It has been over a year since I wrote on this blog page. There were a number of times I tried to write, whether for the blog or for other outputs, but I just didn’t feel it. So I decided not to. I enjoyed that decision. Whenever I try and force things, I find they’re often not as enjoyable. Sometimes I seem to put pressure on things that really don’t have to have pressure, overthinking outcomes or outputs. Whilst some element of foresight and planning can be useful, I find an increasing joy in undertaking a task for the sheer sake of undertaking it. It’s a continual process to find the balance but I find overall joy when living a flexible flow.
I was recently asked a question about whether I am inquisitive and part of me experienced the question as also asking whether I want to find answers, to any range of questions. My mind was blank; I found it difficult to respond in that moment and so opted for the answer “I don’t know”, which felt okay.
A couple of hours later, a phrase popped into my head in response to this question – “I used to want to know, now I like to learn”. This response immediately resonated with me. It may have arrived in slightly different wording at first, but it reshaped into those words. I’d like to explore the words by separating the sentence and comparing two parts alongside each other;
- I used to want to know
- Now I like to learn
“I used to” vs “Now I”
Here, I’m struck by the change in tense. The first part is past tense, i.e., I used to do something, whereas the second part is present tense, i.e., now, it is always now. For me, this highlights the importance of the present moment, of working with what is arising in this moment, though it should be added that by combining the two parts into one whole sentence, ‘now’ gives a sense of recognising the role of the past in the present, to a point.
“want to” vs “like to”
Here, there is a change in the amount of clinging and desire which pervades my life. I continually work to remove the necessity of wants and needs, and try to find joy and passion in each thing that I do; I experience more peace when I reduce trying to achieve or accomplish things; instead I focus on undertaking the present task and actually, I find I still undertake all ranges of challenges and new experiences throughout all aspects of life, with a bit more peace.
“know” vs “learn”
I don’t know if anything can be truly known. Similar to ‘want’ and ‘like’, I find this distinguishing of “know” and “learn” represents my efforts to release the suffering that comes with wanting to know. I find that when wanting to know something, I create this narrative of being somebody who knows something, and I can end up attaching to ideas in a desperate search to prove something to be right. I may even end up trying to know something that I don’t even wish to know – consequently, I lose focus on enjoying that which I am doing.
By holding the perspective of everything being something to learn, with no over attachment to an end goal or end product, I find myself open to new ideas, new subjects of learning, and I find I am less offended if an idea or thought I have is challenged, allowing me to further learn from other people, reshaping and remodelling my views and experiences.
After publishing each chapter of the book here in the blog section, I have now created a separate link for it so it has its own section on the website, making it easier to read in an orderly fashion. You can find this at the top of the website. I will likely return back to random blogging entries in this section.
However, in the spirit of where I currently find myself in life, I have nothing to say at this point. My thoughts circle away but I currently do not wish to engage them, its much more peaceful just taking each second as it comes. I'm sure I'll return to write at some point....
As a side note, I've just realised I'm publishing this on 31 December...Happy New Years :)
What is life? A 21st century perspective
by David Goss
Chapter One - What is life? : Introduction.............................18/8/16
Chapter Two - What is life? : Romantic Love.........................10 /09/16
Part II......................................................................................10 /09/16
Part III.....................................................................................18/11/2016 (added to chapter below)
Chapter Three - What is life? : Friendship and work..............19/11/2016
Part I....................................................................................... 19/11/2016
Chapter Four - What is life? : Free will, fate and religion.........20/11/2016
Part IV....................................................................................... 20/11/2016
Chapter Five - What is life? : Final reflections............................(today) 9/12/2016
Part I...........................................................................................(today) 9/12/2016
Part II..........................................................................................(today) 9/12/2016
What is life? : Final reflections
And so where does this leave us? There is no doubt many more topics and many more nuances and details within the topics I have covered which could be discussed, but it feels right to close my writing at this point. It would be nice to amalgamate the topics I have written into a finite conclusion to the question of ‘what is life?’, but it would be naïve of me to think that I could answer that. In comparison to the earth we have not existed for a great length of time as a species. We have much to learn about all forms of life. We are at a point in time whereby our best hope is to continue developing, continuing to ask and seek answers to many questions, including the meaning of life. But at this stage and for the foreseeable future, it seems appropriate that we seek with a sense of accepting that we do not know. That way, we remain open to learning.
Chapter Five: Part I
I wrote this book to increase collective thinking, why?
I wrote this book because I wanted to present a 21st century perspective on some of life’s common topics, at least from the perspective I have so far lived. I am interested to hear what you think of my reflections and I am equally interested to hear what your own views are. One of the great things about democracy is that it promotes the idea of hearing a range of views, pooling the collective data to come up with an idea, action, decision etc., which feels as if it serves the greatest purpose for all (though some would argue that this does not always occur). As I said in the introduction, I have yet to have a discussion with somebody on the topics covered in this book, whereby I felt each party did not enjoy such a discussion. I find psychotherapy so rewarding because I get to travel on all sorts of deep and meaningful journeys with people. As such, by writing this book I have been able to enjoy excavating my own thoughts and feelings in hope that you will have enjoyed reading them and importantly, that you will have had a chance to reflect on your own ideas. It is possible that there may be people out there with great ideas about all sorts of things, each of which could contribute to the life experience of many people in a positive way. If I was to find out that just one person was influenced by this book in a way that it shaped their direction in life, that it influenced any element of decision in their life, whether it is their career, relationship, or decision to prioritise Chinese food more or less in their life, then I will feel happy.
The greatest shifts in evolution often involve a collective action. It is the action of the many which propels and develops our species. As such, my hope is that the contemporary dialect of this book may provide a different set of views for current thinkers to ponder, as well as open the philosophical door to many more people of our generation, as we continue to integrate disciplines across science and philosophy in a search for understanding the questions of life. This is why it does not matter that questions have been left unanswered or that many have not been asked. The focus was not to end conversations with my writing, but to create them.
What, if anything, do my reflections propose about life?
As I reflect on what I have written, I am struck that there are a series of common topics which I have suggested are part of feeling good. Is feeling good the aim of living a fruitful life…is that how we determine the meaning of life, i.e., to feel good?
What does it mean to feel good?
I speak of this from a philosophical sense, rather than hard science. To answer this question requires a definition of ‘good’. For this, I will borrow from Buddhism. For me, 'good' relates more to peace, though each person may find their own word for peace. I recently conversed with somebody over coffee and for them, ‘contentment’ felt like the best description. The key is distinguishing this sense of peace and contentment from pleasure. My description of peace is a feeling of being centred within one’s self. Sometimes we will feel positive emotions and sometimes painful ones. But so long as we view these as impermanent occurrences, always changing, we can ground ourselves in a centred feeling of peace, living in the moment of life. The reality is that negative emotions can be good for us. Feelings of depression and anxiety are alerting us that something is not right; the tricky bit is trying to decipher what that is. Or, perhaps we are aware, but we are afraid to change, afraid to trust what our body is guiding us to do (see discussion on OAOB in chapter four). Peace involves finding balance in every moment and recognising this moment as our reality.
We have the potential to find peace in all that we do, so long as we live in the moment and not in the worries and anxieties of our ruminating mind. I would rather direct you to other books (e.g., Gunaratana, 2001) for elaboration on these points, rather than enter that discussion here; however, I would like to provide an example of how this sense of peace and pleasure can be distinguished scientifically. You may recall the dopamine and oxytocin discussions I covered in chapter three. I suggested that dopamine is a neurotransmitter which plays a big role in the feeling of pleasure. We know we ‘enjoy’ something because a release of dopamine tells us so. However, there are times when a dopamine release can be detrimental to us. We can become addicted to trying to achieve dopamine releases, e.g., through drugs such as alcohol or foods like chocolate (yet alone cocaine and other hard drugs). I read about a piece of research in which scientists placed a lever in a rat’s cage (Olds & Milner, 1954). Whenever the rat pressed this lever, it received a stimulation which activated a pleasurable feeling by stimulating the part of the rat’s brain involved in releasing dopamine. The rat continued pressing the lever up to 2000 times an hour for 24 hours, ignoring the need to eat, drink, sleep or mate, as it was so focused on achieving the pleasure hit. As humans, we have an enhanced cortex which means that our brain is able to see the bigger picture, reducing the chance to be caught up in this pleasure seeking suicide. But, it is still possible for us to get slightly caught up in the process. This further iterates the benefit of finding a middle ground, locating one’s self closer to a sense of self that can take a more peaceful view on life and acknowledge the messages of emotion without necessarily being a slave to them. The obvious rebuttal here is that I may be suggesting we should ignore and avoid emotion – this is definitely not what I am saying. It is vital to be conscious of our emotions, to be able to hear the internal messages of our body, they are a key to our survival process and they propel the fruits of life and the passions of art. I am in danger of entering into a wild tangent here so I shall centre back to my point. It seems that a sense of feeling ‘good’ or ’happy’ is an important aspect of living life, but it is possible that we need to define what we (notably in the West) define as ‘good’ and ‘happy’; perhaps the key is to seek balance rather than extremes.
Sometimes peace can be mistranslated as being passive but this need not be the case. Being at peace does not necessarily mean that we are in a lethargic and slow moving state; we can find peace amidst a bungee jump, during exercise, intimacy, and in every other activity in the world. In an example of being attacked by somebody wielding a weapon, a peaceful state could allow us to recognise the feelings of fight or flight which will occur for us; we can then make a streamlined decision to run for it or to approach our attacker to disarm them. But even the latter choice can still be peaceful; we can try to disarm in a manner in which we do not set out to intentionally harm, or we may try to use words of compassion. If physical aggression is required, we disarm without undertaking superfluous actions of retribution which will end up leaving us feel more pain and possibly guilt in the long run. Given the speed at which such events can transpire, i.e. in the blink of an eye, it is useful to try and bring a sense of peace to every second of life, whether this is walking, washing the dishes, during exercise etc. If we work on maintaining peace in moments of calm then we will be better prepared and aligned to bring peace amidst moments of haste and pressure. I shall conclude this talk on peace here, but I suggest anybody interested can obtain further information and guidance within mindfulness literature.
What else could be the meaning of life - experience?
I do feel that overall, learning to appreciate the moment we are in and appreciating the fragility and rarity of each life experience can help us centre ourselves and prevent us from worrying too much about the past and the future. As I discussed in part 3, I still hold onto the idea that death could occur at any point each and every day, as it helps me put perspective on not worrying about the passing events and occurrences of each day. Death can be a useful tool to live. Whenever something which I perceive as negative or worrying occurs, it is realisation that things could be worse - i.e., I could be dead and no longer have any experiences, good and bad – which provides me with a renewed enjoyment and appreciation of the very moment I am currently living.
This basic nature of experiencing life is a sound possibility for being the purpose of life. It is a very simplistic view, but it serves great evolutionary benefit.
What about the purpose of life being to reproduce and evolve?
A lot of my writing has come down to evolution. I cannot take myself away from this. The more I learn within science, the more I see the genius of evolution. It is so easy to look at other animals and take a straightforward view that their existence and traits are driven by evolution and yet think of ourselves as separate and somewhat special, but it seems likely that the same thing applies to humans - we are animals (Morris, 1967/2005).
This is why reproduction and survival form a central tenet to many of my discussions. We need to reproduce and learn how to best survive and adapt in order to continue. If the wish for immortality did not exist - whether consciously acknowledged by outwardly wanting to live forever or unconsciously processed through the desire for children or to be remembered - then the species would die out.
However, throughout this book I have discussed Buddhism and suggested the advantages it can bring to one’s wellbeing. And yet monks, so far as I am aware, do not have children. So if everybody took that approach then would we not die out? As far as I am aware, a lot of traditions (though not all) require ordained monks to take a vow of celibacy and subsequently not have children. This is similar to Catholicism and other forms of religion. For me, this goes back to my suggestion that whilst having children is an innate evolutionary drive, there are those who choose to obtain their life purpose through other means. In Catholicism, I imagine priests believe that the sacrifice they make in abstaining from marriage, intimacy and children, is in the name of God. Perhaps they feel it is their responsibility to teach and carry the message of the Bible and such things to people. They believe in heaven and so they have conviction that their immortality will be achieved through their place in heaven. As such, this suggests that a wish for immortality can still be seen as a key purpose in life because even when children are removed, even when Priests are not aiming to achieve it through having success and subsequent legend within their career, they seek it through heaven. In fact, the message of seeking a place in heaven (i.e., immortality) was a consistent message I received growing up with Christianity, suggesting its prominence in human purpose. I am not wholly sure what Buddhism discusses about afterlife; however some traditions talk about the wheel of life and suggest that the aim is to get out of the cycle of suffering and rebirth by becoming enlightened. This would suggest that there is some potential for immortality to be part of the framework; however, the aim is to not crave it but to live in the moment of life.
I hope that people do not take this book as me preaching the need for people to become Buddhists, I am merely suggesting that there are teachings within the movement which people may find useful, it is completely your choice whether and to what extent you wish to pursue them. There are aspects within the movement that I do not really agree with. The key is not distinguishing things as completely right or completely wrong, but listening to what feels right within you, what makes sense to you, at a deeper level, below conscious thoughts.
Chapter Five: Part II
What is life – reasons ending?
Another discussion which stood out for me was related to reason. The very subject of this book (what is life?) is to seek reason. We want to know what is going on - our brain wants to predict as much as possible to avoid error and potential harm in the environment, so in some sense it could be argued that life is primarily about seeking a reason. Perhaps this indicates that reason is our God and what we seek through God is reason’s ending, i.e., an explanation of everything so that nothing is a surprise. But I am not convinced by this. I think that reason could be driven by the wish for immortality. I mentioned that reason could be the brain’s way of trying to predict everything in order to avoid surprise and potential harm, which in effect, is to avoid danger and preserve ourselves, i.e., seek immortality. So I think immortality is the driving force of life. One argument against this may be “why do people commit suicide”? But is suicide not a result of maladaptive life? As a psychologist, people come to see me because they are suicidal, rather than coming to see me because they want to become suicidal. Therefore, suicide is a result of life experiences which have led to a maladaptive approach to life. However, there may be people who want to commit suicide because they are suffering with so much physical pain in life, not psychological. Three points here; one is that physical pain is interlinked with psychological; the second point is that there is still a whole debate on euthanasia and in the majority of countries (maybe all except Switzerland), it is illegal. As such, there is a collective movement in society to discourage any form of suicide or killing one’s self, suggesting that there is an overall sense that ending one’s life is against instinct. A third point also links back to the idea of conscious and unconscious wishes for immortality. As mentioned, immortality may exist consciously in the sense of somebody saying “I want to live forever” but actually, this seems more of a rarity. People seem to accept that they will die and may not really pursue the idea of living forever. But underneath, as they have children, as they seek to develop a reputation in their career, are they not seeking immortality, for part of them to live on forever? I think so yes. Some people may be conscious to this and say it so, whereas some may not think of these things in such a way.
