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This lecture is called Virtue as a Necessity. And the reason I gave it that title is because virtue, ethics, morality isn’t a field of study. It’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rest. It’s also a mode of being upon which everything you do in your life rests.  The way you understand yourself or fail to, the way you understand other people or fail to. And more deeply than that, what role it is that you play in your life in the world.

One of the things I’ve learned for example, being a clinical psychologist (I’ve spent thousands of hours helping people sort out difficult problems), is that lack of virtue makes people ill. I’m not saying that my clients themselves lacked virtue, I suppose some of them do and some of them don’t, but to the degree that they’re embedded in a network of relationships where virtue is fundamentally absent, they’re tortured and tormented and they’re unable to find firm ground.  And that’s not a biological problem, although biologically fragile people might be hurt more by a lack of virtue.

A lot of what you do in a real relationship with people, and at least to some degree in a clinical relationship is supposed to be real, is to provide a forum where people tell the truth. And that’s hard because people don’t like to tell the truth particularly – the truth is difficult. It’s difficult for a variety of reasons.

When I first thought about this lecture, I had a slightly different title. The title was Virtue as an Existential Necessity. And that’s a bit philosophical so I modified it. But there’s a reason for that because the concept of virtue means to be virtuous; existentialism is the study of being. I think that you can’t really understand what makes up virtue until you modulate or modify your notion of what constitutes being. This is a hard thing to do.

Modern people are fundamentally materialistic. And there’s some utility in that: we’re masters of material transformation. And the fact that we’re materialist in our scientific philosophy has made us extremely powerful, maybe too powerful, for our morality. Extremely powerful from a technological perspective, but it’s blinded us to certain things. And I think one of the things that it’s really blinded us to is the nature of our own being. Because we make the assumption that the fundamental constituent elements of reality are material. We fail to notice that the fundamental constituent elements of our own reality are not material. They’re emotional, they’re motivational, they’re dreams, they’re visions, they’re relationships with other people. They’re conscious: they’re dependent on consciousness. And self-consciousness. And we have absolutely no materialist explanation whatsoever either for consciousness or self-consciousness. And we don’t deal well, from a materialist perspective, with the qualities of being. And everyone knows those qualities exist, I mean for most people there’s nothing more real than their own pain. Pain transcends rational argument in that you can’t argue yourself out of it: it’s just there. And, materialist or not, there are very few people who are willing to allow the claim that their pain is merely an epiphenomena of some more fundamental material process. Pain is fundamental. Consciousness is fundamental. And I think that unless you understand that, you can’t think properly about virtue.

So I might start the discussion about virtue with a discussion about being. Well, what does human being look like? Well, the Buddhists say life is suffering – that’s the first fundamental Buddhist dictum. And I suppose a modern person would tend to think of that as a very pessimistic claim. But I found when I shared that information with my students, once they understand what it means, it’s actually a relief because people run around madly, suffering  away, and all of them inside their little shell think ‘Well, there must be something wrong with me because here I am suffering and that isn’t how things are supposed to be.’ Well then, you might say ‘Who says that’s not the way things are supposed to be?’ The Buddhists say life is suffering. So what that means is, if you’re not suffering, that’s a good thing, that’s lucky, that’s fortunate, that’s not the way of the world. That may be something to be grateful for, ecstatic about even.

And of course in Christianity, the central symbol of Christianity is the crucifix, which is not a positive symbol in any way: it’s a symbol of betrayal by friends, opposition from the state and mortal vulnerability. It’s about as powerful a symbolic representation of the idea that life is suffering that you could put together, which is of course why the power of that symbol extends across several thousand years.

Judaism: I don’t think it’s going to come as a shock to anyone in the audience that Jews are acutely aware of the suffering that’s involved in life. So it’s useful to know, to understand what it means that life is suffering. It’s a fundamental ontological truth. It’s a fundamental statement about the nature of being. And there’s a reason for that, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s perfectly comprehensible. We’re finite. We have a lifespan that’s bounded temporally, we have maybe a hundred years and that’ll pretty much be it.

And then there’s other forms of extreme limitation that are imposed on you that have very little to do with you. They’re arbitrary facts of being. You’re a certain height, you’re a certain weight, you’re a certain amount of attractive, a certain amount of intelligent, you’re a certain amount of athletic, you’re a certain amount of mentally ill, you’re a certain amount of pre-disposition to cancer. And it’s frequently the case that people like to attribute those vulnerabilities to some flaw in their own nature, but what they are instead is conditions of existence.

Human being is predicated on a kind of fundamental limitation in that we are what we are and we’re not other things. And so that means inevitably that the awareness of human being comes along with suffering. And life poses the question: ‘How to conduct yourself in the face of suffering?’. Not only yours, but everyone elses. And it’s an inescapable question, except maybe you’re fortunate and you’ll have periods of time where something absolutely horrible isn’t happening to you.

Now you think about this, because you might this is pessimistic, but it’s not pessimistic. It’s actually one of the most freeing things that you can realize. Maybe there’s nothing particularly wrong with you at the moment, but there’s a high probability that you have a family member that has something seriously wrong with them. And there’s a very high probability that if you don’t, you will soon. Maybe you have a partner that has something seriously wrong with them. And to know this frees you from the false illusion that life can be conducted without suffering.

Suffering’s an integral part of being. Well, why is that? Who knows? It’s a metaphysical question, but I have some ideas about it that have helped me and there are things that I have read. I read for example an old Jewish commentary about the reason for creation. It’s like a zen koan, this idea. You take a being with the classical attributes of God: omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, a totality. And the question is: what does a being with those attributes lack? And the answer is limitation. And then you think, well what’s so important about limitation? If you can be anything or do anything at anytime whatsoever, there’s no being. Everything is one thing. There’s no differentiation between things. So something that’s absolute and total has no being, it has to be parceled out into limited being. And you know this because you all play games, you play video games, you play games with other people, you may play games you don’t even know you’re playing. And when you play those games you put limits on yourself, you play by a set of rules. And the reason you do that is when you limit yourself, arbitrarily in some ways, whole new worlds of possibility emerge. And so there’s a powerful metaphysical idea that being is not possible without limitation.

So that’s an interesting idea. So you say well what’s the price you pay for being? The price you pay for being is limitation and the price you for limitation is suffering, so the price you pay for being is suffering.

So what’s the problem with that? Well, suffering makes people question the validity of life. Everyone does that. If something terrible is happening to you, you’re going to wonder why you? That’s for sure.  Why not you might be a better question because it’s inevitable, but you will wonder that: why you and you’ll wonder is it worth it? Especially if what’s happening to you is terrible and prolonged. Is it worth it? Does that cost that you have to pay for being justify itself? And therefore is being justifiable? And everybody asks and answers these questions. In fact the process of asking and answering those questions underlies everything you do all the time. Because you’re answering when you act one answer which is yes, being justifies itself. You’re answering a different way sometimes when you act which is no, being does not justify itself.

And the question then might be, what happens when you answer one of those two ways. Well, to untangle this, the first thing I want to do is talk to you about the antithesis of virtue because it’s always struck me that when you’re talking about something that could conceivably be regarded as optimistic, it’s difficult for people to fundamentally believe you. You know, if I stood on stage and said “Well, the purpose of life is to be happy.” you might find that vaguely comforting, but there’s no chance in the world that you’d believe it if you have an ounce of sense because if you’ve lived you know that there will be periods of time where happiness is not your state. And so there has to be more to life than happiness because there’ll be a lot of your life that isn’t happy.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  who wrote the book The Gulag Archipelago, that was one of the axes that brought down the thick tree of communist utopianism said the idea that human beings are made for happiness , that’s a philosophy that’s undermined by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel. And what he meant by that was, if you find yourself in a particularly terrible situation (you’re enslaved for example by malelovent utopians). And they’re pushing you into a form of slavery and they’re beating you to attain their ends. The idea that you’re made for happiness is not going to be of much comfort under those circumstances. And so, Solzhenitsyn’s point was you’re weakened by your belief that life is for happiness because that philosophy cannot sustain any sustained challenge and you will for sure encounter such a sustained challenge.

I do think that modern people can believe in virtue, but not easily, because virtue sounds religious in  a sense and we have real trouble, whether we’re religious or not, with religious preconceptions because our scientific forms of knowledge and our fundamental materialism has really radically undermined our ability to believe in any transcendent being.

But one thing that modern people can believe in, I think without much difficulty at all, is evil. Solzhenitsyn said, for example, that the most important event of the 20th century, as far as he was concerned, was the Nuremburg judgement. And you may know, you should know, that after World War 2 a group of National Socialists from Germany, who were deemed particularly responsible for the absolute horrors of the final solution and the mass factory genocide that accompanied it, were put on trial. And a standard defense for their actions was ‘Well, I was ordered to do it.’ And the Nuremburg decision denied human beings, regardless of their ethnicity or national background or beliefs, the legal right to use that as a defense, under certain limited circumstances.

And the argument was that there are some things that are so self-evidently not good, not virtuous, that if you engage in them you’re existentially guilty. You’re guilty outside the bounds of your culture.

There’s a transnational and transethnic morality. We don’t know what it is, but we know what it isn’t. It isn’t pointless torture and genocide.

At minimum to be virtuous is to live your life in such a way that the probability that you would engage in such actions, given the opportunity, is minimized.

Now people think, well they’re already doing that. If they were in Nazi Germany they would have been a rescuer, not a perpetrator. But that’s wrong. You could take this audience and put them back in 1939 or thereabouts and 90% of you, 95% of you, 99% of you would either be in the perpetrator class or the going along with the perpetrator class. And you may sit and believe you’d be in the one percent, and maybe you would because how do I know, but that isn’t how the historical facts sort themselves out.

