2021 Aeon Reads


~ One of my favorite publications on the Internet is Aeon. A philosophically-oriented, non-profit digital magazine, completely free and imho, utterly arresting with its content flows. They have articles, essays, and video projects on the most interesting topics and ideas, featuring some of the best writing, within a satisfying series of serious, unbiased inquiry and light-hearted whimsy, all with a sense of hopefulness to the beats. Aeon’s writers, from all walks of scientific and psychological and sociological life, do not shy from political discourse or the suggestion of potential solutions to seemingly “unsolvable” problems.

In all, I love Aeon simply because I love to learn.

I recommend giving some of their work a read, and subscribing to Aeon’s weekly newsletter to get a dose of the world delivered to you in an intelligent and compassionate manner. And, if you can, donate to keep them going!

This week their newsletter highlighted the best reads from the year thus far. And for this post, I went and read some of them (of the ones I hadn’t ready already). Here is a quick review of these stories that all, rather serendipitously, deal with exploring the possibilities of the self — mentally, socially, politically, philosophically, spiritually.

You are a network

Kathleen Wallace is professor of philosophy at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She works on ethics and metaphysics of personal identity and is the author of The Network Self: Relation, Process, and Personal Identity (2019). She lives in New York City.

Kathleen Wallace discusses the nature of how we construct our sense of *self.* For some, where their race or class may seem dominant in the status quo, the self is an individualistic essence they have built for themselves. Others identify their self only in relation to their environment, from the people and history within it. Some identify primarily as their race or sex, some see their role in society as paramount, or their life as that of being their father’s son. Others still see themselves in the light of their most prominent value or personality trait (or their favorite TV shows…) The detectable truth seems to be, according to the author, that a person’s self is defined by ALL of their many signifiers taken together, in an interconnected bundle of hydra-headed “identity” known as “the network self.” The network self is massive and cumulative and yet ever-changing. The network self theory is also an empowering, humanistic thought process to take into your own perspective. Fascinating and thorough. An intriguing read. ~

Plato, long before Freud, recognised that there were unconscious desires, and that self-knowledge is a hard-won and provisional achievement. The process of self-questioning and self-discovery is ongoing through life because we don’t have fixed and immutable identities: our identity is multiple, complex and fluid.”

“How else might the network self contribute to practical, living concerns? One of the most important contributors to our sense of wellbeing is the sense of being in control of our own lives, of being self-directing. You might worry that the multiplicity of the network self means that it’s determined by other factors and can’t be self-determining. The thought might be that freedom and self-determination start with a clean slate, with a self that has no characteristics, social relations, preferences or capabilities that would predetermine it. But such a self would lack resources for giving itself direction. Such a being would be buffeted by external forces rather than realising its own potentialities and making its own choices. That would be randomness, not self-determination. In contrast, rather than limiting the self, the network view sees the multiple identities as resources for a self that’s actively setting its own direction and making choices for itself. Lindsey might prioritise career over parenthood for a period of time, she might commit to finishing her novel, setting philosophical work aside. Nothing prevents a network self from freely choosing a direction or forging new ones. Self-determination expresses the self. It’s rooted in self-understanding.”

“The network self view envisions an enriched self and multiple possibilities for self-determination, rather than prescribing a particular way that selves ought to be. That doesn’t mean that a self doesn’t have responsibilities to and for others. Some responsibilities might be inherited, though many are chosen. That’s part of the fabric of living with others. Selves are not only ‘networked’, that is, in social networks, but are themselves networks. By embracing the complexity and fluidity of selves, we come to a better understanding of who we are and how to live well with ourselves and with one another.”

How equality slipped away

Kim Sterelny is professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. His books include Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (2nd ed, 1999), co-authored with Michael Devitt; The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique (2012) and From Signal to Symbol: The Evolution of Language (forthcoming, 2021), co-authored with Ronald J Planer. His most recent book is The Pleistocene Social Contract: Culture and Cooperation in Human Evolution (2021).

Piece by Kim Sterelny presenting the prospect that only in the last 3% of human history has any real level of systemic inequality arisen. With the rise of industrial age capitalism and globalized human interconnectivity and population explosion, come power and wealth hierarchies perpetuated to the point of tyranny. How did we let this happen? How much of it was inevitable? And more importantly, can we ever remedy our social and economic relations from here? Can we learn to more effectively share our world for our own long-term health? ~

So how did inequality establish and grow without the cloak of law and the shield of organised state power?

