A lot has changed from just one rule being put in place.
Granted, it’s a pretty big one. But the point is, enforcing any kind of overarching measure is a pretty damn powerful force for change.
Putting rules in place can eliminate much of the fumbling around that consumes the majority of our days. Rules can get rid of the need to be constantly deciding how you should be acting and what you should be doing in any given moment, so you can instead get on with actually acting and doing.
Just in the past few days, I’ve gotten more stuff done that I wanted to than in the past few weeks combined.
I’ve video called three people who I’ve been putting off speaking to for ages and feeling terrible about it.
I’ve reorganized and decorated my bedroom to make it more homely and so that I feel comfortable in it.
I even cleaned the bathroom. And God forbid, I mildly enjoyed it.
Of course, soon enough the rule I’m referring to—the surprise home-based mindfulness retreat many of us have suddenly found ourselves in—will disappear. And I’ll be back avoiding work and throwing clothes around my room and putting off speaking to people and not being able to think of anything worse than wasting my time cleaning the damn bathroom.
This is where moral philosophy comes in (yawn). Moral philosophy may sound like something only grey-haired academics need to know about so they can impress each other during coffee breaks, but it’s actually incredibly practical and something that is important—if not essential—for guiding how we live our day-to-day lives.
Moral philosophy is essentially a question of what we value. It asks us to think about what we care about and what we don’t care about, so we can then know how to act in the world in a way that supports these beliefs.
In other words, it gives us the tools to make our own rules.
If you don’t consider such questions and don’t make your own rules, even if your rule is to have no rules, especially in a time when everyone is able to share what they believe with the world, it’s all too easy to be swept away and guided by whatever the default values are in society or whatever memes are currently circulating or whatever the most popular self-help guru on Instagram happens to share today.
Luckily, thanks to the surprise home retreat that was sprung upon us, many of us have plenty of ‘me time’ to reflect on what we actually value and create our own rules for living the lives we want.
That being said, we don’t have to do it alone. Many of history’s greatest philosophers, psychoanalysts, and thinkers have already spent a lot of time (mostly while indoors) thinking and writing about what’s worth giving a damn about.
Here, I want to share with you four ideas from four thinkers that have been highly influential in my life and that of millions of others around the world.
Use them to turn this unanticipated and largely unwanted moment in time into a welcome opportunity for exploring yourself and bringing about great change now, and following the retreat.
Rule 1: Treat others not just as means to an end, but as ends in themselves
When you’re constantly surrounded by other people—at home, during your commute, at work, on the streets, in the supermarket—it’s easy to see them as mere means to an end.
Store assistants at checkouts are a means of getting chocolate in your belly.
Teachers are a means of learning a new skill, which is a means of earning more money which is a means of getting a sexier partner.
Friends are a means of feeling better about yourself and being emotionally lighter and getting more comments on your selfies.
During our free surprise retreat, when we have to stay in one apartment or house and be surrounded by the same few faces day-in-day-out, this approach of using people as means inevitably will come under the spotlight.
It was German philosopher and lover of the indoors Immanuel Kant who, in casually studying the fundamental moral laws that govern the universe, first wrote about this behavior and pointed out why it's so unethical.
To cut it short, his main reasoning was that when we use other people solely as “instruments” in our efforts toward getting or achieving some other thing or goal, we fail to recognize their inherent worth and, essentially, their humanity.
In other words, our relationships with others are seen as conditional. We see people in terms of what we get out of them or how they help us in moving toward a purpose, as opposed to as, well, seeing them as people.
I want to feel like a good grandson. So I talk to my grandma on the phone when I can, even though I may be yawning and texting through hearing how much butter she was rationed during the war for the gazillionth time.
You could argue that what I’m doing is still perfectly moral. But Kant would argue that I’m in fact treating my grandma as a means of achieving some other end: of feeling like a good grandson. He argued that treating any human being solely as a means to some other end is the basis of all unethical behavior.
“Each person must never be treated only as a means to some other end, but must also be treated as an end themselves.”—Immanual Kant
It’s not that wanting to be a good grandson isn’t a legitimate reason to call dear Moira once a week. Rather, it’s that patting myself on the back for being a good boy shouldn’t be my only reason for calling her.
If a means is a way or a mere vehicle towards something else, an end is something that is complete or done for its own sake. With an end, there is no ulterior reason or motive for doing it—it is the reason or motive itself.
According to Kant, then, speaking to granny for no other reason than speaking to granny should be my primary motive. I may feel a moral obligation to call her, but I shouldn’t hurry the conversation on so I can get off the phone and feel like a good relative for the rest of the week. I shouldn’t treat my gran solely as a means of fulfilling my own needs, not even if it’s ensuring I get a share of her inheritance.
“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”—Immanual Kant
When people are seen as ends in themselves and not just as means, relationships aren’t built on the basis of obligation or pleasing people. You don’t ring gran because you feel you have to. You don’t clean the bathroom so as not to annoy your partner. You don’t do things for people just because you want their approval or for them to like you.
