PHILOSOPHICAL VOICES OF SELF-TRANSFORMATION

by Ran Lahav

published in Journal of Humanities Therapy 3:2012

The field of philosophical practice contains a wide variety of approaches, and yet they are all based on one central idea: that philosophy is relevant to the person in the street, not only to professional philosophers. Philosophy can help individuals examine their lives and in this way help them address their personal problems, make decisions, develop themselves, and enrich their lives with meaning and wisdom. The philosophical practitioner is, accordingly, a philosopher who helps people reflect on life and on their predicaments. This can be done in several different formats—in a one-time workshop, in a group that meets regularly, in a reading group of philosophical texts, and so on. But the most popular form of philosophical practice is “philosophical counseling” in which a philosopher meets one counselee for a series of counseling sessions, and the two reflect together on the counselee’s life.

But how can philosophy, especially Western philosophy, be relevant to the person in the street?

PHILOSOPHICAL VOICES OF SELF-TRANSFORMATION

by Ran Lahav

published in Journal of Humanities Therapy 3:2012

The field of philosophical practice contains a wide variety of approaches, and yet they are all based on one central idea: that philosophy is relevant to the person in the street, not only to professional philosophers. Philosophy can help individuals examine their lives and in this way help them address their personal problems, make decisions, develop themselves, and enrich their lives with meaning and wisdom. The philosophical practitioner is, accordingly, a philosopher who helps people reflect on life and on their predicaments. This can be done in several different formats—in a one-time workshop, in a group that meets regularly, in a reading group of philosophical texts, and so on. But the most popular form of philosophical practice is “philosophical counseling” in which a philosopher meets one counselee for a series of counseling sessions, and the two reflect together on the counselee’s life.

But how can philosophy, especially Western philosophy, be relevant to the person in the street? After all, much of Western philosophy discusses abstract issues and general ideas which are remote from the concerns of Joe the taxi driver or Mary the secretary. How can such an abstract discussion mean anything to ordinary people, and how can it help them reflect on their lives? This is the basic challenge for philosophical practice in general, and for philosophical counseling in particular. The success of philosophical practice/counseling depends on its ability to apply philosophical thinking to the concerns of the person in the street.

In this paper I would like to address this issue, and to suggest a general approach to answering it. I will sketch a way in which philosophical reflection can be used to help individuals change themselves towards a deeper and more meaningful life.[i]


The idea of self-transformation in Western philosophy

Western philosophy has not always been so abstract and remote from everyday life as it is nowadays. In ancient Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, several important schools of philosophy aimed primarily at guiding people’s everyday lives.[2] Notable examples are the Stoic and the Epicurean philosophers who not only talked about the proper way to live, but also engaged in daily philosophical exercises and reflections in order to implement their philosophical ideas in their daily activity. However, after the fall of ancient philosophy and the rise of Christianity, Western philosophy became focused on abstract, general theories, and was no longer interested primarily in the individual’s everyday concerns. In a sense, therefore, the philosophical practice movement is as an attempt to revive those ancient traditions, although in new ways that are appropriate for contemporary ways of thinking.

Despite the abstract tendencies which have dominated modern and contemporary Western philosophy, I suggest that not all of Western philosophy is irrelevant to everyday life. In every historical period we can find important philosophers who envisioned ways for philosophy to make a difference to our life, and to transform it and elevate it. I have in mind not obscure and esoteric figures, but rather central philosophers such as Spinoza, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Emerson, Bergson, Buber and others. Remarkably, the fundamental insights of all these thinkers are very similar, although each one of them uses different terminologies, concepts and ideals. These philosophers, I believe, can show us how philosophical practice can help transform us and deepen our lives.

I call these philosophers who, throughout Western history, explored the way to personal self-transformation, transformational philosophers. The basic vision that unifies these diverse transformational thinkers can be summarized in the following three principles: First, our everyday self is usually limited—it is superficial, narrow, rigid, automatic, and blind to the potential fullness of life. Second, we yearn to go beyond this limitation and live a fuller, truer life. And third, such a fuller life can be achieved through a self-transformation which is not easy to achieve and yet is possible.

