Integral philosophy from a contemplative perspective.



The Consolation of Philosophy

Philosophy as a Path

Hi Folks,

I was thinking about all of you and how I might reach out. I know this is a time of fear and worry for so many of us. Then I remembered that an ancient Roman named Boethius wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his execution.

Then it occurred to me that some of you might find helpful to read why philosophy helps me cope with something as serious as this virus. It has to do with the power of Wisdom to serve as a reminder — there is far more going on than I can take in through the small world of my limited understanding.

Many great spiritual philosophers from the Buddha to Plato state that our ordinary view of the world is illusory and that we live in “a cave of shadows.” This means we don’t see things as they really are. I have always found this really helpful — to remember that I do not have the whole picture. That is my starting point.

Most people don’t think of philosophy as a spiritual path, but for me it is. By path I mean it uses suffering and fear as a means of seeking wisdom. It is the path of self-knowledge in the ancient meaning of that term. This is not knowledge about myself – an accumulation of data, but experiential awareness and contact with the deeper — or True Self — of one’s own deepest sense of “presence.” Contact with this Self is often the only real relief from fear and worry that I experience.

The questioning of who I really am can lead me past all the usual “answers” until nothing remains but silent awareness, the emptiness of full presence. In this space one can “know” things that are otherwise unknowable. I can’t talk or write about these things except indirectly because they go beyond language. But that does not mean this reality is not real or experienceable.

To know that when the pain of this world is almost too much to bear, I am reminded that this world is not ever going to give me the joy and peace I am looking for anyway. In some amazing sense then suffering becomes “a dark gift” because it can force me to look within for that which cannot be found without.


When I am in touch with my deeper self, the fear vanishes and only love remains. My path is to trust this love.


This, for me, is the consolation of philosophy.


Hello Fellow Philosophers!

Another student recently asked me about death, this time about how philosophy can be a comfort when coping with grief and loss.

This is not an easy question, but none of the great questions are. There is not even a single “answer.” Religion can offer comfort because it gives us answers. “Where did Grandma go? She went to heaven, and some day you will see her again.” This is very comforting. But philosophy does not offer such surety.

But philosophy as I was taught, does ask that we “stay in the question.” To do this is not easy, nor, I think, is it supposed to be easy. This is because it requires a special kind of effort, a different kind of attention, to stay in between the consolation of religion and the opposite, what we might consider the consolation of nihilism — that nothing happens.

So, the first way philosophy is a comfort, for me at least, is that it insists on my seeing very clearly that I don’t know what happens when death comes. I experience sorrow, but what causes suffering, rather than pain, is the story I tell myself about that pain. The Buddha taught: "Pain is certain, suffering is optional." Pema Chodron teaches, “feel the feelings, and drop the story.”

The pain of loss is our experience. With time, it eventually heals, or at the least turns down the intensity of sorrow. The suffering, however, is optional. Most of the suffering, in my experience, comes from the story that “this should not have happened.” For example, this person should not have died.

But notice how this assumes I know and understand what should and should not be happening. There is also a sense that death is wrong and bad. Thoughts like these cause the suffering rather than the pain.

If I stay in the question, I realize that for all I know, perhaps death is a good thing. When I think it is bad, I am making an assumption. For all I know, it may be a a “graduation” of sorts or at least a freedom from the pain of human existence.

Another perspective I have found helpful is what you might call the cosmological perspective. This means I make an effort to see death in the light of the size and the time of the cosmos. Then the question becomes “what is life?” The longest life is but a mere flicker of light, gone before it is even registered.

Another “comfort” is the reminder that loss brings the wish to cherish every moment and each person. Sooner or later, we must all face the great unknown.

This can encourage us to measure our lives by a different standard. As the great poet Maya Angelou says: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

For me, thoughts like these are the consolation that philosophy offers to me when I experience the pain of grief and loss.



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Hello Fellow Philosophers!

One of my students recently asked me about death and how philosophers view death. There are many different answers and I will restrict myself to sharing my own thoughts about death.

