person behind the mask, living in a psychological state that feels like a pit of snakes and an empty hole. To avoid feeling that, they create a false self in which they can believe, and which they present to others, and this false self can look like a saint. This is mostly done without self-awareness - they are deeply lacking in insight into themselves and their motives. And of course they cannot hold the charade in place permanently, so that especially in times of stress, or temptation, the facade collapses and they show their snakes, often in callousness or malevolence. Even then, however, they may only show them to a few people, which is why they come out only at home, or why they can convince some people of their innocence even as they do terrible things to others. Very quickly they will reassert their false self and refuse to see the truth of their actions, reframing these once again in terms of their goodness - an image of themselves as a person who never does significant wrong - and who therefore is a victim. When they are confronted with the cruelty of their behaviour, narcissists will point the finger at their victim, or at life itself.
What do I mean by "life itself"? This is where we begin to get philosophical, to look at the structures of meaning that apply to narcissistic behaviour. There are two philosophical categories for bad events in life: tragedy and evil. Tragedy is the name for things that go wrong, sometimes terribly, which are the result of natural forces or accidents or facts of nature, including human nature. A tsunami which kills people is a tragedy. A new disease which kills many is the same. Deaths on the road are mostly tragedies. Good people doing their best but making terrible mistakes amounts to tragedy. When narcissists are not blaming their victims, it is often tragedy which they blame for the consequences of their actions. Evil, however, is the age-old word for human actions which purposefully or wilfully bring about suffering. The person who treats another merely as a means to an end, violating basic decency for the sake of self-interest. Or who takes pleasure in the suffering of another, or at least feels entitled and righteous about it. In short the narcissist.
We can take this distinction further by adding more terms that correlate to tragedy and evil. For example, corresponding to tragedy is insanity. And corresponding to evil is malevolence. These are the mental states of people which correlate to those metaphysical categories that we encounter in the world. A person does not choose to be insane, it is a tragedy. But a malevolent act is a choice, an evil.
In one of his dialogues the philosopher Plato invented a myth to illustrate a point. The point is unimportant here but the story is useful. He imagines that people exist before their birth, as souls in the heavens. Before entering into birth in a body, they make choices about the life they will embark on. I think of this myth when I think about whether narcissism is a case of tragedy or evil: imagine such a soul deciding what kind of life they will live, and then imagine them saying, "You know what? I would like to be somebody who harms the lives of those closest to me. To violate, manipulate, to hurt, to leave those who loved me most wishing they'd never met me, to never live a life of genuine truth and goodness...." I cannot imagine anybody knowingly and freely putting their hand up for that. It must be a form of insanity.
And yet a central part of what disturbs and harms people who are harmed by narcissists, is the experience not of their insanity but of their malevolence. Are they simply misinterpreting things? In once sense yes, but in another, no. This should become clear below.
What we are contending with in this distinction between tragedy and evil, and insanity and malevolence, is also the distinction between determinism and free will. Would a healthy human being freely choose to be a narcissist? I think not. And yet, somehow, narcissists do choose their actions, and their core problem, which can hurt us so much, is precisely their failure to take responsibility for what they do. Furthermore, they operate with a degree of cleverness that my counsellor friend rightly called "narcissistic genius." For many people who have been harmed by narcissists, the difficulty in defining their abuser as either free or determined is an important part of their struggle. It is important because it affects how they perceive life and the world from then on.
Above is an ambiguous image which is well-known in philosophy and psychology. Is it a duck, or a rabbit? Different people will give a different answer, and then look again and see the other animal. Your perception may shift back and forth. It's a little uncanny. This is a model for thinking about whether narcissism represents tragedy or evil, insanity or malevolence. Regardless of the (often bad) debates about free will versus determinism, everybody acts, thinks, and feels as if we are both free and determined. Of course where and how the line is drawn between these categories is complicated, and in an important sense mysterious. Are they responsible for their crimes or could they plead insanity? It depends on how you are looking at them. At one moment they are so disturbing because they represent the experience of a malevolent will, which has entered into your life and stabbed you emotionally. But from another perspective they are insane such that they "know not what they do." They are like the duck-rabbit.
I suggest that if you have have been harmed by a narcissist then you should choose, from between these two categories, the one which helps you most in the moment. And I suggest that you need to be able to hold both of them: sometimes see the duck, and sometimes the rabbit. This means accepting that you cannot create an all-seeing, fully coherent account of reality, but that you can hold some important things together in harmony or at least collect them together and use them even if they do not fit.
You need to acknowledge the evil, if that is part of your experience. You need to find a way to live with the fact of it, because there is no escaping it - it is a part of human reality - and you need to find a deep and good way of living with that fact. Of thriving despite that fact. Or at least living a meaningful life in its context. In doing so the particular challenge you face will offer you opportunities to learn in a way that becomes wisdom. For example you may feel that the narcissist's behaviour says something about you, as though you occupy a bigger, more important place in the fabric of reality than in fact you do. Evil says nothing about you. You simply get in its way. To become humble about this is also to free yourself from a dark, useless, wrong road of enquiry. If it does say anything about anybody, it only says something about the narcissist.
An experience of evil is also an occasion to grow in strength and courage, and to make yourself even more bent on living a good life. This may involve a psychological or spiritual warfare against the instinct to hate. Narcissists are broken people and unlike the majority of us, who by looking at ourselves can constrain or steer our darker forces for the sake of decency, they merely spread their brokenness into the lives they touch. The instinct to hate within you is a narcissistic poison which they have injected into you. But it is also your own, the snakes within you that you need to wrestle with. To successfully wrestle with these snakes is to become a far more virtuous person than you may have been if life had simply gone well. So there comes a point where you need to voluntarily accept the fact of your suffering, a point where you can become grateful for the fact of it, as a training that makes you better. And, after all, perhaps people need you, or will need you up ahead, to have gone through this fire and developed the strengths required to serve them. There's a lot in that!
