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:
- It can bring us closer to our goal
- 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.
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.
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.
It was a warm summer evening as King Darius and Abtin, his scribe, were walking the winding paths of the palace gardens. Surveying his beautifully manicured gardens, the king leant forward to breathe in the perfume of particularly striking Chrysanthemum.
At this point, Abtin felt a whisper of ice cold air run up his spine. He turned around, only to behold Death, his bone-white scythe shimmering in the light of a naked moon.
Before Death had a chance to speak, a breathless Abtin told the king he must immediately leave for Acre, having seen Death and wishing to be as far away as possible. The king acquiesced, granting Abtin his fastest horse.
In an attempt to regain his stately composure, the king continued his walk through the gardens, only to soon come across Death himself.
“Why did you frighten my scribe”, queried King Darius.
“It was not my intention”, replied Death, continuing “I only came to inform him that I would see him on the road to Acre tonight”.
To live virtuously, we need look no further than the garden, for it is the most steadfast and honest of teachers. Through the act of gardening, we learn humility, patience, kindness, empathy, and commitment; and likewise receive an antidote to the vices of arrogance, impatience, selfishness and hubris.
Kneeling down in prayer in front of a bed of soil to plant a seed, a seed with no promise of germination, is an act of faith. Planting a seed is a communion and celebration of life outside ourselves. Our wealth, prestige and power have no bearing on the seed; and in planting one, we cross the boundary from seeing ourselves as the centre, to seeing ourselves as a part in a much grander whole.
In gardening we learn to care. Sometimes (more often than not) we do not know what the garden needs. We can’t throw whatever we have at the garden in the hope it will work (well, we can, but then gardening is more akin to gambling); we must pay attention. We must look and listen, see the signs that are before us and heed the call. The garden, whether we enter it desiring to be one or not, requires us to be a loving partner. Not loving in the sexual sense, but loving as Erich Fromm saw it, loving as ‘reaching out…and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself’ and in the process, becoming more than oneself.
Gardening is an antidote to the self, or rather, the myopic individualism and stunted sense of selfhood consumer culture encourages us to emulate. Our society is centripetal, where everything deemed important collapses into the personal. The garden, however, is centrifugal, where the self moves outwards, is enriched, and then moving inwards, is enlarged, only to move outwards and repeat the process yet again.
Whereas in life I may find value in the limited realm of personal gratification, in the garden, as I tend for my lemon tree, I begin to see myself in that tree, and caring for myself involves nothing less than caring for it (and caring for it involves nothing less than caring for myself). I become enlarged by my care and identification by the things around me; the world is not reduced to me, I am increased by my identification with the world. Forgetting myself means losing myself, and then finding it in the world around me.
Through deliberate and constant attention, gardening encourages a particular type of sensitivity; to the wind, to the sun, to the waxing and waning of the moon, to the turning of the seasons, and most importantly, to the quality and nutrition of our sustenance.
Insensitivity means we are not affected; we are not affected because we lack imagination, and we lack imagination because it has never been called for. Gardening works this problem backwards; by becoming responsible for the garden, we start to imagine the current state and potential of our garden; which encourages further involvement in the garden, and as a result, a sensitivity to the needs of the garden and all that affects it.
One of the unintended abilities gained by spending a lot of time in the garden is knowing, deeply knowing, the weather. Weather apps become superfluous. The taste of the air and the shades of sunrise are subtle indicators which we learn to discriminate through experience alone. Needing to consult our phones for one less thing and instead developing and relying on our own abilities is surely reason enough to garden.
Gardening is an antidote to the hollow consumerism of contemporary capitalism. As consumers, we are rarely a part of production and furthermore, have limited knowledge of the processes of production from which we benefit. Questions – such as how is your iPhone made, or even what is it made of and from where are the materials sourced – are basically unanswerable, and few, if any, bother to ask. As a result, we become disconnected from what we own and the functioning of the economic system on which we depend.
But, in the garden, you must plant the seeds, tend the soil, and cultivate the plant. While you may not know all the specifics – where are the seeds from, what trees were felled for your garden bed – you become involved in the process, and as a result, the fruits of your labour become that much more precious. You are no longer a consumer, but a producer; and as a result, the joy of consumption includes all the labour and time that came before it; home grown food may not taste better than store bought food, but it certainly feels better.
By affirming your position in the natural order, gardening offers a corrective to the intellectually deadening language of industrialisation. There are no ‘natural resources’, there is nature; not timber, trees; not pollinators, bees and butterflies; not pests, companions; there isn’t even food anymore; there are spinach, tomatoes, kale and corn. Even more so, it is not just kale, it is my kale; I have become intimately involved in the process; the type of abstract separation which industrialisation encourages is undone with the forging of bonds imbued in the act of gardening.
