In Praise of the Unexamined Life


‘us’ at work (photo by nancy white)

In recent years, this rambling blog has had two main focuses: (1) Trying to better understand how the world really works (and why as a result ‘saving’ our civilization culture from collapse and saving the world from the sixth great extinction of life is impossible), and (2) trying to better understand the essential nature of humans (and specifically and in that context, the essential nature of one human, the author).

The first focus has allowed me to move past denial that we are inevitably headed into a very difficult few decades that will leave the way our species lives utterly changed, and greatly reduced in numbers. And it’s enabled me to appreciate that we should give up trying to reform/change our culture and our behaviour and instead learn to become more resilient as individuals and as communities, to be prepared for cascading crises and the eventual collapse of civilization in the decades to come. As a result, this blog has shifted from being a prescription for making a better world to a chronicling of civilization’s tragic but unavoidable collapse.

The second focus has allowed me to appreciate that, despite the disaster our species has wreaked on the planet and the massive suffering and horror we continue to inflict on each other and other living creatures, we have done this out of ignorance and fear and trauma, not out of malice. We are, I have come to believe, a fatally flawed species, not an evil one. An evolutionary misstep, this development of a brain too large and powerful for our own and our planet’s good. Our brain has, out of its extraordinarily expanded capacity for invention, violence and fear, deluded us into believing it is us, and disconnected us from our a-part-hood with our true selves and with all life on earth, with ghastly consequences.

In order to understand my own trauma, fear, anger, grief, detachment and disconnection, I have been studying the processes that make me ‘me’, examining my life for clues on how to be less fearful, how to reconnect, how to be present and more useful to the world. Socrates first postulated “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Few people would choose to disagree (and those who might probably have never heard of Socrates). And there is great joy and solace in learning.

But now I am not so sure Socrates was right. All this self-examination has led me to self-dissatisfaction (notably with how much of my life I wasted doing what I was told and thought was the right way to live, and how incapable I seem to be to let go of the world inside my head and simply be, here, present, in the moment). I’ve concluded that my ‘purpose’ for living is to play, to just be, to enjoy and share the incredible beauty and the astonishing ride that is life on this planet. But I ‘knew’ that when I was just five years old. A half-century of self-examination and work has brought me back to the same knowledge and beliefs I had when I didn’t think about things, just accepted what was. And now I appreciate this, what else is there to ‘self-examine’?

The first inkling that my self-analysis was a fruitless undertaking arose when I realized we cannot be other than who we really are. Our attempts at “self-improvement” and “self-actualization”, I have come to appreciate, can only lead to disappointment and self-approbation, and are useless. Still, I thought, surely there is benefit in self-knowledge, in knowing who we really are, at least so that we can get rid of all the ‘not-us’ stuff our culture has layered on us and become, once again, truly ourselves?

So I know, now (at least I think I do) that I am a complicity of my body’s cells and organs, not an ‘I’ at all but a ‘we’. ‘Our’ mind, which I used to think was me, is just an evolved feature-detection system for this complicity, enabling ‘us’ to protect ‘our’selves from danger, find food and other resources for ‘our’ well-being, and move the mostly-water-filled bag that contains ‘us’ around when that’s advantageous for ‘our’ survival. And much of the contents of this bag is bacteria and other autonomous creatures, each with its own DNA and sense of ‘self’, creatures that are so much a part of ‘us’ that without them ‘we’ would quickly ail and perish. And all of the contents of this complicity are transient, coming and going regularly, to be replaced with new components that once were part of other creatures, or other planets.

And I know, now (at least I think I do) that our culture, with the best of intentions to look after the well-being of the whole group of human-shaped complicities on the planet, has attempted (with considerable success) to occupy my (‘our’) feature-detection system with concepts that are completely unreal, and in so doing to compel me (‘us’) to behave in ways that are often in conflict with what my complicity is trying to compel me (‘us’) to do, with traumatic and dysfunctional results. So I am (‘we’ are) trying to take back my (‘our’) body/self and be who I (‘we’) really am/are/was before being colonized by human civilization culture. And that’s really hard to do.

But what does this knowledge and self-knowledge get me (‘us’)? In a recent review of John Gray’s new (not yet released) book The Silence of Animals (more about that in future articles) John says “To adopt happiness as a goal actually makes people less adventurous. Far better just to try to live your life in an interesting and fulfilling way. Looking for your true self invites unending disappointment.” He argues that we don’t need, and don’t benefit from, a ‘purpose’ in life, and would be better off trusting our instincts of the moment to do what seems interesting and worthwhile. The title of the book refers, according to one reviewer, to the wisdom of looking at the world silently as an animal does, not with a mind towards how it might be better, but rather as it most wonderfully is. This, importantly, does not at all preclude the use of the imagination, but rather the focusing of the imagination on the fullness of what really is.

How does one do this, saddled with a human mind restless to think about the past, the future, the possible, anything except the here and now? As one of the book’s reviewers, Philip Hensher notes, the book presents a paradox: “to suggest that a human being could develop the kind of animal, present-tense registering mind of silence that John explores may or may not be possible…. Is it not another suggestion of how the mind of man might be improved?”