People are broken in all sorts of ways, twisted out of their potential to be true human beings, reduced to the level of snakes in the grass, living a life which despite their righteous appearances is fundamentally self-serving and bad. That's a tragedy. The great philosopher Socrates famously said "Better to suffer evil than to do it." Echoing him we could say, better to be harmed by a narcissist than suffer the harm of being a narcissist. Better to be a source of goodness in people's lives, and to suffer, than the other way around. It is the difference between living a meaningful life or not. Of being able to genuinely - that is, in your actions - love others and improve their lives. And what matters more than that? Don't believe the appearances - in their heart the narcissist is a dark hole of fear and envy and rage. That is a Hell they cannot escape. Like Dante you, on the other hand, are capable of ascending out of Hell. But you have to consent to your suffering, draw on your courage and hope, and pursue meaning and love. Getting your thinking straight is an important part of that process, and that is why a philosophical exploration - a practical struggle with meaning, and with getting your mind and heart on track - is so important.
A positive upward spiral is an idea in positive psychology. In essence, it is the opposite of a negative downward spiral.
This idea gripped me two years ago after a motorcycle accident. I was hurrying to see clients one morning, travelling through Ascot Vale in the rain, when suddenly I braked hard on the tram tracks. In twenty years of motorcycling I had never had an accident but now I was flying through the air. Everything slowed and I felt like a collection of parts falling out of the sky: there’s my knee hitting the ground, I think that’s okay, there’s my shoulder hitting the ground, I don’t think that’s okay, there’s my head hitting, we’ll see….
The pain in my neck was too great for me to lift myself off the wet, freezing asphalt, and so I was lifted onto a stretcher and carried off in an ambulance. Once in the hospital I was ordered not to move for fear of spinal damage, and spent hours in a neck brace receiving scans. As I lay there I faced one of those nightmare scenarios: “Life could be very different from now on.” It’s a terrifying prospect.
This was an important moment of choice which I will always remember. As that fear descended on me I could, for a passing second, feel within me this freedom to choose my attitude. To adopt the spirit in which I would apprehend my new situation. And so I chose. I told myself that whatever was reality now, simply was reality. That I would live with it and create a good life regardless of what that looked like. I made a fundamental choice about how I would respond from this moment onwards.
After all those scans and hours of lying there waiting, it emerged that I was okay. I was bandaged and in a lot of pain, but I would heal. In the days, weeks, and months after, I chose to carry forward the momentum of that decisive moment, to choose life as it came and to make the best of it. This was not always easy; there has been trauma and abuse in my family, and so I have had to struggle against the potential for deep melancholy throughout my life. But in the light of that choice that day a lot of things slowly changed for the better. And I began to notice something: it seemed that each positive change I made led to others, and so on. It was as though, taken altogether, they created a kind of high pressure system where each improvement impacted the whole by lifting it further. It was a positive upward spiral.
I thought about that experience this morning, sitting there with my coffee and reading these words by Eric Greitens:
That is exactly how I learned about a positive upward spiral. It is an idea within positive psychology with solid research behind it, in the context of Barbara Fredrickson's wonderful broaden-and-build theory. I got the concepts from her, but the empirical evidence which convinced me of her theory and taught me its skills, was my own experience. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. You have to experience pain or fear. But through that you can develop deeply valuable ideas about how life works.
What do you do when you seem to make no progress? Here is a nuts and bolts answer, based on drawing on what is best in you.
The first thing is to understand the situation.
Then, as the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers would say: Notice what is in your control and what is out of it. Once you have made that distinction, focus on what is in your control. That is the point where you can change things. You just have to work out how.
How do you do change the cheangeable? You use the means. And you should use the best means that you can. You should clarify how you are when you are at your best, and apply that to this situation. In short, use your strengths. You can take the VIA Strengths Survey here. The first five in your list are your signature strengths. They are you at your best. So they are your best means of overcoming challenges.
Now consider what strengths are needed to change this situation, and whether your signature strengths will do the job, or whether you need to utilise others. We are disposed for age-old evolutionary reasons to focus on the negative, the deficit. However research shows that one of the most effective ways of doing better in life involves getting more creative and flexible at using your signature strengths. Of course you can also see this as an opportunity to cultivate your lower strengths, but resist the temptation to take that approach as the default, instead focus on creatively doing more of what you're good at, applied to this situation.
So far you have assessed the situation, what is in your control, and what strengths you need to exercise that control. You have hopefully become more aware of your strengths and expanded your understanding of how you might use them. Having done this you can now set some goals and strategies, based on the change you want, and the strengths you will use, and how you will use them.
Now get to work! If you don't do the work - and you may have many excuses, good and bad, for not doing it - no change will happen.
People can feel that life is meaningless because they do not matter to the “big picture.” I remember a debate about this in first year philosophy: your life is meaningless, because what matters to you will not matter to people a thousand years from now. An objection was immediately offered by the lecturer: if what matters to you is unimportant to them because of that thousand years, then what is important to them is unimportant to you - so it shouldn't matter to you that you don't matter to them, for the logic cuts both ways. That is a good point, but a logical argument like this does not strike deeply enough. There are more important things to say.
The more important issue here involves perspective and character. The opposite of those two is one thing: arrogance. The universal struggle of life - insofar as we actually do struggle with it – is against our "fat, relentless ego" as the philosopher Iris Murdoch used to put it. When a person says that either I must matter in some big way or I do not matter at all, they are not expressing some deep insight, nor giving voice to some profound existential problem. Rather they are giving voice to their ego.
