‘The infinite value of life itself’: 3 examples of spiritual exercise

“I did nothing today,” the man says.

“What?” Montaigne replies. “Did you not live? That is not only the most fundamental but the most illustrious of occupations.”

*

This week a number of conversation partners have spoken to me about spiritual exercises (ascesis), asking further about what they are and how to practice them. (The post I wrote this week on ascesis can be read here.) Pierre Hadot provides us with a nice formulation of ascesis, saying that “It is a matter of telling oneself a phrase to provoke an effect, whether in others or in oneself, thus under certain circumstances and with a certain goal” (The Present Alone, p. 135). The term, “a phrase,” should not be misunderstood to mean only a few words; it could very well be an argument or line of thought, provided that the argument or line of thought is aimed more at “forming” than at “informing” self and other. For the practitioner of ascesis–that is to say, for the philosopher–it is best to practice ascesis when surrounded, either in imagination or in reality, by philosophical friends.

Below, I briefly discuss three kinds of ascesis that occurred to me and that I practiced this past week.

Love the Ordinary

During the past couple weeks, I’ve listened to many conversation partners talk about being adventurous, having gone through experimental periods, yearning for change and excitement, and I thought, “I’ve never felt that, that desire for the extraordinary, that desire for flight and travel and the exotic. Why is that?” I think it’s because I’ve come to love the ordinary.

Hadot’s words about Socrates chimed with me. “The example of Socrates is interesting,” he says,

because it is not the doctrine that one attempts to actualize, because it is difficult to know what it might have been, beyond the enigmatic affirmation of non-knowledge. Rather, what one is attempting to actualize, what becomes a philosophical ideal, is his life and his death entirely devoted to others, devoted to making them understand themselves, to making them better. I would readily believe that it was Montaigne who best understood the essence of Socrates. Finally, I think that those whom I called existential thinkers [i.e., those who first and foremost seek to lead philosophical lives, not to discourse on theoretical matters] were right to recognize the exemplary philosopher in Socrates insofar as, by living a simple ordinary life, he transfigured it by the awareness he had of the infinite value of every instant of his ordinary life. (124)

The last line vibrates the body, begs for a second and third reading, longs to become a chant: “the awareness… of the infinite value of every instant of his ordinary life.”

I spend most days loving the transcendent turn to the ordinary and thus have no desire to be elsewhere or otherwise than how I am, where I am, who I am. To practice “love of the ordinary” is to feel this tranquility, this communion with the diversity of experience lying dormant in the everyday.

Love Unfolding

I have spoken to many conversation partners who are impatient, ready for change to be through, for their lives to finally be put in order. This is puzzling because we do not want our child to be through or a tree to be through. Rather, we love attending to their unfolding, with unfolding occurring in a certain direction.

“Love unfolding” was a formula that occurred to one conversation partner and me at the end of our conversation last night. The double entendre is especially apropos: to love that which unfolds and to conceive of love as the kind of activity that unfolds its essence. We love the myriad things coming to be what they are, and our love is precisely the kind of attentive openness that unfolds over time.

Here is a simple exercise. Attend to an ordinary tree every morning. Or attend to your growing hair. What changes? What unfolds? What colors, what hues, what astonishments? You can regard exercises like these as both good in themselves and as preparations for the more muscular exercise of loving how our lives always and ever unfold.

Love the Last Dawn

One of the great ruses in human life is the inductive fallacy: the fallacy that the present and future does (or must or will) resemble the past. The expectation creeps in most everywhere. If someone gets in touch with one at a certain pace, then the inference one makes is that this person will continue to do so. If someone pays a certain amount, then one can continue to “project forward” that same amount, can count on it.

This expectation belies the precarious nature of human life, banking on the assumption that we and those dear to us are not going to change or die or go away. When we “project forward” based on the past, what are we doing save forgetting the precarity of human life and hiding our faces from death?

The Stoics laughed at this, knowing that they may not wake up in the morning. Epictetus saw each day as a gift, saw that our lives were “on loan to us.” I cried this week in joy at the thought that I am already living on borrowed time; I knew my life was already full and complete.

The exercise, then, is not just to ‘intellectualize’ the experience of death but to awake with the ‘vitalist’ sense that the day is a blessing, a blessing because there seems no reason to believe that we might not have awoken to this day. The mood should be everywhere, not least in and through the body. The day might have been, someday will have been, without us. This exercise sweetens the day immeasurably.

*

Hadot says, “One finds in this passage from Montaigne [the one cited at the opening of this post] the recognition of the infinite value of life itself, of existence; this reverses all the habitual values and especially the pervasive idea that what counts above all is to do something, whereas for Montaigne what is most important is to be” (my italics).

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