There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought


Philosopher Peter Carruthers insists that conscious thought, judgment and volition are illusions. They arise from processes of which we are forever unaware

There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought

Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought. More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.” In the following excerpted conversation, Carruthers explains to editor Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal.

What makes you think conscious thought is an illusion?

I believe that the whole idea of conscious thought is an error. I came to this conclusion by following out the implications of the two of the main theories of consciousness. The first is what is called the Global Workspace Theory, which is associated with neuroscientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars. Their theory states that to be considered conscious a mental state must be among the contents of working memory (the “user interface” of our minds) and thereby be available to other mental functions, such as decision-making and verbalization. Accordingly, conscious states are those that are “globally broadcast,” so to speak. The alternative view, proposed by Michael Graziano, David Rosenthal and others, holds that conscious mental states are simply those that you know of, that you are directly aware of in a way that doesn’t require you to interpret yourself. You do not have to read you own mind to know of them. Now, whichever view you adopt, it turns out that thoughts such as decisions and judgments should not be considered to be conscious. They are not accessible in working memory, nor are we directly aware of them. We merely have what I call “the illusion of immediacy”—the false impression that we know our thoughts directly.

One might easily agree that the sources of one’s thoughts are hidden from view—we just don’t know where our ideas come from. But once we have them and we know it, that’s where consciousness begins. Don’t we have conscious thoughts at least in this sense?

In ordinary life we are quite content to say things like “Oh, I just had a thought” or “I was thinking to myself.” By this we usually mean instances of inner speech or visual imagery, which are at the center of our stream of consciousness—the train of words and visual contents represented in our minds. I think that these trains are indeed conscious. In neurophilosophy, however, we refer to “thought” in a much more specific sense. In this view, thoughts include only nonsensory mental attitudes, such as judgments, decisions, intentions and goals. These are amodal, abstract events, meaning that they are not sensory experiences and are not tied to sensory experiences. Such thoughts never figure in working memory. They never become conscious. And we only ever know of them by interpreting what does become conscious, such as visual imagery and the words we hear ourselves say in our heads.

So consciousness always has a sensory basis?

I claim that consciousness is always bound to a sensory modality, that there is inevitably some auditory, visual or tactile aspect to it. All kinds of mental imagery, such as inner speech or visual memory, can of course be conscious. We see things in our mind’s eye; we hear our inner voice. What we are conscious of are the sensory-based contents present in working memory.

In your view, is consciousness different from awareness?

That’s a difficult question. Some philosophers believe that consciousness can be richer than what we can actually report. For example, our visual field seems to be full of detail—everything is just there, already consciously seen. Yet experiments in visual perception, especially the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, show that in fact we consciously register only a very limited slice of the world. [Editors’ note: A person experiencing inattentional blindness may not notice that a gorilla walked across a basketball court while the individual was focusing on the movement of the ball.] So, what we think we see, our subjective impression, is different from what we are actually aware of. Probably our conscious mind grasps only the gist of much of what is out there in the world, a sort of statistical summary. Of course, for most people consciousness and awareness coincide most of the time. Still, I think, we are not directly aware of our thoughts. Just as we are not directly aware of the thoughts of other people. We interpret our own mental states in much the same way as we interpret the minds of others, except that we can use as data in our own case our own visual imagery and inner speech.

You call the process of how people learn their own thoughts interpretive sensory access, or ISA. Where does the interpretation come into play?

Let’s take our conversation as an example—you are surely aware of what I am saying to you at this very moment. But the interpretative work and inferences on which you base your understanding are not accessible to you. All the highly automatic, quick inferences that form the basis of your understanding of my words remain hidden. You seem to just hear the meaning of what I say. What rises to the surface of your mind are the results of these mental processes. That is what I mean: The inferences themselves, the actual workings of our mind, remain unconscious. All that we are aware of are their products. And my access to your mind, when I listen to you speak, is not different in any fundamental way from my access to my own mind when I am aware of my own inner speech. The same sorts of interpretive processes still have to take place.

Why, then, do we have the impression of direct access to our mind?

The idea that minds are transparent to themselves (that everyone has direct awareness of their own thoughts) is built into the structure of our “mind reading” or “theory of mind” faculty, I suggest. The assumption is a useful heuristic when interpreting the statements of others. If someone says to me, “I want to help you,” I have to interpret whether the person is sincere, whether he is speaking literally or ironically, and so on; that is hard enough. If I also had to interpret whether he is interpreting his own mental state correctly, then that would make my task impossible. It is far simpler to assume that he knows his own mind (as, generally, he does). The illusion of immediacy has the advantage of enabling us to understand others with much greater speed and probably with little or no loss of reliability. If I had to figure out to what extent others are reliable interpreters of themselves, then that would make things much more complicated and slow. It would take a great deal more energy and interpretive work to understand the intentions and mental states of others. And then it is the same heuristic transparency-of-mind assumption that makes my own thoughts seem transparently available to me.

What is the empirical basis of your hypothesis?

There is a great deal of experimental evidence from normal subjects, especially of their readiness to falsely, but unknowingly, fabricate facts or memories to fill in for lost ones. Moreover, if introspection were fundamentally different from reading the minds of others, one would expect there to be disorders in which only one capacity was damaged but not the other. But that’s not what we find. Autism spectrum disorders, for example, are not only associated with limited access to the thoughts of others but also with a restricted understanding of oneself. In patients with schizophrenia, the insight both into one’s own mind and that of others is distorted. There seems to be only a single mind-reading mechanism on which we depend both internally and in our social relations.

What side effect does the illusion of immediacy have?

The price we pay is that we believe subjectively that we are possessed of far greater certainty about our attitudes than we actually have. We believe that if we are in mental state X, it is the same as being in that state. As soon as I believe I am hungry, I am. Once I believe I am happy, I am. But that is not really the case. It is a trick of the mind that makes us equate the act of thinking one has a thought with the thought itself.

What might be the alternative? What should we do about it, if only we could?

Well, in theory, we would have to distinguish between an experiential state itself on the one hand and our judgment or belief underlying this experience on the other hand. There are rare instances when we succeed in doing so: for example, when I feel nervous or irritated but suddenly realize that I am actually hungry and need to eat.

You mean that a more appropriate way of seeing it would be: “I think I’m angry, but maybe I’m not”?

That would be one way of saying it. It is astonishingly difficult to maintain this kind of distanced view of oneself. Even after many years of consciousness studies, I’m still not all that good at it (laughs).

Brain researchers put a lot of effort into figuring out the neural correlates of consciousness, the NCC. Will this endeavor ever be successful?

I think we already know a lot about how and where working memory is represented in the brain. Our philosophical concepts of what consciousness actually is are much more informed by empirical work than they were even a few decades ago. Whether we can ever close the gap between subjective experiences and neurophysiological processes that produce them is still a matter of dispute.

Would you agree that we are much more unconscious than we think we are?

I would rather say that consciousness is not what we generally think it is. It is not direct awareness of our inner world of thoughts and judgments but a highly inferential process that only gives us the impression of immediacy.

Where does that leave us with our concept of freedom and responsibility?

We can still have free will and be responsible for our actions. Conscious and unconscious are not separate spheres; they operate in tandem. We are not simply puppets manipulated by our unconscious thoughts, because obviously, conscious reflection does have effects on our behavior. It interacts with and is fueled by implicit processes. In the end, being free means acting in accordance with one’s own reasons—whether these are conscious or not.


Briefly Explained: Consciousness

Consciousness is generally understood to mean that an individual not only has an idea, recollection or perception but also knows that he or she has it. For perception, this knowledge encompasses both the experience of the outer world (“it’s raining”) and one’s internal state (“I’m angry”). Experts do not know how human consciousness arises. Nevertheless, they generally agree on how to define various aspects of it. Thus, they distinguish “phenomenal consciousness” (the distinctive feel when we perceive, for example, that an object is red) and “access consciousness” (when we can report on a mental state and use it in decision-making).

