You’re Not Special

Philosophy is at its most fun (and not to mention useful) when we take the accepted way of looking at something and do the complete opposite with it. It is like flipping a painting upside down. We take away a new perspective we did not have before. It might be a waste of time and energy, but we should be open to the possibility it won’t be.

First things should be dealt with first. In the beginning is the belief we are special (thanks mum). Other people will die, but not us; they’ll live average lives, but we’re destined for something greater; they think they’re smart, but only we know what’s really going on.

To the extent we buy into this illusion, we become unwitting perpetrators of self-loathing. You’re only fluent in three languages? You only play two instruments? You only own one house? If you’re truly special, then you must reach higher, go further, and push harder than everyone else. It creates a lot of pressure. In the process, feeling special transforms from a golden fleece wrapped around our shoulders into a lead stone hanging around our neck.

Hans Thoma, Loneliness, 1896

Flipping the painting, we see that being special isn’t always a blessing, and can actually be a curse. Perhaps, inversely, the normality we have come to see as a curse, might actually be a blessing.

Thinking about ourselves as normal people is like dropping the stone from our neck. We feel lighter (even en-light-ened). There’s no need to punish ourselves for failing to master a language in two months, learning it within 5 years is just fine – that’s the normal period of time to do so. There’s no need to feel guilty that we can’t do a muscle-up after practising for a few months – 99% of people can’t do one even if they tried. There’s no need to get upset that you’re working a regular job earning a basic income – only 1% of people get to be the top 1%.

When seen from this new perspective, our life is no longer a miserable string of failures, but a collection of attempts, some quite successful, of doing better than normal. In the end, it is not you that failed the standards, it is the standards which failed you. They were never true to begin with. You’re normal. Perfectly normal. Wonderfully normal.

If we can practise looking at ourselves in this way, we might be able to loosen the vice-like grip our addiction to specialness has on us, and learn to look at our regularities, boring-bits, and average qualities with slightly more accepting and forgiving eyes.

The Courage to Live Simply

There was a time in our lives when we craved complexity. We wanted the novelty of new experiences, the excitement of busy destinations, and the charm of well-meaning but unnecessarily convoluted people.

We once believed the recipe to happiness consisted in combining as many flavours and textures as possible. Perhaps we are more boring now; perhaps our palette has become more refined.

The pursuit of simplicity overlaps significantly with something I cherish very dearly: the cultivation of space. If silence is audible space, and room is visual space, then simplicity would be akin to psychological space, removing the clutter and allowing what remains to shine with singular brightness.

When Virginia Woolf demanded a room of her own, and Wittgenstein embraced the ‘quiet seriousness’ of his cabin in Norway, and Neitzsche moved to Sils-Maria, each of them were enacting, in their own way, a fundamental principle of the simple life: one’s cup must first be empty in order to be filled. They sought out the fertility of simplicity – spatial, audible, and psychological.

Following in this tradition, in his landmark essay The End of Solitude, literary critic William Deresiewicz explores the role of loneliness in contemporary life while mourning the lost capacity to sit with ourselves. He asks, ‘losing solitude, what have [we] lost?’

First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the centre of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.”

By pursuing solitude, Woolf, Wittgenstein, and Neitzsche nurtured simplicity, allowing themselves to come into contact with Thoreau’s Darkness and Jung’s Shadow, listening to that small, silent voice that can only be heard when things are quiet; experiencing what Marilynne Robinson described as ‘the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude’.

Wittgenstein’s cabin, Skjolden

The simple life is not identical with the boring life. If the accumulation of experience was equivalent to being interesting, then the elderly would fascinate us and we would find young children terribly boring; but this is not necessarily so. We have all met people who believe trips to Europe, fancy dinners, and expensive clothes can act as a substitute for character. We have had incomprehensibly boring conversations about someone’s latest overseas adventure and rather interesting ones about dreams. Ultimately, it is not the breadth of experience, but rather the depth of one’s personality which determines whether or not we find them interesting. 

