“You want to choose where you want to go and how you want to get there.
This can’t be.
Reality gets to choose one.”
– Someone I know.
“You want to choose where you want to go and how you want to get there.
This can’t be.
Reality gets to choose one.”
– Someone I know.
Goddessism is big among our millennial ladies. This article isn’t about the fact that social media and real life are different. It is about the cheapening of real philosophy that happens on social media and goes unnoticed by too many people.
As you will know, I am not big into positive thinking, at least the inspirational Insta-motivation variety. I have yet another issue with Instagram. It is the one social network that makes me feel kind of icky, and for ages I couldn’t understand why. We all know that social media is a highlight reel, a filtered version of another’s life, etc – but Instagram accentuates this empty feeling. I think it’s because it lacks the option of having any depth.
You can link to a thoughtful article on most networks, but you deliberately need to judge everything by its cover on Instagram.
One could argue it is some kind of inferiority that I am feeling. And it is. It’s a fear that I could never be as perfect as the people in the pictures. Indeed, I couldn’t be. They couldn’t be either. In fact, the subspecies I will discuss below follows a very clear prescribed regimen specifying their clothes, food, wisdom, aspirations, art, fitness, other half and much more. But the point is the horrible fake “spirituality” of these accounts.
Instagram is so full of beautiful, minimalist, natural, spiritual, compassionate, eco-friendly yoga-practicing perfect people, women, to be specific.
They look out over the ocean and look so dreamy with the sunset backdrop. The pictures are full with gentle sunlight, smiles and smoothies made of the most righteous greens and the caption inevitably features love of the world, the followers or something trendy. Obviously, these “tropical feels” exist on other media, but Instagram seems to have thousands of accounts with virtually the same vibe. The content clearly has a lot of work dedicated to it, but I struggle to see why people enjoy it. Perhaps, some find that it is genuine?
Whenever I encountered these insta-perfect people in real life, they tend to be highly cynical and critical of others, curse like sailors, yell at their children in a way that makes me worry about the integrity of the windows, drink (not just the smoothies), are insecure about their appearance and just generally be far removed from the fairy tale vibe of their Instagram account.
Many of them go from one beautiful location to another; the further removed from the West, the better – or at least create the impression that they do. More often than not, the photos are made over a few weeks (of what I assume is pretty hard work of shooting) and then released over the following months.
Their work is always something special, magical and sacred. There is much about happiness, love of simple things, spirituality, being natural, a wanderer, a wild child, a vagabond, giving hugs and so on.
By playing bingo with the above you can create a nice tagline for the top of the page: “Don’t let your dreams just be dreams” obtained Lisa Smith of @lisadanielle_ It seems that the expertise behind these statements is rather limited and largely repeated by/from other Instagram users in a nice Pacific ocean echo chamber. I doubt that the subscribers care very much. They look for pictures of a life
…from another place, tropical and blue,
We have never been to.
This is from Sylvia Plath’s “Finisterre”. I love the emotion behind these words: they got etched into my mind straight after the first reading. I doubt she would have liked Instagram very much.
These women tend to paint, create jewellery, produce their own make up lines or run seminars. The more competent ones paint and the really great ones photograph: weddings, editorials and so on. I shudder at their daily routine of waking up and knowing that they need to go out of their way to take shots of things that will appear good to thousands of people. Perhaps, they shudder at the thought of writing an essay, especially one that is clear to the point which can only be obtained by being honest. Not honest like an eco-friendly coffee brand is honest; honest like a best friend is honest. The high quality pictures make it into the Instagram feed; the less artsy are only dignified with a place in the Stories.
Their appearance is uniformly the sort that can only be obtained by strenuous HIIT and no carbs. Don’t forget the tan.
The goal is to look like the perfectly accepted idea of female beauty, but with a spiritual twist.
A half-naked woman in her late twenties with a body fat of about 18% with a dreamy smile will caption her photo with something like “Remember, everyone is beautiful. Accept your self fully. Love is everything.”
The more thorough Instagramers will have a story of how they used to hate their body/themselves/their failures, but came to be in a healthy relationship with themselves and now it is their life’s mission to bring this harmony into the world.
They frequently have a soul mate whom they tag in their Instagram and express their gratitude at least twice a week. Don’t be alarmed if some of these bits of wisdom have a tag like for some minimalist watch maker or a boho clothes vendor, usually with an eco-twist:
The perpetual summer bodies don’t come easy, I am sure, but the Insta goddesses never bother to make a big deal out of it. However, a nice yoga pose with a “thoughtful” quote is a must. Mindfulness goes without saying. Are there still people who don’t practice mindfulness? Myself, I doubt that between reaching out to bikini manufacturers and running contests for a handmade fairtrade eco-friendly blanket and shooting non-contrived photos of their rigorous relaxation routines they have much “time” for real mindfulness.
