12.19.2017

On Practice (with Constant Reference to Nietzsche)



"My formula for human greatness," writes Nietzsche, "is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity — , but to love it." This is at once the tallest order and the simplest thing in the world.

So I get amor fati, I get that life is necessarily perfect, that everything that happens is the best possible thing. I get this from more than Nietzsche — from  Epictetus, Leibniz, Whitman, Deleuze, and Ginsberg; from Bob, Osho, Lao Tzu, Alan Watts; I get it from teachers close to me, from my friends and lovers, from the people I respect. The question I have is this: What do I have to do to achieve such greatness? If I try to do something different in order to believe the world is perfect, then don't I believe the world isn't perfect? Hmn.

Well, amor fati  — love of fate — doesn't ask you to do anything different. There's no elaborate regime to follow; no chanting; no self mutilation; no 20 years of living in silence; no head stands required. Whatever happens happens; whatever you do, you do. That's the whole point! Everything is perfect so whatever I do is perfect. Right?

Yet when I go about my business as usual, I remain embroiled in my well heeled anxieties, guilt about my parenting, fear of my death, fear that my lover will stop loving me, fear that I'll shit my pants in a meeting. The list goes on.

So while I "understand" that everything is perfect, I don't live as though everything is perfect. I want to love life even when it's kicking me in the teeth, even when my lover doesn't love me, even when I'm sick, even when my sister dies. And, hardest of all, I want to find perfection in the humdrum banality and hassles of the everyday — in traffic and dishes, in dust and rent, in yapping dogs and confused clients.

But this seems to demand that I do something other than what I am doing because whatever I'm doing has me often wishing things were other than they are. When my sister died, I screamed as loud as I could scream for hours every day for months. This was more than just pain. Pain may be, uh, painful but it is beautiful and perfect in its way. No, my scream was a scream of despair, a scream unto the void: How could this have happened?

It's true: amor fati doesn't ask for me to do anything different. But it does ask for me to do things differently. Which is to say, the demand is not in the what but in the how.

In the third book of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche compares two ascetics, a priest and an athlete. From the outside, they look alike as both refrain from excessive food and sex. And yet an abyss separates them. One says No to the things of this world, preferring the abstraction (and, to Nietzsche, the nihilism) of God. The other looks like he's saying No but, in fact, he's saying Yes — to himself, to his strength, his health, his vitality.

How do I become the athletic ascetic? If amor fati doesn't ask me to do different things, how do I come to love my life rather than regretting the past and fretting the future? Is it just an understanding I reach and, voilà, I love fate?  Or is there some relationship between my what and my how? Is there something I can do? Something I should be doing?

And there, alas, is the tension. If there's something I should be doing then aren't I not accepting fate, not accepting things as they are? What is the relationship between what I do and how I do?

For Nietzsche, life is always a practice, always a doing. We are metabolic systems. Which is to say, we have a will with appetites. This leads us to take in certain things — these foods, drinks, ideas, words, images, people, and not those. We then process these things according to our metabolic propensities and play it all back in our bodies, words, ideas, interactions, moods. To be alive, for Nietzsche, is to always already be inside out, already entwined with the world. There is no living that is not a practice.

And so he constantly urges us to tend to these practices. In Ecce Homo, he says the great questions of philosophy are: What do you eat? Where do you live? How do you recreate? The philosophic question is not what is true. Living is not a matter of knowing; it is a matter of doing.

Not all doing is equal. While everything is perfect in its way, Nietzsche nevertheless proffers criteria to assess life: What fuels the health and vitality of the system you are? This is a protean standard as what's vital for me may very well not be vital for you. How could it be otherwise? After all, we are such different systems. And, to make it more complex, the system that I am is always changing. What fueled me when I was 17 may not fuel me at 48 (which is why Nietzsche says we are becoming, not being; and why Nietzsche is a rhetorician rather than a philosopher, always reading the world rather than making truth claims).

So in the place of Judeo-Christian morality which posits absolute rules from on high, Nietzsche offers a revaluation of those values, a moving sui generis standard: "A few more hints from my morality. A hearty meal is easier to digest than one that is too small. That the stomach as a whole becomes active is the first presupposition of a good digestion. One has to know the size of one’s stomach… Everyone has his own measure, often between the narrowest and most delicate limits.”

A beautiful aspect of this this Nietzschean metabolic system is that it has no master term, no one thing dictating all the others. While our wills are our wills, they are not fixed once and for all; they don't determine everything.  Our wills change. We can discipline our bodies to want differently. The very birth of civilization, he argues, came from a pack of roaming humans who hunted and fed in the moment but got bored so trained their bodies to be continuous through time, trained their bodies to be able to make promises rather than live for immediate desire, trained their bodies by using their flesh as a canvas and beating themselves into submission.