And it turns out that it’s not that difficult generally to put people in a situation, normal people, where they’ll do something that really doesn’t look very good. Those of you who are familiar with psychology know about the Milgram experiments, for example. You know about the Zimbardo prison experiments: you take perfectly normal college students and put them into a situation that they know is a dramatic farce, they know isn’t real, give some of them the power of prison guards and make some others arbitrarily into prisoners and in three days you have to shut the whole experiment down because the prison guards have turned into Nazis and they’re enjoying torturing the prisoners even though they know (whatever know means) that they’re innocent.

That says something about the manner in which people conduct their existence. They’re very susceptible to malevolent action.

If you look at Genesis, a very old book, a very influential book. There’s a strange sequence of events that befalls Adam and Eve. It’s in two sentences. A snake gives them an apple. And that wakes them up. Well, there’s a good book by a southern California primatologist that was just published last year that suggested the reason that humans have such great vision, way better than most animals except for raptors (birds), is because our visual systems were designed to detect predatory snakes. And the way she discovered that was by comparing the populations of predatory snakes around the world to the visual acuity of the primate groups that lived in those areas. And what she found was essentially a one to one correspondence.

Our visual system, which is the ability to see, and to be enlightened let’s say (because enlightenment for example is associated with vision) – the snake gave that to us because we had to pay attention to predatory things that were after us for tens of millions of years.

And fruit, that’s interesting. We have colour vision because we were fruit eaters. Our colour vision is precisely evolved to detect ripe fruit.

So that part of the story is right. There’s a story that involves women too, but I’m not going to tell that one today. You have to be awake to outsmart women. That’s the story. And so that’s why they’re tangled in there with the serpents and the fruit.

What happens when Adam and Eve wake up? It’s a series of strange things. The first thing that happens is the scales fall from their eyes so they can see, all of a sudden they’re awake in a way they weren’t before. And the next thing that happens is that they realize they’re naked. Now one of the things that people have nightmares about is being naked on a stage. Which is often why when you see people on a stage they don’t tell you anything they think. Because they don’t only not want to be physically naked, they don’t want to be metaphysically naked either. And they protect themselves from the inquiring eyes of the audience. No one likes to be naked on stage. Why?

Well to be naked is to have your defenses stripped from you. When the Soviets wanted to really torture the hell out of you at two o’clock in the morning, they’d cave in your door and then they’d strip you and shave you when they got you to prison because once you were exposed in all your suffering catastrophe, then you were much easier to torture.

To be naked, to realize you are naked, is to realize that you’re vulnerable. That’s why Adam and Eve immediately cover themselves up. They realize they’re naked, they cover themselves up: it’s a story about culture. Once people woke up and realized their limitations, their mortal limitations (which is also their knowledge of death), the first thing they do is cover themselves up.

And the second thing that happens is they know the difference between good and evil. And that’s a strange thing. It’s not good and bad. It’s good and evil specifically. It’s also something that animals don’t know. And I think, I thought about this really for 20 years, what does that mean? And then earlier this year I think I figured it out, what it means is you don’t know how to torture people until you realize that you’re vulnerable. As soon as you’re self-conscious of your own vulnerability, then you can take what might only be a predatory act, say on the part of a wolf because a wolf will bring down a moose or something like that and eat it, and drag that out into three months of artistic torturing.

And so that means that your recognition of your own vulnerability immediately allows you to determine what’s evil.

Then you might ask yourself under what conditions would you be likely to manifest that drive? I think that’s easy to figure out if you watch yourself. If you watch yourself without presuppositions, which means to watch yourself honestly, or to watch yourself as if you’re someone you don’t know. Because you don’t know yourself because you’re too complicated to know yourself anyways, so you might as well just come right out and know that. One of the things that’s kind of useful about recognizing your capacity for evil, if you can do that without traumatizing yourself, is that it’s the pathway for recognizing your ability for good. You don’t get to one without the other. Because you have no idea what you’re like before you know how terrible you can be and not only that, you won’t take yourself sufficiently seriously. If you know you’re a loaded weapon, and an unstable loaded weapon, then you’re much more likely to pay attention to what you do.

But that means you’re not particularly nice. And it means that if you were given the opportunity, maybe you would have been a Nazi prison guard.

In Genesis, the first thing that happens after Adam and Eve wake up is that thay have two sons, Cain and Abel. And Cain, who’s Abel’s brother, he doesn’t get along very well with God. Now I don’t really care if you believe in God, because I don’t really know what people mean when they say they believe in God anyways, but the story goes that Cain doesn’t get along very well with God and the reason for that is Cain keeps doing things and they don’t work. Everything Cain touches turns to ash whereas his brother Abel, God likes him (God only knows why) , and everything goes really well for Abel. So Cain is kind of a failure and Abel’s a smashing success and not only is he successful at everything he does, but he’s a good guy too, which is really rude because if you’re really successful at things you should at least be wretched intrapersonally so that people can forgive you.

So Cain takes this for a decade or two and then he’s just had it, he’s had it with God. He thinks ‘How can God make this sort of universe where I’m breaking myself in half here and getting nowhere and my brother – doors open for him left, right and center.’ So he goes and complains to God and he says ‘Look, what’s going on, what sort of reality did you conjure up here? Abel has it good, I’m having a miserable time, maybe you should do something about it.’

And you think, that’s pretty interesting you know, that Cain would think that, because you have to ask yourself what sort of presumption does Cain have to assume that the dismal quality of his being is attributable to God? Because what Cain does in that instant is to make himself the judge of being. And I would say that you should be cautious about making yourself the judge of being because there’s always the possibility that there’s a few things you don’t know.

So God sort of let’s Cain in on the secret. He says ‘Look, the fact that you’re suffering miserably away actually isn’t my fault, it’s your fault.’ He says to Cain ‘Sin crouches at the door like a predatory cat ready to jump on you, but if you wanted to, you could overcome it.’ This is not what Cain wants to hear. Cain wants to hear that he’s an innocent character and he has nothing to do with his own misery and it’s all God’s fault and God says instead straighten the hell up, you know you could do it. And even though you know you could do it you won’t. And so that’s that for Cain. He was upset when he first went into the discussion, but after he got this little piece of news that his suffering was to be laid at his own doorstep, then he’s out of the realm of human and the story says ‘his countenance falls’, which means he’s angry and upset.

And the first thing he does is run off and kill Abel. Why? Well, it’s revenge. Abel is God’s favourite and Cain has already judged being and found it wanting. The best way he can express his desire for revenge is to find someone who’s having a pretty good time of it and to arbitrarily eliminate them. And it might be of some interest to note one of Cain’s grandchildren is the first persons who makes weapons of war.

So that brilliant little story, so long ago associates the moral failings of the resentful individual who’s unwilling to take responsibility for the nature of their own being, directly with atrocious acts of social conflict. And that’s another thing to know, because if you’re going to be virtuous you have to take yourself seriously. And if you start to understand that you’re networked with other people, that you’re not one little dot among seven billion, you’re networked with other people. So you know a thousand people and they know a thousand people and so you’re two people away from a million people and three people away from a billion people. You’re in a causal network and all your actions matter.

And Solzhenitsyn said there’s as many centers of the universe as there are individual consciousnesses. That’s a very interesting way to think and why can’t it be that way? We don’t know anything about consciousness and certainly seems to be how it feels if you’re one of those conscious centers and so maybe it is that what you do matters.

I think that often people come to the conclusion that life is meaningless because that’s a better conclusion to come to than the reverse. Because if life is meaningless, well then, who cares what you do. But if life is meaningful, if what you do matters, then everything you do matters. And that puts a terrible responsibility on the individual and I think that people are generally unwilling to bear that.

So life is suffering. What does that do to people? It makes them resentful. These are pitfalls of being. Except being has a structure. One of its fundamental structural elements is suffering. But suffering produces other characteristics of being: resentment is a characteristic of being. People feel resentful when they believe that they’ve been taken advantage of. And if you feel resentful, it may be that you are being taken advantage of.  It may also be that you should screw your head on straight and look at things properly. And it may also be that you should talk to somebody to find out if you’re being taken advantage of or if your head just isn’t screwed on straight. But to talk to them then you have to tell them the truth and in order to tell them the truth you have to have practised being honest. Because if you haven’t practised being honest, then you’re not going to have a friend that you can talk to and even if you did, you’re not going to be able to tell them what the problem is. And then they won’t be able to help you sort out whether or not you’re being taken advantage of or whether you’re a little bit insane.

If you’re resentful then maybe you have to tell the person who’s taking advantage of you that they should stop doing that. And maybe you have to tell them in a way that will make them stop, which is no easy thing. Or maybe you’re resentful because you’re a nasty little bit of the world and you have a chip on your shoulder and no matter what people do with you you’re resentful, in which case you have some internal restructuring to do. And you might ask, why should you do the restructuring? And my answer to that is resentment, along with hopelessness and nihilism and all sorts of other moral pitfalls, puts you on the road to cruelty and atrocity. Misery loves company. And if you feel that things are fundamentally unjust and that the slings and arrows of being are aimed specifically at you, why should you treat anyone else with compassion or justice? Because things are fundamentally unfair. And even more deeply, why shouldn’t you conclude that things should be eradicated because fundamentally they’re unfair.

I think that’s what Hitler concluded. I also think that’s what Stalin concluded. And the evidence suggests that Stalin was gearing up for the Third World War, he had hydrogen bombs, he’d already killed 30 million people. He had his practise trials.

And you know, there’s an old psychoanalytic idea and the idea is that if you can’t understand the motivations for the behavior, look at the outcomes and infer the motivations. And so Hitler killed a 100 million people if you include the whole Second World War and God only knows how many Stalin killed and Mao killed more than Stalin.

Why? Well their cover story was Utopia. And I guess people believed that. Well, why? It didn’t look very utopian when all those millions of people were dying. I think all those people who participated in those processes used their rational utopianism as a cover story for their willingness to particpate in the atrocity. Because what they wanted to do was participate in the atrocity, they didn’t give a dam about Utopia.

