Is this the right way?

Late one August evening in a small provincial town, a woman steps out her front door. In her hand, she holds a slim leather briefcase, probably containing a laptop. When she steps down from the small landing in front of the door, a mild breeze fills the air, gently tousling her long blond tresses. She tries to pull her hair back behind her ears without any luck. From the back pocket of her jeans she pulls out a bandeau and ties those unruly locks into a simple ponytail. Now, with no hair interrupting her vision, she looks first to the right and then to the left before turning around to lock the door behind her. After checking twice that the door really is locked, she rotates to face the street for the second time. 

This time she looks to the left first. Actually, at this point, her whole body shifts as she evaluates the possibility of going in that direction. 

Is this the right way? 

Read the rest of the essay in Terse Journal.

When life blooms

I’m pleased to announce that my new book, When life blooms – Breathe with Jeppe Hein will be released November 28th.

The publisher writes about the book:

“Danish artist Jeppe Hein soared to the top of the international art scene before the age of 35. His works were showcased at the world’s finest exhibitions and sold for sky-high prices. Then suddenly his body said stop. In 2009 Hein went down with stress.

In this book philosopher Finn Janning follows Jeppe Hein’s development from the tome immediately after his diagnosis with burn out and onward – a period where Hein underwent psychoanalysis and developed and interest in yoga, breathing exercises and spirituality.

Janning shows how spirituality has become more present in Hein’s works, and in the book, he develops an existential philosophy in continuation of the artists spirituality and art.”

I may add:

It’s a philosophical biography that describes the life of the artist Jeppe Hein. In doing so, I’ve tried to exemplify Gilles Deleuze’s idea that “life is not personal,” that is to say, each life is a case study.

I choose this approach as a way of addressing the narcissism of the artist without making the narrative confronting, or in anyway judgmental.

Instead, I illustrate how Jeppe is formed by the major cultural trends during the last 40 years, such as the growing accelerating and spirituality and social entrepreneurship. He is an artist of his time.

It’s a book that tests and nuances the popularity of today’s spirituality through a philosophical, primarily existential lens.

ENJOY

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Last, although I’m glad to have a book of mine being translated into English (it was written in Danish), I’ve detected a few mistakes, see more here.

The philosophy of Byung-Chul Han

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

‘Weapons’ may give us the wrong associations, but what he refers to are concepts that, like a brick, can be used to destroy what is hindering the growth of our lives, and at the same time, help us build or create something sustainable.

The Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s work can be seen a toolbox aimed at helping us understand our contemporary society, while also presenting us with concrete ideas, thoughts or ‘weapons’ that might help us overcome or resist our own weak desires and vanities.

Read the rest of my portrait of Byung-Chul Han that I wrote for The Mindful Word 

My review of The expulsion of the other

My review of In the Swarm

My review of Saving beauty

A small feature on Han, can be read here.

How Should I Live?

Before I try to give a decent answer, I would like to emphasize that I’m glad the question is personal. It refers to me, not you, or someone else. I don’t like moralizing, that is, telling other people how they should live, but I do like the element of self-knowledge and care that this question addresses.

Thus, “How should I live?” should live a joyous life.

Life, of course, is full of both joy and sadness, suffering and pleasure. Some of these are related to individual limitations, e.g. intellectual abilities. Others are related to social or political circumstances, e.g. financial.

Still, a useful guide is to live in a way that enhances a life’s joyous moments regardless of the circumstances.

How do I do that? From the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, I’ve learned that we always have the thoughts and feelings that we deserve. At first this can seem brutally arrogant, but what he aims at is that our mental state depends on how we relate to or approach our experiences. The challenge that we all share, regardless of setback or misfortunes, is how we become worthy of what is happening. This is not acceptance as a kind of resignation; rather, it’s an approach to life that confronts obstacles or setbacks by trying to create a new form of life that minimizes the effects of what is hindering ourselves from living freely.

