What should we call these things? These collections of ideas, attitudes, techniques, and insights we are told to follow to improve ourselves and our lives?
Some are called religions, and like Christianity and Islam will offer us stories and rules to follow. They will not have a technology of techniques to help us do things better, but merely promises of a better ‘life’ after our life.
Some are called ways of life, and like most practical spiritualities, think Buddhism and New Ageisms, they will enrich their afterlife promises with principles or techniques we can employ to change our life in this lifetime. We have stretching exercises, meditation, imagination techniques and visualizations.
Others are called schools of thought, as we encounter in psychology. They will offer us theories and mechanisms and some interventions a clinician can apply on us or sometimes even we upon ourselves.
Some give hope, others give power. This distinction is vital, because the plausibility of a promise is rarely evaluated with the confidence of evidence and results. The effect of a method, however, in as much as it can elevate our level of functioning and experience, is real.
Some offer us stories of either substantive hope or illusions, and others offer us personal power. While some are mutually exclusive, a few are not. Yet, if they were boxes on a market shelf, they would certainly be found in the same section.
Just like cereal. They are all eaten with milk, in a bowl, with a spoon, yet differ greatly in nutritional value. Some you can mix, some only others would mix, and some you wouldn’t even touch on their own. Too much sugar. Too many chemicals. Far too many artificial colorings.
While muesli with nuts and fruits is significantly different from corn flakes, we would find them in the same area. And this allows us to judge them on their merit. On the value they bring to our lives and the burden they place upon it.
Some will provide great entertainment value. We may think of the funny shapes in multiple colors with fantastic characters on the packaging. And even though they are fortified with vitamin powders that read like the entire alphabet, we may not expect much value beyond that.
Yet some boxes in the cereal section will have generative value. Their entertainment value is peripheral, whether they have any or not, they give us something far greater. What they bring is value beyond the present moment, as they provide us with a richness and strength that outlasts the entertainment and consumption of empty promises. They give us real value and not just stories and illusions upon which to hang our uncertainties and flaws to rest.
We could call them philosophies, but that would not account for those with a real technology of change and improvement. Philosophy, at least in the west, has been largely well-reasoned stories.
When Nietzsche tells us that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, he can rest merely on the boldness of his assertion without providing us with a direct means to test it for ourselves or cultivate it as a practice with concrete techniques to incorporate into our lives.
To call them technologies would be unfair to some of the eastern ways, with their wide range of practices to elevate oneself. Some have concrete technologies, like meditation, alterations of consciousness, physical practices etc… while others don’t. Certainly, attitudes can qualify as a technology of life, but that would be like calling a bucket drum just as much an instrument as a harp.
Rules may qualify as social technology that enable a ruler to keep some peace and decency in his ‘people’, but not as a personal and concrete technology that strengthens the individual as such. A concrete technology would require a level of independence that allows you to seize it in every moment. One would at the least expect that a way of life handed down by God would bear sufficient insights and concrete technology to rid ourselves of something as ordinary as common anxiety or stress.
The Abrahamic religions, for instance, would not qualify as either a concrete technology nor a philosophy. They are not well reasoned enough to qualify for the latter and lack concrete methods effective independent of the mythological hopes and promises it deals in. I would take mindfulness meditation over reciting scripture any day.
What we can be certain of, and what all these ways of life have in common, even if some pretend otherwise, is that they are about our existence. And each of them hopes to enlighten, empower, and enrich human existence where it exists: reality. Even those that identify themselves as spiritual and make us hope for afterlives of eternal freedom and bliss have their effect in the here and now. A bit more peace, confidence, and sometimes smugness.
Maybe calling them sciences is a stretch, but science after all is the business of knowledge. And knowledge is by all definitions tied to function. If it’s not working, it probably isn’t true.
What, unfortunately, happens far too often is the following. An intelligent and ambitious acquaintance wants to better herself. She goes to the market and picks a cereal box with nice colors. She internalizes the story and follows the instructions. She begins to, let’s say, meditate, and doesn’t get the promised results. She doubles down and goes to a retreat, lives with a guru, pays up for teacher training, and her results have still not come in.
But she is so invested in the hopes and promised of her ‘drug of choice’, that she will do everything but blame the lack of results on the ‘cereal’ of her choice. She will blame herself, but now she has to pretend to exhibit all the qualities she will then promise to her student. The chasm between what truly is and the external pressures, widen and deepen the abyss of her unmet desires. Just that now, she can’t tell anyone about it.
Even with the assistance of God, or the intellectual, technological, and financial resources of the top universities, not to forget about the panoply of eastern deities, they still have not found concrete solutions to the most immediate human problems of experience. Happiness, clarity of mind, a sense of freedom and purpose, vitality, are all hidden behind long paragraphs and year long practices. Maybe something is wrong the system?
I decide to call them, nevertheless, existential sciences. That’s the shelf upon which we would find the mueslis and fruit loops of existence. An existential science is any undertaking that aims to elevate our human potential by any means necessary. Some are of a higher caliber and others of a lesser caliber.
Some will always deal merely in illusions and stories, while others will have nothing to offer but descriptions of higher human states of existence without a proposed strategy.
Far too many will try to convince us to throw the baby out with the bathwater, desire and pleasure can lead to suffering and pain and thus forbid them. Rather than to develop means and methods to align with the fluctuations, they tell us to avoid them. That’s avoidance psychology.
Some will be minimally effective by telling us how to adjust our environment to be who we can become, while others will be generative and giving us self-determination with concrete techniques of mind and body to seize that potential independent of what may surround us.