Therefore, there is a strong notion that the wish for immortality is a key part of life, if not the underpinning meaning of life. Society and culture is all shaped toward protecting us from harm, placing criminals in jail, encouraging people to be active and eat well. We admire doctors and researchers who prevent illness. We feel pain at the idea of losing a close one.
What about love in relation to immortality?
I discussed that love is a form of attachment and that there are multiple levels of this attachment. In effect, I am stating that love is attachment. It is a label for the process of attachment. We may be hungry but we can describe this as ‘peckish’, ‘quite hungry’, ‘starving’, ‘famished’ etc. These are all descriptions and levels of hunger, but in effect, they are all forms of hunger. This is similar to how love is a description of attachment. The key thing is that love is not necessarily a uniform level of attachment; it is a description of a type of attachment. What I mean by this is that it is possible to love somebody or to show love to an animal or being, without being overly attached to it. This is why I discussed the levels of attachment (see chapter three) and suggested that there are varying levels of love. Each person prescribes their own levels and what items fall under those levels. I wonder if the key is trying to reduce the different scales of attachment, perhaps creating one level of love which can be applied to all. I am not sure about this yet, but Bob Marley did sing for ‘one love’; what are your reflections?
What is life?
It would seem that life is primarily about immortality. In one sense seeking a partner and having children to allow our genes to continue forward. In a second sense by aiming for success in our career or pursuits, so that we are remembered. Either of these can exist alone and would seem to be unconscious processes. Not many people seem to really talk about these things in such a manner. One of the primary aspects of life is attachment. This is at the route of all that we do. Attachment operates at varying degrees and strengths, unique to each individual. Love is part of this attachment process. There is a sense that reason is our God. Our brains are constantly trying to predict our environment, to keep us as safe as possible. The ultimate prediction would be ‘knowing what life is’. Therefore, there is an inbuilt wish to understand reason’s ending, to understand everything. But if we try to understand everything, we suffer. We ruminate; we become anxious because we overthink things.
What can we do with these reflections?
In terms of reason, there is a sense that we may benefit from trying to not over think things, trying not to over intellectualise things in our ruminating mind. We should seek to carry out our thoughts and reflections in conscious processing, when we are either talking or writing about ideas. If we do think about things, we should be aware that the process is occurring. Our ruminating mind has such creative potential; it helps us plan and make decisions but if it runs free without our awareness of engaging it then we can find ourselves in all sorts of worry.
Perhaps this indicates that truth, knowledge, learning, whatever it is called, it exists beyond our current faculties of reason. It exists in a different space and entity to what we can comprehend. Perhaps reason’s ending, the idea of one final truth is a concept designed by human minds in order to achieve the immortality of our thinking faculties.
In terms of immortality, is it dangerous to tamper with something like this? I wonder if the primary thing we can do is to simply become aware of how immortality drives us. If you think the idea is nonsense, then this can be a good thing. The next time you are upset or worried about what somebody will think, ask yourself “why am I becoming so worked up. Why do I care what this person thinks? Why am I so concerned with achieving money, enhanced reputation, or recognition”? If we acknowledge that we do not live forever, then we may be able to worry less when we perceive things going wrong. This may help create a further sense of peace within us.
We do not know what is beyond the present moment. Therefore, is achieving peace within the present moment not all that we can do?
What are the limitations of this work?
Despite my wish to keep this book fairly casual and to reduce the academic nature, I will borrow from the structure of such writing and discuss limitations to this work. I shall restrict this to one primary limitation, though I acknowledge there are many more.
The primary limitation is that my perspective is limited. As discussed in the introduction, I am a white, British male. I think I may be middle class but I am never sure on class titles. Whichever it is, I discuss views on love, religion, and life from my own experiences. In other countries and religions, there are a range of cultural and societal practices different from those I have experienced. But to expand my reflections to every other culture, religion, nation, political ideology and so forth would be too much to keep this book from becoming overly dry. I have attempted to keep things concise to try and keep my main reflections as clear as possible. As discussed throughout, my aim was two-fold. I wanted to present my reflections for current philosophical thinkers to muse and I wanted to engage readers who are new to philosophical reflections, in hope that increasing collective reflections across society will lead to continual reconfiguration and development of ideas about the question, what is life?
I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Thank you for bringing your time to my words
Adamson, L., & Frick, J. (2003). The still face: A history of a shared experimental paradigm.
Infancy, 4, 451-473. doi:10.1207/S15327078IN0404_01
Butler-Bowdon, T. (2013). 50 philosophy classics. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain (2nd ed.).
New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of happiness: The classic work on how
to achieve happiness. London: Rider.
Free will. (2016). In Merriam-Webster.com.
Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hacker
Freud, S. (1955). Beyond the pleasure principle. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The
standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud
(Vol. 18, pp. 1-64). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1920)
Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of
the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 3 - 66). London:
Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923)
Freud, S. (2013). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. Retrieved from
http://www.forgottenbooks.com/ (Original work published 1920)
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink. London: Penguin Books.
Goss, D. (2015). The importance of incorporating neuroscientific knowledge into counselling
psychology: An introduction to affective neuroscience. Counselling Psychology Review,
Gunaratana, B. H. (2001). Eight mindful steps to happiness: Walking the buddha’s path.
Somerville, MA: Wisdom.
Jung, C. G. (1916). Psychology of the unconscious: A study of the transformations and
symbolisms of the libido, a contribution to the history of the evolution of thought. New
York: Moffat, Yard and Company.
Jung, C. G. (1991). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (2nd ed., R. F. C. Hull,
Trans.). In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. Mcguire (series Eds.), The collected works
of C. G. Jung (vol. 9 pt. 1). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1959).
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin Books.
Kinderman, P. (2014). A prescription for psychiatry: Why we need a whole new approach to
mental health and wellbeing. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
LeDoux, J. E. (1994). Emotion, memory and the brain. Scientific American, 270, 32 – 39.
Morris, D. (2005). The naked ape. London: Vintage.
NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). (2015, October). Depression.
Retrieved from http://cks.nice.org.uk/
Panksepp, J. (2005). Affective consciousness: Core emotional feelings in animals and
humans. Consciousness and Cognition, 2005, 14, 30-80.
Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of
human emotions. New York: W. W. Norton.
Phelps, E. A., Delgado, M. R., Nearing, K. I., & LeDoux, J. E. (2004). Extinction learning in
humans; Role of the amygdala and vmPFC. Neuron, 43, 897 – 905.
Solms, M. (2013). The conscious id. Neuropsychoanalysis, 15, 5-19.
Tronick, E., Adamson, L.B., Als, H., & Brazelton, T.B. (1975, April). Infant emotions in
normal and pertubated interactions. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society
for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.
Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly
departing. London: Hay House UK.
What is life? A 21st century perspective
by David Goss
Chapter One - What is life? : Introduction.............................18/8/16
Chapter Two - What is life? : Romantic Love..........................10 /09/16
Part II......................................................................................10 /09/16
Chapter Three - What is life? : Friendship and work.................19/11/2016
Chapter Four - What is life? : Free will, fate and religion...........(today) 25/11/2016
Part I.........................................................................................(today) 25/11/2016
Part II........................................................................................(today) 25/11/2016
Part III.......................................................................................(today) 25/11/2016
Part IV........................................................................................(today) 25/11/2016
Chapter Five - What is life? : Final reflections............................
WHAT IS LIFE? : FREE WILL, FATE AND RELIGION
These three topics seem too intertwined to be discussed separately. They form a consistent part of my reflections and are something which I often find great joy in discussing. I have attempted to discuss them both separately and in relation to one another. I shall begin by discussing how my views have so far been formed.
CHAPTER FOUR: PART I
How my views have been formed thus far?
I was brought up in a catholic environment and school, baptised, made my communion and taken to church until around age 13. At that age my parents left the choice up to me. I stopped going to church as I just felt I was going through the motions when I was there, repeating words and not putting any meaning into them. I maintained a belief in God throughout college and university. I would often talk to God, usually in a sense of wanting something – whether it be a partner, success with music etc. I think at one point I may have apologised to God for always seeming to be asking for something. When I moved to Birmingham I worked in construction and I continued what had become a regular drinking habit. Drinking has always been in my environment. I never seemed to enjoy drinking, certainly not excessively, but I kept doing it through my youth. As a child I was quite outgoing. The problem with drinking is that it releases inhibitions so when I first started, I would find myself getting a bit over-excitable when combining my alcohol induced lowered inhibition with my outgoing side. To try and counteract this over excitability, I began to inhibit myself when drinking, so not to do or say anything that I felt was overly excitable. This crept into my sober way of being as well. Because I had spent years alone, often slightly isolated from friends who lived away at university, with no partner, I became accustomed to drinking on my own, it was all no good. When I got to around age 23, I decided enough was enough; it brought me down as a depressive stimulant, it felt I wasted life and I became overly reserved through excessive inhibition. It was not beneficial for me. Throughout all this time I had maintained a belief in God and was reading the bible more and more frequently. As I decided to cut down my drinking, I internally said I was doing it for God, as well as myself, to be the person that God wants me to be. I recall a time when I had cut down for a few months; I returned home for Christmas and on Boxing Day, I found myself in the living room at midnight flying through some Belgium beers. I ended up getting rather drunk and when I awoke, I was furious with myself. I made a promise to God that I would not do that again. That was interesting, a promise to God, not to myself but to an external agency. I projected my desire onto him, as if letting him down would be a lot worse. At this time in my life I often spoke to God about my pursuit of a music career, praying daily that something would happen. I believed that any challenges that occurred, any negative things I experienced, they were meant to happen because God felt it was right for me, it was what I needed. I never became preachy (at least I do not think I did), but I became more and more communicative about my religious views, I felt I almost had to speak loud and proud of my love for God, otherwise I was letting him down; religion started finding its way into a lot of my music and lyrics. When I quit my job and moved back to Liverpool in 2011, I took up mindfulness meditation and read a little about Buddhism. I had begun to see the ruminating in my head as unproductive and mindfulness allowed me to observe and reduce some of the tiring cycles that this brought up in me. However, as my mindfulness practice increased, I began talking in my head less, which meant that I talked to God less. I would only talk consciously out loud to him, something I did not do often. As a result, my catholic based religious view started to dissolve little by little. I had also become far more involved in psychology, biology, evolution and such things. I began to open up to the idea that religion is perhaps a creation for the organisation of society. Carl Jung, among many others, discussed the role of religion in providing a moral compass which helps prevent the destructive natures of humans being realised (Jung, 1916). And this made sense to me. I stopped praying out loud and in my head, and I just worked with what was real in my life, what was in front of me in the moment. At the same time, I noticed that I started to accept my wish for a partner a lot more. These experiences led me to the view that I have today.
CHAPTER FOUR: PART II
So, given the experiences I have mentioned above, what are my current views on free will, fate and religion?
It feels starting at the question of God makes sense. Is there a God?
You may not be surprised to hear that my answer is ‘I do not know’. However, I shall excavate some of my thoughts beyond this middle ground. I admit that I do not know anything, nothing is 100% true as I am continually learning, sometimes things which contradict each other. That does not stop me having opinions; it just means that I try not to become too attached to any particular view. However, overly attaching is different from strongly believing. I do not believe murder is right and I maintain that view. I just try not to become too attached to it so that it clouds my emotion and judgement. For example, war and capital punishment could be seen as forms of killing and potential murder, however, is it always wrong? I would say so, but that does not mean that I outright condemn those that make the decision to do it - is it worth killing one evil dictator to save millions of lives, if that is the only option? In that instance it would be important for me to not be so strongly attached to a certain view that I cannot see the bigger picture. However, my personal view is that every single possible effort should be made to negotiate and work for resolution in a peaceful way, without harm, though I acknowledge this is a view which may only be able to go so far in world. I often wonder if I would like to be the leader of my country; one challenge that stands out is that I am not sure I could make the decision to inflict killing on others, even if it seemed like a necessity for the innocent – how do we make such a decision? I suppose we never really know how we will respond until we are in a particular given situation. Situations and experiences often serve up a different outcome or response than we may have previously thought we would deliver; reality is a different entity to imagination. Therefore, it is important for us to maintain belief and logic to our views, whilst remaining open to opposing arguments and perspectives. Right now, I would say that I believe in God. As my back story indicated, I used to hold a particular descriptive belief of God, a belief generally aligned with typical catholic/bible imagery. But my time with Buddhism along with my growing involvement with science and the role of evolution has left me unsure of whom or even what God is. The difficulty with the bible and things passed through scripture is that they have had human involvement. Every action by a human has a motivation which effects upon the action, therefore, words and stories of the past are constantly open to doubt.
If I look at the present, what evidence is there of a God?
I think we have to be open to God being something that we just cannot comprehend, beyond the label and description that we as humans have created and perhaps beyond a physical entity or object. But in one sense, this is what God is - it is whatever is right for the person. So many people seek strength and support in religion and God and if that works for them, what is the issue? However, when a person’s views on God leads to negative impact on others, particularly war and death, does this not then become an issue?
