Pardon my cheap shot at free publicity. I couldn’t resist naming this blog post after Stephen Covey’s magnum opus “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“. It was one of the first “real self help” books I read in my life. Up until then I was mostly reading books on personality development, which taught me techniques for manipulating myself and others in an effort to produce results. This was one of the first books that boldly spoke about getting real and genuine. I loved the book. It helped create a lot of value, substance and results in my life.
Having said that, I dont like the idea that there are 7 or 8 or 20 or any finite number of ways in which people can be effective, or authentic in the case of this post. There are plenty of ways, perhaps a lot more than we can discover in one lifetime. Each person striving to live an authentic life can and for the most part does invent ways to be authentic. In this blog post, I share some of the strategies I have learned from books, seminars, other people and also those that I have invented for myself to live an authentic life. My excitement about sharing what I have learned about Existentialism comes from the very real possibility of learning from others about the strategies they invent (or adopt) for living an authentic life. Knowing that no one can ever simply be authentic, offers unlimited opportunity for personal exploration and growth.
This post forms the final part of a series of blog posts on existentialism published on this website. Unless you are already familiar with Sartre and his ideas, please take a detour, read the following posts first and come back.
- Existentialism – a birds eye view
- Projects of Bad Faith: Part #1 & Part #2
- Anxiety, Commitment & Healthy Dose of Bad Faith
- being-for-others – a breeding ground for inauthentic relationships
Being authentic means living a life consistent with the existential truth that as human beings we are free transcendence of our facticity, for which we are fully responsible. It means living a life by taking full responsibility for our freedom to make choices and also for the repercussions of those choices.
In this post, I share my top 8 habits for living life with authenticity. Against each habit, I share a personal incident or experience from my life to help underscore the way in which I am given by that habit. My hope is that through my example, you are able to reflect on your own life and imagine ways in which you can be (or already have been) given by that habit. Such sections are marked with icon:
Habit #1: Actively look for negations that construct your reality
Human beings have consciousness, who’s nature is to negate being. Consciousness, or nothingness, has to negate being in order to be. For example: while you are baking, a cake can exist in the mode of not-yet-baked only for you (a conscious being) who can deny the cake its being. For itself, however, the cake doesn’t know whether it is baked or yet-to-be-baked.
Consciousness carves out phenomenon from being by positing negations. In the absence of consciousness, there is pure being (or undifferentiated being) which is devoid of parts, behaviour and temporality. Without consciousness there is no here, no there, no past, no future, no characteristics.
Consciousness is contingent, in the sense that there is no reason for it to be. However, given that there is consciousness, its nature is to negate being. For example, only by negating can we hold here and there as two distinct orders of reality. Here is a negation of there & there is a negation of here. If you closely examine, almost everything we consider real exists for us only in terms of its negation.
Marketing experts work hard at ascribing reality (or existence) to abstract ideas called brands. The way these brands eventually sit in people’s consciousness is in the form of negations. Apple’s brand statement is “think different”. But what sits in people’s consciousness is that Apple is not Microsoft or Samsung. Apple iPhone does not hang. macOS does not have virus and so on. Brands exist for people in the form of specific lacks. These lacks conjure the being-of-a-brand.
In the book “Crossing the Chasm“, author Geffory Moore in a chapter on Positioning advises entrepreneurs to construct an elevator pitch by explicitly contrasting their venture with its competition. To position a new venture in people’s mind, it is very important to offer negations that people can use to carve a space for that new venture. And the way to do that is by getting them to use a negation that says “this new venture is NOT like that or that venture.” For an entrepreneur, it makes sense to control the negations that people use to carve space for his venture rather than allow them to posit their own random negations. Advertisement is all about controlling the kind of negations people use towards products, services, organisations or people.
Everything you experience as real, exists for you as reality carved by negations. Negation doesn’t mean negative mental attitude. Nor is it a special name for positive mental attitude. Negation is the nots we use that reveal phenomenon for us from being. Lets look at a few concrete examples
- A worker who recently moved to a new job may use a negation of the form “my new job is so awesome, unlike my old job” while he is in his new job. Everything about his new job shows up for him as “not like that old job”. Eventually he may find one or more aspects of his new job similar to his old job, in which case his negation will be “some aspects of this new job are like that old job” or said more formally “some aspects of this new job are not unlike that old job”. Notice how negations reveal phenomenon either outside of it OR inside of it.
- If you are driving from Bengaluru to Mysuru, the entire drive until Mysuru exists for you as not Mysuru.
- As long as you were unemployed, you existed for yourself (maybe even for others) as someone with no employment. As soon as you found employment, you began to exist for yourself as not settled financially. Until you got married. you were not married, then after marriage you exist as not a parent.
- In general, questions reveal a negation with respect to the being of an answer. Asking a question assumes that there is an answer and one is either in receipt of the answer or not in receipt of the answer. So, if I ask a question like “are we there yet?”, I either find myself there or not there, in either case the question places non-being of the hypothetical “there” in the backdrop of which I either find myself in or out.
Literally any attitude we use (with ourselves, others or with things or systems in the world) is a negation. Good exists for us as not bad and bad exists for us as not good. Sartre in his book, Being and Nothingness, uses this example (which I Indianize here ;-)): Suppose you went to a cafe to meet a date. When you walked into the cafe, your date had not yet arrived. Until she shows up, the whole cafe exists for you in the backdrop of the non-presence of your date. The cafe doesn’t exist for you as a space for social meetups with all its chaos, fine coffee aroma, glitter, lights and so on. It exists for you as my-date-is-not-here. Sure, Shah Rukh Khan is also absent in the cafe. But SRK is not absent in the cafe as much as your date is absent in the cafe. You get the picture? Your dates’ absence is literrally “the negation” that constructs your experience of the cafe. SRKs absence may not even bother you.