And you ask yourself, well, how much do you try to force the world to behave according to your terms?

Now the Catholics have always had trouble with rationality and modern people, especially the sort of hyper-atheists that you hear from now and then. They don’t like that because they believe that rationality is the highest virtue and that’s wrong. I mean it’s a terrible thing to say in a university, except maybe the university isn’t here to teach you to be rational, maybe it’s here to teach you to be virtuous. And those aren’t the same thing.

The rational person says, well I understand and having understood I impose an order and then I work to make that imposed order a reality. That’s what every ideologue does, it’s what every utopian does.  It’s convincing and I think the reason people do that is well, it’s complicated, partly they want an explanation for their being. But more importantly than that they want a mask that covers up their tendency to atrocity with the appearance of virtue. And most utopian thinking is of that sort, even though the mask can be very well argued.

And you ask me why I believe that and the reason I believe that is because we had a hundred years of it and that’s how it turned out.

One of the things that was terrible about living in the Soviet Union was that you couldn’t suffer because things were perfect. So if you were suffering and you even admitted it, then you were instantly an enemy of the state. So if you’re an ideologue, your own suffering makes you a heretic. You undermine your belief in your own bloody system by suffering. Well, then that’s fine. If your own belief can stop you from suffering then more power to you, but if you’re still suffering a bit, or a lot, or a tremendous amount, then you can ask yourself ‘Maybe there’s something I don’t know?’

Here’s an existential exercise. And this is not rational. Let’s say that virtue is worth pursuing. And it’s worth pursuing because a virtuous path is the only path that justifies being to itself. That’s the definition of virtue. A virtuous path justifies being to itself. Being is suffering. So you need a justification for your suffering. So then you might ask yourself ‘Are there times in my life when I feel that my suffering is justified?’ And this is a good question. And you could ask yourself the reverse question too, which is ‘are there times in my life when my suffering is clearly not justified?’

And I could say, well watch yourself for three weeks. Just watch like you don’t know anything. And see when you’re somewhere that justifies itself. Now, you might say ‘How do I know?’ and I’d say ‘Okay, here’s some hints. You’re not self-conscious.  You know it’s not good to be self-conscious, right? It loads on neuroticism. It’s a negative emotion. We think of it as a higher order cognitive function, but people find it unpleasant. You tend to be self-conscious when you’re false or ashamed. If you’re deeply engaged in something, your self-consciousness disappears. So engagement in something meaningful appears to make self-consciousness vanish. It also makes time vanish, right? Because if you’re doing something that is intrinsically meaningful, then the sense of passing time disappears. And so that temporal limitation that plagues you, vanishes.

And I could say maybe you’re having a miserable time of it and you’re only spend two percent of your waking hours in that condition. And maybe you don’t even know when that is. But you could watch. You could see and say ‘Hey, look – I spent ten minutes there and I hardly even noticed and I felt that the nature of my being justified itself.’ Well maybe you wouldn’t say that to yourself, but you could. You could say ‘That was worth it.’ And then I could say ‘Well, practise that.’ Above all else, forget about everything else.

And then there’s an alternative exercise. Pay attention and figure out when absolutely you’re being does not justify itself. That’s even easier. Because that’ll happen whenever you do something that you immediately regret or are ashamed of or even more precisely, makes you feel disintegrated and devalued.

Nietzsche said people betray themselves for the sake of their good name all the time. You can feel this, it seems to center in your solar plexus. When you say something or do something that is not virtuous, then you’ll disintegrate and then you’re weak and you can feel that. And then you’ll cover it up with a bunch of rattling arguments trying to convince yourself and other people that what you were doing was actually okay. But you know. And it’s your rational arrogance and authoritarianism that forces you to not drop your stupid presuppositions and just pay attention to what your being is revealing to you.

We don’t think that way. We don’t think being reveals things. It reveals things all the time. We just don’t pay any attention. Why? Well I think we really don’t want the responsibility. I really believe (I thought about this for a long time), I really believe that that’s the case.

Here’s a quote from the Toa Te Ching, I have a great translation of this book, it was written by Loa Tse years and years ago. It’s one of the world’s classics of literature. The person who wote this wasn’t a philosopher, the person who wrote this was a master of being. That’s a different thing because a philosopher thinks, but a master of being doesn’t think because thinking is a tool and being is something that supersedes any tool.

He said ‘It is by sheathing intellect’s bright light that the sage remains at one with his own self, ceasing to be aware of it. By placing it behind, detached, he is unified with his external world. By being selfless, he is fulfilled, thus his selfhood is assured.’

I show my students in my Maps of Meaning class Pinocchio. Pinocchio’s a very complicated story in the Disney version and in the previous versions, with a deep mythological base. One of the things that happens in Pinocchio (a lot of strange things happen that people just swallow, right? There’s a puppet that turns into a human being, there’s talking cats, there’s blue fairies, there’s stars, there’s whales that eat people) and everyone swallows that with no problem, right? You go to see Pinocchio you don’t even notice that a puppet has just gone into a whale and you know, what the hell’s going on? And the reason you don’t notice that is because it means something and you don’t know what it means but you know that it means something and you’re willing to ride on it. Weirdly enough, because it compromises your rational principles completely. It does. These are religious experiences that people have in movie theatres, they suspend disbelief, they go along with it. It’s not rational, but they believe it. If someone says ‘But that’s not real.’ you say to them ‘Maybe you could shutup so I could watch the movie.’

You don’t want their rationality interfering, it’s the wrong time for it, it’s the wrong place for it. Geppetto wishes that his pet puppet could become real. It’s a very unlikely wish, which is something he says, very unlikely to happen. Actually I think Jiminy Cricket says that. To have that happen, Geppetto has to wish on a star. It’s a strange idea. The star is something that partakes of the divine. You could say that if you look at the night sky, where you can really see it, you know that, right? You look at the night sky and infinity opens itself up before you and there’s nothing to say except…there’s nothing to say.

And to wish on a star is to put your eyes above the horizon and to pick a transcendent point and to wish for something, to want for something that’s beyond the concrete and immediate. And to become virtuous and not be a puppet is to aim at something transcendent. I could say, well at least it’s the absence of evil, that’s something. Well, maybe it’s even more than that. Maybe it’s virtue in and of itself.

There’s a line in the Sermon on the Mount (it’s a very strange sermon) and the line is ‘Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.’ It’s a very strange piece of advice, it sounds completely impractical, right? Limit the focus of your consciousness to the day and leave the worries alone. It means something meditative I think. When I do therapy with people, I try to do this, I don’t think because I don’t know if…I do sometimes, but I shouldn’t… I don’t necessarily know what their problem is or what they should do about it. But I can listen and if I listen (and maybe I learned this in part from Carl Rogers’ writings), if I listen then thoughts will occur to me. I’m not thinking them, it’s different. I’m letting the thoughts come up. I tell my clients, ‘Try to tell me the truth and I’ll try to listen without being too much of a son of a bitch and maybe, you know, maybe we can work something out.’ And then they’ll say something to me and maybe I’ll think ‘Well that thing you said now and that thing you said half an hour ago don’t seem to be coherent, so maybe you could straighten that out’ or you know, it seems more like I’m tracking what they’re saying and when I’m listening to them I’m in the same place they are. We know the neural mechanisms for that. You are in the same place as someone when you really listen to them. And then thoughts come up and I tell them what they are and it’s impersonal because I’m not trying to get them to do anything particularly. I’m just aiming maybe at helping them figure out what’s going on and having a little bit less suffering. It’s not the imposition of an ideological structure. And the idea behind this particular piece of advice is, you can try this too, you wake up in the morning and you think okay, this could be a good day (whatever that means). You don’t know, right, what a good day is? But maybe you’ve had a couple and they’re not so bad and so maybe you think you could have another one. But you don’t know and you think, okay – you ask yourself, and this is meditative ‘What is it that I need to do today so that this would be a good day?’

And your brain will tell you. It’ll say ‘You know that bill that’s hiding under five pieces of paper on your desk? You should haul that sucker out and pay it.’ Or there’s something you’re avoiding that makes you anxious that your brain will pick up on right away and say ‘You have to do these whatever number of commitments today, and if you do them then you’ve fulfilled your obligations.’ And the idea behind this piece of advice is that if you fulfill your obligations everyday then you don’t have to worry about the future. And that’s a very interesting idea. It’s predicated on the notion that there’s a wisdom inside of people that’s deeper than mere rationality. And I believe that to be the case because we’re far older than mere rationality from an evolutionary perspective, from any perspective you want. We’re deeper than rationality.

And we know, psychologists have learned in the last 20 years, rationality is bounded ridiculously in all sorts of different ways. It’s not the master, it’s a servant. It’s an unruly servant, even though it can be a very powerful one.

The totality of you, the wisdom that’s embodied in the totality of you, far outstrips rationality. And if you listen to yourself, and do the difficult things that your self tells you to do, the idea is you don’t have to compute the utopian future because it’s following whatever  you tell yourself to do every moment is the best path to whatever the best outcome is.

It’s a strange way of thinking because if you’re a utopian and a rationalist you already know what the right outcome is. Then you have to run around pointing guns at people to make bloody sure they do the right things so that the outcome you’ve computed occurs. And that doesn’t seem to work very well.

And so you see this idea in Daoism too, the idea is to give up the end. Because you don’t know what it is. And you don’t – it’s an admisison of ignorance. Where are you headed? You don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be headed somewhere.

Follow your moral intuitions. Stop doing the things that make you feel weak. I’m not talking about following a moral code, although that can come into it if you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing at all. Then following a moral code is a good idea because it’ll at least get the ball rolling. It’s a form of apprenticeship.