I believe that philosophical practice (including philosophical counseling) can adopt these basic principles as its foundation. To see how this can be done, let us first look at several examples of transformational philosophers. A good starting point is the eminent Greek philosopher Plato in his famous Allegory of the Cave.[3] Plato’s allegory tells us of a group of people who are imprisoned in a dark, narrow cave. Tied to their chairs and unable to move, they can see only the shadows that flicker on the wall in front of them, produced by a fire that burns behind their backs. Since they have never seen anything else, they assume that these shadows are reality itself. At this point Plato tells us that these people are in fact us. It is we who are imprisoned in a dark, narrow cave and think that it is reality.

Imagine now, Plato’s text continues, what would happen if one of these prisoners was freed from his shackles. At first he would be blinded by the fire and refuse to turn around and look at it. But if some power forced him to turn around he would eventually get used to the light, and then would come to understand that what he has assumed so far to be reality is in fact only shadows on the wall. If he is later pulled out of the cave, he would gradually get used to the sunlight and finally be able to see the sun, which symbolizes the deeper reality. Only now will he understand how limited his understanding was while he lived in the cave.

The cave is, of course, an allegory for our limited and superficial understanding of reality. Through this allegory Plato tells us that with the help of philosophical reflection we can step out of our limited “cave” towards a deeper understanding of reality and thus towards a fuller life. The power that pulls the prisoner out of the cave is the Platonic Eros, which is our yearning for fullness, for truth, and for happiness.

The same basic insight can be found in the writings of many other important Western thinkers. Another example from the ancient world is the Stoic school of thought, which flourished for several centuries in the ancient Hellenistic world. According to the Stoics,[4] we are normally controlled by our automatic emotional reactions, and are therefore disconnected from our true nature—from the rational guiding principle (the “daemon”) that resides in us. Our emotional neediness leads us to anxiety, frustration, confusion, and irrational behavior. However, philosophical reflections and exercises can help us connect to our true self, and in this way help us achieve rationality, peace and freedom, as well as harmony with the cosmos. Clearly, the Stoic viewpoint is very different from Plato’s, and yet these two philosophies are two versions of the same basic theme: How to free ourselves from our inner prison, in other words from the limitation of our small psychological self.

To see a modern example of the same theme, let us skip to the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[5] Rousseau believed that we are usually alienated from our true self. This is because we live a false social mask: we follow social norms, play social games, are busy comparing ourselves to others, and engage in power games and manipulation. Further, we identify ourselves with this social mask, internalize it, and think that this is who we really are. Consequently, we are controlled by social and psychological mechanisms, and are alienated from our “natural” self, which is a fountain of free, spontaneous, creative energies. Worse, we are not even aware of the falsity of the games we play. Only with appropriate education can we reconnect to our true, natural self.

Likewise, the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that most of us live a small life.[6] We are governed by our weakness and laziness, by the fear of being different from others, and by the need for comfort and security. Nietzsche envisions a higher and nobler way of living, one that would be lived by powerful individuals whom he calls the “Overmen.” The Overman is one who would overcome his petty self, creating a higher self which would create his own personal values and would follow them in a passionate, fearless, noble, and creative way.

At about the same time, the American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson,[7]the leader of the so-called Transcendentalist movement, contended that we are capable of living a larger life. Although we usually think and feel from our limited personal self, we are capable of opening ourselves to a higher source of life—the “over-soul.” This is a transpersonal fountain of inspiration, which can flow through us and give birth to greater creativity, deeper understandings, and higher visions of life.

Many more thinkers can be added to the list, but for the present purpose the above thinkers are enough to demonstrate their common insight. Although these philosophers belong to very different schools of thought, their visions are strikingly similar: They all tell us that we are imprisoned in a narrow, rigid, superficial self, but that we can overcome it and gain a richer and fuller way of being, one that involves our inner depth, wisdom and plenitude. In order to achieve this fuller life, we need to undergo a personal self-transformation. Philosophical reflection can show us the way towards this inner transformation.

A general roadmap for philosophical practice

I suggest that this shared vision of self-transformation can serve as the central vision of philosophical practice and counseling. From this perspective, the goal of philosophical practice is to facilitate a personal self-transformation in counselees, thus helping them deepen and enrich their lives. Note that this goal is different from the kind of pragmatic goals that are common in popular forms of psychotherapy and counseling. It is oriented towards personal growth, and not towards solving specific personal problems such as marriage difficulties or difficulties at the workplace. It is aimed at overcoming our normal life, rather than normalizing our life.

