Freedom is the element of love

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and the so-called “father of existentialism” was born today, May 5 in 1813. To celebrate, I drink a bottle of champagne and share this essay which, recently, was published in the Wild Roof Journal.

A man in his late fifties enters a tattoo shop in Barcelona. He shows up unannounced with his new girlfriend. They are both a little bit drunk.

“Can you write her name on my arm?” he asks the young female tattoo artist who was busy tattooing me. 

Before waiting for an answer, he rolls up the sleeves of his grayish sweatshirt. “Here,” he says, pointing to a vacant spot of bare skin close to his wrist. I notice that his arm already carries four other female names. Three of them are crossed out. 

“I need you to cross out the last one and add her name,” he says, as he points to his partner. Her. 

The tattooist looks at the man’s arm, looks at the lady, and says, “Lucky you!” 

Is she being ironic? 

She observes, “Before he didn’t have room for you; now he does.”

Love and Freedom Are Bound Together 

This episode makes me think of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who once wrote in a letter to his fiancée, Regine Olsen, “Freedom is the element of love.” This statement encapsulates the two most important features of a life worth living: freedom and love. 

You’re free to do almost whatever you want as long as you’re willing to take all the consequences. It goes without saying that you’re never free to violate or harm anyone, deliberately, which also has nothing to do with love. Love is edifying, as Kierkegaard writes wrote in Works of Love (1847). 

For Kierkegaard, love is the metaphysical foundation of life; it is what is. Yet, combined with freedom, love can take many forms: friendships, parents, lovers, etc. 

Regardless of one’s gender or sexual orientation, what is important when it comes to love is there; it exists. We are all free to experience the possibilities of love, but doing so in our own way. Looking at Kierkegaard through the recollection of this episode, I believe it illustrates—or at least encourages me to reflect on—something more general about society than whether a few people like ink or not. 

For example, many people in today’s achievement-oriented society who suffer from insecurity, anxiety, stress, or burnout do so because they feel alone. They basically lack the experience of real and honest contact with other people. Often even with themselves, as when Wittgenstein defines a philosophical problem with being lost. 

Isn’t showing a new acquaintance, a potential lover, that your arm already carries the names of four other women a way of showing honesty? A way of trying to facilitate real contact? Create a space where love can flourish, despite it all?

If I am right, then there was nothing sad about it for him or her. Quite the contrary, being unconnected with other lives leads to sadness. Unfortunately, many people live behind what resembles a firewall that falsely protects our vulnerability or fear of losing face while, at the same time, prevents us from connecting with other people. It’s like a veil between the world, you, and me. 

Are we being too  polite to be honest?

Many, would probably feel embarrassed if they had to cross out a name on their arm, especially if they hadn’t learned from their first, second, and third mistakes, but just kept on adding name after name. Still, they would only be embarrassed because they would look at themselves through the ideals or norms of others, especially those people with whom they might hope to be identified. This, I believe, illustrates how the existential and political tend to become indistinguishable. For instance, in today’s identity-political sphere, many tend to criticize or oppose other people, thoughts, or forms of life, not because of critical thinking but due to prejudices. Knowing how easy it is to fall outside in a society where people tend to shoot before they ask, or even think (if they think at all), firewalls eventually emerge. 

Freedom, therefore, also becomes a question of power. As Byung-Chul Han has shown in What Is Philosophy? (2019), “Violence and freedom are the two end points on the scale of power.” Although there is a tendency among philosophers to leave power to political scientists and organizational theorists, power addresses existential questions. 

For instance, whether those subjected to power follow their own desire while doing so, or whether they follow the desire of the powerful as if it were their own, or whether they even anticipate the desire of the other. Thus, regardless of how trite this may sound, I believe that many people lack the courage and creativity to live the life they want (again, I am thinking of any kind of life that doesn’t deliberately harm anyone). If we are afraid of losing our good standing among people who don’t actually tolerate any diversion from their own ideals, we are not free, and therefore—following Kierkegaard—not capable of loving. The kind of firewall that I refer to is mainly constituted by powerful norms and ideals of our current achievement-focused society that constantly forces us to live in a particular way. 