I was taught to think about my death every day. While this can come across as morbid, it’s actually a way to enhance your life. To remember you are going to die, you are more likely to waste less time. You are more likely to see the importance of forgiveness and love. You are more likely to behave in ways that increase your vitality and presence rather than in living life on auto-pilot.

As a philosopher, I’m agnostic about what happens after we die. I do not think it is bad. I have two thoughts about it, and I am not sure which one appeals to me more. One thought is that a baby about to be born must on some level feel it is being squeezed to death. To the extent it can think, I imagine a baby saying “Well, this is it. My life is over.”

However, the baby comes out of the womb to find an entirely new world awaiting it. While we can’t remember this experience, I think death might be similar. It seems we are losing everything, only to discover a far greater world than we can now imagine.

My other thought is that my individual ego is like a drop of water. My True Self is all water. But my ordinary experience is that I am a drop of water, separated and alone from the other drops around me. One drop may be rich and one poor. One may be beautiful and one not so much.

But it is not important because the drop of water has a short existence as a drop before it returns to the sea. When that happens, it loses it sense of being alone and isolated and returns to its true source — water itself and not just a drop.

Question everything! My thoughts are not to be believed, but a simple offering of what I think today.

William Shakespeare wrote: “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” I take comfort in this idea that while the future is unknown, it may be very exciting. Growth in wisdom and compassion — love — in this life points toward a continuation of unlimited growth.

It is interesting to me that a student asked me to write this, because I am in the process of having a friend of mine create a skull ring for me. This will serve as a reminder that each day is precious and that I can’t count on any future days, even as I hope I still have many to come.

Boethius wrote: “Contemplate the extent and stability of the heavens, and then at last cease to admire worthless things.” When you think of the countless generations before us, let alone the life of the cosmos, you see that our lives, even long ones, are very short, like the blink of an eye. This can help us remember what is most important and not worry so much about what is quickly passing.



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Hello Fellow Philosophers!

I have been thinking a lot lately on why I am afraid to embrace vulnerability, to even welcome it as a useful tool for change and growth. And yet, all too often, I find myself trying to stabilize my life as if I have some sort of control over what happens to me. But this “control” is an illusion.

We don’t even know what will happen in a day. In fact, it can be an interesting experiment to take a minute of two in the morning and imagine how you think the day will go. For example, I did this one morning years ago. The first part of my day was pretty accurate. I went to school and taught my classes.

As I was leaving school, I noticed I had a flat tire. While I was at my mechanic’s shop, I received a message from a friend that he had two free Rolling Stones tickets if I wanted them. So, we went to see the Rolling Stones that night. Later, I remembered how I imagined my day would go and saw how wrong I was. This happens all of the time, actually, if we learn to pay attention to how little we actually know.

Sometimes I feel as if I am being lived rather than being in charge of my own life. For example, I think about picking up some ice cream before I go home. However, I am also trying to lose weight and don’t want all of those calories. So, part of me says “live for the day.” Another part of me says “I don’t want to have a heart attack.”

As a result, I sometimes remember to watch “it” make a decision. With curiosity, I say let’s see what it will do. Without much consciousness I find that I either pull over and buy the ice cream or I pass the turn off and find myself home, having completely forgot about the ice cream. The big philosophical question is to ask oneself, who is this “it” that decides so much of my life for me?

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that we should “live dangerously.” What does that mean? I don’t take this too literally. And while I don’t know exactly what he meant, I do think it means to live with radical openness and not say no to life and what it brings me. Is it just blind chance that is driving my life? Or is this “It” the unknown deeper self that I rarely remember making the choices?

To live dangerously can mean simply living outside of the box. It may very well be the means to living “an examined life.” It is “dangerous” in that I don’t know what will happen on any given day. I might even die today! To embrace my unknowing is one way to live dangerously. To be open and willing to learn — that to me is the essence of living dangerously.

To Danger Then!


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About Apophat

So good to have you here.

I have been studying philosophy and religion my whole adult life. Intellectually, my home is in the world of Integral Philosophy. I attended graduate school at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, earning my Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religion. 

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