A couple of months ago, I was riding the subway in NYC and looked up to see an advertisement for the "Philosophy Works" course at the local School of Practical Philosophy. I had seen this advertisement before - anyone who's lived in NYC has probably seen it a number of times (that and adverts for Dr. Zizmor); but, I had never given it a second thought. At the time, however, I had recently been engaged in a number of challenging yet rewarding conversations. As such, I thought a class like this - Philosophy Works - would be worth at least looking into.
Later, when I found out that the course was an extremely reasonable $90 for ten weeks (once a week), I figured that I couldn't afford not to try it out. At the very least, I assumed it would lend well to some thought-provoking conversation and let me work on my social skills.
Going into the class, I really had no expectations at all. Other than the general theme of "practicality," I had no idea what kind of agenda might be presented. Even after the first class (which I had last night), I am not sure I could really tell you what we'll be doing over the remaining 9 weeks.
The first half of last night's class consisted of people talking about why they were there - what was it that drew them to a class on philosophy. I naively expected to hear people talk about how they felt lost in life and how they just wanted to "make sense of it all." But, the list of reasons turned out to be much more enlightened. Among the many reasons, people said:
- To gain a better sense of rationality.
- To learn more self-control.
- To be able to live more in the moment.
- To learn how to love more.
- To gain wisdom.
- To be happier.
- To find more balance and harmony.
- To get better at learning from others.
- To learn from the past.
- To better myself.
- To learn more about self-exploration.
- To understand justice.
The sentiment of the crowd was not that of suffering and desperation, but rather that of curiosity and a thirst for truth. The whole conversation reminded me of a wonderful perspective given on Talk of the Nation's, Science Friday a few weeks ago. I shall paraphrase:
The concept of "Scientist" as a an occupation is relatively new. Coined in 1833 by William Whewell, much of what we now consider to be science was previously put under the category of philosophy. Philosophers, like scientists, are seekers of truth.
And that's what our class last night was - we weren't lost souls looking for meaning; we were scientists embarking on a journey. Our goals: truth and wisdom.
After that discussion, the teacher asked us to think about the people that we hold as being "wise" and to talk about what they are like. The first person that came to my mind was my business partner, Clark Valberg. And, while I can't cleanly articulate my thoughts, I can sum it up as the ability to view emotions as nothing more than "starting points" for self-exploration. Rather then allowing me to simply accept a "feeling," Clark constantly challenges me to examine why I have a given feeling and then to figure out how to leverage that feeling for self-improvement.
Many times, Clark has quoted to me:
The longest journey a man can take is the eighteen inches between his brain and his heart.
The idea being that as we gain wisdom, we learn to lead with our minds rather than being subjugated by our hearts.
At the end of the day, the teacher gave us two activities to try before next class. One was a sort of guided meditation - trying to clear the mind and become aware of the moment. The other activity was to stop before acting and ask ourselves, "What would a 'wise' person do in this case?"
After the activities were explained, a fellow classmate sort of blew my mind by asking: "What if I know what a wise person would do but I cannot summon the courage to follow through?" The teacher responded that we would definitely be talking about such things in the coming weeks; but, I think more than anything, this type of question offers a wonderful insight into the caliber of people taking the class.
I rather enjoyed the class and am looking forward to next week. But, one thing that I did notice was that I had trouble listening. And by that, I mean that my mind was racing with what I wanted to say next. One of the things that I clearly need to work on, as far as self-improvement goes, is the ability to listen to others; to learn from others; and, then only afterwards, to think about what I want to say.
As a closing thought, I got into an interesting conversation with a woman on the way back to the subway. She asked me if "I found it hard to forgive." This question took me back a bit because it represented a sort of complete opposite to how I experience the world. I have always had trouble with empathy and am usually surprised when I find (or suspect) that other people see the world in a way that is much different than mine.
Forgiveness is not hard at all. It takes no effort. What is hard is not forgiving. What takes effort is not letting go. When I was young, I used to hold grudges; in a weird way, I sort of romanticized the idea of a grudge. It became a game - something that I would indulge in. But, as I got older, the game became too exhausting. I had too many other activities to which I needed to devote energy and the idea of a grudge lost its appeal.
I believe that when Nelson Mandela said that "forgiveness liberates the soul," he was referring, at least in part, to the effort required to maintain hatred. It is exhausting and it goes against our nature. Forgiveness is easy. Forgiveness is natural.
Anyway, more to come after next week's class!