Farming and storage make inequality possible, perhaps even likely, because they tend to undermine sharing norms, establish property rights and the coercion of labour, amplify intercommunal violence, and lead to increases in social scale.”

If this picture of the road to inequality is right, it leads to four expectations. First, inequality depends on a prior establishment of an economy of storage and an expansion in social scale. Second, transegalitarian communities emerge from forager communities with clan-based organisation. Third, transegalitarian communities emerge from forager communities where the normative and ritual life is in the hands of a small group of initiates. And finally, such communities emerge in regional contexts with intermediate levels of intercommunity violence, contexts in which violence is a risk, but one that can be managed.”

“Bottom line: egalitarian, cooperative human communities are possible. Widespread sharing and consensus decision-making aren’t contrary to ‘human nature’ (whatever that is). Indeed, for most of human history we lived in such societies. But such societies are not inherently stable. These social practices depend on active defence. That active defence failed, given the social technologies available, as societies increased in scale and economic complexity. There’s no going back to Pleistocene equality, and I for one wouldn’t embrace the social intimacy and material simplicity of such lives. But we do have new social technologies. China (especially) is showing how those can be used to enhance elite surveillance. Let’s hope they can be reconfigured to support more bottom-up social action, to mitigate some of the effects of imbalances of wealth and power.”

Sprinkle a little ancient philosophy into your daily routines

Joel Owen is a lecturer in evidence-based low-intensity psychological therapies, working on the Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner training programme at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

Joel Owen on the topic of how we can use philosophy to change our lives, to mentally prepare us to live just a little more conscientiously. ~

To encourage in himself an attitude of compassion and self-control, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius describes a practice of preparing himself for the day ahead:”

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious and unsocial. All of this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own…

In mentally preparing himself for the challenges he might face each day, Marcus readied himself to respond in a rational and temperate way. The exercise encouraged an attitude of compassion by reminding him that people’s transgressions can be explained by reference to their misguided understanding of what is good, bad or valuable in life, and it reminded him that he should never lose sight of the fact that just like the ‘offender’, he too is human, all too human.”

“Epicurus sought to support his followers to adopt an attitude of gratitude, by encouraging them to shift their focus away from those things they don’t have or truly need, and to focus instead on enjoying what is already theirs:”

If you want to make somebody rich … don’t add to what he has, but take away his desire for more.

In expressing their thought in such ways, Epicurus and Epictetus encourage their followers to memorise and meditate on their ideas, until they become habitual ways of thinking and behaving. The practising philosopher might then begin each morning by contemplating the meaning of such phrases, or might bring them quickly to mind in moments where emotions or desires become overwhelming.

In our ongoing efforts to live well today, ideas such as the ones discussed here can continue to offer a valuable and moving resource. By reading, discussing and embracing the ideas and inspiration of these ancient philosophers, we provide ourselves with the nourishment from which our own spiritual exercises can be sustained.”

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence: here’s how to try it

Christina Chwyl is a clinical psychology PhD student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and an artist.

Christina Chwyl on the power of self-compassion. In all: Treat others how you want to be treated — INCLUDING YOURSELF! Self-compassion is a better long-term motivator than self-criticism because it builds instead of destroys the self. ~

“From a young age, we learn how to be a good friend to others. In kindergarten or nursery school, we’re taught how to share, cooperate and play. Any child who calls other kids dumb, losers or ‘fart face’ is swiftly scolded or given a time out. All in all, we grow up learning to follow the golden rule: ‘Treat others how you want to be treated.’”

“Yet many of us receive no guidance on how to be a friend to ourselves. In fact, we might even get counterproductive messaging about what it means to treat ourselves with kindness. We might come to believe that being kind towards ourselves is self-indulgent, lazy or weak.”

“As a clinical psychologist in training, I’ve discovered such self-beratement is commonplace. For example, people often judge their bodies, work performance or parenting abilities by standards to which they’d never hold others. Many people call themselves names they’d never dare utter to friends or family members, or even to people they dislike.”

“An interesting thing happens when we’re self-compassionate — it becomes safe for us to admit our missteps to ourselves. Think about it this way: would you rather share an embarrassing mistake with someone with a track record of responding kindly — or with someone who might fly off the handle with harsh criticism?”

“In this way, when mistakes or perceived failures arise, self-compassionate people are able to recognise them for what they are: normal human happenings. Then, without the heavy baggage of self-criticism and shame, it’s easier for self-compassionate people to grow, improve and move forward bravely.”