Important characteristics of consciousness include subjectivity (the sense that the mental event belongs to me), continuity (it appears unbroken) and intentionality (it is directed at an object). According to a popular scheme of consciousness known as Global Workspace Theory, a mental state or event is conscious if a person can bring it to mind to carry out such functions as decision-making or remembering, although how such accessing occurs is not precisely understood. Investigators assume that consciousness is not the product of a single region of the brain but of larger neural networks. Some theoreticians go so far as to posit that it is not even the product of an individual brain. For example, philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, holds that consciousness is not the work of a single organ but is more like a dance: a pattern of meaning that emerges between brains.

There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought


Philosopher Peter Carruthers insists that conscious thought, judgment and volition are illusions. They arise from processes of which we are forever unaware
There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought
Credit: Getty Images

Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought. More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.” In the following excerpted conversation, Carruthers explains to editor Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal.

What makes you think conscious thought is an illusion?

I believe that the whole idea of conscious thought is an error. I came to this conclusion by following out the implications of the two of the main theories of consciousness. The first is what is called the Global Workspace Theory, which is associated with neuroscientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars. Their theory states that to be considered conscious a mental state must be among the contents of working memory (the “user interface” of our minds) and thereby be available to other mental functions, such as decision-making and verbalization. Accordingly, conscious states are those that are “globally broadcast,” so to speak. The alternative view, proposed by Michael Graziano, David Rosenthal and others, holds that conscious mental states are simply those that you know of, that you are directly aware of in a way that doesn’t require you to interpret yourself. You do not have to read you own mind to know of them. Now, whichever view you adopt, it turns out that thoughts such as decisions and judgments should not be considered to be conscious. They are not accessible in working memory, nor are we directly aware of them. We merely have what I call “the illusion of immediacy”—the false impression that we know our thoughts directly.

One might easily agree that the sources of one’s thoughts are hidden from view—we just don’t know where our ideas come from. But once we have them and we know it, that’s where consciousness begins. Don’t we have conscious thoughts at least in this sense?

In ordinary life we are quite content to say things like “Oh, I just had a thought” or “I was thinking to myself.” By this we usually mean instances of inner speech or visual imagery, which are at the center of our stream of consciousness—the train of words and visual contents represented in our minds. I think that these trains are indeed conscious. In neurophilosophy, however, we refer to “thought” in a much more specific sense. In this view, thoughts include only nonsensory mental attitudes, such as judgments, decisions, intentions and goals. These are amodal, abstract events, meaning that they are not sensory experiences and are not tied to sensory experiences. Such thoughts never figure in working memory. They never become conscious. And we only ever know of them by interpreting what does become conscious, such as visual imagery and the words we hear ourselves say in our heads.

So consciousness always has a sensory basis?

I claim that consciousness is always bound to a sensory modality, that there is inevitably some auditory, visual or tactile aspect to it. All kinds of mental imagery, such as inner speech or visual memory, can of course be conscious. We see things in our mind’s eye; we hear our inner voice. What we are conscious of are the sensory-based contents present in working memory.

In your view, is consciousness different from awareness?

That’s a difficult question. Some philosophers believe that consciousness can be richer than what we can actually report. For example, our visual field seems to be full of detail—everything is just there, already consciously seen. Yet experiments in visual perception, especially the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, show that in fact we consciously register only a very limited slice of the world. [Editors’ note: A person experiencing inattentional blindness may not notice that a gorilla walked across a basketball court while the individual was focusing on the movement of the ball.] So, what we think we see, our subjective impression, is different from what we are actually aware of. Probably our conscious mind grasps only the gist of much of what is out there in the world, a sort of statistical summary. Of course, for most people consciousness and awareness coincide most of the time. Still, I think, we are not directly aware of our thoughts. Just as we are not directly aware of the thoughts of other people. We interpret our own mental states in much the same way as we interpret the minds of others, except that we can use as data in our own case our own visual imagery and inner speech.

You call the process of how people learn their own thoughts interpretive sensory access, or ISA. Where does the interpretation come into play?

Let’s take our conversation as an example—you are surely aware of what I am saying to you at this very moment. But the interpretative work and inferences on which you base your understanding are not accessible to you. All the highly automatic, quick inferences that form the basis of your understanding of my words remain hidden. You seem to just hear the meaning of what I say. What rises to the surface of your mind are the results of these mental processes. That is what I mean: The inferences themselves, the actual workings of our mind, remain unconscious. All that we are aware of are their products. And my access to your mind, when I listen to you speak, is not different in any fundamental way from my access to my own mind when I am aware of my own inner speech. The same sorts of interpretive processes still have to take place.

Why, then, do we have the impression of direct access to our mind?

The idea that minds are transparent to themselves (that everyone has direct awareness of their own thoughts) is built into the structure of our “mind reading” or “theory of mind” faculty, I suggest. The assumption is a useful heuristic when interpreting the statements of others. If someone says to me, “I want to help you,” I have to interpret whether the person is sincere, whether he is speaking literally or ironically, and so on; that is hard enough. If I also had to interpret whether he is interpreting his own mental state correctly, then that would make my task impossible. It is far simpler to assume that he knows his own mind (as, generally, he does). The illusion of immediacy has the advantage of enabling us to understand others with much greater speed and probably with little or no loss of reliability. If I had to figure out to what extent others are reliable interpreters of themselves, then that would make things much more complicated and slow. It would take a great deal more energy and interpretive work to understand the intentions and mental states of others. And then it is the same heuristic transparency-of-mind assumption that makes my own thoughts seem transparently available to me.

What is the empirical basis of your hypothesis?

There is a great deal of experimental evidence from normal subjects, especially of their readiness to falsely, but unknowingly, fabricate facts or memories to fill in for lost ones. Moreover, if introspection were fundamentally different from reading the minds of others, one would expect there to be disorders in which only one capacity was damaged but not the other. But that’s not what we find. Autism spectrum disorders, for example, are not only associated with limited access to the thoughts of others but also with a restricted understanding of oneself. In patients with schizophrenia, the insight both into one’s own mind and that of others is distorted. There seems to be only a single mind-reading mechanism on which we depend both internally and in our social relations.

What side effect does the illusion of immediacy have?

The price we pay is that we believe subjectively that we are possessed of far greater certainty about our attitudes than we actually have. We believe that if we are in mental state X, it is the same as being in that state. As soon as I believe I am hungry, I am. Once I believe I am happy, I am. But that is not really the case. It is a trick of the mind that makes us equate the act of thinking one has a thought with the thought itself.

What might be the alternative? What should we do about it, if only we could?

Well, in theory, we would have to distinguish between an experiential state itself on the one hand and our judgment or belief underlying this experience on the other hand. There are rare instances when we succeed in doing so: for example, when I feel nervous or irritated but suddenly realize that I am actually hungry and need to eat.

You mean that a more appropriate way of seeing it would be: “I think I’m angry, but maybe I’m not”?

That would be one way of saying it. It is astonishingly difficult to maintain this kind of distanced view of oneself. Even after many years of consciousness studies, I’m still not all that good at it (laughs).

Brain researchers put a lot of effort into figuring out the neural correlates of consciousness, the NCC. Will this endeavor ever be successful?

I think we already know a lot about how and where working memory is represented in the brain. Our philosophical concepts of what consciousness actually is are much more informed by empirical work than they were even a few decades ago. Whether we can ever close the gap between subjective experiences and neurophysiological processes that produce them is still a matter of dispute.

Would you agree that we are much more unconscious than we think we are?

I would rather say that consciousness is not what we generally think it is. It is not direct awareness of our inner world of thoughts and judgments but a highly inferential process that only gives us the impression of immediacy.

Where does that leave us with our concept of freedom and responsibility?

We can still have free will and be responsible for our actions. Conscious and unconscious are not separate spheres; they operate in tandem. We are not simply puppets manipulated by our unconscious thoughts, because obviously, conscious reflection does have effects on our behavior. It interacts with and is fueled by implicit processes. In the end, being free means acting in accordance with one’s own reasons—whether these are conscious or not.


Briefly Explained: Consciousness

Consciousness is generally understood to mean that an individual not only has an idea, recollection or perception but also knows that he or she has it. For perception, this knowledge encompasses both the experience of the outer world (“it’s raining”) and one’s internal state (“I’m angry”). Experts do not know how human consciousness arises. Nevertheless, they generally agree on how to define various aspects of it. Thus, they distinguish “phenomenal consciousness” (the distinctive feel when we perceive, for example, that an object is red) and “access consciousness” (when we can report on a mental state and use it in decision-making).

