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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

The Philosopher and the Magus

Last week, if you remember, I was at a Buddhist seminar in the Colorado mountains, taught by a Tibetan Buddhist lama called Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. This was quite different to other Buddhist retreats I’ve been on. There wasn’t much meditation, instead there was four hours of teaching every day, over nine days.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche first came over to the US to work as a philosophy lecturer at Naropa University, the Buddhist university founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder in 1974. His talks were mind-blowing. I’ve never actually been to a philosophy lecture before, and it’s a head-trip, trying to follow subtle arguments about the non-existence of the phenomenal world, in real time, for two hours.

Rinpoche said: ‘People like dharma teachings to be like opera [ie very emotional]. They’re lazy, and don’t want to grapple with philosophical arguments. In Buddhism there are two kinds of people. Those who are faith-orientated, and those who use discriminating intelligence. The Buddha encouraged the second kind of path.’

This immersion in Buddhist philosophy made me think about the difference between studying philosophy in western academia, and studying it in a Tibetan monastery.

The main difference is there is a specific goal for the student of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to reach: enlightenment, for you, and for all beings. Philosophy is not something to be studied for the sake of a degree, a PhD, or tenure, it’s meant to be studied as part of the total transformation of the student’s mind and heart. It’s never just theory, it’s always tied to contemplation and to how one lives. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘you may be fluent in the lecture-room, but out in the street you’re miserably shipwrecked.’

In Buddhism, as in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato, the journey to enlightenment happens over many lifetimes. Rinpoche taught within this context – he said we may not fully understand Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness in this life but ‘if you get it in 10 lifetimes, or 50 lifetimes, I will be happy’. So there’s a longer time-perspective than the traditional three-year PhD. The Guru is your supervisor over countless lifetimes (tough if you don’t like him).

Imagine your university lecturer saying, as Rinpoche did, ‘I am confident you will all reach enlightenment!’ Yet this model of philosophy has a lot in common with ancient Greek philosophy. There’s the idea of philosophy as a medicine for the soul. There’s the idea of philosophy as a way of life. There’s the idea of philosophy as a training for death – and books of philosophy as guides for the afterlife (as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Plato’s Phaedo, which Cato read as he died).

There’s the idea that emotional disturbance comes from misperception, or inaccurate seeing – tsul min yiche in Tibetan. Epictetus famously said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.’ Likewise, the Indian Buddhist philosopher Tilopa told his student Naropa: ‘It’s not appearances that bind you, it’s your attachment to appearances.’

In Stoicism, and in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we heal ourselves by realizing how our opinions cause our emotions, and how the opinions may be wrong. The example I use in talks is that you walk into your office, and see Jennifer frowning, and you immediately feel offended and angry. The Stoic philosopher would get you to realize how your opinion caused your emotion – you thought something like ‘Jennifer is frowning at me, she doesn’t like me, what a bitch’ etc. Your view may be inaccurate – she may not be frowning at you, she may not hate you. And it may be unwise – even if she is frowning at you, so what? Is it wise or helpful to hate her back?

Buddhism likewise suggests that everything depends on the view you take of it. Machib Ladrong, the 12th century Tibetan teacher, told her students: ‘You may think that Gods are the ones who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practising the Dharma.’ As Marcus Aurelius put it, ‘Life itself is but what you deem it.’

But the Buddhist goes even deeper in dissolving the opinion ‘she offended me’. Jennifer doesn’t really exist, as a separate, independent, permanent self. She is a bundle of a trillion constantly changing conditions – her genes, her ancestors, her beliefs and culture, her body, how she slept last night, and so on. You don’t really exist either, not as a separate, independent, permanent self. There is no separate ‘she’ nor a separate ‘me’.

For three days, we dug into the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, or sunyata, as developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who lived in the second century AD in the south of India. He took the Buddha’s idea of dependent origination – nothing exists independently, everything arises and passes based on causes, including samsara and nirvana – and developed it into a rigorous systematic philosophy of emptiness.

