Self-Realization and Ecology
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
I generally take what you could call an ecological approach to problem solving. I don’t believe in forcing a solution onto a problem except when it’s absolutely necessary to do so (as it sometimes is). Instead I would rather harness the natural forces in the situation to take care of the problem, and I would take a hard look at what I or other people are doing that might be creating the problem in the first place. This is the way I look at human self-realization. The path to your highest self consists largely of getting out of your own way and then following your natural desire for awareness. There's a lot to unpack in these two steps, but the solution still comes from within.
The alternative to the natural approach is the force-fit. I think that that way of solving problems is emblematic of the worst of Western thinking. Consider the way in which government urban renewal destroyed thriving neighborhoods in the 1960s The force-fit can be very powerful, but it can make problems worse. Consider the "tiger parent" whose authoritarian and love-withholding regime fosters academic success but apparently at the cost of psychiatric problems. That’s the force-fit. But at the English school Summerhill (to take an example I read about as a boy), no child is forced to do anything (beyond obeying certain elementary safety rules). Many stay away from classes at first, sometimes for months. But eventually their natural desire for learning and the atmosphere of trust that has been built up motivates them to go.
Adult examples abound: heart surgery is the force-fit. Healthy eating and exercise are the ecological solution But you need to find a way to make healthy food and exercise pleasant. Ascetic diets and running on a treadmill like a caged hamster would be force-fits. You might need something like a force-fit to get one out of a bad rut and into a good one, but ultimately one should find a "rut" where what is good for you corresponds with what makes you happy so that the good habit becomes "natural." Understanding what constitutes healthy food and exercise is the best of Western thinking.
I know some of my libertarian readers are going to bristle at any positive mention of ecology because they associate the term with the anti-freedom aspects of environmentalism (some of which may be a necessary force-fit), but if you look at the conceptualization, you will see that it is valid and useful even to libertarian thinking. For example, the self-correcting free market is a kind of ecological system, and government intervention is the force-fit that is only occasionally called for. This pattern holds in many other areas of life as well.
Just to be clear, the "natural" very often requires a process of discovery and an effort to focus on what one knows and follow it. I'm very much not talking about following the path of least resistance. But focus is natural for human beings—if they care about the truth.
In a general sense self-realization means actualizing the potential that was within you from the start. Most people, present company included, are not realizing that potential at all times. You could say that they are not "becoming who they are." I know I "settle" sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, for something less than the optimum. Of course, the spark is always present at the center of everyone, but it is often nearly smothered by lazy thinking, hype, chatter, blocked focus, and so forth, so we just don't always reach the level of self-awareness necessary to transcend these obstacles. The heart of self-realization is a special kind of self-aware living.
In trying to realize the self, the force-fit would be to "try real hard" and feel guilty if you fail to live up to your self-inflicted ideal. The ecological approach is, to begin with, to find what Richard Nixon of all people called "peace at the center." Just calmly be. Set aside the voices in your head. Only move when you can do so from a position of self-assurance so quiet that it is almost unself-conscious. This I call being centered. When you're ready to, focus on yourself as a three-dimensional person in a three-dimensional world. You are not just a stream of consciousness: you and the world really exist. The etymology of "to exist" is "to stand forth." Project yourself into the world. If you are going to realize yourself you have to "be there." This I call presence.
The centered, present individual can clear a space for herself so that she can become the "I" in life's hurricane. She can be subjective about herself and let her feelings permeate her person and at the same time be objective about herself by not letting them control her.
Now you are closer to self-realization, and you are ready to align your plans with your deepest values, both with those values that come from your nature as a human being, such as a need for meaning, and with those values that come from your particular talents and history, such as becoming a carpenter or a physician or a parent (or all three). This process involves effort, but if you do them from the inside, it is not a force-fit. Work is not in and of itself a force-fit. And the reward for your effort is a wonderfully paradoxical self: defined yet unfettered. The paradox is that your real freedom is your freedom to find your path to your truest self. Deviate from the path of self-realization and you will be controlled by incidental forces in your life.