Important characteristics of consciousness include subjectivity (the sense that the mental event belongs to me), continuity (it appears unbroken) and intentionality (it is directed at an object). According to a popular scheme of consciousness known as Global Workspace Theory, a mental state or event is conscious if a person can bring it to mind to carry out such functions as decision-making or remembering, although how such accessing occurs is not precisely understood. Investigators assume that consciousness is not the product of a single region of the brain but of larger neural networks. Some theoreticians go so far as to posit that it is not even the product of an individual brain. For example, philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, holds that consciousness is not the work of a single organ but is more like a dance: a pattern of meaning that emerges between brains.

The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream


“And it is so simple… You will instantly find how to live.”

 

One November night in the 1870s, legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) discovered the meaning of life in a dream — or, at least, the protagonist in his final short story did. The piece, which first appeared in the altogether revelatory A Writer’s Diary (public library) under the title “The Dream of a Queer Fellow” and was later published separately as The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, explores themes similar to those in Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novel Notes from the Underground, considered the first true existential novel. True to Stephen King’s assertion that “good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” the story sheds light on Dostoyevsky’s personal spiritual and philosophical bents with extraordinary clarity — perhaps more so than any of his other published works. The contemplation at its heart falls somewhere between Tolstoy’s tussle with the meaning of life and Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory exegesis.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

The story begins with the narrator wandering the streets of St. Petersburg on “a gloomy night, the gloomiest night you can conceive,” dwelling on how others have ridiculed him all his life and slipping into nihilism with the “terrible anguish” of believing that nothing matters. He peers into the glum sky, gazes at a lone little star, and contemplates suicide; two months earlier, despite his destitution, he had bought an “excellent revolver” with the same intention, but the gun had remained in his drawer since. Suddenly, as he is staring at the star, a little girl of about eight, wearing ragged clothes and clearly in distress, grabs him by the arm and inarticulately begs his help. But the protagonist, disenchanted with life, shoos her away and returns to the squalid room he shares with a drunken old captain, furnished with “a sofa covered in American cloth, a table with some books, two chairs and an easy-chair, old, incredibly old, but still an easy-chair.”

As he sinks into the easy-chair to think about ending his life, he finds himself haunted by the image of the little girl, leading him to question his nihilistic disposition. Dostoyevsky writes:

I knew for certain that I would shoot myself that night, but how long I would sit by the table — that I did not know. I should certainly have shot myself, but for that little girl.

You see: though it was all the same to me, I felt pain, for instance. If any one were to strike me, I should feel pain. Exactly the same in the moral sense: if anything very pitiful happened, I would feel pity, just as I did before everything in life became all the same to me. I had felt pity just before: surely, I would have helped a child without fail. Why did I not help the little girl, then? It was because of an idea that came into my mind then. When she was pulling at me and calling to me, suddenly a question arose before me, which I could not answer. The question was an idle one; but it made me angry. I was angry because of my conclusion, that if I had already made up my mind that I would put an end to myself to-night, then now more than ever before everything in the world should be all the same to me. Why was it that I felt it was not all the same to me, and pitied the little girl? I remember I pitied her very much: so much that I felt a pain that was even strange and incredible in my situation…

It seemed clear that if I was a man and not a cipher yet, and until I was changed into a cipher, then I was alive and therefore could suffer, be angry and feel shame for my actions. Very well. But if I were to kill myself, for instance, in two hours from now, what is the girl to me, and what have I to do with shame or with anything on earth? I am going to be a cipher, an absolute zero. Could my consciousness that I would soon absolutely cease to exist, and that therefore nothing would exist, have not the least influence on my feeling of pity for the girl or on my sense of shame for the vileness I had committed?

From the moral, he veers into the existential:

It became clear to me that life and the world, as it were, depended upon me. I might even say that the world had existed for me alone. I should shoot myself, and then there would be no world at all, for me at least. Not to mention that perhaps there will really be nothing for any one after me, and the whole world, as soon as my consciousness is extinguished, will also be extinguished like a phantom, as part of my consciousness only, and be utterly abolished, since perhaps all this world and all these men are myself alone.

Beholding “these new, thronging questions,” he plunges into a contemplation of what free will really means. In a passage that calls to mind John Cage’s famous aphorism on the meaning of life — “No why. Just here.” — and George Lucas’s assertion that “life is beyond reason,” Dostoyevsky suggests through his protagonist that what gives meaning to life is life itself:

One strange consideration suddenly presented itself to me. If I had previously lived on the moon or in Mars, and I had there been dishonored and disgraced so utterly that one can only imagine it sometimes in a dream or a nightmare, and if I afterwards found myself on earth and still preserved a consciousness of what I had done on the other planet, and if I knew besides that I would never by any chance return, then, if I were to look at the moon from the earth — would it be all the same to me or not? Would I feel any shame for my action or not? The questions were idle and useless, for the revolver was already lying before me, and I knew with all my being that this thing would happen for certain: but the questions excited me to rage. I could not die now, without having solved this first. In a word, that little girl saved me, for my questions made me postpone pulling the trigger.

Just as he ponders this, the protagonist slips into sleep in the easy-chair, but it’s a sleep that has the quality of wakeful dreaming. In one of many wonderful semi-asides, Dostoyevsky peers at the eternal question of why we have dreams:

Dreams are extraordinarily strange. One thing appears with terrifying clarity, with the details finely set like jewels, while you leap over another, as though you did not notice it at all — space and time, for instance. It seems that dreams are the work not of mind but of desire, not of the head but of the heart… In a dream things quite incomprehensible come to pass. For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in a dream: he takes part in my affairs, and we are very excited, while I, all the time my dream goes on, know and remember perfectly that my brother is dead and buried. Why am I not surprised that he, though dead, is still near me and busied about me? Why does my mind allow all that?

In this strange state, the protagonist dreams that he takes his revolver and points it at his heart — not his head, where he had originally intended to shoot himself. After waiting a second or two, his dream-self pulls the trigger quickly. Then something remarkable happens:

I felt no pain, but it seemed to me that with the report, everything in me was convulsed, and everything suddenly extinguished. It was terribly black all about me. I became as though blind and numb, and I lay on my back on something hard. I could see nothing, neither could I make any sound. People were walking and making a noise about me: the captain’s bass voice, the landlady’s screams… Suddenly there was a break. I am being carried in a closed coffin. I feel the coffin swinging and I think about that, and suddenly for the first time the idea strikes me that I am dead, quite dead. I know it and do not doubt it; I cannot see nor move, yet at the same time I feel and think. But I am soon reconciled to that, and as usual in a dream I accept the reality without a question.

Now I am being buried in the earth. Every one leaves me and I am alone, quite alone. I do not stir… I lay there and — strange to say — I expected nothing, accepting without question that a dead man has nothing to expect. But it was damp. I do not know how long passed — an hour, a few days, or many days. Suddenly, on my left eye which was closed, a drop of water fell, which had leaked through the top of the grave. In a minute fell another, then a third, and so on, every minute. Suddenly, deep indignation kindled in my heart and suddenly in my heart I felt physical pain. ‘It’s my wound,’ I thought. ‘It’s where I shot myself. The bullet is there.’ And all the while the water dripped straight on to my closed eye. Suddenly, I cried out, not with a voice, for I was motionless, but with all my being, to the arbiter of all that was being done to me.

“Whosoever thou art, if thou art, and if there exists a purpose more intelligent than the things which are now taking place, let it be present here also. But if thou dost take vengeance upon me for my foolish suicide, then know, by the indecency and absurdity of further existence, that no torture whatever that may befall me, can ever be compared to the contempt which I will silently feel, even through millions of years of martyrdom.”