In a remark which works as well with ‘solitude’ as it does with ‘simplicity’, Deresiewicz writes, ‘solitude isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone’, especially in the face of such overwhelming pressure to do the opposite.

Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself — and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular.

And it takes courage to live simply. To say no to invitations out. To relinquish old interests in favour of new ones. To see fewer possessions as a sign of agility rather than poverty. In choosing to live simply, we increasingly say ‘no’ in order to focus more on that to which we say ‘yes’.

One day the time will come when we describe our perfect evening as one spent eating a bowl of rice before settling down for some tea, dark chocolate, and a book before going to sleep at 9pm; finding no need to justify this evening with colourful or overly complicated language, instead describing it in the only way which seems right, by simply saying: because it’s nice.

Against Planning

More than detailed attempts to trace a path from the present to the future, plans can function as psychological buffers, insulating us from the interminable flux of life. If life is a raging river, plans are stepping stones we hope will take us to the safe ground on the other side.

First we’ll finish school, then we’ll get a degree, after that a great job, a partner, a house, then we’ll have a child, maybe two; and we’ll retire happy, healthy, & whole. That’s the plan.

Then we get cancer. A family member dies. The economy implodes. Considering how likely it is for something to go wrong, it is suspicious how little we make room for that in our plans. After all, nobody ‘plans’ to get cancer.

At any moment, we balance at the intersection of a thousand threads; at any point, innumerable things could go wrong. We should get comfortable with the fact that our plans – no matter how well thought out and well-intentioned – will likely fall apart.

Particularly clever people try to hedge their bets. They realise that solid plans in a fluid world are destined to fail. So, they make back-up plans. Plan A is followed by plan B, then C, then D, and perhaps even E. But, rather than solving the problem, it simply pushes it one step back, continuing to rely on the illusion of security in an insecure world. The rigorous planner has failed to take note of Alan Watts advice in The Wisdom of Insecurity,

The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. 

If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end. 

In the spirit of Zygmunt Bauman, we should acknowledge the inherent ‘liquidity’ of contemporary life. We should see all our plans as tentative and likely to change at a moment’s notice. You feel fine today, but that little niggle on your right knee doesn’t seem to be going away. You’re close to approval for that bank loan, but aren’t interest rates rising? Life is inherently insecure and plans are liable to fall apart at a moment’s notice. There’s always one person in the relationship who doesn’t ‘plan’ on breaking-up.

Perhaps we could entertain a radical idea: not planning at all. Good conversations don’t have their topics planned in advance, and overseas travel can be so much richer when we allow the experience to unfold organically. At the very least, you can’t plan your own surprise. Maybe we could make a little space for letting life happen to us instead of trying to make it obey the timelines of our diaries and planners. I’m yet to meet someone who could successfully plan to be happy.

Alan Watts warns us that in the pursuit of planning for the future, we can lose sight of the present. We can plan, but the compulsive planner, the one who lives in their ‘to-do list’ and their ‘goal sheet’ and their pursuit of tomorrow can hardly be said to be living.

Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live.

To continually plan for the future without paying attention to the present is absurd, leading to a future which,

When it comes to me, will find me “absent”, looking over its shoulder instead of into its face.

Jonelle Summerfield, 2010, Café in Amsterdam

Life, annoyingly, continues to evade our predictions of it. The sooner we give-up trying to determine every move, predict every possibility, and plan every pathway, and instead, adjust ourselves to the inevitable paroxysms of life, the calmer, and hopefully happier, we will be.

The Virtue of Silence

‘Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world’ explains Paul Goodman in his altogether wonderful but sadly out of print work, Speaking and Language.: A Defence of Poetry

But, continues Goodman, ‘there are grades of each’. Just as there is speech to hold a family together, a sophist’s speech to hide the truth, and the enquiring speech of a friend to help the other make their point,

There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts.

Linguists, semioticians, sociologists, and philosophers have long focused on the power of speech, but often at the expense of any consideration of silence. And just as one cannot have foreground without background, one cannot make sense of speech without silence.

