Contamination Labs, Design and Philosophy

It’s been around 30 months since I formulated the desire to enrol in a philosophy program. I still remember that odd moment, when I voraciously held Nassib Taleb’s Antifragile, praising his wit and his somewhat annoying personality; I don’t remember exactly how it came about, and I don’t think that this is what Taleb’s book wants to put forward, but a constant refrain began to hit me hard: philosophical arguments seemed the only way to get a multifaceted perspective on the economic, the social, and the political world. It seemed the only critical way one can have to tackle so many subjects with a single toolkit, or at least it seemed it could be that way. I remember my excitement while running through the bibliography, to find out that even the ancient skeptics were there.

No turning point could ever be more strange for a prospective philosophy student, I get that. I’ve been disputing such a simple intuition myself over and over, facing the crude reality of an academy that demands to dig deeper and deeper in each subset of every subject, where ambitious students get to choose their “T” as soon as they can, while a desire for comprehensive knowledge often translates in dispersed amateurism. Yes, that ambition is somehow simplistic; yet, it set things going, and it still is somehow at work from my perspective.

Once one steps into the magical world of the humanities, he wants to keep an eye on what’s outside the bubble. You know, at some point it’ll eventually burst. Better get ready. No matter how many HR reports one can read about how much appreciated humanistic studies are on the workplace, no matter how many uplifting paperbacks one can amass about the importance of the humanities for a properly-working democracy1)Cf., for example, M. Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. A brief comment on the Italian translation can be found on this blog., I guess almost none of us, students of the humanities, would quibble over the question: where would this path actually lead us?

A brief overview of the professionalisation of philosophy would show how such question has gained its relevance only recently, as the subject has gained more and more analytic traction2)For an historical comment on the subject’s development since the publication of what should have been, in Richard Rorty’s mind, a manifesto for the dissolution of philosophy as a profession, cf. B. Kuklick, “After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Analyse & Kritik, 2019. and university degrees have become increasingly popular. If the philosophy departments of the past could almost always find a congruous place for every of its graduate students, the multiplication of departments has now exponentially enlarged the gap between student seats and teaching positions. Fortunately, my existential inquiry was not spurred primarily by employment reasons, but rather by the desire of finding a worldly meaning to a course study that is renown for its armchair approach.

A Call for Contamination

The chance to address the question presented itself almost a year ago, under a rather mysterious acronym: CLAB – a MIUR-approved3)Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR stands for “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca”). university laboratory (duh!) which aims at facilitating contamination between different course studies through a unified business project 4)Source: https://www.unive.it/pag/30571.. As I ventured to meet the creative requirements of selection (including an embarrassing YouTube bio clip which has been the first, last and worst video recording experience of my life), the aim began to be clear: I wanted to see what a philosophical training could provide within a business-oriented environment, to prove myself that reading about mankind’s nature, foundations of knowledge, and undecipherable German words (Seinsvergessenheit?) could be of any practical – however indirect – use. 

CLAB’s roadmap sprung from an increasingly popular intersection, that between business and design: teams of 6/7 students, led by a facilitator, had to develop first-hand solutions for the Brenta footwear District by following the design thinking methodology, a strategy to lead business development in a user-centred and creative way. Part of its title – “contamination” – has been usefully put in context by a brilliant speech during the opening event, in which prof. Panozzo, Associate Professor at the Department of Management (UniVe), argued that such word threatens to encourage the worst spirits of economic change, which have increasingly been embodied (especially among the startup world) in the terminology of “disruption” and “endless acceleration”. Change as such can be seen as dangerous and fearsome, for it endangers to bring about situations we might not be ready to meet; this is the underlying mood upon which the “disruption” rhetoric has been built upon, and which feeds the negativity that could be felt around “contamination” too. Panozzo contended that this obscure aspect of change has often been overlooked, and that business fast dynamics sometimes forget how much time developing new skills requires. His closing remarks, though, assumed an optimistic bent when he reminded the audience that innovative enterprises are tolerant enterprises, even with respect to risk and contamination themselves. With a curiously Buddhist twist, Panozzo advocated for looking change-generated fear in the eyes, and to sit with it in viewing it almost as a partner; it would be from this mindset, that true innovation is generated.5)The Buddhist resemblance is owed to Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company, 2008.

