Creating A Life Of Meaning & Wisdom – John Vervaeke (#294)| Modern Wisdom with Chris Williamson

Check out The Modern Wisdom Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • We are not just biological beings, we are also cultural beings
  • Give up the idea of seeking a final perfect state
    • For such a thing to exist, we would need to be in an absolute unchanging environment (not desirable or possible)
    • We can shift what’s meaningful to us from the ideal of perfection to an ongoing evolution
  • Becoming comfortable with our lack of wisdom
    • The task of a philosopher (lover of wisdom) is to turn this lack into receptivity to wisdom
  • “Know thyself” is about knowing your operating manual
    • How do I function?
    • How am I ignorant?
    • How am I self-deceptive?
    • You often need the help of others to answer these questions
  • There is no political solution to the meaning crisis, it must be cultural
  • Develop an ecology of practices to cultivate meaning
    • Each practice has strengths and weaknesses
      • You can combine them to complement each other
    • Mindfulness, Psychophysical practices, Dialogic practices, Serious Play
  • Personal growth can lead to losing some relationships
    • The quantity of relationship may decrease, but their quality improves
    • At the same time, you’ll gain virtuosity
      • To discern what new relationships to get into
      • To attract like-minded people

Intro

  • John Vervaeke (@vervaeke_john) is a Psychology and Cognitive Science Professor University of Toronto
  • Host: Chris Williamson (@Chriswillx)
  • In this chat, John discusses the Meaning Crisis, an ecology of practices to cultivate meaning, our different types of knowing, and a lot more

Why Do We Need Meaning in Our Lives?

  • It seems that our biological default setting is suboptimal for our flourishing
    • Why does it take work to find meaning, get into flow, and find happiness as humans?
    • If we are biological creatures why do we need meaning?
  • For years psychology avoided dealing with meaning
    • It used to just focus on stimulus and behavior
  • In the 1950s with the cognitive revolution, we started realizing the importance of meaning
    • Very different stimuli can cause similar behavior if they mean the same thing to us
      • Shell-fire noise, sight of flames, and smell of things burning all make us run away, even if they are totally different stimuli
  • We are not just biological beings, we are also cultural beings
  • We exist at multiple levels, and we continuously adapt to them
    • Biological evolution wired us to gorge on sugar and fat
    • But our culture made those foods too available so we have to adapt and seek longer-term goals
    • Our adaptivity is an unfinishable project

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Solution

  • “We always have to be perpetually hungry for insight and for the adaptive evolution of our cognitive fittedness to the environment” John Vervaeke
  • Give up the idea of seeking a final perfect state
    • For such a thing to exist, we would need to be in an absolute unchanging environment
    • That’s not something desirable
  • We can shift what’s meaningful to us from the ideal of perfection to an ongoing evolution
    • We constantly adjust depending on our changing needs and environment

Finding Balance, Accepting Lack of Wisdom and Awe

  • “If we are unduly absorbed in improving our lives we may forget altogether to live them” Alan Watts
  • Find the balance between wanting to improve and being compassionate and kind to ourselves
    • This implies being comfortable with our lack of wisdom
    • If someone says they’re wise that’s often evidence that they aren’t 
  • “We are never wise, we are always lovers of wisdom” John Vervaeke
    • Loving wisdom implies an awareness of a lacking
    • You are never going to grasp wisdom
    • The task of a philosopher (lover of wisdom) is to turn this lack into receptivity to wisdom
  • “Wisdom begins in wonder” Socrates
    • Curiosity is about filling gaps in your knowledge
    • Wonder is when you are willing to question yourself and your world
    • If you expand that further, you get awe
      • Awe allows us to overcome the prison of our ego
  • Being in love is hard and it hurts
    • If you are trapped in the ego, you’ll stop seeking it and end up in transactional relationships
    • If you can get a sense of awe, you’ll keep going and be able to transcend yourself 

What Does Knowing Yourself Mean?

