Moving away from identity, we can also direct the lens of philosophical enquiry to our core beliefs about the nature of reality.
According to Henry David Thoreau -“the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”
A sorry fact no-doubt caused, in large part, by the hum of existential anxiety that impermanence visits upon all of us. Until we can muster the courage to seek out our own answers to the questions that impermanence generates, we will have no choice but to surrender our authority in this most vital of projects. In doing so, we find a measure of temporary relief, but forego the potential for great meaning.
As research on the efficacy of CBT demonstrates, there is tremendous value in doing the work to identify and challenge our hidden beliefs. In the realm of counselling and psychotherapy, this enquiry, in my view, does not go far enough. Like the oft used analogy of the fish unable to see the water in which it swims, we are similarly blind to beliefs that almost certainly contribute to our depression, anxiety, nihilism, addiction and suicide. Like a hidden piece of malware running in the background, unexamined and oppressive assumptions about our relationship to the universe greatly limit our functioning.
According to the Oxford dictionary, metaphysics is -the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.
Regardless of how irrelevant you may feel metaphysics to be, I guarantee you that, like all of us, you have a metaphysical position and it exerts a significant influence on your life. If you are the product of Western education and enlightenment values, you have ingested the belief peculiar to scientific materialism that reality at base consists of bits of matter, and only that which can be empirically validated is real. What many of us do not consider is how this belief subtly undermines all of the things that we value the most. Things like love, meaning, dreams, the perception of beauty, the taste of a peach, and the sound of music. Subjective experience itself is negated, which means we are negated, for we are our subjective experience. This sets us up to devalue our most intimate self, and our most meaningful experiences. If such things don’t really exist, then why bother? What is the point of life other than to accumulate wealth, seek pleasure and avoid pain? The road inevitably leads to nihilism and rampant consumerism, with all of their consequent mental health crises and destructive resource depletion.
At this point you might be thinking that the truth does not owe us a happy ending, and that the sensible and sober approach is to toughen up, face the cold hard facts of life, and appreciate the sweet moments (which aren’t even real, according to this view). In response, I would suggest that there is an alternative, and one that is gaining increasing support from scientists and philosophers in response to the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (the impossibility of explaining subjective experience in terms of objective neurological processes).
This ancient metaphysical position, currently in the midst of a revival, is called Idealism, and it places mind or experience at the heart of reality. The philosopher and computer scientist, Bernardo Kastrup, suggests that as individual minds, we are dissociated aspects of mind at large or, in the vernacular, God. Just as our individual minds contain multiple parts, or selves, that dominate in different contexts, and in extreme cases such as dissociative identity disorder, are unaware of each other, mind at large (Mind) is similarly fragmented. In the same way that synapses and neurotransmitters are the physical correlates of our thoughts and feelings, the external world and its objects are the physical correlates of mental processes in Mind.
From an idealist perspective, then, everything that appears to us as solid is actually mind-stuff. Considering that we have known for a long time that physical objects are essentially made up of empty space, this is not such a stretch.
Not only does this position resolve the ‘hard problem’, but it also affirms the wisdom traditions of the East and contemplative insight in general, makes room for the experimental data gleaned from quantum physics, accounts for ubiquitous anomalous phenomena such as NDE (near death experience) reports and psychic abilities, and importantly for the therapeutic endeavour, it re-sanctifies the individual and his/her intimate experience of life. Meaning becomes the very substance of reality, and we have renewed our ancient relationship to a transcendent other.
As the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung said – ‘The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.’
No longer, are our most cherished moments lost with the winking out of our neurological hardware, but in a very real way, they persist in eternity, for we are eternity….at least according to the idealists.
For a deep dive into contemporary philosophical idealism, read Bernardo Kastrup or Donald Hoffman. Less academic proponents, such as Rupert Spira, take a contemplative approach.