The first step of our design challenge: finding core values and stakeholders

In the following paragraphs, my aim will be to illustrate how the Lab has made me think about philosophical training under the light of a business-driven approach. I will draw from personal reflections and from academic contributions to design-driven innovation to ask myself where, eventually, philosophers can emerge as valuable partners in a business environment, and close on a bitter note on why there seems to be an irreconcilable tension between business demands and a critical attitude.

In the design-thinking methodology, several points emerged as having a philosophical affinity, or interest:

  • the ability to question current circumstances, often by analysing deepening layers of explanation;
  • the recognition of distinct schemes in order to apply them across different instances (a skill that design thinking labels as “modeling”);
  • the conveyance of old solutions to new frameworks;
  • the anthropological challenges of putting the user, a human being, at the center of the design process.6)Cf. Verganti, in broadening his critique to user-centred methods: “the company looks at people, not users” (p.54); such approach echoes the motto of philosophical consultancy as promoted by Gerd Achenbach, who sees it as an urge to see people as a whole, that is to broaden the narrow image with which one substitutes oneself and others. 

The first three points highlight the mastery of conceptual skills that cut across several other disciplines, but philosophy arguably offers among the best tools for enhancing critical thinking. The last one opens a conversation in which practically all philosophers have weighed in – the nature of human beings, among which the motivation behind their actions –, even tough nowadays we’re more used to turn to behavioural scientists. Philosophy offers a rich bucket to those who look for inspiration: a brief module on soft-skills, for example, presented in the contemporary language of ‘career development’ an array of dispositions that virtue ethics would recognise as moral virtues, such as flexibility, self-control, etc. 

Design as Meaningful Research

When academics talk about man, virtue, collaboration (in the examination of political institutions, for example), their descriptions are often too abstract to have any immediate practical use, but they are nevertheless essential, for they suggest new models through which one can re-think or re-imagine one’s daily habits.
On the other side, philosophy fruitfully engages with common-sense constructs, and contributes to advance a richer socio-cultural interpretation of them. As we will soon see, if designers are seen as interpreters, they cannot be culturally neutral, as they need to superimpose their own worldview on what is given, whilst enriching that representation through a mutual exchange with other interpreters. Being culturally partisan means starting from ones’ own knowledge, experiences, relationships, aspirations; a similar position has been advocated, in a more radical form, by F. Nietzsche, who claimed that “there are no facts – only interpretations”.7)I found particularly difficult to retrieve the exact source of such quote, which I have transcribed during a course on the history of Contemporary Philosophy. The most satisfying answer thus far comes from Wikiquote, who refers to Nietzsche’s Notebooks (Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche).

Intellectual partiality can at times be crudely displayed. For those who, like me, have read some Adorno, and who (unlike me) accept his strong claim on philosophy as antithetic to Weltanschauung,8)Cf. Adorno’s 1962 and 1963 lectures, collected in T. Adorno, Terminologia Filosofica, Einaudi, 2017, par.8 and 10. listening to business execs define their vision as “our philosophy” can undoubtedly be a troubling experience. The qualm with intellectual purity, though, is unlikely to be met by the pragmatic attitude that so strongly characterises the glamorous world of communications: professionals can have obtained the most prestigious literature degrees and know the specific weight of each word, but the growing competition over increasingly narrow market sectors demands that each firm earn its specificity through a sparkling – and often hazy – conceptualisation of its own products. In this way, a set of personal tastes and insights becomes a “philosophy”, with a tantalising conceptual aura.

Shoe boxes of the Italian fashion firm N.21

I may have received such impression only for contingent reasons: the realm of fashion, as Verganti claims in his Design-Driven Innovation, might not be the perfect environment for deep conceptualisation. Yes, innovation in fashion requires careful research and an ability to intelligently mix both a reading of current trends and the setting of new ones for the future; but design thinking as exposed by Verganti goes beyond the user-centred approach that we’ve analysed thus far.
Verganti sees designers as researchers, rather than creatives: the latter are often thought as professionals who come up with countless proposals in endless brainstorming sessions, while the former investigate the grounds of a paradigm, often to glimpse at its future developments.9)Eugenie Vergleris, a philosophical consultant who worked with major French firms, writes in her short book Manager con la filosofia (Managing with philosophy) that “to be a philosopher does not mean to be an intellectual, but rather a professional who turns an ordinary matter into an opportunity to deal with a base line issue” (freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.27). His approach expresses an etymological understanding of design and draws from the latin ‘de-signare‘ (‘to draw signs’) a picture of innovation as “innovation of meanings” – where meanings are intrinsic in every product or service and result from their interaction with the user (p.36). In a postmodernist program which echoes Quine’s “museum theory” of meanings10)Cf. W. O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 7, 1968, pp. 185–212., Verganti challenges user-centred design approaches for their view of meanings as fixed entities to be chased after, and reclaims an innovation process that cannot be codified or deterministically designed. This theme has been dear to philosophical minds who have tried to dodge physicalist underpinnings, and is relevant for every debate around the origins of creativity.11)A related critique towards the user-centred school of design thinking contends that tested methods cannot question existing meanings, but only reinforce them (Verganti, p.10).

