Know Thyself

Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn

I have come across this incredible resource on philosophy – BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas. The presenter of this programme, Melvyn Bragg, asks a question of philosophy, such as “how can I tell right from wrong?” to a panel of experts including philosophers, scientists, historians and writers. After the programme, each panel member then investigates the question further for their own follow-up programme.

I came across the Know Thyself short animation as part of the “What does it mean to be me?” episode. This animation touches on four thinkers – two philosophers and two scientists. It begins with Socrates, who went to great depths to know that he didn’t really know much. Then to Thomas Hobbes who said that by engaging in introspection, observing ourselves and understanding our thoughts, feelings and desires, not only would we know ourselves better, but so would we too of others. The unconscious plays a big role in knowing who we are, and it’s something that we still don’t fully understand. Freud believed that our repressed desires only come out in dreams or slips of the tongue, making us wonder whether we ever truly understand our behaviour. Finally, the evolutionary psychologist Bruce Hood said that actually the self is just an illusion – there is no self to know.

Therefore, how do we know that we actually exist if there is no self, or at least the jury is out on what ‘the self’ is? The philosopher René Descartes said that we exist because we have thoughts. But, in contrary to Descartes, we are more than our thoughts. As Aristotle reminds us that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

According to probably one of the most well-known mindfulness practitioners – scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn –  he says that the key to the good life is to know ourselves. In a recent lecture of his, he basically explained that to be mindful is to be awake. In order to be awake, we have to tap into ourselves. This talk reminded me of a story that I read recently, as part of a book on philosophy. It is a fictional story about two passengers on a plane. The female passenger doesn’t like flying, so she takes a sleeping pill that lasts the whole flight. Yet, she’s not actually asleep, it’s her awareness that is. She still functions as a normal human, having deep and engaging conversations with the passenger sitting next to her. She tells him about the pill she has just swallowed, and he is amazed at how she appears to have full use of her senses.

How many of us spend our days being fully functioning but not actually awake? “Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn.

To figure out how to know oneself is probably one of the hardest things to do, because identifying what the self is in the first place is still a tricky task. For now, I turn to poetry as a source of help. For my post on ‘Know your value, know your self‘, I referred to a part of the poem ‘Nosce Teipsum’ by Sir John Davies. We can easily go to each end of the poles, and yet still be unacquainted with our own soul.

For this post, I leave you with the poem by the St Lucian Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright, Derek Walcott, which Jon Kabat-Zinn recited during his lecture.

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Advertisements

Going grey gracefully

I have my second living room letter!

Dear Gemma Rose,

I am a woman in my mid thirties and I’m starting to go quite grey. I’m wondering whether I should dye my hair or not. My mother keeps nagging me to do it, but I quite like my grey hair. I think it makes me look distinguished. Yet dying it would probably make me look a lot younger. What do the philosophers say on grey hair? Should I resort to dying it for the sake of looking young, and pleasing my mother?

Love the blog by the way.

– K

Dear K,

I feel honoured that you should bestow such a request for advice on me. As someone who is similar in age and going grey herself, it too is something that I’ve been reflecting on for a while. I have very dark hair, so my greys (or are they white?) really are on show. I must say that I sometimes grieve at seeing more and more grey, and I try to hide the strands by changing my quiff or cut. I guess for me it’s like grieving my youth, that I’m not a “youngin'” anymore and that I am sort of approaching middle age.

There has been a double standard with going grey between the sexes. George Clooney is your typical salt and pepper (although he seems pretty much salt these days) hearthrob, or silver fox. Today, it’s pretty much accepted in society that men don’t feel the pressure or need to dye their hair, in comparison to the nineties when the use of ‘Just For Men‘ was rife. I definitely notice it with colleagues: the male ones revel in their grey, whereas the female ones tend to get the dye out.

However, there seems to a revolution going on: a grey one. ‘Grey is the new black! Blondies, it’s quiet for y’all!’ tweeted the fashionista Rihanna back in 2013. Young people who probably don’t have grey yet are flocking to colour the hair grey to be “on trend”. A Kardashian clan member even spent 11 hours for the privilege!

So grey is cool in the celeb world. But the difference seems to be that these are celebs who are dying their hair, not celebs who have bitten the silver bullet (I couldn’t resist) and decided to let nature do the talking, instead of Clairol. As you know, naturally grey hair is coarse and can have a life of its own, so to look good with grey, a bit of haircare and a good cut is needed. The tendency is that if you are going grey, better to go short too but I’ve seen some women who look fantastic with long, grey hair and I’ve seem some women who look like they have a bird’s nest on their head.

What do the philosophers say? Well, I reckon a few them were grey. For instance, Socrates was grey by the end of his life. As was Jeremy Bentham, David Hume and Michael Sandel. What about the women? Well Simone de Beauvoir looked like she might have only stopped dyeing her hair when she was well into her third act, same goes for Ayn Rand. I am no academic, but I’m not sure if hair colour was on the agenda. Hannah Arendt was kept occupied fleeing the Nazis and then covering Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Simone de Beauvoir was probably way-laid writing that feminism can never be achieved as long as women are considered a “deviation” of the male norm. Susan Haack is most likely spending a lot of her time writing about “foundherentism”. Not sure if philosophising about going grey is on her to-do list.

In a 2007 Time article about going grey in showbiz, political, business and even in the healthcare circles, this was practically unheard of and frowned upon. One doctor said she would be taken less seriously, viewed as an “alternative” practitioner, for going grey. One business woman admitted that her career success depended on not going grey. But that was 8 years ago, I think times have changed.

If you do decide to dye, according to the Guardian’s fashion expert Hadley Freeman, once you start, you can’t stop. And your bank balance won’t thank you for it.

Whatever decision you make, make sure that you feel good about it. If letting nature take its course displeases your Mum, I’m sure she will get over it. Of course, you can always suggest that she foots the bill every time you get your hair done. She might soon change her mind.