For example, many young people today feel a pressure to attain an unrealistic body image, often only achieved through plastic surgery or synthetic enhancement. Or how we may feel forced to develop certain competences or express warranted opinions (typically only those that already fit into or enhance our “human capital”). The result of this capitalization of life is that we drain ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. We not only fail to live up to all the ideals but also to forgive ourselves for not being able to do so. We have lost our direction in life playing the power-game of others.

To Become Free 

Returning to the opening episode, we must understand that instead of one true love, some people might experience several. Similarly, instead of claiming that there only exists one right way of living a life worth living, there are several. If Western philosophy teaches us anything, it is that we are always placed in the middle, trying to do our best, exploring and testing life. That is testing our freedom and desires, like asking whether our desire to do this or that really is our desire, or whether we’re just being seduced, forced, or manipulated.

According to Kierkegaard in his letter, love and freedom cannot be separated. Feeling loved and being capable of love make a person free. A simple example could be how most people feel free when they are together with their loved ones. Together with friends, we can turn off our protective firewall. 

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau opens The Social Contract (1762) with the claim: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Despite the power of this sentence I don’t believe we are born free; on the contrary, as a father of three, I have noticed that we are all born helpless and impotent. Still, to some extent, I agree with Rousseau. Instead of cultivating a capacity for critical thinking and compassion in our children, most future citizens are institutionalized in a way that chains them mentally. For the same reason, I agree with Rousseau when he goes on to say: “Those who think themselves masters of others are instead greater slaves than they.” They, the masters, maintain a self-constraining system, yet they do so because they seduce themselves into believing that the systematic status and prestige they have reflects how good they are at living a life worth living. But it doesn’t. 

To become free in an existential sense requires more than stripes on the shoulder, a high salary, or being born in a privileged part of the world. It requires first of all an acknowledgement and respect towards the world we are born into, its norms and ideals, but also an empathic yet critical capacity to question these norms and ideals, the structure behind them, perhaps even to change them. In my book A Philosophy of Mindfulness (2018), I defined freedom as a combination of having the courage to stand against all that which limits, controls, or even destroys our lives, combined with the imagination to create space for alternative lives. It’s a mixture of resistance and inventiveness. Or, to put it even more simply, a mixture of saying both “no” and “yes.” The reason why I don’t believe that we are born free is related to the fact that in order to know what is important, we will have to have tested, explored, or experimented with life. With age, most people know when to say “no”; however, they only know so because they become conscious of what to affirm or say “yes” to. 

Love All People as Equals 

Reflecting on the couple entering the tattoo parlor, I propose that we might see them as a couple that, despite their setbacks, imagines a world where love is still possible. They still know what is important, what to affirm: love.

Another way of confirming that freedom and love are the main ingredients of a life worth living could be by postulating that egocentrism is the exact opposite of freedom. I say so because I only believe we can become free together. Saying this, I am aware that some may suggest that the man entering the tattoo parlor is being egocentric in the act of getting a tattoo of each woman’s name. However, such an assumption would require that we see the tattoo as a symbol of more than it is, for example, a kind of ownership or possession which is a part of our habitual capitalist mindset. On the other hand, the tattoo might be nothing more than a faithful confirmation of the strength of love. Of course, the tattoo—-especially in this situation with so many names—-can make us think of the person as naive, romantic, or too spontaneous, and yet, it is also an affirmation that emphasizes what connects those names on his arm: love. 

Love is everywhere the same, although it always expresses itself differently. 

Kierkegaard illustrated this strength in Works of Love (1847)where he elaborated on the biblical sentence “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” stressing that “thy neighbor” does not refer to your people, nation, gender or sexual orientation, but all people. We should love all people as equals.

