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happiness

Enough

The closest I’ve come to enlightenment was the two minutes when I was lying in a bloody heap on Valsfjell Mountain in Norway. This was back in February 2001. While skiing down a steep slope, I crashed through a fence, flew off a cliff, and landed with a thump, breaking my leg and several vertebrae. That moment, my consciousness was transported to somewhere or Something, where it was enveloped in a white light and told ‘you’re OK’.

This was after I had suffered from post-traumatic stress for six years. I felt fundamentally broken, and struggled to trust and connect with other people. I was in a vicious loop of social anxiety, and shock at having ‘lost my self’.

IT gave me this information: ‘Your soul is infinitely precious. Its value can’t be added to or taken away. Nothing can harm it or destroy it, not even death. Relax and trust the treasure within. Rest in the inner garden. Stop worrying so much about others’ approval. Praise doesn’t add one krone to your value, criticism doesn’t lower it.’

In the weeks after that off-peak experience, I felt re-centred and rejuvenated. After years of begging in the street for others’ approval, I suddenly realized I had the keys to a mansion. This wondrous soul, this well of love and power within us, makes us the wealthiest, most blessed beings, if we could just shift our perspective and realize it.

That experience was 18 years ago. Since then, I have often forgotten who I am, and gone back to begging in the streets. Unless you’re Eckhart Tolle, you’re not constantly bathing in the warm light of the divine, not consciously anyway. You’re catching the occasional ray. Meanwhile, you need to find your way in this material dimension. Work, taxes, relationships, family, pension. And sometimes, you feel like you don’t have enough of something – love, respect, money, confidence – and you can easily switch back into feeling deficient, empty and hungry for external validation.

How does one balance a feeling of inner sufficiency with the need to go out there and hustle for a living?

I read a good book recently that talks about the power of feeling enough, and how this can play out in work, in the economy, and the environment. It’s called The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist.

Lynne urges us to become more conscious in our relationship to money, and the assumptions and myths we hold around it, so that we become capable of seeing money as a vehicle for our ideals.

Lynne is a very successful fund-raiser. She has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for various charities, particularly The Hunger Project and, more recently, an organisation called The Pachamama Alliance, that works with indigenous Amazonian people.

She says our relationship to money is often shaped by three basic myths: ‘there is not enough’, ‘more is better’, and ‘it’s always been this way’.

The first two, she says, create a Hobbesian mind-set of scarcity, in which the world is a harsh battlefield, a brutal scrabble for survival. There will be winners and losers. There is not enough, so you’d better get yours quick, and the more the better.

That mind-set comes from a place of deep insufficiency, an inner emptiness, pain and spiritual hunger. ‘There is not enough’ is closely connected to another deep myth:  ‘I am not good enough’. I am flawed and unlovable, therefore I need to prove my worth through external things, like sex, power and status. The habitual cravings come from a fear of our ego’s emptiness and an ignorance of who we really are.

The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes:

For so many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much—just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work—to make us feel that we are not okay. As a friend of mine put it, ‘Feeling that something is wrong with me is the invisible and toxic gas I am always breathing.’ When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.

The trance of unworthiness ‘makes it difficult to trust that we are truly loved. Many of us live with an undercurrent of depression or hopelessness about ever feeling close to other people. We fear that if they realize we are boring or stupid, selfish or insecure, they’ll reject us. If we’re not attractive enough, we may never be loved in an intimate, romantic way. We yearn for an unquestioned experience of belonging, to feel at home with ourselves and others, at ease and fully accepted. But the trance of unworthiness keeps the sweetness of belonging out of reach’.

How can we wake up from this trance of unworthiness, this dream of ‘not enough’. Lynne Twist writes:

All the great spiritual teachings tell us to look inside to find the wholeness we crave, but the scarcity chase allows no time or psychic space for that kind of introspection. In the pursuit of more we overlook the fullness and completeness that are already within us. [This scarcity chase] is the driving force for much of the violence and war, corruption and exploitation on earth.

We need to wake up to our inner richness, to the natural resource of consciousness, the renewable energy of wisdom, love, relationships, creativity. We need to realize we have enough resources to meet the challenge of the present. Twist calls this attitude ‘sufficiency’:

Sufficiency is an act of generating, distinguishing, making known to ourselves the power and presence of our existing resources, and our inner resources…When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete. We feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through our lives.

