La Dolce Vita

“What is life?” seems to me to be a very important and fundamental question. The fabulous physicist (and creator of a famous schizophrenic quantum cat) Erwin Schrodinger wrote a non-fiction book with this title. But unlike my explanation, Schrodinger was keen to show how life was dependent on a whole lot of chemical and physical phenomena.

But life is substantially simpler than that. Our so-called life is nothing more than experience. We intuitively know that organisms that can experience the world in which they exist are somehow “alive”. We also know that animate objects that can no longer experience are in fact “dead”. We often hear of unfortunate people severely injured who can still breathe but who are pronounced “brain dead” rendering them unable to be aware and therefore have their life support systems shut down. We also acknowledge that inanimate objects that can’t experience are not alive.

But of course it is misleading to call human experience simple. Being an outcome of our consciousness it is probably the most complex and enigmatic phenomenon we are aware of.

Not every organism that we would acknowledge as alive has the same access to experience. Those without the level of consciousness of human beings must have limited sensory experiences.

And indeed even humans must access a wide range of experiential responses. As we shall see our experiential repertoire is dependent on the quality of our minds. This is tempered by both physical and psychological factors.

When a child is born its capacity to experience is reasonably limited. But whilst quite young our ability to experience begins to expand quite rapidly. We know that babies are learning at an early age to take in and interpret sensory perception. We know also that they are attracted to movement and face-like shapes. Such interest seems to be innate in all of us except a small minority whose cognitive function is impaired either physically or due to early emotional deprivation.

Very soon, perhaps the most important experience we are having relates to other people.

In our book, The Myth of Nine to Five Dr Phil Harker and I wrote about the needs that all humans have. And of course whilst our basic survival needs are about ensuring our continued access to food, drink, shelter and so on because of our consciousness our needs are far more complex than that. The quality of our lives is severely reduced if these needs are not met. Let me quote from our little text:


“As the child grows into adulthood there are three great sets of needs that dominate life, and satisfaction of these needs becomes the basis of the child’s sense of well-being.”


“The first set of needs is the physical needs, the needs we have in common with all living things. If we don’t supply our physical needs we die — physically. Fulfilment of our physical needs allows us to survive.”


“The second set of needs is the social needs, the needs we have in common with animals because, like animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to that world through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we don’t find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die— emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfilment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.”


“The third set of needs is the spiritual needs — needs for meaning, the uniquely human needs. We have these needs because, not only do we think and have an awareness of our social and physical world (just as animals do) but we also have a ‘watcher’ (what is sometimes referred to as the ‘spirit of our being’ [or in some eastern traditions as “The Witness”]) that gives us the capacity to ‘watch’ our own thinking and decision making processes at work; at least the conscious tip of these processes. Hence, we are self-aware and experience an inner psychological world as well as an outer material world. Because we can access and ‘look over’ our memory banks we are consciously aware of the passing of time and look for some continuity of purpose in what we do day by day. In other words, we have a need to understand the ‘meaning’ of our lives. If we don’t supply our spiritual needs and thereby fail to find meaning in our lives we can languish and die — spiritually (and sometimes socially and physically). This ‘spiritual sickness’ is sometimes referred to as mental illness, although this should not be understood in terms of something a person can ‘catch’, such as one catches the measles.”


“Fulfilment of our spiritual needs is necessary to a sense of personal worth. We must find meaning and purpose in our lives if we are to experience our full humanity. The meeting of these needs provides a sense of well-being that transcends the conditions of our immediate social and physical circumstances and thereby allows us to be better adjusted in our attitude towards such circumstances.”


Because of our self-awareness we are consequently faced with living in two worlds – “the world out there”, the physical world, and “the world in here”, the psychological world. And contrary to what many people think whilst we are dependent on our physical world for survival, and therefore continuation of life, our quality of life is largely determined by the quality of “the world in here”.


