From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 13
© 1969 Far West Editions
It may sound strange, but the first practical step in learning how to think is to find a friend. Who could that be? Who among the people we know or may get to know could be the kind of friends we need in the pursuit of understanding and intelligence? We could say that one of the chief characteristics of the philosophical man or woman (or child, for that matter) is the ability to step back from the whirl of life’s problems and pleasures. We are going to need such friends to begin the work of thinking together.
There is not much being written now about the subject of friendship. There is a great deal about relationships—parental relationships, sexual relationships, business relationships—but very little about what it means to have a friend or to be a friend. In fact, this is a vast subject. The great 20th-century teacher G.I. Gurdjieff said to one of his pupils that there are two kinds of friendship—“the friendship of men and the friendship of pigs.” The first are friends who support each other in the search for truth and in the struggle against their own weaknesses. The second are friends who support that in each other which holds us in the grip of justifying our ignorance, coarseness, and self-pity.
In a way, it is very easy to find a philosophical friend, but, in another sense, because it is so easy, it is also rather difficult. It means intentionally associating with another person solely for the sake of inquiry. It means separating oneself as much as possible from the countless emotional and pragmatic requirements that we bring to our relationships. It means associating with someone for a purpose other than personal gain, be it emotional, sexual, or material. This does not mean that we cannot like philosophical friends or be attracted to them for any number of reasons. It means only that we must separate in ourselves the impulse to understand from all the other desires that motivate us in our relationships. At the beginning, there needs to be this effort at separating ourselves from ourselves. Nothing will be possible without that.
This separation is the first work of the mind, and the whole enterprise of philosophy is one expression of that work. We need friends who are inclined to undertake this separation of the part of the mind that wonders and questions and seeks from everything else in one’s self and one’s life. This separation is not the false objectivity of modernism and scientism. No, this separation we speak of is far from being cold; it is warm, one could even say it is passionate: the ability to take a passionate distance from all that usually absorbs our attention and which, from moment to moment, feels like the whole of oneself. Throughout history there have been, and there are now, many other expressions of this ability, but we are so familiar with philosophy as an attitude and as a quest for understanding reality, that we can stay with the word and the idea of philosophy.
We see this capacity demonstrated sometimes in people with a certain sense of humor. In the midst of failure or apparently hopeless difficulties, they can laugh at themselves and the whole human situation. We do not include escapism or cynicism in this sense of humor. In this philosophical laughter, there is the movement toward freedom. This ability to laugh at oneself, at one’s own absurdity or pretensions, is close to a moment of freedom from the ego. In its higher forms, this laughter arises as a result of experiencing contradictions and accepting them as such, especially the contradictions in oneself.
The well-known figure
of Trickster, from the American Indian traditions, is a dynamic symbol of this
capacity of man in its most powerful form. Trickster is God, Trickster is the
Devil, Trickster is the absurdity of Vanity, Trickster is Stupidity, Compassion,
Morality, and Infinite Intelligence. When Trickster laughs, nothing in the
universe can be taken seriously, not even death, but when Trickster feels
sorrow, the whole of creation weeps. He is the enemy of everything fixed, even
the most sacred forms. He is awareness of contradiction, the awareness that
releases pure energy, formless energy. Trickster is Man, and there is nothing
Another sign of a potential philosophical friend is someone with a love of life and a distrust of the intellectual approach to life. This may sound just the opposite of what should be sought for in another person along the path of thought. But not so, for no one is more sensitive to real ideas than one who distrusts or is disappointed with intellectualism. I am not talking about those who deny the possibility of truth and meaning. I am speaking about the man or woman who seeks truth in experience of almost any kind, and who does not necessarily construct an intellectual system or set of beliefs to justify his or her yearning. One may find such people in any realm of life—business people, craftsmen, artisans, laborers, housewives, athletes—almost anywhere. These are people who are seeking ultimate meaning by searching for the experience of inner freedom that accompanies immersion in almost any activity, pleasure, or struggle in life. They do not necessarily see or know that such moments of total immersion bring them an equal and opposite movement of vividly intense separation from themselves, nor are they aware that in such separation from themselves they discover that which is alive, vivid, and an intrinsic component of all that is humanly meaningful. They have heard about the other kind of separation, the alienation from oneself that is the fruit of mere intellectualism, and they detest or distrust that. They want living movement, which they have found—at rare moments—through being active. Such people can be shown quite easily that true human engagement in life is, of necessity, accompanied by a glimpse of true human separation from oneself. This separation has no name in our society. It is not recognized by our psychology or religion, yet it is the threshold of an ocean of meaning, an ocean of being, an ocean of consciousness.