Now this is something that very few of us are capable of, but even more sadly, loving everyone as equals (not equally) is something that many of us don’t even strive to accomplish. Capitalism has made us lazy in a comfortable way, either by avoiding any kind critical scrutinization of our own pre-existing biases, or by assuming that all problems can be overcome through consumption. On the contrary, love teaches us to become worthy of what happens. It’s hard work but nothing is more enriching and liberating. 

Kierkegaard, in my opinion, doesn’t present us with an abstract ideal of love; rather, he confronts our confusion and limitations, which can be extremely powerful in a time where many are so self-conscious of their own way of thinking (often anchored solely in their race, gender or sexuality) that they become resistant to alternative perspectives. 

Perhaps this more humble approach to life could lead to a more caring educational mission: How can we teach people today what makes them capable of loving all people tomorrow? 

Love is all inclusive

This reflection of love, freedom, and tattoos has become more political than intended. However, and perhaps I am being too romantic or naive as well, I do believe that love belongs in a political context as well. The power of love transforms not only our lives but also societies by overturning the cultures of domination and repression because they have nothing to do with love. For example, when we are dominated or dominate someone, we are never free. Violence and coercion are lifeless. In other words, those who misuse power (not those in power per se) do so because they are not free. A parent hitting his or her child might claim that he or she did so “out of love”, although it is just an act of violence. 

Love is all inclusive. Or as Kierkegaard said, we should love everyone as equals, not favoring our own gender or religion. Our human history is full of violence, discrimination and killing of women for being women, killing and discriminations of different races, religions or thoughts solely for being different. Human history is one where far too many only like the stranger as long as he or she thinks exactly like them. Thus, there are many reasons to be angry, and anger often comes with a clearer vision, just as there is a lot of needed fuel in it, and yet in order to build or construct a better future, only love can do the work. Love cares for everyone and everything. It was there before we were born, and it will be here once we are gone. Love is what links each name together, not just the one on the man’s arm, but all names in human history. 

Love is not hierarchical, nor does it moralize. The tattooist illustrated this. She didn’t moralize as if she represented a higher and more lucrative position of unquestionable “good”. Instead she was open, not just because they were potential paying customers, but due to her capacity to empathize with them. 

The couple in the tattoo parlor shared a belief in love. Not in the sense that life is without difficulties and suffering. It is; but rather that it’s love that helps us overcome these setbacks, never revenge or hate. 

Love, therefore, is not an abstract ideal but something we all experience and notice if we pay attention. It is like pointing out what all football fans share regardless of their favorite team, which is a love of the game; what all languages share, which is the ability to communicate, make connections, and dialogue; what all people share regardless of national origin, which is that they live on this planet; or what all of us share regardless of gender, race, and sexual preference, which is that we need sunlight to live and that we all breathe the same air. 

If we can love all people as equals, then we would also be capable of seeing why all people should be treated with the same respect, trust, care, and justice. There is no love without mutual respect and equality. However, and this is why I have been using this little episode about the man and women as my point of departure; if I cannot encounter two drunk people in a tattoo parlor without feeling better than them, pitying them or any other kind of sad behavior that would illustrate my embedded prejudices, how should I then make myself available for those who live lives far more different.

Is love bulletproof then? Without answering directly, I would claim that the mistakes we make in love can be crossed out. We can go on living because they initially emerged from a free, honest, and nondiscriminating relationship to and with life. It’s an honest mistake. The man in the tattoo parlor doesn’t hide his previous relationships. On the contrary, he brings (or she brings him) to make another affirmation of love. It is like an ethical confirmation; despite all the discrimination, greed, and violence in today’s world, we must “go on” affirming what matters. Daily.

You know when you’re in love. Or to put it differently: if you’re doubting, you’re not in love.

The last thing I heard the tattooist ask the man as I left the store was, “Are you sure?”

“Do I look like I am doubting?”

 It was her saying those last words. 

Meditation – i svære tider

Coronakrisen har begrænset menneskers muligheder for at mødes fysisk, hvilket har nødvendiggjort andre måder, hvorpå vi kan nå – og måske – hjælpe hinanden.