Perhaps there is a further distinction to be made, one between God and religion. God can be nature, can be a being, can be in heaven, can be in our genes, etc. But religion is something different. Religion is a faculty for a belief to be lived. Religion exists, it is a human creation. It exists in sport as well. It fascinates me how similar the experience of a football game is to the experience of church and religious groups. Believing in chosen ones (messiahs), feeling connected with brothers and sisters as supporters (congregation), feeling a bloodline to your club (Lord). People talk of how if you cut them open, they would bleed the colour of their team. This reminds me of the sense of people saying that God and Jesus are within us. In football, just like religion, there are many who partake with peaceful enjoyment, however, there are those who, due to factors such as in-group and out-group mentality, speak hatred and engage in violence with those outside of their group (team). So I am not sure that removing religion (in the traditional sense of the word) would remove conflict. It will always find its way through some means or other.
To return to the question of God; I have so far stated that religion can occur as a separate entity from God and at heart, religion is a channel for communicating a strong belief; this leaves us with the question of who or what is God? Before entering further on this discussion, perhaps free will and fate should be explored. I think these two subjects are intertwined with the question of God because if we are to say that they exist, the immediate question is who creates or controls them?
CHAPTER FOUR: PART III
Do fate and free will exist?
My over-arching view - as discussed in relation to ‘the one’ in chapter two - is that we have to live as if fate does not exist. In my religious phase, I found the idea of God creating fate extremely useful when things would go wrong; I would often think, ‘well, it has happened for a reason, God has set me this challenge’. Now, with my altered belief in God, I still maintain the same type of approach when responding to adversity, but I now think, ‘life has dealt me this, and I can learn from it’. It is the same process, but changing the external agency from ‘God’ to ‘life’. As an organism, my brain requires new experiences to learn. The reason we find something challenging, the reason it goes wrong is because we were unable to predict something in our environment and we experienced prediction error, i.e., pain, surprise, shock. Sometimes the surprise and shock is a good thing, a good feeling, so we learn to try and repeat whatever action we took to get this feeling. Sigmund Freud alluded to this when he discussed the pleasure principle and the death instinct (Freud, 1920/1955). In relation to the death instinct, he suggested that we spend our life trying to reach a point where we can predict everything and eliminate any shock and subsequent pain in life. The only time we achieved this was before we existed, therefore in some sense, we are aiming to achieve a state that is similar to death, in which we do not undergo any errors of prediction in the environment so that we are not shocked by anything (Freud 1920/1955, pp. 38.). If we remove the word death and the endless philosophical debates this has caused, he is basically saying that our aim as humans is to try and predict our environment.
The key notion here is that our brains are constantly trying to eliminate surprise, trying to reach a stage in life whereby we experience a constant level of satisfaction. The difficulty is that this is nearly, if not fully impossible to achieve in life, therefore we end up in cycles of rumination and worry, trying to think our way out of negative emotion, which in itself brings negative emotion (see discussion on ruminating after a break-up in chapter two). And yet in some sense, it is moments of pain, ones which do not endanger our lives but cause us some psychological suffering, which allow us to learn. We have to accept that we cannot predict our way through life, we have to accept the unknowns and challenges, and use them as an opportunity to learn as we navigate our journey.
The thing which surprises me is how often the right challenge comes at the right stage in life. But I am not sure this is fate, I think this is more likely because that is where my development is up to as a human in that moment. If I die and there is a God who says, “yes, all of those things happened for a reason”, then I would like to think I would say “ah right, that makes sense”. Just like believing in God, I think all that matters is whether a belief in fate and free will benefits a person. If my psychotherapy clients believe in something, I am not there to confirm or deny it. My only interest from a therapy perspective is that they make sense of things in a way which feels right and beneficial for them. One might ask “well what if what feels right for them is killing people”? I guess I have a fundamental belief that deep down, we are built to love, it is evolutionary beneficial. If people have a brain injury or condition, or internal processes which lead to psychopathic thoughts of wanting to inflict hurt and death, I cannot help but wonder if deep down they wish they could change it, that something does not feel right in killing. But this is an interesting question. If we got confirmation from a serial killer that they really, genuinely have no ill feeling from killing, no deep down negative feeling, perhaps reviewing their responses at an unconscious emotional level as well, we may be inclined to say that there is no soul and that our loving and kind behaviour is all brain based as it enables evolution of the species. I believe that love and compassion is our ideal state and that by harnessing these qualities towards ourselves and others, we will feel at peace. As a psychologist I have an ethical obligation to report if somebody is planning to harm another and I would report those occurrences when safeguarding is required. However, I would still actually want to work with this person, to get to the bottom of their thoughts and feelings and to see if there are things they would like to work on together. The difficulty is that this type of work takes time, something which services and such things do not always have the resources to provide in the current system design.
What are my reflections on death, especially in relation to free will?
I want to believe that there is some soul like entity of us remaining after we die. However, I am not skilled enough to know whether this is my genuine belief or my innate desire for immortality. When people talk of death, I have heard people find comfort in the idea that there is no point worrying about death because we will not be there to know that we do not exist. The problem with this is that it just makes me think of how I wish I was there to witness my non-bodily existence. I seem to be okay with death at the moment. I do not want to die, but I accept that I will. I live in the mind-set of thinking that I have got so long in front of me that there is no need to worry, and yet, I also hold on to the idea that death could occur at any point each and every day, as it helps me to put perspective on not overly worrying about the challenges, events and occurrences of each day. Death can be a useful tool to live. I do wonder whether, if I am fortunate to live to aged 90, death will be a lot more worrying at that age because nature is more likely to end things for me. Will I accept the idea of dying at an old age or will I always feel too young to die? The idea of death is certainly a motivating factor to believe in God. It provides comfort in the sense that when I die, I will go on.
As discussed in chapter three, there often seems to be two distinct groups of people in life; those who put a lot of value on family and children, and those who put a lot of value on their career. Each often reduces the other. But I wonder whether at the heart of both, there is a sense of wanting to achieve immortality. Our children carry our seeds, i.e., our genes. A successful career could mean our name is carried through the ages.
My own wish is this. When I am 92, I would love to be alive, sat on my chair, surrounded at a family party by my long time loving wife, my best friend. My children are around me and so are my grandchildren, love is in the room. However, I would also like to be sat there having accomplished a number of career goals - career goals which consist of me having an impact on the world. As much as my wish is for these impacts to be of benefit for people, they are also in some sense a wish to be remembered. So where does this come from?
I really want to help the progress of mankind, it gives me a kick and yet, I have no idea if I will be around to see it. So it is an inbuilt desire to contribute to the species. The wish to be acknowledged is because I want to feel like I have made a contribution across society and I suppose being remembered and recognised is a good barometer for knowing whether I have made a difference to people and to society (though it could be argued that every compassionate action is beneficial to society, beyond recognition). I love working with people one-on-one in therapy, as I feel I have made a difference to their lives, for the positive. I also get enjoyment from it as I love travelling the different paths and roads of the human mind, so I am learning as much as they are in our sessions. This learning gives me a great feeling. So it is possible that a wish for immortality is actually an evolutionary advantage, because our wish to be remembered leads us to undertake tasks which profit the species, both in procreation and in attempting to maintain and improve the environment/society. It should be noted that when I talk about being remembered and contributing to society, this does not necessarily mean on a wide, fame like scale. This relates as much to each of our social and work connections, no matter what the number of scale of people.
Pretending (for the sake of this reflection) that people read some of my writing - would I prefer to have my work acknowledged by somebody in my lifetime, but not so much in my death, or would I prefer my work to be unheard of in my life but acknowledged in death?
That is a tricky one. On the one hand, part of me says the former, as life is all about experiences. However, in the second option, if somebody acknowledges my work after my death, it means that I will be spoken of and in some sense kept alive for further time. But again, I cannot help think that life is all about experiences. Therefore, when I speak of the future, I speak as if I am alive and around to have the experiences, but I am not if I am dead, unless there is life after death. This demonstrates another reason why people may believe in God - immortality and the hope that the experience we have now will continue. This suggests that perhaps there is nothing more precious to human existence than experiencing life. Experience could be the meaning of life. We have a certain set of positive chemicals which are wired to encourage us to seek particular experiences which benefit the species. Therefore, the meaning of life could be to seek those experiences which best continue and develop the evolution of the species. But underneath this is learning, learning how to achieve those experiences, so again, I would scale this back to perhaps the meaning of life is experiencing life.
This does not necessarily mean bungee jumping off Niagara Falls. Experiencing life can relate to every moment, every step, every interaction with the environment, with people, with books etc. The aim is undertaking experiences as they provide us with learning and development, which subsequently allows us to continually harness new opportunities and experiences in life. This is a cyclical process which is wired within us so that we feel good by seeking new experiences. By seeking this good feeling we are able to learn new things and develop. This is a vital part of evolutionary development for the individual and subsequently, for the species.
However, which part of us is it which decides what experiences we undertake? What is it within us that decides what actions we will take?
What is this process of action within us?
I currently call this process, an ‘output action of being’ or OAOB for short. No matter what our unconscious memories, drives, emotions, or thoughts do, there is something within us which undertakes an action - an action of being. We can be sat down, with thousands of thoughts in our head or with any range of emotions, but our actual action may be to just sit in stillness and silence. I can sit here and say in my head, “I am going to move my left arm” whilst simultaneously actually moving my right arm. How many times do we plan or practice a scenario in our head, a conversation or activity, and find that the situation never materialises as we imagined. It is the case that in general functioning, our thoughts and emotions will influence our actions, but there is something beyond these aspects which makes the decisions for our organism. This is why I feel it is important to recognise that our body, our existence, is beyond the ‘I’ or ‘me’ in our thoughts, as there is clearly something else at work, which if it wishes, will oppose the request of the ‘me’ in my head. ‘Me’ is actually the bigger sense of our whole being and organism.
It is as if part of us collates information from all the unconscious and conscious processes, and develops an OAOB which integrates information from each of these components into an OAOB which is the most advantageous for our being, given our current situation and environment. Therefore, to understand if, how and where free will exists in our brain, may require us to understand if, how and where the OAOB operates. This is something I hope to pursue in future research.
One final note on free will; to investigate the question of free will requires a definition of the parameters in which we are suggesting free will might exist. When I talk of free will, I talk of actions and existence in the world, i.e., in life, in reality, in the space I live. If I was to say that free will involves my thoughts, then I think this is a whole other discussion. If I want to imagine myself on holiday in my favourite destination, scoring a goal for Everton or winning the Ryder Cup, I am free to do this. But these actions are not undertaken in reality, they are undertaken in imagination. That is why I believe it is an output ACTION of being which is what we need to investigate, in order to further understand the notion of free will. This may mean that the wording of free will needs to be altered into free action. We can all ‘will’ anything we want, as in, ‘wish’ or ‘choose’ to do something in our head, but this is different from an action. If I want to jump out of my window and fly down the street then I am free to choose whether I try this; but I have a suspicion it will not work, and given the height of my window, I would rather not try. The online Merriam dictionary defines free will as (1) the ability to choose how to act (2) the ability to make choices that are not controlled by fate or God (3) voluntary choice or decision (4) freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention (free will, 2016).
For me the question is, when have we chosen a choice? It could be argued that a thought is an action, that you may choose to think something and this is a fair statement. But I get the sense that we need to go beyond this and to define free will as an action. Our action may be to do nothing, rather than something. But it is still an action. What are your reflections?
CHAPTER FOUR: PART IV
Does fate exist?
To answer this question depends on what we define as fate. What is meant when we talk about fate? My interpretation of what I have heard from people is that fate means ‘something happens for a reason’. Everything happens for a reason; this is the law of causality. Therefore, fate does exist. People say you create your own fate. Again, this is true, because our organism creates processes which lead us to take actions and actions lead to the creation of further processes. But then people also say things like “fate dealt them a cruel blow”. At a base level, this is saying that causality - cause and effect - dealt somebody a cruel blow. I think this is a fair statement. The issue comes more when fate is ascribed as being delivered by something or someone, like God, and that fate is a purposeful challenge laid out by that God. Therefore, it is not possible to say whether fate exists unless you define what you mean by fate. The main opposition I can think to this view of fate existing as causality is if somebody stated that there is no such thing as causality, i.e., there is no reason. If we remove reason and causality, we remove the sense that anything has meaning; that there is literally no meaning in existence and that absolutely nothing matters – that things do not happen for a reason, they just happen. This is a very dark view, darker than death. Is it possible that God is reason? Is it possible that reason is what we seek, above all else. We are designed with reason within us. If we strip away the entire cortex (top layer of our brain), strip away all thinking and movement etc., then our organisms create two types of affect (emotion), positive and negative. That is reason. We interpret those affects to help us decide whether to approach or avoid something, that is reason. Then expand it to love, to friendship, to occupation, everything is based on the existence of reason. The very question and discussion of reason involves language, was language not created for a reason? Causality is approaching something; it is approaching a cause, for a reason. I think this might be the question and answer that we all often seek. What is the reason for anything and everything? Reason may be our God.
When I speak of reason, I refer to the human concept that we have placed on the word. It is probably beyond explanation. It is a belief that there is meaning. We ask about the meaning of life. We ask about the meaning of fate, of love. This whole book, it is about searching for reason. Heaven, hell, they provide reason. We are designed to search for reason - to try and predict our environments. When we think, we are trying to reason. There are multiple levels of reason, all existing at multiple levels of consciousness. Perhaps an example from my life would be useful.
Reasoning extends into literally everything we do. So, perhaps what we seek is the ultimate explanation. That is what we view God as, the answer of all answers. Even a physicist who does not believe in God - i.e., the human notion of a supreme being akin to the bible - they still have a God. It may be the time space continuum, it may be as Stephen Hawking hoped, one equation that answers everything, but at heart, it is reason. I wish I could stop there; it would be so much easier to just say that is it, that God is reason, an inbuilt desire of humans to seek meaning in the environment, in life. That God is a by-product of a necessary evolutionary mechanism. But, I still cannot shake the sense that there is something extra. How was all this created…atoms, protons, nature, reptiles and humans? The problem is that this may just be me seeking reason. So, at this point, I cannot do anything with this, all I can do is live my life and see if I can reason an explanation for a God beyond reason, remaining open to the answer being yes or no.