I cried out and was silent. Deep silence lasted a whole minute. One more drop even fell. But I knew and believed, infinitely and steadfastly, that in a moment everything would infallibly change. Suddenly, my grave opened. I do not know whether it had been uncovered and opened, but I was taken by some dark being unknown to me, and we found ourselves in space. Suddenly, I saw. It was deep night; never, never had such darkness been! We were borne through space and were already far from the earth. I asked nothing of him who led me. I was proud and waited. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and my heart melted with rapture at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not remember how long we rushed through space, and I cannot imagine it. It happened as always in a dream when you leap over space and time and the laws of life and mind, and you stop only there where your heart delights.

The 1845 depiction of a galaxy that inspired Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night,’ from Michael Benson’s Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Through the thick darkness, he sees a star — the same little star he had seen before shooing the girl away. As the dream continues, the protagonist describes a sort of transcendence akin to what is experienced during psychedelic drug trips or in deep meditation states:

Suddenly a familiar yet most overwhelming emotion shook me through. I saw our sun. I knew that it could not be our sun, which had begotten our earth, and that we were an infinite distance away, but somehow all through me I recognized that it was exactly the same sun as ours, its copy and double. A sweet and moving delight echoed rapturously through my soul. The dear power of light, of that same light which had given me birth, touched my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my death.

He finds himself in another world, Earthlike in every respect, except “everything seemed to be bright with holiday, with a great and sacred triumph, finally achieved” — a world populated by “children of the sun,” happy people whose eyes “shone with a bright radiance” and whose faces “gleamed with wisdom, and with a certain consciousness, consummated in tranquility.” The protagonist exclaims:

Oh, instantly, at the first glimpse of their faces I understood everything, everything!

Conceding that “it was only a dream,” he nonetheless asserts that “the sensation of the love of those beautiful and innocent people” was very much real and something he carried into wakeful life on Earth. Awaking in his easy-chair at dawn, he exclaims anew with rekindled gratitude for life:

Oh, now — life, life! I lifted my hands and called upon the eternal truth, not called, but wept. Rapture, ineffable rapture exalted all my being. Yes, to live…

Dostoyevsky concludes with his protagonist’s reflection on the shared essence of life, our common conquest of happiness and kindness:

All are tending to one and the same goal, at least all aspire to the same goal, from the wise man to the lowest murderer, but only by different ways. It is an old truth, but there is this new in it: I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray? … The living image of what I saw will be with me always, and will correct and guide me always. Oh, I am strong and fresh, I can go on, go on, even for a thousand years.

[…]

And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.

25 Powerful Quotes From Zen Buddhism That Will Change Your Perspective on Life


Zen Buddhism is a profound philosophy that counters much of what we’re taught in the west.

In western society, we tend to think that we’ll find happiness once we reach certain goals. However, Zen Buddhism says that happiness doesn’t come from any outside achievements. Instead, it believes that true inner peace comes from within.

The key, according to Zen, is to let go of attachments and embrace living fully in the present moment. It’s certainly an outlook on life that all could benefit from, no matter your religion or race.

Below we have found 25 pieces of concise Zen Buddhist wisdom that summarize the wisdom of life. I hope they shift your perspective as much as they have mine. Enjoy!
Zen quotes

1) The temptation to give up is strongest just before victory.

2) The goal in life is to die young, but to do as late as possible.

3) Don’t speak if it doesn’t improve on silence.

4) A thousand-mile journey begins with just one step.

5) A strong man overcomes an obstacle, a wise man goes the whole way.

6) Don’t be afraid to go slowly. Be afraid of stopping.



7) Even the happiness of a fool is a stupid kind of happiness.

8) Even if you stumble and fall down, it doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong path.

9) A hut full of laughter is richer than a palace full of sadness.

10) Always look on the bright side of things. If you can’t comprehend this, polish that which has become dull until it begins to shine.

11) Whatever happens always happens on time.

12) Someone who points out your flaws to you is not necessarily your enemy. Someone who speaks of your virtues is not necessarily your friend

13) Don’t be afraid that you do not know something. Be afraid of not learning about it.

14) A good teacher opens the door for you, but you must enter the room by yourself.



15) A mountain never yields to the wind no matter how strong it is.

16) Live calmly. The time will come when the flowers bloom by themselves.

17) There’s no such thing as a friend who doesn’t have any flaws. But if you try to look for all their flaws, you will remain with no friends.

18) Unhappiness enters through a door that has been left open.

19) No one returns from a long journey the same person they were before.

20) A person who is capable of blushing cannot have a bad heart.

21) It’s better be a person for a day than to be a shadow for a 1,000 days.

22) Your home is where your thoughts find peace.

23) The man who moved the mountain was the one who began carrying away the smallest stones.

24) If you’ve made a mistake, it’s better just to laugh at it.

25) The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

A philosopher says that a meaningful and fulfilling life comes down to 4 basic pillars


We’re often told that we should make decisions based on what will make us “happy”.

But does operating this way really lead to a more fulfilling life? Not exactly.

In fact, according to modern day philosopher Emily Esfahani Smith, chasing happiness can actually make us unhappy.

Instead, she says that there’s something more powerful we should all be searching for. Here are the 4 pillars of life.

Watch the TED talk to find out what that is:

If you haven’t got time to watch the video, don’t fear. We’ve summarized Smith’s brilliant TED talk in text:

Smith believed that the purpose of life was pursuing happiness. That quest led her to look for the “perfect life”: beautiful apartment, amazing boyfriend and the ideal job.

However, instead of feeling fulfilled, this search made her feel anxious and adrift.

She couldn’t get her head around it, so she decided to go to graduate school to learn what really makes people happy. And what she discovered changed her life.

The data showed that chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. More worryingly, the data also found that suicide rates have been rising around the world and has recently reached a 30-year high in America.

This is in contrast to the fact that life is getting better in terms of our standard of living.



So what’s going on? Why are we feeling more hopeless than ever?

According to the research, what’s causing our despair is not lack of happiness. It’s a lack of having meaning in life.

According to Smith, there’s a difference between happiness and meaning in life.

Psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and feeling good in the moment. Meaning, though, is deeper.

Psychologist Martin Seligman says meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you.

While our culture is obsessed with happiness, Smith says that seeking meaning is a more fulfilling path.

Studies show that people who have meaning in life are more resilient, do better in school and at work and live longer.

So, the question is, how can we live more meaningfully? Smith spent 5 years interviewing hundreds of people and reading through thousands of pages of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience to work this out.

After all this, she came up with what she calls “the 4 pillars of a meaningful life.”

The 1st pillar: Belonging

This means being in relationships where you are valued for who you are and you values others as well.

Smith says that some groups bring a shallow form of belonging: you’re valued for what you believe, or hate, but not for who you are. True belonging stems from love.



For many people, belonging is the most essential source of meaning: the bonds you have with your family and friends.

2nd pillar: Purpose

This isn’t about finding a job that makes you happy. Instead, purpose is less about what you want and more about what you give.

For example, many parents might say, “my purpose is raising my children.”

The key to using your purpose, according to Smith, is to use your strengths to help others.

For many of us, that might happen through work. That also means that without something worthwhile to do, people flounder.

Purpose gives you something to live for and to drive you forward.

3rd pillar: Stepping beyond yourself

This about “transcendence”. These are states where you are lifted above yourself, away from the hustle and bustle of life and you feel connected to a higher reality.

Some people might say that transcendence comes from art. For others, it might be church or writing or getting in the zone at something you enjoy doing.

The 4th pillar: Storytelling

This one tends to surprise people. This is the story you tell about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you.

However, Smith says that we don’t always realize that we are in control of the story we’re telling.

You can edit, interpret and retell your story. She says that people who tell stories such as, “my life was good, but now is bad” tend to be more anxious and depressed.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Overtime you can start to tell a different story. Psychologist Dan McAdams calls this a “redemptive story”, where the bad is redeemed by the good.

People leading meaningful lives tend to tell stories about their lives defined by redemption, growth and love.

You can’t change your story overnight, but overtime you can create a new narrative where all those struggles and pains you went through actually lead to new insights and wisdom, to finding that good that sustains you.

Smith finishes her TED talk with some powerful words describing why searching for meaning really is powerful:

“That’s the power of meaning. Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to.”