Jeg har i denne ånd lavet en ti-minutters meditation til min far, der handler om at leve i svære situationer. Den kan høre og deles her, hvis det har interesse:

Things Should Not Return to Normal

Spain—the country closed down two weeks ago—Friday, March 13, to be exact. As an uninvited ‘guest,’ the Coronavirus invites all kinds of (perhaps premature) reflections. For instance, are European countries moving in a totalitarian direction?

They are not, I would claim, and for two reasons: Europeans would never allow it, and more importantly, democracies deal with threats like the Coronavirus better.

Although many European citizens are experiencing and will experience various limitations on their individual freedom—you can get a fine for strolling around without a justifiable purpose—democracy is not only about freedom, but also about duty and responsibility. Acting responsibly requires each one of us to be conscious about what we do and why we do it.

The core of democracy is that it teaches us that we should not be concerned only for ourselves. Rather, we are in this together. I have a responsibility not only for my own health, but also for the health of other citizens. In other words, I am responsible for the others’ well-being, as they are for mine.

As a consequence, I find it meaningful to limit my freedom of movement, minimize (physical) social contact and so forth, because I might become a risk for other, more vulnerable citizens.

***

Freedom and responsibility hang together. Our responsibility is the string that ties us together and what actually makes us free. Norms are meaningful—not because they are universal or come from a fictional god; on the contrary, norms are social artifacts made and remade by human beings.

The Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup said in The Ethical Demand (1956) that ‘trust is fundamental.’ Each person holds a part of the other’s life in his or her—hopefully clean—hands, and vice versa. By laying oneself open to the others, we accept our shared vulnerability. The ethical demand or obligation doesn’t refer to specific transcendental moral categories, only this basic trust.

“Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise.” For example, I trust that it is not just my wife, our three children and me who are staying home. I trust that other families are doing the same. Any epidemic or pandemic exposes how well a society acts in a responsible and trustworthy manner. Do we care about one another, or just about our own opportunistic interests?

Trust and responsibility are the exact opposite of egoism. I might go out for a run because I—statistically—am not at risk. I might empty the supermarket, and thereby neglect other citizens’ well-being.

It appears as if trust and responsibility are threatened by the coronavirus. In contrast, I would claim that these fundamental qualities were already threatened by capitalism. Yet, the Coronavirus might reactivate our civic spirit. I see this virus as an invitation to reflect more deeply about our lives.

I think we’d like to remember at least three things. First, the huge amount of inventive and creative ways in which we share our loss and fear. For example, when we reach out to our fellow human beings through singing, clapping and helping. The amount of generosity in Spain (and elsewhere) is touching. Second, we are in this together. Third, we can only prevail if we trust each other.

Trust is what actually brings us together, much more than holding hands. Trust reaches further than our hugs. Trust reaches out to the future. If trust is fundamental, it is because it doesn’t distinguish between the lives worth preserving and those regarded as not worth preserving—at least not beforehand.

Trust, of course, can be broken, but only because it was already there to begin with. Trust, as I see it, is related to the kind of thinking about being interconnected that can be found in mindfulness and ecological thinking. For instance, if I neglect or ignore another person, I also neglect or ignore myself. None of us can exist alone.

***

I believe that the virus will make us remember that we can’t survive without trust and compassion, because we’re all interconnected. We depend on each other. This interdependency is what distinguishes totalitarian regimes from democracies.

Saying this is not the same as giving democratic governments carte blanche. In any democratic society, citizens must critically monitor the actions taken by the government. It’s part of the deal.

In today’s rigid, populistic world of identity politics, we rarely focus on healing the wounds between races, genders and sexual orientations. On the contrary, we often fertilize these, to create enmity and rigid group loyalty. Similarly, sometimes the precautions and arrangements made by politicians can create more panic than calm.

Still, I would contend that the panic is not so much related to the temporary limitations of our individual freedom as it is to how openly and honestly the politicians communicate. It’s obvious that some politicians are corrupted by money and power; they think in terms of voters and elections. Yet, others actually do think. To think is to care for matters beyond our own interests.