Personal growth through inner transformation is an ambitious goal. How can it be achieved with philosophical means? Western Philosophy seems too abstract and removed from everyday life, and it might be hard to see how it can be brought down to the level of the counselees’ concrete concerns and behaviors.

The key to the answer is that philosophy need not be brought down to the level of concrete life, because it is already present in everyday moments. In our daily life we all encounter fundamental life-issues: How can I make my life meaningful, and what is a meaningful life? What is true love? What does it mean to be authentic? What is moral behavior? What does it mean to be free? and so on. We all relate to age-old philosophical issues, although usually without being aware of them. For example, when we make a career choice, we are thereby responding to the question: What is meaningful and important in life? When we agree to help a neighbor, we are thereby responding to the question: What is moral behavior? And when we feel frustrated by our wife’s or husband’s attitude towards us, we are thereby responding to the question: What is or isn’t true love?

In short, our emotions, behaviors and attitudes are, in effect, responses to philosophical issues. In this sense, we constantly interpret life through our ways of behaving, emoting, and thinking. Our behaviors, emotions and thoughts express a definite philosophical conception of life, or what can be called a philosophical “worldview.” My personal worldview is my way of answering basic life-issues, my way of understanding life, often without being aware of it.

The problem is that our responses to basic life-issues are usually thoughtless and limited. To put it differently, our way of interpreting life—our personal “worldview”—is usually narrow, rigid and superficial. We are therefore imprisoned in a limited worldview, just like Plato’s prisoners. It is necessary to transform this worldview in order to enrich our lives.

This, however, is not easy to do. Usually we are not aware of the worldview that constricts our behavior, emotions and thoughts. This is because our worldview is governed not by our conscious decisions, but rather by emotional and behavioral patterns that are fixed, powerful, and automatic. To express the limitation of our worldview, I sometimes call it in my writings our “perimeter,” which is more or less another name for Plato’s cave. My perimeter, my Platonic cave, and my worldview are all different ways of referring to the same thing: to the rigid boundary within which I am imprisoned, and which constricts much of my everyday life within a narrow and rigid repertoire of behaviors, emotions, attitudes.

The task of philosophical practice and counseling can now be formulated as a two-stage process: first, to help the counselee become aware of the worldview in which he is imprisoned (his Platonic cave, or perimeter) and explore it; and second, to search for ways to open these constricting boundaries, to step beyond the cave, and thus help the counselee deepen and enrich his world.

Step 1: Exploring the counselee’s Platonic cave

Tammy feels lost. On the surface, she has everything she needs: a husband who appreciates her and two nice children, a stable job as a travel agent, a house and a car. And yet, she feels that her life is going nowhere. Time passes day after day, and she feels as if nothing is happening to her. Her workplace is convenient, but her work feels quite meaningless. She loves her family, but it is not enough for her. She yearns for something more, she does not know what. Her life, she says, is empty.

As I said earlier, in the first step of the counseling process the counselor helps the counselee understand the“cave” (perimeter) within which she is imprisoned—her limited conception of life, her worldview. To do so, the counselor should be careful not to impose on the counselee ready-made ideas. I believe that every individual has her own unique cave, and here I disagree with those traditional philosophers who believed that one unified theory applies to everybody. For example, while one individual may be stuck in a general attitude that says: “I must keep proving myself to be a worthy person,” another individual may be stuck in an attitude that says: “I must control the world or else it would control me.”

What is Tammy’s cave? To answer this question we must carefully examine the small details of her everyday life. Therefore, in the first few sessions, the counseling conversation is focused on examining specific events in Tammy’s daily activity, including specific feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

You said that your work is enjoyable,” says the counselor, “and yet you feel empty. Can you give me an example of this contradictory feeling?”

“Sure,” Tammy responds. “Take my boss for example. He likes me because I am a good worker. I always know what he wants, and I know how to please him. He praises me for the work I do and it’s nice to hear his praises, but deep inside I feel that this doesn’t really matter. The same thing happens with my husband—I always know what he wants, and he always tells me I am the best wife in the world. But… I don’t know.”

“Doesn’t this please you?”

“Yes, it definitely pleases me—but it doesn’t fill my emptiness. Every time my boss praises me I feel delighted for a few moments, but afterwards I feel empty, as if all his praises don’t really touch me. Last week he even wanted to promote me. He wanted to make me the manager of our new branch.”

