Mudita Journal

The skyscraper and the cherry blossom: Why Objectivism needs secular spirituality

After my “Pointing to the reality” post, my intelligent Rand-loving friend was rubbed the wrong way by my suggestion that cherry blossoms are on the same level with skyscrapers: Skyscrapers give us an appreciation for things as they could be, for the ways man changes the world. How can cherry blossoms compare? Here is my reply.

I like your summary of the worldview Ayn Rand articulates, about man’s life as the standard of value, and how much meaning there is at that level, of shaping the world around us to fit our needs and to support our life and happiness. I not only agree with this worldview, I wish more people knew about it and embraced it. It’s a worldview I’m happy to promote and defend publicly, as you saw in my Reason TV interview.

Looking at the big picture, though, I believe we’re back to the Indian fable of the elephant and the blind men. What else might we feel, if we move beyond the particular portion of the beast that Rand is so in touch with? I believe it’s that, as human beings, we have access to two very significant levels of meaning. The first is the level of the intellect — of mind, concepts, and thought. The second is the level of being — of body, perception, and experience.

Rand doesn’t devote much time to the second, other than to occasionally derogate it as the “animal” mode of consciousness. What she’s missing, though, is that this level of consciousness is truly foundational to so many aspects of one’s health, happiness, and experience of meaning. It’s also foundational to a healthy spirituality.

When I say it’s foundational to our health, I don’t merely mean we need a healthy body so that our minds can operate; I mean much more. Man’s mind did not just give us the skyscraper and intercontinental aircraft and cell phones. It also gave us socialist gulags, concentration camps, and religion. In fact, the more mind-oriented (rather than being-oriented) a religion becomes, the more malignant and dangerous it is. Instead of Buddhists sitting around meditating, we get jihadists lining up for seventy-two virgins.

Of course Rand would counter that these socialists and religionists are totally irrational and anti-mind. Very well. Let’s look at something closer to home. Let’s look at followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. For decades, ardent followers of her philosophy have earned a reputation as moralistic, emotionally repressed misfits with few social skills. Many are far more likely to sit around and rant about government programs and the irrationality of religion than to actually do that much to make the world a better place. Too often they use her ideas as a way of justifying their own narcissistic and socially inept tendencies.

Or, just to really drive the point home, let’s look at Rand herself, who dragged her husband through her decade-long affair with a younger man and died bitter and alone, alienated from so many of her close friends. She is not a healthy role model to follow, at least in certain important respects. She had a piece of the elephant, which she could articulate beautifully, but it was also a very incomplete piece. She suffered for it, and those around her suffered for it.

If I sound harsh with this criticism, it’s because I am more interested in the reality to which her words point, than in the words themselves (or in who spoke them). And the reality is that when people become too obsessed with the intellectual level of experience, and disconnected from the being level of experience, they get out of balance in some disturbing ways.

There seem to be some good reasons for this, psychologically and epistemically. Rand spoke eloquently about how important it was to learn and practice logic, and she’s got a point. But we should remember that most ten-year-olds have a perfectly good grasp of basic logic; it’s hard to trick them. What they lack, and so many never develop adequately, is an understanding of their body, of their emotions, of their capacity to simply relax and be deeply present with their experience. These are all crucially important to a healthily functioning mind.

When you are weak in your relationship to life at the experiential, emotional, and perceptual levels, you are handicapped at the conceptual level too. When you don’t have a close and compassionate relationship to your own emotions, all the logic texts in the world won’t save you; you will be ruled by emotions and instinct in the very moments when you need logic most.

Researchers in medicine and psychology have been onto this for decades and have developed treatment programs to help people learn to be more present in their body, more accepting of their emotions, more willing to get intimate with their experience. It turns out to be a fantastic treatment not only for anxiety and depression, but everything from psoriasis to chronic pain to eating disorders.

The first of these programs was called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. (This is the same mindfulness that I refer to in the subtitle of my blog: Mindfulness and Individualism.) It’s a secular program for learning meditation and basic yoga. The man who developed it, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a longtime practitioner of yogic and Buddhist meditation techniques, and had firsthand experience with the benefits of being more grounded in the body, in experience, and in being.

You might’ve noticed that I keep bringing up the word “being,” rather than just the body or the perceptual level of consciousness. And that’s because a central tenet of these practices is not just being more relaxed, or more attentive to the body, or more aware of our emotions. It’s about accepting what is. It’s about being in a nonadversarial relationship to reality. It’s about being intimately in touch with the very ground of being, itself — in ourself, in others, and in the world around us.