Kuheli Sarkar, Silence

Both speech & silence have something unique to offer; trying to explain the non-verbal with words or speech with action, is as doomed as trying to make everything foreground or making a song with only one note. Emphasising the point, Goodman notes,

An anatomical demonstration of a corpse is not an illustration of the lecture but a way of teaching in its own right that makes the lecture make sense; starting from that sense, the lecture, too, has its own kind of message.

It works both ways. Just as you cannot accurately put onto canvas Marx’s Grundrisse, there are some emotions that you cannot put into words. Silence and speech offer separate, and perhaps quite exclusive ways of being in and understanding the world.

Leny Meulendijks, Emptiness

Despite their respective virtues, we treat silence as mere space, as something use-less, without substance, and therefore, lacking anything to offer. Something to which Josef Pieper would surely object. Yet, this is only one interpretation of silence, and perhaps if we could change our interpretation, we could change how we interact with it.

Alternatively, silence can be thought of as ‘fertile’, as prophetic, as embryonic; not seeing an unfilled cup as a sign of ‘nothing is here’ but, rather, as a sign indicating ‘something is to come’. What is? Who knows. But space is necessary for something new appear.

Put differently, silence is valuable not despite its emptiness, but precisely because it is empty. It is space not as absence but space as promise. If speech is expression, silence is potential.

As Alan Watts was fond of observing, if all we do is talk, eventually we will have nothing to talk about except our own talking. To avoid this, we need to practise what is perhaps the purest form of silence: listening.

To listen is not merely to be quiet; it is to pay attention, be sensitive, and be vulnerable; allowing oneself to be affected by what one hears. When we cultivate silence, life can move into spaces previously unavailable. Whether one is listening to birds, listening to the rhythms of their body in yoga, or listening patiently for a deep truth to reveal itself, one is partaking in an active process of ‘making room’, of emptying the cup so that it may be filled once more. From this perspective, speech and silence are absolutely complimentary; like breathing in and breathing out.

Gregor Ziolkowski, Emptiness, 2008

Yet, while we find it rather easy to talk and talk, it does not quite go the other way. People cannot handle long bouts of silence, especially in therapy. The sustained silence carries with it so much possible surprise that it becomes unbearable. How will the potential be expressed?

Predictably, our endless absorption of content, which has left us with few moments not absorbed by the chatter of ourselves or others, has transformed the prospect of silence – of ‘being with our own thoughts’ – into something terrifying. It is the metaphysical equivalent of being scared of the dark. Perhaps there is nothing there, no repressed emotions, no uncomfortable thoughts, but what if…? The potential is frightening.

Like a gardener tending their soil, by cultivating silence, we nourish essential space, allowing new thoughts and feelings to flourish. From this perspective, silence is not a transition between states, but an important state in of itself that must be respected, and in a world of incessant stimuli, zealously guarded.

The Melancholy of Looking at Photos of Our Younger Selves

The process of ageing is both invisible and inexorable. The day to day changes – of hair slowly greying, skin gradually wrinkling – become apparent only across a lifetime. It is often quite striking (and even emotionally destabilising) to see photos of our younger selves and begin to grasp the physical and psychological gulf growing greater with each passing day.

How innocent we were, how naïve. With the benefit of hindsight we are humoured by the knowledge today of what we couldn’t even imagine back then. The injuries, the pain, the suffering; but also the joys, the hugs, the wonderful family dinners – there is so much waiting in the future for this self.

A strange melancholy cannot but help arise. We feel so intimate, yet estranged from the person looking back at us. It is us, sure, or at least, once upon a time it was, but we are so different now; older, wiser, more jaded. If only we could go back and tell our younger selves to take that job offer or not to lift that weight. Imagine all the unnecessary suffering which might have been avoided as a result. But, there is no going back, and this fact haunts us. The School of Life writes eloquently that,

We may be moved at the sight of this little person but also – probably – somehow deeply saddened as well. How much of life’s suffering this tiny thing didn’t yet know! How much pain they still had ahead of them! 