So, you know, not doing the obviously bad things is a form of discipline. It isn’t the notion that I’m talking about now, this is a different thing. This is pay attention to what’s meaningful because you can see what that is. You may find you’re terrified of it because everybody’s got this little secret wish…’I really love doing…’ I don’t know what it is. It’s different things for different people, but they’re afraid to do it, because as soon as you do what you really love, then you expose your nakedness, right? You say this is what I really like. Instead you just shove that under the bed and do something you don’t care about at all and then if people judge you, it doesn’t matter.

But the problem with that is there’s no life there. There’s no force. There’s no you. And without that the suffering will do you in and then you will become a bad person and that’s not a good thing.

So you have to see what it is that you find meaningful, whatever that is. And then you have to fight for it. You have to fight against yourself, you have to fight against other people because what do they know about it? You have to fight against nature maybe even to stand up for what it is that sustains you. And that takes courage. It also takes honesty. Partly because if you’re not honest you can’t trust your own intuitions. And this is an important thing. Think about this and this is why virtue is a necessity.

If you lie to yourself or to other people, then you corrupt the structure that you use to interact with being. You corrupt it. And if you corrupt it, then if you listen to it, it will guide you to the wrong way. Or maybe it’ll be so corrupted you can’t listen to it at all and then you’ll have to listen to somebody else. And that might not be a good thing, especially if you’re already corrupted. Because then you’ll listen to the person who tells you to do what you really want to do but won’t admit it to yourself.

And that explains how Hitler found all his followers. They had abandoned they’re own mode of being, it made them bitter and resentful, and empty and hollow, and weak and cruel. And then they trained their leader to tell them what they wanted to hear.

If you’re honest, which is painful, you see that a lot of the things that you say aren’t real. You’ll see that a lot of the things that you do make you weak. You’ll see that a lot of the people that you associate with are probably not good for you. And then you have a lot of difficult choices to make.

You can stop with the obvious lieing. That’ll clear things up for you a lot. And you can start communicating with people. One of the things I teach my clients is if you’re resentful say something about it. Say something about it. You tell the person ‘Look, what you asked me to do is making me feel resentful.’ Now, if they’re your wife or husband or someone you love, you should listen to them because they might say ‘Well, grow up. Take your dam responsibility and leave me alone.’ And maybe they’re right. Or maybe they’re a bit of a bully and you have to say ‘Quit pushing me around.’ Maybe you have to have an argument with them. An honest argument where you say ‘Look, this is what’s happening to me’ and they say ‘Look, this is what’s happening to me.’ And you battle it out until you reach some sort of settlement and then you don’t have to be resentful anymore. Then you won’t be mean and cruel and vicious. And you have to be honest in order to do that.

Here’s a way of thinking about error. You don’t exactly know what you’re doing, so how do you get to the point where you know what you’re doing? I think follow your internal intuitions and be honest about it. What’ll happen is a star will appear and guide you. And the star is whatever makes your life meaningful. And maybe you’ll take some tentative steps in that direction and you’ll get a little ways and you’ll think ‘No, that’s wrong.’ And then the thing that makes your life meaningful will appear over there. And then you take a few tentative steps in that direction. But as you step and walk towards these things you change and as you change you get wiser. And what happens is, you keep following these things that make your life meaningful, then you correct yourself across time.

You see the thing there and that’s wrong and you see it there and that’s wrong and you see it there and that’s wrong but you keep chasing it and as you chase it you move forward. And as you move forward and as you do things you learn from your mistakes because you’re honest and you’re watching. You get wiser and wiser and the consequence of all those mistakes is you’ll self-correct the mistakes and twenty years down the road maybe you won’t be making so many mistakes.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. So you would need 10,000 hours of practice following what it is you need to follow.

I’m going to close with two things. I’ve come to the conclusion, as a consequence of studying the things I’ve been telling you about, that belief has a religious substructure. If you go all the way down into someone’s belief structure, right to the bottom, what you find are religious presuppositions. The person might not agree, but I don’t think that matters. I think generally people don’t know.

Here’s an old religious presupposition, older than Christianity, though I suppose Christianity is the most powerful proponent of this viewpoint. There’s a heaven and there’s a hell and you should live your life so that you end up in one of them. What’s happened to Christianity is that that’s an afterlife thing. I don’t think it is an afterlife thing. I think it’s a now thing. I see people who are in hell all the time. And you can see them if you walk down Bloor St. I’m not kidding, it’s no joke.  If you walk by someone in hell, you can’t look at them. You won’t look at them, you’ll give them a wide berth. And if you look at them and you really look at them, they’ll either become aggressive or ashamed because they do not want you to see where they are because they don’t want to see where they are.

And by the same token, heaven’s a real place too and now and then and you don’t notice because you don’t believe in it.

There’s an old gospel, a gnostic gospel, that was dug up in 1957 – the Gospel of Thomas. And in the Gospel of Thomas Christ says ‘The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth but men do not see it.’ And I don’t think that’s a metaphor (or maybe it is a metaphor, it’s a deep metaphor). It means that life, human life, is very expansive and we live in the middle. It’s kind of a mediocre middle often. And at one extreme there’s hell and the other extreme is heaven and we bounce back and forth between them without really noticing.

And I could say, well here’s something to consider: If the things that you’re doing are landing you in hell, stop! Unless you want to be there. And you know if you think, all you have to do is think about your life over the last year. You can be certain that you can call to mind times when you would have rather’d that did not happen. And so the lesson from that is clear: don’t set up those conditions anymore. And by the same token, if you watch yourself you can tell when you’re where you want to be and I could say, well, if you’re where you want to be then that’s really the right place and all you should ever do is practice to be there.

The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth but men do not see it.

So this is what I would say about virtue. Virtue first, is the attempt to see that heaven. And it’s a questioning thing. And I’m not saying that it’s the same for everyone. I don’t believe that all because people are individuals. Just to see it.

And the second thing is to attempt to live in it. And I truly believe, I truly believe, that there is nothing that you can do that’s better for being (not only for yourself but for everyone that you interact with). None of you know your potential. People are amazing creatures.

You know that people can be abysmally awful. But they can be as remarkably good as they are abysmally awful. I think it’s rare, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. What’s a human possibility? Well no one knows. Maybe it’s near infinite. We know nothing about our own being or our relationship with the totality of things.  We may occupy a more important place than we all think. And the consequences of our actions, our virtues or our lack thereof, echo, may echo, far beyond what we want to believe.

So I would say try to find out what’s good for you. Just watch. Don’t listen to anybody else. Or maybe you should. Maybe they’ll give you some hints, you know. But you’ve got to sort it out for yourself. And when you find out what’s good for you and what isn’t, do the things that are good for you. Until you like being alive, until you’re thrilled to be alive. See what happens.

And I would also suggest there’s nothing you could possibly do that will be more profound and useful than that.

That’s all.


I came across this very interesting lecture on TVO interweaving the topics of mythology and psychology and what the implications are for how people make choices how about how they engage themselves with life.

The lecture can be seen YouTube:

I transcribed the whole lecture and highlighted (bolded) a few of what I thought were the most relevant or interesting parts. Note that it’s pretty long – an hour lecture is a lot of words! There are a lot of good ideas here and reading the text of the lecture is actually a lot faster than watching the whole thing (though Dr. Peterson is a very effective speaker).

I want to talk to you today about what I think is a relatively new way of looking at your experience, but maybe even more broadly than that a new way of looking at reality itself. You all come to university, I suppose, to make your conceptions of reality more sophisticated. And you want to do that because you have to live in the world and the more sophisticated your conceptions, the less likely you’ll encounter tragic or harmful circumstances that you will be unable to deal with. It really matters if you know what you’re thinking and you know how to think. Over the last twenty years, I would say, there’s been a revolution in psychology. And the revolution has involved a transformation in the way we look at the world. And that’s what I want to talk about to you today.

I entitled this talk Reality and the Sacred. It’s a strange title to a talk to modern people because we don’t really understand what the sacred means unless we live within a worldview that’s essentially, I wouldn’t say archaic, but at least traditional. For modern, freethinking, fundamentally liberal people the idea of the sacred is anachronistic or, if not anachronistic, at least incomprehensible.

So I want to start with a story from the Old Testament. There’s a scene in the Old Testament when the ancient Hebrews are moving the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was a device that was manufactured in order to contain the word of God. And there was a rule among the ancient Hebrews which was “You are not to touch the Ark of the Covenant. No matter what.” And there’s a story in the Old Testament where the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant (they used to carry it), the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant trip and a man reaches out to steady it and when he touches it, God strikes him dead. And modern people look at a story like that and the first thing they think is “That seems a little bit harsh on the part of God given that the man was attempting to do something that he believed was good.” But what the story was designed to indicate, in my opinion, is that there are certain things that you touch at your peril, regardless of your intentions. And those things that you touch at your peril, regardless of your intentions, most cultures regard as sacred, as untouchable.

I want to make a case for you today that those things exist and also why they exist and why it’s necessary for you to know that they exist. I would also say that if you’re properly educated in a university, especially with regards to the humanities (which are in some conceptual trouble at the moment), what essentially happens to you is that you are introduced in a relatively secular way to the concept of the sacred. You are here, in the university, to learn about the eternal values of humankind.  And I think that people who tell you that those values do not exist or that they’re endlessly debatable, do you an unbelievable disservice.

Now I’m going to tell you first how you think about the world, I think. So this would be a Newtonian view of the world. It’s Newtonian and deterministic. And it’s the worldview that dominated psychology and economics and anthropology and political science, you name it, for probably four hundred years. But it’s come to a crashing halt in the last fifty years. And the consequences of that have been manifested in a number of domains.  The old world presuppositions are something like this: The world is made out of objects. When you look at the world you see the objects. There they are in front of you. As a consequence of seeing the objects you think about what to do. And after you think about what to do in the presence of the objects, you act. Now, that seems self-evident because when you look at the world, there the objects are. And it appears to you that you see them and then you think about them and then you act. But there’s a real problem with that.