All theories of the phenomenal world can be undermined through his ‘tetralemma’ (like a dilemma, but four possibilities rather than two):

The phenomenal world is not born from itself.

The phenomenal world is not born from something else.

The phenomenal world is not born from itself and something else.

The phenomenal world is not born without cause.

For each of these positions he gives various philosophical arguments (I won’t go into them here, as I don’t fully get them yet!) In general, his ‘Madhyamaka’ school of philosophy tries to undermine both the essentialist or eternalist school of philosophy, which argues that things can be reduced to some eternal and indestructible essence such as God or atoms; and the nihilist school, which argues nothing really exists. It tries to find a middle way – things don’t exist in the way we think of them at the gross or relative level, but they do exist in a relative sense.

A rainbow does not exist in a permanent or independent sense. It arises from certain conditions, from a certain perspective. However, it’s still there, in a relative sense. It’s still beautiful, in a relative sense. The problem is, we grasp at things as solid, real and permanent – we particularly grasp at the self as real, permanent and eternal. We chase the rainbow and try and find the pot of gold (ie to ground the self in permanent security, pleasure and contentment and to defend it from all threats). This chasing rainbows is what leads to grasping, which leads to negative emotions, which leads to samsara.

It’s a very radical view. All theories are empty. They all depend on polarities like ‘high/low’ or ‘good/bad’, which depend on each other and don’t really exist as independent terms. There is no God, no Platonic One, no ultimate and permanent Good. Nor is there an ultimate Zero – you mustn’t get attached to nihilism either. You could say, as Heraclitus did, ‘everything flows’, and what we call the self is really a bundle of continuums – continuum of the body, emotions, mind etc. But even the continuums don’t really exist in a permanent or absolute sense.

The theory of emptiness is also empty, as are all Buddhist teachings. They’re not the truth itself, they’re a raft to the truth, which is inexpressible. Over-attachment to any philosophical theory causes suffering – this reminds me of the ancient Greek school of Scepticism.

As the famous heart sutra teaches, revealing the dharma itself to be empty:

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.

The heart sutra, by the by, was supposedly taught in the Buddha’s time, and then hidden by underwater serpents until humanity was ready to receive it. One legend has it that Nagarjuna – a magician as well as a philosopher – travelled to the underwater kingdom and was presented with it. Hence his name, which means something like ‘lord of the water-snakes’. He also taught that external reality should be seen as a dream or a magic show – it’s beautiful, but don’t get hypnotized into thinking it’s real.

‘You see the moon reflected in a pond’, said Rinpoche. ‘You know it has no reality, so you don’t try to grasp it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could relate to our life in that way, without churning emotions?’

So, I had a glimpse of an alternative conception of philosophy, an alternative path to the one taken by western academic philosophy, without the Reformation or Descartes or Kant or the Positivists. Wouldn’t it be great to study at a Tibetan monastery?

Well…yes and no. Sometimes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy reminds me of boring Aristotelian scholasticism – endless lists which the student is expected to memorize, like the 18 dhatus or the 37 limbs of enlightenment. Monastic philosophy also seems rather authoritarian and static – how could a young monk disagree with a supposedly enlightened Rinpoche? Ideas did change in western scholastic philosophy, but they changed extremely slowly. And of course, western monasteries often became corrupted, as many apparently still are in Asia. Imagine if tenure was granted not through achievement, but inheritance!

Still, I’m glad that the ascetic or practical or eudaimonic model of philosophy is gradually returning to the west, via Buddhism and Stoicism.

There is another side to Tibetan Buddhism, which I’ll end by discussing briefly, and that is its love of magic ritual. The last two days of the seminar were spent on a Tara empowerment ritual, which took ten hours, all in all, of chanting, ritual cleansing, visualizing and various other ritual actions – including visualizing Tara in various forms, with a flower on our heads, standing on a magic bicycle (no, really) and taking some grass back home to put under our beds, to inspire prophetic dreams.

