Friday, December 1, 2017

The New Hedonism

Like anyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing pleasure. Whether it was food or other substances, I’ve done my share. And then some. And like anyone else, it’s often bitten me in the ass. The very thing I thought would do me good turned around and did me bad. Turns out, managing pleasure is not so easy.
It feels good to feel good. Naturally, we want more of it. Even a single celled organism swims toward the food and away from the pain. Freud called this universal dynamic the “pleasure principle.” Bentham and Mill called it the “principle of utility” and built an entire ethical system around it known as utilitarianism. And two ancient Greek philosophers, Aristippus and Epicurus, asserted that pleasure was the highest good, and that we were morally obligated to pursue it. The Greek word for pleasure is “hedone.” Their philosophy is called hedonism.
            Hedonism asserts that pleasure not only feels good, it is good. But Aristippus and Epicurus disagreed on the exact nature of pleasure. For Aristippus, all pleasures were equal, and no meaningful distinctions could be made between higher and lower pleasures. When you and I use the word “hedonism,” this is the version of hedonism we usually mean – pleasure for pleasure’s sake, the more the better, the sooner the better, and consequences be damned.
For Epicurus, on the other hand, a more refined definition of pleasure comes into view. In Epicureanism, an important distinction is made between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures engage the senses. Higher pleasures engage the mind and the soul. For Aristippus the pleasure derived from scratching a mosquito bite is morally equivalent to the pleasure derived from reading literature or writing music. Epicurus disagrees. For him, higher pleasures are of a much higher quality than lower pleasures, and are therefore preferable, even if in lesser amount or mixed with pain. Aristippus focuses on quantity, Epicurus on quality. Quantity or quality – what matters most to you?
            For Epicurus and his followers (known as Epicureans), the best life was a simple life of friendship, healthy living, and peace of mind. A good night’s sleep, a clear-headed morning, lucid thoughts, a keen sense of presence, and rich conversation offer deeper pleasure than the wildest evening of excess and revelry. Debauchery and conspicuous consumption, the hallmark of Aristippus’s form of hedonism, have no place in the Epicurean worldview for one simple reason – they do not in fact lead to more pleasure, but less. Sickness, dissipation, strained relationships, and that empty feeling that you’re wasting your life – these hardly qualify as “pleasure” let alone happiness. The well-lived life, Epicurus argued, was a source of deep satisfaction. In simple terms, less is more – restraint of appetite leads to a profusion of happiness. The mechanics of pleasure are more subtle and nuanced than we first imagined.
            Another important consideration in pleasure management is the element of time. How good are you at trading small, short-term pleasure for larger long-term pleasures? The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham called this consideration propinquity – nearness in time. For example, spending your entire paycheck as soon as you get it on fleeting entertainment vs. setting aside 10% of it for larger, more significant purchases in the future, like your next car or a trip to Paris. Either way it’s self-centered hedonism, yet clearly, one is more effective at maximizing pleasure than the other. If you’re really serious about pleasure, you learn how to wait.
            There’s a reason I quit drinking and drugging. There’s a reason I go to bed early and get up early. There’s a reason I read difficult books. There’s a reason I regularly exercise, meditate, and do yoga. There’s a reason I keep my desk neat and clean. There’s a reason I eat healthy, delicious, fresh, and wholesome food in moderate portions. There’s a reason I push myself to do challenging things that stretch me out of my comfort zone. The reason is pleasure. I do all of these things because they greatly increase my happiness. This is the New Hedonism.
            What used to be fun is no longer fun for me. The calculations have deepened and shifted. It’s still all about maximizing pleasure, but my definition of pleasure has changed. What used to be boring and dull is now exciting and bright. A walk through the neighborhood is a thrill. Waking up healthy and alive is a magnificent gift. Being of service is deeply gratifying. The simple grace of living in this miraculous mind-body, in relationship with all of these other innumerable mind-bodies around me, on such a beautiful planet, in this magnificent cosmos, is an inexhaustible stream of joy. By letting go, one by one, of the practices, thought patterns, and habits that no longer served my highest good, I grew simpler and simpler until the essential happiness dormant within each of us began to arise. It’s a process, not a destination. I don’t think I’ll ever be done growing and letting go. But with the loving support of the other awakening people around me, everyday becomes an opportunity to see just how much deeper, how much truer, how much more pleasurable life can become.
            What will the New Hedonism mean for you? What shape will it take?
            What practices, thought patterns, and habits no longer serve your highest good?
            What might a wiser calculation of short term vs. long term pleasure yield?
            What will a clear headed assessment of every source of so-called pleasure show? In the accounting of our own sacred wellness, only the most courageous self-examination will do.
            Without moralizing, without self-loathing, and without reference to any authorities other than your own instinctive good sense, what would careful and loving introspection reveal?
            Let pragmatism be your guide. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, let it go. One by one examine every behavior, every habit, every practice, and every thought-pattern and apply this simple test – does this behavior, habit, practice, or thought-pattern enhance my deep and overall happiness, or does it diminish it? Only you know. And again, without even the slightest appeal to religious authorities, cultural norms, or the opinions of others, ask yourself one simple question – is this enhancing my life or hampering it? Find a healthy balance between willingness to take direction and fierce independence.
            As Socrates reminded us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Without this sort of hard-headed scrutiny, our tendency is to just keep going on and on in the same stultifying patterns. Like sleep-walkers, we shuffle along chasing the same prizes that again and again have led to little more than disappointment and disillusionment. You deserve better. Your soul is asking for more. It’s time to move out of the darkness and into the light.
            As this year comes to a close, re-examine your relationship with pleasure. We love pleasure, and rightly so. All organisms do. Pleasure is good. Pleasure is one of the greatest joys of life. But what kind of pleasure? Only wisdom knows.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Winter is Coming