There is still more to this process, of course. If you are like most people, you will need to identify some bad fantasies, concepts, and habits in one's life, check them against reality, and perhaps find ways to discard them. However, doing this in a centered, present state is a whole lot easier and natural than in a hyped-up state, or a dull-gray duty-ridden state, or in whatever state you might conjure to get away from your real, free self. This identification and discarding of bad concepts and habits once again involves an effort, but it need not be a force-fit if you regard it as a journey of discovery rather than an occasion to castigate yourself for any previous ignorance or error.
Just to mention my favorite example of an error, some people believe they need to be cool, i.e. ironic, superior, ahead of the curve. This belief is based on the conviction that life is meaningless unless one can attune oneself to some sort of cosmic wavelength that other people cannot hear. But if one realizes that there is no cosmic wavelength, no zeitgeist in any reified sense, then one is thrown back on oneself, and then, hopefully, one will begin to confront the fact that trying to be superior to others does not remedy the feeling that one is inferior to others. Ideally, one will stop making comparisons at all and choose to find the little things that give life authentic meaning, until the point is reached where one can find/build the big things that do. And at the highest level, finding values and building values are two sides of the same coin because they are twin aspects of self-realization. Giving up the ego satisfactions of cool and starting over from where one stands is a very ecological process indeed. It is what I mean when I say "Become who you are."
Now, I don’t mean to imply that the Good Life can be achieved by mere commonsense and feeling your way through to your goals. Feelings, emotions and impressions by themselves cannot tell us what is true, although they are indispensable aids to the process of exploration. Explicit philosophy and abstractions are of fundamental importance to the task, although many people resist abstractions and want to live life on the "everyday" level. But there's no escaping the need for philosophy.
Perhaps the most important example of a philosophical principle is Ayn Rand's axiomatic concept of the Primacy of Existence, which states that reality is independent of consciousness. A great deal of frustration comes from ignorant or willful defiance of this principle, from trying to shape the world by pure wish. An instance might be someone wishing they would do well on an exam when they haven't prepared for it. The wish-based force-fit would be desperately cramming on the morning of the test and crossing their fingers. The ecological, reality-based solution would be to absorb the material as they encounter it.
Not accepting that reality is independent of one's wishes could also lead me to try to change myself by pure wish. Having free will does not mean that I can will just anything I want about myself. I have a nature and am free only within its bounds. I cannot, for example, be sadistic to my employees and a loving family man at the same time, no matter how much I try to convince myself of the contrary. The internal dynamics of care and control render it impossible. This sort of contradiction chokes self-realization off at the source.
But one should take care: abstractions are like fire, beautiful and useful when handled properly; dangerous, when not. As much as good philosophical principles can help you discard error and find truth and thereby help you to realize yourself, such principles must be lived "from the inside," as it were, and not be forced onto your life.
Suppose you think of or hear about a philosophical proposition that sounds intriguing, something on the order of "meaning is more important than happiness." Try to force either the affirmative or the negative onto your life based on purely verbal logic and you will become dogmatic and repressed. Instead, take the ecological route. Check the proposition against your lived experience and gently question the proposition. Then check your lived experience against the proposition and gently question your interpretation of your experience. You might have to adjust the proposition or reinterpret your experience, perhaps drastically. In the end the proposition may simply be false or your thinking about your experience may be self-deceptive. Keep an open mind. Practice curiosity and self-compassion. You will probably have to appeal to more fundamental principles or to a wider context. Continue to oscillate until your conclusion makes logical sense and experiential sense. Don't give one or the other priority unless you absolutely have to. Engage in a dialogue for one, moving from vantage point to vantage point. This is what it means to live a principle from the inside.
I think the reader can discern my high esteem for philosophy. But I hope it is also clear that I believe philosophy and its abstractions serve life, not the other way around. Just as there are people who think philosophy consists of nothing but rationalizations unrelated to "real life" and who honor their raw experience too much, so also are there people who force-fit their undigested philosophical principles onto their lives. I am arguing for a golden mean between these two extremes.