A very pragmatist conception of inquiry is also set out in the book, and directly follows from the previous point: researching should be thought as something other than describing what already exists, but rather as a transformation of meanings by engaging in mutual semantic exchanges. In a paragraph inspired by Kuhn’s terminology, meanings are paradigms capable of undergoing not only gradual mutations, but also radical ones. The origins of ‘disruption’ shift from the user-centred practices of globally engaging with the end consumer to an elitist picture, in which firms, executives and expert interpreters conduct long and close-knit processes of research to understand what the meaning at hand is rooted in, and where it might go. Innovation starts from a small, intimate community with a common vision and different market demands, where design-driven research is assimilated to the prototyping of a cultural model, which is silently diffused to society through a variety of means in order to prepare the end user to greet that radicalness as highly seductive, not repulsive.
A clearer resemblance of design research with philosophical engagement though is expressed by the idea that practical innovation happens at the edges of stepping back and looking at the big picture. We find the same remark in Vergleris’ short book on management and philosophy, where philosophising is characterised as “distancing oneself” from the context.12)E. Vergleris, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008.

I’ve been undoubtedly charmed by Verganti’s account, probably for the promises carried by research: the profundity and uniqueness that only single-mindedness could bring about, linked with the fertile contribution of collaborative thinking, among a group of equally well-suited peers. The problem might be that one has to be an expert in the field to really be able to contribute, and Verganti does not shy away from describing the process as quite elitist; whether this is the ‘true’ description of how innovative transformations really come about, though, beginners as we, CLAB participants, needed a guiding structure to work together, and the user-centred action plan worked perfectly for that purpose.

CLAB: Joys and Hardships of a Philosophical Trainee

The rudiments of labour division. Early stage completion.
Hello teammates!

One of the hardest challenges I’ve been experiencing at the CLAB has been collaboration, the necessity of trying to find a common ground with my other fellow group members. Personal character, self-reliant philosophical training, and (maybe?) the habituation to increasingly homogeneous human relationships have at times turned confrontation in a frustrating experience. I feared that the stress on contamination was suffocating spaces for simplicity and solitude. Contamination was the passepartout in order to conceive interdisciplinary solutions, but original ones need to go through a process of self-formation, in which their identity is built by way of a strong selection of what does not belong to them. If a collective proposal has to gain its unparalleled flavour, individuals need to see themselves outside of a groupthink dynamic, and strive for an independently coordinated action.
The Lab was too short to develop such a close-knit mutual understanding, but my role model is the type of research community analysed by Verganti, where the depth of group convergence parallels its radicality.13)Convergence and divergence are terms that have found a place in the CLAB too, albeit with a different function: the design-thinking process, which evolved in five different stages, consisted in alternate divergence (research stage) and convergence (solution-oriented stages) phases.

One of the most curious considerations about the appeals of a philosophical training evolves from how I came to be judged from my peers: one of my early tasks has been that of condensing in a few paragraphs our long discussions, because ‘philosophers ought to be good with words’. Now, I don’t know if I am good at it, and I do know if philosophy in particular has anything to do with that – maybe it is just my inclination to prefer writing to speaking. What is interesting, though, is that Vergleris sees the philosopher exactly as a figure who helps to clarify meanings, in order to build something together. Philosophers have developed two opposite views about the nature of meanings: some claim that they are fixed entities and can be discovered through accurate discussion and research; others, and this is Verganti’s approach, think that meanings are constructions, and that they are put at work through discursive practices. Even though the two theories come from very different grounds, both Vergleris and Verganti see a coherence of meanings as an essential feature of collective action, which can come about only through concerted discussion, to let that coherence slowly emerge (or be built, following the other interpretation).