Clothes-wise, less is more – because why should we hide? That’s just wouldn’t be that spiritual or close to nature. The boho-twise requires the addition of a hat and numerous bracelets to the bikini bottoms. The top is covered by the long beach-wave hair.
What do goddesses eat? It’s all vegan, raw, super-foody and green. Banish gluten, lactose and all other negativity. The tone of their remarks is so matter of fact, like they’ve never seen a BLT in their lives.
So for example, a goddess could start every morning with 20 sun salutations and a green smoothie. They charge her up with the sort of energy the no coffee could ever do (throw back to her life before she entered the true world of Bali). It is usually followed by the description of the unfolding life force of nature filling her within and she literally can’t imagine having it any other way.
I have no reason to stick it to Lauren Bullen of @gypsea_lust in particular. They are legion. They come from all countries and write in all languages (though they all spend time in Bali). You know a few people like this. So alike, that you weren’t sure I wasn’t writing about them until you checked the username. They run Instagram-supported businesses, that’s fine, but it is the fact that they are selling something that isn’t real that bothers me.
It seems obvious that people would be able to tell that this is an account made for marketing. But because of this spiritual vibe, insidiously, this affects the moral compass for many otherwise bright people I know.
My millennial peers are often unable to see the difference between shallow marketing and deeper philosophy. Has it always been this way I wonder?
This kind of stuff makes me want to clear my head. So if, like me, you come across this phenomenon, don’t be down. Breath.
P.S. Sorry for the radio silence. I’m moving. It’s a journey. Many journeys back and forth between two houses, in fact. Lots of challenges of all sorts and remembering to breath has been my number one rule. I will write about the whole experience once the dust resettles on my suitcases.
Credit: inspired by Varvara Gorbash
Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they […] simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish.
Nihilism is a confusing term. It can mean rejection of societal norms (political nihilism). This is not what I am going to discuss here.
I will talk about Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: the radical rejection of value, meaning* and desirability.
I think this communicates the most important concepts. Of course, there are more specific definitions, so I will get them out of the way here. There is moral nihilism that says that there is no right and wrong. Epistomological nihilism says there is no universal truth or meaning. Existential nihilism rejects meaning in life.
Stoicism is really en vogue these days. Seneca’s writings have grabbed my attention early last year and haven’t really let go. First, his Moral Letters are incredibly easy to read – compared to most undigested original philosophical texts (e.g. A. Schopenhauer). Second, they make one feel good, a bit like after watching Pulp Fiction. I was starting to wonder – what’s the catch? My “too good to be true” radar was going off.
Here’s a short summary of Seneca’s views:
This doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it is quite resonant with the ultimate optimist Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and more or less the basis of modern day talking therapies like CBT and REBT. However, Seneca is quite pessimistic. Having re-read his letters a number of times, I picture him as a man who barely endured his life.
Any modern psychiatrist would say Seneca had a passive death wish.
It’s also interesting to remember that he was one of the wealthiest people of all time. Here’s a telling quotation from Letter 65:
“The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.”
Nietzsche famously pointed out that Christianity is nihilistic in the sense that it is denying the value of one’s current existence and instead placing it on a dream of a better afterlife.
By that same logic, Seneca too seems nihilistic. One might argue that in the context of Seneca thinking of death – it is kind of hopeful.
Nonetheless, Seneca belittles the value of the current life, encourages escapism and hope for, essentially, life in heaven after death.
At the same time, Seneca repeats that we have limited time on Earth and we better use it wisely. Just like Christianity, this philosophy appealed to all strata in society. Using either philosophy, anyone could be a hero by thinking themselves so. In a sense, one is less responsible for their actions as this world doesn’t really matter. Certainly, making the right choices matters – as it will be assessed for the purposes of a heaven vs hell decision, but it presents life as something that happens to a person – and the person has little agency. Having said that, much of what Seneca demands of Lucilius could safely be called overcoming-oneself, a cardinal virtue according to Nietzsche.
Unbound by any aspiration to philosophical scholarship, I have taken the liberty of making these one liners on how different schools/philosophers viewed meaning:
Stoics: there is meaning, it is to be wise and kind;
Schopenhauer: there is meaning; awareness of suffering and death create the need for meaning;
Buddhists: there is meaning, but it is ambiguous;
Hinduism: there is meaning; it is to shed the illusion and realise the unity of the universe;
Christianity: there is meaning; the meaning is to live so as to attain entry into a superior world;
Nietzsche: there is meaning; meaningful suffering is sought after, meaningless suffering is a curse – more on this later;
Nihilists: there is no meaning.