Therefore, the best solution is, of course, not a dictatorship but citizenship. In a trusted democracy, when a politician asks citizens to act responsibly (to activate their public spirit), they wash their hands, limit public transportation, keep their distance or stay at home for weeks, as my family does now in Spain (until April 11, as the situation is right now).

When democracy works, politicians don’t have to create new laws, but through honest and thoughtful communication, they can awaken civic spirit.

The civic spirit is not about rights, but about duty, and the silent demands that tie us together. Duty and obligation not only come before rights, they also encourage us to think and act consciously, evaluating whether we need to do a certain thing that may be within our rights.

Do I really need to fulfill my right to mingle, right now, when social contact ought to be minimized? Of course not. This is also why things should not return to ‘normal,’ because many things were abnormal before the Coronavirus: neoliberal greed, resource scarcity, climate destruction, stress, anxiety…

It’s not about our rights, but our shared obligations. Rights tend to reduce everything to a question of being for or against. Life is not that stubbornly simple. No one is for the Coronavirus. In the same vein, no one is for avoiding their grandparents; it is just a necessary and responsible choice.

Civic spirit stresses that the value of our lives is related to what we leave behind—thoughts, behaviours and gestures that enable future citizens to live and act freely.

The Coronavirus puts all of us in a difficult situation. It tests our attitude towards others, and our trust in their maturity and ability to act responsibly. The Coronavirus is not only a catastrophe; it is also an opportunity for us to see ourselves, to relate to the world with more kindness and compassion, and to change our capitalistic forms of life.

The better we act together, the sooner we can start kissing, hugging and drinking together again—like real democratic citizens.

– 26. March 2020

This essay was first publish in The Mindful Word

Hvad kan vi lære af coronavirussen?

I de her dage, hvor corona-epidemien vender op og ned på mange menneskers hverdag, kan situationen så give noget positivt til vores liv. Hvis man spørger forfatter og filosof Finn Janning, så kan situationen give os en fornyet klarhed om vores eget liv. Daniel Cesar taler med forfatter og filosof Finn Janning.

Du kan høre udsendelsen her

Ingen forbudte spørgsmål

Forfatter og ph.d i praktisk filosofi Finn Janning tror og håber, flere vil tage de erkendelser, de gør sig sammen med familien under coronakrisen, med videre.

”Travlhed er ikke et udslag af handlekraft eller vigtighed, men snarere et vidnesbyrd om, at den forjagede person ikke ved, hvor han eller hun er på vej hen i livet.”

Sådan skrev Finn Janning, der er forfatter og ph.d. i praktisk filosofi, tidligere på ugen i et debatindlæg i Information. Heri pointerede han også, at ”hastværk er tæt forbundet med generel uopmærksomhed”.

Men hvordan mener Finn Janning, det ses i forhold til familielivet, var jeg nødt til at spørge. Her er han ikke i tvivl:

– Mange familier kører efter et ret stramt skema; skole, arbejde, fritids- og sportsaktiviteter, legeaftaler mv. Det betyder, at der kan være en tendens til at kigge mere på uret end på ens børn eller partner. Det handler mere om at nå frem i tide, end at være til stede. Dette er en triviel pointe, men ikke desto mindre glemmer mange at efterleve den, selvom det er klart, at den største gave, vi kan give vores børn – og andre – er vores opmærksomhed, siger han til fødslen.dk.

Læs resten af interviewet her.

Efter 14 dages husarrest …

Jeg forudser, at de fleste i løbet af de næste 14 dage vil opleve udgangsforbuddet medføre en frigørende klarhed om eget liv. Coronaen kan fortælle os, at frihed er at være bundet af nogle meningsfulde bånd. Og at disse bånd aldrig er kapitalismens, men kærlighedens, skriver forfatter og filosof Finn Janning i dette debatindlæg.