Perhaps the key to presence is not meditative practice or mental discipline, but just a willingness to pay attention, to wrap oneself (one’s selves?) up in what our senses and imagination can perceive of what is and what is happening outside, all around us, now. Or as the old 1960s motivational poster put it “Stand still and look until you really see”. With the eyes of a falcon, or a five-year-old child.

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14 Responses to In Praise of the Unexamined Life

  1. Sean Crawley says:

    Thanks a lot Dave. Just when I thought Socrates was right, you come and lay this on us.
    Love it

  2. Heather says:

    Here’s a video that brings your questions into a different focus in terms of brain hemisphere function, as experienced by a brain scientist when she had a stroke. Seems our culture has skewed us towards the rational thinking, past and future-focused, left brain, leaving us to make great efforts to shut it down and be in the right-brain-present-moment-transcendent-experience via meditation, drugs, extreme sports, sex addictions etc. I’d be interested in your thoughts after seeing it:

    I too am a child of the self-actualization movement and intense self-examination trying to find my life purpose etc. The diaries I used to keep!

    At one point I relaxed about it. Maybe it was when I was 42, dealing with post-childbirth complications and nursing my son, and enjoying feeling like a mammal and definitely living in the moment. Maybe I’ve just been too busy since.

    No, in fact, it happened a couple years before he was born; I remember a letting go, and discussing it with a Buddhist friend and realizing there just wasn’t that much to talk about, and he nodded wisely.

  3. Awesome post Dave!
    Totally agree with being present and mindful (or actually disengage the mind may be best). I get the “like an animal would be”. It often wonder why more people aren’t in awe of just what happens every day. I often remember my 5 year old daughter stop and watch a leaf fall from a tree, she was motionless and watched in wonder as the leaf fell, and when it hit the ground, she yelled with great joy, CRASH! Some life hardship has pushed me to a place where I try to be present everyday. Just watching, synthesizing, and doing the best I can to help… Inspiring post… I enjoy your perspective!

  4. Awesome Dave. I have always understood and practiced meditation simply as mindful awareness if what is. That s of course much different from contemplation, and both go hand in hand ( after all what are you doing when you are not being mindful?)

    It’s simple really. Just sit and notice that in sitting, everything is happening around you and it both enfolds and includes you and doesn’t need you at all. And that is a delight for me. That smallness, my being being no more or less important than the fern I am sitting next to, that is beautiful clarity to me.

    And it means nothing! Awesome.

  5. Dave, you say, ” (1) Trying to better understand how the world really works (and why as a result ‘saving’ our civilization culture from collapse and saving the world from the sixth great extinction of life is impossible), and (2) trying to better understand the essential nature of humans (and specifically and in that context, the essential nature of one human, the author).”

    Is (2) not identical with (1)? What are humans if not simply another manifestation of how the world really works? My own attempt to understand how humans work has driven me all the way back to the beginning of the universe, when impersonal forces like gravity and thermodynamics emerged to shape the face of reality. I think humans have become so overwhelmed by the awesomeness of our humanity that we have lost sight of the fact that we are still in the grip of forces far more awesome than the (occasional) ability to make a conscious choice. You might check out the work of Rod Swenson on Autocatakinetics. Fucked my mind up completely, that stuff did. Then it set me down right-side up, for the first time in my life. YMMV, of course…

  6. Jon says:

    Dave, stumbled across your blog – great work, bud… thanks for putting it out there.

  7. Cheryl Long says:

    Wow. I have never before even contemplated that we might be a fatally flawed species. That’s a really interesting perspective. Evolutionarily-speaking, we may not be fated to be around for all that long. What an interesting idea.

    That really does make the saying, “The meek shall inherit the earth” all the more pertinent.

    It’s that damned bloody ego that causes all the trouble!

    I’m convinced that living as close to nature as possible is the best way to live, so I am currently creating a life for myself as much ‘outside’ as I can manage. In doing that (and giving up television) I hope to re-connect with something, some essential part of myself that gets ‘hyperactive’ by too many electrical things around. At least that’s the plan today.

  8. Pawel Klewin says:

    First paragraph of your text demonstrates “the flaw” and reflects its dual essence: that there ARE two realms to understand:
    • the world that works like a mechanism (instead of the world that evolves and becomes) and
    • the separate “I” that sees and tends to understand (instead of the “I” that feeds back with the world being a part of it).

    From the flawed point of view the flawed theory of the flaw unfolds.

    On the other hand you are right we cannot be other than who we really are. But does it mean we have no margin of freedom? Does it mean the flawed worldview inevitably means the flawed species – flawed world?

    My experience in social networking tells me there probably will be no feedback from you (because of flawed understanding of information, communication and feedback?;)

    But if I were wrong please note I do not pretend to know the perfect definition or means to correct the flaw.

    I would like to discuss the taboo concerning our individual and common identity, entailing impotence of collective analysis of the shared flaw. There seems to be no open space for thought and discussion between the vision of fatally flawed, doomed species and “true self” connected to the true absolute reality (however named).

