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

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.

A mindful philosophy

“The artist is a seer, a becomer,” wrote the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychiatrist Félix Guattari in their book, What Is Philosophy?

I thought of this quote the other day, when a student of mine asked me, “What are you: a meditator or a philosopher?”

I’m not sure whether there is—or has to be—a difference, I told her, “I’m a philosopher who meditates. I guess like a carpenter, schoolteacher or football player sometimes does that, too.”

“So to philosophize is, in a way, to meditate,” she said.


I’m certain that no one philosophizes without paying attention. The philosopher is a seer, I believe, or to put this in simpler, less romantic terms: To think requires us to be aware of what’s happening inside ourselves as well as outside in society.

Let me share a few thoughts from Deleuze that may show how philosophy is related to mindfulness or meditation. Let’s call it a mindful philosophy.

The writer as artist

The writer as artist has seen something—something that he or she passes on, in a way, that gives the reader enhanced access to this world.

For instance, a novel or a memoir is a communication of experiences that typically involve ethics and knowledge. A novel answers the question of how a person acts, reflects, thinks and feels during certain circumstances. This is why literature can be a way of gaining experiences that make us more mature, as it allows us to experience other forms of life.

Like the philosopher, the writer as artist is a seer and he or she confronts the reader with his or her ethical limitations. Deleuze states that “In the act of writing there’s an attempt to make life something more than personal, to free life from what imprisons it.” (from Negotiations)

To write is to resist

This means, among other things, resisting the urge to follow the dominant fantasies and ideas controlling our lives—just think of status anxiety. And yet, to resist means, first and foremost, to resist death.Report this ad

For this reason, you write to give the unborn a possibility to live freely; that is, to live a healthy life. The writer is affirming life when he or she sets free what lives.

“To affirm is to unburden: not to load life with the weight of higher values, but to create new values which are those of life, which make life light and active,” Deleuze stresses in Nietzsche & Philosophy (italics in original).

To release, set free and create values in life—this is why we want to spend time with certain writers. They extend our boundaries.

Writing and meditation

Now, let me be even more specific. I meditate so that my life can become meditative; that is, so I can let life pass through me while I try to pass on or affirm what lives.

The writer is generous when he or she passes on life. This idea also indicates that to produce art (or think philosophically), there has to be something at stake—a matter of life and death.

“A creator who isn’t grabbed around the throat by a set of impossibilities is no creator,” Deleuze says in Negotiations.

So, just imagine being grabbed by the throat. It’s not necessarily a nice image, but it’s essential. To breathe is to live. It’s basic.

Through meditation or writing (and perhaps other activities, as well), I confirm on a daily basis my intention to affirm what lives, to actualize that which is in the midst of becoming alive. And I do see this as a kind of resistance.

The capacity to pay attention

Today we live in a world in which people exploit themselves in their quest for status, prestige and power. We live in a world in which some repress and discriminate against others due to differences in race, gender, sexual preference and more.

Inequalities are growing. People are scared. The news is fake.

And yet, what I propose is that we, through meditation or philosophy, cultivate our capacity to pay attention to what we don’t want to pass on (for instance, discrimination), but also to what’s worth affirming (such as love and friendship).

Seeing means making contact with what happens and being connected with life. Becoming sensuous is also related to our capacity to be affected, which is crucial to experiencing, but also to experimenting and transforming—creating alternative ways of living, feeling and thinking.

Today, we need to do more than just address inequalities. We need to create lives that are lived beyond any rigid identities, whether we’re speaking of race, gender or some other identifier. It’s here that mindfulness can help people become more sensible and aware.

I don’t wish to claim that we, as artists, meditators or philosophers, are better than others—of course not. We can all learn to “see” and philosophize, with a little help from meditation and maybe some encounters with Kierkegaard along the way.

Once we begin paying attention, we also begin to question things, so it turns out the student questioning me was already ahead of me. That being said, I guess I’m just a student who’s occasionally disguised as a teacher!

First published in The Mindful Word

Tolstoy & marshmallows

In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the main character’s mind tends to wander in both time and space. “In court he found his mind wandering; he would be miles away, wondering whether to have plain or moulded cornices with his curtains.”


In the 1960s and ’70s, psychologist Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Experiment” proved that mind-wandering is, among other things, related to self-control. In these studies, nursery school children were offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately, or a larger reward provided later—one versus a handful of marshmallows. Before the children could receive the larger reward, they had to wait for a short period of time (approximately 15 minutes), during which they were left alone.

Some children couldn’t take their minds off the marshmallow there in front of them; they ate it as quickly as possible. On the other hand, some were good at distracting themselves. Years later, during follow-up studies, the researcher found that in general, the children who showed self-discipline and waited had a higher level of well-being. Here, mind-wandering was positive. Therefore, being able to think about the future might not be as devastating as some self-help gurus claim.