Appreciate Yourself: 9 Reminders to Love Yourself


Appreciate-Yourself-9-Compassionate-Reminders-to-Love-Yourself

“Beauty is when you can appreciate yourself. When you love yourself, that’s when you’re most beautiful.” ~ Zoe Kravitz

Did you grow up in a household that hurt you and punished you as you grew up?

Were your feelings tossed aside? Your confidence shattered? Your self-worth destroyed?

Were you put down, beaten down with negativity and criticism and made fun of by the very people who were supposed to have loved you?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re likely living a life today that is filled with self-doubts, low self-esteem and an inability to value yourself.

If the people who were to love me didn’t love me, how can I love myself?” you’re asking.

How can I accept and be compassionate to myself when my family wasn’t accepting or compassionate of me?

You, and I do have a certain power. Our power of choice. Our power to choose love over our suffering. Our power to choose today over what happened to us.  Our power to love ourselves more intimately than feeling self-loathing we may experience.

Here are 9 compassionate reminders to love and appreciate yourself.

1. You were born of love.

You may have to go back to a time you don’t remember: birth. It was during this time in your life that you were in the most loved state of being. You gave love and received unconditional love. You were loved for simply being you. Think about how you treat babies today. You see their affection, love, and joy in being alive. They radiate love. You also, at birth, radiated love and were filled with light. You were born of love so remember that that unconditional and complete love always lies within you.

2. You are complete.

No matter what anyone told you in your life, remember that you are complete. Others in your life, even your parents or loved ones, may have unleashed a torrent of criticism and negativity towards you previously. They didn’t know any better. They were likely raised the same way. You might have believed what they said: you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy or you’re not smart enough. Whatever it is your parents said to you, remember it’s not true. You don’t lack anything. You’re doing the best you can every day. You are 100% complete. You have everything you need within you. You are filled with divinity and have no lack.

3. You are needed to make a difference.

Your pains hurts and life journey is what make you uniquely you. Not only are you unique but your life story is directly related to your purpose in the world. If you’ve ever felt unwanted or like your life doesn’t mean anything, you’re wrong.  Your exact life journey has prepared you to serve some way. You are here to help others on their path. You are here to guide and mentor someone that has gone through something similar as you. Your story has given you the compassion and empathy to be the light for others who are in pain and filled with self-loathing.

4. You have love, compassion, and abundance within.

You may have been told that you’re not a very good person. You may have been told that you disappointed the very people you love the most. You may have been called names, compared to your siblings or even made fun of physically. It’s hard to believe that you’re a love-filled being when you’ve absorbed so much contrary information. The truth is you do have love, compassion, and abundance within you. You were born with it and you’ve tapped into at many points in your life. Your challenge is to work past the negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs to access the love that’s already within.  Use affirmations, journaling, counseling if necessary, and self-care to access all these qualities residing within you. You have a reservoir of love within waiting for you.

5. You can shift your perspective to love in every circumstance.

Every situation you look at gives you two choices: love or fear. You can see the world through the eyes of love and kindness or through hate and fear. You get to pick. If you’ve had a hard time difficult time loving yourself, you’ll often choose hate and fear. The way to work around this is to be aware of this tendency. When a challenging situation comes up, actively shift your perspective towards the more loving and holy one. What is the good in this situation? How is this situation going to benefit you? What is the lesson here? What are you grateful for? When you focus on the positive, you allow love to win each time.

6. You are a divine being, connected with the universe.

It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or spiritual, you likely have one belief in common which is that there is spirit or divinity all around you. You believe that the universe is all-loving, all supportive and filled with goodness. If this is the case, then remember that you too are in that universe. You are a speck of water in the glass of divinity, which means that you too are good, loving, and divine. You are made up of the larger fabric of the universe. As a particle in the universe, you are sacred. You embody the greater love of the universe. Your love is within you, not outside of you.

7. You can share the love you give to others with yourself.

Not only is the love within you but you’re in the habit of sharing your love with others. You know how to give love. You may not be very good at giving it to yourself but you do know how to love others. Often, this is the problem. You love without conditions, without reservation and go all in on love. Now, you just have to make a small shift in your mindset about love. Instead of loving another person unconditionally and deeply, use that same energy and principles to love and appreciate yourself. Whatever you do for others, do for yourself. Use those gentle words for you, do nice things for you, praise yourself, give yourself a break.

8. Staying true to who you are is the best way to love and appreciate yourself.

It’s hard to love ourselves because society is often telling us how different we are and how we don’t fit in. Society and our families point out our flaws, our inadequacies, and harp on our shortcomings. The way to break through the noise is to silence the critics. It’s to withdraw from the outside world and spend more time within through nature or silence. It’s to stop listening to outside voices and to stop comparing yourself. It’s trying to get more in touch with the sacred inner voice: your intuition. Listen to yourself more. You know all the answers. You are wise. You are love. You know best for yourself.

9. You can love and transform no matter where you came from.

No matter how badly you grew up or no matter how destructive your environment was, you can love and appreciate yourself. You have it within you to cultivate love for yourself. Self-love is a habit to be built up. It’s accessible to everyone because the love is already there within you. You don’t have to go and get it from somewhere else. As Rumi says, “your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”  Work on self-love daily. Journal your negative thoughts, surround yourself with supportive people, eat well and take care of your body, be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Be conscious, aware and proactive in loving yourself.

How I Freed Myself Spiritually with 3 Life Changes


When I decided to start making a conscious effort to develop my spiritual life, I was at a point when life’s biggest questions needed answers fast: Who am I? Why am I? What is God? What is the purpose of life? I was in college, when my goals and my reasons for having them were important to figure out in order to navigate my schooling. But these questions are also important for life in general.

Wrestling with these questions while trying to engage seriously in the spiritual side of life and re-evaluate what I had already been taught or learned caused turmoil, confusion, resistance, instability, and a feeling of being lost. I was only truly able to grow spiritually when I made the following changes.

1. Release Guilt.

We tend to get caught up in whether or not our actions are right or wrong. We’ve all made mistakes, done things we later regretted, and acted against others as well as ourselves. Some of these things have kept me up at night tossing and turning and begging for forgiveness or release. One day I heard a spiritual leader on the radio talking about how guilt did more damage to us than the “wrong act” itself. Something clicked inside of me, confirming that the worst thing I could do was to continue to hold on to guilt. I had to free myself.

It wasn’t until I granted myself permission to let go of the idea that I had done something “bad” and accepted that it was mostly an experience to grow that I began to feel free and able to be a greater version of myself. Experience is our greatest source of knowledge and wisdom. Allowing ourselves to be and feel forgiven is not only healing and transforming, but is also one of the most courageous things we can do.

2. Re-Create Yourself.

Take a good hard look at yourself on every level: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. What has created your worldview? How have your upbringing, your experiences, your neighborhood, institutions, and environment shaped who you are now? Ask yourself, “Why am I me?” Then take the lens through which you see the world off. Why? A lot of the answers I could come up before I committed to change were external things.

This really made me sit back and rethink myself. If I hadn’t grown up in this town or with this faith, who would I be and what would I believe to be true? At some point, you’re no longer the product of your environment but a creator in your life, free to choose who you are. I personally wanted not to be so heavily dependent on my outside world, but to be driven by something greater, something more internal: my divine self.

3. See Perfection.

A zen proverb suggests that when someone points at something, we initially tend to observe their finger instead of the object itself. We focus on things that don’t serve us well or mask the truth. The proverb says, “To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” Yet when life throws us transformative experiences, which can also be very painful, we’re at a loss as to why these things are happening to us. We let the scariness and disappointments cripple us and keep us down, instead of seeing the situation for what it really is: an opportunity to heal and grow, which can transform us.

By being more mindful in life and observing things as they really are, we can be more like masters and creators and less like victims or reactors. It’s a simple choice, and it will give you a great sense of freedom to see past the surface of our experiences into the perfection and blessing in all things.

I’ve found it to be an amazing experience to live knowing that even the seemingly problematic issues in my life are actually the answers to my prayers.

 

About the author:

Gogo Thule Ngane is a Sangoma Traditional Healer, Priestess, and Medicine Woman. She is guided by the Amadlozi, Elevated Ancestors of her lineage. Her work includes divination, traditional healing, and leads workshops, ceremonies, and retreats on ancient African healing and spirituality. She is devoted to awakening ancestral wisdom on the earth.

