Until it is the artificial intelligence of robots that tells us what “it’s all about,” human beings provide our information about the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.
Without such information, we are, in large part, reflexive entities, driven forward and set back by forces we can’t see and don’t understand. Without such information, we live much of our lives at the behest of our biological immediacy and social and political mindsets, neither of which we thoughtfully authored or govern. It could be said that without such information, much of life just happens to us.
But the unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates. It’s not worth living because it leaves us without access to the elevated joys of wonder, creativity, gratitude, fulfillment and satisfaction.
The initial force that drives us shows up in our immediacy, the living organism’s system of feelings and senses primed to keep it alive. If we learn that lizards are also home to this system, we realize that it is a brute, visceral force with no attention to us as civilized individuals with hopes, passions and fears.
But beyond this immediate force, we are also driven by determined mindsets, too often acquired via conformity, mimicry and timidity. Unexamined, such mindsets tend to be a kind of box, limiting our range of possibilities. So how do we think outside the box? We embark upon an examined life and release our imagination, creativity, opportunities and affections from the confines of the box.
The study of the philosophy and practice of autonomy and life doesn’t sever us from the forces I described. We sense our feelings and the pressures of the social/political world as long as we live. But as a result of our study, we are less often—much less often—persistently destabilized by a mood, perspective and set of intelligences built of authoritative forces we don’t understand.
A life worth living is constructed piece by piece. We learn to educate the senses and sensibilities that give our experience shape and resource. And we learn how to build the character that underpins authenticity, nerve, responsibility and the capacity to motivate ourselves when we don’t feel like it. Indeed, in many ways, our study of autonomy and life enables us to be architects of our own emotions when disappointments, pessimism or obstacles have knocked us to the mat.
We actually learn how to “right” or return to homeostasis the living system rocked by immediacy and the inevitable anger and discontent that accompany instability and anxiety. In fact, this ability is our means to an uplifting peace of mind, a centering, so to speak, that enables us to deal far more rationally and effectively with the significant moments presented to us by love and life.
Yes, we never get it all right all the time. Crunch time shows up all day long and none of us is a mastermind who makes no mistakes when it comes to critical choices, decisions and judgments. But as a result of our focused effort to live an examined life—one of our own thoughtful and planned design, we find ourselves in a position to extend our creative and resilient resources to all of life’s challenges and opportunities.
In closing, we are more than our primordial fixed purpose and more than our socially shaped fixed mindset. Via our acquired-through-study ability to think freely, see clearly and act responsibly, we transform the energy of our brute genetic disposition and timid acculturation into the inspiration and bold choices that shape a meaningful and contributory life of our own making.
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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.