Is All Action A Shadow Of Contemplation, At Best A Longing For Contemplation?

In which I discuss Plotinus’s critiques of our entrepreneurial age

And indeed men, whenever they become too feeble to contemplate, undertake action as a shadow of contemplation and reason. For since the weakness of their souls does not make contemplating fit for them, not being able sufficiently to grasp the object of contemplation, and through this not being fulfilled, yet desiring to see it, they are brought to action, so as to see what they cannot grasp with intellect. Thus whenever they make, they themselves want to see it and they want others to contemplate and perceive whenever their intention as far as possible becomes action. We will find then in all cases that making and action are a weakness or a side-effect of contemplation, a weakness if one has nothing after the action, a side-effect if one has something else that is superior to the action to contemplate it.

— Plotinus, Ennead IV.31–43

Action, thus, is set towards contemplation and an object of contemplation, so that even those whose life is in doing have seeing as their object; what they have not been able to achieve by the direct path, they hope to come at by the circuit.

— Plotinus, Ennead III.8

Image for post
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico (2013). Credit: Alexandra Taggart

A Grand Illusion

Entrepreneurs, Plotinus would have urged, are living under a grand illusion: they think that work, broadly or narrowly construed, comes before contemplation and, as a result, they’ve built their lives on a shaky foundation. Because of this, their lives will be laced with suffering except when, for brief moments, such suffering abates.

Could it be that all action is but a “shadow of contemplation”? Could it be that all action circuitously, as Plotinus rightly suggests, longs for the object of contemplation? If this is so, I argue, it would be wise for us to go directly to contemplation itself. In time, we may see that right action flows from right contemplation. But not in this piece and not today.

If you entrepreneurs and technologists out there really want what you say you want and therefore if you really want a genuine life hack, then here it is. It is the life hack to end all other life hacks — a metaphysical life hack. Henceforth you can set down all your tools — or rather be in right relation with them from here on out — and go back to the source from which all action (and all talk of action) arises.

My Axiom

All human beings, one way or another, are searching for abiding happiness. Not for happiness that is dependent on circumstance, on events going my way, or on desires fulfilled (what Shinzen Young, in The Science of Enlightenment, calls “contingent happiness”). I mean that such happiness is unconditional and therefore is unshakeable in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

My Conclusion Upfront

Abiding peace and happiness cannot be found in actions alone. [1]

Three Teloi

Standard translations of the Greek term telos aren’t very helpful here. A telos isn’t quite a “purpose” or a “goal.” That is, a telos is not something that’s other than the activity itself; it is the energetic function of the activity — its “juice,” you might say. In this sense, it’s “that for the sake of which” something is. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a relationship may be to love. The telos of life may be eudaimonia (human flourishing); for Buddhists, it is nirvana; for Christian mystics, it is none other than unio mystica.

Which brings me to the philosophical conversations I have. Conversation partners I speak with, those predominantly in tech and entrepreneurship, often argue in the following manner:

  1. Of the Objective Domain. — When I ask them why they throw themselves into projects over and over again, ultimately they’ll say that they’re seeking success (however the latter is defined). See Tim Ferriss, Tools for Titans, a very unphilosophical book — unphilosophical in many senses, one of those being that it fails to examine that for the sake of which things are. One example: Ferriss writes, “Success, however you define it, is achievable if you collect the right field-tested beliefs and habits” (my emphasis).
  2. Of the Subjective Domain. — When I ask them why they pursue self-improvement, they will say that it’s for the sake of endless self-growth. This is like economic growth: it is for the sake of growth, which is for the sake of more growth…. That is, it is ultimately without a telos and therefore cannot answer the question of “what for?” in any robust, definitive way.
  3. Of the Theoretical Domain. — When I ask them why they read certain books such as Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True, or Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, they will say that it’s for the sake of the acquisition of theoretical knowledge. Others will speak of status, anxiety, or the objective or subjective answers given in 1. and 2. above.

Hence, roughly: the telos of success, the non-telos of endless self-growth, and the telos of theoretical knowledge — which, in truth, may be a means for more self-growth or for further success. That is, these, in the end, may not pass the test of actually being teloi.

The Longing for Happiness

Can we come to a right understanding of the relationship between contemplation and action? I think so.

(1) Each action presupposes that one is not what one wants. What’s more, (2) each action requires (here Plotinus again) a vision or idea of the good. Therefore, (3) I am not what it is that I want—therefore the presumption throughout any action of the duality of subject and object.

In brief, provided that I don’t start earnestly from contemplation, I only ever act out of lack. Therefore, from this point of view, I’m under the illusions that I must do more, be more, and/or have more.

Properly understood, each action is a longing not for the object but for that which the object actually promises: the dissolution of my dis-ease (dukkha) and consequently a sense of momentarily fulfillment. In that relaxation is experienced non-egoic peace. This is why people talk of “jumping the last hurdle,” of “crossing the last bridge,” of “turning the page,” of “getting their break,” of “achieving scale,” and so on. All delusions of the Promised Land after which things will be fundamentally different than, and better than, they are now. They want abiding happiness while mistaking how such is possible.