Conversely, in other circumstances, mind-wandering may be considered a waste of time; that is, lacking benefit. Again, this comes down to whether we’re able to distinguish between long-term and short-term rewards and whether we agree on the value of those rewards. For example, in most Western countries, young people are often encouraged to drop the sabbatical year and finish school as quickly as possible, in order to become “real” citizens with jobs. However, for some, a year of travelling, reflection, or doing nothing may help them find their true vocation. The point is, we seldom know the outcome beforehand. Life is an experiment. We don’t formulate questions before we face something that makes us think.

In the “Marshmallow Experiment,” the children knew the consequences, but for many aspects of life, we don’t know. At times, we distract ourselves because we don’t dare face ourselves. To truly know ourselves, we must have the courage to take care of ourselves—stretch our comfort zones. The process of maturing, therefore, requires patience.

Thus, whether mind-wandering is beneficial or not depends on our capacity to distinguish between profit and benefit, with the former belonging to the capitalistic sphere and the latter to the existential realm. The main difference between profit and benefit is that someone else can always carry out activities that produce profit (the definition of economy is the organization of scarcity; that is, competition), whereas what’s beneficial to me depends on my experience of moments I don’t wish to outsource.

The problem with Ivan Ilyich in Leo Tolstoy’s masterful story is that his wandering mind isn’t beneficial to him. His mind wanders because he doesn’t want to live his life, although no one else can do it for him. Not only does Ivan Ilyich neglect living in the present moment, he also seems to be disconnected within himself. He lives as if he doesn’t have faith in life. He lives as if he’s already out of this world: dead.

The man who never seems to live

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a man who, throughout most parts of his life, never seems to live.

One day, when climbing a stepladder, Ivan Ilyich slips and falls. He passes off the accident as “only a bruise.” Yet, the bruise is the beginning of him becoming aware of his own death, as the bruise turns into an unbearable pain that slowly drags all the energy out of him. In the late stages of his undiagnosed illness, he wonders whether he has actually lived a happy life and whether his present suffering is a result of his careless lifestyle. It becomes apparent that his general lack of trust in life’s events makes him doubtful and insecure. He hasn’t been paying attention to his life.

Tolstoy doesn’t present us with concrete answers to the existential and spiritual questions the story raises regarding how we should live. On the contrary, he shows us that dying an unhappy and unpeaceful death is the result of not living as fully as possible.

Ivan Ilyich simply has too many doubts. Has he been living a life of ignorance, without seeing, knowing, or even being aware that life one day ends? As Tolstoy writes, “All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic—Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal—had always seemed to him to be true only when applied to Caesar, certainly not to him.”

Like many others, Ilyich forgets or finds it difficult to accept that he, too, is a mortal being. He seems to neglect the fact that he doesn’t own his life, regardless of the amount of material possessions and titles he gathers.

Life passes through us, changing us, and there are no certainties in life except death. All we can do is protect and care for the joyful interactions that we have with life in the best way possible, depending on our circumstances and our capacity to do so.

We learn from overcoming obstacles; for instance, distracting ourselves from the marshmallow. Yet, we can also learn from investigating or unfolding the moment; that is, seeing our own reactions to the marshmallow as the object of our investigation. What are we capable of? Why should we not eat it now? If we hate marshmallows, then eating one is, after all, better than eating five!

A life worth living

Experiencing a happy death is to avoid an ending like that of Ivan Ilyich, who can’t stop wondering whether, “I’ve been wrong in the way I’ve lived my life.”

Has he? Have I? Have you? How can we enhance the likelihood that our deaths will be peaceful and serene, and not be burdened by regret and remorse? How can each of us become more likely to live a life worth living?

These questions are fundamental to Tolstoy’s story and at the heart of all philosophical thinking and practice. The tentative answer is to experience death as part of living. It requires attention (and perhaps, also, a little less self-deception!) to notice that the wrinkles are already there.

We are dying because we are living. Death is never really our death. It comes from the outside, yet it awaits us all.

First published in The Mindful Word

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.

Kig væk

Jo flere informationer, desto sværere bliver det at tage fornuftige beslutninger.

I Weekendavisens sektion Ideer (»Kultur i acceleration«, #27, 5. juli) refereres der til interessante studier foretaget af blandt andet DTU, der handler om, hvordan vi i dagens forjagede kultur har sværere ved at fastholde vores opmærksomhed. Vores nærværende tilstedeværelse bliver mere flygtig og zappende. Hele tiden er vi på jagt efter fristelser og belønninger.