At this point, I need to say something about reason and living. It seems there are multiple ways to reason and how we do this defines how peaceful we are in life. We have to balance our reasoning, otherwise it can rule over us. This links back to finding a balanced OAOB (see above, output action of being). Reasoning requires all aspects of the brain, unconscious and conscious, cognition and emotion. I feel mindfulness meditation has allowed me to become closer to a balanced integration - I would recommend it. It takes time and patience, but time and patience are the things not just required, but to be learned for balanced reasoning. Meditation is about bringing awareness to the present moment, watching and noticing the thoughts and emotions occurring within us, but not engaging with them, allowing them to just be, allowing them to float by and returning back to the reality of the present moment you are in. When people try meditation, they often stop and start (especially at the beginning), something I can attest to doing myself. They succumb back to the chatter of the mind, of the cortex. Overcoming this initial challenge primarily involves developing the ability to be patient, but also, it is helping us to begin to hear and trust that under layer of the inner decider, trusting our OAOB. It has taken me years and I still struggle, so I would suggest that you do not expect a quick process. I would also say that the key is to not expect a process at all. By this I mean that we have to release the attention that we give to our thoughts (our cognitive reasoning faculty), to actually come closer to improved reasoning. We can focus on being in the world, which can allow us to see things clearer.
So let me insert my current conclusions to see if I am satisfied with what I have currently posited. I do not know whether God exists as a super natural, omnipotent being, but it is possible that God is reason. Our brains are designed to try and predict everything in the environment, therefore, it makes sense that we idolise the notion of something which is the answer to everything, the route of all reason.
Fate exists if we believe that everything happens for a reason. To say that everything happens by chance and with no purpose, this cannot be true, because we as humans have created these words, we have created the concept and definition of fate; therefore, the definition of fate has to in some way align with human processes if we are making sense of it as humans. Our language creates causality. The fact we have language is to communicate, this in itself is a cause. I cannot see how anybody could deny causation, even at the micro level. Breathing, moving your eyes, the larger sense of socialising, working, having children; there is meaning in every aspect of life. The question then becomes, what is the meaning of life? That is a separate discussion to fate which, though I have touched upon in this chapter, I will discuss further in the final section. However, fate can exist independent of meaning. Cause may not have to have meaning. Wait no, it does! Everything has meaning. Even if its meaning was that it had no meaning, this would still be a meaning. I think the question people may ponder more with fate is ‘does somebody initiate it’?
That is a different question as to whether fate exists and basically goes back to the question of God. If we say that God could be reason, then that suggests that reason does initiate fate. The opposite view of this would be that things happen for a reason, but that there is no end goal to reason. So, to extend, perhaps we are saying not that God is reason, but that God is reason’s ending. Does this mean that God is in fact purpose? I do not like this phrase as again, it is open to a socially constructed definition of purpose. So, perhaps it is best left that God is reason.
In terms of free will, I wonder if we first need to investigate how it operates within us as humans before we even approach the question of whether our actions are driven by an external agency, be it God, spiritual or nature. We can see that free will does not exist solely on a conscious level, as we have implicitly/unconsciously decided what to do before we are consciously aware of it. Therefore, if free will exists, it also exists below our conscious reasoning ability. This goes back to my call for further investigations into the OAOB. Once we remove the notion that the ‘I’, the ‘me’ is this internal voice in my head, we can be open to the fact that the deeper sense of who we are may lie outside of our awareness. There is a need to understand the various levels of our brain and mind. This is how we become closer to an integrated sense of self. There is a lot of information and processing going on underneath, which is being missed out on. The danger with the underlying drives is that a lot of them are over primitive. The cortex, the higher order of thinking, allows us to inhibit some of the destructive impulses which have been at the root of crime and destructive actions etc. This is why religion is important. It is by learning religious structures, morals and such forth, that we are better able to inhibit primitive desires which may possibly have led to the destruction of humanity; that said, my definition of religion is different from that of faith, people can develop their own morals outside of a denomination, but I would think that they still learn and develop morals from another organised body – namely, society. Therefore, society in itself could be called a religion.
I am beginning to realise that this sounds like the more sub-cortical aspects of us, generally below conscious awareness, are the real ‘I’ and this is not what I mean. The closest we can get to an ‘I’ is via an integration of the brain and mind. This suggests that there is no single piece of me within my brain. This suggests that there is no soul. As I wrote that, I literally felt ill. It goes against my hope, it makes me anxious and it makes me scared. Despite all the science, all the philosophy, there is still something inside of me which holds onto God and holds onto the idea that there is an eternal aspect of me. When I make a decision that feels right I get a release of chemicals, a little shiver down my back. What is this inner sense? What is it within me that - beyond anxiety and pain - puts me off kilter when something is just not right and gives me peace if something feels right; what is it that defines exactly what is wrong or right? Is it evolution?
I think I can logically disprove God and the idea of the soul, and yet, there is something deep inside which tells me I am not quite sure if I am right.
What is life? A 21st century perspective
by David Goss
Chapter One - What is life? : Introduction.............................18/8/16
Chapter Two - What is life? : Romantic Love..........................10 /09/16
Part II......................................................................................10 /09/16
Chapter Three - What is life? : Friendship and work..................(today) 19/11/2016
Part I.........................................................................................(today) 19/11/2016
Part II........................................................................................(today) 19/11/2016
Part III.......................................................................................(today) 19/11/2016
Chapter Four - What is life? : Free will, fate and religion...........
Chapter Five - What is life? : Final reflections............................
What is life? : Friendship and work
I have decided to discuss friendship and work in the same chapter. The main reason for this is depression. I think there are different reasons why people become depressed but there are two common contributors to depression, both of which when reversed, can help alleviate it. I am not going to enter into a debate on the diagnostic use or appropriateness of the term depression, but in the following work, the word depressed can be seen to represent a spectrum of experiences and feelings relating to “persistent low mood and/or loss of pleasure in most activities” (NICE, 2015) – however, I am not using it in the sense of a medical diagnosis and for a thorough discussion on this subject I would recommend reading Kinderman (2014). Please note that although I discuss biological information within this chapter, I do not believe that people should be reduced to structures and chemicals. I simply believe that neuroscientific information can provide information and input into the overall goal of understanding a person on a humanistic level, namely, appreciating the role of an individual’s life experiences and social interactions in how their well-being is developed and maintained.
My reflections are influenced by Jaak Panksepp’s work on affective neuroscience (see Panksepp & Biven, 2012, for review). Panksepp speaks of seven primary affective systems which underlie human experience; SEEKING, LUST, RAGE, FEAR, PLAY, CARE and PANIC/GRIEF. I have somewhat related to many of these throughout my discussions on love attachment, separation distress (SD) and such things; however, as discussed in the introduction, this book is aimed towards a philosophical discussion rooted in my own experience rather than trying to scientifically support my views for the sake of it, therefore I have not excavated and outlined these links in great depth. That said, there is a base level of my views on friendship and occupation which are firmly rooted in Panksepp’s work and as such it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that.
Chapter Three: Part I
What are the underlying processes of occupation?
The first system I want to acknowledge is the SEEKING system. The capital letters are used to signify that these are primary affective circuits in our brain, at the root of our human functioning (Panksepp & Biven, 2012). In effect, this is a dopamine fuelled brain network which is designed to make us feel good when we are harnessing from the environment. Panksepp has discussed that he has not called this a brain reward system as that name would imply that the end product (the end reward) is the aim of the system and actually it is the journey, the foraging and seeking which motivates us and gives us a positive feeling. In a basic example, think of reading a book. When I read a good book I enjoy the process. When I get to the end of the book I am somewhat happy that I have reached the end, but then I will tend to think, ‘right what shall I read next?’. Look at athletes who train and train, they get their medal, they win the league or Super Bowl and after a celebration, it is about regrouping for next year, the next phase of the journey. So as humans we are programmed to enjoy seeking from the environment. Occupations, i.e., our jobs, have been created by humanity as a structure that allows many people to undertake seeking on a daily basis. As we train, work, aim for promotion, go to meetings, write reports etc., we are constantly SEEKING. This extends into things beyond occupation. It extends into everything including hobbies and socialising, but I think there is something about an occupation or a life pursuit which becomes a regular mechanism for fuelling our SEEKING system, an ingenious creation of social/cultural evolution. Even before the invention of industry, history suggests tribes and ancient groups developed occupations such as hunter and gatherer.
I think the SEEKING system may help further elaborate as to why people stay in jobs that they do not enjoy. If their primary SEEKING is focused into the rearing of a child then they are still fuelling that system. That is why some people may be happy as stay at home parents, however, it should be noted that stay at home parents may also pursue other activities during the day which contribute to their SEEKING system. The difficulty comes for people when they are not getting enough SEEKING from their job or family. I think a healthy balance between the two is fine if not the ideal. When I was in my previous career as a project manager in construction, my SEEKING system - although being activated every day in what was a demanding job - was not being effectively activated. Although I was SEEKING on a daily basis, it was not the right set of activities for me. Somebody who does not like cooking does not tend to do it for fun at home because it does not motivate them. So if they worked as a chef, although there is always the chance that they may grow to enjoy the job, it is likely that it will not deliver against their personality wishes and will lead to an under-activated SEEKING system. As a side note, as I was finishing writing this book, I came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (2002) work on ‘Flow’ which I think is an ideal place to read more about finding an optimum level of SEEKING in life.
What are some of the underlying processes of friendship?
In terms of friendship, we are looking at the opioid and oxytocin fuelled SEPARATION DISTRESS (SD), linked to our PANIC/GRIEF system (Panksepp & Biven, 2012) – something which we reviewed in relation to romantic love in chapter two. We are designed to be social beings. When we socialise with people we get an internal release of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, chemicals that can make us feel good. This is evolution’s way of ensuring that because we feel good by socialising, we are driven to do it, thus increasing our ability to form friendships and relationships. This helps us meet a mate, helps us meet friends and groups which can increase our safety, and helps us interact with people to continue the advancement of the species. Therefore, when we do not interact with people, we can fall below the standard flow of these feel good chemicals and we can feel down. As such, a lack of socialising AND a lack of SEEKING can make us feel low. These two factors often go hand in hand. When we work we socialise, with colleagues and with other professionals. Often colleagues become friends, sometimes partners and mates. Therefore without work, people lose both SEEKING and feel good socialising connections. This may be one of the reasons why people become low when they retire or when they have to stop working. The danger is when the low feeling spirals down to a point whereby it often becomes hard for a person to motivate themselves to go out, meet new people and try new things. Again, this is why occupations are so well designed, as we perceive that we have to go out to earn money to live and support ourselves and our family, which helps us activate our socialising and SEEKING systems. Perhaps you have experienced waking up on a Monday morning and feeling like you do not want to go to work but then once you are outside in the fresh air, in amidst people, you forget about that resistance and you are back to SEEKING and socialising. Conversely, you may have had days whereby the longer you stay indoors during the day, the harder it has become to motivate yourself to go outside and you end up feeling a little lower, ruminating about all sorts of anxieties and problems. A lot of people who do not have that necessity to go to work - perhaps because they have been laid off, had an accident or an illness - can end up increasingly staying inside and not entering into the outside world of adventure. This subject then becomes a key part of the political scene, as it indicates how important it is for us to educate people on the importance of SEEKING/socialising and providing support and mechanisms through which they can achieve this in natural means through welfare and opportunity. The challenge is determining the balance of how much responsibility is on government/society and how much is on the individual.
Whilst some people have a medical condition or another factor which means they cannot work, why is that some people do not go out or do not socialise, even though there is nothing seemingly stopping them?
I believe attachment plays a big role in this. I enjoy socialising, I enjoy people, and yet sometimes I shut myself off. I have a number of great friends, some of whom I have known since I was 10. However, I have often kept myself at an element of distance from them, as well as other friends. I realised a number of years ago that some of this was likely due to a fear of being rejected. I started making an attempt to ask people if they wanted to meet up, to plan things to do and I noticed two things. The first was that a part of me felt vulnerable doing this, I felt like I was saying that I needed them and opened myself to being rejected by them saying “no”. The second thing I noticed was how upbeat I felt when I interacted with people. I have never been a loner, but I did/do have a tendency to shut myself off. I am now keen to notice when my mood dips a little, especially when I have been home alone for the day, something which can occur regularly when writing a thesis. I push myself to get outside, to try and contact somebody to meet up, or I take this book and other work out with me to a café, so that I am at least firing my SEEKING system whilst gaining some sense of socialising in amidst people. I even feel better just from talking to somebody in the lift on my way out, or talking to the staff member when I order my drink. So for me, as somebody who enjoys talking and interacting with people, I found I still had to push myself. Imagine how hard that is for somebody who is anxious about going outside, who is extra resistant to being rejected, maybe as a result of various life experiences and environmental situations. The primary way we can change things is to try and make sense of how our experiences may be influencing us. When we make sense of our experiences we begin to see mechanisms like ‘rejection resistance’ in action and we can then realise the benefit of working through this; perhaps by starting a new hobby and interacting with others, so that things begin to feel better. Again, whilst there is research supporting and no doubt critiquing this view, it is my own experience of life, for me and for my psychotherapy clients, which gives me confidence in this theory. This is where psychotherapy is really useful in helping us make sense of these processes occurring within us, and is also why I am keen for psychotherapists and psychologists to have an understanding of neuroscience – though it is important that this understanding of neuroscience leads to respecting people and their experiences, rather than medicalising people’s challenges. It is also why friends are crucial. Having an active friendship circle provides us with a continual source of socialising which becomes a bed-rock for feeling good, providing a platform for us to build our SEEKING through activities like going for a meal, trying a new hobby or pursuing an occupation. Epicurus is a renowned philosopher who discussed the importance of friendship many centuries ago (e.g., Epicurus, 2013) and I think science has gone a long way to prove him right. But none of the above can happen unless a person puts some effort in; whilst there is a responsibility on society to provide education and opportunity, there is also responsibility on the individual to seek and embrace opportunities to engage life and socialise.
Chapter Three: Part II
I want to talk about love, in relation to friends and occupation. People sometimes say “I love my job”. People also say, though less occurring in western males, that they “love their friends”. What is this love and is it different from romantic love?