I don’t so much care if my gran likes me (sorry gran if you’re reading this). That would be to see our relationship and my commitment to her as conditional to her mood or approval. Which involves me altering my actions and speech to no longer reflect what I actually think or feel, i.e. using her as a means to the end of making me feel like a good person (I hope you think I am gran!)
But I do care about her. The difference between the two is that our relationship, at least as I see it, is not based on conditional outcomes, but on unconditional values.
A value-driven relationship is not about making sure each other feel good or that you don’t piss each other off—gran’s definitely not shy about that. Value-driven relationships are based on something deeper. Things like blood and love and the fact people are independent human beings with their own desires and opinions and that every consciousness, as Kant would say, is sacred and should be treated as such.
Orientating how you treat others around values and not outcomes is like eating organic food or writing medium articles. It may not be easy and you don’t do it because of the money or to be a hero. You do it because you know it’s a good thing to do and/or you enjoy it. At least some of the time.
When relationships are based on values and not on trying to get something out of someone, you are free to be yourself and allow others the freedom to be just as they are.
There’s no strain to make things into something they’re not. No drive to make someone understand you so you feel validated. No need to keep up all the posturing to ensure they think you’re cool. There’s no desire or expectation or end whatsoever outside of recognizing someone’s individual humanity and engaging in the moment-to-moment, ever-changing interaction that is a relationship.
And of course, after calling your grandma or whichever relative, you still get to pat yourself on the back and give yourself brownie points for being a good boy or girl.
Rule 2: The price of freedom is being disliked by other people
We’re just a few days into the most advanced mindfulness retreat on Earth, depending on where you are and when you read this. But chances are you’ve already had a few big bust-ups, or at the very least a mild disagreement, with someone you live with.
If you haven’t, then you might think yourself incredibly lucky. But the work of another super genius, this time an Austrian psychotherapist, may change your mind and get you to think the exact opposite.
After many years of giving therapy and studying personality development, Alfred Adler came to understand more than most how we all share a common drive to live a problem-free life.
And, thanks to all his experience and his big ol’ noggin, you’ll be glad to hear that he discovered the one, single way it’s possible to do it.
To live a life that’s completely free of all problems, all you have to do is…
Wait for it.
Live in the world all alone.
“To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone”.—Alfred Adler
Adler believed that all the problems we face in our lives are interpersonal, or social, problems. And that, therefore, the only thing we could do to get rid of our problems is to up sticks and live alone on a desert island for the rest of our days.
His point wasn’t that you should take the next flight to the Mamanuca Islands (if you even could). It was that you can’t have relationships or life without problems. It’s impossible. And so by denying this inevitable difficulty and trying to live a problem-free life, all you do is isolate yourself from others and restrict yourself to living a limited existence.
Sounds pretty depressing so far. But Adler didn’t see it that way. He saw this observation as one of the most liberating things one could realize.
Adler believed the reason we suffer is that we spend much of our lives trying to fulfill the “desire to be recognized”. What this looks like is basing our happiness and peace of mind on what others think of us and doing all we can to ensure everyone likes us all the time.
Such a way of living can lead to a comfortable life. But when your life is orientated around trying to please others and ensuring people like you, then you also have to make sure you don’t offend anyone or do anything that could cause them to dislike you. In other words, it may be a life that’s free from some discomfort, but it’s far from a free life.
To live a free life, you have to piss a few people off. Or, as Adler put it:
“The price of freedom is being disliked by other people.”
Again, this isn’t to say you should go around leaving the toilet seat up and leaving breadcrumbs in the butter. It’s saying that to live a life that is truly free, it will inevitably involve pain, discomfort, disappointment, being hurt and hurting others, and most of all, being disliked.
All this stuff isn’t a reason to shy away and live on a desert island. Much of our dissatisfaction with life doesn't come from pain or discomfort or any of these things, but from thinking that life and relationships can be free of pain or discomfort and that it is our responsibility to make everything completely problem-free and ensure that everyone likes us all the freaking time, i.e. trying to fulfill the desire for recognition.
Shit happens. We cannot control life and our relationships so they will be completely free of problems. Just as we cannot control what people think or feel about us. As Adler would say, what other people think or feel about us is their task. It is not your task to please other people.
There are things you can control, however. You have your own tasks. Starting with facing the discomfort and reality of being disliked. To Adler, having the courage to be disliked is the same thing as having the courage to be free and happy.
And let’s face it, when you’re on an enforced retreat with the same people, even if it’s just yourself, you’re going to be disliked. So better to just accept it now and be free.
Rule 3: Learning how to be alone is the best way of learning to be with others
Everyone has experienced being physically on their own with no other people around. But few have actually experienced being alone.
We tend to think that being alone is to do with our proximity to other people. However, it is actually much more about our capacity to be in our own presence.
