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Sunday Self-Scaler 16
6 Teachings from 4 Philosophies that Have Changed My Life. And a Mental Exercise I Want You to Perform.
Setting my Kindle aside, I sink back into deep thought and my chair. Ever since I started exploring philosophy, I have had multiple such epiphanies. I’ve been a thinker all my life but earlier, it was of a rudimentary form, only occasional sparks and questions without answers.
“What is the meaning of life?”, “Who determines what is right?”, “Are the mind and the brain the same?”, “What even does it mean to be sentient?” and the like. I am sure such questions might have popped up at some point or other in your life.
Every single question we might have ever had would have been encountered by some thinker or other down the times. And philosophy, being the sum total of the wisdom of thousands of thinkers across the centuries has helped me and can help you find answers.
Moreover, philosophy provides powerful ideas to feed the sparks and fan them into bright flames of thought. Some of these ideas ended up changing me and my life. They might change yours as well.
The Philosophy of Zeno
Founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BC, Stoicism is popularly portrayed as a philosophy that preaches self-control, pain endurance, and killing your emotions. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth — what it preaches is not endurance but rather indifference to pain and detaching from, not killing your emotions.
Suffering is a choice
“Choose not to be harmed‚and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed‚and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius
In life, pain is inevitable but suffering is a choice. This one statement had to be the simplest yet the most powerful thing I had ever come across. When I suffered from a severe migraine, I tried this, and surprisingly with time, I could actually care less and less about the pain.
The pain was there but I just wasn’t bothered much by it.
Later, when a bout of insomnia hit me, it was this that let me stay sane. The first time I experienced insomnia, I had suffered much more and I had been left on the brink of sanity. But it takes conscious effort and I have to constantly mentally reaffirm it.
Complete detachment is when this truth gets programmed into your unconscious mind and reaching it takes a lot of deliberate practice and time to achieve. The burning monk Thich Quang Duc is a prime example. To protest the South Vietnamese Diem regime’s discriminatory Buddhist laws, he lit himself aflame and didn’t even flinch once as he burned to death.
Another Way to Look at Nihilism
“What is the meaning of life” is a question that I have pondered over all my life. When I was bullied in middle school, life felt meaningless. When I fell in love for the first time, she was the meaning of life. When I underwent a drastic mental change, it was in leading a virtuous and goal-driven life. When I experienced heartbreak, life again lost its meaning.
Every time I thought I had found an answer, it turned out that I hadn’t until I stumbled across a YouTube video by Kurzgesagt.
Life doesn’t have any meaning
Nihilism is a school of philosophy that holds the view that life is inherently meaningless. Optimistic Nihilism offers a positive perspective to this. Life may be meaningless but that’s exactly why we are free to assign it any meaning we want. Tiny or not, we are all part of the cosmic family and this makes our lives significant.
This was an extremely uplifting and freeing way to perceive a seemingly dreadful fact. And this resonated hard with me.
“Tiny or not, we are all part of the cosmic family and this makes our lives significant.”
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Moreover, the primary driving force in human beings is widely believed to be the will to meaning. I have found this to be true in my life. I’ve since made “meaning” one of my core values and strive to find meaning in everything I do.
The Highest Ideal to Strive For
It was seeing the phrase “Hedonistic Nihilist” on a friend’s Instagram bio that made me check out Hedonism and I’m glad I did. Hedonism at its core was simple — make happiness the highest ideal of your life but it deeply appealed to me.
For most of my life, I had been unhappy. I was bullied in middle school which then turned me into a bully and when I realized the wrong of my ways, I became a people pleaser. For the sake of conforming to society or out of the fear of seeming selfish, we tend to do things that compromise our happiness.
Now, I care first and foremost for my own happiness. You probably should as well. Is it selfish? Maybe, but it’s only when you are truly happy that you can make others happy.
Pleasure is not happiness
The misconception that pleasure is synonymous with happiness has made Hedonism one of the most misconstrued philosophies. Pleasure is not happiness. In fact, pleasure might be the opposite of happiness — Happiness is a state that ensues from doing meaningful things while pleasure is a feeling, a release of dopamine.
Binge-watching while comfortably lying in bed or devouring an entire tub of butterscotch ice cream affords me a lot of pleasure but a hard workout in the gym or a few hours of writing fills me up with happiness. Pleasure is a “high” that always precedes a protracted low and the higher the high, the worse the low.
