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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Five Basic Exercises in Philosophy as a Spiritual Practice



Streets of Naples, Italy

Question: I have a good job, wife and children, success, but something is missing. I don´t feel that I live. There is a constant sense of negativity. I have tried out positive thinking, but it doesn´t seem to help. What could be wrong with me? 

The hunger after doing something positive, opposite the negative, makes us strive after being something else; in this struggle we feel, that we are alive, that there is a purpose with our life, that we gradually can remove the causes of the conflict and the sorrow. We feel, that if we no longer were active, we would be nothing, be lost, our lives would be completely without meaning. Therefore we continue, and that will say: we continue the divisions, the conflicts, the confusions and the opposites. But in this process we at the same time feel, that there is something more which we all the time lose, that there exists something, which is quite different, something, which is above and beyond all this distress and misery. This feeling is the existential guilt, the guilt over the unlived life. In this way a permanent struggle is going on inside us.

The more emphasis, which is being put on the outer greatness, the greater is the inner guilt over unlived life. The cause of this inner emptiness is the desire after becoming something; and no matter what you do, then this emptiness can never be filled out. You can escape from it, whether it happens in a clumsy way, or in a more cunning way; but you can´t move further away from it than from your own shadow. You perhaps don't want to look into this emptiness, but it is there nevertheless. Neither those ornament things can give you, nor the suit of penance, which the soul can dress in, can conceal this inner poverty.

Striving means a struggle of changing what you are to something else, to something you ought to be, or ought to become. It will in other words say, that we all the time struggle to avoid facing what we are, or we seek to escape from what we are, or to transform or limit it. But the human being, who truly is satisfied, is a human being, who understands what he is, and is putting the right importance in it. This is the true satisfaction: the one who doesn´t worry about the number of possessions, but about understanding what he is, when he is himself present in passive listening, not when he seeks to remodel, control, or change it through the will to power.

So, we see that our striving is a combat, or a struggle, in order to transform what you are to something you wish to be.

All this is desire. You can say, that there are three main forms of desire: sensuality, worldliness and personal immortality: 1) Sensuality is the satisfaction of the senses. 2) Worldliness is the desire after progress and wealth. 3) Personal immortality is the personal power and fame.

What philosophical counseling can offer you is some advices in the art of living. My teaching in a nutshell consists in five spiritual exercises:


1)  Learning to Live

2)  Meditation

3)  Critical thinking

4)  Investigation of the Shadow

5)  Learning to Die


1)  Learning to Live

Learning to live is something entirely different than you hear about in coaching. It requires that you fall in love with wisdom. This is philosophy in the ancient sense. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an “exercise.” In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory – much less in the exegesis of texts – but rather in the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate life-style, which engages the whole of existence. The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.

In the view of both the Hellenic and Roman schools of philosophy, mankind´s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions, that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions. Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual´s mode of seeing and being. The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.

Thanks to Philo of Alexandria, we do possess two lists of spiritual exercises. They do not completely overlap, but they do have the merit of giving us a fairly complete panorama of Stoico-Platonic inspired philosophical therapeutics. One of these lists enumerates the following elements: research (zetesis), thorough investigation (skepsis), reading (anagnosis), listening (akroasis), attention (prosoche), self-mastery (ankrateia), and indifference to indifferent things. The other names successively: reading, meditation (meletai), therapies of the passions, remembrance of good things, self-mastery (enkrateia), and the accomplishment of duties.


lil' boy & the man in the moon

With the help of these lists I will give a description of the main exercises I myself have developed and which constitute my teaching Meditation as an Art of Life. Though meditation is quite central, the exercises has to do with thought training. You must formulate them as rules of life. You must keep life´s events “before your eyes,” and see them in the light of the exercises as fundamental rules. This is known as the exercise of memorization (mneme) and meditation (melete). You must engrave them as striking maxims in your memory, so that they are there constantly, also when you are not meditating. The two main reasons why spiritual exercises is a necessity is partly, that the ongoing self-confirmation of the ego and its negative automatic thoughts, is replaced by a spiritual remembrance, partly that the collective inertia is purified and prepared, so that the Ego is made transparent along with that original sin and negative karma are transformed and transfigured in the contact with the Source (God, Christ, the enlightened consciousness, the saints etc.) And these two processes mutually fertilize each other (negative automatic thoughts are based on thought distortions).



Ship wrecked in space.

2)  Meditation

Meditation is trained through the Relaxationmeditation (incubation) and the Harameditation (omphalos psychism). Together they aim at stillness (hesychia). In this stillness you begin to ask philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way: How does man preserve peace of mind and balance in all the relationships of life? How do we learn to appreciate the true goods and flout all transient and vain goals? Is the destiny of Man part in a larger plan?