So whether you’re doing your home retreat with a family of six in an urban apartment or you’re locked in on your own a thousand miles from anyone else, it has nothing to do with how alone you may or may not feel.
Winnicott's idea was that in order to develop the capacity to be alone with ourselves, we first need the caring and unconditionally loving presence of our parents. With their blanket of relative safety around us, we are able to begin to drop our defense mechanisms, develop our own sense of self, and accept the permission to start exploring our own inner worlds.
“The child is alone only in the presence of someone.”
― D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality
In this way, Winnocot saw being alone as a relational issue that has as much to do with how we feel about and relate to other people as it does how we feel about and relate to ourselves.
The thing is, as Winnocot found, whether due to inattention, lack of education, over-attentiveness, or the fact our parents simply had their own stuff to deal with, many of us were never fully offered this opportunity to learn to be fully alone.
As a result, we may never have gotten past the initial discomfort aroused by an empty room and the inevitable feelings of agitation and fear that comes with being void of distraction and stuck with nothing but our own company.
Thankfully, this capacity can be cultivated at any time, given the right conditions. If you peered into one of Winnicott’s sessions, you would see exactly this happening: with many of his patients, he would simply sit there in silence and be with them, allowing them a safe space to be alone with themselves, often for the first time.
Often we pull away from the sense of loneliness that can appear from a silent room or when we’re suddenly left on our own. But if we stick with it and turn towards it instead of away, it can open up as a doorway into another world of being with ourselves, and as an extension, of being with others.
The basis of any healthy relationship is the capacity to be alone. Make sure to guard off some time to be alone with yourself during your retreat and those around you will thank you for it.
Rule 4: The more you desire something, the more that something escapes your grasp
Along with many people, I’ve been admiring and enjoying all the creativity on social media that’s been emerging out of the surprise hardcore home-based free mindfulness retreat.
But while I’m sitting there watching it all and enjoying my artisan rooibos tea served by Pancho the Catalan waiter—or, my left hand—I can’t help but keep wondering when all this creativity will come to me and my creative spark is going to ignite.
More than that, the infinite barrage of creativity coming at me from all angles just makes it seem like nothing I could do could match up.
So, instead, I sit around and drink my tea and lament over how I’m just not one of those creative types. I decide that most likely I’m just too lazy or too unmotivated to create something new and of my own.
Whether if it’s creativity or beauty, intelligence or happiness, there’s no shortage of ways we can support our thoughts about how we don’t measure up, how we’re not good enough, and how things aren’t as great as they could be.
But rather than these ideas being the harsh truth that we somehow have to solve, it is all the wanting and trying to improve and grasping for only positive experiences that is the source of our woes.
British philosopher Alan Watts referred to this dynamic as “the backwards law”. With its origins in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, the backwards law is the idea that the more we want and the more we pursue something, the more it gets away from us and eludes our grasp.
The more we try and be creative, the more we feel we lack creativity.
The more we try to control our feelings and impulses, the more we feel out of control of our feelings and impulses.
The more we try to be happy and satisfied, the more unhappy and unsatisfied we become.
The backwards law, or “the law of reversed effort” as Aldous Huxley called it, works this way because when you get caught up in desiring positive experiences and chasing ideas, the very pursuit is predicated on the idea that you somehow lack them or need them in the first place. And so you are all the while unwittingly reinforcing your own lack and need to attain them.
“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us”. — Aldous Huxley
Thankfully, the backwards law works the other way around too.
The more we refrain from chasing lofty and abstract ideas about such things as happiness and beauty and creativity, the more such things come to us.
The more we feel okay with and open about our insecurities, the more we feel confident and charismatic around others.
The more we accept that we are not in control of everything we think or feel, the more we feel in control of our emotions and lives.
The more we give up trying to grasp or seek creativity and instead allow it to naturally emerge the way it wants to, the more creative we become.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” —Albert Camus
The central tenant of this law, as is in the case in several Western and Eastern schools of thought, is that wanting and seeking and desiring is the basis for much of our suffering, as opposed to our suffering being because we actually lack or do not have whatever it is we want or seek or desire.
Often when we desire or crave something, we are trying to get away or change our current experience. We are attempting to attain something more pleasurable or get away from or avoid something that is painful.
The backwards law helps us see that the way to avoid suffering is not through constantly striving to get the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff. It is through relaxing our attachment to such ideas, giving up the need to try and change everything, and opening up to see it is possible to be with things no matter how they are.
The less you desire for things to be different, the more you’re able to see and experience what you already have.
In a time when the world is calling out for us to slow down and stop grasping for more, what could be a more perfect message?
Whether you’re suddenly told you can’t leave the house when you were just about to leave your wife or you are one of the many staff working all hours in to help manage the current crisis, no matter what happens to you in life, you always have the power to choose how you see it and how it affects you.
Your values are like the rules that operate in the background and help you remember you always have this choice. All you have to do is choose to put them in place and stick by them, and the rest will take care of itself.
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