Vergleris highlights another stage through which all CLAB teams had to go through: since the proposals had to be displayed in an official presentation, groups had to own what they had built – and “in order to seize a project, it is necessary to contribute to its understanding”14)Freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.79.. The idea is that effective delivery depends upon a firm understanding of the project’s underlying ideas and values. Values were the first target of each research, in an attempt to find that core proposition around which the proposal could be built: they served as guiding principles for collective action, such that the final outcome could consist in a combined convergence of multiple perspectives.

The Ultimate Tension

I have anticipated at the very beginning that my conclusion would have been bitter. The fact is that cultivating a critical attitude often nurtures a social thoughtfulness that extends beyond shallow shareholders’ interests. But business goals inevitably tame any true critical engagement with our outputs – whether it be reflecting on the environmental costs of a particular product, or on the psychological consequences for users of a certain service –, at least in a contemporary landscape where quantitative metrics such as earnings per share dictate every business strategy.15)Cf. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations.
There undoubtedly is a singular phenomenon, which Krista Tippett hints at in her conversation with Brene Brown, by which in a landscape where politics has gradually lost its moral leadership, enterprises and private citizens are picking up social challenges that have been neglected by public officials. It appears though that if they are in a position to ignore the unspoken law of creating value for shareholders at the expense of every other concern, that strength had somehow to be gained beforehand, often through the same shareholders logic.
Elitist philosophy students, those who praise the Platonic philosopher-king figure, would certainly love to have a spot in a design-driven innovation process which dictates cultural standards, as it has been sketched by Verganti. Those standards though, until they are aligned with market interests, hardly have a possibility to distance themselves from the “shareholder perspective”. The latter has been defended as the natural attitude in a world characterised by scarcity,16)Curiously enough, A Short History of Economic Thought (Bo Sandelin, Hans-Michael Trautwein, Richard Wundrak, Routledge 2015) reports that the problem of scarcity becomes the central economic problem only in Biblical texts; Ancient Greeks did not have such concerns. but as labor-replacing technology floods the market and abundant energy resources become a feasible goal, the question becomes political, as Peter Frase has highlighted in his four-scenario post-capitalist future.

I began this journey in search of little clues that could shed light on my professional future. Young adults such as me face the challenge of pursuing interests that they are encouraged to cherish, such as historical knowledge, aesthetic taste or social sensibility, and yet perceive themselves as disadvantaged in a professional world that capitalises on rhetoric, minimised costs and shareholder interests. In a world that pushes to label every experience in order to project oneself into a safer, more defined future, I am almost afraid to say that no clear-cut role has emerged yet from the CLAB. The upshot has been an increased awareness of what a philosophical training can provide outside the classroom, while I try to cultivate the hope that my alertness towards what is human will find its way and subtly spread around, although the private sector might not be the best environment to nurture that attitude.
What’s ahead is a quest to assert a critical stance that does not have to result in public intellectualism. A search to push back the individualistic forces driven by surging competitiveness, which might have a chance once those very forces recover the social character of their genesis.

References   [ + ]

1. Cf., for example, M. Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. A brief comment on the Italian translation can be found on this blog.
2. For an historical comment on the subject’s development since the publication of what should have been, in Richard Rorty’s mind, a manifesto for the dissolution of philosophy as a profession, cf. B. Kuklick, “After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Analyse & Kritik, 2019.
3. Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR stands for “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca”).
4. Source: https://www.unive.it/pag/30571.
5. The Buddhist resemblance is owed to Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company, 2008.
6. Cf. Verganti, in broadening his critique to user-centred methods: “the company looks at people, not users” (p.54); such approach echoes the motto of philosophical consultancy as promoted by Gerd Achenbach, who sees it as an urge to see people as a whole, that is to broaden the narrow image with which one substitutes oneself and others.
7. I found particularly difficult to retrieve the exact source of such quote, which I have transcribed during a course on the history of Contemporary Philosophy. The most satisfying answer thus far comes from Wikiquote, who refers to Nietzsche’s Notebooks (Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche).
8. Cf. Adorno’s 1962 and 1963 lectures, collected in T. Adorno, Terminologia Filosofica, Einaudi, 2017, par.8 and 10.
9. Eugenie Vergleris, a philosophical consultant who worked with major French firms, writes in her short book Manager con la filosofia (Managing with philosophy) that “to be a philosopher does not mean to be an intellectual, but rather a professional who turns an ordinary matter into an opportunity to deal with a base line issue” (freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.27).
10. Cf. W. O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 7, 1968, pp. 185–212.
11. A related critique towards the user-centred school of design thinking contends that tested methods cannot question existing meanings, but only reinforce them (Verganti, p.10).
12. E. Vergleris, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008.
13. Convergence and divergence are terms that have found a place in the CLAB too, albeit with a different function: the design-thinking process, which evolved in five different stages, consisted in alternate divergence (research stage) and convergence (solution-oriented stages) phases.
14. Freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.79.
15. Cf. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations.
16. Curiously enough, A Short History of Economic Thought (Bo Sandelin, Hans-Michael Trautwein, Richard Wundrak, Routledge 2015) reports that the problem of scarcity becomes the central economic problem only in Biblical texts; Ancient Greeks did not have such concerns.