First problem is: You use half your brain to see, literally. The human visual cortex is a very large part of your brain. And the reason that the human visual cortex is so large is that seeing is, as far as we can tell, actually impossible. Now the fact that seeing, perception, is impossible, wasn’t discovered by psychologists and wasn’t discovered by philosophers. It was discovered by people who were working on artificial intelligence and trying to make artificially intelligent machines. The presupposition of the people who were making intelligent machines was: the hard part of interacting with the world is figuring out what to do once you see the objects. But it turned out that making machines that could see objects was impossible. And the reason for that is boundaries between objects are not obvious. They’re not obvious at all. In fact it’s very difficult to understand how it is that we separate up things at all.

Now, let me give you an example. So, if you think about yourself. When you look in the mirror you see yourself as an object. You see your eyes, you see your nose, you see your face, you see your body. And that’s pretty much what you see when you look at other people. But that isn’t all there is to you. In fact, that’s hardly any of what there is to you. So you could say, for example, you exist at the level of the quantum particle. You can’t perceive that, in fact people didn’t know that until 75 years ago. Above that level you exist at an atomic level, and then a molecular level, and then you exist at the level of complex organs and the interactions between those organs. And then you, and then your family, and then the groups that your family belongs to. And then the ecosystems that the groups  belong to and so on and so forth until what it is that you are can expand to encompass virtually anything.

Now, when you look at yourself you don’t see that. You see yourself at a certain level of resolution. When you look at the world you see yourself at a certain level of resolution, but all those other levels are equally real and equally relevant. And we in fact have very little idea how it is that you’re only able to see what you see. Almost nothing has obvious boundaries and this has real world consequences, it’s not something that’s merely abstract. The technical term for this problem , the problem of how to bind your perceptions to limit them, is called the frame problem. The frame problem was discovered about forty years ago and the philosopher Daniel Dennett called it the most important philosophical discovery of the last fifty years.

The frame problem emerges to cause all sorts of trouble for people. So, for example when Henry Ford invented the automobile, well at least invented the modern procedure of building the automobile, what Ford presumed he was doing was building an efficient means of transporting people from one place to the other. There were other unintended consequences of Ford’s  discovery. So, for example, Ford happened to be a great supporter of Fascism. And the reason that he was a supporter of Fascism was because he regarded the Fascist  political structure as a logical extension of the efficient methods that he’d used to assemble vehicles. So his mode of production was instantly manifested in a political philosophy. Furthermore now, 2009,a hundred years after the invention of the automobile, we’ve discovered some other things that the car was other than a place to move people from point A to point B. So for example, it turns out that the automobile and the internal combustion engine are among the most effective technologies ever devised to transform the nature of the atmosphere to heat up the world. Not only that, the car has completely transformed the nature of cities. And these were all unintended consequences of the fact that the car was far more than what people thought it was. You can say that about any technological structure. No one knew what TV would do to the news, for example. No one knew what the internet would do to the music industry. Everything that you interact with is far more complicated than you see.

The most ancient ideas we have about the nature of reality are predicated on a certain presupposition. And the presupposition is this: there’s two fundamental modes of being that characterize reality. One is the absolute. The absolute is the sum total of everything. So if you think about things in their most unbounded possible form, if you think of things in their infinite number of potential variations, you can think about that as one pole of reality. It appears, classically, that people regarded their encounters with the absolute (which is all those multiple levels of being which are beyond your perceptual capacity) as equivalent to an encounter with God. Now you know that in the Islamic religions it’s against the rules to make a graven image of any sort of Mohammed. The idea is that you’re not supposed to make an image. And among the ancient Hebrews the idea was very similar.

The Taoists say that  you shouldn’t confuse the moon with the finger pointing to the moon. And what all that means is that the absolute is always something that transcends the finite frame that you place around your perceptions. So as soon as you start talking about it, representing it, making statues of it or idolizing it, you lose your connection with the absolute, because you’ve turned into something that’s understandable and concrete.

Part of the wisdom traditions that the world still maintains make the constant moral presupposition that you should always be aware of what it is that transcends both your understandings and your perceptions. And you should keep firmly in mind that that exists. Now when people talk about God in the modern world they tend to think about something that has more the characteristics of a being and I suppose that’s where most of the debate about religious reality comes in. But the idea that there’s an absolute outside of your perceptual capacity seems to be merely a statement of fact, especially given what we know now about the nature of perception, that the phenomena always transcends the manner in which you frame it.

We’ve also come to understand that not only does reality have multiple levels of existence, but in order to perceive it you have to stand inside multiple frames.

This is a picture of a French city. It’s a walled city. Now, the walls are there to keep the people in and the walls are there to keep what isn’t in the walls out. And so you can think about that as a protective structure.  Now I want to tell you how it is that you still inhabit a walled city and exactly what that means.  So, for example, you think about this room and I’m going to tell you how it is that this room allows you to see what it is that you see.

Now, when you’re interacting with a computer you actually don’t interact with the computer, you interact with the keyboard and the screen. If the computer crashes then you interact with the computer and you find that as a general rule very annoying because you really don’t understand the computer very well and you don’t actually see how complex it is until it stops working. Most of the time when you’re interacting with the world you’re doing things with the world. You interact with it in a way that produces some consequence that you want. And that means, in part, that your perceptions are always framed by what you want and that’s actually one of the reasons why the world isn’t just made up out of objects. The world is made out of things you use and things that get in your way.

You’re always applying a frame like that to the world in order to simplify it enough that you can understand it. And you’re aided in this process by all sorts of processes you really don’t notice. When you look at the world, you think “Well, there are the objects.” But there’s a thousand things going on before you make that judgment.

So, we’ll look at this room. When you walk in here the room tells you what to do. The reason it tells you what to do is because all the seats are pointed in the same direction. They’re all slanted in a particular way. When you walk in here and there’s other people sitting, you can see that all their faces point to the front. People’s faces point towards what interests them. The room is setup to make you face the front. The theory behind the room is that the thing that is interesting is happening at the front. It’s a theatre. What’s happening at the front is a drama, because theatre is there to promote and undergird drama. A lecture is a dramatic act. The room tells you what to do so you don’t have to think about what to do when you come into a room like this. You can just do it because the room tells you what to do. And then you can think, you can sit in here in relative comfort and listen to this lecture. Why can you sit in here in relative comfort? Well, the people around you have been relatively carefully selected as a consequence of the analysis of their twelve years in school. The university has made a determination: they know how to sit down and listen. That hypothetically they’re intelligent enough to understand the lecture and that they’re very unlikely to interrupt the proceedings with any unexpected outburst of emotion or motivation. Now, if anybody broke one of those rules you can be sure that your eyes would move very rapidly away from me and directly to the person who was causing trouble, because that would take centre stage. Now this room is actually supported by a million invisible processes. For example, while you’re sitting in here you don’t have to worry about whether it’s raining because there’s a roof. And you don’t have to worry about whether the roof is going to fall in because you make the presumption the people who built the roof are competent. And the electricity works because the utility is run by people who are competent, so it’s almost always on. Buildings hardly ever burn down, the electricity hardly ever fluctuates. There’ thousands of people out there working as hard as they can, diligently, to make this environment constant enough so you can ignore all the thousands of things you’re ignoring. So that you concentrate well enough to attend to the few things that you are attending to while you are in this room.

You’re in a walled city, there’s multiple walls. And those walls protect you from what’s outside the walls. You can think about it this way: this is a Taoist image of reality (Yin Yang symbol). Now, people think of this as a metaphysical symbol, but it’s not a metaphysical symbol, it’s an unbelievably practical symbol. The Taoists believe that the world, reality, is made up essentially of chaos and order. Chaos is all those things you don’t understand. So I would say chaos is all those things that exist outside of your perceptual preconditions.

Order is all the things you do understand and all the places you go where the things that you do produce the results that you intend. And the Taoists would say “Everywhere you go is like that. Everywhere you go has things that you understand that are orderly and things that you don’t understand that are chaotic.” And the chaotic things attract your attention because you already understand the orderly things.

If something unexpected happens your nervous system automatically reacts to it and orients you towards it. And sometimes that can be catastrophic. So this is an experience that some of you will have in the next four years. Undoubtedly there’s a number of you that want to go to medical school, go to graduate school or to law school, or to business school. And a certain percentage of you will take the admission tests that will determine whether or not you’re able to take that path. And a certain percentage of you will score below the 50th percentile on those tests and that will mean you will not be going to those institutions. And when that happens, first of all you’ll shake and tremble when you open the envelope to find out your results. And second, if you haven’t achieved the score that you expected that you would achieve, your world will fall apart. And what that’ll mean is you descend form the domain of order into the domain of chaos. And that happens to people all the time. It happens to people when they develop an illness that’s serious that they can’t control because then their body stops being something they can predict and starts to become something that they can’t predict. It happens to people when they’re in an intimate relationship and they’re betrayed. They assume fidelity and the person tells them that they’ve had an affair. That’s chaos. That means you didn’t know who that person was, the future you imagined no longer exists, your perceptions of people are erroneous at some level of analysis that you don’t understand. It’s conceivable that you’re naïve beyond belief and that everything that you believed about yourself and about other people up to that point is false. And when a revelation occurs that knocks out one of the walls that supports you, and you descend accidentally into chaos, you’ll regard that as one of the worst experiences of your life.

When that happens to you, your brain knows exactly what to do. It stops thinking about the future, it stops saving up resources for the future, it puts you in emergency preparation mode so that you’re ready to do anything at the drop of a hat because you don’t know what to do so your body prepares to do everything. It shifts your cortisol levels up, it activates your left and right cortices, your limbic system and your motivational systems are disinhibited, turned on, and you sweat and you can’t sleep. Because the orderly structure that you thought you inhabited, that provided you with security and direction, has now disappeared.