This love is attachment. In chapter two, I pondered whether romantic love is just an extreme form of attachment or a mystical outer world creation. At this point, I would say that it is the former; I would also say that love for our job and friends are forms of attachment, existing at different levels on the same scale/spectrum.
Can we love our job more than our partner and what do we love when we say “we love our job”?
When I say I love my job, I mean that there is this activity and opportunity that I get to do which gives me joy. For example, I love working with psychotherapy clients, travelling their worlds with them and hopefully helping them; I love researching, trying to find out something new. Since writing this book I have also began working as a lecturer and I love working with students as we traverse their learning journey together. Perhaps what I love is learning. So when we say we love our job, perhaps it is the underlying aspect of what our job gives us that we refer to. I love learning about human minds and existence, and psychology gives me the chance to undertake that in multiple ways. When I am in a lecture, meeting or a conference, everybody else in that space is geared towards a certain topic of discussion relating to our profession. This means that my socialising system is propelled by having common interests and meaningful connections with people, but also, my SEEKING system is continually enriched, pursuing discussion and learning something meaningful to me. In my project management job I primarily enjoyed learning about people, namely, how we behave across various experiences and situations. Whilst there was some interest within me of how engineering processes, designs and structures worked, it was not my core interest. My core interest is understanding humans and that has been shaped by how I have been brought up. There are a range of things that my parents and upbringing have created within me which subsequently made psychology, research, lecturing and psychotherapy feel like the right career for me, as opposed to writing method statements for a t-section and isolation valve installation, or even my short time working in a bank, trying to sell a mortgage or investment. The same holds true for everybody else. Our upbringing, notably our primary caregivers (usually parents) will influence who we become and what type of things will provide us with a self-representative sense of ideal SEEKING.
Perhaps we have to feel meaning within our job for it to make us happy; but, do we need to love our job?
There are lots of people who see work as a means to an end, “it pays the bills” they may say, therefore, their life outside of work is their main focus. Some people will say they love life. Others may not be as passionate. I recently read a news article in which a palliative care nurse called Bronnie Ware discussed the five common regrets that people had on their deathbed (Ware, 2012). One of these regrets was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. Supposedly every male patient expressed this and said that they missed their children’s youth and companionship. I think this confirms how important finding a mate and/or reproduction is in human existence. If people do not meet a partner and/or have children then they may transfer their wish for legacy and to be remembered through to success in their career. There are no doubt potential childhood experiences which will contribute to such actions but first and foremost, I think it is important to respect people’s decisions rather than diagnosing them as right or wrong – it is people’s internal sense of peace with their life choices which determines what is right for them.
In the instance of monks or priests - i.e., people who tend not have children or partners - it feels like it is a career/life purpose which motivates them. Perhaps this is closer to the mark; it is a sense of purpose that we aim for in life. Similar to how children and friendship help strengthen romantic love, yet it can exist without either, perhaps career is something which helps deliver purpose to somebody’s life, though it is not a necessity. I shall hold this discussion until the final part of the book; I would like to turn my attention back to the previous subsidiary question.
The question was about what it means to love our job. When answering this, I have mentioned that love is a certain level of attachment and that romantic partners, career, and friends can exist at different points on the same attachment spectrum. This means that there can be different levels of the societal concept of love.
If love is on an attachment spectrum, when do we cross over from ‘like’ into ‘love’?
Some people have a higher level of attachment to friends than others. Some people may spend the majority of their time with their friend(s), especially when younger, but still, when a partner comes along it is likely that the friendship falls a little at the wayside as people invest more into their romantic relationship. This suggests that for many, romantic love is the ultimate attachment. It recruits emotions and brain networks that no other love does. This sort of attachment scale is perhaps where like and love both exist, in fact, where varying levels of love exist. The question is what differences exist between these notions of ‘like’ and ‘love’.
What does it mean when people say that they love somebody but that they are not in love?
This suggests that they love somebody like a friend, like a family member, they have care and a good level of attachment for that person, but, there is something missing. This also makes me wonder about the love between parent and child. As we grow older, we feel differently for our partner than for our parents. Perhaps romantic love seems different because we are conscious of the initial honeymoon stage, when all the classic feelings such as butterflies, nervousness, hesitancy, and such things occur. That eventually reduces, even if not completely, at least somewhat. We most likely felt that level of emotion for our parents when we were babies, unaware of it. Think of how much a baby may cry for its mother’s comfort, this is a high level of emotion.
This is taking me very close to the psychoanalytical theories that there is a similar attachment to a parent as there is to romantic partners, but we remove (repress) some forms of it, namely the sexual, and direct those feelings elsewhere (sublimation). Perhaps this is similar with friendship. We form a level of attachment but certain aspects of attachment are repressed or moved onto other things. The difference with romantic love is that we do not have to do that.
However, for me there does still seem to be a difference between a romantic partner love and a parent/child love. There are roles of authority, protection, education, and many other things which are part of the parent child relationship. Equally, there are roles of equal standing, sex, children, socialising and things which form part of romantic love. As such, it would seem that we generally require different things from our parents than we do from our partner and as such, we experience a different type of attachment, hence, a different type of love. There is an accepted eternity to parental bonding. You will always genetically be your parents’ child (save for adoption etc.), whereas it is only through a child that partners become biologically connected. Perhaps this indicates that a biological connection is one of the strongest connections available, which would make sense from an evolutionary point of view as this would encourage reproduction within the species. This suggests that the connection between parent and child is as biologically strong as possible, but that having a child helps a romantic partnership become as strong as possible. The fact that some people can have children together but not love each other in a romantic sense is evidence that romantic love has something extra, beyond biological connection, i.e., biological connection will not infer romantic love however it will add something to it.
People may use the phrase discussed earlier, ‘I love them but I’m not in love with them’. This also helps explain why some people will still ‘love’ their parents, even if they have been abused, neglected etc., because there is a basic biological connection which they are calling love. As such, we can see that love is used as a label for different levels of feelings/attachment and perhaps it is not a case of saying that one love is more than another, but that there are different types of love, i.e., friendship, parental, romantic, occupational. Extending this idea, if people do adopt, then they may not have a direct biological connection with a child and yet their love for the child can be incredibly strong, suggesting that again, a biological connection helps create romantic and parent/child love but that love can exist without it.
Chapter Three: Part III
How interesting when two people are friends and then after time, they become lovers. Why was it not instant, what was it that created that extra level of attachment?
I think that this occurrence, friend to lover, is perhaps evidence that friendship and romantic love are on the same spectrum, and are just different levels. The same applies to parental/family love. But I am not sure it is a straight spectrum either, not a linear progression. I would think that love for a person is different from love for a career, or is it?
We may say that we love our football team or a certain type of food. What that means is that we have a certain level of attachment for our team or our favourite dish. I was recently watching the team I support (Everton) play football and when things were not going well I became more active than usual in wanting the manager to change things around. In effect, things were not going well and I wanted to try and exert control on the situation to remove the distress I was experiencing. I managed to notice this and release the distress (somewhat), but I also noticed how similar this behaviour was to that which had occurred within me during the trouble of my previous relationship (see chapter two). When things were not going well with Felicity, I wanted more control and understanding in the relationship to try and prevent the anxiety that I was feeling. Just as I discussed within the romantic love section, I think this can be a normal process. Our brain wants to avoid pain and anxiety, therefore it tries to predict (control) the environment. The difficulty is when we are not aware that this is happening and instead of releasing our wish to predict (control), we get caught in a cycle of second guessing. My primary point here is that there were similarities between my emotional process towards my sports team and towards my (ex) partner, demonstrating that there is a similarity between my love and attachment for both of these objects.
This further demonstrates that love basically stands for a spectrum of attachment. Different people will have different orders on their spectrum, everything is an object. I can wholly confirm that as much as I want Everton to win the league and to succeed, I have never felt for them what I felt for Felicity, or for my family. But we attach to a sports team, our favourite brand of coffee, a job, a parent, a lover. They are all objects of attachment and the individual person places their own set of order on such things. It could be that some people attach to their sports team so much that the team are very high up the scale, but, I would think that our natural design process is to place a romantic partner at the top of this list. I say ‘romantic partner’ to encompass both a mate (to carry our child) as well as a best friend/companion. When people have children with somebody and break-up they still search for another, even if they do not want to have any more children, therefore, there is something additional to being romantic partners beyond having children, i.e., the companionship of a best friend that I discussed in chapter 2. It should also be noted here that earlier in life, parental love will undoubtedly be top of the tree. Our love for our parents is crucial when we are younger, as is their love for us. By loving us, our parents protect us. By loving them, we earn the love of our caregiver. It is a two-way thing. As we reach certain ages, usually amidst puberty, we develop a real interest for the opposite sex and start placing a partner as a focus. For some people this will be earlier in life, for others it will be later, and of course for some, as discussed earlier, career or pursuits may take-over their focus. There are times when parents remain top of that tree and people spend their life with their parents however in general, there is a general process whereby a person begins to focus on the pursuit of a romantic partner.
I am not so sure that it is a case that partners replace parents; it is more like they join them at the top of the tree. But it is easy to see how parents become so protective and sometimes wary of partners. In one sense, they want the best for their child and in another, the partner becomes a competition to their child’s love. I am unsure that there needs to be a competition of which love is more meaningful, and both should be acknowledged as equally important. However, the fact remains that without a parent (or an alternative primary caregiver) providing love early in life, one would die or develop personality traits which are maladaptive to productive living. Our brains are so plastic when we are younger, that the core essence of who we are is very much influenced by how we are raised. Our brain structure continues to be influenced throughout life and can be rewired, but our early experiences play a vital role in developing us for the world, meaning parental/primary caregiver love is vital. Although disease and events of the modern world render this less so, it is generally thought that parents will die before their child. As such, perhaps this further supports the notion of romantic love paralleling parental love and there are perhaps key properties which exist in both types of love, so that when the parental one is lost, properties of care, companionship and protection still exist for the individual - things which seem vital to making one feel healthy in their existence.
So, returning back to my earlier question…if love is on an attachment spectrum, when do we cross over from like into love?
The problem is that love is a human label. We each display our emotions at various levels. Some people are very overt and extravert with displays of emotion, some are less so, both on the inside and outside. So it is hard to say that a certain behaviour or level of emotion equates to a uniform level of love across the species. Given that I have described love as a certain level of attachment, perhaps it is easier to define some possible levels of attachment and leave it for each person to define what factors define their individual levels of like and love. It should be noted that the following levels are a guide rather than a definitive number. I return to the discussion of what the ideal number of levels may be in the final chapter.
Level 1: like - It would seem to me that liking something involves having a preference for an object but not being overly fussed if one had to go without that object, either intermittently or permanently. Additionally, if you went without the object, it would not really affect your sense of self; you would still feel like you without it.
Level 2: love - This is a level of love whereby one almost has to consciously think, is this love? This may relate to friends, food, restaurants, brands, sports teams. The best way to help decide between like or love is basically to ask yourself the question, “do I really love X”? I think a lot of things actually need to be moved to level of like, e.g., I recently said that I love Chinese food and whilst it is true that I have a passion for Chinese food, I am not sure that I could not live without it. It would be a shame, but one that I could quickly grow to accept. I think processing what items fall under this level may help us reduce craving and over attaching to things which are not overly important in our lives. It can help put some perspective on things.
Level 3: love – General friends could go on this level. These are people who have formed part of our identity, are a big part of our lives, but who we sometimes go long periods without seeing. Upon reconciling we have a number of connections which allow relationships to be re-established quickly, but we would not necessarily value this attachment as stronger than our parental or romantic partner love. Other types of informal, daily friendships may also sit at this level or the ones below. I would suggest that occupation could also go here for a lot of people. We can have attachment to our job and we enjoy it, but, if we lost our job, although disappointed, a lot of people would not feel this as the same impact as losing their partner or a close family member. I think some people may also place occupation in the ‘like category’ level 1, as they would value friendships above their jobs. Some may also place it at a higher level as it forms a key part of their lives. This will be a personal choice. It is noticeable that some people will choose to relocate or spend less time with friends because of their job demands, which could perhaps indicate their order of attachment. I would suggest that when reading this, you could reflect on what is truly important to you. This may help you realise how much your job means to you, or, it may have the opposite effect and lead you to spend more times with friends, family, parents etc.
Level 4: love - In this level, one could place close friends, members of family who one feels close to, grandparents/aunties and uncles. You may also place your career here. Others may place sports team in this level; it all depends on your attachment.
Level 5: love - In line with my previous discussions, I suggest that both established romantic partners and parents are in this level. Though the two types of attachment are different, there are cases for each one being as strong as the other. Romantic partners will in all likelihood spend time moving up the levels, from first meeting through to long term commitment. For most, parents will always remain at this level; however this will be open to change for a lot of people as well. Siblings and children can also locate at this level. Each individual will, as a result of their life experiences and subsequent personality, place each of these items equal or below this top tier of attachment. People may also place God in this tier.
Though I have used my own experience as a basis to formulate this concept of levels, I have purposefully not produced or explained my own personal choice of what items sit at what levels. The reason for this is that I want to remove an analysis of my own choice and emphasise the individuality of levels. The only one I will state is that from an evolution perspective, parental/sibling and romantic partner attachments seem fitting for my top tier, though a romantic partner is likely to progressively move up the levels, whilst parental/sibling remains situated at the top. I imagine that child attachment enters straight into the top tier (when they are born) for a lot of people. However, even this can differ for some. My hope, as per everything else in this book, is that as the reader you may choose to take time to reflect on what your framework is, what your own choice of items are within these five levels, and indeed whether you have a higher or lower number of levels. Reflection alone may help provide some perspective on what you see as priorities in your life. This could help reduce any worry and stress which may build up around items which need not be contemplated so much, whilst increasing joy and appreciation for those things in your life which mean the most to you.