Therefore, I should live as a compassionate fighter, that is, become a person that fights by exploring what a life may become. What is possible? I fight hate, discrimination, domination, violence, etc. because it kills life. And by involving myself in this fight — although I have to acknowledge my intellectual limitations – I feel better. Actually, I feel alive. And to live a joyous life is to have an intimate affair with life, to experiment, and dance with it.

I remember the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño once said that children typically are full of joy, and then he wondered why it’s so, before answering, that they are alive.

It sounds like a tautology: a joyous life is synonymous with how I should live because joy emerges through appreciation of being alive, which I accomplish by destroying  everything that seem to hinder life from flourishing, just as I create room for things that flourish. Nothing comes for free, except death.

Joy and happiness require hard work.

Philosophical Counseling

Some years ago, I was teaching a course in Philosophical Counseling. To my surprise, all that the students wanted to know was “What is the right thing to do?” Having that knowledge, they assumed, would make life easier. “Perhaps,” I said, “but not better or more interesting.”

Their request is part of the obsessive achievement eagerness of today’s society to perform well according to fixed ideals. It creates dullness when it comes to mental exercises. The unfortunate norm is the faster the better. I told them that philosophy is about developing problems, not delivering solutions. It’s a slow practice. It’s for life. My answer made them fidget with impatience. To philosophize, I emphasized, is to dwell on the fundamental questions, and these questions are developed in problems, just as the problems are enveloped in fundamental questions.

Yet, my students insisted: “So, what is the right question?”

I told them that this particular question was related to the problem embedded in the question. For example, how do you draw a clear distinction between right and wrong?

The ones who weren’t paying attention looked up from their screens.

In sports, where the rules are given, I said, it is rather obvious to tell whether a player is “doing it wrong.” Similarly, in business, where profit seems to guide every decision, knowing what is right and wrong may be easier. Life, however, is neither a game nor a business, although there is a tendency to classify people into winners and loser as if life were that simple. Such labeling is part of today’s achievement society. Everyone’s performance is measured according to an ideal–and ideal that is often related to the staus, prestige, power, and, of course, money that is associated with being a winner.

They went silent, so I went on. Of course, there are things in life that are rather obvious. For instance, no one needs philosophy to tell you that it is wrong to kill, discriminate against, or repress other people. Instead, philosophy begins when we start to questioning the obvious. Could I live another life? What is also possible? How may I also live?

A part of philosophy is to accept that some problems remain without solution; some questions can’t be answered once and for all.

Such a question is Which life is worth living?

Of course, one of my students then asked me: “Which life is worth living?”

This is how A Philosophy of Mindfulness – A Journey with Deleuze begins.

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A Fragile Life

The main argument in Todd May’s book, A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability, is that most of us would be unwilling to choose an invulnerable life even if we were given the opportunity. Of course, we all understand that in reality, it is impossible to live a life where we avoid all sources of pain. In his book, the author proposes that we should accept our vulnerability and acknowledge that the suffering is part of life. The question is: How do we develop that acceptance within ourselves?

It is doubtful whether May is correct in his assumptions regarding what most people might choose or might not choose. When supporting his supposition, he references Buddhism, stoicism, and the thoughts of Tolle Eckard, an extremely popular spiritualist currently. Many people might find the opportunity to live an invulnerable life, one in serenity or full awareness, an attractive option. However, this possibility seems highly unrealistic for the majority of us if we take the philosophical perspective seriously. Still, regardless of the truth regarding this particular claim, May’s book can be a useful companion for people who want to reflect on their lives. It is full of examples and is written for a broad audience.

The book starts by setting the scene regarding the inevitable vulnerability inherent in our lives. It then moves on to discuss to what extent having a project is required to provide meaning for our lives. He suggests that, “understanding how we can suffer requires that we first understand how we live.” May loosely follows the ideas of Bernard Williams with his suggestion of a meaningful project since it is embedded in a net of social practices such as rules and norms. By living our lives according to a meaningful project, we encounter some of the first potential problems. He writes that ,  “many of the ways we are vulnerable to sufferings” comes from the various things affects us negatively, that is, hinder “our ability to engage with our projects.”