The Taoists believe that the world is always an interplay between chaos and order and that if you live your life properly you stand with one foot in order and one foot in chaos. Because if you’re only in order, nothing that’s interesting ever happens to you. Nothing is anything but a repeat of all the things that you already know. That’s the state that Fascists desire because Fascists desire things to be exactly the way they are forever.

And if you’re in a state that’s only characterized by chaos you’re at sea or overwhelmed or things have fallen apart on you and there’s too much of everything for you to deal with.

Now the Taoists being very wise people know other things as well. They know for example that chaos can turn into order, that’s why there’s a white dot in the middle of the black paisley. And they know that order can turn into chaos, which is why there’s a black dot in the middle of the white paisley. and the Taoists believe that a meaningful life, the optimally meaningful life, is to be found on the border between chaos and order. And I would say that your nervous system tells you exactly when you are there and it’s a kind of place and you can tell when you’re there because you’re secure enough to be confident, but not so secure that you’re bored and you’re interested enough to be awake but not so interested that you’re terrified. And when you’re in a state like that, you find things interesting and meaningful, time slips by you and you’re no longer self-conscious.

This is a medieval Christian representation of the nature of reality. On the outside you have the Virgin Mary, inside the Virgin Mary you have God the Father and God the Father is supporting a crucifix with an individual on it and the individual in Christian thinking is Christ. What does this image mean?

The walled city divides order from chaos, or order from nature. We think about nature as the thing that’s outside of what we understand. That’s Mother Nature. Mother Nature gives birth to all things, that’s the idea that’s expressed in this image. The Virgin Mary is standing for Mother Nature. out of Mother nature arises order and tradition. That’s true for primates like chimpanzees as much as it’s true for us. Any social animals that are grouped together have to form an orderly structure that they inhabit together, that defines their boundaries and goals. Because otherwise they fight each other to the death. So in the state of untrammeled nature, as Hobbes pointed out, it’s every man for himself. And without the order that tradition brings, there’s nothing but chaos and chaos is murderous and unproductive.

But there’s a problem with order. If you look at the history of the 20th century, it’s a toss up whether Mother Nature has been harder on us or whether our governmental traditions have been harder on us. You know, of course, that the dictatorship of Hitler killed six million Jews out of 120 million people in the Second World War. You may not know that the Stalinist dictatorship in the Soviet Union killed an estimated sixty million people in internal repression, not counting those people who died in the Second World War. And the internal repression that characterized Mao’s communist China killed 100 million people. And so the problem with tradition is that sometimes it’s a wise king and sometimes it’s a king that eats its own sons, which means that although we need tradition to guide us and to structure even the manner in which we perceive the world, our traditions can become archaic and outdated and cruel and inhuman. And as a consequence they can pose a worse threat to us than chaos itself. Nature, or chaos, has exactly the same dichotomous structure.

The figure on the left is a Medusa or gorgon. If you look at a Medusa, as you probably already know, you turn to stone. The reason you turn to stone is because when you look upon nature or chaos without your normal veils it paralyzes you, physiologically. Just like a prey animal like a rabbit is terrified if it sees a wolf. For millions of years human beings were prey animals. We were probably prey animals for large reptiles, which accounts for the reason that primates like us are naturally afraid of predatory reptiles.

If you’re in the presence of something that violates your assumptions of safety, you’ll freeze. You’ll freeze so the thing that might eat you can’t see you and that’s what turns you to stone. That’s nature in its terrible aspect. And the terrible aspect of nature can freeze everyone. And you can be sure, and will be seldom taught, that you will encounter that at some point in your life.

The primary Buddhist dictum is that life is suffering. What does that mean? It means that because you’re finite and you’re surrounded by something that’s absolute, in a sense you’re in a battle you can never win because there’s always more of what it is that you’re trying to contend with than there is with you. And worse than that, and it’s for this reason that tyrannies can’t last, is that the thing that you’re contending with isn’t even static. It keeps changing. So that what worked for you yesterday won’t necessarily work for you tomorrow.

This is an alchemical version of the Taoist yin and yang symbol and basically it says something that’s more sophisticated and complex. It says that that world’s made up of chaos and order, things that you can predict and understand and things that you can’t predict and can’t understand. And inside the order there’s some chaos and inside that chaos there’s order and inside that order there’s chaos and so on and so forth. And equally the case for order.

You have Mother Nature, representation of chaos. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative. You have a representation of the great Father, that’s security and tyranny. Two things you’ll always have to contend with. Finally in this representation you have a representation of the individual, at least a Christian representation of the individual and that’s Christ. And it’s a terrifying representation, it’s a remarkable representation because it’s not a representation of transcendence. It’s a representation of suffering. And it’s a funny kind of representation of suffering because the manner in which the story unfolds is this: Christ as the archetypal individual. The model for individuals from a psychological or mythological perspective knows that he’s limited and knows that he’s doomed to both suffering and death. In the garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, he has an argument with God and the argument basically is “Do I actually have to do this?”

And the answer is twofold. Well, no, you actually don’t have to accept your suffering, but you don’t have to voluntarily accept your suffering but there are consequences if you don’t.  Now, the Christian story is predicated on the idea that if you voluntarily accept your suffering you can simultaneously transcend it.  It’s a remarkable philosophy and it’s also something that we have very good support for from the psychological perspective.

So, for example, if I’m treating someone who has an anxiety disorder or a panic disorder. Who can’t go out of their house without their heart rate elevating and without collapsing into a panic stricken heap, without visiting the emergency ward every time their heart rate accelerates, every time they’re in a subway or every time they’re in a mall. They’re so terrified of existence they can’t even get out of their house. The way you cure that person is by getting them to voluntarily approach the things that they’re afraid of.  And it turns out that physiologically, that is I force you to accept a certain type of challenge, your body will go into emergency preparation mode and that will cause stress and that stress will cause you physiological damage, including brain damage if it’s sustained for long enough.

But, if I present you with the same challenge and you accept it voluntarily, your brain doesn’t produce stress hormones and completely different physiological systems kick in. And what that means is people have evolved two modes for dealing with the unknown: there’s voluntary approach and there is panic stricken paralysis and flight.

In this representation you can see that there are crowds of people standing in the wings of the open statue looking at the crucified individual. Very strange thing, but you know you still see people doing things like this that they don’t notice.

I went to a museum in New York. There were a very large number of paintings there from the late renaissance and they were religiously themed like medieval paintings except they featured recognizable individuals. And people had come from all over the world to look at those paintings. They were extremely valuable paintings and they were painted by Michelangelo or Leonard da Vinci. Each of them was probably valued, for reasons that are very difficult to understand, at something approximating hundreds of millions of dollars. The late renaissance was the first time in human history where human beings dared to presume that sacred images could be given an individual human face. And that idea was what actually launched the enlightenment and launched the development of modern culture. The late renaissance thinkers, the artists in particular, were the first people to posit that there was some direct relationship between sacred images and actual people. People come from all over the world to look at these paintings even though they don’t understand what they mean.

I want to show you some images that describe how the idea of the suffering individual developed and what that means. The first thing I want to show you is this picture of Saint George and the dragon. Now, you know that the main street that runs through the university is named after Saint George, right? This is a very old image. The oldest story we know, which is a Mesopotamian creation myth, features a god who confronts a reptilian monster and makes the world as a consequence of the conflict. He faces her, she’s terrifying. He cuts her up into pieces and out of the pieces he makes the world.

Now, the Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago, were trying to figure out what the nature of individuality was, and what the nature of consciousness was. And their presupposition, which was dramatized, because these people told stories and they didn’t think the way we think, in explicit philosophical, logical ahh…with philosophical processes. They thought in stories, which is a natural way for people to think. They came to the conclusion the object of their ultimate worship was the god who confronted the dragon of chaos, cut it into pieces and made the world. And that idea has echoed down through the ages, it’s an idea human beings have never lost.

Now this idea is very interesting, so you see the castle in the background. We already know what the castle stands for, the castle stands for order. And it’s a multi-walled castle because everyone’s protected by multiple walls. But those walls are constantly breached. Now, young people, especially modern young people, are often very cynical about the traditions that they inhabit. They’re cynical about them because they see that the world is theoretically devolving into some kind of environmental catastrophe, and they’re cynical because there’s still war and there’s still hunger. They’re cynical because often the people who are teaching them the traditions don’t seem to believe in them themselves. It’s very easy for young people to look at the traditions and to notice the breaks. But the truth of the matter is that throughout human history tradition has always been anachronistic and out of date. And what you see in images of Saint George and the dragon is that the dragons always breach the walls. Which means that tradition is always under attack from chaos. Well, of course it is, because the future is different than the past, but that doesn’t mean that the past should be abandoned. If you abandon the past and you knock down all your walls, you fall into a pit of chaos and that, classically speaking, is indistinguishable from hell. And I can tell you, if you spend long enough in that state you become bitter and cruel because that’s what happens to people who suffer endlessly.

St. George is a different kind of individual. When the walls come crumbling down, as they always do, he decides to go out and to confront the dragon. Now, dragons are very strange creatures as you may have already noted. First of all they don’t exist. Second of all, they have very weird propensities. So for example they hoard gold and they tend to trap virgins in their lairs, which you’ll also admit is very strange behavior for a reptile.

Now the idea behind this is a very complicated idea and it’s all presented pictorially. The idea is that the thing that lurks underneath, if you look to the right of the picture there’s a cave and the cave goes way down into the ground and way down in the ground is the terrifying place that’s underneath everything. And the dragon crawls out from time to time to threaten the structure of everything that’s known.