This obviously felt quite alien to me – not least because the chanting was in Tibetan, most of which I didn’t quite catch, so God knows what I actually said. I’m all for using imaginative visualizations in meditation, but I’m not familiar with imagery of Tara, so abruptly summoning up an image of a white girl with seven eyes led to rather monstrous results.

I also found it off-putting because it seemed like operational magic to me. By operational magic, I mean rituals designed to create effects in the world. The Tara ritual, like all tantra rituals, supposedly grants great powers, or sidhis – such as longevity, magnetism and enrichment. Other tantra rituals supposedly grant powers like the destruction of enemies. We’re told Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is the ultimate Buddhist teachings – the most secret, the most exclusive, the fastest way to enlightenment. But, to be totally frank, this aspect of it reminds me more of folk Catholicism, prosperity theology, or even the Law of Attraction. It risks becoming a grasping after power – at least, that’s how it struck me, as a novice outsider.

And with that grasping after power comes spiritual pride and hierarchy: we’re the special ones, specially empowered in a rare and exclusive ritual. The front-row of the tent were extra-special – his closest students were called up for special direct empowerments by the Rinpoche. This included his dog.

I was piqued that his dog got preferential empowerments. And I was also put off by the divination rituals to discover what sidhis Tara would grant us. Would we have lesser or supreme accomplishments? We cast a stick onto a mandala to discover. I got the lesser power of magnetism. Doh! Can I try again?

I also had a dream, after I put the magic grass under my bed. In the dream I was with friends, and we came across a party, where everyone was wearing white. We weren’t wearing white, but we tried to blag our way into the party. ‘Is this a…vajra party?’ I asked. ‘We’re into vajra too.’ Sorry, we were told, you’re not on the list. I don’t know if that was Tara telling me I’m not called to Vajrayana Buddhism, or my subconscious telling me that spiritual hierarchies always make me afraid of being left out. And esoteric magic always has hierarchies – you’re a ‘level 7 wizard’ or whatever.

Anyway, I’m not so into the magic side of Tibetan Buddhism (there was plenty of operational magic in Platonism, Stoicism and Renaissance Neo-Platonism, by the way). But the teachings of emptiness? I haven’t totally understood them yet. It’s OK, I have another 49 lifetimes before my essay deadline.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a vajra party, y’all

Wisdom, critical thinking, well-being or faith?

article-new_ehow_images_a07_lr_kg_learn-prison-800x800Apologies for the lack of newsletters recently – I’ve been in the depths of a project to design and teach a course based on Philosophy for Life. This month, I started teaching it in three organizations – a mental health charity in London called Manor Gardens; Saracens rugby club; and Low Moss prison in Glasgow (via New College Lanarkshire, which runs learning courses there).

Why try the same philosophy course in three such different organizations? Why these three in particular? Why indeed. I have no idea, other than a sense (a faith, really) that ancient philosophies have something to say to all of us, and could usefully be taught in all kinds of contexts – schools, universities, adult education, prisons, armies, hospitals and mental health trusts, armies, companies and online. Might as well start somewhere!

It’s been full-on. Low Moss has been the most intense and time-consuming, partly because I’m teaching two sessions there back-to-back every Friday, which takes a lot of preparation and energy; partly because it’s all the way up in Glasgow; and partly because….well…it’s in a prison, teaching to a group of long-term prisoners inside for serious crimes, so that brings its own challenges. It’s never been scary or threatening, thank God, but there’s just the challenge of ‘is this actually making any difference?’

There isn’t much philosophy happening within British prisons at the moment. I recently met Kirstine Szfiris, who’s doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons at Cambridge, and she tells me the only place it’s happening regularly is at Low Moss – although other prisons have occasional philosophy events or have run courses in the past. There is interest in expanding it to other prisons, and I went to a seminar on that last month.