There is a certain innocence in these photos. Heavy doses of despair not yet dealt out, second servings of misery not yet put on the plate. Life has not yet done its job of corrupting us and transforming us into the bitter souls who now look at old photographs of ourselves with a mixture of nostalgia and envy. 

They had no clue – that sunny afternoon in the garden of the old house, a few hours before it would have been time for a bowl of animal-shaped pasta and a strawberry yoghurt for tea – what fate had in store. 

How little they could suspect of the divorce, the move to the smaller house, the bullying, the loneliness, the unrequited love, the guilty feelings around sex, the career mishaps, the trouble with the liver, the realities of marriage, the financial anxiety, the romantic betrayals, the tetchiness, the ugliness of age, the persistent anxiety and fear and the troubles of child raising.

There was a time when learning how to tie shoelaces was the most pressing task in one’s life, and that the tough question was whether your jam sandwich should be cut into squares or triangles. Life has moved on. Things are complicated now. There are competing demands, deadlines, dates, and deaths to deal with. How we long to return, to hug that younger version of ourselves and tell them to hold onto this moment because it is precious and it will be gone soon; too soon.

A happy 6 year old who never knew he would be a writer

We may retreat into the imagined innocence of our past selves, but we should remember that this innocence extends to us right now. Perhaps in a year, we will look back on a photo of ourselves today and reminisce about how little we knew while thinking we knew it all, and how silly we were thinking that after reading an essay on ‘the melancholy of photos of our younger selves’ and saying things would change that we would live any differently.

Right now, we are a past version that a future self will one day hope to return to. Chances are, in a couple years when we look back at a photo of ourselves today, we will be seeing someone similarly naïve about what’s to come. There is truly a humbling element in it all: we think we know it all while we daily prove to ourselves the opposite. We wade through fogs of ignorance, our sight cloudy with the glaucoma of misplaced hubris.

My legendary grandfather Paul

Here is a photo of my grandfather. He looks so young (and so do I). I remember being chased around the house by him with his false teeth in hand pretending to eat me, and I remember hours spent at the park while he patiently stood behind me pushing me on the swings. I used to see him every day but then…not. I stopped seeing him. He seemed embarrassing, out of touch, and now, out of time. The photograph is bittersweet, reminding me of a precious time which will never, can never, be repeated.

Some fantastic friends

Photos draw into sharp relief the chasm separating appearances and reality. We were smiling, but at the time we felt pretty miserable. We felt lonely (despite being surrounded by friends), we had misgivings about our job and were sceptical about prospects for future success. But despite this, we appeared to be paragons of bonhomie. We are masters of deception. Imagine what we would see if it was possible to photograph one’s emotions, and not just one’s smile; Instagram would surely be a very different place.

Then there’s a photo of our first partner. They were so kind, their smile remains a celebration of youth and beauty. We used to talk every day, but we haven’t heard from them in years. We only dated for a year before we ended things. It was messy, and thinking about it still hurts. We were too embarrassed to be vulnerable, too stubborn to be kind, too young to know better. They’re probably happily married now. Maybe they hate us, maybe they’ve forgotten we even exist. But maybe, on particularly lonely nights, they open their little box of memories to look at old photos of us and wonder how we are.

How little we made of those precious years. We should have been more honest about what we actually felt. We should have dared to be a genuine friend to the others. We should have told our grandfather we loved him more before it was too late. We should have spent that time figuring out what we could properly do with our careers. We should have taken a few more of the right sort of risks.

Photographs are unfinished portals transporting us to a world we can see but never embody, touch but never feel. The worlds they reveal are beautiful, but always unfinished. As much as we might want to return, we know we have to stay here to continue with the often difficult and yet rewarding task of living.

