Reprinted from TOC's Navigator, Volume 1, Number 10, 1998.
By Carolyn Ray
The Art of Living Consciously: The Power of Awareness to Transform Everyday Life. By Nathaniel Branden. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. 255 pp. $23.00.)
(Amazon.com will contribute to the cost of maintaining the Enlightenment web site if you use this link to purchase The Art of Living Consciously.)
Objectivist psychotherapist and author Nathaniel Branden obviously intends his latest book to be accessible to the general public, and readers will find it in the Self-Help/Popular Psychology section of the bookstore. Nevertheless, I will focus primarily on why I think the work is so essential for Objectivists. For make no mistake: The Art of Living Consciously (ALC) presents in a fresh way the basic ethical philosophy of Objectivism.
Proceeding inductively, Branden builds a case for egoism and all the self-examination it requires, using everyday examples and assigning written exercises to lay the groundwork for an egoistic outlook that is truly created by, and therefore genuinely owned by, each reader. In the process, he tackles many problems that have been wrongly dismissed or ignored by other Objectivists.
A few months ago, a friend invited me to his church to hear him "witness" on the subject of awareness. Though I had to struggle to separate the objective wheat from the mystical chaff, I came away feeling energized and full of new resolve. How, I wondered, could a gathering dedicated to the worship of God have such an effect on an atheist?
In striving to understand my response, I came to a hypothesis that may help shed light on Christianity's explosive success. Perhaps the first evangelists of Christianity were brilliant psychologists. Understanding the need to conceptualize and integrate the nameless fears and desires that make up the ground of every human mind, they gave their converts prayer and confession. The self-knowledge and self-acceptance that resulted from those practices may, in turn, have produced an inner joy (such as I experienced in the church), which Christians termed "the grace of God" and offered as "evidence" of the power of their faith.
If that hypothesis is accurate, then surely Objectivism's growth has suffered from the lay psychology that has evolved among certain of its adherents. Rejecting "negative" emotions as morally reprehensible, this psychology necessarily rejects many of the facts of life.
In Anthem, for example, heroes do not even privately acknowledge their pain. In his account of the burning of the Transgressor, whose tongue has been torn out for speaking in the first person singular, the protagonist expresses great admiration: "There was no pain in [his] eyes and no knowledge of the agony of [his] body. There was only joy in them, and pride, a pride holier than it is fit for human pride to be" (Bracketed pronouns correct usage-CR).
Whatever Rand herself intended by such passages, my experience with Stoic Objectivists indicates that they are widely understood to mean that people who acknowledge unpleasant facts, are at best suffering from a bad sense of life, and are at worst malicious villains acting on the premise of death; and people who act as though unpleasant facts do not exist are well on their way to becoming heroes.
That is not how it works, says Nathaniel Branden. In ALC, he is out to show why rejection of any fact is damaging to the mind, while rejection of any part of internal reality is also rejection of the self, and thus doubly damning. In his view, any denial of any reality is an error. And to deny the reality of suffering is analogous to administering anesthesia-each is effective against pain only if the possibility of pleasure is blocked in the process. Thus, in constructing a sorrow-free self-concept, the Stoic Objectivist must also relinquish belief in the benevolence of the universe. The real acts of heroism in this context are those aimed at exposing and obliterating such errors.
The overwhelming importance of a reality orientation (including self-awareness) is among the "first principles" that Branden discusses in chapter one of his book. Other first principles include the roles of reason and logic, the nature of free will, of objectivity, of intuition, and of emotion. Chapter two explains (a) free will as a function of mental focus; (b) the fact that context determines what level of focus is appropriate; (c) how one learns to run some activities on automatic; and (d) the motives for fleeing focus. Branden's technique of sentence completion, familiar from his previous works, is also explained here.
Chapters three and four describe in detail the meaning of full consciousness and its connection to happiness. Chapter three takes up the need to consider the consequences implied in one's actions; the need to consider the knowledge required for success; and the need to manage feelings that pull one away from focus. Chapter four deals first with areas to which one must bring consciousness-including romantic, familial, and professional relations-and then with the need for a consciousness of one's context and ideas. Examples of the sentence-completion method help to the reader to see that a commitment to full awareness requires practice, and to that end Branden provides a twenty-week program of sentence-completion exercises designed to enhance performance and productivity.