Three approaches to philosophy in prisons

It became clear there are different ways to try and teach philosophy in prisons. Firstly, you use an idea or a stimulus as a springboard for Socratic discussion, which you allow to go where it wants. This is the Socratic approach of Philosophy for Children (P4C), as used by organizations like Sapere and The Philosophy Foundation. Nikki Cameron more or less uses this approach with her Philosophy Club at Low Moss. The participants seem to really enjoy it.

The other approach is to try and teach particular ideas from ancient philosophies, and then open them up for Socratic discussion. This is what I try and do. For example, I teach some ideas from Stoicism – such as Epictetus’ idea of focusing on what you can control while accepting what you can’t – and tell a real-life story or two of people using that idea today. Then, in the second half of the session, the group discusses this idea as well as what they think of Stoic philosophy in general.

The first approach aims to teach ‘critical thinking skills’. The second approach tries to teach ‘wisdom’. The wisdom approach has been particularly developed by Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, and one of my colleagues on the Stoicism Today project.

Then there is a third approach, which tries to teach ‘wellbeing’ or ‘flourishing’ using purely Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Positive Psychology. This approach is very popular within prisons – indeed, the Scottish Prison Service spends a lot of money on CBT courses like Constructs and Good Lives.

So three different approaches:

Critical Thinking – leave it entirely open to the prisoners to come to their own conclusions.
Well-being / Flourishing – teach psychological techniques from CBT, without any room for the discussion of values.
Wisdom – teach ideas from ancient philosophy and CBT, and incorporate discussion of values. Allow participants to discuss and disagree.

My approach tries to take a middle-ground between the complete freedom of Socratic enquiry, and the more doctrinaire approach of CBT. It has a more specific normative goal in mind – it believes ancient philosophies have useful things to tell us, things we might not simply discover for ourselves, things it’s worth learning – wisdom, in other words.

However, it doesn’t teach just one particular wisdom tradition, but several of them (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism). It explores the connections and similarities within these approaches – the core of wisdom that they share – while also exploring their value differences, and allowing participants to disagree and perhaps to reject them all.

The course I’m teaching also explores some of the similarities between ancient philosophies and modern psychology, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I believe inmates are far more open to these ideas when they’re presented in the context of ancient philosophy – and when it’s permissible to discuss and reject them. Perhaps they start to feel less like a clockwork orange, and more like a free thinker being encouraged to be the ‘doctor to themselves’, as Cicero put it.

In general, I think this is an advantage that the wisdom approach has over the more strictly psychological ‘well-being’ approach – it treats people as free minds and moral agents who can think for themselves and who may reject your ideas, rather than as thinking machines who simply need to download a better running script. If you let someone criticize and reject your ideas, they are more likely to accept them.

The difference between the ‘critical thinking’ and the ‘wisdom’ approach, then, is that I have less faith in wisdom simply emerging when you put a group of people into a room and get them to talk. From my own experience, when I was very unhappy, I didn’t figure a way out for myself, I benefitted from the wisdom of previous generations – although I didn’t simply swallow that wisdom whole, but chose which bits of it made sense to me.

Which of these three approaches works best? It’s too early to say. The CBT approach is the most scientistic, with more narrowly emotional goals – it’s easier to measure depression than wisdom. However, Sfrizis’ early research suggests that the participants of Nikki’s club at Low Moss say they also learn ‘coping skills’ from studying philosophy. They learn how their perspective can cause their emotions. They become more tolerant of different opinions. All of this is encouraging.

My experience so far, after seven sessions at Low Moss, suggests the following points to me:

1) The idea that participants seem to find most useful is the Stoic idea of focusing on what you can control and not freaking out over the things you can’t control. I think this is also the idea that participants at Saracens and at the mental health charity find most useful. There’s a reason Epictetus repeated this idea over and over, in lecture after lecture – it’s a very simple idea, yet one we constantly forget.