The garden teaches us how to be patient, loving, kind, attentive and sensitive; but its teachings do not begin and end at its borders.
In gardening, while you may think explicitly about the state of your peas or whether certain vegetables are receiving enough water; what you are implicitly doing is caring, paying attention, and being sensitive. As you spend time orienting yourself in this way, you are subtly shifting, neuron by neuron, piece by piece, the very process of your thinking. A caring, attentive, and sensitive gardener is reinforcing the neural pathways towards being a more caring, attentive, and sensitive human.
And, striving to be this, I can think of no better place to begin than in the garden.
Seen for what it is, small talk is imprisonment of false bonhomie and an utter failure of communication. But, seen for what it could be, small talk is an opportunity to step beyond the banal and into the deepest and most intimate realms of another’s mind.
But such an imperative can be overwhelmingly intimidating. As a result; we may withhold talking about anything beyond the weather, where we plan to travel next year, and how our job is faring because we fear delving into the topics we care about – the scourge of war, our apocalyptic visions of climate change, or our fraying relationship with our parents – would scare other people away. We try to stay safe, but by remaining so safe, we become boring. Our partner, doing the same thing, likely feels the same way.
But, small talk need not be verbal imprisonment (giving new meaning to the phrase ‘jail sentence’). It could, instead, become a stepping stone for deeper discussions. For example:
‘What do you do for work’ can lead to deeper questions such as:
- Why did you choose that career? What makes it fulfilling?
- We both work full-time, if money wasn’t an issue, what would you be doing instead?
- If you could go back and pick another career, what would it be? What do you want to give to the world?
‘Did you see the news stories about the floods’ can lead to deeper questions such as:
- Does climate change frighten you? Do you ever wish you could do more to stop it?
- It’s very disempowering seeing footage of events we can do nothing to change. What do you think?
- Have you noticed how hard it is for opposing groups such as climate change activists and deniers to find common ground and speak to each other?
There are ways of broaching any topic that can be banal or unique, trite or meaningful. We can have dull conversations about death and engaging conversations about rainbows; what matters is how deep we are willing to go and how far beyond safety we are willing to venture.
While we may loathe small talk, to a significant extent, the onus is on us to push the conversation further. While we may feel trapped, it is doubtful that our conversation partner really wishes to continue talking about the price of apples or why Savoys are superior to Jatz biscuits. They certainly want to talk about the titillations of their mind and the depths of their heart; they may just need a little push in that direction and an assurance that they are in safe company. Perhaps we could start…
The skilled conversationalist can see a goldmine of information hidden in the most ordinary of observations. If handled correctly, a comment about poor drivers on the road can lead to fruitful discussions about the expectations of others, and a statement about the beauty of thunderstorms may provide fertile ground for discussions about the perverse charm of destruction. The point is that an observation, basically any observation, if we are paying attention, can be a stepping stone to something more meaningful in another’s mind.
We all want to move towards intimacy and sincerity. Small talk is the keyhole through which we glimpse what lies within the room of another’s mind. Once we see the potential in small talk, it won’t feel so painful anymore.
If you had asked a serf 400 years ago if they found their work fulfilling, they would have looked at you in confusion; the necessity of work was absolute, the type of work was non-negotiable, and toil was considered a part of the process; a type of thinking which backgrounded Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, and to which we are to some extent rebelling.
In this current historical juncture, we look to work not only for basic survival but also for the fulfilment of wishes, dreams and desires. Survival now guaranteed, we want to find meaning.
There is already an implied problem. We think of meaning as something found, as opposed to, for instance, created/cultivated/adopted. Finding ‘meaning’ is a fallacy implying that meaning is some sort of quality existing in the ether, waiting for us to pluck it like ripened fruit.
We could (and perhaps, should) instead say we wish to find what is meaningful for me. But, such a proposition hinges on something very important: we must know ourselves.
This is the first and arguably, most difficult step in finding meaningful work. If we do not know ourselves, what gratifies, inspires and moves; and contrarily, what irritates, demoralises and defeats; then finding meaningful work will be nearly impossible. Instead, we could start by writing a list of things we like a don’t like or free-associating from something we do; but, what we first must do is start investigating ourselves, and move out into the world from this point.
Upon understanding what elates and deflates us, we run into the implied next problem: it is nearly impossible to find a job perfectly suited to us. If there are jobs which satisfy our every desire, those with these jobs are great at keeping secrets. The likelihood of finding such jobs is slim, if not infinitesimal. Upon finding what we like and dislike, we are called upon to adjust ourselves to reality as it stands. Knowing we will not find work that satisfies every aspect of our personality, we may at least find one which can stimulate as many parts of ourselves as possible.