Personal Development, Ph. D.

Passion. Rejection. Awe. It is not a medieval love affair. It is a story about me and science. Holy teen ages.

While studying in Russia, the self-made weekly schedule almost looked like this: 4hours math, 7hours physics, 3hours chemistry. Mates didn’t call me Stephen. Scientific subjects were easier to understand due to latin terminology, and this is the main reason I took these classes so frequently. But I liked them very much. It was fascinating: Abstract thinking had to reason with physical evidence.

Once I came back home, I got in touch with the local hippy, willing-to-be-holistic community. They talked about quantum physics as a way to hack the traditional thinking. That which leaved no space for miracles. Woo woo, you might yell. At that time I was hungry to delve into that hopeful worldview.

Hunger kept me alive. Yes, I proudly wore my pink glasses. People kept asking a ton of grounded objections: Why isn’t alternative medicine healing everybody? How is that scientific community did not accept some supposedly “revolutionary discoveries”? I couldn’t ignore them.

I got stuck for a while. Folks I hung out with were beautiful, yet regrettably undertrained at critical thinking. I could not reject them, for I got acquainted enough with mystery to understand that something had to be solved. I stepped away into the unknown, looking for a light to switch on.

One day, an NPR post shared by the stunning Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe hit my FB timeline. I was relieved and not alone. I met Marcelo Gleiser.

It’s as if scientific issues are simply matters of opinion — and not the product of a very thorough process of consensus-building among technically trained people.

While visiting the dentist during the yearly check-up, it is more likely to talk about the next Armageddon, rather than teething business. Why is that?

That’s what’s happening, a drive toward a subjective take on science — the polar opposite of what science stands for: A way of extracting universal truths about the natural world through a detailed process of observation and data analysis.

Things are pretty messy out there. Scientists tirelessly discuss about inductive and deductive reasoning. Not to say that someone considers science a retirement-ready idea. Nevertheless, scientists fight in their own field. Dope.

The article further quotes George Johnson to complete the picture:

“Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the “dominant paradigm” — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.”

It sounds like economics took control over epistemology. And it could be history as well: as Max Planck once said, “New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

What about science?


 

Evidence. I desperately looked for it while drowning in uncertainty. And if I tried to somehow handle bigger problems, I knew what I had to wait for: overconfidence either panic. I’m particularly fond of the scientific method, because it offers a choice.

Storytelling is very compelling to me, and I wouldn’t mistake its effectiveness with critical reasoning’s. The former is the final output, the latter provides it with a proper structure. To me, the more accurate is critical thinking, the more power a speech could deliver.

True science, as well as true religion, is a great example of humbleness. Certainty has never set anyone free, nor satisfied. Jesuit Father and astronomer George Coyne wisely reminded me that

Discoveries lead to further ignorance.

Nevertheless, Marcelo Gleiser sets the limits of scientific knowledge:

Scientific certainty depends on the range of applicability of a given theory. If it is being applied within its range of validity, we can trust it as the best approximation to the truth.

That “range of applicability” is the creative element that connects the subjective take of the world with a broader one.

Problems need a switch in subjective paradigm to be effectively solved. The idea floats in the air, until someone gets to prove it. A creative approach is built upon novelty and usefulness, which means that a new combination of datas and ideas have to match a validating standard of approval.

A scientist might find something new in the datas, whether in the literature that served him to shift his knowledge. To make the leap, he has to state something that has never been said before. That becomes plausible when it matches an independent set of criteria.