Much the same way, your experience of reality is shaped by the specific lacks you posit. Until you got that promotion, you lacked for yourself that position in the company. As soon as you got promoted, you lacked for yourself your previous position in the company. Said in other words, you are no longer like that subordinate you used to be. This blog currently exists for me as a lack: it is not yet complete. I guess you get the picture by now.
We can never ever stop positing lacks, given that we are conscious beings and that the nature of consciousness is to negate being. Consciousness is non-being whose nature it is to deny being. You cant help but posit lacks into your world.
However, you can surely be mindful of the lacks that you posit which reveal the world to you in a specific way. In my opinion, the first habit of an authentic person is to be mindful of the lacks or negations that construct his/her reality. Such awareness reveals us as compulsive individuals with an attachment to use specific patterns of negations with ourselves, other people and in general with the world around us. As we expand our awareness of the lacks we use to construct reality for ourselves, we inch closer and closer to discovering something that existentialists call as fundamental choice or the fundamental project. Our fundamental project is that activity that consumes our life in an effort to unite ourselves with a particular way of being that we are currently lacking.
In my mother tongue, Kannada, there is a phrase that goes like this – “ಆಟಕ್ಕುಂಟು ಲೆಕ್ಕಕ್ಕಿಲ್ಲ”, which roughly translates to “you can play, but you are not officially counted.” I always found myself treated that way and I dreaded it. Said in other words, I lacked being counted. As you can imagine the question “am I counted?” became the fundamental negation through which I saw the world. I constantly experienced not being counted. Even if I was counted, I was always skeptical about it. I would tell myself: “right now they are humouring me and giving me a sensation that I am counted, but pretty soon they will reveal their true intention.” The litmus test I used for everything was “am I counted?” Naturally, I found myself not counted most of the time. Meaning, I found that I was not taken seriously and that I was not considered worth-it. I constructed my fundamental project around this negation and it remains active to this day.
My fundamental project is all about doing something such that I am taken seriously & considered worth-it, something that I find lacking. The primal negation that I use for constructing much of my reality is this – I am not being taken seriously & people think that I am not worth it. Sometimes it shows up for me in the form of a question – Am I being taken seriously? Do they think I am worth it? What I lack is being taken seriously & being considered worth-it.
All my adolescence and early adult life was spent living in angst that people dont consider me to be worth-it and that they dont take me seriously. For instance, I make suggestion to a friend who is in trouble and he discards my suggestion revealing myself as someone who lacks being taken seriously, as someone who is not worth-it enough to be taken seriously. I ask a girl out for a date and she refuses to go out with me, revealing me as someone who is not worth it. My friends plan a roadtrip and dont even let me know about it, let alone invite me for it, revealing me as someone that they consider as not worth it. When I go to play cricket during the weekend, I am not offered to bowl or bat when the match is critical, therefore I find that my teammates dont take me seriously & that they dont consider me to be worth-it. As an adult, I pitch a new business idea to an investor and he doesn’t invest, which then reveals me as someone who the investor did not take seriously or considered to be worth-it. If someone did heed to my suggestion or did invest in my business, I then suddenly find myself with the question “was I taken seriously OR does he have something else in mind?” – which is also the same negation construct. I read a book and find it very deep and insightful. I then attempt to grab my wife’s attention to it and begin sharing about that book to her, she doesnt find it interesting though. Her lack of interest in the book reveals me as someone who isnt taken seriously and whose interests arent worth it. As you can imagine, my fundamental project is all about achieving unity with a way of being that has me being someone who is taken seriously & considered worthy, something I find lacking right now.
Knowing that our version of reality exists for us in the backdrop of specific kinds of lacks or negations (basically the fundamental project or choice), allows us to be disenchanted or at the very least less attached to it. We can from then on continue to consciously use those negations or choose otherwise, however the significance that we ascribe to “our version of reality” gets altered drastically.
Habit #2: Actively look for your inauthenticities
Authenticity is THE divine pursuit of an existentialist. Authenticity is living life by affirming one’s freedom to choose and by affirming responsibility for those choices. It means living life unapologetically, such that we take total ownership of our facticity and our freedom to choose (or freely transcend) in the face of that, while being very clear that each choice leads to repercussions that we will have to be responsible for.
As noble and holy as authenticity is, we cannot simply be authentic. For one, simply being authentic means that we have somehow become this authentic-thing, which is an act of bad-faith. Moreoever, for human beings: facticity, transcendence & freedom are givens. That means each human being has facticity and has total freedom to choose, irrespective of whether he is aware of it or not. Its like, on earth we always have oxygen irrespective of whether we are aware of it or not. However, responsibility has to be generated.
- A human being has to generate responsibility for one’s facticity, which means that he has to generate the willingness to own up his facticity. He has be able to look at his facticity (his past, his body and the current situation) and generate the honest willingness to say “this is my facticity.”
- A human being also has to generate responsibility for one’s freedom, which means that he has to generate the awareness of his ever present and never compromised freedom, in addition to being able to willingly leverage it to choose a course of transcendence in the face of his facticity. It also means that he is willing to take responsibility for choices made in trance (when he was unaware of his freedom), even if it is in post-mortem.