Lori and I have been working with a financial adviser on our retirement plan. We’ve been facing down a whole host of decisions regarding risk assessment, asset management, and prudent reserves. We’re not rich – we both work for the government. We’re about as middle class as they come. And in about ten years we’ll both be leaving our jobs and joining the wonderful tribe of Retired People. We hear they’re nice. We hope we fit in.
            You find yourself pouring over charts indicating that you will be eighty-years-old in 2038 and ninety in 2048, if you make it that long. We set up our plan so that we’ll be stone cold broke by the time we turn 98. If we make it past that we’ll just have to go out and get a part time job. Walmart door greeter or something.
            It’s been a revealing process. You lay yourself bare. Our financial advisor knows more about the details of our private life than all of our friends put together. It doesn’t work if you keep secrets. Think about it. Like the forensic accountants currently dissecting the Trump family’s bowl-of-spaghetti financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs, your financial planner is going to go over every penny of income and expenses with a fine-toothed comb – all your habits, foibles, obsessions, and weaknesses will be dragged out into the light of day. Sometimes when I’m in his office I feel like it would be easier to stand on the conference table and take all of my clothes off.
            One of the surprises about financial planning – it’s a lot like philosophical self-examination. You have to come clean about who you are, what you have, and what you want. You have to clearly articulate your values – what matters most, what matters least, and what doesn’t matter at all. You have to be assertive and direct, but you have to be humble and willing to be led. You have to be very, very clear on what you know and what you don’t know. If you get that wrong, everything goes wrong. When in doubt, which will be most of the time, take the advice.
            Naturally, (and I say naturally because this is the same boat the overwhelming majority of us are in), we haven’t saved enough for retirement. These next ten years are going to be austere as we try to close the gap, or more austere than I’d previously imagined.
            There are two mistakes people commonly make in their retirement thinking, and I was making both of them. One, I assumed that once you retire your expenses go down. Wrong. Most people spend more when they retire than when they’re working. They start traveling more. And of course, later in life, healthcare costs skyrocket. And two, I forgot to account for inflation. Ten, twenty, and thirty years from now, things are going to cost a lot more. Think of how much a gallon of milk, a gallon of gas, or a movie ticket cost thirty years ago – they’ve nearly tripled. This is why your savings will lose 67% of its value over a thirty year span.
            And this is why working with a professional financial planner, preferably a fee-only planner, is so important. A fee-only planner charges you for their services like a dentist, a plumber, or an attorney. All other types of financial planners earn money on commissions from the investments they steer you toward. In other words, you can never be sure that their investment advice is untainted by self-interest. Are they pushing investments that are best for you, or that yield the highest commission for them? Despite their best assurances, you never really know. I’m not saying that commissioned sales people are inherently deceitful – I’m sure they’re mostly wonderful folks – but their business model is ripe for abuse, most of it beneath the surface and hidden from view.
            The other way that estate planning is like philosophy is that you have to face the fact that you are going to fade away and die, and a good financial planner, like a good philosopher, is going to help you do it as consciously, joyfully, honestly, and compassionately as possible. In both endeavors – financial planning and philosophy – the goal is to embody the principle of no-harm: no harm to yourself and no harm to anybody else. Only when you honestly, courageously, and unflinchingly face the fact that you are going to grow old and die can you rightly set your affairs in order to maximize benefit and minimize needless suffering.
            Another benefit of financial planning is the way it challenges and changes your relationship with your stuff. As you grow older you begin jettisoning excess baggage, if only out of kindness for the friends and relatives who are going to have to endure the miserable task of emptying your house or apartment when you’re gone. Show them a little love. Get rid of all the extra crap right now, the stuff you could easily live without. You’ll be shocked by how much bigger your home feels, and how much freer you’ll feel.
            But the biggest benefit of estate planning by far is the way it lifts guilt, shame, and worry off your neck. You no longer have to regard the future as a dark, menacing cloud full of uncertainty and danger. You know that no matter what happens, you’ve seen to it that you will be financially supported throughout. Your affairs are in order. Your investments are safe. Your insurance is sufficient. Your tax strategies are maximized. In the event of your death, your spouse is taken care of. And in the event of both of your deaths, a calm and rational process unfolds for the dispensation of whatever assets remain. You just don’t have to stay awake at night worrying about that stuff anymore. How much is your peace of mind worth?
            And all of this for only a few thousand bucks. It is money well spent. I only wish I’d done it sooner. I feel like grabbing every twenty and thirty-year-old I know and forcing them to make an appointment with my financial planner. But I know I can’t. It’s not my place. But because of the miracle of compound interest, a tiny monthly investment into retirement savings over a forty year span is a gazillion times better than even the most aggressive savings plan begun in one’s forties or fifties.
            With all that being said, it’s never too late to take what you’ve got and make it better. The only thing holding most people back from hiring a fee-only Certified Financial Planner (CFP) is fear and shyness, two things I know a lot about. Thankfully, my life-long philosophical training and hard-won life experience convinces me of one simple, unimpeachable truth – problems don’t get better by ignoring them.
            Facing the fact of one's own impending decline and death, facing the facts of one's own spending habits, and facing the fact that your years of denial and avoidance have yielded little but frustration and anxiety, you finally pick up the phone and start the process. It's going to hurt. But not nearly as much as the alternative. Winter is coming. And even the squirrels know how to hide nuts for later, when all the trees are bare.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Odin's Tree