“Did you accept the offer?”

“No, I don’t want to be a boss. I don’t think I would like the responsibility. I prefer working for somebody.”

A thoughtful philosophical counselor would note that a pattern is starting to appear in Tammy’s life: She constantly makes efforts to appear good in the eyes of other people—she even refuses to be without a boss to evaluate her—and yet their praises do not fulfill her. The counselor might examine other aspects of her life in order to see if this is a general pattern in her life:

“Do you do other things, Tammy, perhaps after work? Do you play a musical instrument, for example, or paint?”

“No, when I am alone I feel bored with myself. I don’t like doing things by myself—except for gardening. I do like growing herbs in my garden. But other than that, I like being with people—I like to work for my boss, I like to talk with my friends, I like parties.”

“Parties? Can you tell me more about this?”

“Actually,” Tammy responds, “last night I went to a wonderful party. I wore a long blue dress, and it looked stunning against the background of the yellow walls. All eyes were glancing at me.”

“You must have returned home very satisfied.”

“Well,” Tammy answers dismissively, “it was fun at the beginning, but then I grew tired of it. It wasn’t really important, it was just fun and nothing more.”

Here again we may note that Tammy is very much aware of how she appears from other people’s perspective. She tries to impress them and appear good in their eyes, and she enjoys it when she succeeds. It is as if she always looks at herself from other people’s eyes. But perhaps not surprisingly, this does not completely satisfy her.

The counselor continues discussing with Tammy specific situations and events in her life, and after a couple of sessions the general landscape of her worldview starts becoming apparent: In Tammy’s world, she is an object for others to see, to evaluate, and admire. Here we may use the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre to clarify her worldview: Tammy regards herself not as a subject, but as an object for the other peoples’ look. In her world, she is not a free subject who determines her own identity and her own projects and values. Rather, she is determined by others. She is a “thing,” not a real person.A “thing” cannot live a full life—it is just a finished fact, with no creativity or freedom, with no sense or meaning.The most she can hope for is to be a thing that is admirable, like a gem for others to admire.

This is, then, a central theme in Tammy’s worldview: I am an object of others’ look, and as such I should seek to be an admired gem. One might say that this is her “theory” about the world—it is a philosophical theory that says that I am an object, and that others are the “looks” that objectify me, and that are the source of all meaning and value. Of course, Tammy is not aware of her “theory,” because iti s not expressed in words, but rather in her emotions and behaviors. This is an implicit worldview, and it functions as Tammy’s “cave.”Little by little, as the counseling progresses, she will start seeing it, and realize how it controls her life and constricts it.

Step 2: Stepping out of our cave

Now that Tammy is aware of her worldview and how it functions as a Platonic cave, it is time to start exploring how she might step out of it. This is the second stage in the counseling process.

To do so, it is important to realize that Tammy cannot simply decide to change herself. A mere decision is not enough to create a real transformation. By comparison, a shy person cannot suddenly decide to become free and spontaneous, a depressed person cannot turn herself happy by the sheer force of a decision, and a suspicious person cannot make himself trusting all at once. Self-change is a long process. To be sure, we can sometimes decide to suppress some of our behaviors, but usually only for brief periods of time. Very quickly we revert to our old patterns. How, then, is self-transformation possible?

In order to answer this question we should note that our worldview is not the only source of our behavior. It is not the only “voice” that speaks in our everyday life. Many different “voices” speak in us, although not in equal intensity. Even though our worldview is the most dominant philosophical voice in our lives, it is not our only voice. In special moments, different understandings motivate and inspire us.

Earlier, Tammy remarked that sometimes, when she works in her garden, she feels free and spontaneous. Now, in a later session, the counselor returns to this topic and encourages Tammy to examine these moments in greater detail. It soon becomes clear that when she works in her garden she experiences a profound inner change: She no longer feels the need to look at herself from other people’s eyes. She no longer needs to receive meaning and value from the outside. She immerses herself in her garden and acts creatively, motivated by her own preferences and her own ideas.

“Your gardening experience is very interesting,” says the counselor. “Remember the distinction we took from Sartre between a subject and an object? It seems that during your gardening moments you are no longer an object but rather a subject. You are not a thing, a gem, but a free agent. Gardening is then meaningful not because other people look at it and admire it, but because you invest in it your own decisions, your own ideas, your own meaning.”