Chapter five stresses the importance of directing awareness toward the details of one's "inner world"-one's body, needs, wants, emotions, and actions. Branden's treatment of self-esteem in chapter six is relatively cursory. Referring to his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he explains the nature of self-esteem, recounts why living consciously is the basis of the other pillars, and exposes some problems with the mainstream self-esteem movement.
In his last chapter, Branden takes up questions regarding spirituality, religion, and mysticism, and defends earthly, enlightened self-interest as essential to a spiritual existence. An appendix supplements the program of sentence-completion in chapter four by providing a twenty-two- week course aimed at raising consciousness in all areas of life.
Most Objectivists like to think of themselves as especially aware of the world around them. After all, "metaphysically, the choice'to be conscious or not' is the choice of life or death" (Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," in The Virtue of Selfishness). Heeding the heavy emphasis on the risks associated with the failure to focus, many new Objectivists draw the conclusion that anyone not in a constant state of frenzied alertness deserves a stern reprimand.
Branden helps to sort out this complicated subject by drawing some valuable distinctions. He explains that there is a difference between intentionally lowering focus (as in relaxation) and surrendering to passivity (as in laziness); between being emotional (as in expressing feelings) and acting on emotion (as in basing judgments on feelings); between being fully conscious (as in accepting one's internal states) and being conscious merely of the outer world (as though outward productivity were all that mattered).
The desirability of habits is a subtopic here. Many of the Objectivists I know are articulately defensive of their habits, arguing that the less time they spend paying attention to "negligible" details, the more time they will have for stunning logical deduction in the more pressing realm of abstraction. Branden acknowledges that automated actions are necessary for efficiency (pp. 52-53). But he observes that everyone retains habits not conducive to a happy life and lacks habits that would make life better in every respect (including productive work). And since habits are by definition actions that we perform without reflection, this fact alone necessitates their occasional re-examination. Self-awareness should therefore be everyone's priority, and to this end Branden presents several models for diagnosing and correcting unexamined habits.
Just as Objectivists like to think of themselves as especially focused, so too do they like to think of themselves as constantly monitoring their minds for error-checking their premises, and especially admonishing others to do so. But the ideal of full awareness, like all abstract ideals, sounds easier to achieve than it is.
In the first place, it is well established that much of what the human mind absorbs is not directly accessible via introspection. In the second place, according to the Objectivist epistemology, abstraction can take place on "automatic pilot," as well as by conscious effort. Together, these theories suggest that the human mind automatically collects and integrates some falsehoods along with genuine knowledge, and that these falsehoods thus can infect the basis for daily decisions and behavior. Such errors must be eliminated to achieve optimal functioning, for they pop up surreptitiously and sabotage our work, play, relationships, and dreams.
But the human mind does not automatically check for errors. In fact, family and society discourage full disclosure of its contents, thereby ensuring that mistakes are overlooked. That is bad enough for any human being; it can be worse still for the proto-Objectivist who adopts such a policy of blindness upon meeting Howard Roark, Rand's pain-free hero of The Fountainhead. In an effort to emulate Roark-who has no childhood, let alone childhood trauma-the Stoic converts to Stoic Objectivism with a subconscious decision to rewrite history and current events, so that life is and always has been perfect.
To liberate the mind from this kind of self-imposed ignorance, Branden argues, a special effort is needed, an effort to focus on the hidden facts and errors accumulated during one's life. The incantation "Check your premises!" is not enough.
Why is it that focusing on reality and checking one's premises, nominally Objectivism's highest virtues, are in practice salient Objectivist blind spots? I suggest that the fault lies with the prominent role Ayn Rand's fictional characters play in the ethical lives of her followers. It is common for Objectivists to claim that the lives and statements of those characters contain or suggest the answers to all practical problems. In certain circles, sincere questions are swept aside with an impatient command to "Go re-read Atlas Shrugged." This Objectivist tradition thus prefers gods as the source of inspiration and demons as the targets of criticism.
But gods and demons are further removed from reality than even the usual sort of fictional characters; they are Platonic "ideals," personified abstractions of real human traits. As such, they are not helpful to readers attempting to reproduce the process of abstraction necessary for the formation of correct ethical principles. Not all entrepreneurs are heroes; some people with liberal ideas are honest and rational; there is a difference between industriousness and workaholism. The canon is not helpful in making these distinctions. Consequently, it can be difficult for real Objectivists to translate the rhetoric into usable guidance, and many content themselves with repeating the rhetoric.
