For thousands of years, encouraging the life of the mind has been a mark of civilization. However, from what we know of autonomy and life, each generation needs its own encouragement. This is because there are always crucial truths invisible to us or from which we are distracted.
A gifted explorer of these invisible conditions is J.M. Coetzee*, the 2003 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. When awarding the prize, the Swedish Academy stated that Coetzee "in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.” Coetzee’s body of work that includes novels, essays and criticism is not only telling but also provocative.
It, like our study of autonomy and life, makes us think, helps us bring our thoughts and feelings into the light, so to speak. It helps us not with answers but with ideas. Our ideas when worked can make apparent the wide-ranging variability of thought and sentiment available to us to look closely at the world and to deal with the truths found there. In these developed sensibilities, there is not only knowledge and self-possession. There is love.
When we study autonomy and life, we recognize, and we experience, that we are in possession of ourselves when our minds can coax further insight from our carefully purposed focus. Indeed, the calling of our hearts to care for what we find there is what enables us to feel the sensation of being—of being in and alive to the world.
This “being” is not a ghostly soul. It is a vitality that exists in a space-displacing body firmly in the world. However, in the absence of a concerted effort to do otherwise, this body takes to learning in large part via mimicry, conformity and, for most of us, timidity. Unfortunately, we may not be introduced to the substantive mindfulness that would make the intellectual and experiential reaches of autonomy a compelling alternative.
So, yes, we can get by without knowing the forces that shape and determine us. But for some of us, "getting by" barely scratches the surface of the deep and generous possibilities of our self-possession.
For example, take our sentimentality. We have found that an authentic self-possession requires us to examine the shallow thinking that binds us to illusions, falsities and beliefs that foster the misguidance of our sentiments. Indeed, we prefer a life that relies on the autonomy of our sentimentally educated thoughts and feelings to one that is stylistically hip but intrinsically shallow.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.