From a development perspective, sufficiency means not thinking western donors can or should save poor third-world countries from their helpless destitution (the Band-Aid school of development), but instead realizing those countries and communities already have skills and assets which they can draw on, and we can learn from (like the incredible botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonian tribes). It means working with them rather than trying to save them.

From a personal perspective, embracing sufficiency means not focusing only on the problems and deficiencies in your life, but instead appreciating your strengths and gifts – including the gift of consciousness – which you can draw on to meet the challenges that arise. When you appreciate all you are and all you have, you can begin to open in confidence and love to others, rather than defensive neediness.

She quotes a beautiful poem by the Bengali mystic Rabindranath Tagore to illustrate this shift from a scarcity to a sufficiency mind-set:

I lived on the shady side of the road and watched my neighbours’ gardens across the way reveling in the sunshine.

I felt I was poor, and from door to door went with my hunger.

The more they gave me from their careless abundance the more I became aware of my beggar’s bowl.

Till one morning I awoke from my sleep at the sudden opening of my door, and you came and asked for alms.

In despair I broke the lid of my chest open and was startled into finding my own wealth.

Since the late 1990s, Twist has worked with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon called the Achuar, through the Pachamama Alliance. She says she became aware of the Achuar after taking part in an Amazon ‘dreaming ritual’ (ie an ayahuasca ceremony) in which she saw the tribe in a vision. She tracked them down and they, apparently, were expecting her. They’ve worked together ever since.

This is where mysticism, environmentalism, psychedelics and economics interact. We need to change the dream we’re in, change the myths we live by, to move from a ‘not enough’ anxious scrabble for survival, to a mind-set of ‘there’s enough for all of us’. That involves waking up to the ‘enough’ within, to the natural wealth of our consciousness and the joy of connection to other beings. It also means recognizing the power of our minds, myths and imagination to shape reality.

Twist writes that her work with Pachamama Alliance involves a sort of political dreaming:

The future we dream, and which is emerging as reality, is one in which these pristine ecosystems are protected and the indigenous people who are the natural custodians of these forests are respected for their intelligence and vision.

She adds:

we must think and talk about money as part of a true ecosystem—a single system in which we view the economy and the ecology as fundamentally bound together. For too long the economy has been viewed as separate from ecology, but nature has showed us that the two are inextricably joined. In fact, the economy is a subset of the ecology.

How does this exciting vision relate to my life and plans at the moment? Well, as regular readers know, I’m trying to shift my relationship to money this year, from a ‘broke writer’ mind-set to something else. I want to build an organisation, a home for wisdom research and practice, and that involves asking funders for money. This involves a shift for me, from the ‘I’m-a-freelancer-so-I-don’t-care-if-you-reject-me’ mindset, to a more collaborative mindset of ‘work with me and help me build something worthwhile’.

It means having the courage to ask others to help me, and risking rejection and failure. Lynne Twist is great at this. She says:

I love to ask people for money. Fund-raising is a calling for me, not the dreaded assignment or burdensome obligation it is sometimes made out to be. Fund-raising is hard work, but I also believe fund-raising is sacred work… a great fund-raiser is a broker for the sacred energy of money, helping people use the money that flows through their lives in the most useful way that is consistent with their aspirations and hopes for humanity…

This is a great attitude. ‘I love to ask people for money.’ It’s not Law of Attraction, not quite. It’s having a strong vision, and calling others to help, but doing that from a sense of your own sufficiency, rather than from a place of neediness and deficiency.

The next stage for me, I think, involves developing from a very independent and people-suspicious writer (who secretly craves community), to growing more of an organisation, community, and working culture where all of our consciousness is allowed to show up. I’m sure it will involve me confronting various myths and dreams of unworthiness in myself, and going through various setbacks and growing pains.

But in some ways, it’s just a game. We can try to play the game well, and enjoy the process, without betting our self-worth totally on the outcome. My soul, your soul, are fine as they are. We are infinitely loved, our souls are infinitely precious. We can work from a sense of sufficiency, a sense of play, an openness to what we’re feeling, and joy as we realize our potential.

Here is a little poem I sometimes say to myself, which helps me turn off the demented secretary of my ego and rest in my soul for 20 minutes or so.