So St. George comes out to confront the dragon voluntarily, overcomes it and in this image rescues the virgin that the dragon has been guarding. It’s a very complicated story. It means that the things that terrify you contain things of value. That’s also what the image of the gold that the dragon hoards represents. It means something else as well. It means that the individual man who who’s likely to go out and confront chaos when tradition is crumbling is more likely to find a mate.

This is Jonah. Jonah had a very weird experience, he was swallowed by a whale. That’s a very strange whale as you might well note. It’s a medieval whale and of course medieval people didn’t really know what whales were and so they were guessing what a whale was. A whale for a medieval person would have been a big fish, a squid, some monstrous thing like a shark that lurks in the deep. They weren’t able to segregate all those things out biologically, their powers of collective observation weren’t that good. So the whale for them was what lurks underneath in the darkness. And the idea with Jonah was that now and then what lurks underneath in the darkness rises up to swallow you, but if your attitude is proper you can come back out the other side changed. Now that’s a story of redemption, for example, imagine you were in a bad relationship and you weren’t that happy about it, but it was better than no relationship at all. And then the other person in the relationship betrayed you and maybe they did that because you actually weren’t that happy with the relationship anyways, maybe they did that because you were a little bit naïve, or maybe they did that because you were a little bit too easy to get along with and as a consequence you were a bit on the boring side. So when they first leave you it’s a catastrophe because your world falls apart, but when your world falls apart you’re somewhere new and it’s possible to learn something new in that place. You might learn, for example, that you should be a little sharper next time you go out with someone or you should be a little more careful picking up clues that your partner is bored with you or maybe that you should stop associating with lying psychopaths and your life would be a lot more positive. And stop thinking that you have the capacity to redeem somebody who is not after redemption in the least.

And what that means is, now and then, when you fall into the belly of a whale and swallowed up by something that lurks underneath, ha you can come out he other side transformed and that’s actually how people learn. Every time you learn something, you learn because something you did didn’t work  and that exposes you to the part of the world that you don’t understand. Every time you’re exposed to part of the world you don’t understand you have the possibility of rebuilding the structures that you use to interpret the world. That’s why it’s often more important t notice that you’re wrong than it is to prove that you’re right. One of the things that you’re supposed to learn in university is precisely that. It might be useful to listen to people that annoy you on the off chance that they know something that if they tell you, you can use instead of dying.

Talking with people who agree with what you say is like walking around in a desert . You already know everything that they say.  The reason that your associating with them in that situation is so that they never say anything that challenges you because you’re afraid if you go outside of what you understand you won’t be able to tolerate the chaos. But it isn’t the case. People have an unbelievable capacity to face and overcome things they don’t understand. Not only that, but that’s essentially what gives life its meaning.

The Buddhists say “life is suffering” and you think well, if that’s the case, why bother with it. And people do ask that question and they ask it ways that result in their own destruction and worse, in the destruction of others. So for example, people who become particularly cruel, particularly in a genocidal manner, are more than willing to dispense with as many human beings as they can possibly train their sights on because they’re so disgusted by the nature of human limitation, that they’d rather eradicate it. And lots of people become suicidal because they can’t bear the conditions of their own existence. And suffering is real and it’s inescapable. So the question is, what do you do about it?

You notice in your on life, and you can do this by watching your own life- I often ask my clients to do this. Say look, watch your life for a week, but pretend you don’t know who you are, because you don’t know who you are, at all.

What you understand most about yourself are the arbitrary presuppositions that you use to hem yourself in. And you act as if those presuppositions are true so that the revelation of the full nature of your character won’t terrify you. People hide in their own boxes and it’s not surprising, but it’s not a good idea because life is too hard to hide in a box. You can’t manage it if you do that.

If you watch yourself for a week you’ll see certain things, you’ll see some of the time that you’re resentful and annoying. And those are times when you’re either taking advantage of yourself or you’re thinking improperly. Some of the time you’ll be bored, in which case you’re either undisciplined or you’re probably pursuing something you don’t want to pursue. And some of the time you’ll actually be engaged in life and the times that you’re engaged in life you won’t  even notice that you’re there. The distinction between subject and object disappears when you’re engaged in something you find meaningful.

The purpose of life as far as I can tell, from studying mythology, from studying psychology for decades, is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant. Or maybe that it’s even acceptable. And I would say as well that people know when they’re doing that.  You know that you’re doing that in part because you’re no longer resentful. You think “Jeez, I could do this forever.” There’s a timelessness that’s associated with that state of being. From a mythological perspective that’s equivalent to brief habitation of the kingdom of God. That’s the place where you are that’s so meaningful that it enables you to bear the harsh preconditions of life without becoming resentful, bitter or cruel. And there’s nothing that you could pursue in your life that would be half as useful as that.

Your nervous system, being an evolved structure, is evolved for a universe that is composed of the interaction between chaos and order. Those are the most fundamental constants that we know. They transcend the mere perception of objects. Everywhere you go is chaos and order.

Traditional Chinese doctors go into people’s houses to diagnose why it is that someone in that house is suffering. They walk in and they think “There’s too much order here.” I’ve been in houses like that.  That’s a house where all the furniture is covered in plastic. That’s a house where if you put a glass on a wooden table, the mistress of the house runs over with a coaster, slips it under immediately and gives you a dirty look. That’s a place where the children never play in the living room. That’s a place where the lines in the carpet are vacuumed so precisely they’re actually parallel. That’s a place where there’s so much order no one can survive because the person who runs the house is a tyrant. And that anyone who’s sick in that house is sick because they’re  suffering from an excess of order.

And then you can walk into a house that’s completely different and you can even see this in your own room if you want. Everything’s in complete disarray. You can’t even look at that place. You’re sick the moment you cross the threshold because everywhere you look there’s parts of untransformed chaos yelling at you “Do something about this, loser!”

If you walk into your study and you have a stack of papers, in the midst of which is buried your homework. You’ll notice you have  very tough time looking at that stack of papers. And the reason for that is that the stack of papers that you’re ignoring, that’s aging, that’s causing you more trouble with each passing day, is portal into order into which chaos is flowing. And if you ignore that long enough, the chaos will flow through that portal and take over your room and then take over your life. And you might think “Well, that’s a very strange way of looking at things.”  And I suppose it is, but just as an experiment to see whether or not this is true, try not paying your taxes for ten years and see what happens.

This is an old representation, right? Atlas with the world. It’s a representation that says that’s the proper way to live, right? The way to live properly so that you can withstand the nature of your own being is to pick up a load that’s heavy enough so that if you carry it you have some self-respect. It’s a very weird idea because it’s frequently the case that people do everything they can to lighten their load. But the problem with carrying a light load is that then you have nothing that’s useful to do. And if you have nothing useful to do, all you have around you (unless you’re extremely fortunate – and that will only be the case for very short periods of time) is meaningless suffering. And there’s nothing worse for your soul than meaningless suffering.

If you look around you and see the people that you respect, and I don’t mean that you think about respecting, the one’s that your gut, your whole being tells you to respect, you’ll see it’s always people who picked up something heavy and are carrying it successfully and you think “Now that’s what it means to be a human being.” And when you see that you think “Well, perhaps life is worthwhile despite the fact that the essential nature of reality is suffering.”

There’s an old Jewish idea, an idea that man and God are in a sense twins. It’s a very strange idea, but it seems to hinge on something like this: The classic attributes of God (these are the attributes of the absolute) – omnipotence,  omniscience and omnipresence. Do anything, be anything… can’t translate the other one momentarily. There’s a question that goes along with that. What’s a being characterized by the absolute attributes of God lack? And the answer to that is limitation. And that’s an unbelievably interesting idea. The reason it’s so interesting is because one of the things that modern psychology is increasingly telling us is without the limitation that a creature like us, with the structure of our consciousness brings to bear on the world, there’s no reality. That what reality is, an emergent consequence of the interaction of something that’s painfully limited and us and whatever the absolute is, which is something completely without borders. And what that implies in a sense is that without limitation there’s no being. With limitation there’s suffering. Without suffering then, there’s no being.

Well, you might think perhaps there should be no being. And lots of people act their whole lives in order to see if they can make that a possibility. And that’s really a luxury we don’t have anymore. But the alternative is to presume that being is worth the suffering. And to find a mode of being that allows you to make that claim in reality. I would say in a sense that’s your existential destiny and if you’re here at university rather than a trade school, your job is how to figure out how to be a human being. And that’s a much more important job than any specific time limited, pragmatic plan. You have an unlimited possibility for good, really. Individuals are way more powerful than they think. They’re more powerful for evil, but they’re also more powerful for good.

These archaic stories that I’ve been telling you about, they have something t say to you. They say “Life is uncertain. You’ll never know enough. And not only that, you never can know enough. And not only that, everything you stand on is shaky”. And then they say “But you still have to stand on it. And while you’re standing on it, you have to improve it.” And that’s how life goes on and that’s how you live your life and if you forget those things or if you undermine them, you’re in the same situation that the unfortunate man was that I told you about in the Old Testament. Who reached out to touch something he should have left alone.

To the degree that you’re human, you have to abide by a certain set of truths. The truths that I told you about today are, as far as I can tell, something close to a minimal set. There’s chaos, there’s order. You’re stuck with both of them and they both have a cost and they both have advantages. And your job is how to figure out how to serve as the appropriate mediator between the two. And you can tell when you’re doing that because when you’re doing that the dismal circumstances of your life manifest themselves to you as eminently acceptable. And it’s in that situation that you know you’ve placed yourself in a position in nature where everything is in harmony. And that’s the place to aim for.

Nice talking to you.

Questions & Answers:


How do you take your ideas about embracing suffering and apply them to treatments for mental illness?