After Karl Popper introduced the notion of falsifiability, science revealed its undeniable kin with philosophy. To him, truth was something to eventually attain, rather than something to own. He spread experimentation as a negative method, rather than a positive one. Experiments remind us that a given theory is temporarily fallacy-free, not a solid truth to rely upon.

To Sam Harris, science is embraced when adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence. Religion hits

 when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy.

Marcelo Gleiser gets deeper into that dangerous intersection, nurtured by an illogical collection of science and religion:

The scientific impulse to unify is crypto-religious. […] To search for simplicity is essential to what scientists do. It’s what I do. There are essential organizing principles in nature, and the laws we find are excellent ways to describe them. But the laws are many, not one.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, the major misconception ever prevented us from a better understanding of who we are. Sam Harris delightfully explores the boundaries of consciousness and conceptual thinking, blending Krishnamurti’s radical view with the unstoppable force of scientific progress:

Even if one thinks the human mind is entirely the product of physics, the reality of consciousness becomes no less wondrous, and the difference between happiness and suffering no less important. Nor does such a view suggest that we’ll ever find the emergence of mind from matter fully intelligible; consciousness may always seem like a miracle. In philosophical circles, this is known as “the hard problem of consciousness” — some of us agree that this problem exists, some of us don’t. Should consciousness prove conceptually irreducible, remaining the mysterious ground for all we can conceivably experience or value, the rest of the scientific worldview would remain perfectly intact.

See how the intangible concept of soul and the ever-changing identity process are marvellously merged by Maria Popova in the previous post.

 

Identity

Expression is a final act. Everything that has ever been thought comes to somehow impact the world. I just had some insights about the way I do it and…I’d like to express them.
I’ve been noticing that I too often speak as if I were a broadcaster, when I’m actually advising myself out loud. I say what I need to be told. I remember of an awful period, when a sort of cosmic boredom coexisted with a resolute mystic pursuit. Mystic traditions often point to the “Ego” as the source of all sufferings. I followed their advice literally. “I’d never say ‘me’ again. I’d rather set myself at the bottom of every conversation, and avoid to take any position.” That actually was deep shame. Shame came from that spring when I fell in love, and I suddenly, miserably got turned down. Shame came from the money I took away from my parents to chase my dreams, without fulfilling them and – even worse – no idea about what went wrong. I was so afraid of speaking for myself, that I’d stammered out “Alessandro, you’ve got to appreciate this offered supper”.
In the spare time, I used to go for a stroll in the woods. As my self-lead talk unfolded, I sometimes performed the disciple, sometimes the master. Inspiration came to me. The Muse visited my body. I had nothing to do but listening to her through my own mouth. I had nothing to do but believing instead to be the Muse. Upanishads affected me – I could be everything. There was no heterodoxy. I placed myself in the middle, swinging between the two, depending on how I felt.

As a blogger, I prefer to talk for myself. Previous post though were filled with “you should” and “you shouldn’t”, an hardwired storytelling I’ve adopted from the ton of self-help books I’ve been through. They are plenty of should and shouldn’t, of dos and don’ts. God bless them, they helped me. Meanwhile, I became to dislike the mechanism that runs them.

What fascinates me the most nowadays are people who tell stories. I like people who show up and humbly talk about themselves. No bullet points, no underlining. They suggest there’s nothing more important but our shared human condition. Topics may seem interesting or boring, but that is due to me alone.

One of those people is Maria Popova. Her one-woman labour of love inspires me to write, to show up, to consider my blog a recording of the process of arrival into who I am. A beautifully crafted piece of art that I relish listening to is OnBeing. What a blast is their conversation on the podcast! Maria Popova delightfully explains the journey it took her to label “we never see the world as it is” as emboldening statement, not dreadful anymore.

I think we never see the world exactly as it is. We see it as we hope it will be or we fear it might be. And we spend our lives going through a sort of modified stages of grief about that realization. And we deny it, and then we argue with it, and we despair over it. But eventually — and this is my belief — that we come to see it, not is despairing, but as vitalizing.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Was it — I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know. And to me, that’s the substance of the spiritual journey. And that’s not an exasperating idea but an infinitely emboldening one. And it’s taken me many years to come to that without resistance.

She then resumes in a few crystal-clear words the identity issue I’ve been struggling with for years. Be or not to be?

We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely-curated catalogue of those.

It is beautiful and powerful that we as mankind pushed our sense of identity so far. That description captures a tangible outlook of who we experience to be from a higher prospective.

