Remember what peace feels like? Give yourself a minute. Take your time. Remember what love feels like? Remember what beauty feels like? Remember what goodness feels like? Remember what truth feels like? Remember what consciousness feels like? Remember what bliss feels like?
I’m sure you’ve experienced these things at least once, if not countless times. Just a little intention and a little imagination and it’s amazing how quickly and easily we can re-connect with the essential qualities of peace or love, beauty or goodness, truth, consciousness or bliss. And the more we do it, the more primed we are to do it again. We become habituated.
Virtue Ethics is all about habituation, about cultivating good habits. You can do this by behaving in accordance with a particular virtue, like acting courageously for example. Then, next time you are confronted with a difficult or dangerous situation, you will be more likely to rise to the challenge. But you can also do it by imagining acting bravely, or by imagining that you are actually a great warrior.
Remember what it feels like to be a warrior? Remember what it feels like to be a monk? Remember what it feels like to be a philosopher? Remember what it feels like to be a king or queen? Or a mystic or a shaman? (Those might take a bit more remembering or a bit more practice.)
Then, who knows, you might forget all those bad habits associated with feeling like a victim, all that wallowing in misery, feeling depressed, anxious, grief-stricken, helpless and weak. You might forget all your addictive behaviours, your cravings after food, drink, sex, entertainment. You might forget all your silly ideas and muddled thinking, your small-mindedness, your vanity and cruelty.
Neuroscience has repeatedly and conclusively shown us the extraordinary plasticity of the brain. On a purely mechanistic level, the fact that “neurons that fire together wire together” means that neural pathways can be re-formed and re-directed. You can train your brain if you just set your mind to it.
In Positive Psychology they don’t talk about virtues and vices because of their religious overtones. Instead they talk about “character strengths” and “character weaknesses”. Whatever the terminology we use, an explicit appreciation of the moral core of psychological well-being and flourishing is well overdue in the therapeutic field as well as in the culture at large.
It is not enough to transform “hysterical misery” into “common unhappiness” as Freud advised. It is not even enough to feel “common happiness” in a purely self-interested sense. True lasting happiness doesn’t come from a shrink. It isn’t about fixing your broken mind or overcoming neurosis. It isn’t ultimately just about you. True happiness comes from a deep sense of purpose and meaning, which is inevitably bound up with morality. And morality, if it is real and alive, is always moving, always developing and growing. True happiness is not a state. It’s a process.
If you develop your character, so that your character strengths begin to outweigh your character weaknesses, and if you can see that you are moving in the right direction, that you are making progress, then you will automatically get a sense of purpose in life. You will become increasingly motivated to be the best person you can be, so that you can do the most good in the world. Funnily enough, the further along this path you travel, the more authentic you feel, the more yourself you feel. It’s almost as though you are slowly remembering who you really are. It’s almost as though you are slowly waking up.
Remember when you were spiritually enlightened? Remember God? Just keep remembering.