 

For all book lovers please visit my friend’s website.
URL: http://www.romancewithbooks.com

The Dubious Power of Positive Thinking


Positive thinking seems much like optimism, in that events and situations are viewed in the best light. The event or situation itself remains as it is, and by thinking positively about it aren’t we fooling ourselves by forcing the negative into the unconscious? Isn’t it more honest to see things just as they are, with the negative as essential as the positive?

“The technique of positive thinking is not a technique that transforms you. It is simply repressing the negative aspects of your personality. It is a method of choice. It cannot help awareness; it goes against awareness.

“Awareness is always choiceless.

“Positive thinking simply means forcing the negative into the unconscious and conditioning the conscious mind with positive thoughts. But the trouble is that the unconscious is far more powerful, nine times more powerful, than the conscious mind. So once a thing becomes unconscious, it becomes nine times more powerful than it was before. It may not show in the old fashion, but it will find new ways of expression.

“So positive thinking is a very poor method, without any deep understanding, and it goes on giving you wrong ideas about yourself.”

Osho, The Transmission of the Lamp, Talk #36

Sometimes it’s just too painful to look at what’s wrong, so I take the easy way out.

“I am absolutely against positive thinking. You will be surprised that if you don’t choose, if you remain in a choiceless awareness, your life will start expressing something which is beyond both positive and negative, which is higher than both. So you are not going to be a loser. It is not going to be negative, it is not going to be positive, it is going to be existential.”

Osho, The Transmission of the Lamp, Talk #36

You ask me if I am against positive philosophy. Yes, because I am also against negative philosophy. I have to be against both because both choose only half the fact, and both try to ignore the other half.

“The philosophy of positive thinking says: ‘Take everything positively. The negative should not have any space in your approach, there should be no negative part.’ This is making a part, the positive part, almost the whole.”

Osho, From Ignorance to Innocence, Talk #29

I don’t know if I have the courage to drop the positive.

“To drop the positive means to drop the happiness; to drop the positive means to drop all that looks like flowers, all that is beautiful. The negative is the ugly, the positive is the beautiful. The negative is death, the positive is life. But you can drop the negative, so take the first step. First feel the misery, how much it is given to you by the negative. Watch how the misery arises out of it, just watch and feel. The very feeling that the negative is creating the misery will become the dropping.”

Osho, Yoga: The Supreme Science, Talk #10

“Life is absolutely balanced between the positive and the negative. Now it is your choice which side you want to be, in heaven or in hell. Wherever you want to be, try to find it in your life, every moment. And whenever you have found something positive, pour all your attention and all your love on it. That will make it grow; that will make it more and more important in your life, more and more taking the space of your being.”

Osho, Satyam Shivam Sunderam: Truth Godliness Beauty, Talk #15

It always seems more polite to be positive, people seldom want a real answer.

“When you meet somebody and ask, ‘How are you?’ he says, ‘I am perfectly well.’ Now, if you are a negative philosopher you have to find out what this man is hiding: ‘How can he be perfectly well? Have you ever heard of anybody in the world being perfectly well? He is lying!’ But nobody will listen to a negative philosopher. You also say, ‘I am perfectly well. You are perfectly well? – good.’ And you depart in good spirits. What is the point of showing one’s wounds to each other and making each other more miserable than before?…

“In fact, all these believers in positive philosophy are basically negative. To hide that negativity they believe firmly in the positive philosophy.

“I am not in support of either side. I am in favor of taking the whole truth, and that’s what I would like you to do too: take the whole truth, because the negative is as essential as the positive.

“You cannot create electricity with only the positive pole; you will need the negative pole too. Only with both the negative and the positive pole can you create electricity. Is the negative absolutely negative? It is complementary, so it is not against the positive.”

Osho, From Ignorance to Innocence, Talk #29

So I need to find my own balance?

“Just as both sides of a coin are bound to each other, the positive and negative aspects of everything are bound to each other. Love and hatred, anger and compassion, attachment and aversion – all are bound to each other. If someone says, ‘I am giving up all desires,’ he will outwardly seem to be giving up everything, but the desires will hide in some corner within, ready to pop out at some opportune moment. This is why the sages have devised a word that expresses a third possibility: veetrag. It means the condition of being beyond the duality of attachment and aversion. Attachment and aversion are two poles of the same thing, so the sage says that whosoever wants to go beyond duality should develop the attitude of the sky within – the spirit of being simply a witness.”

Osho, Behind a Thousand Names, Talk #12

“Positive and negative are not real opposites. They are like the chicken and egg, mother and child. They help each other and come from each other. But this understanding is possible only when the negative has been dropped. You can then drop the positive. And you can stay in that transitory moment, which is the greatest moment in existence. You will never feel another moment so long – as if years are passing, because the vacuum…. You lose all bearing; the whole of the past is lost, suddenly empty, not knowing where you are, who you are, what is happening.”

Osho, Yoga: The Supreme Science, Talk #10

“Don’t be identified with either the positive or the negative; don’t be identified with pleasure or pain, with attachment or aversion. Just adopt the attitude of the sky toward both; just be a space. Let attachment come and go, let aversion also come and go. You should remain outside both – just space, emptiness, a witness.

“And this witnessing state is samadhi.”

Osho, Behind a Thousand Names, Talk #12

“Meditation leads you to all. But never define it as positive, always define it as nothingness. So meditation has two parts: the creative part as positive, the expressive part as negative.”

How to see race


Race is a shapeshifting adversary: what seems self-evident takes training to see, and twists under political pressure

We think we know what race is. When the United States Census Bureau says that the country will be majority non-white by 2044, that seems like a simple enough statement. But race has always been a weaselly thing.

Today my students, including Black and Latino students, regularly ask me why Asians (supposedly) ‘assimilate’ with whites more quickly than Blacks and Latinos. Strangely, in the 1920s, the US Supreme Court denied Asians citizenship on the basis that they could never assimilate; fast-forward to today, and Asian immigrants are held up as exemplars of assimilation. The fact that race is unyielding enough to shut out someone from the national community, yet malleable enough for my students to believe that it explains a group’s apparent assimilation, hints at what a shapeshifting adversary race is. Race is incredibly tenacious and unforgiving, a source of grave inequality and injustice. Yet over time, racial categories evolve and shift.

To really grasp race, we must accept a double paradox. The first one is a truism of antiracist educators: we can see race, but it’s not real. The second is stranger: race has real consequences, but we can’t see it with the naked eye. Race is a power relationship; racial categories are not about interesting cultural or physical differences, but about putting other people into groups in order to dominate, exploit and attack them. Fundamentally, race makes power visible by assigning it to physical bodies. The evidence of race right before our eyes is not a visual trace of a physical reality, but a by-product of social perceptions, in which we are trained to see certain features as salient or significant. Race does not exist as a matter of biological fact, but only as a consequence of a process of racialisation.

Occasionally there are historical moments when the creation of race and its political meaning get spelled out explicitly. The US Constitution divided people into white, Black or Indian, which were meant to stand in for power categories: those eligible for citizenship, those subjected to brutal enslavement, and those targeted for genocide. In the first census, each resident counted as one person, each slave as three-fifths a person, and each Indian was not counted at all.

But racialisation is often more insidious. It means that we see things that don’t exist, and fail to recognise things that do. The most powerful racial category is often invisible: whiteness. The benefit of being in power is that whites can imagine that they are the norm and that only other people have race. An early US census instructed people to leave the race section blank if they were white, and indicate only if someone were something else (‘B’ for Black, ‘M’ for Mulatto). Whiteness was literally unmarked.

A brief aside on the politics of typography, in case you’re wondering: throughout this article I leave ‘white’ as is, but I capitalise ‘Black’, as well as ‘Indian’ and ‘Irish’. Why? Well, as the writer and activist W E B DuBois said in the early 20th century, during the decades-long campaign to capitalise ‘Negro’: ‘I believe that 8 million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.’ I could argue that I don’t capitalise white because ‘white’ rarely rises to the level of a cultural identification – but the real reason I don’t is because race is never fair, so it’s fitting for inequality be written into the words we use for races.

