The Nearest Thing to Life

Autonomy is a long-in-the-making phenomenon

Arnold Siegel Health & Wellness 0 Comments

It is our autonomous perspective that has given us the opportunity to extend and defend ourselves.
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"Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow [beings] beyond the bounds of our personal lot."

This is a quote from George Eliot’s The Natural History of German Life, her critique of two books by German writer W.H. Riehl. While Eliot is known in the main for her novels, most notably Middlemarch, in 1856 she published the piece on Riehl in The Westminster Review, of which she was an assistant editor.

Of course, most of us are not artists in the conventional sense. Still, as I said in my 08.03.15 post titled, Trending now, we stand alone. We recognize that our autonomy is a long-in-the-making phenomenon. It has a history. We experience the sense of responsibility that underpins self-possession and the conflict, uncertainty and loneliness that attend it. We accept that fulfillment, satisfaction and equanimity are ours to create. So, gifted with artistic aptitude or not, the success of our autonomy is an artful endeavor.

We began our creative journey where we are: already made. Made by biology and by the social impress to which we’re subject and often punitively regulated. Yes, the imprint of each is weighty, in many ways indelible and our already-patterned responsiveness is virtually automatic. Yet a focused study of the subject of autonomy and life has enabled a new and more powerful perspective or vantage point—a more open mind—with which to deal with the conditions that have circumscribed us to date.

In other words, it is our autonomous perspective that has given us the opportunity to extend and defend ourselves with resources other than those given by the social impress: conformity, mimicry and timidity. And it is our autonomous perspective, worked, internalized and emotionally registered, that has put a palpable pause on the obsessive truth of biologically and socially conditioned immediacy.

With such subjective distance, we can reach beyond our reflexive antagonism and egoism and choose love and generosity and, importantly, fairness. Indeed, from our new vantage point, we store our personal responsibility in the educated sentiments that slowly evolve from our worldly experience and the extended attention we pay to our minds.

A year ago in my 09.15.14 post titled, Generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, I also quoted and addressed Eliot's work. I bring her thoughtfulness to your attention again because acquiring an open mind (and greater regulative competence of our responsiveness) is also an amplifying experience. It elevates the importance of our connection with our constitutive link in the generational chain of custody of our civilization. Yes, most of us don’t share Eliot’s writerly talent. Yet, think about it. What can we make when we think deeply, when we examine closely, when we are exposed to viewpoints and experience not our own?

Just as the study of autonomy and life motivates us, poetry and literature (to name just two of the many arts) encourage us to transcend beliefs or mindsets common to a particular age and class.

It is such inspired thinking and exposure that over centuries have pushed us from the undifferentiated, unmodulated experience of existence to the more humane sense and sensibilities that inform us today. Said another way, it is the civilizing means of personage that have enabled us to wrest ourselves from our brute programming and extend dignity, compassion and a hand to our fellow beings.

Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit for more information.

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