But even as much as we are driven to meet these essential needs we would be mistaken to believe that satisfying our needs leads to happiness. If I am hungry and I desire to satisfy such hunger with my favourite meal, say a lovely red duck curry, once I have eaten and this need is satisfied generally another quickly takes its place. If I desire a new car believing such an acquisition might bring me happiness and finally purchase one, I am initially elated – but within a month or two the excitement wanes. If my fervent hope is to get a promotion in my job, I feel wonderful when it is confirmed – at least for a week or so. If I have enrolled in a university degree course and studied assiduously for four long and difficult years, graduation is exhilarating. But shortly after, as I struggle to find employment, that exhilaration quickly wanes. And the whole scene is complicated by the fact that so many of us believe we have needs that are not needs at all but just desires that we come to believe are necessary to fulfil if we are to be happy. When we mistakenly associate our well-being with the fulfilment of such desires we are faced with the prospect of what the marvellous French Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, termed getting on the “hedonic treadmill”. We embark on this pointless undertaking because we mistakenly equate our material desires with our needs.


So, if life is experience, then it follows that a good life (or perhaps according to my essay’s title “la dolce vita” – a sweet life – should encapsulate good experience. If I am always obsessed by desires that seem to emanate from my unmet perceived needs my good experiences will be, as we saw above, at the best transitory.


Now I talked above about a “world out there” and a “world in here” but this distinction is illusory. In fact we always experience our exterior world in our interior world. Our body collects sensory perceptions of the outside world but all those perception come together in our mind to derive an experiential construct of the external world. Our mind is very much our internal theatre of all our experience. Beauty, colour, pain, ecstasy or whatever it is we experience is a construct of our mind. So when it comes to experience the mind is all you have – but that is not to denigrate the mind in any way because it is a peculiarly adept instrument. And what’s more, as I have pointed out in previous essays, the mind can be trained. It seems to me that how we interpret our experience to a large degree is determined by our state of mind. Consequently our state of mind, not our circumstances, is the prime determinant of whether we live a “good life” or not.


For millennia this has been known by the Eastern wisdom traditions of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. In many respects, these traditions, stripped of their various particular cultural edifices, are about training the mind. These traditions don’t impose a whole lot of dogma on their adherents which must be believed if they are to be “saved”, they merely propose various techniques that might be used to train the mind to reduce suffering and enhance well-being. There is a huge literature and substantial history to support this practice. And now, many serious researchers are confirming that these age-old practices are effective. One neuroscientist wrote:


“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds – and lives – are largely shaped by how we use them.”


Training the mind is usually pursued by meditation practice. The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable – or if perturbed easily regained. One of my heroes, the French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind”.


Now in case you believe that training the mind is just a particular strategy conjured up by Eastern ascetics and swamis, you would be interested to learn that research of Western cognitive scientists confirms our ability to do just that! For example, scientists from Britain and Finland report that people who have tertiary education decrease their risk of dementia by two thirds. And there is now substantial evidence to show that higher education, interesting work, a satisfying social life are among some of the things that contribute to our cognitive fitness! Other studies have shown the benefits of exercise and engaging leisure activities in this regard.


(I was tempted to make a sexist joke here and point out that it is not only women who are entitled to change their minds!)


Now most of us are unlikely to embark on meditation practice with the tenacity of the Buddhist masters such as Matthieu Ricard. Consequently we are unlikely to be able to emulate his extraordinary state of mind. It is probably somewhat misleading and perhaps impertinent of me to suggest this, because just like training for a marathon there are no shortcuts in training your mind, but I might anticipate some of the realisations that you might come to if you persisted with your training. This is not an exhaustive list nor is it written with any regard to the priority of importance of these realisations. It is however my contention that if you have  come to understand these principles your mind will be reasonably imperturbable by circumstances and thus imbued with a sense of ongoing equanimity (close enough to la dolce vita for me!).