And this is not an act of the intellect; it is an act of emotion and perception and will, of having the will to perceive the world without filters, including all its pain and blemishes and heartache, and to move toward those experiences rather than away from them. To stay psychologically open to pain (while also taking steps to reduce it, where available) is in many ways the essence of the spiritual path. When you do, you suddenly find the cherry blossom is not just a flower; it is the universe whispering in our ear that life is beautiful, that we are beautiful, and all we have to do is be present for it.

Often the biggest barrier to being fully present is the intellect — our tendency to encounter everything conceptually and verbally, rather than turning off our mind and allowing ourselves sink deeply into experience as such. Often we’re afraid to turn off the mind, and this is one of the ways we become a slave to our emotions: Emotions normally tell us reality is scary, and to keep working on a way out, a way to avoid feeling what has taken place and will take place.

I’m describing these things in intellectual terms, but this is not an intellectual experience. It is a perceptual and emotional experience, and we only get there fully when we’re willing to do the most counterintuitive thing in the world: To turn toward pain, rather than away from it. To deeply accept reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, even as we work to improve it. To let go of our emotional resistance to the way things are. When we do these things, the cherry blossoms take on new significance.

The metaphors of the skyscraper and the cherry blossom each, of course, stand for much more. The skyscraper is a metaphor for our capacities for intelligence, productivity, and wealth. The cherry blossom is a metaphor for the natural world, of the world as we find it, and of our appreciation for being as such.

It bothered you that I elevated cherry blossoms to the same level with skyscrapers. And I understand why, if our primary yardstick is the value of the intellect. If we grasp the crucial role of being, however, and the meaning that deep awareness of being can add to our lives, it’s hard to overestimate the power of the cherry blossom. As a metaphor, it stands for a tremendous capacity we have inside, to heal ourselves, to enjoy ourselves, to remain in a healthy and harmonious relationship to reality.

So, to summarize: The mind is a beautiful thing, but it is also a dangerous thing. On a personal level, the best way to hold it in check is not with more mind, but with more being — more staying in touch with our bodies, our emotions, our capacity for felt experience of reality. Often this involves opening to pain, to our own contraction, to our own fear of emotionally allowing life to be what it is, as it is now.

On its own, the cherry blossom offers little to compete with the skyscraper. But as a symbol of nature, of our capacity to exist in a state of harmony with reality, it’s a powerful metaphor for the need to ground our thinking in a deep and abiding appreciation for being as such.

In some places, your letter is haunted by a question: Which is more important, the skyscraper or the cherry blossom? It’s true that without the skyscraper, we live as animals. Yet it’s also true that, without the cherry blossom, we become madmen. How does one choose between those? How could we? Fortunately, we don’t have to. 🙂

That’s why skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too.

  • Boom. Excellent. Human beings worship. It is one of many bright-line distinctions between us and all other types of organisms.

  • Carrie-Ann Biondi

    So true that we need not choose between them, but can appreciate how both are amazing in their ways.

    As someone who works a lot in and teaches Aristotle’s work, your emphasis on “being” is greatly appreciated. The ancient Greek word is ousia, which is often mistranslated and misunderstood as some reductionistically physical “substance.” Ousia refers to any particular entity that has a unified being-through-time and whose nature is immanent and unfolds over time in dynamic relationality with other beings in its world.

    Here is a lovely “cherry blossom” type of image (which is used as the cover of Philippa Foot’s book Natural Goodness. It’s called “Philosopher Watching a Pair of Butterflies,” by Katsushika Hokusai:

    • Thank you for your comments, Carrie. I was not familiar with Aristotle’s outlook on such things, and am very glad to know about it. It sounds like you and I may have a similar outlook on the interface between philosophy and psychology, and the ways Eastern spiritual insights can inform both. I look forward to exploring that and hearing more of your thoughts.

      • Carrie-Ann Biondi

        Are you familiar with Tu Wei-ming’s work? He has a wonderful collection called Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought. One of the chapter’s is “Hsiung Shih-li’s Quest for Authentic Existence,” which explores Hsiung’s idiosyncratic take on embodiedness and authenticity within a neo-Confucian framework. A lot in this work resonates with Aristotle’s moral psychology and some of the positive psychology movement. It also discusses how to prepare for real dialogue between eastern and western thought.

        • I’m not familiar with his work, no. And unfortunately it looks like it’s not available in e-reader format (since I almost never buy physical books today). It sounds intriguing, though. Thank you for the heads-up.

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  • Li Don

    Rand was an idiotic hack without an original idea in her head. You do yourself a disservice by following her.