Photographs are torches illuminating the permanent night-time of our emotional landscapes. They will provoke anger, elation, despondency, and nostalgia; whether the feelings are welcomed or not, it cannot be denied that photos make us feel. They remind us that we are living, breathing, feeling humans that live not only in the present, but also in the memories we make on our journey here. 

Each photograph is a postcard of a special place once visited to which we can no longer return, making every voyage so much more special and every memory irreplaceable.

Melancholy of a Flower

You’re laying on the grass feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin. Nearby bees hum happily. You take hold of a daisy, clasping its delicate stem between your fingers, plucking it asunder before placing it upon the pages of your open book. You sit in admiration. Only the most thoughtful deity could have designed something so elegantly intricate. Anthers rich with pollen soon to release profuse clouds of dust on nearby butterflies. Petals placed so precisely, reaching their crescendo at fine felt tip points only millimetres from the central pistil. Sepals, originally guarding the embryonic flower, now reduced to the status of undercarriage flourish.

While you sit there admiring the infinite dimensions of this lovely little daisy, you see the essential water which is its lifeblood slowly dehydrating from its flesh. How much longer will its colour last? An hour? Two? Its beauty is transient, fleeting at best, its destiny to become compost for future generations of flowers. It draws your attention to time. When was the last time you spoke to your grandmother? She won’t be around forever. You haven’t seen your parents in a while. There’s a sunspot on your hand that didn’t used to be there, and you’re getting wrinkly around the eyes. Something so beautiful has drawn your attention to something quite morbid. But instead of Poe, you’re reminded of Keats when he wrote Ode to Melancholy,

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

The wonder of every moment is pregnant with dismay – it is within ‘the temple of delight’ writes Keats in the same poem, where ‘veiled melancholy has her sovereign shrine’. The flower is beautiful now, but for how long? As it sits atop the pages of your book, slowly wilting in the sun, its fading presence is a certain reminder of how decay is inextricably bound with life. Like Janus, they are opposite, but not separate. 

Janus, the Roman god of change

To feel sad while admiring a flower on a sunny day is not a sign of a defective intelligence or a morbid perspective. It is, rather, an indication of sensitivity to the dual nature of existence. Melancholy is the intelligent response to a universe that is an ineluctable play of opposites. You can only turn off the feeling by shutting down the imagination. Melancholy is a sign of your humanity, not a deviation from it.

To be melancholic does not mean to be sad. It is to see just how much sadness is implied in happiness and to be sensitive to the quieter parts of ourselves which we often ignore. Put otherwise, melancholy is an indication of feelings which have been invited to speak (by something as innocent as a flower) and are now ready to be heard.

The Law of Reversed Effect

We should all get a little more familiar with what Alan Watts called the ‘backwards law’ or the ‘law of reversed effect’.

It is the operating law underlying quicksand, where struggling only takes you further into the dip. It appears when people make themselves very stiff and sturdy only to quickly lose their balance, and it will help you realise that the quickest way to lose your breath is to hold onto it. If you try to float, you sink; and if you try to sleep, you wake. The point is that sometimes our actions create consequences opposite to our intentions.

A fine example reads something like this: do not think of pink elephant.

But you did, didn’t you?

Get rid of that thought! Get the idea out of your head. Do it.

But you can’t, can you?

The more you try to get rid of it, the more you cement its presence in your mind. The only way for it to go away is by giving up the goal of even trying to get rid of it, and letting it dissipate on its own. You get to where you want to be, but by giving in rather than trying harder.

A closely related Eastern philosophical principle is Wu-Wei. Wu means: non, not, no, negate; Wei means, among many things: action, making, exerting, and perhaps most exactly, forcing. Wu-Wei, then, is the principle of not forcing. To put it the other way round, it is essentially the principle of ‘going with the flow’, of sailing rather than rowing.

The law of reversed effect and Wu-Wei converge in the observation that sometimes our desires are best achieved, not by pursuing them, but by acting as if we didn’t want them at all. This means, first and foremost, not trying to push things one way or another. That is, do not force life. A forced joke is as painful as a forced bowel movement; and both guarantee to achieve the opposite of their intention.