Why does every great, ancient philosophy of life, from both the East and the West, speak loudly of the problem of the ego, about the way it poisons our lives, while modern psychology often ignores the issue, pretending that our problems are technical ones? This applies also in modern philosophy, which treats our problems as fundamentally intellectual in nature. No wonder we become so passive, and look to experts and pills to do something for us. We miss the main point. This problem is in our control. As I say, it is one of the central struggles of human life.
What do we know about happiness? Well, modern science has much to say. From the research we know that certain personal qualities or strengths improve it, and that among the best of these is both gratitude and kindness. If you practice both of them until they are a part of your way of being then, all things being equal, you will become happier. This is age-old wisdom, but in 2017 it also has solid empirical evidence. And these are the sorts of qualities which are the opposite of egotism, as the Buddha, as Socrates, as Christ, taught us so long ago.
Forget about mattering to the big picture. That is not where your life has its fundamental meaning. Sure, you may have some butterfly effect on the greater good, but like the vast majority of us the good that you do in your life will be toward individuals around you. And the relationship you have with life – living in a spirit of honesty, curiosity, love of the world – may never be recognised widely, but nonetheless it matters greatly for the meaning of your life. Living a life of gratitude and kindness will make your life meaningful no matter how invisible you are to the world. It is in the small picture - the daily action, the invisible - that the richness will be found.
It is not necessarily arrogant to want to change the world. But it is arrogance to think that doing something great is the necessary or primary way of having meaning. It is arrogant to get depressed because you are not creating meaning at that level. It is wrong to lose your sense of meaning because you do not matter to the big picture. An ancient saying tells us that wisdom begins with humility. So does gratitude, so does kindness - and so too, therefore, does genuine meaning. If you look at the big picture and decide your life has no meaning because it does not affect things at that level, then you are looking in the wrong place.
Eric Greitens tells of a man he once knew who was a boxing coach for one of the heavy-weight champions of the world. The coach received a call from the champion one day, who was in an anxious state and asking for a favour. He said there was a man in the other room and he needed the coach to talk to that man on the phone. The coach was confused, until it emerged that the other person was the boxer's gardener, and he was overcharging for his services. The coach suddenly realised that this heavyweight boxing champion of the world was afraid to confront the gardener on his own.
The coach explained to Greitens that this is common, that for all their physical courage yet many champions can be fearful or cowardly in other contexts, for example social situations or emotional confrontations. As Greitens puts it, “everybody has uneven courage.”
Most of us are naturally courageous in certain areas but not others.
So it is important to recognise: your worst moments do not define you at your best.
You may be ashamed of how fearfully you responded in some situations, but perhaps you are quite courageous in others? I live an active lifestyle - motorcycling, adventuring, fixing that gas fault myself - and it seems in recent years that every twelve months I take a trip in an ambulance. I look with self-respect on how I have responded to some situations, and with embarrassment at others. Our courage is uneven. Our strength is uneven. Our resilience is uneven.
Greitens writes, “We all have pain we’ve mastered and pain we’ve run from."
He adds, "We also all have a choice to make: stop running and build a new kind of courage.”
We can build courage through practice. There will be areas of neglect, and we will always be far from perfect. It is important to recognise this about ourselves so we can see ourselves clearly, can know what to work on, are humble, and don’t waste time beating ourselves up.
If you have strengths, build them. If you have weaknesses, work on them. But wallowing in shame at your uneven courage is a waste of time. It traps you in the past, a place which you can do nothing about. Focus on what is in your control: look to the future and get to work.
Here is a situation that every counsellor is familiar with. A person comes to talk about being stuck in their life. Eventually they say in frustration, “I come here every week and nothing ever changes.” They talk and analyse and speculate and…nothing shifts. Counsellors often get together to discuss such ‘cases’ in group supervision, to nut out the sophisticated interventions that might help. But often nobody looks squarely at the obvious question for the client.
What are you doing to make things happen?
Draw a horizontal line. Above the line write “thinking space.” Below the line write “doing space.”
Guess what happens above the line?
Well, important things do happen. Really important things can happen. But they take place in your mind and heart, and not in your material reality. To change your day to day life, all the analysis in the world is useless unless you roll up your sleeves and enter the doing space.
Some people were raised to examine their feelings but never to push themselves. They are now deficient in will-power and practical wisdom. Some were beaten down by parents or life. Some people are tempted to criticise the stuck person, while others want to make excuses for them, but both are mistaken. Our focus needs to be on the future, on making things better. As an adult the power and responsibility lies with you to find an answer for your life.
And the formula for making that answer work is not rocket science. On one side of the line is thought, and on the other is action. Together they make an equation.
Yes, strive to know yourself. Take a deep look. But don’t lose yourself in analysis. Don't lose yourself in how you feel.
Rather than focus on how you currently feel, focus on how you want to feel. Consider what it requires to feel that way - what shape your life would have to take. Make a plan of life based on that, one which expresses your values and strengths, then cross the line and do the work.
And for those who don’t want to do this, for whom it all seems too hard? Nothing is ever going to change.
For those who are willing to do the work? You have no idea how much potential lies within you.
In life’s harshest times, for example during grief, loss, or betrayal, you have a choice to make.
On the one side is the pull of despair or anger.
On the other is the choice to accept the pain and face life with love.
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?”
Goodness will not save us from suffering. In fact it will increase our vulnerability, while those who merely use others feel nothing in their callousness. Yet the first way of living is full of meaning and offers depths of joy, whereas the second is an empty shell.
We need people who, when they suffer, will make the choice to accept their pain and to love, rather than taking the low road into despair or rage. We need you, when you make this choice.