The Art of Living Consciously cuts through these problems. It provides one clear strategy for doing the inductive work necessary to understand the self and the ethical principles appropriate to it: sentence-completion exercises. I am convinced that this technique offers salvation-for humanity and Objectivism-and that it speaks very ill of Objectivists, who assert that they are devoted to consciousness, productivity, and happiness, that they have not seized upon this technique with the zeal they display for other subjects.
These exercises develop the skill of uncensored self-examination by provoking responses to sentence fragments. Practiced regularly, sentence-completion exercises provide a guided tour of mind and body as they steadily raise one's daily level of awareness. The productivity-oriented exercises in chapter four, for example, are an incredibly effective tool for brainstorming and for calling up the totality of one's abilities and resources. Just as significant, all of these exercises are a dependable, structured means of eliminating the nonsense accidentally absorbed throughout life and re-integrating the leftover facts.
Yes, The Art of Living Consciously can be taken as an abstract treatise on psychology. But it is properly used as a textbook, teaching the reader a method for achieving self-knowledge and requiring active participation. In the course of the work, Branden mentions several methods for increasing awareness-meditation, massage, imagination-but the sentence-completion method is the one he emphasizes, and with good reason: it is simple, systematic, easily explained in text, conceptual by nature-and it works. It is his answer to prayer and confession, but its power to integrate, motivate, and liberate far surpasses those two vaguely defined introspective techniques.
So, be forewarned: Only part of the evidence for Branden's conclusions is in the prose of the book; the rest of it is in the individual's responses to the exercises. Study the work carefully, but use the exercises religiously.
On Mysticism. While I applaud Nathaniel Branden's decision to acknowledge the popularity of mysticism and to treat the subject philosophically, there are problems with some of the refutations he offers.
(1) One of Branden's arguments against mysticism's goal of losing individual consciousness runs, in essence, as follows (pp. 191-196): (a) Mystics claim I should lose my individuality and become identical with all other conscious beings. (b) If I did this, there would be no one left to be conscious. (c) Therefore, consciousness would not exist, and neither would the possibility of knowing or loving. An easy response for mysticism is that becoming identical with all other conscious beings would mean that there is still something that is conscious; it just is not particularly me as I am right now. Here, it would have been more to the point to focus on the incoherence of one thing's becoming identical with another, already existing thing.
(2) Branden does not provide adequate evidence that the position he argues against is actually espoused by anyone. That position is that the ultimate state of enlightenment entails the end of all distinctions (p. 198). Ken Wilber, the mystic Branden cites as paradigmatic, explicitly denies that he holds this position. In Up From Eden, Wilber writes:
Thus, when one rediscovers the ultimate Wholeness, one transcendsbut does not obliterateevery imaginable sort of boundary, and therefore transcends all types of battles. It is a conflict-free awareness, whole, blissful. But this does not mean that one loses all egoic consciousness, all temporal awareness, that one goes into blank trance, suspends all critical faculties and wallows in oceanic mush (p. 15).
Since Branden implies that the position he attacks is a typical one among mystics, the focus should be on a mystic who actually holds that position; an extended quote or specific page numbers would also be helpful. Otherwise, readers may simply dismiss Branden's quarrels with mysticism as "extreme" (the lay person's term for'fallacious').
(3) The charges (p. 208) that mysticism does not relieve the physical suffering of the masses and does not consistently produce individuals of superior integrity are not well-taken. The first criticism fails because mystics set out to address a different set of concerns: Just as one individual's profitable ventures cannot be attacked on the grounds that they fail to satisfy someone else's needs, so mysticism cannot be attacked on the grounds that it fails to make life-sustaining profits. The inadequacy of the second criticism can be felt close to home. Our own principles have been under fire for decades because of the behavior of some of the Objectivist community's most public figures. The strategy is illegitimate in both cases.
On Style. (1) Branden's style has shown impressive development since his early works (such as The Psychology of Self-Esteem and "The Psychology of Pleasure," in The Virtue of Selfishness). But though most of his prose in ALC is characterized by calm rigor, sometimes vehemence culminates in insults that may be more effective in turning readers' accusing eyes upon others than upon themselves:
Not uncommonly in psychotherapy, one encounters men and women who... experience consciousness not as a source of pleasure but as a gun pointed at their head. That is because they identify "self" not with consciousness but with a phony image or with their favorite delusions (p. 75).
