Is life fair? Some people bemoan that life is unfair, but a clearer perspective is that life is like a hill. Just as going uphill is more difficult than going downhill, it is more difficult to make our lives better than it is to allow the quality of our lives to slip. We are rewarded for going uphill, because it brings us to a new terrain, with a better perspective on the world, while when we go downhill, our vista gets poorer. We are also rewarded for going up the hill because it flattens on ascent, but we also pay a price for descending the hill, because the slope steepens.
As we go uphill, our humanity grows, we become more humane, and our potential and the potential for our society improves.
Having extra resources can help us on this journey. But resources can only reduce the gradient. It is what we require of ourselves that is most important. It is our progress up our own hill that matters most in the life that we create for ourselves.
True education is about helping us to get up the hill.
To fully engage our Psyche, our guts, our heart and our head, is challenging. Here is set out the challenges we face. This is so you can learn what they are, rather than facing the challenge blindly. Here also is set out lessons from some great characters of humanity to help you overcome these challenges.
Educating our Heart
It is difficult to engage our thought. It is not a wilful action. It involves openness and a degree of uncertainty, vulnerability and doubt. Engaging our thought is passive and undirected use of our Psyche. By engaging our thought, our existing worldview may be shown to be deficient, which can an uncomfortable conclusion for many people.
Patience is also required because creating a better mental picture is likely to take time. Engaging thought is regarded as an inward journey into our Psyche, involving contemplation and reflection to help us to access our thoughts and to facilitate more of our thoughts to emerge. This involves becoming somewhat abstract, which means a degree of disengaging from the world. We are likely to be fighting against this, because we want to feel good, and we are usually trying to create outcomes that feel good from engagement with the world.
Disengaging from the world can create some psychological discomfort and applying patience when we have disengaged has an opportunity cost to us. Because of this, engaging thought is difficult and quite uncommon. A recent psychological study, “The challenges of the disengaged mind” found that most people studied did not like to be left alone with their own thoughts. In fact, many of the people studied, particularly men, chose to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli.
This can be at least partially explain because engaging thought can open up things in our mind that we are trying to suppress, that we don’t want to deal with, and that we think could be distressing or destabilizing to us.
Another difficulty is that when we engage our hearts we need to go the full distance. Using our hearts only a little can be destabilizing and it can even feel somewhat inebriating. An analogy of the well of the Muses was used to explain this. Drinking shallow draughts from the well would be intoxicating, but drinking deeply would be sober us again.
Overcoming the challenges
Here is an introduction to some lessons that the great characters of humanity give us to help overcome the challenges involved in fully engaging our hearts.
Self-belief is the essential starting point to engage your heart. It is by believing that we can be better that we open up to the potential in our hearts. We can briefly experience this self-belief when we watch superhero movies or when we see heroic acts.
Using your heart is getting in touch with the quiet place deep within you and feeling that you are capable of more than you might think you are. We need to keep that feeling inside us and not let it go to our heads. It is from this quiet place inside you that the best in you can arise. That quiet place in your mind is your heart.
Suggestion: Give yourself 10 minutes every day to let yourself quietly believe, deep inside you, that you can achieve your dreams
Engaging our hearts means changing how we see the world. This involves changing how we are, getting ourselves into a better place. To engage our hearts, we need a form of leisure called Schole, in which we are free for a time from destructive disturbances. This creates the psychological space for us to be ourselves, to listen to ourselves and to enable to get in touch with how we feel.
We cannot truly feel unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Schole time facilities this because it creates a kind of safe space and time for us. This might sound easy, but it is difficult to achieve. When we give ourselves time, we often want normal leisure, rather than the opportunity to listen to ourselves.
Brene Brown has become famous in recent years for advocating vulnerability as the route to becoming more courageous.
There are different ways that we can create Schole time. One example is that advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay ‘Nature’. He advises that, “to go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars”.
Many of us have heard the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath shouting eureka, I’ve discovered it. What we might not know was that having a bath used to be considered great to have some Schole time and that Archimedes likely got into the bath in the first place to find his solution. Galen, a famous doctor from history, wrote books about how best to have baths. Many people say they have their best ideas of the day just as they are getting out of the shower. Showers are a relatively recent innovation, but perhaps Galen would have written about how they can help you better use your psyche too.
Suggestion: Before going asleep each night, spend 5-10 minutes having an honest conversation with yourself about your day. What might be bug you about it? What are you feeling about it? What could you have done better? As we open ourselves to the feeling that we could have done better, we feel that we don’t want it to happen again, which gives us courage the next time that happens, as we don’t want to feel bad again. By safely allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we enable ourselves to become more courageous.
Do what you love – put your heart into something
We can engage our hearts better to change how we see the world, by doing something we love to do. It is important to remember the advice of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “True it is that, after a long day’s work, this wheat supplies their food. But this is not the side of things that means most for a man: what nourishes his heart is not what he gets from the wheat, but what he gives to the wheat”.
Many people have jobs they don’t like. These jobs often get more difficult over time as the person is not putting their heart into their job. Counterintuitively, if they take up a hobby they really love or do more things that they like in their spare time, they will get their heart pumping more and probably have more energy and find their normal jobs easier.
Bruce Lee said that we don’t need energy for action, action creates energy. When we act doing something we love doing, it is ever using, and it expands our hearts which expands our worlds.
Joseph Campbell in Mythologist advocating what he called “following your bliss” as the best path in life.
The easiest way for us to expand our hearts is doing what we love doing. Trying to be our best selves is something that can be scary. According to Abraham Maslow, “that we are afraid of our own best possibilities, in addition to loving them and that we are all of us profoundly ambivalent about truth, beauty, virtue, loving them and fearing them too”. By taking the first step, we become energized and as our hearts engage we also get more courage.