The two opening chapters of the book provide excellent examples of the problems that result from vulnerability as compared to invulnerability. Next, May introduces various philosophies that claim to provide us with a model of how to live without suffering: Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, Eckard, and Epicurean. He describes how psychological and physical pain are connected for example. Then, he mentions that one of the challenges when it comes to suffering is whether or not we are capable of accepting the situations we cannot control. This section begins to sound like a book for consulting managers, but it does present an easily understood summary of these various philosophical schools of thought.

One of the guiding ideas links the introduction and his conclusion is how our past has led us to who we currently are and where we are in our lives today. The question is whether we should affirm our past or just simply accept it. May favors the latter approach. He uses the example of the Holocaust to illustrate his point. This is not an event we would want to affirm. Instead, he suggests that we accept that it happened neither affirming nor refusing it. Similarly, we should try to accept our past without necessarily assigning it a positive or negative value.

May’s book focuses on the fundamental question of how to live a life worth living with or without suffering. The answer that May provide us hinges on acceptance. We should learn to acknowledge our suffering. Acceptance, he writes, “does not render us immune to our suffering. It does not take us beyond our fragility. But neither does it leave us bereft. To accept the contingency of things and the quiet sadness that may go along with it is not to lie prostrate before the world. Rather, it is to embrace a perspective that can, with luck, help us find a path.”

The book deals with an interesting existential issue. Even though he uses personal stories as well as the experiences of others, the book never truly had an effect on me. It lacked the power of classical existentialist work, which really cut into my flesh. Perhaps, May’s conclusions were too banal. While I do feel that the invulnerable philosophies presented were relevant, the argument could have easily worked even without their reference. The distinction between a life with or without suffering is already clear enough. I would rather that he strengthened the argument regarding why it might be “attractive” for our lives to include suffering. For example, he could explore how we might develop creativity and artistic expression in an attempt to overcome our miserable lives.

Still, the book would be useful for newcomers to philosophy in my opinion. Also, readers who like a more conversational style would enjoy this book. The conclusions are not dramatic, but they might generate a new interest in the reader for further study of the existential philosophies that May summarizes in passing.

First published in Metapsychology, Vol. 21, Issue 21.

A Philosophy of Mindfulness

 A Philosophy of Mindfulness is out!

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In this book, I argue that we need a “new” philosophy because we—many of us, at least—are blind. We see rather little of that which surrounds us.

By mixing mindfulness with the affirmative philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, I unfold a philosophy of mindfulness. A philosophy that makes us less blind but also ethically responsible in relation to what we experience. Hereby, I move mindfulness from the sphere of psychology into philosophy, or from being primarily an inward-turned practice to an out-turned one.

A Philosophy of Mindfulness puts emphasis on experience, experiment, and actualization or affirmation. Each experience matters; life is the experience of making contact or being connected with what is in the midst of becoming—that is, life—and then passing it on to the next generations.

Everything is fucking

The second season of True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto, is about caring and being fucked. To put it simply, only those who care survive, but the survivors need to run away to avoid being fucked. The rest—that is the non-caring—well, they all get fucked, sooner or later.

So in a way the moral is sad, and no less sad in that it’s a pretty accurate picture of contemporary capitalist society. Corruption, loneliness, fights for possessions—whether land, kids, property, even fights for the right to deal or not deal with one’s past.

“[T]here is no outside to the world market: the entire globe is its domain,” Michael Hardt and Toni Negri wrote in Empire. The two writers stress that there is no outside to capitalism, that there is no other world we can refer to as being better, more beautiful, more righteous, and so on. A possible change of an ethical approach in business comes from within as a kind of counter-actualization of something overlooked or neglected, for example from the few human beings who have the capacity to care for life not money.