Nothing to do

Nowhere to go

No-one to impress

No-one to become

Nothing to add

Nothing to take-away

Nothing to improve

Nothing to reduce

Nowhere to get to

Nowhere to escape

Nowhere to be

Except here

How alt-right is Nietzsche really?

Hitler considers a bust of Nietzsche

I wasn’t a big reader as a youth. I was more of a jock and a class clown. It was only around the age of 17 that I suddenly became a moody adolescent book-worm – it was both a quickening and a sickening. In one term, I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Cases of Hysteria, and also watched Blue Velvet. Strong medicine! I had a sudden horrifying and fascinating sense of the dark subconscious bubbling beneath civilized appearances.

The book that made the biggest impression on me, by far, was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. I was transfixed by his description of the play of two opposing forces in ancient Greek culture – the Apollonian, which seeks limits and moderation, and the Dionysian, which seeks excess and ecstasy. I started to see these forces everywhere. Every essay I wrote weaved its way inevitably back to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The obsession continued at university. Fifteen years later, I wrote my first book on the Socratic path to flourishing, and my second on the Dionysian path. How long a shadow that book has cast!

Strangely enough, I never read other books by Nietzsche. I got my Nietzschean philosophy second-hand, from the novels of DH Lawrence. But recently I was sent a new biography of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux, called I Am Dynamite. I devoured it – it’s a beautiful, moving, and very absorbing account of a heroic and pathetic life. And it inspired me to read more Nietzsche, and consider his influence on our time a little more deeply.

Nietzsche grew up in a fairly well-to-do German family in Prussia, but the family fortunes took a turn for the worse when his father – a Lutheran pastor – died of a degenerative brain illness in his 30s. The family became hard-up, but Nietzsche lifted them up through his academic brilliance. He was appointed a professor of philology at the age of 25, but he dreamt of being a composer. He managed to befriend Richard Wagner – already a European celebrity – and spent the happiest days of his life at the Wagner castle, where he was embraced as one of the family. For a few years, he moved in the exalted atmosphere of Chateaux Wagner – all high ideals and swooning ecstasies.

But his 30s were not as glorious as his 20s. He wrote The Birth of Tragedy at 28, but it was greeted with ominous silence by the press and academic peers. It was so over-the-top in its ecstatic style, compared to the average plodding academic work. Then he fell out with Wagner, and fell in love with a 20-year-old Russian, named Lou Salome, who ultimately rejected his advances and humiliated him. He was prone to terrible migraines and digestive troubles, and was often confined to bed for days. He found himself tramping across Europe, from city to city, self-publishing his own books, and almost always alone.

Nietzsche in a humorous photo with his friend Paul Ree and 20-year-old Russian tearaway Lou Salome. The three lived in a sort of Platonic menage a trois for a while, before Lou and Paul abandoned the besotted Nietzsche. He became markedly more misogynistic afterwards. ‘You go to women?’ he wrote. ‘Do not forget the whip.’

Yet somehow, out of these inauspicious circumstances, his ideas burst forth, more and more confident and radical. He was certain that he had an entirely new vision of existence, which would destroy the last 2500 years of morality, and pave the way for a bold new adventure for mankind.

When one reads the great prophets of moral philosophy – the Buddha, Plato, the Stoics, Christ, the author of the Upanishads – one notices that they all preach self-knowledge, self-examination, self-control, sobriety, chastity and asceticism of the body. Only through this self-denial, we are told, can the virtuous person go beyond desires and appetites, beyond appearances, beyond impermanence, and arrive at some transcendental resting place – the One, God, the Logos, Buddha-nature, Brahman.

Nietzsche, through his great ‘transvaluation of values’, turns all these systems on their head. Their morality is not virtue and health. It is sickness, weakness, pessimism, nihilism, a symptom of decadence and decline. It is the consolation of the weak, the broken and the disappointed, those who turn wearily from life and ‘put their last trust in a sure nothing rather than an uncertain something’.

He writes, perhaps with the Buddha in mind: ‘They encounter an invalid or an old man or a corpse, and straightaway they say ‘Life is refuted!’ But only they are refuted, they and their eye that sees only one aspect of existence.

These famous moral systems are really an outgrowth of ‘slave morality’. The slave-philosopher Epictetus is a perfect example. He has no power over external things, so he says that true power, true freedom, is power over one’s thoughts and desires. How convenient. Then, like Socrates, he preaches this acceptance-of-weakness to strong aristocratic youth, and ruins them.