If you are anything like me, you want to be happy. But, by wanting to be happy, I immediately affirm the counter position: unhappiness. Desiring happiness, if anything, constantly reminds me I am not happy, which, predictably, might make me a little unhappy. By becoming so invested in being happy, I am making myself miserable. Trying to be happy is the reason I’m not. Replace ‘happiness and unhappiness’ with ‘security and insecurity’ or ‘wakefulness and sleep’ and you have the basic formula.

What do we do? The answer is clear, but isn’t necessarily easy: we must give-in, be patient, and let things happen without getting in the way. Of course, you can’t try to give-in or be patient – that will only entrench the idea of what you are giving in to or waiting for. You must give up on the idea of trying to achieve your goal, and then, with backwards magic, you will have it.


When done well, philosophy does two things: it shows how two similar things are actually rather different, and it shows how two different things are actually rather similar.

This is an essay about the second class of philosophy.

We generally think of cooking, gardening, dancing, painting, building, parenting, and writing as having nothing in common. Some are done sitting down, others standing up, some in the dirt, others on a canvas. Yet, when we strive to be good at any of them, we are nurturing a quality which applies to all of them. That particular quality is sensitivity.

Consider the case of cooking.

Being able to follow a recipe and even to make a delicious meal does not make me a good cook. While it suggests I can follow instructions, copy examples, and perform simple measurements, it does not necessarily follow from this that I am good at cooking. For what makes one good at cooking – as opposed to being good at following instructions – is not only knowing how to chop thyme and braise chicken, but how these two flavours complement each other, about how certain flavours, textures, tastes, and smells balance and contradict, conflict and complement each other; and in the process, develop a deep appreciation for the harmony and internal coherence found in the sensual universe of tastes and textures. Following recipes may help me learn how to prepare sauces, season roasts, toss salads, and pickle & preserve, but only once I do these from the wellspring of my soul and with insight into the harmony of tastes, smells, sights and textures will I move from cooking good food, to being a good cook.

To take another example,

Painting a picture that is pleasing to the eye does not necessarily make one a good painter. After all, a good painter may create a painting considered offensive, while an elephant may slap paint on a whim over a canvas and make something ostensibly pleasing. A good painter is not judged by the outcome but instead by the process of their art. As such, what sets a good painter apart from a regular or even a bad painter is precisely this: an appreciation and sensitivity to the way different colours influence and blend; enhance and transmute – that is, sensitivity to the inner working relationships of the art.

Now, while the painter and cook (and parent, gardener, and writer) are sensitive to their own particular experiences – the cook to tastes and textures, the painter to colours and strokes – they are categorically sensitive to much the same thing. They are sensitive to the rhythms and relationships found within their art, and like the musician, they seek harmony, striving always for coherence and wholeness.

One cannot be sensitive from a distance (either emotional, psychological, and sensual). The essential relationship of an artist to their art is defined by such proximity, such intimacy, that the separation between cook and cooked, between painter and painted, disappears. The false duality between subject and object disappears and all that is left is process. Found here is a quality evocative of Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He writes,

Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.

Here, to care is synonymous with being sensitive, and to be sensitive is merely the outward aspect of an internal quality. To the extent we are more sensitive, the quality of our art increases.

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh

The good parent is sensitive to their child’s thoughts and feelings, the good gardener is sensitive to their plants fluctuating needs, the good architect is sensitive to proportion and ratio in buildings, and the good writer is sensitive to the clear expression a thought demands.

In this light, sensitivity entails a proximity allowing one to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and feel that which otherwise goes unnoticed – a second rate synonym, a mismatched angle, a slightly too salty dish – by those for whom sensitivity to a certain practice is non-existent. Of course, sensitivity does not constitute being good at something; one cannot deny the skill and expertise honed through practice over time. The point, rather, is that sensitivity is the precondition for good practice.