3)  Critical Thinking

Critical thinking (kritikos) has to do with three virtues: A) refutation of sophisms (elenchos), B) discrimination (emphilotekhnein), and C) flexible thinking (learning to see, or rather, think about, things "from above", from alternative viewpoints, and, in doing this, focusing your thoughts on Beauty, Goodness and Truth). As an example on C, see my article Bohemian Travel Stories as a Spiritual Exercise.

I have called sophisms thought distortions. I introduced the concept of thought distortions in my supporting exercise the philosophical diary, where I described a Socratic inquire technique. Here they especially deal with psychological and personal matters. I have developed them further in my book A Dictionary of Thought Distortions.

Critical thinking is mainly about yourself. You should not go out and attack others with this technique, though it of course can be necessary when someone is trying to force you into their own thought distortions. Remember that it is a spiritual exercise. You can use the philosophical diary, but what´s most important, it is meant as a way of having a dialogue with yourself.

The interplay between the three virtues ensures the balance between logic and imagination, rational and irrational, philosophy and storytelling.

My own focus on logic and philosophy is mainly displayed on my website, with emphasis on The Matrix Conspiracy. My focus on imagination and storytelling is mainly displayed on this blog (see blog archive for the different categories).

4)  Investigation of the Shadow

This is philosophy as a therapeutic of the passions. Feelings are the body´s reaction on the mind (the thoughts). Feelings arise where the mind and the body meet. They are reflections of the mind in the body. The mind creates a build-up of energy in the body. It´s this energy, which is the feeling. It may be a lustful feeling, or a feeling of unlust.

If you really want to learn your mind - or otherwise said, your thinking - to know, then the body always gives a true reflection of it. If there is conflict between the thought and the feeling, then the thought is lie and the feeling truth. A negative feeling is a true reflection of a false thought (a thought distortion). It might be difficult to observe your thoughts, but they will always be reflected in the body in form of feelings. To observe a feeling is the same as observing a thought. The only difference is, that while a thought is up in the head, a feeling has a strong bodily component.

Feelings can also be a reflection of a whole thought-pattern. A thought-pattern can create an enlarged and energy-charged reflection of itself in the form of a feeling. This means, that the whole of the thought´s past also can create a reflection of itself in the body. And if this past is filled with pain, then it can show itself as a negative energy-field in the body. This is the emotional painbody. It contains all the pain you have accumulated in the past. It is the sum of the negative feelings which you have ”saved together” through life and which you carry. And it can nearly be seen as an invisible, independent creature. Therefore we also could, as H.C. Andersen does in his fairy tale, call it the Shadow.

The main way to deal with the painbody is through meditation, neutral observation, passive listening presence, and eventually, complete stillness. You must attain a Stoic attitude of indifference. In reality it can´t be healed through therapy. Only an intervention from the divine can heal it. The painbody doesn´t only contain pain from this life, but also from earlier lives. It reaches far down into the collective images of time, into complex patterns of original sin and negative karma. The whole complex constitutes an ancient inertia, which resists any kind of change (it even tries to destroy any attempt of change). This inertia is a guardian of the threshold. I have personalized it with the figure of Lucifer Morningstar. This figure gives you two choices: either to play the hand of the sophist, or the hand of the philosopher. Most people will choose the hand of the sophist. Usually it will therefore seduce you to leave your path to enlightenment, and get lost in the spiritual twilight zone, and end up in a spiritual crisis, either as ego-inflation or The Dark Night of the Soul.

Besides the two other meditation exercises (aiming at stillness) the most important meditation exercise you can use, when dealing with the ancient inertia, is the Heartmeditation. The ancient inertia can only be resolved through compassion and love. And love is not something you can control. The rise of love is one and the same as an intervention from the divine. So, an investigation of your shadow is also ethical thinking. Most people will refuse to do this, and will choose the sophist´s path into ego-inflation. You can see this in New Age´s aversion towards preparatory work. They want the fruits of spirituality, but not its obligations. New Age is permeated by nihilism, and lacks any absolute foundation for ethical thinking, the ability to discern between good and evil.

5)  Learning to Die.


At this point most people have stopped, and returned to their normal lives. Plato namely said that those who go about philosophizing correctly are in training for death. Paradoxically, learning to live is the same as learning to die. Most of us connect life with the thinking´s past and future. The thinking´s past and future is the same as the Ego (the painbody), and therefore our identity. It is an identity in an absence. If you begin to live in the now, all this falls away. Going into the now, into presence, into being, is a kind of death.

All the ancient schools of philosophy engaged their disciples upon a new way of life. The practice of spiritual exercises implied a complete reversal of received ideas: one was to renounce the false values of wealth, honors, and pleasures, and turn towards the true values of virtue, contemplation, a simple life-style, and the simple happiness of existing. This radical opposition explains the reaction of non-philosophers (people not in love with wisdom), which ranged from the mockery we find expressed in the comic poets, to the outright hostility which went so far as to cause the death of Socrates.