Putting whiteness under inspection shows how powerful race is, despite the instability of racial categories. For decades, ‘whiteness’ was an explicit standard for citizenship. (Blacks could technically be citizens, but enjoyed none of the legal benefits. Asians born outside the US were prohibited from becoming citizens until the mid-20th century.) Eligibility for citizenship – painted as whiteness – has remained a category since its inscription in the Constitution, but those eligible for membership in that group have changed. Groups such as Germans, Irish, Italians and Jews were popularly defined as non-citizens and non-white when they first arrived, and then became white. What we see as white today is not the same as it was 100 years ago.

Thomas Nast’s cartoons are notorious in this regard. His caricatures of Irishmen and Blacks are particularly shocking because they are a type we no longer see today. Working-class Irishmen are represented as chimpanzees in crumpled top hats and curled-up shoes. Their faces have a large dome-shaped upper lip surrounded by bushy sideburns:

Figure 1: Thomas Nast’s racist caricatures. In the second image, from 1876, Southern Blacks and Irish Democrats are compared politically and graphically, and found to be of equal weight. Inevitably, any publication that called itself the ‘Journal of Civilization’ did the contemptible boundary work of determining who was and was not civilised. Public domain

At times, Nast partnered the Irishman with an equally offensive image of a Black American, with big ‘Sambo’-style lips, perhaps a large rump and clunky bare feet. Today, few Americans have an image in their minds of what an Irish American should look like. Unless, perhaps, they meet a man named O’Connor with red hair, Americans today rarely think to themselves: ‘Of course! He looks Irish.’

Americans can’t see German, Irish or French, but they could. Not all white people look the same

But Nast was not only sketching nasty caricatures of Irishmen; he was doing so in a way that would appear believable to his audience. In a similar example of invisible ethnicity, 15 per cent of Americans in 2014 reported German heritage. This ethnic group is widespread and numerous. So let me pose a simple question: what do German Americans look like? One in seven Americans are German American; how many of the German Americans you meet have you identified that way? Even more so than later immigrant groups such as Italian, Irish or Jewish, German is invisible.

Americans can’t see German, Irish or French, but they could. It’s not the case that all white people look the same. My parents are both of predominantly Irish heritage. One summer, my family was travelling and had a layover in Ireland long enough for us to see the city of Dublin for the first time. We had not left the airport before my seven-year-old son said what I was already thinking: ‘Everybody here looks like grandma and grandpa!’ My family, according to my seven-year-old, looked like people from Ireland.

A few years later, I was to meet a French colleague at a busy Paris train station at rush hour, but neither of us knew what the other one looked like, and there were hundreds of people. I tried to guess which of the women entering, exiting, waiting, smoking, texting and milling about was the person I was to meet, but to no avail. Then I turned, and from a block away, through a crowd of hundreds, a woman waved directly at me. She had picked me out. I had been vaguely aware, before then, that no matter how familiar I got with Paris, I stood out on the subway: I might feel perfectly French riding the train, reading the advertisements in French and understanding the conductor, but when I got home and looked in the mirror, I knew my face was different from the diverse visages I saw in public.

Later I asked my colleague, and she said she knew I wasn’t French. How so? I asked. She scrutinised me. ‘La mâchoire.’ It was your jaw, she said, with a satisfied smile. Until that day, I never knew there was such a thing as an Irish chin, but I had one. And no doubt, if Nast ever met my earliest American ancestors on the street, he’d know they looked Irish too. We don’t see Irish anymore, we don’t recognise it, we no longer caricature it. But we could.

The racial category of Asian is just as unstable and entangled with political power as whiteness is. The US census started counting ‘Chinese’ back in 1870 (with no other category for people from the continent of Asia). Around the same time, the census started counting a similarly excluded group, American Indians, which the Constitution had designated as ripe for expropriation. Tellingly, Indian racial categories were unstable from the start: after not being counted at all, Indians were then included but tallied in the ‘white’ column – except in areas where there were large numbers of Indians, where they became their own category.

For Asians, as Paul Schor points out in his fascinating history Counting Americans (2017), the US government counted Chinese and Japanese but still left the rest of Asia blank, adding ‘Filipino, Hindu, and Korean’ in the 20th century. For something so clearly created by people, lists of racial groups are never comprehensive and typically ill-defined. Looking across the Eurasian continent, the US government today is still vague about where white ends and Asian begins. People in the US who were born east of Greece and west of Thailand are often unsure which boxes to check in the US census every 10 years. Like storm-borne waves or wind-blown sand dunes, race is a daunting obstacle that shifts and changes.

During the Second World War, China was a US ally, while Japan was an enemy. The US military decided it necessary to identify racial differences between the Chinese and the Japanese. In a series of cartoon illustrations, they tried to educate American soldiers about what to look for – what to see – in order to distinguish a Japanese solider who might be trying to blend in among a Chinese population.

Figure 2: US propaganda for soldiers sought to disseminate physical differences between Chinese and Japanese people. Public domain

Today, the ‘How to Spot a Jap’ leaflets are an offensive novelty – used either to illustrate the history of racist stereotyping or sold on postcards as ironic curiosities. But they can also be examined in another way. In The Civilizing Process (1978), the sociological theorist Norbert Elias studied books on manners from the European Renaissance to understand the process of the creation of what he called habitus. Manners that we see as utterly natural and inevitable today, like not blowing one’s nose at the table, or eating off the serving spoon, or belching or farting in public, are, in fact, socially constructed and learned behaviours.

At the historical moment at which they were introduced, books of manners were required to teach what is today utterly obvious to adults. They make for incredible reading. In his chapter ‘On Blowing One’s Nose’, for instance, Elias quotes a ‘precept for gentlemen’ that matter-of-factly explains: ‘When you blow your nose or cough, turn round so that nothing falls on the table.’ ‘Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.’ ‘It is unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth.’ Some of the recommendations are as poetic as they are graphic: ‘Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head.’ It appears that actions that seem completely natural had to be taught explicitly.

Genetic inheritance isn’t what matters. What we literally see is shaped by politics

The ‘How to Spot a Jap’ flyers were printed to serve much the same function as the manners books that Elias studied. They tried to create and implant a racial habitus that distinguished the Japanese from the Chinese. That Second World War poster looks offensive today – crude, reductionist, insulting – and it is. We think that recognising such ridiculousness makes us less racist than the people who made it. It doesn’t. It merely means that we have different racial categories than in 1942.

Chinese and Japanese people look no more ‘similar’ or ‘different’ from one another than Irish Americans do from French Americans. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences as a matter of statistical distribution, but only that what we think we know about race has to be learned, and that what people ‘know’ and ‘see’ as salient and obvious changes over time. Most Americans cannot distinguish a white American of Irish origin versus one of French origin walking down the street, yet they hardly need pamphlets explaining what to look for to tell if someone is white or Black. If the distinction between Japanese and Chinese had remained as significant in the US today as it was to US soldiers during the Second World War, many people would see it as similarly self-evident.

On-the-street racial distinctions don’t have to be ‘perfect’. People often don’t recognise the author Malcolm Gladwell as Black, although he is; other times whites are mistaken for Blacks. For the purposes of making or unmaking a racial difference, genetic inheritance isn’t what matters. What we literally see is shaped by politics. The same two groups can be visibly different racially or indistinguishable racially, depending on the political context and power relations by which they’re categorised.

Francis Galton was a pioneer in modern statistics. But he was also a eugenicist. Among other things, Galton became notorious for photos in the late 19th century that purported to reveal the ‘Jewish type’. At the time, people believed that Irish, Jewish, Japanese, Chinese or German denoted races. When Jews were a race, people thought that they could tell who was Jewish by looking at them. Today, many Jewish people recoil at the idea that there is a Jewish ‘race’, and find the suggestion that there is a Jewish ‘look’ inherently racist. At various times, then, the US Army, Thomas Nast and the father of the statistical method of regression analysis all believed that there were visually distinct and observable races that many Americans today would be generally unable to identify – certainly not with the level of certainty they’d feel with respect to racial categories such as Caucasian, African American, Latino or Asian.