“While the journey towards cultivating greater self-compassion might seem daunting, it’s worthwhile. With you by your own side, you will be unstoppable.”

How to be lucky

Christian Busch teaches at the London School of Economics and at New York University, where he directs the Global Economy programme of the Center for Global Affairs. He is a co-founder of Sandbox Network, an international community of young innovators, and Leaders on Purpose, an organisation convening high-impact leaders. A member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Forum and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is also the author of The Serendipity Mindset (2020).

“How to be lucky”, a guide by Christian Busch. A short little instruction manual on how to build more life-ameliorating synchronicities into your life. Be in the world, attentive and conscientious, and then let things come to you. In sum, within the madcap action of your life, seize every opportunity you can! Not so difficult a task, just ambiguous in it’s necessary lack of definition. You don’t know what you don’t know. Your life’s next jolt of inspiration is unlikely to come from the place you expect. So… explore! ~

…how you think about possibility in your life, can affect your ability to be alert when opportunity occurs. In fact, the terms ‘unexpected’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unlikely’ are misleading because accidents or coincidences happen all the time. But we must be able to see the opportunity in the moment.”

Although being alert to the unexpected is vital for creating smart luck, there is another key factor: preparation. This is partly about removing the barriers to serendipity, both mental (your mindset) and physical (the spaces you live and interact in), such as: overloaded schedules; senseless meetings; and the inefficiencies throughout your day that rob you of time, curiosity and a sense of joy. You can prepare by strengthening your mental readiness to connect with opportunity, and creating an environment that enables the use of your skills and available resources to act on the moment. An unprepared mind often discards unusual encounters, thereby missing the opportunities for smart luck. But this is a learned behaviour. Preparation is about developing the capacity to accelerate and harness the positive coincidences that show up in life. In this Guide, I will show you the basics of how to do this.”

Radical acceptance

Joshua Coleman is a psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His books include The Marriage Makeover (2004), The Lazy Husband (2005), When Parents Hurt (2007) and Rules of Estrangement (2021). He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Joshua Coleman on how to accept our past. We evolved to be anxious and thus, full of anxious thoughts to our suffering, in order to survive and pass on our genes. Even so, how do we make our time here more fulfilling, even amidst all of the inadequacy? One comes to find that fully embracing our past is really about facing our fears — not “once and for all,” but again and again, as with a spiritual practice. ~

I found guidance in the research of the psychologist Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behaviour therapy. ‘The path out of hell is through misery,’ Linehan wrote. ‘By refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell.’ The path out of hell is through misery. What’s that supposed to mean? It means that you have to start by ‘radically accepting’ where you are right now. Radical acceptance means that you don’t fight what you’re feeling in this moment. You feel sad? Feel sad. Don’t judge it, don’t push it away, don’t diminish it, and don’t try to control its passage. Turn toward the feeling rather than turning away from it.”

Exposure therapy, like radical acceptance, operates from the premise that what stays in the dark grows in the dark; that serenity is better achieved by looking more deeply into the face of what we fear than by heading in the other direction. For example, the first time you watch a horror movie, you’re going to be horrified — that is, if it’s doing its job. But how scared will you be by the fifth, let alone the 10th viewing of the same movie? At some point, your mind concludes that, since nothing terrible has happened, you should go check your email or get something to eat. The parallel to the horror movie is that the more we expose ourselves to (and radically accept) that which we fear, the more we lessen its hold on us. The more we avoid facing our fears, the less we’re able to loosen their hold.”

But why is feeling anxious so common? It’s because our brains didn’t evolve to keep us happy; they evolved to keep us alive.”

“On the other hand, if I’ve learnt anything as a psychologist, it’s that what works for one person will be useless for another. Practising radical acceptance, or any of the other methods that I’ve described here, might still be too weak a remedy to silence the shrill and compelling voices that threaten your wellbeing. If that’s the case, you might be better helped with actions and activities that move you away from your ruminations, such as intense exercise, loud music, supportive friends, spending time in nature, giving to others and cultivating self-compassion.”

“Culture can also determine how hard we need to work to escape the confines of our painful beliefs. There’s increasing evidence that cultures with high rates of social inequality such as those found in the United States, China or India have much higher rates of depression and anxiety than those with low social inequality such as Germany, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. Recent research by the psychologist Iris Mauss and colleagues found that the more actively we pursue happiness as an individual quest, as is commonly prescribed in the US, the more unhappy, lonely and depressed we’re likely to become. By contrast, in those countries where happiness is defined as a form of social engagement rather than an individual pursuit, greater happiness is the result.”

