Can Plato--or any other kind of philosophy--really save a person's life, as the title of my blog and book suggests? Sure, embracing a certain philosophical lens might help a person to better understand their world and their sense of purpose within that world, but can deep philosophical thinking actually save a person's life like some red shorts-wearing David Hasselhoff circa Baywatch used to do for some riptide-challenged swimmer? My short answer? Yes. How can I be so sure, you might ask? Because Greek philosophy saved my life.
But before I get to the lifesaving aspects of living a more reflective and contemplative way of life, let's take a look at the life-enhancing aspects of deep thinking. University of Arizona researcher and psychologist Matthias Mehl conducted a recent study published in the Journal of Psychological Science that showed that people who engaged in deep discussions were happier than their small-talk obsessed counterparts. It seems that the art of small talk--chatting about the weather, discussing the travails of the Mets, analyzing the latest American Idol vote--all might be very interesting on a certain level and, indeed, quite useful at cocktail parties. But they aren't getting anyone to that promised land of personal happiness; apparently wading in the shallow end of the pool just doesn't seem to cut it.
For some, this seems counterintuitive. According to Mehl, "We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way--it could have been, 'Don't worry, be happy'--as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you're happy, and if you go into the existential depths you'll be unhappy." But Dr. Mehl suggests that deep, substantive conversations hold the key to happiness for two primary reasons: because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we're social animals who want and need to connect with other people.
OK, so happiness is good...definitely life-enhancing, but can immersing oneself into philosophy be life-saving?
To answer that question, allow me to share a little tale: Once upon a time there was very thoughtful young boy who had a very inquisitive nature and thus loved to explore. He soon became enthralled by the strange new worlds that he discovered in the pages of Asimov, Bradbury, and Huxley and yet felt confined and restless in what he felt was his drab existence in a working-class community as the son of immigrants. Later, as a confused teenager away at college, he began to experiment with substances that could expand his consciousness and open up doors of experience that he had never felt before.
After graduation and still existentially drifting, he tripped into what was the initially exciting world of New York nightclubs where he felt a sense of escape in the music and seductive glamour of that life. As our young protagonist rose in the ranks of that superficial world--eventually opening and operating several very high-profile and much-publicized nightspots frequented by famous movie stars and celebrities--his drug use escalated as his personal life crashed and burned. In the end, he would lose everything: his businesses, his family, his health, his sanity, and his life.
He found himself comatose and on life-support as the result of an overdose; as he regained consciousness, he asked himself, "My god, what's happened to me?" He realized that he had gone from the bright lights of the dance floor to the harsh lights of the intensive care unit where he laid with tubes and catheters shoved into every orifice of his body. Glamorous it was not.
In case you haven't already guessed, I was that existentially lost young boy who had stumbled into that glamorous-yet-addictive world. After my post-coma resurrection, I was desperate to better understand the universe and my purpose within it; I guess that a near-death experience will do that to a person. I would go on to embark on an amazing and transformative journey as I discovered--almost by chance--the way of ancient Greek metaphysical philosophy.
And it saved my life.
Immersing myself into the transformative wisdom of the ancient Greeks gave my life texture, meaning, and a sense of purpose. The Greeks were all about understanding--and experiencing--the true nature of reality, beyond what was just accessible to our five senses. I would also discover that the lived practice of ancient metaphysical philosophy was not just some sort of dry and academic way of thinking but, indeed, a way of life that had been originated by Pythagoras (with a little help from his friends, the Egyptians and Babylonians).
In what came to be known as the Bios Pythagorikos (the Pythagorean way of life) a healthy mind, body, and spirit were nurtured with rigorous physical exercise, a strict diet, daily meditational walks, lessons on ethics and character, as well as deep contemplative meditations on math, music, cosmology, and philosophy.
By embracing this way of life, I would get clean and sober and go back to graduate school where I would earn a masters degree in social work and eventually a Ph.D. in psychology; today I'm a clinical professor at Stony Brook University, an adjunct professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and a psychotherapist in private practice--a far cry from the addicted nightclub owner who had almost killed himself by drug use.
For my doctoral dissertation I developed a self-growth method informed by Greek philosophy that I presented at the 2007 APA conference in San Francisco. My study showed--with statistically significant results--that participants who undertook my six week Greek philosophy-inspired contemplative method experienced an enhanced sense of purpose, felt more connected, experienced an increased sense of concern for others, felt an increased sense of spirituality and a greater concern with social and planetary values.
My writing is informed by that study and gives readers step-by-step methods that they can use to live a more engaged and meaningful life; future posts will also explore some of those techniques, themes and concepts. What will you discover? Perhaps, as the Greeks had discovered, that there's more to the world than meets the eye; if you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse "behind the veil."
And if that happens, then not only will the way that you experience the world change forever, but the way that you exist within that world will change as well. Because with that shift in perception comes a shift in being. And then--presto!--alchemical transformation can manifest as a living, breathing, personal reality.
What you might also experience (as I did), as a fortuitous byproduct of this transformation and newfound expanded perception, is a much happier and much more meaningful life.
And you know, that may not be such a bad thing.