- A human being also has to acknowledge responsibility for the repurcussions of his choice of transcendence. Each choice leads to repurcussions that immediately pile on his ever growing stack of facticity, for which he has to once again generate the willingness to say – “this is my facticity”
Responsibility is being responsible for one’s facticity; and for one’s freedom to choose; and for the repurcussions of those choices. While facticity, transcendence and freedom are givens; responsibility is always generated. Authenticity is all about generating that responsibility.
Given that everything shows up in the backdrop of negations, we can say that one clear way to grasp what it means to be authentic is to grasp how not to be inauthentic. By working on shunning one’s inauthenticity, one can inch closer to being authentic. Therefore, if we can grasp what it means to be inauthentic, we can work towards shunning that. Being inauthentic is to live life as if one is not a free transcendence of one’s facticity. Existentialists call it bad-faith. Bad-faith tricks you into behaviour that has you use freedom against itself. Being honest about the ways in which we slip into bad-faith allows us to create for ourselves an opportunity for authenticity. I have listed several ways in which one can slip into bad-faith in a previous blog post. If we make an attempt to keep bringing to awareness the ways in which we slip into bad-faith, we can create opportunities for choosing authenticity instead of bad-faith.
I make an attempt to keep looking for attitudes of bad-faith in my own life when I am sitting in the metro, or waiting for the service at the restaurant, or just after I wake up and so on. I make an active effort to reflect on my life situations and the responses I generate through the lens constructed by the question “am I affirming that who I am is a free transcendence of my facticity, for which I am totally responsible?” Almost always, I am able to reflect on my attitudes of bad-faith in post-mortem – rarely in real time. But thats fine, because I have noticed that even a post-mortem analysis of my bad-faith behaviour has resulted in subtle shifts in my attitude and conduct. I share an example from my life in my previous blog where I deconstruct my bad-faith that has me be a orator & computer programmer thing. Once I revealed this kind of bad-faith attitude to myself, I was left with an opening or space to choose. I have since chosen to continue leveraging my ability to speak in public and write beautiful programs to build a fulfilling career, while consciously bringing to awareness that I am not a thing and that I can choose to indulge in activities that doesn’t require my oratory or programming skills.
* This blog, for instance, is a direct consequence of that awareness.
* I have exposed myself to workshops on parenting and alternative education, especially since my wife & I partially home school our son.
* I am exploring film-making and story-telling. Off-late, I find myself fascinated by the idea of telling stories about real-life. I have made two short documentaries (Link 1 & Link 2) and am in the process of creating more.
* I explored Vipassana for a while.
Having dissected attitudes of bad-faith in myself, I am increasingly clear that I will never ever be rid of my inauthenticities. Today, I choose to keep certain inauthenticities in place, I let certain inauthenticities be, transform some of them and willingly turn a blind eye to some others. A direct consequence of that has been that I am less inclined to expect perfection from other people. I do throw tantrums sometimes and silently feel guilty later on, but I have by and large developed a sense of “being-ok” about inauthentic attitudes in people.
Habit #3: Practice Integrity
Integrity is living a life such that your word given is as good as your word honoured. Your word comprises of promises you explicitly made AND promises that you are expected to keep, even though you did not make them.
Explicit promises are easy to understand, because you would remember making them. The implicit ones that are bit of a challenge. For instance, when I took birth in India – I made an implicit promise to be an Indian. I am expected to keep that promise, even though I don’t remember floating in cosmos and making a conscious choice to take birth in India. Certain aspects of being an Indian are: to cast my vote, to pay my taxes on time and to adhere to the Indian constitution. In all honesty, I became aware of my implicit promise to pay taxes very late in my life. When I became aware of it, I was severely pissed off. But then again, that’s a promise I have to honour. Another example of my implicit promise is that I will always do what I know to do and do it on time. For instance: I know that must eat healthy, catch enough sleep and exercise every day to be healthy. Integrity is actually doing it. Later in Habit #8, we look at exercise and eating habits from a different perspective. In this section, we look at exercise and eating habits from the lens of Integrity. I must confess that I constantly find myself lacking Integrity in this aspect.
To repeat: our word comprises of both explicit and implicit promises.
Building the capacity to honour our word allows us to be responsible for our word as facticity and transcend it by choosing ways to honour it. The key is to honour our word and not be attached to it. Living life as if our word creates a future-in-itself, which we are obligated to render as a future-past is inauthentic. All words have to be honoured in the backdrop of the existential fact that we are free-transcendence of our facticity. Its ok to not keep one’s word as long as one is willing to be responsible for the repercussions. Typical repercussions would involve communicating with stakeholders that we wont be keeping our word and dealing with any mess caused thereof.
I love Werner‘s take on Integrity and I wholeheartedly recommend you to study and live his material on the same. Make an honest effort o view unworkabilities in your life as an outcome of not being in Integrity.
I started a company in 2005 and roped in a friend as partner. Although I never formally inducted him into the board of directors or allotted shares to him, I offered him a certain percentage of the company “as my word”. In 2015, when I closed the company I found myself in a position where I had to honour my word and I did not like it, because the amount of money that I would have had to pay him was huge! My personal opinion was that my friend had not done much to grow the company so he doesn’t deserve the share I had originally offered him. I could have simply chosen to ignore my word and move on with my life, because he wouldn’t be able to legally challenge me anyway. But that would be bad-faith: I cannot consider myself to be a transcendence-in-itself, even if the legal framework allows for it and simply choose to act in accordance with my new choice. I have to consider myself only as an free transcendence of my facticity, which facticity includes the fact that I had offered my friend a certain percentage of the company “as my word.” At first, I spent a lot of time complaining about his attitude and blaming him for lots of things, none of which helped. Ultimately, I was able to see this breakdown in my life as an outcome of not being in Integrity. Instead of absconding, I spoke with him and tried to negotiate my way out of my obligation to part away a share with him, but he did not agree. These negotiations went on for several years and it strained our relationship a lot. Eventually, I paid him his promised share and honoured my word. I choose to affirm my freedom by choosing to deal with repercussions of my choice of transcendence in the past, than run away from it. I now find myself conducting far more due diligence before giving my word. In a way, I have grown to become more responsible about the word I give.