For example, you are a talented digital artist who wishes to inspire and move people; however, you cannot survive selling prints of your work on Instagram. So, you get a job working as a graphic designer for a multinational firm. While you might not inspire people (and move them only to purchase a new commodity), you are at least speaking to an important aspect of your personality; that is, the desire to create digital art. You might, contrarily, get a job as a digital artist for fringe festivals, and while you may still need to create within the parametres of somebody else’s expectations, you can still produce digital art which inspires and moves. The point is that you can’t have everything, but you can negotiate and adjust your expectations to achieve a satisfying sense of fulfilment.
But, perhaps, the option for satisfying a sufficient number of aspects of personality is out of reach, another option is, rather than expecting more from work, we can expect less from it. If we use a smaller glass, we need a lot less water to fill it. Rather than expecting work to be emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and economically satisfying, we could settle for maybe just two, or even one. If we could sufficiently lower our expectations of what we want from work, it wouldn’t be as hard to find work ‘fulfilling’. After all, if we went into work only expecting a paycheck and nothing more, we would be considerably less afflicted with pangs of doubt and disappointment about the state of our soul. But, a silent finger point appears here. That is, maybe the problem is not that work fails to fulfil us spiritually, but instead, we feel our life is spiritually unfulfilled generally, and look to work to fulfil it.
For example, if we want to be an artist, a consolation, a helper; we could satisfy these dreams by becoming a content writer, a psychologist, a disability support worker. Alternatively, we could work our 9-5 job (with no expectations for anything more than a paycheck), and in our time outside of work write a philosophy blog, help out at soup kitchens, help an elderly neighbour with their gardening.
Perhaps the issue is not that work fails to meet our expectations, but rather, we expect so much from work. If we could take work in its proper context, we would see it is only one part of life, and as such, expecting it to satisfy all of our desires as foolish, overly-optimistic and dangerous. We would benefit from putting far less significance on work, and more on everything we do outside it.
For writers (including yours truly), a blank page can be terrifying, even debilitating. Signalling a potential waiting to be realised, it is likewise unlimited potential, potential without direction; any decision taken closes down others which could have been made in its stead. To the extent that a blank page signals absolute freedom, it likewise signals absolute uncertainty. Will this be the right way to start? Now that I have come 73 words in, is it too late to go back, to start anew, to return to the ungerminated seed which inspired this piece?
A blank page on a computer is a vast tundra of meta-visual space, glaring, naked, brutal white. Nothing here, nothing yet…
Transcribing another text onto a blank page is no difficult task; I know where to begin and where to end. But, for what it makes up for in certainty, it loses uniqueness, creativity and genuineness; so too with living. Mimicking will ease the pangs of uncertainty, but it likewise empties life of meaning; because we aren’t writing our story, we are writing someone else’s.
The blank page confronts us with a deeply existential problem. For every decision we make, there are decisions we do not; and for every decision we do make, we narrow the range of future possibilities. What’s frightening is not making a decision, but the implicit thought at the back of our minds that asks: could another decision have been better? Within this question is captured the most difficult task of writing indeed, but also of living itself.
When discussing his creative process, Android Jones remarked on an internal movement relevant to all art, including the art of living. He observed that when confronted with a blank canvas, he didn’t think too much about where or how to begin; he simply began. Anywhere was as good a starting point as any other, he observed; with other aspects, dimensions, and forms following from this starting point. While a canvas physically has a central point, for him, the philosophical centre could be anywhere.
For life, what is of paramount importance is not whether you decide to become an electrician or a fountain pen salesman, it is the very act of deciding, of acting, and from this, seeing new directions, colours and forms for your life to take. To endlessly ponder how to begin an essay is to wait until the computer battery runs out, only to find you haven’t written a word. The poorly written essay can be improved, but there is nothing to change on an empty page.
It can be debilitating to be faced with a blank page, empty canvas or unlived life. How to know what to do, where to start, what direction to take? The essence here is that any point is as good as any others, in a way, choosing the ‘right’ place matters less than the very decision to ‘choose’; that is, begin writing, drawing, acting and from this, all else follows. I did not know how this essay would unfold until I got to the end, and so it is with life; once I began, it became clearer what I needed to do. Did I start in the right place with the right words? Once you get to the end, you see such a question begins to matter less and less.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
This poem, penned by W.H Auden, is located in his chapter on history. It could have gone under another chapter but didn’t. I believe this was no mistake; because loving, with no guarantee that one be loved back, is a tale told throughout time. Dealing with the disorienting imperative of loving a universe insensitive to our wants and desires, this poem is an elegy to the unrequited and perhaps vastest love of all. The indifference of the stars to our wonder and admiration is the triumph of the human heart – loving with no demand for us to be loved back.