The first thing I would say is if you’re dealing with someone who’s depressed and they’re really depressed you should try giving them anti-depressants. Because if they die, you can’t help them. Okay, so if you’re suffering you’re obligated, in a sense, to hold on to whatever rope someone throws you. And one of the things I do with my clients all the time, especially if their in trouble, is to tell them “Look, I don’t know exactly what’s going to help you, but don’t arbitrarily throw out any possibilities because you might not have that luxury. Anti-depressants help a lot of people and there are technical reasons why that’s the case. So that’s a simple answer, it’s not relevant to what I’ve already described, except if you’re offered a gift by your society and it works, try it. I don’t care what your presuppositions are.

Apart from that, lots of the time you see people who are suffering with depression, for example, there’s a multitude of reasons. But I’ll take one common reason. You can think about it as associated with the story of Peter Pan. Peter Pan is someone who won’t grow up. The problem with Peter Pan is he gets to be king, but it’s king of Neverland. Neverland doesn’t exist. So being king of nothing isn’t that helpful. One of the things you often see in people who suffer from depression (and I’m not making a blanket statement about the causes of depression, because there’s lots of them) is that people who don’t have enough order in their life tend to get overwhelmed. So, for example, if someone comes in to see me and they say they’re depressed I always ask them a very standard set of questions: Do you have a job? If you don’t have a job you’re really in trouble in our society. First of all your biological rhythms tend to go off the rails right away because there’s no reason to go to bed at any particular time and there’s no reason to get up. And for many people, if they don’t get up at the same time they foul up the function of their circadian rhythms and that’s enough to make them depressed right off the bat, especially if they start napping during the afternoon. They also don’t have a purpose. People aren’t good without a purpose. And this isn’t hypothesizing. We absolutely understand the circuitry that underlies positive emotion. We know how it works. Almost all of the positive emotion that any of you are likely to experience in your lives will not be a consequence of attaining things. It will be a consequence of seeing that things are working as you proceed towards a goal you value.

That’s completely different and you need to know this because people are often stunned, for example, they finish their PhD thesis and their presupposition is that they’re going to be elated for a month and often instead they’re actually depressed and they think “What the hell, I’ve been working on this for seven years and I handed it in and what do I do now?” And that’s what depresses them, right? It’s “What do I do now?” Well, they’re fine if they enjoyed pursuing the thing, as long as it was working out they get a lot of enthusiasm and excitement out of that. That’s how our nervous systems work. Most of your positive emotion is goal pursuit emotion. If you take drugs like cocaine or amphetamine, the reason they’re enjoyable is because they turn on the systems that help you pursue goals. That’s why people like them.

So if you don’t have a job, you’ve got no structure, that’s not good. Plus, you tend not to have a point. So you’re overwhelmed by chaotic lack of structure and you don’t have any positive emotion. Well, do you have any friends? So sometimes you see people who are depressed – they have no job, they have no friends, they have no intimate relationship, they have an additional health problem and they have a drug and alcohol problem.  My experience has been if you have three of those problems, it’s almost impossible to help you. You’re so deeply mired in chaos that you can’t get out because you make progress on one front and one of your other problems pulls you down.

So, one of the things I tell people who are depressed is “Don’t sacrifice your stability.” Get a job, even if it’s not the job you exactly want. Get a damn job, you need a job. Find some friends, get out on the dating circuit, see if you can establish an intimate relationship. Put together some of the foundational items that are like pillars your life rests on. That’s the practical thing to do. So that’s one example with regards to depression.

How do your clients respond to the suggestion that they establish structure in their life as an antidote to depression?


Well, the thing is, you don’t just launch it on them. You’ve got to negotiate with the person. And you’ve also got to teach the person to negotiate with themselves. This is something that’s very useful to know. You can tyrannize yourself into doing things, but I wouldn’t recommend it. What I would recommend instead is that you ask yourself what you’d be willing to do. It’s a really effective technique, it’s like a meditative technique. So, for example, you get up in the morning and you can think “Well you know, I’d like to have a good day today so I’d like to go to bed tonight without feeling guilty, cause I didn’t do some things I said I was going to do and I’d like to have kind of an interesting day. I’ve got to fulfill my responsibilities and I want to enjoy the day. Then you can ask yourself “What would I have to do in order for that to happen that I would do?” And the probability, if you practice this for three or four days, is your brain will just tell you “Well you know, there’s that piece of homework that you haven’t done for three weeks, you should knock that sucker off ‘cause it’ll only take you ten minutes and you’ve been avoiding it and torturing yourself to death like 72 hours straight. If you do that, here’s a little interesting thing you can do. Maybe these little obligations you should clean up.” And so what you do in a situation like that is you teach the person to negotiate with themselves. So let’s figure out what your aims are, you’ve got to have some aims, whatever they are. And they might say “Well, I’m so depressed I don’t have any aims.” and I say “Well pick the least objectionable of the aims and act it out for awhile and see what happens.”  Sometimes your emotional systems are so fouled up that you have to pretend, you have to act the thing out before you can start to believe it. People always assume they have to believe and then act, but sometimes that’s true, but lots of times it isn’t. So the trick, if you’re doing therapeutic work with somebody and you’re helping them establish a structure, is finding out what they’ll do.

Now, if they want to get better – which is not a given – because there are often payoffs for not getting better, that’s basically the payoffs of being a martyr or maybe the payoff of doing what your entirely pathological family members want you to do because they actually want you to fail. Assuming you want to get better, there’s usually something you can figure out that would constitute a step toward some sort of concrete goal. And my presumption, and it’s a behavioral presumption fundamentally, is that small accruing gains that repeat are unbelievably powerful. So, you know, this is another thing to know about in your own life, something I learned about from reading the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (he’s a great Russian philosopher and novelist). He said “You can look at your life and you can see what isn’t right about it.” I mean, all you have to do is look. And then you can start to fix that and the way you fix it is by noticing what you could in fact fix. You know, people are often trying to fix things they can’t fix, which I would not recommend because if you try to fix something you can’t fix you’ll just ruin it. Like you can find all sorts of undergraduates who are perfectly willing to restructure the international economic system who cannot keep their room clean. And there’s actually a gap there you know and it’s surprising that people don’t actually notice. So I say, if you pay attention you can see things that you could fix. They yell at you, they really do. We even know how that happens.

Let me give you an example. Rooms are full of stories and stories have effects on you. So here’s a classic experiment. So you take two groups of undergraduates, you bring them into your lab. You give one group a multiple choice test that has a bunch of words in it that are associated with being old. And you give the other group the same multiple choice test except the words are associated with being young. This is independent of the content of the test, it’s just descriptions. And then you time the undergraduates as they walk back to the elevators. The ones that completed the multiple choice test that had that had more words associated with aging walked slower back to the elevators. And they don’t know that. And they don’t know they’re doing it. And that study’s been replicated in various forms many, many times. You’re unbelievably sensitive to the story that your environments telling you. Because your environment is not made out of objects. That’s just wrong. Your environment is basically made out of something like tools and obstacles. You’re a tool using creature, you’re a tool perceiving creature. Like, if I take you out of this room and I say “What was in the room?” you’re not going to say “Random patterns in the carpet.” They’re real, they’re just as good an object as anything else. You’re going to say chairs ‘cause you can sit on them, you’re going to say handrails ‘cause you can hold them, you’re going to say stairs ‘cause you can walk down them. That’s what you see and that’s what you interact with and if you pay attention to your environment, which is you by the way – extended, all of your experiences are you, it’ll tell you all the time what you should do. All you have to do is do it. But then you have to decide if you want to do it. One of the things I’ve noticed about people, because I wondered, once I started studying mythological stories and I got this idea about the fact that life can be meaningful enough to justify its suffering, I thought “God, that’s such a good idea.” Because it’s not always optimistic exactly. Well some people will tell you that you can be happy. Those people are idiots. I’m telling you, they’re idiots. There’s going to be things that come along that flatten you so hard you won’t believe it. And you’re not happy then and so if life is to be happy, well in those situations, what are you doing? Why even live? But life isn’t to be happy. If you’re bloody fortunate and you should enjoy it because it’s the grace of God so to speak.

With regards to meaning I thought “People know when they’re doing something meaningful, they can tell , so why the hell don’t they do meaningful things all the time?” It seems obvious, you could do it. It’s hard because other people want you to do other things and it’s a struggle, but everything’s a struggle. And then I thought “Well, oh I get it, I see why.” It took me about ten years to figure this out. People have a choice.

Choice number 1: Nothing you do means anything. Well, that’s kind of a drag, right? The meaninglessness of life and all that existentialist angst. you know, that’s kind of a pain. But the upside of nothing that you do is meaningful is you don’t have to do anything. You’ve got no responsibility. Now you have to suffer because things are meaningless but that’s a small price to pay for being able to be completely useless.

The alternative is: everything you do matters. Really. If you make a mistake, it’s a real mistake. If you betray someone, you tilt the world a little more sharply towards evil than good. It matters what you do. Well, if you buy that, then you can have a meaningful life. But, there’s no mucking around. It means responsibility. It means that the decisions you make are important. It means that when you do something wrong, it’s wrong. Well, do you want that?

Are we centers of our own morality?


That’s a very hard question because people don’t always mean the same thing when they say their own moral compass. Here’s what I mean by that technically. Part of the reason you’re able to distinguish between right and wrong is you are a certain kind of biological organism. And then another reason is that your head is full of other people. All the people you’ve met, all the people you’ve interacted with. They’re all telling you a way to behave that’s good and a way that isn’t. There are circumstances under which your conscience should be…the duty you have to your conscience should override the duty you have to social norms. But, before you break a rule (because you think you’re going to be doing a good thing), you bloody well better make sure you have your head screwed on straight. Because every time you tell yourself a lie and every time you act out a falsehood, you disturb the pristine integrity of your nervous system and the reports it’ll give you about the nature of the world will be distorted as a consequence of that. So, yes, you have a moral obligation to follow the dictates of your conscience, but you also have a moral obligation to make sure your life is straight enough you can rely on your own judgment. And you can’t separate those things.