Habit #4: Alter your life’s project or at the very least its intensity
Living a “status-quo life” doesn’t require us to intensely confront existential truths and therefore doesn’t give us sufficient temptation to slip into bad-faith. Even if we did slip into bad-faith (which we invariably will), it won’t present to us an opportunity to look at bad-faith as bad-faith and compel us to choose authentic responses. Said in another way, we can get away with inauthenticity (or bad-faith) when we live a normal life that doesn’t disturb the status-quo.
When we, however, take on a project in our life that requires us to flex our abilities more than what we are used to; we not only slip into bad-faith “in full view” but also discover the profound need to choose authentic responses in order to progress in our project. It is in the backdrop of such projects that we build our muscle to face uncomfortable truths, get real and live an authentic life.
An example of altering the intensity of one’s life’s project could be: For a software developer who is already working at Infosys, preparing to get employment at Google can be a lot more confronting than preparing to get employment at TCS. I share below my learning from altering my life’s project itself:
Until two years ago, I was successfully running a small but hugely profitable software company called VCreate Logic (VCL), that offered products, consulting services and training to companies wishing to use Qt & OpenGL for building 2D & 3D visualisation software. I started VCL in 2005 and grew it to 18 employees with customers in India, US, Germany, France, UK, Turkey and Australia. In the 10 years that I ran VCL, I had come to identify myself as an entrepreneur. My whole sense of identity was riding on VCL. I used to live in the city in a rather large house (owned by my father, which I rented from him), with all the social adulation that comes with living in a large house and running a software company. I loved the social feedback. I loved the appreciative eyes that were cast on me. I loved the gossip that ran behind my back, placing me on a pedestal. I loved the invites (to speak about entrepreneurship, to be chief-guest of events and so on) from universities. I loved the whole deal.
My strategies for surviving all of that was set. I was not feeling challenged anymore. I had slipped into bad-faith and had tricked myself into believing that I was this guy-in-a-big-house-thing, an entrepreneur-thing who was running a successful company.
Two years ago, I decided to call it quits and go into sabbatical mode. I made a conscious decision to alter my life’s project because it would require me to go beyond who I had constructed myself into.
But, I had to respectably finish my job at VCL. I made several attempts to sell my company, but failed in that. Two companies had previously offered to buy VCL in the past, but I had rejected their offer thinking that I can grow VCL beyond what they had imagined. When I approached them this time around, they rejected my offer to buy VCL. I offered to let my employees take over the company, but they rejected that offer. I tried to hire a CEO for the company, but nobody accepted the offer. I experienced failure, drastic and unconquerable failure after a long time. Suddenly I did not feel like a successful entrepreneur anymore. It shook the ground beneath me.
Eventually I chose to wind up the company by liquidating assets and let all of my employees move on. I had to move out of my “prized” house (my father built that place and I was renting it all along) and move to a smaller house on rent. I had to deal with the change in social perception of me. I went from being perceived as a successful guy to “Oh dear, he had to close his company and also move to a smaller rented house.” I had to deal with being objectified with pity. My landlord requested me to move out of my house within one year of my stay there. He had valid personal reasons for that of-course, but I felt forced to relocate to another rented house, but this time I made a far more conscious choice. In the middle of all this – I was confronting a nagging feeling that “my family doesn’t have its own home.” As a reaction to that, I got us on a mad rush to buy a house. When my wife & I ventured out to buy a house, I had to confront that I was not as rich as I thought I was. Houses we loved, I could not buy. Houses I could afford, we did not like. Meanwhile, I had to deal with the mental horror story of being objectified by neighbours as someone “who still hasn’t managed to build/buy his own home and continues to live on rent.”
Altering my life’s project, by choosing to quit running my software company and taking up sabbatical, allowed me to discover myself outside of the objectification I had put together for myself. I had to face my inauthenticities far more intensely than before, to the point that I found myself compelled to acknowledge my inauthenticity and choose freshly. I am now less bothered about not owning a house, about not being perceived as a entrepreneur-thing or as a successful-thing. I find myself with more freedom to be and do than before.
Two years since closing VCL, I now realize the need to alter my life’s project once again.
There are no ideal projects. Any project will do, as long as it requires us to flex our abilities beyond what we are currently used to.
For instance, right now it seems to me that starting a new business (not a software business though) would require me to flex my abilities beyond what I am used to.
* I would have to confront my bad-faith that objectifies me as a “not-so-successful-entrepreneur” purely based on my last attempt while at the same time,
* I would also have to deal with my temptations to consider myself a free transcendence and resist concluding that I can make any choice without caring about my past.
* I have made good money from my previous shot at entrepreneurship. Since then, I have come to objectify myself as someone who doesn’t have to work for money. I have slipped into bad-faith. With this new project, I will have to shake that objectification.
* I would also have to deal with my inner voice that keeps me victimised in my close interpersonal relationships – “what can I do, xyz person doesn’t encourage me to pursue my dreams”.