In True Detective a missing girl says – as a reply to the question whether she shouldn’t aim for more in life than just fucking: “Everything is fucking.”

It is, since everything is business, and is cool and calculated transactions. Fucking is not making love; it is just one’s person assumed right to use another person to fulfill his or her desires. And here, True detective shows us that it apparently is more acceptable when men fuck than when women do.

The sadness of gender inequality is still here in 2015!

“I support feminism, mostly for having body image issues,” says detective Ray Velcoro to his female colleague, Antigone. This can be interpreted in many ways, but women are under more pressure from men, society, and, perhaps, themselves to live up to a sexy ideal, whereas men, apparently, can still be old, fat, and ugly and be sexy, as long as they have money or power. Also, many men can’t avoid seeing the body rather than the person when they speak with a woman. Of course, this is black and white; but in the end, it seems like Pizzolatto puts all the blame on capitalism, not men per se.

It makes you wonder: Will business corrupt women, like it did with the men?

Let me draw a parallel between death, capitalism, and sex. Climbing Mount Everest, one will at one point enter “the death zone” (above 8,000 kilometers). In this zone, the level of oxygen is so low that only very experienced mountaineers can survive with this level of oxygen. And common for many human beings in “the death zone” is that they become much more selfish. There are many stories of people passing dead bodies, or passing people asking for help but are left because the others are so seduced by their objective: to reach the top. Capitalism is similar to the death zone. Most people forget all about moral responsibility; they focus on the ends not the means. To be rich is to be on the top of the world. And sex… it has always been a good business—just see how the porn industry helped establish the Internet, together with the military. Sex and war—there you have it. Once upon a time, it was war and peace.

What happened with peace of mind?

And it doesn’t stop there. To add another moral: those who are capable of confronting their own nightmares—in the second season, related to past experiences of solitude or abuse—learn to care and then move on. The positive moral is that moving on and caring go hand in hand. We are offered a way out. However, caring is something more than self-compassion; rather, caring as in having compassion for others.

Nic Pizzolatto knows—or I assume he knows—that each of us is always secondary to life. Life came before us, and it will still be here when we are gone. It is ‘others’ who make us alive, and in that sense we all need one another. Those who care as elements of their own interests and egoism, like Ray and Paul (custody of his son and less heterosexual pressure), here fate catch up with them.

The caring element is one of two things that ties the second season with the first (see more of this here: True Detective: Pessimism, Buddhism or Philosophy?). A true detective cares . The other element that ties the seasons together is one of the many celebrated statements from Rust Cohle, that the “world needs bad men to keep the other bad men from the door.” It still does. Now, however, the world is just getting worse and worse, so it is not just a job for bad men but also for bad women to clean out. Thus, we need bad men and women. Paul, Ray, and Frank can’t do it alone; they need Jordan and Antigone.

Perhaps there is a reason why only the women survive, not the men. Is it because no one gets away with anything? Do men always fuck up?

The second season is about karma, the Buddhist concept that emphasizes our actions bring results. Each moment we plant seeds, those seeds will bear fruits depending on various circumstances. One can’t control the outcome, only one’s motive for planting this seed. Therefore, one’s intention becomes important.

The last and most important moral of True Detective: try to bring a moment of awareness and reflection to your actions, basically to make wise choices.

Is it wise of Paul to hide his sexuality? Apparently not.

Is it wise of Frank to want to kill everyone and get all the money before he escapes? Apparently not.

Is it wise of Ray first to abandon his kid and then to return and say good-bye while being on the run? Apparently not.

Is it wise of Antigone to share her story with another, like sharing the responsibility to make one’s own burden lighter? Apparently so.

No one survives alone (was that yet another moral?).

Ray Velcoro dies out in nature under a big tree, the Bodhi spot. He dies peacefully, perhaps because we are told that he already lived many lives and that he is tired. Frank dies in the desert. Often we associate the desert as being a limitless space, a kind of freedom. But those are just delusions: deserts are full of sand and have a lot of heat, but are devoid of water and people; nothing but death. Frank was already dead. He already died a long time ago, when he decided to enter the business world where legitimate businessmen can’t be distinguished from illegitimate. Business is entering “the death zone.”