In the chapter on spirituality and mysticism, blatant name-calling and appeals to emotion likewise mar the discussion, eliciting chuckles from atheists but offending everyone else: "Notice the resentment that [is attached] to the word profit by glowering, cassocked Rip van Winkles who still think they are living in the year 1200 (p. 222)." This slashing rhetorical style, which Objectivists love and which their detractors ridicule, does not help the last chapter's departure into politics and economics. It certainly is no aid to the average educated reader who is struggling to integrate the vast array of apparently disparate information offered up. And as for the Objectivist choir, the familiar diatribe runs the risk of lulling back into uncritical passivity any who up to this point might have been awakened by Branden's relentless tranquility.
(2) The quotes from "John Galt's speech," all of which occur in Branden's chapter on mysticism and spirituality, are out of place-especially since this chapter is an important attempt by a major Objectivist thinker to respond calmly and seriously to the philosophy of mysticism.
The first of these quotes (p. 195) introduces technical words and phrases such as'axiom,''corollary,' and'existence exists,' which have a special meaning in Objectivist philosophy. It would have been better to send diligent readers to expository works that elucidate these terms rather than to an enormous piece of mystery/science-fiction.
The second quote (p. 219), though much more appropriate to the level of the discussion, does not add anything that Branden has not said just as well or better; and, unlike the quotes from scholarly works in this section, its purpose is not to prove that he is not misquoting Rand nor to present a point of departure through the citation of material from a primary source. Thus, there seems to be no good reason to use it.
The last quote (p. 225) is offered in response to a legitimate concern: "Isn't there more to life than material reality?" Answering with a hostile, impatient quote about the life-styles available in Third World countries dodges the question. Had Branden phrased an answer in his own, straightforward, matter-of-fact voice, it would have been much more effective. Moreover, this quote is permeated by its context. Rand's fictional character is addressing the scurviest beings in the universe, informing them that they have missed their chance and are being left behind. Readers of ALC who may be in the early stages of assessing mysticism and other philosophies will not appreciate being addressed in the same tone of voice. Thus well-intentioned explorers may be put off during a potentially crucial brush with Objectivism.
This is not a call to banish citations of Rand but to cite her appropriately. Where Branden's thought is similar to or derived from hers, he could footnote that fact and then devote an afterword to Rand's philosophy. Were he to do that, serious readers would be both more receptive to his arguments and more interested in pursuing Rand's works.
I mention these criticisms for only one reason: I would like to see the Objectivist movement continue to evolve in a professional, scholarly, inviting manner. Though ALC goes a great way toward advancing such evolution, Branden implicitly has lent his authority to some of the less productive practices that have earmarked many Objectivist works. I could not recommend this book in good conscience without a word of caution to flag these problems, in the hope that they will not be accepted and repeated unconsciously. The sooner we eradicate these errors, the better our thinking will be.
Branden's creation of sentence-completion exercises, and his history of emphasizing them, is proof that he has long been attuned to the human condition. In addition, his tone has mellowed over the years, more effectively reaching out to the best within us. Relaxed, fair discussion has replaced angry, one-sided preaching. His air is professional, yet playful; intelligent, yet accessible. His overall attitude genuinely suits the discipline of psychology. And it is now clear that women are fully part of his frame of reference in a way that they were not before. With each new book, then, he has conveyed more convincingly his opinion that human beings are basically good and potentially great. In ALC, Branden has managed to negotiate an alliance between Objectivist ideals and real human beings, between what is right and what people are. His message will change the lives of those who hear it.
But this book will have little impact on readers who will not do their homework, just as glancing over a musical score will bring about little improvement in would-be musicians who refuse to pick up an instrument. Whether this is a defect in the book or in its audience is a question I leave as an exercise.
Carolyn Ray, who is enrolled as a graduate student at Indiana University, has earned her B.A. and M.A. in philosophy, and, later this year, will complete her doctoral dissertation on the concept of identity. She is also a philosophical consultant specializing in applied ethics and logic and has recently opened a practice in La Jolla, California. Some of her philosophical thought that is of interest to Objectivists may be found at http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/. Objectivism has been her philosophy since 1987, and sentence completion has been her habit since 1994.