Despite the efforts of your egoic mind to convince you otherwise, and whilst it might sound trite, the first realisation is that it is always now. If indeed life is experience, the only experience we can have is the one that we are having at this current moment. But you will say, “I have a past. I have memories of things that went before”. But think back about these precious memories. The only way you can experience them is by reconstructing them in a way you can re-experience them now! Whether you had these experiences or not really does not matter because their only salience exists because you are re-experiencing them now. Your past is important to your egoic mind because it wants a special narrative to show your uniqueness. But your memories, such as they are, only have importance because you can reconstruct them as an experience to be savoured now! Do you have a future? Well again your egoic mind will try to convince you that this is the case. But seeing as the only reality that you can experience is your current reality any future you posit is again a construct of your imagination. But this concept of the future, when do you experience it? Just like your memories the only experience you can have of it is now!


Eickhart Tolle explains:


When you live through the ego, you always reduce the present moment to a means to an end. You live for the future, and when you achieve your goals, they don’t satisfy you, at least not for long. When you give more attention to the doing than to the future result that you want to achieve through it, you break the old egoic conditioning. Your doing then becomes not only a great deal more effective, but infinitely more fulfilling and joyful.


The Eastern wisdom traditions encourage you to live in the present, because that is all you have. The various techniques prescribed to increase “mindfulness” are about improving our awareness and learning to live in the “eternal now”. Anthony De Mello, the Indian Jesuit priest, psychotherapist and spiritual teacher who I have frequently quoted in previous essays called this process “waking up”!


The next lesson that our mind training leads us to is an understanding  that our long term well-being is associated with detachment. Now most people imbued in the materialistic culture of consumption initially misunderstand detachment. They take it to mean we must eschew all pleasure and passion. At its basic level detachment is just the understanding that nothing in our external world can bring us an enduring sense of well-being – whether it be relationships, possessions, status, or whatever. We all know of people possessed of great equanimity despite their deprived circumstances and even more frequently people who live lives of despair in the midst of great material plenty. Well-being is largely  a state of mind that we can attain irrespective of our particular circumstances.


But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take pleasure from dinner at a good restaurant, the enjoyment of good company, or the appreciation of a fabulous wine! We should in fact savour these experiences but understand that whilst they give us a short term “hit” they don’t provide a platform for long-term well-being.


Another fabulous lesson that training our minds delivers to us is to put aside the egoic self.


Let me quote Eickhart Tolle again:


The mind is incessantly looking not only for food for thought; it is looking for food for its identity, its sense of self. This is how the ego comes into existence and continuously re-creates itself.


The good Dr Phil explains that it is natural that most of us identify with our bodies – that seems to be who we are. But once we identify with our bodies we are immediately identifying with something ephemeral – as Phil says we seem “mortal, attackable and rejectable”. Consequently we live in fear. The egoic self is a construct to defend that perception.


Or again quoting Tolle:


When you think or speak about yourself, when you say, “I,” what you usually refer to is “me and my story.” This is the “I” of your likes and dislikes, fears and desires, the “I” that is never satisfied for long. It is a mind-made sense of who you are, conditioned by the past and seeking to find its fulfillment in the future.


Can you see that this “I” is fleeting, a temporary formation, like a wave pattern on the surface of the water?


The egoic mind fashions this defensive concept of self largely by self-talk. The incessant chatter in your mind is continually reinforcing the self-concept and constructing and deconstructing anecdotes, thoughts, impressions, feelings and whatever in support of the ego. When I am fearful it is important that I use whatever resources available to prop up my sense of self.


But what we are faced with here are some perceptual and conceptual delusions that have occupied the attention of the sages over the millennia.


It was natural for a human being to look down at that package of flesh and bones that seemed to accompany them wherever they went and come to the conclusion that “I am a body”. (For a quirky amusing but insightful take on this concept it is worth reading a little volume by the British architect Douglas Harding titled On Having No Head )


But the defining characteristic of human beings is not their bodies but their minds. We are uniquely self-aware and are therefore conscious. As we saw above we have to not only deal with a “world out there” but also a “world in here”. The cognitive revolution was famously started by Descartes with his famous proclamation cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”). After this humans began to identify more with their minds than their bodies.