Being a good cook looks different to being a good musician, and both look different to being a good writer. However, on closer inspection, each artist (and here, everyone, from the musician, to the architect, to the parent, is an artist) is focused on a sense of harmony and coherence which can only begin by being sensitive to the rhythms of their art.


We tend to romanticise willpower, believing that if we simply try harder, focus more intently, or exert ourselves a little more, then we will reach our goal. While this may sometimes be true, it remains an incomplete picture, and therefore, an untruth.

Exercising willpower will lead in two radically different directions:

  1. It can bring us closer to our goal
  2. It can take us further away from our goal

This is not as pedestrian as saying something either works or doesn’t. Rather, it is the (slightly less pedestrian, yet significantly more interesting) claim that willpower will construct or dismantle; not the difference between moving or remaining still, but the difference between going forwards or going backwards.

In the first class are practices such as (but not limited to) cookery, gymnastics, mathematics, construction, and martial arts. Assuming that people apply themselves, learn from their mistakes, and adapt to new information, then the very act cooking, exercising, calculating, constructing, and fighting inexorably lead to improvement in these practices. By applying ourselves, we inch closer towards our goals.

However, unlike the first, in the second class of practices, the more we believe we are moving ‘closer’ to our goal, the further away we are in fact going. Like chasing your own shadow, once you think you have it, you realise you don’t; it always managing to stay one step ahead of you, and running faster only means it moves even faster ahead.

In the second category are pursuits such as trying to remember a forgotten name, trying to fall asleep, trying to stay calm, trying to be happy, and trying to come up with a great idea. You are always trying; implicit in the grammar is a recognition that willing something does not always make it happen.

Sun In An Empty Room, 1963, Edward Hopper

To become a better cook, one cooks; to become a better gymnast, one attends the gym; to become a better painter, one paints. But the second category affords no such simple remedies. Trying to be happy will likely only aggravate and reinforce the realisation we are not happy; and try as we might, no amount of exertion – of strained nerves and burst blood vessels – will bring us to sleep. So, what is to be done? Well, to the extent that in the first category we must do something, in the second we must do nothing. (And, it is only in a culture ruled by the dictates of willpower that the imperative to do nothing will seem strange and unintelligible).

Much to the chagrin of the ego – which cannot fathom a world where things do not bend to its will – the imperative to do nothing is a radical call to relinquish control and allow the natural processes of body and mind to do what they do best, and to function without interruption. If, in the first category, what is required of us is effort; in the second, what is required is space.

It is a type of mental ‘making room’ for thought and feeling to appear, something akin to a virtuous silence. Cultivating space involves respecting that what we want to think or feel (an undoubtedly egotistical position) cannot be conjured or commanded into existence. All this hinges on a very basic assumption that we are not in direct control of our own thoughts and feelings. We are like surfers riding the wave. We cannot call forth the water, it was already there, and we cannot determine the shape of the wave, but we can allow the water to take us for a ride and do some fun things along the way.

Once we appreciate this monumentally significant idea, we can see the necessity of allowing certain phenomena to happen in their own time. We intuitively know that the more we try to remember someone’s name the further away it gets from us, and the harder we try to fall asleep the greater our chance of remaining awake. All that is required is for us to act upon the information we already know to be true, and to create a space for a new way of relating to ourselves.

Meditations on Ouroboros


Like the dog chasing its own tail, Ouroboros has forgotten a part belonging to himself. There is a split, a splinter separating the head (mind) and tail (body), and this split manifests in many diverse yet similar ways.

Think of our chemically enhanced foods which stimulate the mind but malnourish the body, or cigarettes which satisfy cravings but decay the organism, or the incessantly stimulated mind titillated by sights, sounds, and smells but never allowed a moment’s rest; the body suffers at the expense of the mind. Or, not to put too fine a point on it: in the pursuit of pleasure, the mind consumes the body.