  9. John D. Wheeler says:

    This reminds me of a quote that I came across long ago that I have not been able to find again:

    “When I was young, I saw the mountain was the mountain and the sea was the sea.
    When I became a Seeker, I realized the mountain was not The Mountain and the sea was not The Sea.
    When I reached Enlightenment, I understood The Mountain was the mountain and The Sea was the sea.”

  10. Lauren says:

    The photo you use for this post and your allusion to being five-years-old illustrates perfectly for me a similar realization that I had. After getting a Fine Arts degree, I spent 15 years trying to promote myself in the professional art world and was even ‘president’ of a local artists co-op for two years. I had a studio upstairs from the gallery and after finishing a solo show in which I sold one work, ironically one that I did not think anyone would be interested in, I felt disillusioned with the whole process. I decided to vacate my studio and quit the co-op. I figured that I would not be an ‘artist’ anymore. Instead I just doodled in notebooks till I realized that the artist part of me wasn’t just going to go away. In fact I found my raison d’etre for creating had more to do with the sense of wonder I had as a kindergartner when allowed to put on the big shirt, and given a big paint brush to put whatever I wanted onto the large piece of paper. Instead of trying to figure out what the public wanted in order to sell my art, I started making it just to please myself. It’s made my life a lot more fun!

  11. Jason Hagenow says:

    Hi Dave,

    I am a huge fan of just being who we are and living life in the moment….crazy enough I came to this realization after reading “The Tao of Pooh.” I know it seems wierd but the little book is full of enlightened thoughts and are explained simply through that little bear and the experiences he goes through. Anyway thanks for the great blog post and hope you enjoy being your life each and every day!

  12. Christopher says:

    On the subject of the struggle for self-realisation, you might appreciate a link to my blog post today, Dave. Like you, I tend to write “walls of text”, so I understand if you don’t have time to read it, given your busy schedule. ;-)

  13. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, this website looks very promising from what I’ve read so far:

    btw someone linked to this in the comments to thearchdruidreport this week – The Archdruid has just started a series of posts on religious implications of peak oil – he has started with the death of God, soon to be followed by the death of Progress…should be great, and I trust you’re following it.

  14. bart raguso says:

    my friends, like a moth drawn to a candle, I come here to share my small perspective with several of the fine observations already made. Seeing that no one has any particular answers to the ‘dilema of Dave’, though I do like trying to relish each day as a child might, and also the ‘tao of Pooh’, I would like to suggest a possible approach may be to “see” ourselves and the world not with our overburdened minds but with our overfull hearts. It is true that man and woman are full of flaws,and our cruelty is well know (It is Easter you know) but for me that is because we insist on using our rational and self-critical minds to compare and to judge instead of using our thankful hearts to appreciate the wonder of being alive. We insist on seeing ourselves as separate and splitting reality into a billion little parts instead of seeing it as it really is, as one integral holy part, neither divisible nor fragmented. We insist on seeing it from our point of view instead of seeing it from the point of view of the holy Creator who made it perfect the way it is. We see ourselves as “things” and as a bag of complicities. But what if you see those symbiotic interactions with the rest of life’s vibrant living entities as evidence of how interwoven we all are with the greater tapestry of one whole thing that is spirit filled and sacred? What if all of life including ourselves was the living manifestation of some sacred yearning to embrace life, to touch each other, to celebrate this Holy Creation not of our making? What if instead of celebrating man’s works, we celebrated something we cannot define, the mystery of life on this rocky and watery and airy and fire-filled world?
    I would say, contrary to the atheist point of view, we remember God.

    Oh Lord, teach me to pray, help me to keep peace in my heart and to still my
    restless mind, help my renegade heart to allow Your beneign presence to live
    in me, let me not criticize my shortcomings or those of my brethren but to
    know I am only a mortal man trying to do his best in a world filled with
    abberations and idle distractions. Most of us seldom see Your perfect world in all it’s splendor, it’s finely tuned and finely graduated relationships, moving in a slow incremental dance, leaf responding to breeze and light, and on some unseen, magical molecular level, doing the work of life and accomodation to life as all sentient entities strive to make a place for themselves in this very concrete and material world; Life yearning to realize itself and to express it’s exuberant joy to be in the visible and tangible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We are not dark matter but irridescent sentient beings, each of us as holy as any part of All the rest of Your wondrous Creation. And even though we are oblivious of Your glorious world and works and live our lives with our eyes closed to Your beauty and wonder, we still belong to You and we are as Your children especially when we try to vainly prove how clever we are. And the more we deny You and ignore our true connection to our natural world, the world of precious life, the more confused we become, like a hermit who choses to live alone and apart from his fellows, becoming more embittered and unhappy, blaming everyone else for his own impoverished spiritual vision. For only by accepting our own little humble part in Your Great Creation do we begin to see it’s beauty and to realize what a miracle and a blessing it is to be alive. So keep me in my right mind, Oh Lord, and let me forget my mind’s silly concerns, and let me dwell in Your benevolent embrace for as long as my heart is willing to reach out and stretch out my strong helping hand to my fellow beings. Peace and Love, Dave, thank you for forcing me to ponder my deepest thoughts and feelings. Bart Raguso

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