When a person's world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within, when they must make the choice. I say a moment, but actually it is many moments. The choice must be made and remade. Which might sound exhausting, but actually it means you only ever have to deal with one moment at a time. And that is all you have. After his wife died, Jack Gilbert wrote this poem about carrying the grief:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
What will happen in time is that those muscles will grow. We can learn to bear our suffering. We can also learn to use our suffering. Suffering is a great energy which can be turned to good. When you suffer you are faced with the essence of many things. And faced with them as living realities which you never fully understood. This can be a purification by fire. It is painful but you can come out better. Perhaps wounded or broken in parts - that's reality - but the core and most important part of you will be intact if you choose to face life with love. And it will slowly become the more dominant part.
In time your love will grow and encompass the pain.
"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?” Your suffering will be different, I can say that with certainty; the suffering of rage and despair is radically different from suffering encompassed by love. Yes, a good person is deeply vulnerable, but they are able to discover deep reservoirs of joy and meaning in life.
In ancient Greece people listened to philosophers in the same way that we attend a church or practice meditation. It was much less about novel ideas and more about training the mind and heart. The Greeks understood that shaping ourselves required repetition. It was about becoming a better person through the ongoing and deepening practice of inhabiting certain ideas. Ideas which weren’t mere theories but rather expressions our best possibilities as human beings. These possibilities the Greeks called virtue - or excellence - which lead to a flourishing life and make us a source of good for others.
Three things happen through repetition.
The first is that we are reminded of the idea. In order to be shaped by an idea we have to remember it often. We need to bring it to mind throughout the day, so that it sinks in as a habit of thought, feeling, and action. This is why Marcus Aurelius kept a daily journal, and Seneca practised nightly reflections. It is why as a counsellor I advise people to do the same, and also to design reminders and practices in their daily life as they commute, work, and socialise.
The second effect of repetition is that, as we go through different experiences in life and grow, we see these ideas in different contexts. This means that we deepen, widen, strengthen, and become more flexible, in our relationship with the idea and its practice.
Thirdly, these ideas are ultimately tools. Some people collect tools and never use them. Many people collect good ideas, debate about them, but never use them deeply in their lives. We should live them, applying them in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Then they become a part of who we are, our way of being.
The truly good person is not the one who talks a lot, feels much sympathy, or has many good intentions - the world is full of such impotent morality - but rather the one who actually does good. Life is brief and you don't know how much you're actually capable of. You are capable of making people wish they'd never met you, capable of doing real damage in the lives of others. But you are also capable of real goodness, and being a source of utter nourishment and strength in the lives of others, of being the reason that others believe in the goodness of life. And you're not here for very long, so why not find out about that; find out what you can become if only you are prepared to do what it takes to let the best in your rise up, take hold of you, and shine out.
Many people lack a sense of direction or purpose in life. There are social and historical reasons for this, but they are out of your hands. What is in your hands is your own life. You can stop drifting and take control of your life through clearer direction and purpose. And to do that you need to clarify your strengths and values. Today we will focus on values.
What kind of person are you? What kind of friend, partner, parent, sibling? What do others admire in you - or what do you wish they admired in you? What gives purpose and meaning to life are values. This is often misunderstood so let me make clear what I mean: to have good, clear values, and to actually live them.
When you live by your values, and they are clear and good, you steer your life. When you fail to do this, life steers you. You don't know who you are, you go along with the crowd, you feel depressed or anxious. And before you know it, you wake up and life has passed you by.
I have qualified things by referring to clear and good values. Of course there are bad ones. Narcissism is a set of values and they’re mostly bad. But I find that the majority of people choose good values when they actually reflect and get clear. So let’s get to work on clarity. Because to have good values, to be clear on them, and to actually live them, leads to greater happiness, confidence, success, and makes you a better person for others.
So find a quiet spot, pull out a pen and paper, and let’s begin.
We’ll start with description. I have three questions for you. Write them down, reflect, and then write down your answers.
Your answers to questions like these tell you about your values. Maybe they’re right there on the page, or maybe you have to read between the lines and interpret. I’ll give an example. I am “proud” of the counselling I’ve done with bereaved people. The work has been really hard at times it’s low paid compared to my private work, but I know that I’m caring for people who need it. When I think on this I see that care and compassion are important values of mine. You can see how I interpreted care and compassion from my description, but that they are obviously there. Take you time with this reflection, and list all the obvious values you see.
Now, we’re going to get to your core values. How do we do that? Simple: you only get to keep five. Look at your list and delete different values until you get to the five that you cannot give up for the sake of other options. Go with your gut, with what resonates most, find five that you simply cannot sacrifice.
These are your core values.
Now rank them in order of most important.
You can get various insights out of this list. For example, see if they all fit together or whether some contradict; if they do clash, then this will be why some decisions are so hard. That's okay, however - life has contradictions written through it, and the important thing is to be lucid and act nonetheless.
Now you have a list of your core values. There are all sorts of things you can do to build your life around them, but for this week I want to keep it simple. Write the list down on a piece of paper or on your phone, and reflect on them. Get the list in your head. Know your core values.
Remember: to have good values, to be clear on them, and to actually live them, leads to greater happiness, confidence, success, and makes you a better person for others. Such clarity is the beginning of how you find direction and purpose in life.
A common ingredient in despair is the belief that you know everything. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, which is correct, but there is also delusion in it. I have observed that people in despair often think they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, does not always know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves in time. Deep hope requires patience, endurance, fortitude.
This is why philosophers have always seen hope as a "cardinal" - or core - virtue. Modern research backs this up, showing that hope is vital for resilience and achievement. But I have another reason why you should cultivate it, and I can express it in different ways. You need hope in order to answer your calling. You need hope in order to find your purpose. You need hope in order to properly love those who most need you.