En fælles præmis for studierne, der omtales, er, at opmærksomhed betragtes som en ressource. Dette stemmer glimrende overens med tankerne bag begrebet opmærksomhedsøkonomi, idet økonomi handler om allokeringen af knappe ressourcer. I dag er den knappe ressource vores opmærksomhed. Opmærksomhed er dog ikke kun en ressource, men også en erfaringsskabende kapacitet. Det kan sammenlignes lidt med det at skrive eller at male, som på den ene side er teknikker og en ressource, som kan læres, men som på den anden side også er kapacitet, der kan trænes. Nogle mennesker kan skrive i hånden i meget lang tid, fordi de øver sig dagligt, mens det for andre er en begrænset ressource.

Sagt anderledes: Opmærksomhed er en muskel, der kan trænes. Spørgsmålet er, hvorfor det er værd at træne den?

Den amerikanske filosof William James talte om vigtigheden af opmærksomhed som evnen til frivilligt at bringe et flakkende sind tilbage, hvilket han så som fundamentet for udviklingen af ens dømmekraft, karakter og vilje. Han skrev et sted, »at den uddannelse, som kan forbedre denne kapacitet, ville være en uddannelse par excellence«. En anden amerikaner, Jon Kabat-Zinn der forsker i mindfulness, som netop er en måde at træne opmærksomheden på, har beskrevet opmærksomheden som tosidig eller dobbeltrettet. Den rækker både ud og ind. Det vil sige, at jeg både er opmærksom på det, som sker, samtidig med at jeg også er opmærksom på kvaliteten af min egen opmærksomhed.

Det er især kvaliteten af ens opmærksomhed, der forbindes med erfaringen, mens den udadrettede opmærksomhed ofte ses som en ressource. Tænk blot på folkeskolelæreren, der fortæller sine studerende, at de skal være opmærksomme. På hvad og hvordan? Sådanne spørgsmål forvandler opmærksomhed til et moralsk anliggende.

Den engelske filosof Iris Murdoch forbandt opmærksomhed med kærlighed og mente af samme grund, at opmærksomhed var essentiel for at udvikle vores moralske dømmekraft. I en af hendes bøger talte hun – meget rammende i kontrast til i dag – om »unselfing«, og ikke selfies. Hendes idé var, at for at kunne deltage opmærksomt i livet må vi skubbe vores eget ego til side. Kun på den måde kan vi for alvor erfare det, som sker, og derved tage bedre del i de moralske beslutninger – til glæde for alle.

Murdoch var i høj grad inspireret af en anden filosof, nemlig den franske Simone Weil, der beskrev opmærksomhed som en neutral og direkte kontakt med virkeligheden. Det vil sige, at opmærksomheden som erfaring er uden filter. Den dømmer ikke på forhånd.

Normalt, når vi erfarer livet, sker det gennem et mere eller mindre instrumentelt eller moralsk filter, hvor vi er opmærksomme på noget bestemt, enten for at bekræfte vores antagelser eller fordi vi tror, at det lige netop er dét, som vi mangler. Vi er ifølge Murdoch egoistiske.

Det, som Weil og Murdoch opfordrede os til, var at overkomme denne instrumentelle tankegang for derved at mærke og blive mærket af livet. Det, som studierne fra DTU viser, er – lader det til – at vi i sjældnere grad mærkes af livet, men i stedet mærker os selv, idet vi hele tiden lader vores opmærksomhed flakke derhen, hvor den bekræfter eller underholder os bedst muligt.

Spørgsmålet er derfor, om en forjaget kultur derved, gradvist, gør vores verden mindre og mindre. Og, om vi derved bliver dårligere til at udvikle vores dømmekraft og vilje.

Bragt i Weekendavisen, #29, 19. juli 2019.

Mindfulness og skolen

I medierne kan man til tider læse, at folkeskolens elever er stressede, angste og urolige. Nogle foreslår mindfulness som en løsning på problemet, mens andre mener, at mindfulness ikke er andet end et plaster på en syg præstationskultur.

Jeg er enig i, at præstationskulturen er syg, men uenig i, hvorvidt mindfulness blot er et plaster. Faktisk mener jeg, at mindfulness sagtens kan bidrage til udfoldelsen og vedligeholdelsen af pædagogik baseret på en kærlig tilgang til læring i stedet for absurde præstationsidealer.

Kigger vi nærmere på kritikken af mindfulness, er den ofte ganske paradoksal. Enten er mindfulness for religiøst, eller også er den for lidt i kontakt med den smukke buddhistiske livsfilosofi.

Så hvad er mindfulness i grunden?

Læs resten af kronikken i Information

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.


Whenlife blooms_cover

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.