“Oh, well,” Tammy replies indifferently, “these are only small moments. I love gardening, but it is a very small part of my life.”

“I understand,” says the counselor. “Still, these moments are important because they are very different from other moments in your life. They show you that you can be different. They demonstrate that the voice that tells you that you are a gem is not the only voice in your life.”

Tammy deliberates. “True,” she finally admits. “These are very different moments. I have never taken them seriously, but now I am starting to see what they are telling me: that I don’t have to be a gem.”

“Indeed, Tammy. They tell you that you can be a person, that you have within you a fountain of meaning and value—and that’s much more than being a gem that is admired by others. Let us try to listen to this voice more carefully and understand how you can open yourself to it more fully.”

As Tammy’s case suggests, if we want to go beyond the boundaries of our normal worldview, we must learn to pay attention to the divergent “voices” that sometimes speak in us. When the counselee learns to attend to these different philosophical voices, she will gain the capacity to relate to herself and her life in new ways. She will learn to behave and emote and think in fuller, richer, wiser ways, instead of being limited to the narrow voice that normally controls her behavior and emotions.

Using traditional philosophies of self-transformation in philosophical practice

It takes skill and experience to identify divergent voices and understand their inner logic. Here traditional philosophical writings can help. The writings of deep thinkers can give us useful ideas: concepts, distinctions, statements, arguments, theories, analyses. These ideas can serve as tools to detect and articulate divergent voices in our lives, understand them, and open ourselves to them. Philosophical counselors can therefore use the ideas of great thinkers to help their counselees formulate, recognize, and understand alternatives to their normal worldview. By reflecting on brief excerpts of texts, counselees can learn how to “listen” to philosophical voices that speak in them, and later respond to them. They can learn to be inspired by philosophical visions that are different from their usual worldview, and in this way transform themselves towards richer, fuller ways of life.

“Alright,” says Tammy, “I now realize that these gardening moments speak in a voice that is different from my usual attitude towards myself. So far I haven’t paid much attention to them, and now I can see that they are precious. So what do I now do? How do I allow this new voice speak in my life more fully?”

“There is no magical trick to do it, Tammy. You must learn to be attentive to this voice and develop a relationship with it. You must take your time to learn its language and understand it intimately. As a first step, let us read a few lines from Jean-Paul Sartre’s passage “The Look,” where he explains how the other’s look can objectify you, and who you are when you are not objectified. Let’s see if this text can give you useful tools to understand your gardening voice and listen to it. Afterwards, I’d like us to try another brief text by another thinker who presents a very different perspective on the same theme. But first, here is Sartre’s paragraph which I have in mind. Shall we start reading it together? Remember, what is important is not whether or not you agree with Sartre. The point is to learn the language of the voice that is articulated in the passage, and to listen to the way it speaks in you.”

Conclusion

If we now look at the transformational process as a whole, we may note that it is based on the power of understanding. A deeper understanding can change us. By learning to understand more deeply the philosophical voices that speak in us—both the usual voice of our worldview and divergent voices—we can start a transformation in our attitude to ourselves and to basic life-issues.

This is evidently a philosophical approach, because it works with ideas: it focuses on life-issues and seeks to respond to them. Philosophy deals with ideas, but it need not do so in an abstract and general way, as this is usually done in university lecture halls. Philosophy can become relevant to us personally—in other words, it can become philosophical practice—if we let it speak in our lives. It can help us grow if we open ourselves to the power of understanding, which is also the power of wisdom.


Footnotes

1. For more details about my approach see various items on my two websites: www.trans-sophia.net and www.PhiloLife.net. In Italian, see my book Oltre la Filosofia: alla ricerca della saggezza (In Italian: Beyond Philosophy: the investigation of wisdom), Milano: Apogeo, 2010. The manuscript will be published in English in the near future.

[2]. For more details on ancient philosophies of life, see Pierre Hadot and Arnold Davidson, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

[4] at http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html. For a discussion of Stoic philosophical exercises see Pierre Hadot,

[5]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, London: Dutton, 1966.

[6]. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, New York: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 103-442. See for example sections 4 and 5 in the Prologue, pp. 126-131; and “On the Three Metamorphoses,” in Part 1, pp. 137-140.

[7]. See especially Emerson’s essay “The Over-soul,” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: New American Library, 1965, pp. 280-295.

 


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