Let's take things down a few notches for a moment. In the 1950s a gruesome experiment was conducted on rats. They were dropped into buckets of water and were timed, to see how long they would swim before they drowned. The rats swam for an average of 15 minutes before giving up and drowning. Then, on a mere hunch, the experimenter tried something different. Just as a rat was giving up he would take it out of the water, dry it, give it a short rest, and then place it back in. The result? The rats who experienced this went on to swim without rest for an average of 60 hours before drowning. Yes, from 15 minutes, to 60 hours! 240 times longer. Effectively, by lifting the rats out at first, they had been trained to have hope. And the consequence of hope was 240 times more resilience!
Today I have a question for you that can instil hope, so you can keep swimming until the shore arrives. But this is less a tool for creating hope, so much as hope is a tool in the service of this question. Huh? I mean that the question points to something beyond hope, which will draw forth more hope.
I have suffered some painful and dark moments in my life and this question has guided me through. It has been like a resilience mantra for me. I have used it with suicidal clients, and have witnessed it have the same effect over time on them. I think it can help you. This is a question to ask yourself whenever you lose your sense of meaning and purpose, and are tempted to despair:
Who needs you up ahead?
Let me unpack that, by starting with the opening words of a poem by David Malouf:
Through all those years keeping the present
open to the light of just this moment:
that was the path we found, you might call it
a promise, that starting out among blazed trunks
the track would not lead nowhere, that being set
down here among wild lemons, our bodies were
expected at an occasion up ahead
that would not take place without us.
You are expected at an occasion up ahead that will not take place without you. Others are waiting there, and they need you. So I ask again, who needs you up ahead?
You may have an answer to this: your partner, your children, your wider family. Or maybe you don’t have that answer. In which case you are in waiting. This is a time for deeper hope. You don’t know everything - you don’t yet know who needs you up ahead. But they are there and are no less important just because you are currently ignorant. When the time comes and they are standing before you, will be have become the person they need? Will you have endured patiently, building strength through waiting, strength though practising deeper hope?
You don’t know them yet. Perhaps they are not born yet. But when the time comes they may need you to nurture them. Will you have the selflessness and strength to do this? They may need you to support and protect them. Again, will you have that capacity? Did you waste all those years between now and then brooding on your despair and growing weak? Or, when the day comes, will you have used these years to build the character they need you to have?
What is the world calling for from you? Perhaps you don’t now yet. Good, so this is a time of training and preparation. If you endure in hope you build the qualities you will need when the answer becomes clear. Stop being so short-sighted, as though the present moment is the only moment in life. Stop being so arrogant, as though you know it all and know what, and who, awaits you in the future. The question of your life is what your calling is. Where do your strengths meet the world's need? The needs of particular others in your life? And if that is as yet unclear, and only time can tell, and you must labour under the reality of time and wait, then what do you need to do to be ready when your calling, and the other's need, shows itself? Stop deciding everything, and learn to wait and listen. Who needs you up ahead? Are you making yourself ready for them?
We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, safety, and ease. In a sense, we in the first world have it all. And yet a lot of people lack purpose. They live in fear, or confusion, or boredom, or depression, or retreat into distractions. At a cultural level our values are ever more banal and narcissistic. This is the world your children will be shaped by. Many aspects of this problem are out of your control, but it is amazing what you can do in your own life, and for the lives of those your love, and for those with whom you rub shoulders. In your case things don't have to be this way, they can be much better, if you only take active responsibility for your life and do the things needed to make it good.
For thousands of years in Western society we have had an active tradition which has made us into better human beings, sustaining people through thick and think. Then the Baby Boomer culture threw it out, in favour of hedonism in the 1960s and “greed is good” in the 1980s. This tradition is making a comeback among younger generations, who want something better and deeper out of life. I am talking about cultivating character.
Character is not some stodgy notion, sexless nun, stiff Englishman, or rosy-cheeked boy scout. Rather it is an age-old ideal which can be defined quite simply. It is:
Seeing what is best in us as human beings,
and best in you as a unique individual,
and bringing that out. Making it real and active in your life.
Look at it this way: if you are unfit and physically weak then you may decide to exercise, knowing that you have fitness and strength within you as a potential. By exercising you turn the possible into reality. This is how it is with character: there are greater levels of strength, wisdom, and compassion within you as potential. A person of character develops these (and other) virtues in their daily life. They do this by choosing to exercise certain virtues whenever they are needed. Stepping up to the challenge. For as the ancient soldier-poet Antilochus said, "You do not rise to the occasion, rather you fall to the level of your training." If your training is only to seek pleasure when things get hard, then the day will come when you show your cowardice or betray your friend.
There are many benefits to cultivating your character. It gives your life more meaning. It overcomes much of that low-grade depression and anxiety which permeates many lives. It gives you freedom and confidence. It increases self-esteem because, rather than loving yourself for who you are (which often fails), you respect yourself for what you have striven to become and for what you actually do. Character leads to flourishing, in the same way that psychological research reveals that conscientiousness is one of the leading predictors of success. And to possess a deep and rounded moral character means that you are a force for good in the world, a source of nourishment in the lives of those around you. And that's a pretty wonderful thing to be!
At the core of character is love. Love of others, love of life, love for your own life as a gift. This is less about feeling love for others - every narcissist has such feelings in abundance - but enacting genuine love. This is about being, and having, and giving, the real thing, the genuine article, in a world of appearances.