“That’s because our fates are inextricably tied to others. Americans, despite our staggering wealth, are poor in relations. We’re more isolated, more tribal, more lonely. While practising radical acceptance is an important way to face truths we’d rather avoid, friends and supportive family can make the act of acceptance less scary, less lonely and, ultimately, less painful. It’s ‘very, very dangerous’, writes Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925), ‘to live even one day’.”

“But far more dangerous when we forge our paths alone.”

Set yourself free by developing a growth mindset toward anxiety

Hans Schroder is a clinical lecturer and postdoctoral research fellow in the department of psychiatry and the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan.

Hans Schroder on the question of: can we grow, or are we set as we are? The growth vs. fixed mindset is a classic mental variable that we rarely consciously evaluate from our own position. {Or at least, I don’t.} *Not knowing* something is, in fact, the source of anxiety on this front; the prospect that we still have yet to learn is troubling for us in ways we cannot fully comprehend. We can progress against the feeling’s damage against us by exposing ourselves to unknowns, growing from their adversity while accepting our resulting inner emotional struggle with self-compassion. 

{Sense a theme…?} ~

Less attention has been paid to the attitudes that people have towards their emotions. But my colleagues and I have found that individuals also have differing beliefs about how changeable or fixed their emotions are, and that this makes a big difference to how they respond when those feelings arise.”

“With these anxiety attitudes in mind, we can examine what happens when people get stuck on something, like Samantha. I call these ‘moments of not knowing’: when you’re doing something new such as learning different software at work, deciphering a foreign bus timetable, or assembling flatpack furniture. You realise that you don’t know how to do something easily, and that you must learn something new. These are perfect scenarios in which to study anxiety mindsets, because these moments bring up negative feelings for all of us — but people differ in how they respond to those feelings.

Spirituality is a brain state we can all reach, religious or not

Tal Dotan Ben-Soussan is the director of the Research Institute for Neuroscience, Education and Didactics (RINED) – Paoletti Foundation. As a neuroscientist and bio-psychologist, she has published numerous articles on neuroplasticity, mindfulness, movement and meditation, and she coordinates international conferences integrating theoretical, methodological and practical approaches on various topics, such as silence, logic and neuro-education. She lives in Assisi, Italy.

Tal Dotan Ben-Soussan on how spirituality and love go hand in hand in so many ways, including in a scientifically-measurable way: they change our physiology and make us healthier. Connection with the world and her peoples is the most reliable way of bringing spirituality into your life. The only way to find peace is to allow your Self to be vulnerable with Others. In effect, an interconnected love of Self and Other together makes up the most powerful practice of spirituality. ~

William James, the father of Western psychology, in 1902 defined spiritual experiences as states of higher consciousness, which are induced by efforts to understand the general principles or structure of the world through one’s inner experience. At the core of his view of spirituality is what we might call ‘connectedness’, which refers to the fact that individual goals can be truly realised only in the context of the whole — one’s relationship to the world and to others.”

Although most of us don’t have access to an external ‘egg’ chamber, we can place ourselves at the centre of our own ‘sphere’ in daily life. By rooting ourselves, listening to our highest aspirations, and paying closer attention to our breathing, to the people we love and to the present moment, we can transcend the here and now to create a more ‘spherical’ life that changes our focus from basic needs and fears to values. This is further accompanied by an intentional shift toward a clear ‘goal’ state, represented by the centre of our inner sphere in Paoletti’s model. In this sense, spirituality can be seen as actions that are not separate from daily life, but rather congruently connected to its different aspects — the body, family, career, friendship, relationships, finance and society.”

For me, a big part of spirituality is overcoming daily challenging situations with calm and care. When we lose it, for instance, what exactly are we losing? Nothing less than our selves. We all lose it sometimes, but we can lose it less often by continually reconnecting to our best selves and to each other.”

From modernist architect, to a life off-grid, a creative life well-lived

Charles Bello’s life is a testament to the fact that there’s no single way to measure success – or the sum of hard work. As a young man, Bello lived in Los Angeles, working for the influential modernist architect Richard Neutra. It was a prestigious position that left Bello utterly unfulfilled – a ‘creative’ job that involved no creative work.

The story of a man living off the grid, an elder with a life of choices behind him forming a story he is willing to show and tell. Seeing his life in its fullness begs us the question:

What do we want to build with our own life’s work? ~

Two is a multitude… One alone…is not fun.”

What you are observing is one individual in complete control of his environment, without any obstruction.”