On Christmas day 2017 the New York Times printed a frontpage article with the intriguing title Waking up to the Gift of Aliveness. The author of this article is Harvard Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly. He tells us how, in going over some old lecture notes, he came upon this quote:
“The goal of life is not happiness, peace or fulfillment. It is aliveness.”
Professor Kelly attributes this concept of aliveness to the 17th century philosopher Blase’ Pascal. According to Professor Kelly, aliveness is difficult to define. It is easier, he says, to describe its opposite, which is lifelessness.
Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it is like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while, the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually you are withering away. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive. (New York Times, December 25, 2017)
How do we bring more aliveness into our life? Professor Kelly, citing Pascal, tells us there are two natural but equally flawed approaches to overcoming this feeling of lifelessness.
The first approach might be called spontaneity. Spontaneity is the constant search for new and different experiences in the outer world around us.
The second approach might be called rationality. It is the attempt to use our mind to find meaning and purpose in the ordinary events of our life.
Both of these responses Prof. Kelly regards as “flawed”.
Spontaneity: Trying to find aliveness in the outer world around us
This first approach concludes that our life is empty and it needs more juice. Rather than dealing directly with these feelings of emptiness, we run away from them. We turn to the outer world to stay busy and active. We cut ourselves off from our inner life and stay on the go. Our hope is that by staying active on the outside, we will not notice the emptiness on the inside.
What is missing in spontaneity is the understanding that important experiences in the outer world need to be followed by reflection in the inner world. Without this, we do not learn from our experiences. If we do not gain any depth of insight, we cannot sustain a sense of aliveness. Spontaneity in the outer life needs to be balanced by a full and rich inner life.
Rationality: using our mind to find meaning and purpose in our life.
Pascal’s second approach for finding aliveness is to look for meaning and purpose behind the everyday routines of our life.
This involves exploring the world of ideas. But “meaning” and “purpose” are only concepts. They are abstractions. They have no substance in and of themselves. There is no meaning or purpose unless we ourselves project it out onto the outer world.
Both approaches that Pascal describes—spontaneity and rationality—fail to achieve aliveness. In his article, Professor Kelly admits that he himself does not how we can live a life of sustained aliveness. He concludes: “A complete definition of (aliveness) is no doubt beyond our grasp.”
Perhaps. But Professor Kelly is falling victim to our own cultural limitations. He cites the two realms that our culture endorses: (experience in the outer world and the world of ideas) but he fails to explore the possibilities in the inner world.
This reflects our culture’s avoidance of the inner experience.
If we do not embrace all aspects of life, then we cannot experience all that life has to offer. How can we be fully alive if we are not fully whole. Aliveness comes from wholeness.
The human condition today is incomplete. We are not whole. We are lacking something vital, something that we need to experience the completeness of life. What we lack—that is, most of us—is the experience of the deep inner world.
We have been taught that reality is the outer world around us. It is here that life must be lived. In addition, we have a mind, so we can also inhabit the world of ideas and concepts. These are our two options.
But there is also a third dimension to life. This dimension is unique and requires a different mode of consciousness for us to explore its depths.
No one taught us about the heart and how it functions parallel to the brain. Just as the brain is needed for us to engage the outer world and the world of ideas, the heart is needed to engage the inner world of feeling.
We know about the outer world. Now it is time for us to engage our inner world. When we experience it all, the inner and the outer, the imminent and the transcendent, we feel wholeness. Wholeness brings with it a sense of completion.
And it also brings us the fullness of being alive.