There is, then, something to be done, a practice to heed. But just as simply understanding amor fati doesn't make you live an affirmative life, simply changing your diet, moving to the country, or beating yourself daily will not make you suddenly say Yes to life. We all know plenty of fit, flexible, well-housed depressives. The greatest yogi, alas, is not the one who can do all the super cool poses. In fact, there is no correlation between the will to affirmation and the ability to do Vrschikasana aka Scorpion.


While practice matters, there is still no correlation between Vrschikasana and the ability to say Yes to life while lying in the gutter, your teeth kicked in, and shit running down your pant leg.

If only it were so easy! If only all I had to do was study yoga for hours every day for decades! If only all I had to do was meditate for 10 hours every day for 40 years! Or beat myself with a stick every time I felt self-loathing! If only that's all it took to be blissful and love my fate! But while will and practice are intimately intertwined neither dictates the other. Stubbornly, they maintain their independence. Just shifting one aspect of the system — say, the inputs — rarely shifts the system as a whole.

Too much of my life has been driven by anxiety — guilt and regret about the past, fear and anxiety about the future. This comes from 48 years of existence as much as from my will and metabolism. We live in a culture that celebrates anxiety. We are systematically taught to be judgemental and self-loathing — you're not smart enough, pretty enough, cool enough, man enough, rich enough, cool enough. We're taught that death is scary and to be avoided at all costs. We exercise — not to affirm life but to avoid death. We change what we eat — not to affirm life but to avoid death. So when death comes, we're actually surprised! How weird is that? The only thing we know to be inevitable surprises us.

And so we develop habits, a scaffolding of behavior to organize and maintain our anxieties. Such is the way of systems; they develop grooves, modes of operating that seem easier even though they're terribly inefficient. We continue to eat Cheez Doodles despite the intestinal mayhem because, well, that's what we do when we're hungry. We become possessive because we are so self-loathing that we assume ownership over another human being is the only way to secure love. Systems perpetuate themselves, even unto their own demise. Just listen to the sounds in a movie theater of empty minded, determined hands reaching over and over for popcorn smothered in fake butter. It's as telling as it is repulsive. Or look at America and see capitalism selling itself to the undertaker.

So there I am living this life of anxiety and I come across Nietzsche telling me about amor fati. And it speaks to me. I truly come to believe that life is perfect, that there is no alternative to life and hence everything that happens is as it should be: the is and the ought are one and the same. All there is is this life! And rather than that becoming nihilism — there's no heaven! oh no! — it becomes the greatest affirmation imaginable: All there is is this! Which means it's perfect! All is holy! Yes! Yes! Yes!

My understanding, then, is out of sync with the effects of my system — my moods and reactions, my words and thoughts. I need to re-engineer my metabolic system. This may involve changing the inputs — drinking less booze, eating more vegetables, drinking coffee at different times of the day. We should neither over- nor underestimate the power such inputs hold.

But my metabolic system is more than what I put in. It's also how I make sense of things. And these well worn ruts of sense making will tend towards the same sense whether I'm drinking tequila or kombucha. Sure, certain inputs can short circuit a system — LSD, DMT, psilocybin are all very powerful inputs that can radically alter the flow of a system. But those effects are often relatively short lived compared to metabolic momentum, even if an integral part of an affirmative practice. No, the trick is to shift the metabolic processes themselves.

And this demands breaking habits over and over, a steady practice. This is why meditation and yoga are great go-to practices: they demand a different flow of attention, a different way of taking in perceptions, processing them, and playing them back. For instance, in meditation, rather than looking for something interesting to watch, you perceive everything that happens. And rather than judging, categorizing, or reacting, you just let it all happen. This is quite different than a conversation with a friend or watching TV or your Facebook feed in which you're thinking and looking for the next thing to say or whether to like something or not. When you meditate, you are training yourself to be free of judgement: you are rebuilding the paths of perception, processing, and playback.

Of course, meditation and yoga are only ways of breaking habit. As they become habit, they become the new system: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. If you become anxious that you're missing your yoga class, then yoga is your new habit. (A discussion of the difference between a practice and a habit is for another time.)

 

As Osho suggests, meditation need not be a distinct practice of sitting. After all, you don't want to just be aware during your 30 minute meditation. A goal is to use sitting as a way to re-engineer the flow of sense making until it becomes a way of going everywhere you go, until you're embracing everything you experience — even your guilt, fear, and anxiety!

And so despite all these shifts in practice — your inputs and your metabolic process — you will still experience anxiety, guilt, regret, fear. So it goes. Such is life. Amor fati is not about eliminating these things; it's about standing towards them differently. All is holy.

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