I suspect that a visitor from a planet without race would have a very difficult time slotting anyone on Earth into the racial categories we use today. If they were asked to group people visually, there is no statistical possibility that they’d use the same set of arbitrary boxes, and even if these categories were described for them in detail, they would probably not sort actual people in the same way as the modern US does.

That we think we see race naturally, when in fact it’s socially constructed, is the third eye through which we see the world. The census prediction that the US will be majority minority is less a conclusion than a question: ‘What future will immigrants of colour build in the US?’ The answer involves not just changes that transpire between one group and another, but changes to the membership of those groups and their symbolic meaning. In response to demographic shifts, the very boundaries of whiteness are likely to shift, as indeed they’ve done before.

In the worst case, a majority non-white US could take its cue from apartheid-era South Africa

In The History of White People (2011), Nell Irvin Painter argues that the idea of ‘whiteness’ has expanded several times to include more and more people. First came the Irish and previously ‘suspect’ non-Protestants, who ‘gained’ whiteness in the late 1800s. The next great expansion of whiteness came with the social upheaval and physical relocation of both servicemen and migrating industrial workers during the Second World War. In the war economy, groups including Italians, Jews and Mexicans became upwardly mobile, and sought to present themselves in allegiance with Anglo-Saxon beauty ideals (the only Jewish Miss America was crowned in 1945) – all of which helped to recast them as ‘white’. The narrative of white inclusivity continued from the Roosevelt era into the postwar period. Finally, intermarriage eventually dissolved previous notions of racial boundaries. Few white Americans could claim a single national race (Swedish, German, French) with any confidence, and whiteness could no longer sustain the idea of nation-based races. For Painter, this most recent change closed the book on any scientific basis for race, and helped to make the US a country where people are much more mixed, across old racial boundaries, than ever before.

Perhaps this mixing means that the US is finally warming to multiracial identity. But if that is indeed happening, it’s not because of demographics, but because of the tireless efforts of activists who continue to fight racism and racial segregation. Movements for racial justice succeed not simply because of demographic shifts but because racial privileges cannot justify themselves in the face of an organised alternative. Many countries have been minority white yet held on to whiteness; to the extent that whiteness meant citizenship, these were states that were ruled by a minority and oversaw the hyper-exploitation of a much larger part of the country. In the worst case, a majority non-white US could take its cue from apartheid-era South Africa, or Brazil, or Guatemala, where a small light-skinned group has enjoyed privileges at the expense of many more who are excluded.

The path to justice therefore involves attacking the prerogative to categorise people in order to justify their exploitation or colonisation. That means acknowledging and challenging the basis of racial categories. It’s not about a token embrace of multicultural colour: it’s about power, and power is far too wily for us to expect it to stand still and be overtaken by demographic change. We need to confront the force of racial privilege no matter who inhabits the privileged caste at any given moment. It’s no good imagining that innate human diversity will render the system powerless.

The US shift towards majority non-whiteness is not destiny, but it is an opportunity. Painter notes that when external conditions change, it becomes possible to imagine different racial hierarchies. The geographical and social remixing of the Second World War cooked down the diverse European identities in the US into a single racial category of ‘white’. Likewise, Asian immigrants occupied one role when Asian immigration was largely working class, West Coast, limited in numbers, and male, as it was at the end of the 19th century. But the racial constraints on Asian Americans shifted when immigration law came to favour professionals, and brought middle- and working-class people, women and men, in larger numbers than before to more US cities.

Using shifting social situations to upend racial hierarchies is not just about challenging racism, but race itself. This doesn’t mean the disingenuous denial of race when racism still very much exists, but a collective challenge to its right to determine our lives. The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to take away the police’s prerogative to use violence against African Americans with no legal sanctions; success would undermine an important means of maintaining racial segregation and inequality. What would it mean, once and for all, to bury the shameful, misplaced pride some white people have for the South’s role in the Civil War, and acknowledge instead the irredeemable mistakes of their forefathers? What would it mean to frankly acknowledge each nation’s racial past, and think about what reparations would set us on a path to greater prosperity? Race is neither inevitable nor something we can wish away. Instead, we must take advantage of the instability in what we perceive, and redistribute the power that perpetuates race.

Race never stays still. As the sociologist Richard Alba pointed out in The Washington Post last month, the prediction that the US will be majority non-white by 2044 relies on a definition of race that is static, and doesn’t acknowledge the surprising reality that people’s races change. Nearly 10 million people listed their racial identification differently on the 2010 census than they had in 2000. Alba criticises the census for ‘binary thinking’ which counts anyone with Hispanic heritage as Hispanic, and through a quirk in the census questions, effectively ignores any other racial identity that they could claim. ‘[A] majority-minority society should be seen as a hypothesis, not a foreordained result,’ Alba wrote, of the 2044 claim. This is important, because when it comes to fighting racism, we can’t rely on demographic shifts to do the work for us. Instead, if we recognise that race looks solid but is shifting, we can find additional ways to destabilise the structures of racial inequality.

Getting rid of racism requires clarity about the nature of the enemy. The way to defeat white supremacy is to destroy it. The US will truly be ‘majority non-white’ only when white is no longer the privileged citizenship category, when white is no more meaningful than the archaic Octoroon or Irish. This is not to discount the anxiety about cultural loss conjured by talk of an imagined colourblind future, but to recognise the inextricability of racial identities and power inequality. With work, perhaps the next expansion of whiteness will be into oblivion.

Self-love Is Utterly Selfless


Sixty years ago, Erich Fromm proposed a re-evaluation of self-love, arguing that in order to be able to truly love someone else, we first need to love ourselves, as in respecting and knowing ourselves. Not surprisingly, the Internet is awash with advice on how to be more self-loving, but what really is the difference between a healthy love of oneself and egoistical pride?

“There is a great difference between the two, although they both look very alike. The healthy love of oneself is a great religious value. The person who does not love himself will not be able to love anybody else, ever. The first ripple of love has to rise in your heart. If it has not risen for yourself it cannot rise for anybody else, because everybody else is farther away from you.

“It is like throwing a stone in the silent lake – the first ripples will arise around the stone and then they will go on spreading to the further shores. The first ripple of love has to be around yourself. One has to love one’s body, one has to love one’s soul, one has to love one’s totality.

“And this is natural; otherwise you would not be able to survive at all. And it is beautiful because it beautifies you. The person who loves himself becomes graceful, elegant. The person who loves himself is bound to become more silent, more meditative more prayerful than the person who does not love himself.

“If you don’t love your house you will not clean it; if you don’t love your house you will not paint it; if you don’t love you will not surround it with a beautiful garden with a lotus pond. If you love yourself you will create a garden around yourself. You will try to grow your potential, you will try to bring out all that is in you to be expressed. If you love, you will go on showering yourself, you will go on nourishing yourself.

“And if you love yourself you will be surprised: others will love you. Nobody loves a person who does not love himself. If you cannot even love yourself, who else is going to take the trouble? And the person who does not love himself cannot remain neutral. Remember, in life there is no neutrality.

“The man who does not love himself hates, will have to hate – life knows no neutrality. Life is always a choice. If you don’t love that does not mean that you can simply remain in that not loving state. No, you will hate.

“And the person who hates himself becomes destructive. And the person who hates himself will hate everybody else – he will be so angry and violent and continuously in rage. The person who hates himself, how can he hope that others will love him? His whole life will be destroyed. To love oneself is a great religious value.

“I teach you self-love. But remember, self-love does not mean egotistical pride, not at all. In fact it means just the opposite. The person who loves himself finds there is no self in him. Love always melts the self: that is one of the alchemical secrets to be learned, understood, experienced. Love always melts the self. Whenever you love, the self disappears. You love a woman and at least in the few moments when there is real love for the woman, there is no self in you, no ego.

“Ego and love cannot exist together. They are like light and darkness: when light comes, darkness disappears. If you love yourself you will be surprised – self-love means the self disappears. In self-love there is no self ever found. That is the paradox: self-love is utterly selfless. It is not selfish – because whenever there is light there is no darkness, and whenever there is love there is no self.”

Osho, The Secret, Talk #18

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