Nietzsche’s meaning

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.

Ernest Becker

What is nihilism?

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.

why we need meaning in life

Stoicism vs nihilism

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:

  • life is set in circumstances that we’ve no control over;
  • it is possible to get through life by working on our response – not on the circumstances;
  • there is no need to fear death because
    • it is just like the blissful nothingness that came before we were born;
    • it would, so to speak, “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”;
    • we didn’t earn life – it was given to us by circumstance. Hence, we cannot expect to hang on to it.

Nietzsche on meaning of life and nihilism

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.

Nietzsche on nihilism

Meaning by school of thought

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.

are stoics nihilist

A nihilist’s escape routes

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.

meaning of life nihilism

Searching for meaning is nihilistic

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.”

nihilism in christianity and stoicism Nietzsche

Prof. Nietzsche’s meaning of life

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.

Nietzsche on meaning of life

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.

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Kevin Simler’s reflections on meaning

Schopenhauer’s genius and mindful boredom

*[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].

“What… is water?” asks the fish

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

David Foster Wallace

I got into a merry debate with the lovely Pink Agendist about choosing day-dreaming versus being in the moment that ultimately elicited that we broadly agree: reality is a hugely interesting topic. In his touching speech, David Foster Wallace says :

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

In a disarming manner, he admits that he isn’t saying anything ground-breaking. His point, however, is that it is so hard to keep the important thoughts in front of us that they are worth repeating. It seems that from Buddhists to Seneca to Darwin, the main philosophical thought that resonates with me is: be aware and adapt. Even in his seemingly grim Letter 61, Seneca says:

Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness.

Few concepts send my mind into a spin like this. Part of me resists: humans accomplished what they’ve accomplished by defying their odds, not by accepting what is demanded of them. Siberia demands that you freeze to death or leave, for example. However, I think it is a misinterpretation on my part. Seneca is instead saying: find a way to use this situation. What is demanded is that one figures out how to chop wood and sustain a fire, so one has to manage themselves in such a way that they could do this eagerly and well. This one sentence explains the nature of cognitive behavioural therapy used today: changing one’s mind will change one’s emotions – and how one behaves. The point isn’t to idolise Seneca. I am sure that many generations of John the Caveman said it before him. The point is that the concept is as relevant today as it ever was.

Another part of me says: what are the circumstances – and what do they demand? I made a little graphic to show the nature of my confusion. Understanding the circumstances may require the sort of insight that I am not even aware exists.

developing self awareness though mindfulness

I haven’t figured out another way to get closer to understanding any of the above other than through mindfulness and reading the works of philosophers that stood the test of time. Even then, reading a philosopher’s thoughts is secretly wishing that someone else has it all figured out. This is another brilliant point that David Foster Wallace brings up: even if one doesn’t think that they have a religion, they still worship something – and have some kind of default setting:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Just like Pema Chodron explains, it is part of human nature to assume that someone else has the answer. After all, that is what we are conditioned to believe as children through the behaviour of adults – they always know best. When we ourselves become adults, that void is then filled with some kind of worship. The only way to snap out and have the ability to choose again, even for a moment, seems to be by being in the moment.

I am tangentially involved in game development and recently came across a game called The Stanley ParableIt involves a corporate employee and his choices. The game is incredibly philosophical, touching on the concept of choice and free will – and I couldn’t do it justice here. However, if you have nothing to do on a dark January night, it will rock your world.

Have a mindful weekend, everyone.

Do you have to learn about Buddhism to fully understand mindfulness?

The extent to which mindfulness and meditation are intertwined with Buddhism is disturbing for me. It’s not that already committed to another religion and feel defensive. I don’t hate or judge religion, or Buddhism especially, but I would rather not go there. When mindfulness teachers go on about Buddhism, how it is more of a philosophy, how it’s important in understanding mindfulness – I feel like a car salesman is selling me on a bunch off car accessories I determinedly do not need. Can I just get the car? Here, I just want the mindfulness, not the philosophical paraphernalia. Is it possible?