Antigone is the only true detective in the second season. Next time, we need both bad men and women to keep the bad men and women from our doors. In the end, if everything is fucking, then not only men fuck.

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Mindfulness: A movement?

“Thirty years ago, ‘mindfulness’ was a Buddhist principle mostly obscure to the West,” Jeff Wilson writes in Mindful America. Today, however, it has managed to reach nearly every institution of American society (a tendency that is growing in Europe as well, although more slowly). How did this happen?

In Mindful America, Wilson explores the origin of the mindfulness movement. The book offers one of the first critical descriptions of the movement, which is focused on more that the movement’s practices. A key point is that mindfulness could only grow by distancing itself from Buddhism as a religion. This process took place in the 1980s through magazines, films, TV programs and, in particular, through bringing mindfulness into a medical context, where it later would open up a completely new field of research. Whether Buddhism really is a religion is something that has been debated before the era of mindfulness, but it is true that mindfulness (or the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR-program of Jon Kabat-Zinn) would probably not be a part of more than 700 medical schools, hospitals, and health care programs worldwide if it were “sold” as religion.

Wilson wants to be neutral in his study, but this is difficult for him. “I do happen to be a Buddhist but am drawn to study mindfulness because of its prominence in the United States,” he writes. Being a Buddhist is both an advantage and disadvantage in his work. Wilson knows what he writes about, but it colors his perception at times. For example, he can’t help but see mindfulness as a second-rate Buddhist practice. He sees the maneuver of bringing mindfulness from Buddhism into a non-Buddhist context as problematic—a purely business practice; he fails to notice the extent to which it actually has contributed to something such as wellbeing.

Wilson favors a certain kind of origin of mindfulness as if there were only one right way to practice Buddhism. A bit similar if one were to criticize contemporary American pragmatics like Robert B. Brandom or Cheryl Misak because they diverge from the founding fathers Charles Sander Peirce and William James. Evolution is creative. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama looks positively on the matter of how Buddhism or aspects of Buddhism may contribute to reducing suffering in the West.

Having said the above, I still believe that Wilson has written a book that was highly needed. As with all things when they become popular, mindfulness attracts people who are mindful for the sake of money, not for the potential liberation of one’s mind. For example, one so-called mindfulness author writes, “mindfulness helps you fall in love,” while another writes, “what can that moment-to-moment awareness do for our sex lives” and “another bonus of eating mindfully is that it improves self-esteem.” Of course, by targeting sex and food, mindfulness is stretched to fit a need among white middle-class people. In addition, the focus on self-esteem (and worse, on identity) is problematic since among the more serious teachers of mindfulness, the “self” is a process. After all everything changes; everything is impermanent.

The critique that Wilson raises can be raised for the majority of the self-help industry. It targets people who seem to be existentially frustrated, perhaps even bored, rather than those that suffer socially or financially. A title like The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, for example, tells us all we need to know about whom the book is targeting.

Mindful America does a very good job in exploring the mindfulness movement. In its transition from a Buddhist practice strictly for monks to a practice for mainstream Americans, it has had some ups—but mostly downs. The book is not an introduction to mindfulness; rather, it locates this transition in a sociological and cultural setting. It that sense, the need for mindfulness tells us more about the times we live in than about the actual practice itself. Sometimes it can be attractive to become what you’re not.

As Wilson says, “Today mindfulness is, quite simply, everywhere.” This assertion is both true and false. As a commercial concept it is indeed everywhere, but as a practice, it is not. If it were, the world would be a little bit more caring. Actually, if people were mindful then they wouldn’t buy books about mindfulness and sex and shopping and accounting, but simply be mindful.

This review was published in Metapsychology (Volume 19, Issue 32).