Following the wretched logic of Descartes (which, despite being intellectually unsound, offers a philosophy consistent with how we live), there is a mental or spiritual realm and an earthly or material realm; the mind belongs to the former, the body to the latter. The material realm – messy, convoluted, and chaotic – must be replaced with the smooth, frictionless, and infinitely plastic workings of reason and rationality. And so, we live in a world increasingly ruled by abstractions and inventions of the mind.

The rhythms of seasons, sunrises and sunsets are replaced with clocks and the work week. Abstractions like ‘success’ or ‘power’ become increasingly important; a modest life seen as rather petty and pathetic; with those who chase money for its own sake (money being only a symbol of real wealth) as the most extreme example of this thinking.

The food of the Earth is inadequate; our cereals must be fortified with vitamins, our vegetables must be artificially ripened, our fruits must be preserved with chemicals. While we enhance every food with additional vitamins or minerals, we simultaneously drain our food of any nutritional value. Real nutrients must be discarded so we can inject our food with the right nutrients in the concentrations and volumes we see fit.

Like bad alcohol, we are too much spirit lacking body. The domination of the head is coming at the expense of the body, for it is to no surprise that living according to clocks disrupts our sleep, hoarding money is an empty dream, and our food is making us sick.

M.C Escher, Dragon, 1952


While he may commit to his meal, Ouroboros will eventually reach the point where he is faced (if we can entertain such a confusing metaphor) with the back of his own head; where he will eventually be forced to eat his own mouth. Then, and perhaps only then, will he break out of his illusion.

Here, eating is analogous to suffering. We can immediately see our illusions for what they are, and therefore, not fall into the trap. However, as is often the case, we fail to recognise our illusions as such, and we fall for them, consuming ourselves in the process.

We may be inclined to believe that not falling for illusions is how we should strive to live. But perhaps this misses the point. We cannot help but fall for illusions, what is required of us, therefore, is an appreciation that once we break out of illusions we know something that others don’t: we know the taste of our own tails.


While every internet page – in a seemingly endless self-referential circle – claims Ouroboros is a metaphor for infinity, I believe there is another, far more fruitful interpretation. Rather than a circle of life, Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of a vicious circle, where one part of the body is in conflict with the other.

The vicious circle takes many forms, on many levels. There is the vicious circle of a society which extracts resources which destroy nature in the name of saving it, thereby encouraging ever more extraction to compensate for the destruction wrought from the first round of extraction. There is the vicious circle of pesticides to protect crops, which thereby create more resistant insects, thus requiring ever more concentrated pesticides to deal with them. There is the vicious circle of the man, who in his insecurity, flees into what makes him feel safe, thereby making his insecurities more daunting, and thus calling for ever further retreats into safety. There is the vicious circle of trying to forget a thought, and in the process, giving this thought such prominence that it become impossible to forget.

Ultimately, Ouroboros represents the resulting conflict when two inextricably linked parts are seen to be separate (society and nature, crop resistance and insect strength, the feeling of insecurity and the quest for security, trying to forget and remembering). In each instance, it is the intellect (societal or individual) attempting to subdue the body (of Earth or of ourselves) without understanding its fundamental and inescapable reliance upon it.

It is only when we see that the circle is a circle that we will stop. Because to ask ‘what shall we do’ is to fundamentally miss the point. Because, if a dog could see its tail belonged to it, it would cease the chase; and once Ouroboros sees he is eating his tail, he will stop eating. Once we see the circle for what it is, the illusion that the head and tail are separate disappears.


Yet, there is a certain truth in imagining Ouroboros as a symbol for infinity, a truth buried amidst a thousand rehashings of the same idea, like a tired phoenix buried beneath its ashes.

Ouroboros symbolises the illusion of controlling the flow of life. Ouroboros, like life, has a beginning (his head) and an end (his tail). But, failing to see that what flows in must also flow out, Ouroboros fights this, consuming his tail, fighting death, failing to realise that death is as inseparable from life as a tail is from a head.

It is not infinity which Ouroboros symbolises but rather, the conflict which arises when we separate death from life.