In other words, excess pleasure leads to unhappiness. This distinction allowed me to redefine my life and optimize it for happiness rather than pleasure.
The Most Contrarian Philosophy
After I read 1984, I fell into a Classics reading spree. It was during this that I happened to read The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s 1000 page behemoths that weave together fiction and her philosophy Objectivism. Objectivism is relatively obscure and whatever little fame it has is well infamy.
The reason is simple — it preaches exactly the opposite of what is traditionally preached in society.
While society preaches sacrifice, altruism, believing, and living for the sake of others as virtues, Objectivism propounds self-interest, trusting only one’s own reason, living for one’s own sake, and pursuing one’s own happiness as virtues.
But most that hate her ideas haven’t even made an attempt to get a deeper understanding of them which I managed to get solely because of the 2000+ pages of reading.
Man is an end in himself
“Man — every man — is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”
By the time I encountered this passage in the book, I was already convinced and found myself muttering, “Absolutely true!” with conviction. Most of us sacrifice our own happiness in order to please others or out of the fear of being called selfish. We do, say, and be things we don’t want to just because we feel compelled to.
With this, things became clear. There were no obligations. Saying no became a breeze. My priorities came before others’ did. I would help a friend not because I was obliged to but out of love. Anyone or anything that threatened to harm my happiness wasn’t worth entertaining.
Trust only reason
“Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. man had no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons,and to make weapons — a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and we have comes from a single attribute of man -the function of his reasoning mind.”
I used to be an inquisitive kid but my whys and hows were met with disapproval in school and I was told to shut the f*ck up. Since our births, our inquisitiveness is slowly killed off and we are turned into docile, unquestioning beings fit for society.
Objectivism reignited my inquisitiveness and propelled me down the thinker path. And my life has never been better.
When we start to discern things for ourselves, our conviction increases and this makes our decision-making and thinking firm. Accept something as true because you understand it is and not because someone tells you it is. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, no matter how trivial they seem to you.
“Question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything.” — Ernest Gaines
We are born with, live with and die with our minds. We are our minds.
Philosophy has changed my life. It can change yours as well. I urge you to look beyond the quotes and dig deeper. Philosophy isn’t something you study but rather something you do.
Every idea is just fuel for your own thoughts and ideas. I’ve taken ideas from across different philosophies, meditated on them, and formed my personal belief system. I urge you to do the same.
“Philosophy isn’t something you study but rather something you do.”
Take every teaching, pass it through the filter of your mind and imbibe the ones you resonate with.
Suffering is a choice. By choosing not to suffer, you can detach yourself from pain.
Life doesn’t have any meaning but that’s exactly why you are free to assign it any meaning you want. Do what you want and find meaning in everything you do.
Happiness is the highest ideal to strive for. It’s only when you are truly happy that you can make others happy.
Pleasure is not happiness. Happiness is an internal state while pleasure is a dopamine release.
You are an end in yourself. Don’t sacrifice your own happiness to please others. Help someone because you truly want to and not out of compulsion.
Trust your reason. Be inquisitive. Be critical. Don’t believe, understand.
A Mental Exercise I Want You to Perform
To begin integrating philosophy into your own life, you need to first become aware of your existing belief system - you can’t change what you aren’t aware of.
And doing so isn’t hard, it requires two main things - time and brutal self-honesty. To get started, answer and jot down these three things:
What Are My Core Values? These are the values that form your morals. What value determines right or wrong? What determines your happiness? What determines your personal ethics? Here are a few sample values to help you pick - authenticity, rationality, honesty, autonomy, integrity, adventure, etc.
What Are My Core Beliefs? The existence or nonexistence of God, whether life is meaningless or not, what’s right, what you are, what’s wrong, how people in general are, the root of happiness, etc. A few examples are “People are cynical”, “There’s just one God”, “The world is dangerous”, “I am smart”, etc.
What Are My Core Principles? These are built upon both your values and beliefs. For example, if one of your values is honesty and a related core belief is “You reap what you sow”, a possible core principle would be, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving side of.”
I urge you to spend time and focus on this exercise. Do NOT take this lightly, the power of this is unreal.
Once this is done, keep it aside. And every single day, introspect and make changes to this. What you end up with after a week or two is likely to be an accurate version of your existing belief system.
After that, it’s only a matter of exploring philosophies and molding your belief system to make it stronger.