In the West we have a profound 2500 year-old philosophical tradition which defines what character is and how to cultivate it. We can go back to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, whose wisdom has sustained every generation up until the middle of the twentieth century. Add to this the modern research and applied science of positive psychology, which studies character and flourishing through the lens of social science and shows how to cultivate it in proven ways, and we have never been in a better position to develop this vital aspect of our lives. Let the Boomers mock it while counting their investment properties, character is making a comeback. Transcending the self in the service of others, doing the right thing because it is right or good to do, is coming into its own again. Living by deeper values - finding the grit and the heart to do so - is the new black. Looking beyond oneself and one's own generation, to serve others and future generations, is the future. In fact it is the only future if we want to survive as a species.
I was tempted to call my work "character coaching." This is how important it is, however the work I love to do is broader than that, even if this is a central passion. Of course this notion of exercising what is best in you as a human being and as a unique individual is core to everything I do. This is why I talk so much about strengths and values in the context of creating direction and purpose. This is not life coaching for narcissists, it is coaching to help good people become better. There is a clear philosophy and science here to guide you if you want it, whether through professional guidance like mine, or by your own steam. Either way, do it! Become the reason that some people believe in the goodness of others. Make your life deeply meaningful; there's no trick to that, no life hack or cosmic existential insight - it is more simple: develop the qualities that make for character, and so become a genuinely good person.
James had recently left the fundamentalist religion of his childhood and now felt lost. He had grown up thinking that outside his religion there was only materialism, but he needed something more. Over time he became dispirited, for without a greater purpose in life he could not see the point in pursuing anything. When he no longer found motivation to complete his university assignments his partner pushed him to see a doctor. The GP offered James anti-depressants but he refused, so they referred him to a psychologist.
The psychologist did not make a formal assessment but hinted that James was suffering a mild depression. She gave him cognitive-behavioural exercises to do at home, but as far as James could see these amounted to a cure by persuasion: that he should become content with pursuing his career, relationship, and fitness. She also signed him up for a mindfulness app which taught him to detach from his negative emotions, however James saw his angst as meaningful: it expressed the longing to go deeper. Something important was missing in all of this.
James is one kind of person who comes to philosophical counselling, a new field that combines philosophy and counselling. Their concerns are not psychological so much as philosophical. By “philosophical” I do not mean intellectual. I mean rather that the person's concern regards meaning, value, and perspective. What James needs is a perspective on life which is as true and good as possible. He needs a way of relating to life that satisfies his longing for depth and meaning.
Modern philosophical counselling began around forty years ago with people like Gerd Achenbach and later Lou Marinoff. They were academics who saw that philosophy could shift from the teaching format to a counselling approach, to help people with their individual problems through the application of philosophical ideas and practices, such as critical thinking, to their situations. That is part of a wider shift known as "applied philosophy" which has taken the discipline out of the academy on a range of fronts. Philosophical counselling can be emotionally-attuned also, as found in diverse disciplines and activities such as existential therapy and Ran Lahav’s Philo-Practice Agora.
In many ways we are witnessing a reversal of history. Ancient philosophy met the needs of people like James. For example Stoic philosophy was a way of living rather than a purely intellectual activity. As Christianity became the dominant way of finding meaning, philosophy was pushed out of practical life. It's practices such as evening self-examination were absorbed into monasticism, while its intellectual powers were reduced to being a servant to theology. Now, with the demise of religion in the West, philosophy is returning to its old role as a guide to life.
There are problems with this change, however. Some weeks ago a friend and I went on a bicycle ride. We ended at a café on the grounds of the Abbotsford Convent, which is now a children’s farm and organic market. As we sat there eating the sugar and carbs we had earned, on a beautiful Spring morning, we were pummelled by the cafe's sound system pumping out 90s dance music. I was puzzled but my friend, whose family once owned a restaurant, suggested that the staff had set the music to match their mood and not that of their customers. They had probably been there since 7AM, were very busy, and so chose energetic music for their sake without realising how jarring it was for the patrons. I think the same thing happens in philosophical counselling. Academics, who are not always the best at stepping outside their own heads, have fashioned philosophical counselling around their own intellectual temperament, as though to use philosophy to guide your life means applying Immanuel Kant and formal logic.
These people are used to the reduction of philosophy to an intellectual practice, which happened 2000 years ago, and so they take an academic approach to philosophical counselling. Ancient philosophers, by contrast, were critical of mere academics. Philosophy was a deeply reflective and intelligent way of living, but what counted most was that "way of living" bit. Philosophical claims emerged from the heat of life, from the struggle to overcome adversity, to flourish, and to be a decent person. The best philosophers had fought in citizen armies like Socrates, or lived in slavery such as Epictetus. They knew real life and did philosophy from that place, as a flesh and blood activity of the heart and hands, as much as the mind.
That past way of doing philosophy needs to become its future too. The future of philosophical counselling lies in getting further away from academics. But I think it also needs to step away from where counselling is going. Counselling is increasingly a mental health practice, integrated with clinical psychology and psychiatry, because this is where the government dollars are to be found. Many philosophical counsellors frame the discipline in those terms, as an alternative to mainstream mental health treatments. It is not unusual for them to do this by making crude and irresponsible criticisms of psychiatry. But philosophical counselling should not take that approach. It is not a mental health service, and it should leave that approach to the psychologists and psychiatrists who will always do a better job, even if they have their own blind spots and vices that need changing. Rather, philosophical counselling is about perspective, meaning, value, about creating good lives and good communities.
I think that philosophical counselling should not be limited to a counselling approach, either. When it began some four decades ago coaching didn’t exist, and when it did exist it was for a long time a superficial activity. These days however, serious coaching is more like applied science. Done properly it is the application of genuine expertise. I think that a lot of philosophical counselling needs to shift into a philosophical coaching modality. That removes it from the mental health field and is a much better fit. What James needs is philosophical coaching for his life concerns. I note that positive psychology coaching is flourishing, and that positive psychology is a natural sibling to philosophy. I would suggest a three-way integration of philosophy, positive psychology, and coaching, as per the diagram below.