I just returned from Iceland. People keep asking me, “So, how was it?”
            “It was great,” I tell them.
But what I really want to say is that it changed my life; that when I look at the photos my heart hurts with longing and my eyes begin to shine; that something about it moved me deeply, in ways I can never explain.
As an act of reverence for the enchantment of Iceland I set myself on a course of study I’d neglected for too long – Norse mythology. In 1,000 C.E. Iceland was the last European nation to convert to Christianity, and even then it didn’t outlaw the old ways – they stayed alive and thrive to this day. Jesus and Odin walk together across her fresh green fields and glacial moraines.
Iceland was first settled by Norwegians, then later by Celts. The spiritual landscape of Iceland is a mélange of Norse mythology, archaic Christianity, and Celtic mysticism. The gods of the Aesir and Vanir jostle for space with the huldufólk or “hidden people” – the elves, trolls, and fairies who inhabit the mounds and outcroppings that rise from the fields of every farm.
The veil between the seen and unseen world is very thin in Iceland.
In Norse mythology Odin was the oldest and greatest of the gods. Long ago, when the world was young, Odin disguised himself as a traveler and went to find Mimir’s well whose waters rose up from the core of the earth to nourish Yggdrasil, the world-tree. Legend has it that one drink from Mimir’s well would make one wise. When Odin found the well he asked Mimir for a drink. Mimir told him no, the water was only for him. But Odin could be persuasive. Finally Mimir agreed, if Odin would do one thing for him.
“What?” Odin asked.
“Give me one of your eyes.”
Without hesitation Odin performed the grisly task, tossing his eye into the well. Mimir nodded, handing Odin his horn.
Odin filled the horn and drank deeply. He felt wisdom flooding through him, and he was transformed. From then on he was known as the Blind God, although he still had one good eye.
Odin has many names and often travels in disguise. He’s tricky that way. He also has two ravens, Hugin and Munin, which mean “thought” and “memory.” They fly far and wide, and are the eyes of Odin. When you see a raven, Odin is watching. They return to sit on his shoulders and whisper into his ears all of the things they know and remember. So it is that nothing eludes Odin’s grasp.
One time Odin performed a great sacrifice in order to attain a higher state of divinity. He hung himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights with nothing to eat and nothing to drink, his side pierced by a spear. His agony transformed him – he was now able to understand the sacred runes that once had no meaning. His resilience unlocked the secrets of the world.
Like gods everywhere, Odin stands as a metaphor for that which is unrealized in us – our highest manifestation. If, as Joseph Campbell claims, “each of us is the hero of our own lives,” then Odin’s story, like the story of any sacrificial god, is our story: evolution driven by the engine of resilience.
In a farmer’s field far off the beaten track, soaking in the roughhewn hot springs at Hruni, my wife and my friends and I let the warm waters wash away the weariness every traveler knows. In the late afternoon light two ravens perched on the roof of the stone cottage across the meadow – memory and thought. Odin is here. Our traveling, our struggles, and our sacrifices pull the threads that help us unravel the mystery of our own lives. We are all on the world-tree, wounded, and longing to become who we really are. One day soon, on the other side of these hardships, we will be able to read all of the runes.

[This piece previously appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the November/December 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]