* This project would also require me to build my capacity to honour my word by choosing consistent ways of transcendence in the face of mounting facticity.
As you can see the project (of starting a new business) would nurture me right now. It may not be as nurturing a few years from now.
Habit #5: Create and maintain nurturing relationships
As shared in a previous post, our being-for-other is the awareness we have about being an object in a world of objects for the Other. While it is still “my” being-for-other, it is over there for the other to construct and control.
For the most part, we are at the receiving end (so to speak) of our being-for-other. People objectify us in a way they see fit and we starkly become aware of it. For example, as much as women have been making noise in the last few years – they are unable to profoundly shift the way in which they are being objectified by men (and women too). Most women are profoundly aware of the way in which they are reduced to sex-objects by men. For eons, women had to limit their choice of transcendence in the society based on this objectification alone. However, around now, women can voice opinions and shape their being-for-other a lot more than they previously could. Men are joining this chorus as well and calling for everybody to take note of the various interesting ways in which women transcend their facticity. Some women are sports stars, some are business tycoons, some are teachers, some are actors, some are musicians, some are bikers, some are fitness experts, some are doctors, some are engineers, some create fashion, some are politicians and so on. In spite of all this voice, women are unfortunately still objectified as sex-objects for the most part. If they did not have significant meaningful relationships where they could transcend their unfortunate objectification as sex-objects and create possibilities of their choice, women would have lost-it.
As a person deeply interested in living an authentic life, I must realize that it may not be possible to do so all by myself. I surely need support. That means: I am responsible for constructing my own support structure in the form of powerful & nurturing relationships where I am allowed to transcend my objectification (my being-for-other). Relationships where I can recover from my bad-faith easily and choose authentic ways of transcendence, such that I am forgiven for my bad-faith and offered a second chance. In the absence of such relationships, I will have to work so much harder to create an opportunity for a second chance; because most people love to “put me in place” by reaffirming their objectification of me, which had gotten constructed in the backdrop of all my inauthenticities.
Suppose that a college student flunked in his exams. He is profoundly aware of his objectification as a “failure” in the eyes of Other(s). If he is stuck in an environment that reinforces that objectification so much that it attempts to stick the label “failure” to him, as if it were his facticity, he would find it really difficult to transcend that label. OR, put in other words, he would find it really difficult to not consider himself to be a failure-thing, thereby slipping into bad-faith. Strictly speaking the student is not a failure-thing as much as rock is a rock-thing. In the presence of people that allow him to authentically choose responses to his facticity, the student may find it easier to transcend that label. He may still transcend the label otherwise, but in a nurturing environment of good friends and family he may find it easier to do so.
We cannot expect the whole world to be that kind to us. Most people will stick our labels to us as if it were our facticity. We will have to be responsible for that and still be a free-transcendence in the face of that, irrespective of how difficult it is.
Creating nurturing relationships enables us to safely transcend our facticity, without having to overly confront our objectification. Such relationships also challenge us to confront our inauthenticities (those uncomfortable truths about ourselves) and create a safe space to transcend them. Part of being able to have such nurturing relationships is to be someone who offers such space to Other people. It requires me to be someone who is not hung up on the labels I ascribe to others, so that I give them the space to transcend those labels in our relationship; in order to have someone who isn’t hung up on the labels they ascribe to me. Personally, I indulge in an inquiry created by the question – “Is bad-faith directed at another person an act of my bad-faith?” I dive into this inquiry from the point of view created by the question how will my interpersonal relationships be, if I viewed all bad-faith directed at another as inauthentic just as I view it as inauthentic when directed at me? The more I stay with these questions, the more space it creates for me to build nurturing relationships.
Over the years, I have noticed that labels tend to stick around in close interpersonal relationships. I notice my unfortunate addiction to stick certain labels to people in my life. At the same time, I notice how passionately people in my life stick labels to me. To be honest, I notice others addiction to stick labels to me far more profoundly than my own addiction to stick labels to them. Nevertheless, I need to be responsible for labels stuck to me and the labels I stick to others.
I am currently working hard at letting go of the labels I have attached to people in my life. I have a lot of labels for my wife, my parents, my siblings, some of my close friends and my neighbors. I am working on letting them go. I am, at the same time, starkly aware of the labels they stick to me. I am learning to be responsible for the labels I associate with them, while at the same time be responsible for the labels they associate with me and transcend them by being in communication. This process is not always glamorous or pretty or even linear. But its worth it.
Habit #6: Make time to read
Reading books, articles, blogs on existentialism helps in expanding our theoretical understanding of authenticity, which may eventually inspire us to practice living an authentic life even more. Watching movies/documentaries and holding discussions with other people also help, but I would rate reading higher. Reading offers space for personal inquiry a lot more than movies or discussions would. Such personal inquiry could be very profound. It allows us to create our own strategies or habits for living an authentic life. It also opens up the possibility for us to creatively express our own understanding of existentialism, which spirals into deeper understanding & insight.
Here, I list some of the books I found useful. I am clear that there are a lot lot more. For a beginner, these books may serve as a good starting point.
How to Be an Existentialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses by Gary Cox: (link) This was the first book on existentialism that I could actually comprehend. Gary Cox has managed to package principles of existentialism offered by a lot of philosophers (from Nietzsche to Sartre) into a concise book that is both witty/entertaining AND as rich and meaningful as any self-help book can be. This is still my go-to book on existentialism. I must have read it cover to cover over 40 times in the past few years. I became a fan of Gary Cox after reading this book and bought two more books after this, which are also books I strongly suggest that you read. A lot of my blog posts on existentialism, including this one, are hugely influenced from Gary Cox’s books.