Yes. I went and studied what these people have to say. First of all, there are other religions that involve meditation, even Christian ones. The philosophies are completely different. This means that the philosophy is optional. Second, the ideas of Buddhism that are supposed to help you to understand mindfulness are echoed elsewhere, for example, in the writings of Stoic philosophers or more recently in the writings of Viktor Frankl. This means that the philosophy isn’t exclusive to Buddhism.

do-you-have-to-learn-about-buddhism-to-fully-understand-mindfulness

I have stripped down the relevant beliefs here:

  • There’s nothing certain in life. Certainty is an illusion. We will never achieve certainty. The reason why most people want to be wealthy is because they feel they won’t have to worry about x, y, z. In truth, wealthy people indeed do not have to worry about x, y and z – they now worry about a, b and c. Furthermore, things are always changing.
  • Thoughts and emotions happen to us the same way as the weather. Thoughts and emotions are like noises, smells and sensations. The mind is, among other things, a sensory organ. It perceives thoughts and emotions – we don’t have control over them, but we can control what we do about them. We control the beliefs that we have – for sure. This will have an impact on thoughts and emotions, but indirectly and over time. You teach yourself not to cringe at the smell of vomit, and you can teach yourself not to cry at the end of a sad film. However, the thoughts and emotions still come in from the outside in. Any kind of thinking is thinking.
  • Feeling happy all the time isn’t the goal. You should just observe how you feel without judging it. It doesn’t mean you can’t act on what you’ve observed, but you certainly shouldn’t act before you’ve acknowledged everything that’s going on. Assuming that you can – and should – always feel happy causes a lot of the pain we feel.
  • Escaping how you are feeling is pointless. It will just take longer to get past the challenges associated with how you are feeling. This is where the way they deal with resistance comes in. You can act to change your reality – they don’t call that resistance. However, not understanding reality is resistance. Most violence and bad things come from this resistance.
  • Mindfulness isn’t there to make you a better person or make you happy. It’s just a way to understand what’s going on.
  • You don’t have to feel a certain way to act a certain way. Since thoughts and emotions aren’t always in your control, it doesn’t make sense to wait for your feelings to be right to act. For example, you can go to work without being motivated.

do-you-have-to-be-a-buddhist-to-understand-mindfulness

Mindfulness and nihilism

I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism

– 1901. Friedrich Nietzsche

“Whether you worry or not, you’re still going to die. Live in the moment and don’t overthink it. Reject your nation, your religion and your family – in fact all traditional values are there to choke you.”

As a millenial, I feel that there is a lot of this kind of thinking, termed existential nihilism by some, inherent in my generation’s minds. It’s not that I feel compelled to defend or reject traditional values. It’s that many in my generation seem to reject them for the sake of rejecting them. Sometimes I feel like the world we live in remind me of the Brave New World.

On my first encounter with mindfulness and Eastern philosophy, it seemed nihilistic. In fact, many of my peers practice yoga and seem to reject the religions that are common in their societies, usually Christianity of some description. What many fail to realise, of course, that yoga and its associated spirituality is a filling the same need a religion filled in the past. For others, it is politics. The fervour with which people hold on to political beliefs is fascinating. They may not have a deity in the heavens, but they almost certainly identify with a historical figure or a modern day pharaoh.

mindfulness-nihilism-buddhism-cristianity

Eastern philosophy seems to abhor any kind of resistance and perpetually focus on the present. You know who only focuses on the present? The kids who had the marshmallow straight away. People on drugs. Criminals. People who don’t worry about the past and the future. What makes them different? I guess they have different values and no discipline. The East in all about discipline. Mindfulness is a perfect example of that – but it’s not really a form of resistance. It is a way of embracing the present moment rather than diving into whatever form of escapism is distracting us at that time. They seem to believe in acceptance, no matter what. For example, Pema Chödrön talks about two ways to go into a gas chamber: free or not free. For someone who detests nihilism, the only correct way is to die fighting long before he is faced with a gas chamber. Interestingly, Buddhists believe that anyone can become a Buddha – and powerfully affect other people’s lives. This doesn’t seem nihilistic at all, though getting there does. In fact, it’s really empowering. You can, kind of, be a sort of God. Buddhists also believe that understand reality is key. This means they accept that there is a true world – a belief inconsistent with nihilism. It’s not that the world is meaningless, it is that the meaning is ambiguous. This concept is too abstract for the kinds of circumstances that we humans usually use religion to deal with. That’s one explanation as to why while the religion may not be nihilistic – its followers tend to be. At the same time, I find it hard to see a Buddhist who is ambitiously crossing off items off his to-do list. Thinking of the future doesn’t seem to gel with Buddhism as it inevitably takes you away from the present moment.