I am not suggesting that this model of philosophical coaching should replace philosophical counselling. Counselling is more contemplative, more emotionally attuned, more focused on what happens when we listen deeply. Whereas coaching is outcomes and action focused, and more didactic. They are different arts. I know because I practice both. In counselling I see myself as a listener and healer, in coaching I view myself more as a personal trainer offering an age-old tradition of self-improvement for flourishing and virtue development.
Why focus on strengths?
I take a strengths and values approach to helping people. It is through these that we can create a what, how, and why for your life. It is how we create direction and purpose. But why should you focus on strengths rather than problems and weaknesses? Doesn’t that mean ignoring problems, and won’t it lead to more problems up ahead?
I invite you to begin this reflection by engaging in one of your own. Stop for a moment and consider these three questions, giving a minute to each.
What do you like best about yourself?
When were you at your best in life?
What are you most proud of?
These are some of the opening questions I might ask a new client. A vital part of my skills includes reading others strength’s and values, and helping them to understand and to use them to better effect. Questions like these are great for revealing hidden strengths.
But some people struggle at this point. One reason is that they don’t want to be arrogant, as though by focusing in their strengths they are praising themselves. That’s a good sentiment - there's enough arrogance in the world already - but people often go to the opposite extreme: false humility. If I say that I am a bad singer it is clear-headed humility. If Frank Sinatra says the same thing it is false humility. If it means that he never opens his mouth in song then both he and all of us have lost out. Clear-headed self-knowledge helps us to become better and happier and to contribute to the world.
Other people worry that a focus on strengths is naive positive thinking. This is not so. We need to address both weaknesses and strengths in life, but often we only focus on weakness. We become blinkered in the opposite direction. Imagine that you are sailing a boat and there is a leak in the stern. If you do not address it you will sink. It matters greatly to address important weaknesses in life. But what happens once you have sealed the hole? Nothing; you sit there idle, adrift. You need a sail to give you momentum, and this equates to your strengths.
Take this a step further: if the boat is flawed in many ways but functions safely, should you spend your time improving the faults, or focus on setting a sail and getting somewhere?
This is why we focus on strengths. I am writing this in 2017 and there is now a mass of scientific evidence that a strengths-focus is usually more important than a weakness focus. The movement known as positive psychology has been studying this since the late 1990s, subdividing into areas of research such as flourishing, happiness, performance, and so on. Positive psychology is a research focus that began with Martin Seligman when he was the head of the American Psychological Society. Second wave positive psychology now turns the lens on how we find strength and meaning even in protracted suffering. It is not pop psychology or naive positive thinking, rather it is science in the service of doing well amidst all the opportunities and challenges of being alive.
It is a major insight of this science that it is often more beneficial to focus on strengths than weaknesses, to help you move forward. This applies whether you are moving away from problems, or moving forwards toward positive goals. Speaking from my background in philosophy, we live in a cynical age that can be nihilistic, pessimistic, and depressing. Speaking from my therapeutic background, time and again I see that when people opt into that negative mindset they are giving into defense mechanisms; behind the bravado is fear. Speaking from all these disciplines, the truth is that life can be very good. It can also be terrible. Usually it is a mixture that lies in between. Looking about me in this lucky country (as somebody who grew up poor and faced abuse before leaving home early) I bet that there is much good in your life right now, and many wonderful possibilities to reach for. To recognise this is to express humility and gratitude at what is true. You don’t have a moral obligation to give up the goodness in life because others suffer; rather, if there is an obligation, it is to squeeze the goodness out of life for yourself and to share it with others. To create less suffering within yourself and others. If you ask what the point is to that, I challenge you to open your eyes and grow your heart. The world is full of people who need others. Be the reason that others believe in the goodness of life. In doing so you will also change your inner world. I know this from experience before I read a single page of research. Have the humility to appreciate the strengths in yourself; you did not create your life, or the world, but you can be a caretaker for your small corner of existence that has temporarily been given to you, to create a better world to the best of your abilities. To do this you need your strengths.
I have been doing this work for a decade now, since I switched from academic philosophy to counselling and coaching, and have been in private practice since 2011. I see about twenty five people per week for one-on-one work. My typical clients are both male and female and in their mid-twenties to late thirties. Their problems regard relationships, career, or emotional struggles, but behind the details is a lack an adequate sense of direction or purpose in life or a need to build personal strengths. In today's post I set out how I help people. I will categorise the process as three stages: challenge, promise, and proficiency.
People come wanting a greater sense of direction and purpose in life. They want need or want a clearer vision. They want help to make things happen.
Direction is about knowing what to do with your life. Should you have children? How will that work with your career and should you preference it instead? Should your commit to your current partner? Or perhaps your challenge lies in starting a relationship or finding a career in the first place.
Or perhaps everything has come together and yet "something is missing." Which leads on to the problem of purpose.
Purpose is about meaning. You are going to age and die. You are going to suffer or struggle at times. And even in the good times pleasure and wealth are not enough. What makes life worthwhile? How do you gain a deeper sense of satisfaction? How do you become the person you want and need to be? What will give genuine meaning and satisfaction to your life?
The consequence of a lack of direction or purpose is that people feel confused, anxious, or despairing. It is a recipe for distress.
I call this part the "promise" because it is about what we can make happen. I provide no guarantees because you need to do the work. What I promise is that I provide a framework by which you can create a substantial vision for your life - or some area of your life - based on your personal strengths and values, and guidance to make that a reality. You will have to do your own walking and carry your own pack, my role is as a skilled guide. What I offer works, and if you do the work you can achieve the result.