2) It’s also useful to repeat the idea of philosophy as training – we can’t just have a good idea once, we need to repeat it over and over until it becomes a cognitive habit, and then practice it until it becomes a behavioural habit. This emphasis on habits is very important in all the wisdom traditions we study – but it’s not part of the ‘Critical Thinking’ approach (indeed, habit is anathema to free open Socratic enquiry).  I would try and reinforce certain ideas using postcards and art-work around the classroom. The idea of reinforcing good habits would seem like indoctrination to the Critical Thinking approach – I think there is an optimal balance between wisdom / dogma and criticism, and that the Critical Thinking approach leaves people too adrift.

3) There’s a challenge of how to get the course to spill out into the rest of a person’s life, outside of the classroom. For paid participants, you can set them homework or fieldwork to try out each week. In Low Moss prison, they’re not that into ‘homework’! But you can at least try and make sure the prison library stocks books from the wisdom traditions that you’re teaching.

4) Both the ‘wisdom’ approach and the ‘critical thinking’ approach seem to reach the moral goal of helping people see things from others’ perspectives. Yesterday, one participant – a member of the BNP – got really into the Islamic mysticism of Rumi, for example. Racism and religious sectarianism presents quite a challenge to Socratic philosophy within prisons – and there may be times when the discussion can get quite heated – but it seems to be able to meet that challenge over the long-term (with proper classroom management). Getting inmates to think constructively about politics, however, is very hard – they are deeply disenfranchised and conspiracy-theorist. That may be a bridge too far.

5) There is another approach to philosophy in prisons, which is basically ‘faith’. You teach inmates one particular religious path to salvation. This is what the Alpha course does, for example, which runs in prisons around the world. This approach has various advantages (besides any supernatural assistance it might have). Firstly, when inmates leave, they can join a church – that’s a massive advantage over any philosophy or psychology course. Secondly, it teaches one particular ethical approach, which it can reinforce over and over. Thirdly, it involves inmates as mentors, helping each other keep the faith. Fourth, it understands the power of story – both the stories of Moses, Joseph, Christ etc – and the story of the inmate and how they came to be saved.

And finally, it involves transformation at a deep level – it tackles the prisoner’s belief ‘I am a worthless, bad and unlovable criminal and will always be that’. It meets that low status belief with an incredibly high status response – you are the child of God, who loves you, who particularly loves sinners like you. You are an heir to the Kingdom.

Both the ‘Critical Thinking’ and the ‘Wisdom’ approaches have to ask how they can achieve those ends, or whether that’s impossible. In a session I taught yesterday, I discussed Plato’s idea that we have forgotten who we are and need to remember we’re royalty (as it were) and how that idea influenced Christian and Muslim mysticism. But obviously a pluralist wisdom approach can’t be hung solely on such a supernatural hook. Still, I think of St Paul’s idea that knowledge without love is ‘a noisy cymbal’. It really is love that transforms. How do you teach that? How do you pass it on?

All these four approaches are at play in various social institutions and structures today. This is what I and others have called ‘the politics of well-being’, and it really is political. Whose approach will be taken up? Who has a powerful coalition and political backers to get their approach ‘rolled out’?  It’s also economic – who has the funding, who gets the profit? It’s scientific – who has the evidence base? And it’s a lot about egos – whose trade-marked approach gets all the respect and credit?

I feel like an infant in such political matters. I don’t really have grand political plans. At the moment I’m just trying to refine the wisdom approach and perhaps the best way to ‘roll it out’ (in that awful political parlance) is through an online course. In fact, I think the best way to roll it out is just to put it out there and let other practitioners take what they see fit. After all, these are not ‘my’ ideas or ‘my’ approach – these are very old wisdom traditions which belong to everyone. There’s a wise quote that the best way to exert influence is not to seek the credit. As Epictetus put it, do what is in your control and accept the rest as God’s will.