At this point, I have presented my view that love is attachment and that different strengths of love signify different levels of attachment. Whilst this may seem an obvious point, the key is that by replacing the word love with attachment, we remove some of the poetic nature of the word and can perhaps take a clearer view of the concept. However, given that love is such a beautiful and commonly used word in society, I have maintained its use when describing various levels of attachment. Personally, I still want to fall in love, rather than fall in attachment level 5 with somebody! Additionally, I have outlined a framework for different levels of attachment, suggesting which items may go into each of these levels as well as trying to provide an element of differentiation as to what kind of attachment each level represents. Towards the end of the chapter, I moved from discussing job, friends, family and romantic partners towards the mention (in level 5 love) of God. At this point, it feels a discussion on the concept on God and religion is relevant.
What is life? A 21st century perspective
by David Goss
Chapter One - What is life? : Introduction.............................18/8/16
Chapter Two - What is life? : Romantic Love.......................10/09/16
Chapter Three - What is life? : Friendship and work................
Chapter Four - What is life? : Free will, fate and religion...........
Chapter Five - What is life? : Final reflections............................
What is life? : Romantic Love
Of all the subjects and topics which drove me to write this book, this is by far and away the most influential. I see love as the most dynamic experience of my existence. It is at the core of the most joyful and painful emotions that I have felt. It drives my thoughts in endless loops, vociferously feeding into my mood and behaviour. Trying to understand and work with the emotions of love remains one of my biggest challenges. When I speak of love in this chapter, I speak solely of ‘romantic love’, i.e., the bonding to a romantic partner. I will elaborate on different kinds of love in my chapters on friends and occupation, religion and life meaning. At this point, I will not attempt to define love as a whole, only in this particular romantic sense. I will leave a united holistic definition for discussion in the final chapter.
Chapter Two: Part I
The reason this topic is so forefront in my mind is that (at the time of writing of this book) I have spent the last year or so grieving a turbulent love experience. Even though it was a long distance (transatlantic) relationship and we only physically met after we had broken up, the feelings I held for this person, Felicity, were very strong. Though there were a multitude of circumstances and variables which led us to the end of the relationship, I have decided not to enter into those details in this space. The key point is that we officially broke up in June 2014 and yet even today, as I sit here writing in September 2015, she reverberates the strings of my heart.
Ending things with somebody I loved was not easy. My thoughts raced - ‘was it her, was it me, was I right, was I wrong, have I done the right thing, have I done the wrong thing’?! Despite my years of meditation and mindfulness practice, love kept knocking me out of my flow, time and time again. This experience has taught me a lot. As I worked through the process of loss, I began to appreciate just what a complex and powerful thing love can be and as a result, I was compelled to write the following reflections.
Chapter Two: Part II
What do I think of love?
I think love is the most incredible feeling I have experienced as a human – incredible in terms of positive and negative. The highs are high, the lows are low. I cannot help but laugh at the irony of me writing guidance on love. My experience is not the most thorough. So I can only write my views as I see them as applicable to myself. I think love can be defined as a certain level of attachment. With that attachment, comes a certain level of emotion. We need this attachment. It is what keeps us paired with our significant others and allows us to form the family unit, rear our offspring etc. There is so much that comes from being able to trust another like no other - to be able to share your world. I have read and heard people say that in effect, our partners become an extension of ourselves. I would agree that this can be true. In one sense we share all our hopes and dreams with our lover and they become somebody who we can make sense of those things with and through. However, in another sense, and probably the one that I align with more, we are individuals. We are all connected within this world, through energy, spirit, call it what you will. But sometimes we want our partner to be too much an extension of ourselves. We are in danger of projecting ourselves onto others and then we try and fix ourselves through our partner, sometimes by passively trying to fix them. We do not own another and yet in love, there is a danger that we begin to think the other person is in some way a possession of ours. There is a responsibility for each partner to realise the emotions of the other. So for me, I benefit from somebody who wants to be with me regularly, wants to share themselves with me and vice versa, wants me to share myself with them. I completely understand that some people are happy having more independence in a relationship, to the point of full blown independence were they do not see each other often, perhaps due to work. I am not here to say that every human should behave the same way in a relationship; love works when two people find a harmony in their way of being.
Is there such a thing as fate when it comes to love?
I do not know. I look upon this in very much the same way as free will. Can fate exist without free will - and vice versa? Possibly; perhaps we could have free will on this earth and there are certain times that designed choices are put in our path. I often thought ‘perhaps fate exists but we need to go and pursue the learning which can then make us realise our fate when the opportunity arises’. So for example in the aspect of love, this would mean that the right person is out there, but it is not until two people are in the right place for each other that they meet. And it is not until they are ready to make the meeting matter that it occurs. For example, if I come across ‘the one’, am I the right person to be able to talk to her in that moment…is she the right person to be open to listening to me if I approach - and vice versa. I shall expand more on fate and free will in chapter four. But in terms of romantic love my position is this. ‘The one’ might exist, there may be one true love and such a thing as fate, or there may not be. It feels like it is not possible to prove this either way. To believe that there is ‘the one’ would require me to believe that there is either a) a supreme being who organises things, decides who is for who etc., or b) nature has developed an incredible network underneath life, nature in itself is the supreme being and through time, a code of sorts has almost been written into human and animal kind (though it should be acknowledged that humans are technically animals as well). Is it more or less likely that fate exists for fish than for human beings? My answer remains the same, I do not know. I really feel like this is the only way I can approach life with the given information that I have. This is the influence of Buddhism. There is no right answer, we do not know. Or, to correct myself, there may be a right answer, but we do not know at this point.
I do not see how believing in ‘the one’ can be an overall beneficial idea for living. To obtain a peace in life, to obtain a real sense of harmony, it feels useful for me to reduce the amount of emotional ruminating (over-thinking) that I do. I love philosophy, I love pondering such a discussion as love and fate, but as it stands, I see no evidence that we will get an answer to ‘the one’ in the foreseeable future. Now it may seem like to say ‘I do not know’ is sitting on the fence, is avoiding the question, but there is also a reason that taking this middle ground approach can be psychologically beneficial.
If I believe that ‘the one’ exists then there are four ways for me to look at the situation I experienced with Felicity. At this point, I must confirm that I foresee my experience as universal and though I use the name and example of Felicity, I look at this as a set of reflections which can apply to us all; however, I think it is useful for me to use my own real world example to ease illustration. The four ways that I can think of are;
1) Felicity was ‘the one’ and I have missed the opportunity to be with her
2) Felicity is ‘the one’ and we will end up together
3) Felicity is not ‘the one’ and I am yet to find ‘the one’
4) ‘The one’ exists but I may never find them
Let me provide an example of how each of these options would create pain for me. In option 1 I assume that Felicity is ‘the one’ and I have missed the opportunity. Clearly this would lead to me cursing my mistake of letting her go, becoming obsessed with trying to win her back and living in eternal pain because I believe that I have lost out on the opportunity to be with ‘the one’, i.e., I will never meet another as good as she was for me.
In option 2 she is ‘the one’ and we will end up together. The difficulty here is that if I believe this to be so, then I will constantly be putting my life on hold waiting/hoping for her return. I will miss out on opportunities in all walks of life (not just love, but potentially career, adventure etc.) because I would still hold a strong attachment to Felicity. It is possible that we could live with this option and just allow nature to take its course but if we were to do this, I do not think we are operating from a viewpoint that we believe a person is ‘the one’, we are operating more from the viewpoint of ‘time will tell’.
In option 3, I believe that Felicity is not ‘the one’ and I am yet to find ‘the one’. However, this means that I merely shift my attachment onto finding a perfect other. This option can be useful in terms of allowing us to move on after a break-up, i.e. “oh perhaps the one is out there”, but there is a danger that the whole process of attaching to a perceived ‘one’ will lead to an over eagerness and need to find somebody, for that somebody to feel perfectly right (which in itself can create worry and restlessness in our lives), and once that person is found the whole attachment cycle will start over again, i.e., we become afraid to lose ‘the one’ and may overly attach to the new person. Similar to option 3, if I undertake option 4 of strongly believing there is ‘a one’ and I go through life never finding my perception of ‘the one’, i.e., a premeditated idea of a perfect connection, then I pass up on other people, I pass up on life experiences and I may die alone in regret.
As such, I feel all four of these outcomes suggest that removing a belief in ‘the one’ is beneficial for mental well-being, and if you meet somebody who feels like the perfect match, well then that can just simply be a great thing, one could even call it luck, without it having to be labelled as destiny. However, the choice is yours. In a complete counter to my point above, feeling that somebody is ‘the one’ could strengthen a love bond and if two people can do this without becoming so overly attached that they become possessive, then this also seems like a good thing. This is exactly why my answer is that right now, I live my life with a sense of not knowing whether ‘the one’ exists or not. That way I do not become attached to the idea and hopefully I reduce the risk of experiencing any of the four outcomes listed above. But I am also not closed off to the idea and if I meet somebody who I feel completely connected to, then I can embrace them with my heart and mind.
One of the important moments throughout the whole process of the post Felicity break-up pain, was realising that I am human. I attended counselling sessions as part of my training as a psychologist. My time in therapy was spent on making sense of my individual existence, general human existence, and working through things about Felicity. There was a moment amidst the back and forth cycles of processing when it dawned on me that even though I was aware I was grieving the loss of Felicity, I was not actually allowing myself to grieve. I had heard this type of phrase before, “allowing yourself to grieve”. I initially thought of it as meaning that we allow ourselves to feel the emotion of a loss, but I had felt the emotion of loss for so long since the breakup that I did not really see this as an issue. What I realised was that I was not accepting the loss. When the pain in the heart hit, when the little things that reminded me of her struck and I got lost in thoughts again, my cognitive side tried to think its way out of the grief pain. It was always in a battle with the underlying sense that felt breaking up was the right decision. It was only as I realised I am human - that I will feel pain as a result of loss and that it is an inevitability of love and life - that I began to bring real acceptance to the situation. Over the past few months I have increased my meditation and I have focused on seeing the pain, seeing the feeling and just watching it. Not thinking about it, not trying to escape it - just accepting it. It is only once I accepted that the pain is a human response and one I must experience, that I was able to reduce the cycle of pain. The key thing is that this pain does not go quickly. The heartbreak over Felicity has been with me for eighteen months because I have been circulating it. Sigmund Freud often talked about ego objects (Freud, 1923/1961). When we love somebody, they are an ego object, the object of our desire. To reduce the pain of losing this ego object we need to find a new place to focus our desire, a place in which our desire is wanted and is reciprocated. However, one thing I noticed was that when I met somebody after Felicity, somebody who I did feel something for, I was still caught up with Felicity (possibly that she was ‘the one’ and I experienced option 2 discussed above); this played a role in the demise of that new potential relationship. So I think I needed time to grieve and accept the loss of Felicity before being able to redirect my love to another person (ego object). The problem arose in that Felicity was able to redirect her desire to a new partner before me and if anything, this further increased my grieving for her. As such, the heartbreak cycle increased. It was only once I made an interjection and began to accept the loss via acceptance of the heartbreak feeling and reducing my thinking about her, that I could begin to move forward. Granted, a space between our communication helped with this process, but the key point is this:
Heartbreak is a normal process, it does not really indicate whether a right or wrong decision has been made, it is a human reaction to the end of a love bond that has been neurologically formed between people and it is wise to give it time and space to exist as an emotion, there is no need to fight it, there is no need to try and think your way out of it, just watch it. It can be good to process the pain and loss consciously, i.e., through talking with friends, family, therapists etc., or alternatively, writing in a journal. But at the end of the day, sometimes we have to accept the pain and if we do this fully, the pain will begin to dissipate, even if this may take some time.
What is heartbreak?
I speak of this topic from more of a philosophical sense. Scientifically, there is plenty of discussion on heartbreak and I have included some of this information in my own reflections, but I approach this question from a more phenomenological viewpoint.
I would suggest that heartbreak is a collation of anger, anxiety and jealousy. Physiologically, I feel anxiety in the chest area and anger within my stomach. Sometimes the two feed each other and it is hard to distinguish whether I am angry or anxious. Jealousy can feed into both anxiety and anger. In fact, I would say that jealousy is a descriptive term, like heartbreak, whereas anxiety and anger are root/core affects (feelings). I am going to borrow from Jaak Panksepp (see Panksepp, 2005; Panksepp & Biven, 2012) and label this root anxiety of heartbreak as SEPARATION DISTRESS (SD) - an emotion which occurs when we feel a combination of anxiety and anger over losing/feeling separation from a loved one. SD is required to form strong attachments with another. It can be a positive thing in that in an adaptive sense, it tells us that we should be concerned that our connection with our loved one may be under threat. The complication occurs when earlier life events develop things like trust issues, creating maladaptive processes within us, which allows SD to creep in and rule in situations where it is not necessarily required. It is such a narrow line to walk, to decide whether our SD is warranted.
The benefit of anger is that at its core it raises adrenaline, it raises the fight system which may be required to protect our life and/or the life of another (notably our family). The difficulty for me here is that there are so many instances when anger is present; how do I focus in on anger in relation to our wish to uncover what romantic love is? Jealousy is a necessary part of a relationship of love. We occasionally see how a partner is somewhat comforted when their lover gets jealous. It is seen as a sign of caring for them. There is an extreme and vindictive sense of somebody trying to make a partner jealous and I am not advocating this, I am talking about a healthy sense of jealousy, one where we feel secure in our relationship and where we do not want to possess our partner, but where we still love them so much that the thought of another obtaining them pains us. Again, I think this is where it is about people connecting in their being. There will be some people who will intentionally make a partner jealous. They may flirt with other people for fun, for their job, due to insecurity etc., and the other person is not wrong to be jealous. What the couple may wish to discuss is whether this is healthy for both of them or if it is destructive to either of them.
Can love exist without jealousy? If people are not jealous, are they not in love?
I would say that love cannot exist without jealousy; it is too intrinsic to a healthy attachment. This may sound strange, that jealousy can be healthy, but I think it is so. Love is about being able to trust and believe in your partner, to the point where you can accept this natural jealousy as a human feeling, necessary for a strong connection. If jealousy reaches a point where it dominates a person, causes them suffering, they may benefit from working on it within themselves, perhaps with a therapist or talking to their partner; they can then decide whether the jealousy is overly related to their own attachment history and something they can work on further within themselves, or alternatively, if it is something that is rational, given their partner’s actions, and they must decide whether the relationship is right. If somebody loves another, respecting the existence of jealousy and not intentionally putting their partner through the pain of it seems fair. Sometimes a person may not be aware they are making their partner jealous and it can be important for couples to talk about this, learning and developing their understanding of each other throughout their relationship.