This is about moving from confusion, depression, and anxiety to clarity, purpose, and confidence...but those are side effects. They are emotional states that follow on as consequences from real change. The change itself is what's important. This is about creating a meaningful vision and making it real. It is about becoming a stronger, better person. It is about giving direction and purpose to your life.
I have spoken elsewhere about what I do and my background. What a profession like mine needs is both specialisation and breadth. Specialisation means that I don’t work with everybody under the sun, because a jack of all trades is master of none. I have a passion for the particular clients I serve and what I help them with: people in their 20s and 30s who are seeking direction and purpose and to strengthen their better qualities. I work to become an expert in my field, using a sophisticated integration of counselling and coaching, and philosophy and positive psychology.
My way of working is determined by what I help people with. I wrote here about the journey I have been on to reach this place. And I wrote here about how I integrate different disciplines and how my work differs from other counsellors and from clinical psychology. This blog aims to give you a strong sense of what I am about. Thank you for taking the time to read this and my other posts, I hope you can see that I am passionate about this field. I have spent my adult life dedicated to this work and I consider it profoundly important. This is about life well lived.
The goal of my service is to help you increase your direction and purpose in life. It is also to help you develop your strengths and character to flourish and to serve others better. I do these things by helping you to build a vision based on your strengths and values, and helping you draw on those to create those things. My way of working is determined by what best achieves those goals. I wrote here about my work, and I described how I came to counselling and later coaching from a background in philosophy here, and today I
Below I have drawn a diagram which distinguishes coaching, counselling, and clinical psychology from one another. It also shows areas of overlap between them. You can see that some counsellors work with issues that cross-over with clinical psychology. And some that some areas of coaching and counselling cross over.
Counselling is a discipline which focuses on insight, on understanding what is going on within you and around you. It is about navigating your emotional life and relationships. It can be relatively brief and practical in orientation - say a few sessions or a few months. Or it can be deep ongoing psychotherapy, weekly sessions for years to address structural psychological problems or deep trauma.
Clinical psychology and psychiatry treat psychological disorders, address trauma, provide assessments and diagnoses, and manage risks. They may involve counselling or psychotherapy as well.
In coaching people are guided to take stock of their life, clarify their goals, and pursue clearly-defined change. Coaching usually focuses on a specific area in which the coach becomes an expert helper.
As I mentioned, certain areas of counselling overlap with clinical psychology. Counsellors who work at that end of the spectrum are mental health practitioners. The first point I want to make is that I am not a mental health practitioner. Nor do I engage in deep psychotherapy. I set out in the opening three sentences what I do as a counsellor and coach, and if you read that again you will see that it is different. I work in the zone covered by the green line below.
So what do I actually do? The are four key ingredients: counselling, and coaching, which constitute the framework in which I practice, and philosophy, and positive psychology, which I use to guide my clients and I.
A hundred years ago if you were struggling with some challenge in life you might go see a priest. As a good pastoral carer they would listen with empathy, help you to understand your situation, and use their training and professional experience to offer guidance. In our secular society the counsellor has replaced the priest, just as philosophy and science has replaced religion for many individuals. People come to me for a few sessions or a few months, whether weekly or fortnightly, while some come for years for a monthly reflection. These people do not need a clinical psychologist or deep psychotherapy. Instead they want to work through the difficult things in their life, just as we all need to, and they want to gain insight into themselves and life, and they want to create change in order to flourish and improve as a person.
Many people see a trainer for their physical strength and well-being. The trainer has the knowledge you need, provides the structure where change actually happens, and may motivate you and keep you accountable. Coaching is like that training, but for your mind and heart, and for your life as a whole. Coaching can be one-on-one and look rather like a counselling session, however whereas counselling may spend a lot of time on your emotions, in coaching we focus on using my knowledge and skills to find direction, and create structure and change, while being led by clearly defined goals. In coaching I also design guided courses for small groups of people, to change specific areas of their life.
Counselling and coaching is the framework for what I do. The other ingredient is the content, the disciplines I draw on to guide people. I use philosophy and positive psychology.
I wrote about philosophy here and here. Philosophical counselling and coaching is for people who take responsibility for their life but need guidance to improve. Philosophy helps you to develop your vision and your values. It is for people who want to experience a deeper sense of meaning and be drawn forward by a better vision for life. It is about living with purpose, creating happiness, and benefiting the world around you.
I combine philosophy with its scientific sibling, positive psychology. Philosophy provides the vision and positive psychology offers the what and how to get there. A core practice of mine, which is rooted in positive psychology and philosophy, is helping people to use their strengths and values, to design a vision and make it real. The beauty of this is that the vision, and the energy to pursue it, come from within you. I am not imposing my own vision on you, even if I challenge you to reflect harder and take certain things into account. A decade of therapeutic work has taught me that there is much more wisdom, goodness, and potential in people than they realise. Positive psychology studies such things and how we can make them real in our lives. I find joy in helping people to harness their strengths and values to create something wonderful.
So in summary I practice a combination of counselling and coaching - with the emphasis more on one, or the other, depending on a client's needs - and draw on philosophy and positive psychology to guide our work. People come seeking greater direction and purpose, and wanting to become stronger, better individuals. Some are stuck in various ways, others simply have a positive desire. Those who are suited to my help are willing to do the work, and from me they seek guidance and support to make that happen. As with the artwork at the beginning of this reflection I cannot do the work for you, but if you are willing to carry your pack and walk the miles, I will be there alongside you, working hard with my knowledge and skills to guide you to your goals.