Læs kronikken i Information.

Samfundssind og cykling

Jo mere sammensindet styrkes af corona, des mere lider kapitalismen

Kapitalen er styret af tanken om, at den stærkeste overlever. Men i coronakrisen klarer vi os kun, hvis vi samarbejder.

Cykelsporten kan lære os at håndtere coronavirussen som et hold. De, der er bekendte med cykling, kender til fænomenet, når fem forskellige ryttere i et udbrud arbejder sammen. Det kan virke underligt, da de netop ikke kører for samme hold eller nation. Filosofien er dog simpel: Ingen af de fem ryttere kan komme alene frem til målet uden samarbejde. Hovedfeltet, i dette tilfælde virussen, vil æde dem op, en efter en. For at undgå det, må de skiftes til at trække læsset, mens de fire andre ligger i læ. Sådan skifter de.

Samme altruistiske princip gør sig også gældende på de enkelte cykelhold, hvad enten private eller nationale. Her er der en kaptajn, vores er Mette Frederiksen, men vi kører ikke kun for hende, vi kører for at vinde, som hold. Og så længe hun har gode ben, altså fremstår dygtig og handlekraftig på en meget svær rute, så arbejder vi loyalt.

Det interessante spørgsmål er, hvorvidt de personer, der ikke arbejder for holdet og heller ikke vil arbejde på tværs af holdene, hvis det er nødvendigt, simpelthen mangler holdånd. Holdånden er demokratiets styrke, men kapitalismens akilleshæl.

De mennesker, der mangler holdånd i Spanien, hvor jeg bor, er gerne de velhavende. På grund af deres penge føler de sig bedre – tilsyneladende også moralsk bedre – end andre. De tager ud af byen til deres små ekstrahuse for at redde sig selv, fordi de kan. Men de tænker sjældent på, at de måske tager virus med til en landlig og afsides region, hvor der er få læger, men gerne mange ældre.

Sporten, som ellers bliver klandret for at være styret af penge, handler reelt om samarbejde. Det samme kan siges om fodbolden, hvor den bedste fodboldspiller Lionel Messi mangler et godt hold for at vinde. Alene kan han ikke. De, der tager ud i deres sommerresidens, hamstrer eller trodser forbud, fordi de ikke selv er i risiko, mangler den holdånd, der kan sikre en sejr.


På en måde er det sigende, at jo mere samfundsånden styrkes i disse dage, desto mere lider kapitalismen. Det er selvfølgelig hårdt og trist, at mange mennesker lider økonomisk, men det er også en del af kapitalismens natur.

Kapitalen er styret af socialdarwinismen perversion: Den stærkeste overlever. Men den stærkeste er ikke den rigeste, det er derimod den som kan arbejde sammen med andre.

Det er ikke, når aktiekurserne stiger, at vi er kommet igennem krisen. Nej, det er vi først, når vi igen kan begynde at afholde cykelløb og spille fodbold. Så kan vi igen mødes med vores venner, nede på baren, drikke og råbe sammen. Den eneste forskel er dog, at vi nu ved, at sporten har lært os mere om livet, end kapitalismen nogensinde har formået.

Bragt i Politiken, søndag den 22. marts.

Jeg har også deltaget i podcasten Aftenklubben på radio Nova omkring coronavirussen. Den kan høres her.

Deep ecology

I’m not much interested in ethics or morals. I’m interested in how we experience the world.” – Arne Næss.

As a student of philosophy, I read the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss’s books about modern philosophy. He wrote in an engaging and clear style that demonstrated deep philosophical breadth and he invited the reader to think along with him.

One of his strengths as a philosopher was this inviting, almost conversational style, which was related to his intuitive approach to life. By “intuitive,” I refer to something necessary—an open approach in which you follow life wherever it takes you, because it leaves you no possibility of escape.

To some extent, Næss made philosophy available to all. Ever since, I’ve always liked the idea that all people can learn to philosophize with a little training.

