Therapy as philosophical pursuit part 1
Updated: May 10, 2022
Consider this. Whether you engage consciously with philosophical questions, or not, you are most certainly answering those questions unconsciously, and reaping the appropriate rewards in your daily life. Better to be conscious of the questions!
My first thought upon typing out the title was a curious one. I’m wondering what you, the reader, thinks about such a proposition. I imagine various reactions that are mostly resistant to this idea.
You might be thinking - what has philosophy got to do with my tangible real-life problems?
Or, philosophy is much too abstract to be useful! I can even hear some voices associate philosophical enquiry with dissociation, intellectual pretence, or to be the purview of men sitting on a hill somewhere. These are the kinds of reactions I’ve noticed people have when the subject of philosophy gets raised.
I actually agree that much philosophy can be guilty of these things. However, the kind of philosophy that I am advocating for is an embodied philosophy, and one that has very real consequences for our relationship to self and world. If you’re at all motivated to increase your life satisfaction, this should interest you.
Philosophy is a Greek word that translates as love of wisdom; I like to think of it as the pursuit of truth. Why, then, is such a pursuit important? If one's life is successful and satisfying, why bother with truth and its, usually, deconstructive consequences?
If you agree with the statement - what is false is temporary, and what is true is eternal, then finding the truth of our own being is essential if we are to have a stable foundation upon which to construct a life.
The answer to the question, ‘who am I?’ is a life-long project that frustratingly remains incomplete, or perpetually under construction, for all but the most incurious. It is vulnerable to a multitude of factors that are outside our control, such as the will and perceptions of other people, and even our own fluctuating body chemistry that determines mood and emotion. It is usually the central focus of therapy. I suggest there is another important and fruitful question lying just behind or underneath this one. A question that can be answered satisfactorily, but not in the way you might expect. The question ‘what am I?’ is fundamentally a philosophical enquiry whose simplicity belies its potentially radical consequences, if engaged with sincerely. That’s a big if.
Take a moment now to really ask yourself the question. Notice that any definition that appears in your awareness is just another object and therefore not you as the subject. See if you can sit with this question, and allow it to lead you to its source.
To one identified with the contents of mind and their emotional drivers, specifically the various mental and emotional objects that make up the self-image, the answer to this question is radical because it is not an object, not another temporary definition that is vulnerable to external factors and unstable conditions. The question, if engaged with, will lead inexorably to the conflict that dogs contemporary western culture, the mind/body split, and the primary dualism that generates our schizophrenic relationship to our bodies and the earth. Engaging with this question, sincerely, can initiate a healing process that ultimately brings us into right relationship with matter; our body and our environment. The old adage of putting your house in order first is appropriate here. To those strongly motivated to tackle the many injustices of our world, I would say that effective action can come only from a consciousness that is whole within itself.
Beyond our conceptual definitions, we are also the free-standing witness of the many thoughts, sensations and feelings that arise and pass within us. Until we find and stabilize this witnessing awareness in our moment to moment experience, we cannot be present, nor discern reality from narrative. We are at the mercy of the mind's dualistic perception, and the endless conflict and confusion that it generates.
We are also the sensate dimension of the body. We don't live in a body or own a body, we are the body. Surprisingly, when attended to at sufficient depth, identity with the body reveals an expansiveness we could not have imagined. The feeling of beingness that we access through uniting consciousness with the body (spirit with matter) extends beyond the limits of our skin, without boundary in every direction. What was feared as the ultimate limit, the carriage of death, is now realized to be the gateway to a unification of self and world.
Releasing our grip on the illusion of control and separateness, we find ourselves gratefully surrendered into the river of life. We know not which path it takes, nor what obstacles shape its journey, but we can be sure that its destination is the unbounded ocean.
Engaging with this kind of philosophical enquiry directly undermines the unconscious source of much of our suffering, and so can affect significant and permanent improvements in our well-being. This unconscious source of suffering is the false self and its illusory sense of being an isolated individual in an unsafe world. Anxiety and depression may still arise, but the deep existential roots of such disturbances have been pulled, and can no longer overwhelm the psyche.
A good way to think of this is to imagine oneself as a house, and emotional disturbance as inclement weather. Previously we had been hiding in the attic, fearful of wind, rain, thunder and lightening. We recoiled at every creak and chattering rooftile, believing them to be signs of impending doom. From the perspective of an integrated mind and body, we now stand firmly on the foundations, noting the weather with an undisturbed curiosity.