Yet action can only arise due to contemplation (i.e., some vision of the good), and fulfillment, here, is itself contemplation! Momentarily, that is, the object I long sought and I myself dissolve in one another. (If you need to see this argument more vividly, then think of the moment, albeit quiet transient for most people, of orgasm.) Plotinus again:

[S]uppose they [namely, human agents] succeed; they desired a certain thing to come about, not in order to be unaware of it but to know it, to see it present before the mind: their success is the laying up of a vision. We act for the sake of some good; this means not for something to remain outside ourselves, not in order that we possess nothing but that we may hold the good of the action. And hold it, where? Where but in the mind?

Thus once more, action is brought back to contemplation….. (Ennead III.8) [my bolded text — AT]

We act so that we may hold that which we seek to be “in the mind.” What Alex Honnold sought when he free soloed El Cap was not accomplishment per se but what he reported. “That was delightful,” he said, and I believe he was pointing, in his own modest way, to genuine joy. And yet, the illusion he participates in involves his believing that climbing was a necessary means to bring about that end — namely, joy.

Set aside the chase. See, with the eyes of contemplation, whether peace is actually our very being.

Unfulfillment

But then two things happen to Honnold the following day or indeed well before then.

First, the sense of peace or delight ends. Second, he makes the same mistake again: he believes that it was the activity or the object itself, rather than the momentary dissolution of the sense of separation between the subject and the object, the doer and the deed, that brought about his peace or fulfillment; in reality, the object was nothing but an occasion, an impetus, or a prop. [2]

So long as one continues to believe that it is the contingent aim — a project completed, a HeadSpace challenge checked off (oh, wow: spiritual materialism!), another book polished off — that does or could provide the happiness the doer ultimately seeks, the doer shall continue to be subject to dis-ease. Call this samsara.

In sum, it is not possible for agental action to provide the lasting happiness we ultimately seek. Therefore, this path, as a path, is a non-starter, an endgame. QED.

Direct Path

So much for the indirect path. If, that is, action is but an indirect path to contemplation and if action forgets itself in the act and therefore repeats itself in a cycle of samsara, then why not question the modern metaphysical priority of action over contemplation? Why not ask whether action’s true home is contemplation?

Let’s be “radically honest” with one another, shall we? If you say that you’re big on starting your investigation from First Principles (the latter, by the way, being a reference not to Elon Musk but to Aristotle), then why not question whether this approach — namely, an unexamined commitment to the ontological priority of activities and objects of all kinds — can ever supply the Good? Why not question whether any startup can actually supply the Good?

If, after an honest investigation, it turns out that it cannot, then consider the following possibility: just start right off with contemplation! Plotinus once more, here describing the contemplative assent:

In the advancing stages of Contemplation rising from that in Nature [the sense world and thus the third emanation from the World Soul — AT], to that in the Soul [or World Soul, which is one ‘higher’ than Nature— AT] and thence again to that in the Intellectual-Principle itself [Nous , which is one ‘higher’ than the World Soul— AT]— the object contemplated becomes progressively a more and more intimate possession of the Contemplating Beings, more and more one thing with them; and in the advanced Soul [of the contemplator — AT] the objects of knowledge, well on the way towards the Intellectual-Principle, are close to identity with their container. (Ennead III.8)

As the soul ascends to the One or Source, which is reality divested of Nous, it is thereby divested of all its limitations. This is Infinity and Eternity.

The Upanishads put this idea very well: set aside all actions, relationships, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions because all these, suggest the contemporary Advaita Vedanta teachers Francis Lucille and Rupert Spira, could be called “objects” (very broadly understood). Instead, turn your attention backward or inward and go directly to the Source. The Upanishads suggest that this involves (a) quieting the senses as well as (b) quieting or stilling the mind so that the ascent to Brahman, or the One in Plotinus, becomes possible. [3]

In brief, the Direct Path is an inward path. Once we step foot on this path, we can right now stop deluding ourselves into thinking that any object or activity could possibly provide us with lasting happiness — most notably, a fulfillment of some action; more narrowly still, some modicum of satisfaction following from the completion of a piece of work. To put it in brass knuckles terms: Total Work is a culture-wide life-lie, as the playwright Henrik Ibsen might have put it.

Instead, we can simply ask, “Who, ultimately, am I? What is the One or Source of all of this? What, really, is beneath all that I perceive and conceive of?” Such questions of the kind that the Indian teacher Ramana Maharshi invites us to ask time and again can take us Home. Or, rather, can bring us out of our exile from Home.

Genuine Knowing

For, in truth, what we seek is not what we think; what we seek is not what is other than ourselves; what we wish to know, and to be in and as this knowing, is Our Self. In and as the Self, one is completely peaceful, free, open, and loving.

This is what every genuine sage knows. Because this is what every genuine sage is.

Endnotes

[1] True, the Bhagavad Gita does speak of karma yoga as a legitimate path of selfless action. However, this path is the path toward the Self. You might say that all selfless action comes out of the Self, is an expression of the Self, and returns to the Self.

[2] I’m not suggesting that one cease climbing. I love climbing and have done so for about 20 years now. I’m saying: properly understood, climbing is an expression of innate joy and not a means by which some end called “joy” is possessed. Calligraphy, similarly, is an expression of the the Way in form.

[3] Actually, there is no ascent. It is just the increasing divestment of limitations. Here stands the One — unlimited and unconditioned.

Written by

Practical Philosopher, Ph.D. | Rinzai Zen Buddhist (https://andrewjtaggart.com) | Examining What Technologists Are Taking For Granted

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store