The individual was to be torn away from his habits and social prejudices, his way of life totally changed, and his way of looking at the world radically metamorphosed into a cosmic- “physical” perspective. We ought not to underestimate the depth and amplitude of the shock that these changes could cause, changes which might seem fantastic and senseless to healthy, everyday common sense.

To present philosophy as “training for death” was a decision of paramount importance. As Socrates´ interlocutor in the Phaedo was quick to remark, such a characterization seems somewhat laughable, and the common man would be right in calling philosophers moribound mopers who, if they are put to death, will have earned their punishment well. For anyone who takes philosophy seriously, however, this Platonic dictum is profoundly true.

Only an intervention from the source (God, Christ, the enlightened consciousness) can basically help Man with a transcendence of the negative karma of the original sin. But in order to be able to receive this help you must do your part of the work: the spiritual exercises, which in antiquity was one and the same as philosophy (love of wisdom). Many years. And this means that you need to re-structure the ego´s ownership to things, food, personal power, sexuality and emotions. Spiritual exercises are in all simplicity about separating and dismantling the consciousness´ automatic identification with all this (hereunder the body), in order to turn the consciousness in towards its source. First thereafter the mystical process can begin.

The magnet of attraction, which the ego (the painbody) is controlled by – (the ego´s identity with the material world: instincts, sexuality, emotions, desire, collective ideals, ownership, personal power) – will in the spiritual exercises lose its attraction (note how the new thought movement demonically has turned the magnet of attraction into an object of spiritual worship). Investments in the material world´s ups and downs, its demands, temptations and dramas, become undramatized, uninteresting, even meaningless, in relation to the consciousness´ opening direction in towards its spiritual essence: the now, the Wholeness, life itself, and finally: the eternal Otherness, from where the good, the true and the beautiful are streaming as grace and forgiveness.

In this movement in towards the source you begin to ask philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way. In this way the grab, which the material world has in your mind, is automatically reduced. It is dying before you die.

In his article Plato, Shamanism an Ancient Egypt, Jeremy Naydler claims that the separability of the soul and the possibility of it existing independently of the body is one teaching that is central both to Plato and to ancient Egyptian sacred texts. According to Naydler, Ancient Egyptian wisdom could be said to constitute the very kernel of Platonism. Given the possibility that Plato himself spent time studying in Egypt, we should not assume that he was simply transmitting Egyptian doctrines second hand, through his association with the Pythagoreans. According to Naydler, he was not merely 'transmitting doctrines' in any case: he was reworking them and making them his own. This does not mean, however, that they were original to him: rather, he was absorbing a living tradition, and re-expressing that tradition in terms of his own culture, and in terms of his own understanding.

In Phaedo, we find the pursuit of philosophy portrayed as a spiritual practice. In the dialogue Socrates describes the development of the philosopher as involving 'purification' or katharsis. This latter

consists in separating as far as possible the soul (psuche) from the body and teaching the soul the habit of collecting and bringing itself together from all parts of the body, and living so far as it can, both now and hereafter, alone and by itself, freed from the body as from fetters (Plato, Phaedo, 67c, trans. Harold North Fowler, London: William Heinemann, 1928, p. 233.)

What Plato is discussing here, through his character Socrates, is a kind of consciousness that transcends the normal awareness of soul qualities, as distributed throughout the physical organs and limbs. The soul (psuche), normally immersed in the psycho-physical organism, must practice the spiritual exercise of collecting and bringing itself together from all parts of the body in order to concentrate its forces in a single point.

In Plato's dialogue, Socrates goes on to say that the true philosophers “involves the release and separation of the soul from the body”. In other words, what is normally unconsciously immersed in the body, and not distinguished from it, is through an enhancement of consciousness (which is what katharsis entails) released and thereby experienced as separate. Since this experience is a precursor of what we must all experience at death, the practice of purification or katharsis is a preparation for death: 'True philosophers', says Socrates, 'practise dying''.  This, of course, says Naydler. is precisely what the religious literature of the ancient Egyptians, from the Pyramid Texts to the book of the Dead and beyond - a literature usually referred to as 'funerary' - is all about. It is a literature concerned with the practise of dying. And one of the most important teachings it contains is to do with the separability of the soul or “ba”.

Naydler is trying to show the relationship with shamanism, but you could also refer to Dream Yoga (which is developed out of shamanism), and it raises the question of a connection between ancient Egyptian wisdom and Indian and Tibetan Dream Yoga practices. However, what´s important is that you see yourself in a lineage of philosophers practicing the art of living and dying, and through this to enter into the Divine Source.

Further study:

Meditation as an Art of Life – a Basic Reader (Free Ebook. This is the ground text. Here you can find all the supporting exercises).

A Dictionary of Thought Distortions (Free Ebook).

Lucifer Morningstar – a Philosophical Love Story (Free Ebook. This book is an analogistic portrait of how to deal with the ancient inertia. It uses popular culture to shed light over this complex).

Plato, Shamanism, and Ancient Egypt, by Jeremy Naydler (article)

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