Being a bone fide nihilist is intolerable: there’s nothing to wish for, nothing makes a difference – like the tribes that encountered Western culture described by E. Becker in the epigraph, one may as well lie down and die. It’s a state fundamentally indistinguishable from severe and enduring depression.
Those who proclaim they are nihilistic and still go on about their lives as if nothing’s wrong are probably hedonistic, or have some kind of meaning they simply don’t call meaning. Or, they are like Anony Mole who appears to think that meaning is a psychological hack to staying motivated to live on, but ultimately hypothesising that there is no meaning at all.
For someone who doesn’t see meaning in life there’s another option, however. It is to defer meaning to one’s next life. In this sense, Christianity is a form of escapism away from nihilism.
In Christianity, the purpose of life is to live one’s current life in a certain way and attain entry into an alternate, “real and true” world – heaven. At first glance, it would seem that Nietzsche is overreacting by accusing Christianity of being nihilist. Christianity is full of ways that make this life meaningful. On closer reflection, the motivation behind acting according to the tenets of Christianity is that someone, from a place that we all really belong in, said that it is the right thing to do. This life is only a smoke and mirrors version of the blissful life in heaven. Nietzsche rejected true world theories as nonsense. He demonstrated that it was an assumption of his – and ultimately unknowable. Richard Dawkins says it’s intellectual cowardice to not come down on one side or the other. I think it is intellectual cowardice to not admit that there are certain things that we just don’t have a way of knowing.
Despite his rejection of true world theories, Nietzsche understood that they are the fabric that holds people’s lives together.
Of course, there are many more true world theories than Christianity, but it is the one that dominates the Wester world today. For example, Marxism is a true world theory – yearning for a future utopia. Nietzsche also argued that a Christian heaven helps the human sense of self: it is kind of validating to know that, really, one belongs in a special true world – not here.
Pema Chodron wrote about the psychology of our need for such a world in an accessible way. [There’s a funny story to go with that. I was sitting on the beach right after reading Chodron, reflecting on the ways in which we’re conditioned to want a fatherly God. An elderly man approached me and wondered if I was OK – I guess I must have looked distraught. It’s rather unusual for a man in his 80s to approach a random person on a beach, so I was wondering what’s going on. He didn’t say much, just asked again if I was ok and if I like reading. He reached to hand me a brochure – looking directly at me – and said only this one thing: “Oh, and there is a God”. I thanked him, mind-boggled. After he walked away, I looked at the brochure – turns out he was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn’t know they mind read.]
Besides turning to true world theories, there is another way to avert the pain of nihilism.
Like David Foster Wallace pointed out, there’s no such thing as atheism. We all believe something.
Science slowly becomes scientism and provides explanations for things it can and cannot explain. Following a political movement gives a sense of belonging. Our culture is a kaleidoscope of options for all tastes.
Nietzsche argued that asking the question “What is the meaning of life” and demanding an external answer by some superhuman authority diminished the value of the person asking – as if it comes from a lack one’s faith in their own ability to figure it out.
Nietzsche argued that nihilism arises when people get disillusioned with their default set of beliefs – let’s say beliefs that are inherent in one’s cultures – and take this disillusionment to more generally mean that no beliefs could ever be satisfactory.
This view of nihilism is once again almost indistinguishable from depression. Nietzsche expressed it best here:
“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.”
So what did Nietzsche himself think the meaning of life was? It was to realise one’s inner potential.
Nietzsche believed in radical responsibility: it is only ourselves who we have to blame if we miss our life’s calling.
To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”. Fear and laziness are our ultimate enemies. Incidentally, this sounds like it is straight out of Seneca’s writings. Nietzsche claimed there was a higher self, a kind of will that dragged us to become who we are. To me this is terribly reminiscent of a true world theory albeit one confined to the self and to this life. His method was through setting difficult goals pursuing which elevates the soul. Congruent with the traditions of Buddhism, Nietzsche argued that suffering isn’t inherently bad – and one doesn’t need to immediately try and fix it or worse, distract oneself away from it. It is an opportunity for growth and wisdom, according to Nietzsche.
I guess it comes down to awareness, adaptability and agency again. This whole piece makes me sound like a Nietzsche fan girl. In a sense, it’s true, but he was a bit too anti-social, self-contradicting and melancholic for my liking. I will put that in more analytical terms at a later stage.
You may want to read
*[To be clear, we’re talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it, or a projection thereof. This is one of the reasons humans are so naturally self-centred. David Foster Wallace describes it well here. As seen above, none of the major philosophies really even try to answer what the ultimate meaning of the universe is. This is probably because the question isn’t asked very often. This author is more interested in the tangible psychology of it – than the unknowable philosophy].
Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five. Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.
The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:
“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”
This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.
As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.
I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.
Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:
“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”
This really resonates with me.
Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.
It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.
Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.
The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.