Existentialist’s Guide to Death, the Universe and Nothingness by Gary Cox: (link): This book expands on the ideas explained in “How to Be an Existentialist” to understand childhood, emotions, sexual desire, marriage, god and death.
Sartre – A Guide for the Perplexed by Gary Cox: (link) This book is for people who want to dive deep into existentialism as a philosophy. This book is not self-help, like the other two are. This book is meant for people who are serious about exploring the depths of existentialism, learn about the history and development of ideas. This book can serve as notes for a student of philosophy who is embarking on reading the mother of all books on existentialism: Being and Nothingness from Jean Paul Satre.
Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre: (link) This was the very first book I bought when I got curious about Existentialism. I couldn’t move beyond the first two pages of this book for almost a year. I had realised that I would need to prepare and gather competence to even read this book. After reading books from Gary Cox, listed above, I gave this book another shot. I was able to progress much further than before. But I have not yet read it cover to cover. This book is intense. It demands intense attention and participation from its readers.
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger: (link) This book is considered to be one of the most influential books in Existentialism. It has certainly made a big impact in the 20th & 21st century, it is likely to remain impactful for a long time to come. The book focusses entirely on the question: “What does it mean to be?” Like Being and Nothingness, this book too is really really DIFFICULT. I haven’t read this book cover to cover. Besides these books are not the kind that one can simply read cover to cover. Each part of the book demands intense attention and participation.
Course Materials for: ‘Being a Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership: An Ontological/Phenomenological Model’ by Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen & Steve Zaffron: (link) Werner Erhard is a man I have massive respect for. He brought existentialism to masses through his transformational programs starting with est all the way to the Forum. Along with his colleagues Michael Jensen & Steve Zaffron, he brought the technology of personal transformation, that he put together for est and The Forum, to academia. This material is used by faculty members and students who take up a course on Leadership, examined from an ontological perspective.
Habit #7: Construct and follow your own habits
This habit comes right after “Habit #6: Make time to read” on purpose. I have noticed that when I read books on existentialism, especially the ones listed above, I come up with new insights about myself. These new insights inspire me to invent new habits, which I then try out for a while and see if they generate effectiveness and/or aliveness. Some habits do, others don’t. In anycase over a period of time useful habits stick. I list below some of the habits I follow, however I urge you to not conclude any of these are holy or “good” habits. Try them out for yourself and retain them only if they work for you. What would be wonderful is if you created your own habits out of your own insights and shared them with the world (which includes me, btw).
Pay attention to the present moment, to be free
I have noticed that taking it slow and being attentive to the present moment allows me to come in close touch with my perceptions, thoughts, memories, feelings, beliefs, superstitions, body-sensations and so on that incline me towards certain kinds of choices. The more aware I am of the present moment, the more I become aware of my construct and the more able I am able to freely choose, rather than go with the force (or flow) of the construct. At the very least, taking it slow allows me to consciously evaluate my options before picking a course of action in response to my current situation. And when I consciously pick a course of action, I am consciously being authentic.
Recently, I participated in an online course on parenting called Jagriti, conducted by Ratnesh Mathur of Aarohi Life Education. Ratnesh got us to ponder over the question – “How does learning happen?” He offered us a model for consideration.
He says that, as learners we start off as beings who are blissfully unaware of our incompetence. When we begin learning about a subject, we graduate to becoming beings who are still incompetent but are now conscious of it. By working on it over and over again, we become consciously competent. Over a period of time, we become unconsciously competent. Massive effort, energy and time is spent in phase where we are being conscious about our incompetence and working on building competence. We may never ever graduate to unconscious competence in a lot of areas, but we sure can inch closer to it. In anycase, much of the learning happens in this phase. If we have a master around us during this phase, it can be a profound and insightful experience.
Much the same way, until we learned about facticity, transcendence, freedom, responsibility and authenticity from an existentialist’s standpoint, we were blissfully unaware of our inauthenticity. Once we learn about them, we become conscious about our inauthenticity. Generating the capacity to be attentive to the present moment allows us to consciously build competence in this area. What that means is that we will learn to consciously slow down, take stock of our choices and pick a course of action with awareness such that we can be responsible for the repercussions of those actions.
We will never ever become unconsciously competent in this area, that would be like claiming that authenticity can be practised to an extent that one can simply be authentic. To claim that one can simply be authentic is like claiming that one can somehow become an authentic-thing which is an act of bad-faith, therefore inauthentic. However, practising to be in the present moment drastically increases our opportunity for being authentic.
Creative use of language
Language can be used in very powerful ways to reveal our inauthenticities to ourselves and in the process create new possibilities. For instance:
I have mastered my performance as ______________
I have not been working out as regularly as I should. I have many reasons for it, but giving reasons is a way of relinquishing responsibility for my choices. However, those reasons are real for me. I literally believe that my irregularity with workout is causally determined.
To deal with this like an existentialist, I have recently begun to tell myself this – “I have mastered my performance as someone who is irregular in working out.” This statement offers a brutal reflection of my inauthenticity. It allows me to see how I have slipped into bad-faith as if who I am is simply my facticity. As if I am this irregular-at-workout-thing who has no real choice of transcendence other than those available to an irregular-at-workout-thing. When my inauthenticity is revealed, it encourages me (many a times corners me really) to choose authentic ways of transcendence. I begin to see how I am choosing to be casual about my workout and many a times willingly skip workouts in favor of other supposedly more important things.