Philosophy helps our natural, undeveloped, "proto-rational" inclinations such as the desire to be loved and the desire to master skills—desires that aim roughly at life—to find their proper ends and forms, but those natural inclinations and our excitement for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it. We cannot fully realize ourselves without a philosophy that is at least halfway good (although it might be tacit) but the "material" to be worked is our inborn values. Philosophy organizes and integrates our naturally felt values and puts us in a position where we can self-consciously affirm the enterprise of living that is implicit within them. Ongoing life-affirmation is a key component of self-realization.
This way of looking at things leads to reasoned passion, as opposed to passionless reason and reasonless passion, the second and third being erroneous extremes that are caused by a misunderstanding of reason and human nature. A good example of this dynamic is the transformation of lust into romantic love. At puberty an adolescent might feel a desperate urge to start having sex, but good, though probably largely implicit principles will hopefully lead him or her to develop respect for his or her sexual self and his or her potential partner's so that sex is integrated into mutual idealization and attains its highest form. Passionless "reason" here might mean celibacy, usually underwritten by ideas about sex being "dirty," while reasonless "passion" would probably mean promiscuity. I use the scare-quotes because neither reason nor passion is authentic without the other. Romantic love is the golden mean.
I hope the reader can see that even though I emphasize reason and philosophy so much, I have no desire to discount feelings. I do speak of inclinations and passions after all. We would not be human without our feelings. Feelings, by which I mean emotions, impressions, intuitions, the felt sense, hunches, gut feelings, and so forth, are the interface between unconscious and conscious cognition and valuing. We are evaluative and "sensing" beings as much as we are intellectual beings. We need to embrace these functions of ourselves and use these functions to help us explore the world.
We do not have to be "perfect" to be realized. We may need to do special work in our emotional lives, for example, in dealing with trauma, but my point is that we can still attain our potential even though we have work to do as long as we are willing to think philosophically, by which I mean not studying the history of philosophy, but thinking for ourselves about first principles. In all my talk about self-awareness, however I do not wish to imply that one can be fully mature without shouldering adult responsibilities and building a life in reality. Self-awareness is mere navel-gazing if one doesn't take it out into the real world. But conversely, being responsible without realizing the self is a form of torture.
As you can hopefully see from a few examples, philosophy for me is not merely an intellectual exercise. But the philosophical life must be approached ecologically so that self-realization can be, too. Mature philosophizing requires a certain kind of reason that, with the proper preparation, should come naturally: Stay focused, centered, and present. Feel your feelings and let them permeate you. Listen to your gut but don't give it the last word. Breathe calmly. Use your head. Use common sense, logic, and intuition. Use curiosity and empathy. Use your whole self, for it is the whole person that knows—and lives—the whole, not just a part, not even the part inside your skull. This practice, this manner of existence, goes beyond verbal logic alone—as essential as that is—to what I call robust rationality.
Robust rationality is good for all problem solving, but I should add that you can still be robustly rational, when you are in a less self-aware "flow" state, or even when you are relaxed and not engaged in problem solving at all. It is not about heroic striving 24 hours a day. After you train yourself in the practice, it does not have to be an active process. Robust rationality has a "resting potential" that is experienced as being centered in an open and peaceful way.
We have finally come to the crux of the matter: Robust rationality is not just a tool for solving problems, not even a tool for achieving self-realization. Its value is not merely instrumental. The self-conscious practice of robust rationality in the specific context of one's life is the core of self-realization. Such ongoing activity is the beating heart of what it means to be a mature human being. It is an end in itself, and in its exercise one becomes who one is. This is the basic ecology of human consciousness.
So, engage, but stay relaxed, and remember that there is no "right answer" until you find it for yourself. Don't hold yourself to a standard of perfection. (I know I'm not perfect.) Approach the process with wonder, which, as Plato and Aristotle agree, is the beginning of philosophy. Keep in mind that while abstractions are nothing more than ways of organizing specifics, specifics cannot be understood without abstractions. Be true to both. Real truth, the truth worth knowing and living by, is not a force-fit, but is and feels natural. Live life from the inside. Avoid the force-fit except when it is absolutely necessary. And love life and the you who you are becoming.
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(This essay was originally published in 2020 under the title "Authenticity and Ecology." It has been substantially revised since then, and the most recent revision was on June 28, 2021.)