Dancing in the moonlight

Recently, I read a passage that shook me up. It was from the “publisher’s preface” to my version of Alan Watt’s Still the Mind. Here it is:

“Watts lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, just north of San Franscisco, which became renowned as a center of endless discussions, parties, and meditation sessions, with famous and infamous spiritual leaders, gurus, intellectuals, writers, and others continually dropping by. 
He continued to practice his meditation, and his writing and talks deepened. More and more, he was leading people into meditation and spiritual experiences rather than just talking about it.
In the last years of his life, he left the houseboat and retreated to a small, isolated cabin deep in the woods. He spent nearly every morning alone, usually beginning with a Japanese tea ceremony followed by a period of meditation and contemplation. Then he would write.
His writing and speaking grew quieter and deeper. This book has been transcribed from talks of several talks he gave in his later years. They show a maturity and an understanding of his subject that only comes after years of meditation. He had transformed over the years from a serious intellectual to a joyous, spontaneous lover of life.”

There’s a lot to digest in that short passage. But what I want to focus on is the last sentence—“He had transformed over the years from a serious intellectual to a joyous, spontaneous lover of life.”

As I consider the last few years, I can identify a few major currents running through my life and thought. One is a near-obsession with practical philosophy. I’m as intrigued as much as the next person by obscure questions like, “What does it mean to exist?” and “How do we know what we know?” But my intrigue is a shackled to a certain context; I only care about these questions and their possible answers because they might shed some light on how I should live.

That’s what philosophy is about, after all. Philosophy, as Pierre Hadot noted, is a way of life. It’s concerned, not with answers to complicated questions, but with the quest to live well and do better. It’s not what we think about the universe and our place within it, but how we treat others and make decisions. Of course, I did not come to this way of thinking alone. Ryan Holiday introduced me to Marcus Aurelius and Nassim Taleb introduced me to Seneca’s peculiar brand of “aggressive Stoicism”, and from there I got lost—in the best sense of the word. 

The result of this wandering through the world of practical philosophy resulted in my life being held together by a keystone made of a single material; precepts from Stoicism. I sincerely undertook a journey to see things as they are, do good, unselfish things, and focus only on that which is within my power. But recently, I haven’t so much become disillusioned with these precepts as let other things have a bigger say in how I live my life. It’s as if I’ve gone from a keystone of a single material to a keystone composed of some hybrid compound. See, alongside the many things I’ve learnt from Stoicism, I’ve also begun to be guided by the notions of joyfulness and play. Which is why the above passage shook me so; rather than seeing myself—however erroneously—as a “serious intellectual”, I’ve begun to aspire to be more like Alan Watts, a “joyous, spontaneous lover of life.”

Part of this arises from things I’ve read. For example, on my journey to understand practical philosophy I read Montaigne’s Essays. There are many things I took from Montaigne’s inner probings, but the primary thing I came away with was an overwhelming sense of joy. As I was reading, I could feel Montaigne’s joie de vivre seeping out of the page and into my mind. And as much as I appreciate and value Stoicism, that’s one of its weaknesses; joy.

Stoicism is a philosophy which teaches perspective, and in turn, appreciation, but it’s pretty light on the joys and wonders of life. If it were a gesture, it would be gritting of the teeth and squaring of the shoulders . If it were a facial expression, it would be a mask of tenacity, resolution and quiet determination. It is a practical philosophy tailor made to help its user withstand great crises, severe difficulty and everyday assaults. There is no philosophy that does it better. What it does less well is teach you how to bask in the sun and dance in the light of the moon.

In my conception—which may well be mistaken—Stoicism is a creed for tough times. But life is not always a war, a slugfest. Sometimes, it’s easy and beautiful and wondrous. Which is why I’ve become more drawn to people like Alan Watts and begun to learn about the playful manipulation of ideas that individuals like Venkatesh Rao engage in. These are people who, from my vantage point, know how to dance to the rhythm of life, which is something I’m not well accustomed to.

In the Scrivener file in which I do all my writing for Phronetic, I have a text document called “Meta”. One of the things it contains is a guiding idea lifted from James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: “Playing with boundaries is more fun, and more rewarding, than playing within boundaries.” What started as a guiding idea for my writing has become a guiding idea for my entire life. And while I may not have learnt what Alan Watts did nor been a “serious intellectual”, I do think that I’m in the midst of a transition. My dearest ambition is no longer to become someone who does serious work and is taken seriously, but to be someone who loves life and radiates joy to all those he comes into contact with. That’s not to say that anything done joyfully cannot have serious and meaningful consequences. It’s just a different emphasis. The serious intellectual and the joyful lover of life can have the same ends, but the means differ drastically. 

It is this chasm of difference that I’ve begun to recognise, and consequently, this recognition has forced me to choose which side of the divide I want to occupy. And right now, I’d rather live joyously than worry about other’s (or my own) perception of me. Or as the late Alan Rickman put it: “Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.”