Having confronted my inauthenticity in this area – I now begin to get creative in my approach to scheduling workouts. In general I pay more conscious attention to working out and actually begin to workout regularly.
After a while, I find myself back as irregular. At which point, I repeat this process to uncover more inauthenticity. Its like pealing one layer after another. Given that I can never ever simply be authentic, I don’t ascribe any significance to my recurring relapses. I simply take responsibility for my irregularity and make an effort to get regular. I don’t make a soap opera of my irregularity and slip into even more bad-faith. (Well, I do. But in combination with my other habits – I do pull myself into authenticity after a while.)
I choose ____(x)_____ because I choose ____(x)_____
During my participation in the Landmark Forum and its seminar series, I learned this language construct. Whenever I find myself with regret, resentment or in general any form of resistance, I notice this aspect of me that wants to blame something or someone.
Recently, I was on a local trip to my customer’s office to conduct a training session on Qt/C++. I got into the cab and shortly realised that it was a shared-cab. The cab had to take significant detours to pick up other passengers before dropping me off at my destination. I spent a good lot of time (in my head) expressing anger, blame and resentment. After a while, I told this to myself (in my head again): I choose this cab, because I chose this cab. I chose this delay, because I chose this delay. Almost immediately, the blame game (in my head) stopped. This language construct helped me to own up my facticity (which was my current situation) and come to identify myself as someone who now has to freely transcend it. I chose to then get off the cab mid way, take another cab to my destination – which I reached on time. I found myself fresh and alive when I began the training.
With this language construct, I always find myself empowered to take total responsibility for my facticity, which invariably leads me to a profound awareness of my freedom to transcend it.
Examine meanings and create them newly
Existentialists view of the universe is that things exist without any meaning or purpose. Consciousness then adds meanings to it. Life has no implicit meaning or purpose other than what we ascribe to it. Each of us are not born to fulfil a divine purpose. We simply show up in a utterly meaningless world and construct a meaning out of what we experience and a purpose for ourselves.
Knowing that its all meaningless allows us to come in touch with the powerful possibility of choosing the meanings we ascribe to phenomenon in our lives. Especially when the status-quo meanings aren’t really cutting it for us.
For instance, my upbringing and experience conjured a meaning for the word education. For me education always meant going to school, studying text books, doing homework, writing exams, scoring good marks and so on. As an adult, I started to experience a disconnect with that kind of education. I have since begun to question the status-quo meaning and embark on a journey to reconstruct the meaning of education. We recently hosted a get together at our house where some of our friends and family questioned the meaning of education. It was transformational.
In the last decade or so, the meaning of the word “entrepreneurship” has gotten constructed to mean a specific series of activities: Come up with an idea, put together a business model that has the new venture feed off on investor money to curate a market (with discounts, offers etc) in a hope to breakeven and make profits after it has 1 million or more customers, approach one or more investors, raise funds, build a small team, raise even more funds, build a bigger team, raise even more money, build an even larger team and eventually sell off the company – all the time not make any profit. But does entrepreneurship __have__ to mean that?
Our Prime Minister Modi recently declared the void the value of 500 and 1000 rupee notes in one of the largest demonetisation drives in the history of this country. Many experts were 100% clear that demonetisation meant bad-news for economy. Naturally, I was impacted by both demonetisation and its meaning as painted by the “experts.” Thanks to social media, I got an opportunity to dissect the status-quo meaning and construct my own empowering meaning for it. It has since been rewarding both emotionally and financially for me.
To repeat: knowing that its all meaningless allows us to come in touch with the powerful possibility of choosing the meanings we ascribe to phenomenon in our lives. Especially when the status-quo meanings aren’t really cutting it for us.
Habit #8: Pay attention to your body, nutrition, exercise and to your appearance
At the heart of the existentialist’s view of the body is the recognition of the radical difference between the way a person’s body exists for himself and the way it exists for other people.
- For himself, his body is not an object. A person, when engaged with his transcendental projects is oblivious to his body. This is called a person’s being-in-the-world.
- For others, a person’s body is an object. This is called as a person’s being-in-the-midst-of-the-world.
body for himself
Existentialists say that consciousness is embodied. That is not to say that consciousness is riding around somewhere in the body, like a driver would in a car. It means that embodiment is consciousness’s only way of being-in-the-world. It is the immediate and inescapable situation that consciousness must perpetually transcend towards future situations, while never every being able to permanently surpass it.
The mischief is that while a person is immersed in his way of being-in-the-world, he is hardly even aware of his body. Even though a person can touch his body, see his body in the mirror or see at-least parts of his body directly, it is not essential to his being-in-the-world. When a person is in the mode of being-in-the-world, his body is an instrument that doesn’t command much attention until it has a breakdown. Infact, any tool that a person uses becomes a part of his unified set of instruments until the tool breaks down. For example: when a person is writing using a pen, he doesn’t experience his hand holding the pen and guiding the writing. He is simply writing using the pen – as if the pen was an extension of his hand. When the pen breaks down, he experiences a distinction between his hand and the pen.
Similarly, a person doesn’t experience his hand, leg, shoulder, head, face as distinct parts of his body. He doesn’t experience his body at all while he is in the mode of being-in-the-world. However, when there is a breakdown in his body – it commands immediate attention. Breakdown in one’s body can dramatically halt or at the very least impose a significant constraint on a person’s being-in-the-world. If a specific breakdown persists for a long enough time, the person will learn to be responsible for it it as his facticity and to transcend it by choosing projects that allow for his body’s condition. For instance, a sprint runner isn’t aware of his legs in motion while he is running. Infact while he is running, his being-in-the-world is all about the running. Said in other words, he is running. He is not moving his legs in a particular way to cause his running, he is simply running. If he loses his leg in an accident, it could halt his sprint running career or at the very least impose significant constraints. He may have to get a artificial leg, get used to including it as a part of his body instrumentation and so on. In summary, when we are the mode of being-in-the-world, we are oblivious to our body.