Let me share with you a few paragraphs from our little book The Myth of Nine to Five on the subject.


“As a human being, I not only have the animal like capacity to be aware of, and make responses to, my environment, my body, and my social world, but I also have the capacity to be aware of my own thinking. I have selfconsciousness.


This capacity changes the whole ballgame, for, although it introduces the possibility of making a real choice in relation to narcissistic love-of-self versus the unconditional love-of-another, it also introduces all the problems related to the human ego and the defence of the ‘self’ as briefly discussed in earlier chapters.


Sir Wilder Penfield, the renowned British neurosurgeon, spent decades cutting and probing human brains (while the patients were fully conscious). He would ask them what they had experienced, when, for example, their arms would move or words were uttered as he probed. They told him that it seemed to them that they were voluntarily performing actions even though they knew that it was the result of his probing. Penfield coined the idea of a ‘watcher’ in the brain that enabled the person to observe the process of his or her own thoughts and decisions, but which was, of course, not able to be aware of itself.


Because the ‘watcher’ cannot watch itself, we tend not to be aware of either its presence or its role, but it would seem that it has a greater role to play than objectively observing like some sort of internal security camera. It is watching with a distinct bias, and this bias influences the way in which the mind (the second level of our human make-up that we have in common with animals) interprets, analyses and reacts to its environment.”


(As stated above, what we termed “The Watcher” in this text is often called “The Witness” in Eastern traditions.)


Now, as we saw above, the mind is the principal theatre of the ego which incessantly bombards us with thoughts largely designed to prop up its fragile sense of self. A well-trained mind can shut down those thoughts. We face a problem here similar to that we faced with detachment because some thoughts are useful in helping us live meaningful lives. Our ego however floods our minds with unhelpful thoughts that are mainly designed to support the ongoing narrative of the ego.  It has been demonstrated that our well-being is enhanced by an ability to still the endless chatter that the ego imposes on our minds.


A mind in order can reduce the traffic that the ego imposes on it and allows us to bask in the unsullied presence of the Witness. We can then become to understand that we are essentially not our bodies or not our minds. Our bodies age and die. Our thoughts come and go. The only constant, the only anchor we have is the enduring presence of the Witness. When we understand that we can put the egoic self aside and once we do that what can possibly disturb us?


La Dolce Vita was a famous movie of the 1960’s directed by the famous Federico Fellini. It featured a series of episodes involving the Italian star Marcello Mastrianno as Marcello Rubini. It portrayed a  man seeking happiness from multiple sexual dalliances, living the high life and seeking status. Predictably he did not succeed! I hope I might have shown you there can be a more rewarding path. But just like the proponents of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta I am not trying to preach to you.

Let me finish by quoting the incomparable Anthony De Mello again.

“Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up. That’s the reason that the wise guru will not attempt to wake people up. I hope I am going to be wise here and make no attempt whatsoever to wake you up if you are asleep. It is really none of my business, even though I say to you at times, ‘Wake up!”. My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it , fine! If you don’t, too bad! As the Arabs say, ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes, and flowers in the gardens.’”


One Reply to “La Dolce Vita”

  1. Gen Y seem to have a greater outward focus on living in the now than any previous generation that I can recall. There certainly seems to be little preparation for a future and an almost universal focus on living for now. “You only live once” seems to be the mantra. It is also a generation that is having record levels of psychological problems. Clearly their pursuit of happiness today and to hell with tomorrow is entirely material and there in lies the problem. A whole generation has fallen victim to modern marketing. Everywhere they look they see in popular media what happiness is. It is the expensive clothes, car and other material items.

    Your message is a good one Ted but it has never been tougher to put it into practice though. I think waking up was a lot easier for a goat herder than a share broker.

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