Years later, I was hiking in Norway and it was here I that I really came to appreciate Næss’s work on the deep ecology movement. On an intuitive level, I experienced the harmony and co-existence with nature that he often mentioned.

I hiked with a friend for 20 days. We spent the days walking, sitting, and observing. At one point, I noticed that I shared the same rhythm with the life around me. I experienced the interconnectedness found in nature.

Becoming one with nature

Næss called his brand of philosophy “eco-philosophy,” or “ecosophy,” which fuses the words “ecology” and “philosophy.”

In his work, he expanded on the concepts of existentialism and life-philosophies. At first, this might seem banal, but he treated both concepts with scholarly depth while connecting them with real-life experiences. This is always risky, especially for philosophers, who fear nothing more than being called “shallow” or having their views labelled “pop.”

However, what Næss emphasized was, for instance, that based on solid scrutiny of some part of your life (such as your work or your partner), you can evaluate how much joy or sadness that particular aspect brings. Furthermore, we always have the choice of changing how we respond to what happens, so we have to assume some responsibility for the quality of our lives.

Næss was, among others, inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of the misuse of pesticides. The book opens dramatically with, “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.”

Nature was once noisy and full of life, and then came devastating silence, according to Carson—the silence of the death of nature. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves,” she said.

The challenge for Carson, and later Næss, was figuring out how to change human attitudes towards pollution and pesticides; that is, how to change our relationship with the world.

Within his “ecosophy,” Næss linked people and nature. Ecosophy is “relational thinking,” he said, emphasizing that nothing lives in isolation. “The larger world becomes part of our own interest,” he wrote in Ecology, community, and lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Thus, everything is connected.

One of Næss’s key concepts was “self-realization,” which shouldn’t be mistaken for self-centeredness or egoism. Rather, it’s more of an ongoing and respectful process of becoming one with nature.

This is what many, including myself, often experience during longer periods of engagement with the natural world. Some experience something similar during meditation as a way of fine-tuning their relationship with the world.

Everything has intrinsic value

Another key idea for Næss was that everything has intrinsic value. Therefore, we shouldn’t use nature as a means to achieving something else.

Unfortunately, many see nature as a resource to be used for our benefit, which is partly due to the instrumental thinking that seems to permeate most of our education and activity today. For example, many view nature as something “out there,” whereas nature is actually part of us.

Similarly, the destructive mantra of economic growth, which only leads to stress, has nothing in common with spiritual growth. Nurturing your spiritual growth also means nurturing the growth of all other forms of life.

For this reason, Næss tried to move our care for the environment from the sphere of ethics to the sphere of ontology. For this to be helpful, we need to re-examine how we perceive and understand our world as we gradually become one with it, and develop a participatory and compassionate understanding of our relationship with life.

Næss was not only highly skilled in the classical history of philosophy, he was also influenced by Gandhi’s thinking. His meshing of Gandhi’s thoughts and Spinoza’s ethics of joy made his philosophy rather original. He emphasized the importance of respecting alternative ways of living even when he disagreed with them.

As he said in an interview, cited in Ecology, community, and lifestyle, “I think that intellectuals might consider their intellects in a more Spinozistic way, and cultivate … a loving attitude towards what (they) have insight into … without making the terrible mistake of becoming sentimental or fanatical.”

The deep ecology movement

A good introduction to Næss and the deep ecology movement is The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss, which has an excellent preface and introduction by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall (two other prominent figures within this environmental movement). As it says in the introduction, “Mindful practice brings our ecosophy alive from moment to moment. Love and care live only in the present.”

Another option is the film The Call of the Mountain: Arne Naess and the Deep Ecology Movement (1997), which offers an interesting portrait of the man, his philosophy and the movement. Filmmaker Jan van Boeckel teamed up with Arne Næss himself to capture the spirit of the philosopher in his natural habitat, the mountains of Norway.

Regardless of what medium you choose to use, studying Næss is always a good place to start when you want to awaken or reawaken your relationship with nature.

First published in The Mindful Word