Think of the symbol of the Adventurer, the Explorer: the man of action who is so deeply immersed in his deeds and so mysteriously free from his own pleasures and pain, likes and dislikes, with resourcefulness that can only come from freedom from the usual considerations. Think of how the adventurer reasons, sees ahead, plans; think of how he is able to sacrifice himself. All these qualities speak of an impersonal awareness mysteriously blended with a total engagement in living, a passion, a singleness of intent. This heroic human type, echoing throughout the stories and legends of all cultures, is a symbol that communicates, if we can hear it, the possibility of a Self within that is not the ordinary, tormenting, egoistic self. When I actively give my attention wholly to the outer world, a new attention to the inner world appears. It is an ideal, yet it also is a momentary fact that is experienced in everyone’s life, and there are many who, without naming it as such, pursue this experience. We generally do not see that to come intentionally to such a moment requires something from us that we do not understand. The ideal of the Adventurer-Explorer is a symbol of an individual capable of voluntarily giving his attention to the outer task, so that he can liberate a freer, more discriminating, new attention within. It is not the symbol of a man passively waiting for a liberating accident that will merely attract his attention, while he lives a life of meaningless risks and commitments. The true lover of passion will understand this the moment it is pointed out to him through the medium of true ideas. Such a man or woman can be a great philosophical friend.
Another sign involves the wish to help one’s neighbor, to serve mankind. Here it is especially easy to distinguish the potential philosophical friend from someone who may never be able to separate his mind from his personality. Whoever has tried in any serious way to help others is bound to be aware, however dimly, of his or her incapacity in the world or in the depth of human nature. Typically, this awareness produces a reaction of unbalanced enthusiasm that masquerades as the intensity of altruism. But what, in fact, is this incapacity that is sensed or felt by those of us who seek to help our neighbor? It is an impression, experienced very deeply, of injustice, or of suffering mankind, an impression that in its small way is at the heart of the legendary lives of the great saints and avatars of the world’s religious traditions. And those who wish to help others and who have failed in the deeper meaning of help can begin to understand that they lack a certain energy, and they may even be able to see that the energy they need is an intelligent energy, a force that is at least equal to the forces of the world that maintain suffering and injustice. They can realize that it was their rare impressions of human suffering that initially brought them the energy to begin, the energy that fueled their initial motivations and actions. It is this impression of truth, experienced in the feeling mind and spreading through the body and the intellect, that could bring the force to initiate activity. They can understand that this initiating energy fades and is replaced by something else, perhaps a kind of emotional violence, an impatience, or even resentment or despair. One sees them inwardly quiet, saddened not only by the world but by themselves, although still possibly retaining the ideal of the Servant of Mankind. Such a person can become an authentic philosophical friend.
All these considerations by no means exhaust the types of people who are potential companions along the path to intelligence. In any case, it is not necessary to know in advance if this or that individual can serve as a friend in inquiry. What is necessary is to begin searching for such people and to initiate contact with some in such a way as to reveal the nature of their wish.
But there are some theoretical considerations that are relevant at this point in the discussion. The framework in which we are now speaking can be understood in relation to a very ancient teaching about the structure of man and human relationship. According
to this teaching, man’s nature is fundamentally relational. Deep in the essence of every human being is a feeling for all of life, for everything that lives, and especially for other human beings. In the modern view of human nature, on the other hand, man—like any so-called “physical object”—is a self-sufficient atom who loves his neighbor and cares for other life only when he is jolted out of his narrow view. But the ancient teachings contradict this notion. They tell us it is human egoism that is acquired and must be struggled with. And it is the capacity of feeling for other life that is natural.
The moment will come when speaking about a philosophical question simply appears by itself, like a ripe fruit, ready to fall, needing only the slightest movement of wind. Try to be attentive to this moment; try to listen for it.
Here it is worth noting an important fact about the ego. The ego, in the sense of vanity and self-love, is an extraordinary listener. We can say without the slightest exaggeration that the ego is always listening. It is always listening with extremely keen sensitivity for any movement, gesture or word which refers to it. It is a delicately tuned antenna constantly sweeping the horizon.
I bring this point in now only to make vivid the scale of difﬁculty of the work of listening not to oneself but to another. I call your attention to this fact, actually, to reassure you that there does exist within us a very great attentiveness. We will need this reassurance when we actually and sincerely try to listen. Do not try to battle the ego. Do not try to defeat it. Your aim is to interest it in something that it doesn’t know—truth.
The ego must not be destroyed. And it cannot ever really wish for its own disappearance. But it can become interested in something greater than itself. It can be made to see and understand that everything it wants will come to it from consciousness. And the first step toward this semi-voluntary submission of the ego is to find a question, a formulation that is so interesting to the mind, so challenging, that it attracts the ego to the task of finding an answer. An authentic philosophical question, shared with an authentic philosophical friend, attracts the energy of the ego just as much as it calls to the part of ourselves that seeks impersonal and objective truth about ourselves in the universal world.
The first step is not as formidable or heavy as it may sound. You already know your philosophical friend—it is only a matter of going out to meet people. Someone you already know is your friend.
Perhaps this is disappointing to hear. Perhaps you are
dreaming of searching over the next year or so—possibly worldwide—for some
perfect philosophical companion. But beginnings always exist in what is already
going on; they take nourishment from what is already full of energy. As the
ancient traditions of
You know many people; you already know your philosophical friend.