It does not matter what project we indulge ourselves in, the body plays a massive role, even if we are not aware of our bodies while we are in the mode of being-in-the-world. Infact, unless the body is in a healthy working condition – we can never go about our being-in-the-world by being oblivious to our body. To truly be a free transcendence of our facticity, we should learn to maintain our bodies in such a state that they allow for such free transcendence. If we have a physical disability of some sort, we can learn to transcend that facticity and choose projects where that disability wont be much of a concern. Nevertheless, given that the body is the immediate and inescapable facticity, it must provide the necessary condition for consciousness to go about its being-in-the-world, lest it drastically limits the range of choices that consciousness can pick from to transcend.
Lets talk about all this in less abstract terms.
- As an actor, my body must offer me the necessary condition for being an actor. I should be fit, good looking, have the ability to render dialogues and expressions. My body should therefore be primed to offer that condition.
- As an athlete, my body should be always at the peak of fitness.
- As a software developer, my body should be capable of sitting still and focussing on the work in my desk for hours at a stretch, while it can comfortably go about all its internal bodily processes without my active attention.
The body has its own logic of functioning. While its logic can be shaped, it cannot however be controlled. It is important to pay attention and learn about the functioning of the body and maintain it at its prime. At the very least, we should research about healthy living habits and actively practise them. We should learn to eat right, sleep right, drink enough water, exercise and so on. As a software developer, I need not hone the body of an athlete – but I should do enough to ensure that the body doesn’t come in the way of my being-in-the-world as software developer.
There is plenty of material out there that can help you curate useful personal habits for body maintenance. I am not an expert in this field, so I wont dole any generic gyan. I recommend that you spend some time researching about this and curate your own set of personal habits to maintain your body.
body for the Other
Let me state the obvious: each and everyone of us has a body. The human body is fundamental to the human condition. Infact, our being-for-other, which reduces us to an object in the world of objects for the Other, is closely linked to our bodies. People can surely, and often do, objectify us whether or not our bodies are in their vicinity. However, it is impossible to separate our being-for-other from our bodies.
For example, although I have never ever actually met Vivekananda, my objectification of Vivekananda is directed towards the imagination of his body, not with the abstract collection of letters from the English language that make up the word “Vivekananda”. Modern living involves dealing with people through their email-ids and phone numbers as much as their name. We objectify people even though all we have seen of them is their email-id or phone number and not their body; yet we direct all our objectification about them to an imagination of their body. How many of you feel that Apple’s Siri has a body somewhere? It may not be a “human body”, but a body nevertheless.
A significant amount of my being-for-other is shaped by my body, because it is primarily the body that makes me an object in the world of objects for the Other. That is also to say that, while it is unfair, people direct (at-least initially) a significant portion of their judgements towards me based only on my body. I am sure you must have had experiences where you found yourself objectified contrastingly before even you opened your mouth and pronounced your choice of being-in-the-world.
Given that the nature of your being-for-other is such that it is over there for the Other to construct and control, even though it is yours, it is useful to adopt certain habits to ensure its synthesis in your favour. Learning about dressing appropriately, grooming, standing straight, sitting posture, handshake, smile, good manners, voice and other such body-aspects can help you to influence, in your favour, the kind of judgements that the Other can use with you. While you can never ever control your being-for-other, you can surely follow some practices to significantly influence it. It is true that inspite of your best efforts, people may throw inappropriate judgements at you, which you may be obligated to transcend. However, I am sure you can see the wisdom in practicing certain habits to influence your being-for-other, at the very least those pre-reflective first impressions.
For instance, I am likely to be subjected to pre-reflective rejection or resistance if I walk into a programming job interview wearing shorts and sleeveless T-Shirt with little or no grooming, than if I were to walk in wearing formals with a clean shave and combed hair. If my being-for-other in the interview is already compromised because of my dressing and grooming, then I will be obligated to transcend it even though my interest is in showcasing my programming skills.
Another example: a girl wearing low cut top and mini-shorts is likely to be objectified inappropriately if she walks into a crowd of streetbred men. The girl, in this case, is obligated to transcend her objectification even though she is totally uninterested or unprepared for it.
To a significant degree, we have culture specific social norms that almost guarantee pre-reflective judgements associated with appearances. For instance, dressing up in a certain way (formals, well groomed etc.) to work encourages professional relatedness from colleagues. Dressing up in casuals encourages friendly and a more relaxed relatedness, something we might find useful when in a group of friends. Leveraging such norms to favour our projects of being-in-the-world, is wiser than being a rebel always. In either case, whether we leverage them or rebel against them – we are fully responsible for our choice, as we are with all the choices we make in our life. Crying foul when faced with inappropriate objectification could be an instance of our slipping into bad-faith, just as much as it could be the Other’s inauthenticity for objectifying us inappropriately.
I started learning about Existentialism after my participation in the Landmark Forum in 2009. I have been fascinated about it ever since. I am also moved by the impact potential it has on people who strive to live an authentic life. This post is mostly a note for myself to revisit over and over again. I publish it in the hope that it may be of some use to another.
Use this post in anyway you like. My only request is that you include a link to this post, if you happen to refer to any content from here.