Returning to anger…
In terms of anger, primitively, it can also serve a purpose in love. If we do not get angry when under threat then we may not be able to ward off physical approaches of violence, either to us, our partner, or our family. But, just like jealousy and separation distress, it can get out of hand. The fact that we can get angry about other things outside of romantic love suggests that it is created for other reasons than protection, or is it? In effect, if somebody upsets us and we get angry, it is because we feel threatened. Whether it is in a meeting, on public transport, or if somebody wrongs us as a friend - we tend to get angry because we feel threat. Even if it is not a literal physical threat, it could be a social threat, which still relates back to survival. If somebody makes fun of us for wearing colourful trousers then we may get angry. But we are angry because they are attacking our sense of self, our identity. The same thing may occur if our boss makes us angry because they disrespect us, they are attacking our identity as a worker and employee (add in the potential parental authority nature of this situation and they may be attacking our identity as a child as well). So in each of these occasions our sense of self is under threat, which in effect, means our self and our survival is under threat. As such, it would seem that anger is also a name for an increase in our self-defence system, as our lives feel directly or indirectly under threat. If we become angry because somebody we love is threatened, then in some sense it is still our self that we protect because we want to protect an object which forms part of who we are, be it our partner, our genetic offspring, our family, or our friends etc.
The challenge with anger arises when past experiences lead us to over-reacting; feeling like our sense of self is under attack when really it is not. This is the place where one can undertake individual reflection and processing. By generating an awareness of this anger process and understanding what and why certain things may trigger our emotions, we may be able to bring a greater sense of reflection and less reaction in moments of challenge, allowing us to generate an increased sense of peace and compassion within our lives, something which I feel is of benefit for our well-being.
This leads to a slight diversion; are human beings innately altruistic or is every action for the self?
I would suggest that at a core level, every action is for the benefit of our self; however, this does not remove altruism from our being. We choose how altruistic we are; if we perform a kind action for somebody then we have decided to be kind to that person. So in an extreme example of somebody attacking a parent’s child, a big part of the parent’s action is to protect the child because deep down, it would hurt the parent so much and would reduce their chance for immortality through losing the seed of their child (see further discussion in Part III), but, some parents do not protect their children, some parents even beat their children. Therefore, people who choose to protect their child still make an altruistic decision to do so that others humans do not, even if it is in some way self-beneficial. This sense of self-beneficial yet still loving altruism extends to all aspects of life. As for the people who beat their children, who abandon them, and people who are not altruistic in many other aspects of life, I would say that this is the result of psychological issues, i.e., biological factors and experiences of their past flood them with emotions and experiences which mean that their world view, behaviours and neural connections have been misshaped out of what would appear an evolutionary best fit. This is where counselling and psychotherapy can be of use, helping people to make sense of what is happening in their internal and external lives.
Chapter Two: Part III
Returning back to our discussion on what is love…what is the feeling of joy?
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the feeling of joy that comes with love. No doubt my previous relationship experience will influence me to write aplenty about the pain of love. But it would be destructive of me to say that love only offers pain, this is certainly not true. Love is often associated with a feeling of joy and positive passion. However, in the same sense that the feeling of pain and heartbreak can be accepted as human emotion, best responded to with non-judgemental attention, so too does this apply to joy.
It is no doubt a glorious moment and feeling if we find somebody special. It is incredible to have somebody who we can share our experiences with, who makes us feel happy to be alive, gives us energy for the day and supports us when we are down. The challenge I have as I write this is that I have no experience of love as it moves into that next gear - i.e., longer term, marriage, children etc. - so I cannot write on these experiences with a sense of true understanding. Perhaps I can save these for when I reflect back on things at age 60 (hopefully). However, I feel that something I can write about in this moment is that I harbour a deep wish for these things. I am an independent person, but, I wish for that special other; despite all of the scientific spin I can put on it, or how I can reduce it to the sense of seeking an organism to reproduce and carry my genes with, I see love as so much more than this. And this is human nature. We have created this poetic description of love. Movies, books, television, they all paint a picture of love in a certain way and whilst it could be argued that it is in fact these mediums that have created the concept of love, is it not humans who created the mediums themselves? Even before the days of television, the great plays and stories of Shakespeare and so many others were often built around the notion and power of love.
So the question has to be asked, is true love a real thing or a socially constructed, human concept?
It would seem that this question requires an investigation of different entities.
Is love separate from the want to reproduce?
Yes, it has to be. There are people who do not want children and yet are still in love…or, could it be argued that deep down underneath, they still want children and that there are some psychological factors which are altering their desire for children? I think this may be possible, however, that still does not work for me. If we look at people who lose a child or who decide to adopt, or who cannot have biological children together (perhaps due to their sexuality or reproductive system), can we say that they are not in love, no. Therefore, I would have to think that at least some aspect of love sits outside the evolutionary drive to reproduce. The next possible input is social bonding.
We can acknowledge that part of love is created from the want to find a mate for reproduction, but there is another part of love outside of this. I would suggest that love is also an extreme form of friendship. People often refer to their partner as their best friend. If you think of a partner beyond the intimacy and child rearing context, they are also somebody who you may socialise with, attend events with, talk things through with, lend money to and from. They are an extreme friend and as such, I would suggest that romantic love is a form of extreme friendship. What does this mean, if anything? Is this new information? One way this is applicable is merely as a realisation of just what a lover truly is, what a huge part they play in our lives as a best friend, mate, and intimate other.
The notion of jealousy also supports the idea of love being both a biological drive for procreation and a form of extreme friendship. From the procreation angle, if we find somebody we want to transmit our genes and have a child with then we will want them to stay with us to develop a healthy child as it grows, hence, it makes sense that we form a strong love attachment. When a child leaves home and we will no longer have children, then it is perhaps the friendship side of love which is the main driver.
Just like the heartbreak of losing a partner, we can experience jealousy and anxiety in friendship; perhaps we may fear that a friend no longer likes us, or that they have replaced us with new friends. Therefore, if love is indeed an extreme form of friendship, it would make sense that we feel an extreme form of jealousy when that friendship is threatened - something which does seem to occur for a large amount of people when they feel their relationship is under threat. Overall, I would say that love can exist without either one of these properties of extreme friendship and children, but each one can also have a strengthening input.
At this point I have suggested that romantic love is a connection created as part of the process of seeking somebody to have children with, both for the continuation of the species and also potentially to seek immortality (i.e., we live on through our children). But I have also suggested that romantic love involves having a best friend, connecting with somebody to share life experiences with, to have at one’s side for company, activities and companionship. At the end of the chapter I began entering into a discussion of the phrase ‘true love’; the question remains as to whether romantic and ‘true’ love is at basis, an extreme form of attachment, or is it something beyond this? Prior to answering this, I would first like to extend the discussion of friendship.
What is life? A 21st century perspective
by David Goss
Chapter One - What is life? : Introduction.........................(today) 18/8/16
Chapter Two - What is life? : Romantic Love..........................
Chapter Three - What is life? : Friendship and work................
Chapter Four - What is life? : Free will, fate and religion...........
Chapter Five - What is life? : Final reflections............................
What is life? : Introduction
What is life? : Introduction
The primary reason I decided to write this book was that I felt I wanted to contribute something of this nature to the world. By ‘this nature’, I mean a set of reflections - thoughts and feelings - which others in society may choose to take something from, should they wish. I was not quite sure what angle I wanted to take with a book until a sunny week in Spain. I had previously begun a steady introduction into reading philosophy, namely through the first meditations of Descartes. During my week in Spain, I read a book which provided a 2-3 page summary of 50 philosophy classics (Butler-Bowdon, 2013). After reading this book I realised that what people define as philosophy, i.e., the nature of questioning and reflecting on the various aspects of life, is something I think I may have been doing for years. Many of the authors in the book had decided to present their ideas onto paper without necessarily providing a story or narrative, and I decided that I would like to do the same. In one sense this was to allow me to excavate some of my deeper thoughts in order to enjoy the process of continually developing my personal understanding and ideas. But what I also liked was the idea that by presenting my ideas, I could present a somewhat contemporary perspective on many of the philosophical questions which have been pondered throughout human existence. Although I enjoyed reading Descartes’ meditations, I have not actually finished reading it. I find it difficult to sometimes comprehend what historic authors are saying, primarily because their language is from a specific period of dialect. I have no doubt that Shakespeare has written many master pieces that if I took the time to study, I would begin to understand. But as a child, I was always put off reading Shakespeare as I could not really grasp the ‘ye olde’ type of English. I experience the same challenge with many other historical writings. So this gave me the idea that not only could my words put a marker in the sand of what a 21st century human brain is contemplating about life, but also, perhaps my contemporary dialect may open the philosophical door to many more people of our generation.
Opening this philosophical door subsequently became the primary motivation in writing this book. I find it exciting to see how humans have developed, how life has developed, sometimes for the good and sometimes people would say for the bad. I find great enjoyment in engaging in philosophical discussions with people. I continually learn and develop a lot of my ideas during this time. I often find that people seem to equally enjoy the conversation (at least I hope so). Discussions on the nature of love, religion, and life, have seemingly provided many people with enjoyment as they develop their thoughts on such topics through interaction with others. As such, I feel that increasing the collective discussion of philosophical questions across people is potentially a way to continually increase the development of our species. I have no doubt that some people will not be interested by the things in this book, but, my hope is that some people will read it and will generate their own thoughts and feelings about some of the questions pondered within. Of course, by people, I mean you, the reader. By bringing these thoughts and feelings to the forefront of our minds, we will continue to see new and novel approaches to how we exist, through collective reflection.
I can only offer my reflections from a particular angle. I am a 30 year old, white British male; therefore my culture and my background will influence my viewpoints into a particular direction. I am pretty confident that an Asian person from a different part of Liverpool, yet alone an elderly person from China or a young refugee child fleeing from the Syrian conflict will have different perspectives on life. However, my individual perspective is not the key facet; it is the nature of the discussion which is the primary focus. There is no way that I can present an idea of what the ultimate truth is across life, I have so much to learn and experience. It is asking the question and undertaking the reflective process which is the key output of this book.
One way to describe the structure of this book is loose. I have spent a lot of my previous years producing academic writing which has required me to meet certain structural requirements. These requirements are often important in enhancing the quality of a piece of writing, however, sometimes they feel like they restrict the creative process. When I began this work, I decided that I wanted to write something which allows a free reign on my thoughts and feelings, whilst still trying to maintain some sense of structure. I would imagine that some people, particularly academics, may find this book a little frustrating. The only referencing I include is when I can recall a distinct influence from a certain author or piece of work. I have not attempted to base my reflections in existing research literature. The reason for this is that I want to present my reflections as they are within my brain. I am not attempting to prove or disprove my theories. Each of my thoughts and feelings will have been influenced from a source, but it is not possible to cite each source, I have been learning for 30 years. Some sources are my parents, people I have met on the street, life experiences growing up, and some from theories and books I have read. Often I have a thought and find that it has already been pondered by somebody, therefore it is hard to say who is the chicken and who is the egg, but for this work, I feel that question is somewhat irrelevant. One thing I have purposefully tried to refrain from is reading any more philosophical writings since I read the 50 classics introduction. I found that many ideas in that book were ones I had previously pondered, whilst some were new. This is why I was keen to write this book now, so that I can place a marker in the sand on what my current reflections are, before I become further involved in reading specific philosophical texts.
I am confident that many of my ideas will repeat previous people in the world, however I see this akin with music. The Beatles, Elvis, Etta James, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Adele – all of these people have written/sung songs about love, about life. It is not necessarily the subject which is important, it is how it is approached, using a different voice. This is why I make no apology for writing in a way that feels right to me. This is my way of communicating a set of ideas in my own voice, which I hope will make sense in a way that appeals to you.
Another thing that you may notice is that this book is not that long and that I do not necessarily excavate my ideas to finite conclusions, in fact at times, I enter onto a tangent, never to return to the original discussion. There are two points I would like to make about this. The first is a reiteration of the goal of the book; to continue the collective discussion of philosophical life reflections among society, and to undertake conscious processing of my own philosophical reflections. As such, sometimes I discuss questions of which I have no more particular thoughts and I have taken a discussion as far as I would like to take it, therefore the discussion may seem abrupt or incomplete. I guess my personality is geared towards sometimes sitting with what is not said, leaving space for reflection; so if you find a question unanswered, if you find I have not explained a point to a conclusive end, use this moment to reflect on where you would have liked it to go. I place intrigue into what you the reader does with the book e.g., are your thoughts similar, are they different, what different questions come up for you based on the discussions presented here?
The second point I would like to make is that there have been so many times I have read a book and by page 150 – 200 I feel it begins to repeat. You will notice that I do repeat topics within different sections as they all link and intertwine; therefore, I was mindful that I wanted to keep things short and sharp, to prevent them from becoming boring (hopefully I achieved this).
Within this book, I have attempted to answer the question of ‘what is life?’ through key topics of discussion. These are topics which I find pop up regularly in the reflections of others and myself. However, I accept that there are additional topics which provide unique angles on understanding life that I will not have covered in this book; again, take note of this, reflect on what you feel has been missed and how it impacts on your life, perhaps it will help you reflect on what the most important things are for you in life.
Following this introduction (chapter one), I present four chapters. Chapter two focuses on trying to understand romantic love; chapter three focuses on trying to understand friendship and occupation, and chapter four focuses on trying to understand God, fate and free will. In chapter five, I attempt to combine my reflections into some concluding remarks on what is life – a 21st century perspective.
Chapters two and four begin with a biographical type introduction to the category. I felt like this would be a useful process for these particular discussions, providing a background as to what, why and how my views on the topic under discussion have so far been formed. Chapter three leant itself less to this type of introduction, however, I do introduce my reason for choosing the topic of discussion. Following the introduction to each chapter, I enter into a free flowing reflection on the topic under review. To provide some order, both for you and for my own understanding, I have highlighted when I have shifted my focus onto a particular question. The question is highlighted in bold. There are primary questions, such as ‘what is love?’, and there are subsidiary questions to the primary questions. Subsidiary questions are highlighted in bold and italicised.