Suggestion: give yourself at least some time to pursue a hobby or interest that you love.
Exercise and Walking
A simple way to engage our hearts is physical exercise because this literally gets our hearts pumping more. A gentle form of this is walking and most of the great characters in history have advocated walking in different ways and for different reasons. Aristotle was known to only try to engage his mind while he was walking. One of the most optimistic advocates of walking was Kierkegaard, who said that “above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right”
Suggestion: Before many any big decisions, allow yourself, if you can, to consider the decision while walking for 15 minutes.
Learning to use your heart is the most difficult element of true education. There is so much you can learn. Only a fraction is outlined above.
Educating our head
It is difficult to engage our heads because it requires discipline, effort and rigor. It requires concentration and is more difficult when not aided by an environment that has a degree of stability, safety and an absence of distractions.
We can want to fight against this because we mostly prefer to have a rosier, easier and less realistic picture of the world. We prefer to think that less than the full degree of discipline, effort and rigor is required. In doing so, we will mostly be applying rationalizations, e.g. different types of excuses, instead of fully engaging our head. These rationalizations make sense to us, but from the perspectives of outsiders who have more fully engaged their head, they will appear somewhat irrational.
Applying our head has an opportunity cost too because it means applying relatively limited mental discipline in one way rather than in other competing ways. Furthermore, our capacity to carry out reasoning is limited by the extent to which we have applied thought as reasoning can only be applied within the boundaries of our the stories, pictures and thoughts created by our hearts.
Overcoming the challenges
The classical function of our heads is to condition the thoughts from our hearts and our guts and indeed the thoughts and thinking of others. Kant dared to advise us that to achieve enlightenment “all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous freedom of all, that is, freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”. We have this freedom, but we need, as Kant said, the “resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another”.
Our modern education system seeks to fill our heads up with information and to perform functions, often without consideration of the set in which they are carried out. But it does not educate our heads in the classical sense. Classical education teaches us that we must keep a proportionate degree of humility in our head and maintain our sense of proportionality. Our self-belief needs to be in our hearts, not our heads. Believing in our heads and forgetting our hearts usually leads to brutal outcomes.
Educating our guts
Using guts is challenging because, using the analogy of a fire, our guts need good fuel, good air and to be ignited to create a good fire. A good fire also needs to be stoked regularly to keep the flame going, to maintain the light and heat coming from it.
However, we can rightly consider our guts to be dangerous, just like fire, and if not managed properly, it can burn or smoulder and create smoke. We can be risk-averse, so inclined not to risk fully engaging our guts. Also, if we are trying to suppress thoughts in us, we use up energy in our guts, reducing that available elsewhere in our life.
When somebody has not engaged their heart much, nor their head much, this can create an unrealistic mental picture of the world and a somewhat irrational understanding of it. When this happens, a person’s guts, their passions, drives and instincts, are likely to cause problems, because any impulse-driven behaviour is likely to have unexpected or undesirable consequences. This can entail the person needing to manage or suppress their guts to avoid creating problems.
Overcoming the challenges
Overcoming the challenges to engage our guts is dangerous as it means playing with fire.
Thankfully, how to play safely with fire is being taught to young children as part of the ‘Forest Schools’ initiative. Here they are taught not to avoid playing with fire, but to make fire and to handle it safely; not to avoid using sharp instruments, but to use them safety; and not to avoid risk, but to take it sensibly. We need to learn to play with our inner fire in the same way.
In classical education, the more dangerous methods to manage a fire are also taught. For example, learning how to use wine sensibly was a key element. Theognis put it that “to drink too much is bad: but if you would drink wisely, you’d find wine not bad but good”. Wine is best used in good environments, with good food and a gentle spark. Used otherwise, it causes problems. Classically, our liver was considered our seat of passion and to paraphrase Plutarch, our mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.
Walter Lippmann bemoaned how our inner fires are suppressed. He advocated, “Instead of tabooing our impulses, we must redirect them [change the story in which they emerge]…. The Freudian school of psychologists calls this sublimation…. Instead of trying to crush badness, we must turn the power behind it to good account. The assumption is that every lust is capable of some civilised expression. We say, in effect, that evil is a way by which desire expresses itself. The older moralists, the taboo philosophers, believed that the desires themselves were inherently evil. To us they are energies of the soul, neither good nor bad in themselves…. Left to themselves, or ignorantly tabooed, they break forth in some barbaric or morbid form. Only by supplying our passions with civilised interests can we escape their destructive force…. he who has the courage of existence will put it triumphantly, crying “yea” as Nietzsche did, and recognizing that all the passions of men are the motive powers of a fine life. For the roads that lead to heaven and hell are the one until they part.”
Educating our Psyche
To engage our heart, our head and our guts involves an additional challenge, because the openness, uncertainty, doubt and vulnerability that aid our thoughts are mostly in conflict with the stability, safety and absence of distractions that aid using our heads. This adds an additional challenge to use our hearts and to use our head to condition it well with reason.
Engaging our guts is in conflict with engaging our hearts and engaging our heads. Our hearts requires a degree of disengagement of our guts. And our head requires disciplining of our guts.
The best balance, to apply all three parts well, is likely when the individual is behaving in a passionate but gentle manner with a proportionate degree of humility. The passion gets the fire going and the gentleness aids keeping the flame going, maximizing the light and energy created, and the humility prevents our ego from getting in the way of engaging our hearts and limiting distortions to our reasoning.