On the other hand, in Western religions, we are told to forget about the present. It’s all about making it into heaven. There is a purpose. We’re all about resisting temptation in the West. Pure resistance. However, this is precisely the sort of thing Nietzsche called nihilistic. He claimed that Western religions get us to forsake our current life for a promise of a better life in heaven.

It turns out that it doesn’t matter: you can focus on the present or on the future. You can be all about resistance or not at all… And still end up a nihilist. A religious one, too.

Could it be that religion, and its substitutes, tends to attract people who are inherently prone to nihilism? Religion gives us the illusion that there is always someone to fall back on; that if we’re good, it will all work out. It’s a way of letting go of responsibility and finding explanations for everything. It is a way of finding someone who will lead us. Perhaps, looking for a leader is in and of itself a nihilistic thing. People who cannot find the inherent meaning and value of life look for ways to explain what it’s really about – looking for ready-made answers, where, perhaps, the only way to find them is by on your own.

Where does it leave us then with mindfulness? Mindfulness comes from a non-nihilist tradition. It’s about understanding the world. For most of us, the context is that we are either too concerned with the future or too preoccupied with escaping the present. Hence, it is a safe way to get a better grip on life.

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Mindfulness: must I practice acceptance?

 

Mindfulness: must I practice acceptance?

The concept of acceptance has been a tough one for me to grasp when it comes to mindfulness – for a long time. The term acceptance is hugely common in guided mediations and among yoga practitioners. Accept reality, accept how you feel, accept how others treat you, etc.

Maybe I am a finished type A, but I am not about raw acceptance, I said. I want things to be better, I said. There’s more to life than just accepting what’s there in front of me. To me human nature is all about agency, about having a direction and doing things that I feel will be good for those around me. Acceptance and growth seemed at odds. It’s some kind of nihilistic concept that Nietzsche’s last man would appreciate. I am much more about Nietzsche’s will to power. Will to power is another misnomer. It sounds like something a megalomaniac would be after. In actual fact, it is the will to overpower yourself and your circumstances in order to do something meaningful. I think we will all agree that’s a pretty important force. In a sense though, we are resisting reality rather than accepting it when we are moving in a chosen direction.

mindfulness meditation acceptance meaning

I think I am not the only one misunderstanding the term acceptance. In fact, it nearly put me off the whole mindfulness thing. I don’t want to wallow in the sometimes pathetic present with no prospect of things being better. I had this anxiety that if I accept things, I will lose my drive to grow. From what I gather, that’s a very common thing among people who are driven to achieve. Then I figured it out.

It’s an order problem. You need to accept things before you can figure out what you want to do about it. Frankly, I think acknowledge is a better term. You need to acknowledge reality before you can change it. Mindfulness is all about being closer to reality. It’s about breaking down assumptions and models and coming back to the hard data of what’s around us.

Our desire for things to be a certain way may cloud our perception of how things actually are. The point isn’t tolerating bad things and hoping that the universe will put things right. The point is being fearless to examine reality and not run away from it. To see the wood and the trees. To not take it personally when you realise that things aren’t perfect.

I am not sure that’s how Buddhists approach acceptance. However, it doesn’t really matter. I am not here to practice a religion or do things as instructed by some high priest – no matter how en vogue they may be. I am much more interested in figuring it out for myself – and for the rest of us who are trying to make a change for the better.