Although the book is quite short, I recommend reading it at a steady pace, taking time to acknowledge your own reflections on the subjects which are presented throughout. It is by undertaking this reflecting that your neural (brain) networks will restructure and your reflective learning will form. Perhaps keep a notepad or laptop nearby and write short sharp reflections on any thoughts or feelings that come up for you during your reading. Better still, if you have a partner or a friend that you can talk about your reflections with, I feel this will enhance your reflections and learning even further. I have a tendency to enter into tangents and to sometimes discuss topics in a way that may not make sense upon first hearing. Although I am trying to improve my communication skills, there may still be occasions upon reading this book that you find you are losing track of my tangents. I would suggest that in these moments, it is worth putting the book down and returning to it with a refreshed mind. It may be that there is a specific sentence or idea which has the potential to strike a chord in you, but if you have entered into a glossing over type of reading, you may miss such a moment. Please do not take this as a reflection of you. Even when reading this book back to myself, I have skirted over it a few times, lost myself and had to refresh myself before returning. If I have managed to lose myself with my own writing, it is certainly understandable that you may get lost once or twice. I have broken each chapter down into parts. This is to somewhat highlight that I have moved onto a slightly different discussion within the chapter, but perhaps more importantly, it is where I feel a natural break may be useful, allowing you to digest what I have discussed and to reflect on your thoughts and feelings.
I mentioned in my introductory blog post that I have an interest in promoting philosophy further within society. Though I had enjoyed writing the couple of blog posts that I have so far presented, something didn’t quite feel right. I pondered, “what is it that I want these to be?”. I reflected back on the book I recently completed and the sole aim of that book was to write about the questions and aspects of life which I think may relate or be of interest to us all, in hope that anybody can take that information to process their own views and questions of life, either within their own writing and reflections, or through discussion with friends, family and well, anybody.
Though I initially considered interviewing people about questions of life and presenting this through a podcast, I realised that this didn’t quite feel like the right process, for a variety of reasons.
As such, after further reflection, I have decided that I will release my book in a phased blog format, through this webpage.
Each blog post will present a new part of the book, the topic of which will be outlined in the contents page.
The book is entitled
“What is life? A 21st century perspective”
I shall say no more on the book as I will swiftly release the opening introduction chapter following publication of this blog post. In the opening chapter, I explain exactly what the book is, what it’s about and what it will contain.
I hope you enjoy reading it
I find hugging to be such an interesting aspect of life. Interactions with friends and family all seem to have unwritten rules of conduct built in, with each person adapting the rules according to their personality and level of relationship with people. Yet in each interaction, there is an inevitable moment of goodbye in which we may be left reflecting on what did or didn’t occur. We may be left feeling a post goodbye connection with somebody, or we may be left with a slight sense of disconnection, depending on how we said goodbye.
I recently attended a social event with work colleagues and the inevitable unknown of ‘goodbye’ arrived. For the majority of the year, workplace goodbyes are kept to a nod of the head, some passing words of good wishes for the weekend, and generally pretty formal. All of a sudden, a social event, a ‘works do’ brings us together in a different time and space, and goodbye becomes a whole other ball game. There often seems to be two approaches to these moments.
One approach is the group departure, when everybody leaves at the same time. This ending is tricky as invariably, there will be people in the group who are huggers. All of a sudden, there is a moment of wonder as colleagues work out just where their friendship is at. Sometimes, I find myself at the end of a line or circle of people, everybody else prior to me has hugged, so the person and I approach each other within a thought of, ‘well, here we are, everybody else has hugged and though this feels a little different and awkward to our usual interactions, it would almost be awkward not to hug...let’s just go for it’. Admittedly, this sort of deliberation seems to occur more often in male-female interactions. Male colleagues generally go for the handshake, though even this has the potential to progress into a sports style shoulder to shoulder hug, and in moments of closeness or merry influence, a “man hug” may occur - though it’s also true that some male-female and female-female interactions, depending on the nature of the workplace interaction, specifically in relation to the perceived level of authority in the relationship, may also be suited to a handshake. Of course, I write from a male point of view and I could have things completely wrong; it would be interesting to hear whether females encounter this moment of hesitation when saying goodbye to each other?
However, returning to the case of a potential hugging type of relationship; there are times when I have been at the start of the goodbye line (or circle). All of a sudden, the pressure is on to determine just what style of goodbye this is going to be. In a moment of awkwardness, I play it overly safe and don’t go for a hug, and yet, I’m then left to watch as the departed enters into a hug with everybody else, and part of me is left feeling as if I’m then slightly disconnected – deep down, I wish I’d gone for the hug.
The other type of departure is the individual departure, i.e., when somebody exits a group but everybody else will still be remaining. I find goodbyes become more distant in these situations. There's a moment when I realise, ‘if I hug one person who I know well, how do I say goodbye to other people without offending them’. Sometimes there’s a work colleague who you just really don’t know, or somebody has brought somebody as a friend or family member, and a hug may seem inappropriate, so I find it easier to just give a holistic goodbye. This is carried out by kind of speaking and waving to the group as a whole, “okay, see you later”, and retreating out of the situation in a swift fashion. Yet, I then feel slightly disconnected from the person who I am closest to, who I have spent the evening chatting with but who I included in this holistic goodbye. I may end up trying to send a text, in hope of some way trying to cement and confirm the enjoyable connection that we formed through the evening.
What I’ve come to realise and accept is that there are varying levels of goodbye, and it's just about feeling and trusting in undertaking the appropriate level of goodbye – it’s all about finding the balance. There are times when merely verbally saying goodbye feels right, perhaps because I’ve only just met somebody. But sometimes I may not even say goodbye to such a person, and I walk away feeling slightly off within myself - not in an overly bad way, but as if my inner sense realised that I didn’t connect with that person during our goodbye in the way that was right for us. I believe part of this off-feeling will not only be from our own internal feeling, but will also be due to conscious and unconscious communication with the other person. Without saying it, it’s as if both you and the other know what you would like the goodbye to be, and if for various reasons this goodbye doesn't occur, you each silently communicate an awareness of this, even if we don’t consciously admit it. The same thing may occur with somebody who I have a closer friendship with. In this moment, the off feeling may occur because, even though we do actually say goodbye, we don’t hug, and internally, that’s where it felt our relationship had progressed to in this social engagement – perhaps we were already social acquaintances outside of work.
I don’t feel there are any set rules or levels of friendship where we can say, “okay, we are in the hugging zone now”, I think we just feel it, our internal worlds are aware of it.
So what are the “various reasons” which may prevent our true goodbyes occurring? It’s hard to answer this question as, though there may be general common aspects, it truly will be an individual thing. It will also depend on the type of relationship between colleagues. But, even without going into the details, it is safe to say that a large portion will relate to worrying about what the other person and/or people around us may think. Again, this may be conscious, but it may also be unconscious. We may not necessarily cognitively think “what if they don’t want to hug me, or say goodbye, or shake hands etc.”, but we internalise this. So, I feel it can be useful to try and reduce this process of worry or care from our thoughts. When saying goodbye, if we tune in and just let things flow, whether this is making the effort to cross over to the other side of the room and tell a colleague that you really enjoyed meeting and talking with them this evening and that you look forward to talking again, or if you’ve had a personal and meaningful conversation with a colleague you know well and feel like a hug would be nice, even if only a quick brief hug, rather than an all embracing hug, trust this feeling. Next time you say goodbye at a work social, watch your feeling, let your thoughts float away, and go with the flow of goodbye. If it doesn’t quite feel right, never mind, perhaps we’ll get it right next time. If you’re unsure, as can often be the case, maybe literally ask the person, “how shall we say goodbye?” and the unspoken mutual understanding may be given words and subsequent action. Don’t get me wrong, a hug is not always appropriate, even if one person wants it, the other may feel it’s important to keep a boundary. But I think we truly pick up on this. Your inner sense will pick it out.
All I can say is that there are times when I’ve not undertaken a goodbye - whether a nod of the head, a handshake or a hug - and felt a missed connection with somebody. Connecting with other people is something I feel can be important for our well-being and it can bring a great unitary experience to each of our lives if we trust ourselves to find (and carry out) the right balance of goodbye.
In fact, I would say this process can be applied to all aspects of goodbyes, whether friends, family or work colleagues. I suppose there are just so many factors which add to the fascinating question…when do I hug my colleagues?
I live in the city centre and there are a number of pigeons in the vicinity. Is it just me, or are they growing in confidence? I was sat in a café courtyard recently and a pigeon was pecking at food, right around my foot. In years gone by, I remember almost feeling sad because a pigeon felt it couldn't trust me to approach a couple of crumbs within my locality. They would kind of okey kokey their way towards me but never commit. However, there is a sense that this is changing. I’m unsure if this is because they have become so hungry that the reward of food outweighs the risk of attack. I also wonder if, after decades of living alongside humans, they are beginning to trust us more. From an evolutionary point of view, it could be argued that it is those pigeons which take the gamble and go for food in risky situations which are more likely to survive and thus pass on their genes to their children (I think pigeon’s offspring are called children?). Recently, I feel like pigeons have been getting closer and closer to human contact. If I walk down the main city centre street, they seem to come in for military style landings, hovering right above my head and the heads of others as they prepare to land. I’ve always felt like there's no need to make an excessive avoidance as they won’t connect, but a number of people have informed me that they have felt the claw/talon/foot of a pigeon upon their head in recent times. I wonder where the line will be. At the moment, we seem to live in peace with pigeons, even if they appear to cause the occasional nuisance to some pedestrians, most people just seem to let them get on with things. I recently saw a child chasing some pigeons and the child appeared to be gently reprimanded by their parent. I think this is a lovely demonstration of our innate care. On one hand, the parent likely asked the child to stop chasing the pigeons because either they carry germs which they do not want their child to inherit, or that the quickly dispersing pigeons may disgruntle other people in the vicinity, but I also like to believe that there is a part of the parent who is asking the child to not overly complicate the pigeons' lives, which in reality, is an act of care and compassion.
This human core of care and compassion is something I feel when I attend yoga classes. I recently attended hot yoga, and like many other yoga classes, there is a lovely feeling within the room for each and every class. I’d tried yoga at home and whilst it was enjoyable, the feeling of positive united connection and energy which comes from collective group activity is a great feeling. Yoga encourages people to be compassionate to themselves which, though for some that may sound almost hippy-esque, is something I try to carry out every day and it is something that I believe brings an ultimate sense of peace to our lives. I have come across a range of scientific research which demonstrates the benefit of self and other compassion on our brains and subjective well-being, but it is by truly experiencing it within yourself that you may get the greatest evidence. Next time you feel angry at yourself, perhaps take a moment to hold off from beating yourself up, just remove all thoughts, look at the feeling of anger within yourself, perhaps a fiery stomach or a pounding heart, and literally smile, remove the self-judgements and just observe the feeling for as long as possible. Smile, internally and externally. Offer yourself a deep breath and an internal pat on the back. It is from being kind and compassionate to ourselves that we can extend to others, which in turn reflects back to our own well-being. Our internal thoughts can be quick to self-criticise, which subsequently can lead to the criticism of others, making both us and the other feel bad. Sometimes both we and others get things wrong, and this can be reviewed and learned from, in a peaceful manner. If you angrily shout to somebody, “don’t do that, it’s wrong”, they may stop what they're doing, but they may also feel foolish for being shouted at. It is possible that this feeling may even lead them to continuing their act or feeling anger towards you. You may then feel raged by their action and by their response, and the cycle continues. If we merely gently say, “I’m not sure that it is the best thing to do, what do you feel, how come you are doing it?” We bring an open and peaceful sense to proceedings which will truly pave the way for learning. We may even learn something from the other which is of use to ourselves. If we can reach a point where each of our actions is based on not intentionally causing harm to others or to ourselves, I believe we will each find the core peace with us. This process of self-compassion is not a quick one, especially if we have become used to self-defeating thoughts. So take time with it; be careful not to beat yourself up for beating yourself up. There is a compassion in the world that unities us with the pigeons, you deserve it too.
Hello and thanks for coming to the Zence Psychology website.
I feel I want a blog page for the website, but I'm not entirely sure what I want it to contain. I see so many websites with blog posts which, after one or two initial entries, have not been updated for a while. It almost makes me feel a little sad, so many unwritten words left wandering the universe. I was hesitant of starting a blog in case this same fate occurred for me, starting with exuberance in May, yet failing to register another entry further on. However, I met a lovely person when I was out having a cup of coffee recently and they set me straight, highlighting that it is in my hands to prevent this from happening. So I committed to maintaining a blog; I then had to decide upon the contents.
I am currently writing a book which is a philosophical and psychological commentary on topics I find interesting life, questioning and reflecting on topics which are at the root of what it means to be human. I wondered if I could release aspects of this book through the blog. But then I had another idea. I feel at this point, the book belongs with the book. However, every time I step out the door, every time I walk the streets, I'm filled with amazement and enjoyment of life. I love learning about human nature. It is innate within me, I think that's probably why I became a psychologist. Despite what people sometimes ask me, psychologists (as far as I am aware) cannot read minds. Being a psychologist is not about trying to manipulate or out think people, for me it is about connecting with people on a deep level, with a wish to develop understanding together. And so, I decided that I will use this space as a reflective area. Whenever something comes up for me, internally or externally, I will make an attempt to share this with you, the reader, in hope that my experiences and reflections may be something of interest to you. We all live different lives, with different choices and views. My words are certainly not going to be focused on what people should or shouldn't do. They will be focused on observations and experiences which occur in my everyday existence. I merely wish to provide my reflections on paper (well, on screen) so that as humans, we can spend time together, undertaking a process of learning about ourselves.
I have no anticipated timescale for the blog entries, I suppose the intensity of an experience and reflection will determine when a new entry occurs. If you have any topics that you would like me to discuss, please feel free to email me email@example.com