The ‘slave-morality’ was first invented by the Jews, Nietzsche says, out of their weakness and domination by various more powerful races. Judeo-Christianity pretends to be a morality of meekness and forgiveness, but underneath that mask lurks resentment and passive-aggression. ‘I forgive you’, they say to their conquerors, but what they really mean is ‘I’m better than you’. And the Romans, alas, fell for it.

Against the slave-morality, Nietzsche champions the masters, the ‘blond beasts’, those strong, carefree warriors who maraud across the world from time to time, like the Vikings, the Teutonic knights, the Mongols, the Indian Kshatriyas, the Greek aristocrats. They were young, healthy, vigorous, laughing, cruel and violent. They basically did what they liked, and called it ‘noble’, and had a gay old time of it until Socrates, Jesus, Lao Tse and the Buddha came along and ruined everything.

Nietzsche thought that liberal democracy was really an extension of Christianity, with its sympathy for the weak and the rights of man. He looked across late 19th century Europe, with its campaigns for universal suffrage, gender equality and the welfare state, and saw the triumph of slave morality, the triumph of the herd, the masses, the little people. It made him sick. He railed against the plebs, and especially against female suffrage – ‘the struggle for equal rights is a symptom of sickness’, he wrote. Healthy women loved to obey men. Only barren women fought for equality.

Democratic, plebeian, mediocre Europeans had lost any sense of greatness. They’d lost even the memory of God and of their predecessors’ heroic struggle for transcendence. They just wanted comfort and ‘well-being’. Nietzsche was no fan of well-being:

You want, if possible—and there is not a more foolish “if possible”—TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?—it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible—and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering—know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto?

Instead, he lays out a new vision for humans, a new project: the Ubermensch, or Superman. He writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.’ We should seek to transcend ourselves not in the service of ‘super-terrestrial hopes’ like God or Nirvana, but rather in the service of self-actualization. This self-actualization – becoming what we are – does not involve the disciplining of the body, the emotions and the desires, but rather letting the desires, emotions and body sing and dance. It does not mean a weary obedience to rules and precepts handed down by priests, but rather the bold creation of new values. Man creates meaning, he does not receive it from God. And this self-actualization will be here and now, in this body, on this Earth, or it will be nowhere. We must resist the urge to find consolation and security in fake metaphysical dreams like God or Nirvana, and instead learn to dance with uncertainty and chaos.

By 1888, Nietzsche felt he had blown his way clear of the old morality, and was euphoric with the new prospects he saw for mankind. He wrote four books in nine months, they poured out of him. He was filled with joy, and even lost control of his face and his emotions – he couldn’t stop grinning. He saw coincidences in everything. ‘He only had to think of a person for a letter from them to arrive politely through the door.’ His letters to his friends became increasingly manic. He started to allude to himself as Dionysus, or ‘The Crucified’. ‘I shall rule the world from now on.’ ‘In two months time I shall be the foremost name on the earth’.

In January 1889 he had some sort of breakdown in the streets of Turin. It is said he saw a man whipping a horse, and he clung to the horse’s neck and wept. How poignant if this is true – the man who condemned pity breaks down in pity! He retreated to his apartment, where he screamed and danced naked. His friend Franz Overbeck was contacted, and found Nietzsche cowering in a corner, trying to read his writings but obviously unable to comprehend them. He never recovered his mind – never seemed to know who he was or what was happening.

He was 44, but lived for another 11 years. His sister Elizabeth, who sounds an evil and selfish anti-Semite, took care of him, and cashed in on his growing success. She ran salons celebrating his work in the living-room, while Nietzsche howled in his bedroom upstairs. She controlled his estate, and turned him into a prophet of Nazism. Hitler came to visit, and emerged from their conversation bearing Nietzsche’s walking stick.

Was Nietzsche’s collapse a divine punishment for his hubris and over-reaching? Some kind of psychosis or spiritual emergency? Or a neurological illness, perhaps inherited from his father? We don’t know. But, just as he prophesized, in the years after his collapse his influence grew and grew. His dynamite philosophy blew a hole in Victorian complacency, and created a space for the fierce experimentation of modernism.