To confuse the Absolute with a more integrated feeling of who I am is a major deception I’ve been facing with along the journey. I’ve often embraced the powerful myth of “Unity”, which has never to be accepted as a destination, rather a mere process. Popova hits the target with the following:

I find, over and over, that the fullest people — the people most whole and most alive — are those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments, and it always is.

These people are mind-boggling. Their example is the most powerful tool to inspire change. “You should” statements drive a ridiculously little share of long-term changes. They might be the kick somebody needs to get started. But unless that turns into a personal, well-built reasoning, it would lead nowhere. The former wrongly assumes that one’s worldview should be others’ as well. The latter shares the journey which everyone has been through, leaving no simple, easy-to-do answers on the table. I’m particularly skeptical about the impact of any to-do list. When it comes to personal issues, even a friend’s piece of advice could miss the point. How could a stranger’s one be deeply successful? Respecting someone’s authority alone would give a short-term satisfaction. A long-term one requires to be a good friend of ourselves.

To share stories with people who act like there is no better, nor worse place to be. That is something meaningful. I’ll pay attention to shared conversations and stories over ex-machina, commencement-dressed speeches. I want to avoid the easy how-to-do approach, in order to embrace the how-to-be.

The War of Art – An Ego review

Ego. Short word. Major depletion.

“Ego is a shame”. “I’ll tell you how little and dirty you are by the number of times you name yourself.” Hellz yes. “Ego is the cause of all your sufferings”.

I had a tough time with my ego. Everything seemed to be wrong with him. I housed every deadly weapon I could use against him.  All the self-help literature I’ve been through rejected it as a plague.

At that time, no tangible options were left but to fight against myself. Resistance increased, until I felt paralyzed. No thoughts were allowed to knock at my mind. No person was worthy to talk to. There was no possible way to salvation, except silence. It had a name. I’ve ignorantly labeled it Asparsa Yoga.

I set up everything by myself. I marched toward an inspiring future, envisioned from the Saints I was following. I’ve never felt so unhappy and alone.

After I met Buddhism, the practice eased a bit. “Sit with the enemy and have a cup of tea. You’ll discover it is not so bad”. It worked.

I remember how catholics stared at me while reading Feeding Your Demons. And yet the message was vital: I had the power to heal my worst and most hated parts by giving them full attention.

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Steven Pressfiled is very rude with Ego.

We demolish the Ego to get to the Self.

Not to be overwhelmed by fear, these words might be useful. But I do not consider them a cheerful way to better understand who I am. Pressfield describes the Ego as if it were the worst of our enemies.

Ego believes

  1. Death is real.
  2. Time and space are real.
  3. Every individual is different and separate from every other.
  4. The predominant impulse of life is self-preservation.
  5. There is no God.

He enumerates Self principles as well:

  1. Death is an illusion.
  2. Time and space are illusions.
  3. All beings are one.
  4. The supreme emotion is love.
  5. God is all there is.

I believe death and birth lose any key role once we experience the flow. Sometimes ago, I pretended to live entirely in the world of Ideas. Time and space weren’t real to me. Actually, I was wandering like a homeless. After a 35 days fasting, I very much appreciated that there was something solid to swallow.

I believe Ego is just the most scared part of us. He needs compassion alongside with incitement. We don’t demolish him to get to the Self. We encourage him to flourish, to become the Self he’s already. Ego is part of us. “How are you?” – that is how the Ego feels. Because “All beings are one”. If I hurt my Ego, I hurt myself.

Self-preservation or love? Atheism or divine service? Todo Nada. Todo Nada.


 

I can’t describe who I am. There is no bottom line, and there shouldn’t be one. It is anyhow crucial to set some milestones along the journey. Being someone who deals with artistry, Pressfield’s work is still a masterful piece of advice:

The professional [artist] identifies with her consciousness and her will, not with the matter that her consciousness and will manipulate to serve her art.

To believe in geniuses and Muses is very useful to separate who I am from what I do. I like to consider myself a channel. The Muse inhabits me and acts through my hands, speaks through my mouth. Doing doesn’t belong to me. Letter H is a suitable symbol of the human condition. It defines us as a bridge between two dimensions. We are not the origin, nor the ending.

Words are so feeble, though. There is a superhuman strain to go further. When Upanishads assert “You become what you think” – it is all true. It happens at that very moment.

I’d leave you with one thought.

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