  • If you want to get a grip on yourself, you need to get a grip on your lack of wisdom
  • “Know thyself” is not about your autobiography
    • We are all great at that
  • It is more about knowing your operating manual
    • How do I function?
    • How am I ignorant?
    • How am I self-deceptive?
  • You often need the help of others to answer these questions

Different Types of Knowing

  • Propositional knowing
    • Intellectual – knowing something to be true
  • Procedural knowing
    • Knowing how to do something (speak, throw a ball)
    • It is not about theory or beliefs, it’s about skills
  • Perspectival knowing
    • Knowing what it feels to be where you are and in your state of mind
    • It gives you the awareness to know which skills to apply or acquire
  • Participatory knowing 
    • The most ancient type of knowing
    • Knowing how to be in your environment
    • It gives you a sense of belonging and identity
  • We mistakenly assume the intellectual to be the only type of knowing
    • This leads to rigid ideologies and belief systems
    • We lost the sense of the “sacred”
    • Most of our meaning-making capability is in the other three types
  • John is working on ways to access more of our other types of knowing
    • Tai-Chi is a powerful way to connect more with them
      • You start with the skills
      • It shifts your sense of yourself and your agency in your environment

The Meaning Crisis and Stealing the Culture

  • There is strong evidence of a lot of suffering in society
    • Many people don’t have a sense of meaning
  • Especially among young people we see:
    • Increasing suicide rates
    • Rising anxiety and depressive disorders
    • An increased sense of loneliness
    • A desire to escape the world
  • There’s evidence that social media is contributing to these problems
    • There are incentives for bad actors (including algorithms) to make us feel insufficient and outraged
    • So that they can sell us their products or ideas
  • John doesn’t think there is a political solution to this crisis, it must be a cultural one
    • This would be a more difficult and intergenerational project
    • We already see evidence of an attempt to change
      • Increasing interest in mindfulness and stoicism practices
  • He talks about “Stealing the Culture”
    • Similar to what Christian communities did before and after the collapse of the Roman Empire
      • They created a new sense of Self and community
    • Even though the Empire collapsed, Christian culture survived and flourished
      • That also had its own problems (there’s no final solution)
  • John talks more in detail about this in his Youtube Series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

An Ecology of Practices to Cultivate Meaning

  • It’s important to cultivate an ecology of different practices
    • Each practice has strengths and weaknesses
    • You can combine them to complement each other
  • Enhance your mental processing
    • Mindfulness shuts down the inferential processing and boosts the insight processing
    • But you also need to cultivate active open-mindedness to improve your inferential processing
      • This helps you craft better arguments and avoid jumping to conclusions
  • Psychophysical practices (Tai-Chi Chuan or Yoga)
    • Improve your ability to get in a flow state, also in other domains of your life
  • Dialogic Practice
    • Not only about communicating, but also about connecting to others
    • You learn to transcend yourself is by internalizing other people’s viewpoints of our view
  • Serious play practices
    • Play is a critical developmental factor
      • Our society trivialized the importance of play
    • Tai-Chi is an example of this
    • Another example might be to get together and discuss a philosophical text
  • John’s Youtube channel has several videos discussing some of these practices in depth

What Creates Meaning in Life?

  • Purpose is only one of the contributors to a meaningful life, and not the most important
  • There are other things that give a sense of meaning in life
  • The sense of intelligibility
    • The world makes sense to you
  • The sense of mattering
    • Being connected to something larger than yourself and knowing that you matter to it
    • This is linked to reverence and awe

Growth and Relationships

  • There’s a fear of growing and improving ourselves
    • When you improve, you may put pressure on your relationships
    • Your growth may highlight their lack of growth
  • There’s a difference between friends and buddies
    • Buddies are people ou like to do things with
      • We should all have buddies
    • A friend is committed to you becoming wiser (and vice versa)
  • Personal growth can lead to losing relationships
    • The quantity of relationship may decrease, but their quality improves
  • At the same time, you’ll gain virtuosity
    • To discern what new relationships to get into
    • To attract like-minded people
      • Sometimes you can find communities, other times you have to create them
  • You might also befriend your body and mind, in a way that you hadn’t before

Relevance Realization

  • Our brain is constantly inundated by a huge amount of information
    • It intelligently ignores what’s deemed not relevant
  • We continuously move between focus and distraction
    • We get distracted because we have to re-assess our environment and identify what’s most relevant
    • Evolution works in a similar way
      • It expands with different genes variations, but it contracts when only a few survive
  • Our brain’s capacity to ignore information, is also what makes us biased
    • Sometimes we ignore things that we shouldn’t ignore
    • Relevance realization means being able to realize how we misframed a situation
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Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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