For some years after World War 2, Nietzsche was understandably out of fashion. But he’s been rehabilitated since the 1970s, and is now one of the most popular subjects for philosophy PhDs. Scholars have clarified that, unlike his sister, he wasn’t anti-Semitic – he admired Jewish culture. Nor was he a nationalist – he thought nationalism was a cheap intoxicant, despised German militarism, and called himself a ‘good European’. He was a key influence on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and helped to create what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is so popular in left-wing humanities and social sciences: what secret interest lurks under an ideal? Aren’t all claims to ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ really disguised power-grabs by particular interest groups?

This new biography will add to his good reputation – what a heroic man we meet, what a stylist, what a humourist! Who else has chapter headings like ‘Why I am so clever’! Who else can tear apart an entire philosophy (like Stoicism) with a few hilarious sentences. What brilliant psychological insights he threw up in his inspired frenzy – on the unconscious, the ego, projection, the wisdom of the body.

It’s awkward, then, that this new, sympathetic, rehabilitated Nietzsche should prove to be so popular with the alt-right. The American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has said he was ‘Red Pilled by Nietzsche’, and many other angry young white men on alt-right or Red Pill websites have nothing but praise for Nietzsche. They don’t get him, insist liberal or leftist defenders of Nietzsche. They’re misappropriating him. They’re making the same mistakes the Nazis made.

Oh come off it. Foucault is right that there are many Nietzsches, but one of the most consistent notes one hears is contempt for the masses and hatred of liberal democracy, equality, and the rights of women, workers or the weak. As I read his books this week – particularly Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals  – I thought how well it fit with the alt-right worldview: Liberal democracy is a monstrous cacophony that seeks to shame and emasculate strong men. It is a dictatorship of the offended, the resentful, and the easily bruised, who seek power through victimhood and hurt feelings. This conspiracy of the weak will only work if strong men fall for it – if they become cuks or ‘white knights’, in alt-right and Red Pill terms – if they are so credulous as to believe that women or minority groups really are interested in ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ rather than simply power and domination. But the strong man, the Alpha male, will break the bonds of liberal guilt and roam free, just like Trump, Bo-Jo, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duterte, Erdogan, Berlusconi, and every other blond or not so-blond beast now strutting on the world stage.

How could the alt-right and Red Pillers not thrill to passages like this, where Nietzsche gets nostalgic about the good ol’ days of rape and pillage enjoyed by the ‘blond beasts’:

They enjoy freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets have now an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

It reminds one of Kavanaugh – it’s all just student pranks…just bants!

There are passages where Nietzsche even sounds like Trump – in his insults against women, and his absurd boasting: ‘At no moment of my life can I be shown to have adopted any kind of arrogant or pathetic posture’, he says, before continuing: ‘Anyone who saw me during the seventy days of this autumn when I was uninterruptedly creating nothing but things of the first rank which no man will be able to do again or has done before, bearing a responsibility for all the coming millennia, will have noticed no trace of tension in me.’ It reminds me of Trump’s immortal line: ‘I’m much more humble than you would understand’.

How could fascists not grin at Nietzsche’s Strangelovian denunciations of the superfluous dwarves of liberal democracy, who don’t deserve any sympathy – in fact, it is just this sympathy which has led to the ‘DETERIORATION OF THE EUROPEAN RACE’? How could they not cheer at his calls for ‘the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements’, at his yearning for ‘the harshest but most necessary wars’, at his praise of violence and cruelty as the source of all higher culture, at his endless comments like: ‘The weak and the failures shall perish. They ought even to be helped to perish’.

I could give many such quotes. Nietzsche can’t be called a fascist or alt-righter, because he never stayed in one position long, and he rejected any political action as ‘filth’. But the alt-right can find a lot to love in him. I’m sure sometimes he is being provocative – just bants! – but words and ideas easily slip off the page and kill people.

And this champion of strength and virility was a sickly and weak man, a failure in the army, a loser in love, who claimed not to need public attention yet became more and more megalomaniac until he claimed to be a god. He’s right that there can be something morbid and unhealthy in Stoicism and other philosophies of consolation – but there is also, surely, something morbid and resentful in him, the impoverished and humiliated Prussian constantly insisting on his aristocratic rank. One can find him interesting, funny, fascinating, even sympathetic, and still be honest about the toxicity of his ideas and the damage they do.