Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
“The Stone,” the NYTimes forum on philosophy, ran a piece today of much interest to me. Entitled, “The Gospel According to ‘Me’,” the main theme was the current fad of seeking one’s authentic self.
The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!
This move to find heaven on Earth, while lessening the relationship to the Gods of traditional religions, has developed over a long time, starting after WWII.
Unlike the conversions that transfigure the born-again’s experience of the world in a lightning strike, this one occurred in stages: a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith — and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.
The article focuses on the quest for “authenticity.” I put authenticity in quotes to signal that this is not the meaning I use when talking or writing about flourishing, my designator of well-being. While not mentioning Maslow, the quest for authenticity is about the same as fulfilling his highest human need, that of self actualization. Maslow had, as most psychologists have, a narrow view of the self, as some sort of object located in the mind that drives one’s actions. This self seems to be what all the people discussed in the Times article are trying to locate and satisfy. The whole concept of an isolated self seeking only to pursue activities directed to its needs, while perhaps the dominant way of describing one’s inner life, leads to just the opposite to a sense of failure and emptiness. Such a sense has been ascribed to explain the hyper-consumption of our society.
A naïve belief in authenticity eventually gives way to a deep cynicism. A conviction in personal success that must always hold failure at bay becomes a corrupt stubbornness that insists on success at any cost. Cynicism, in this mode, is not the expression of a critical stance toward authenticity but is rather the runoff of this failure of belief. The self-help industry itself runs the gamut in both directions — from “The Power of Now,” which teaches you the power of meditative self-sufficiency, to “The Rules,” which teaches a woman how to land a man by pretending to be self-sufficient. Profit rules the day, inside and out.
Couple this to the notion that the quantity of material objects or the capability to acquire them is the way that “success” is measured today, and it is just a short step to understanding where the unsustainability of both the natural world and human beings comes from. This fate of humankind and the earth is preventable by a very simple change in the story of who we are. The concept of an authentic self existing only to find and satisfy itself in the world is just that—an idea. This self has never been found within the body even with all the modern mind-probing tools available to cognitive scientists. I mentioned an alternate idea of the mind, coming from the work of Antonio Damasio, a few blogs ago. It’s so important to an understanding of human existence, I’ll repeat it here.
The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent. Sometimes they are superposed. (Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, (note 7 to Chapter 1))
Taking a lead from his process-oriented definition, self is an ascription of the drivers of one’s actions in the world. Self, with such a process-oriented definition, arises from the actions one takes. To the extent that they form a coherent set of actions, observers, including the actor, can attribute them to a self or identity. But not a single self or identity. One’s authentic self cares about a few separate, but loosely distinct, domains, not just the narcissistic, self expression central to the cultural behavior discussed in the article.
Well-being is not found in the satisfaction of the self that lives only in the moment. It comes from paying attention to the existential domains that constitute the world every one of us is delivered into. Paying attention means taking care of those domains—acting to keep all in some state of perfection or completeness. Quite a job, and one that is not being done well judging from the sad state of humans and the rest of the planet. People are seeking this false authenticity because they lack a truly authentic sense of who they are. The article has a cartoon with the legend, “Church of self: Today’s sermon.—How to have it all and feel kind of empty at the same time.”
Key to this “sermon” is in the word “have.” As I have often written, a having concept of the self, coupled with the economic/psychological notion of insatiability, can go nowhere but to the exhaustion of the earth’s resources and to an existential emptiness in humans. The Buddhist notion of selflessness, the escape from the demands of one’s ego, fails to recognize the reality of being-in-the-world. Humans become who they are from their experiences in the process of growing up in a world that imbues meaning. Their connection to the world of phenomena, experiences perceived through the senses, is the source of meaning. Meaning arises in the practice of living from which we acquire our capabilities to cope with the everyday challenges that must be addressed and presumably solved. Otherwise they will keep emerging and prevent one from moving onto another problems. Problems in this context, are nothing more than undone or incomplete situations. This continuum of actions is what Fromm and Heidegger called being. Like Damasio’s mind, it is a process—a set of actions.
A kind of self can be invoked, but only as a metaphor. The being self is a reflective observer, always assessing the state of completion of the immediate acts of caring, determining whether to continue or move to another domain. Flourishing arises when the domains in the immediate past has been satisfied for the time being or are left in a satisfactory state so that the actor can shift attention to take care of another more pressing domain. Being, as a process, has no end state. Well-being, note the verbal nature of the term, is not some condition, but only an assessment of completion in a moment. Flourishing shows up when such moments occur with regularity.
Authenticity is also like mind a process-oriented concept. It is the selection of one’s cares from an understanding that who one is is a choice made at every instant. Authenticity recognizes the temporality and ephemerality of the identities associated with the chosen domains of care. We are a parent in one moment and a spiritual practitioner the next. Authenticity also accepts that we cannot always act successfully in all domains, that is, we may change our identities over time.
One might ask, “Why then do we not seek a true satisfying, authentic life? One part of the answer is that we act on our beliefs and our culture has embedded the having belief deeply in us. A second is that the institutions within we live are designed around this belief and others. Self-help has become a big business. Meditative practices that reveal the belief structure that drives one’s behavior are a start to change, but not when they are designed to reinforce the hold that having has on us. These beliefs are strongly culturally bound. Eastern spiritual practices can enhance one’s reflective capabilities, but need to be carefully examined in both the context of where they originate and of our own culture.
… At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others. As the ever-wise Buddha says, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
In reading this as a desirable way of being, one need note that there is a world outside of me and it is just as important to take care (attend with “love and devotion”) of it as myself. Buddha’s way of avoiding suffering was to remove himself from the world. The avoidance of suffering is not the same as flourishing, just as reducing unsustainability is not the same as creating sustainability.
ps. In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions on same sex marriage, perhaps we have come to realize that the emotion of love as an expression of the way we care for others preceded the invention of marriage by many millennia.