The Art of Living Consciously (Simon & Schuster, 1997, 288 pages) was Nathaniel Branden's sixteenth book and, in many respects, remains his most valuable offering.
Though Branden favors the phrase "living consciously," with its lack of philosophical baggage, the book is clearly an inspired discussion of what it means to practice the virtue of rationality — a theme of great value and significance to admirers of Ayn Rand's philosophy.
Dr. Branden's earlier writings on the subject of living consciously, most notably the chapter by that title in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, were always from the perspective of its role in building self-esteem. Here, his analysis is considerably deeper and includes, for the first time since his writings from the sixties, many sojourns into metaphysics and epistemology.
Though written for the lay reader, the book's subject matter is to the field of psychology what epistemology is to the field of philosophy, addressing many of its most fundamental questions, such as the interplay among mental health, awareness, and reality.
Chapters One and Two present the "first principles" of living consciously and lay the groundwork for Branden's theory by exploring the nature of human consciousness and its proper relationship to reality. Much of this discussion will be familiar to students of Ayn Rand's writings, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a re-hash of old ideas. Branden's facility in explaining these subjects is inspirational; he has many insights into the subject matter, and it is often instructive to see how he introduces these ideas to the uninitiated.
Branden's discussion is centered around the requirements of developing an appropriate "sense of reality" — which has similarities to Rand's "primacy of existence" perspective. His analysis includes an explanation of the laws of identity, causality, and non-contradiction, and the role each plays in facilitating consciousness and mental health. From there, he analyzes the various meanings of consciousness, defines and explains the significance of the faculty of reason, and explains why there is no need for conflict between reason and emotion, properly understood.
It is unusual to discover such a lucid defense of reason in a book on personal development. "Reason (or rationality) is the faculty that grasps relationships," Branden writes. "It is the faculty that makes distinctions and connections, that abstracts and unites, that differentiates and integrates. Reason generates general principles from concrete facts (induction), applies general principles to concrete facts (deduction), and relates new knowledge and information to our existing context of knowledge. Its guide is the law of noncontradiction" (36).
Branden characterizes reason as the highest manifestation of the integrative function inherent in life itself. Reason is the principle of integration made conscious. "The quest of reason — this can hardly be stated often enough — is for the noncontradictory integration of experience" (38).
Branden finishes laying his theoretical groundwork by discussing the role and importance of free will, including the responsibility each of us bears for maintaining an appropriate level of focus. In such matters, he explains, context determines what mental state is necessary.
"Generally speaking, it is our actions, values and goals that determine what is the appropriate mind-state in any particular situation" (50). Of course, there may be many reasons for avoiding such mind-states — fear of responsibility, fear of failure, fear of the truth — and Branden shows us several of the relevant "avoidance strategies" we use from time to time to pull off such heists.
With this theoretical foundation in place, Branden spends the next four chapters elaborating upon what he means by living consciously. Its essence, he explains, is "knowing what we are doing while we are doing it" without losing the wider context. In several key areas — the realms of work, of relationships, of private experience — he invites us to ask of ourselves, "What would it mean to live more consciously in this context?"
One of Branden's key assumptions in the book is that the reality-orientation he advocates (and Rand advocates) is not inborn. It must be acquired through practice, and the way to do this is not always obvious, even when we accept the desirability of being more conscious.
One of the great assets of The Art of Living Consciously is that it walks us through many situations we each encounter in life, each time asking us, "How could we be more conscious in this area? What would it look like? How can we tell when we are doing it right?" We vicariously experience what it means to live more consciously, and we bring that awareness back to our own actions.
Many of the topics Branden addresses in his book — the importance of reason, the commitment to awareness, the problems with evading — have been discussed, at least abstractly, in earlier Objectivist literature. What makes this discussion unique, however, is Branden's developmental approach. His primary concern here is not defending the validity of his principles per se, but examining the experiences and habits, from childhood on, which affect one's ability to practice the principles. Through stories about himself and his clients, he engages us in a world where the practices leading to consciousness stand in stark relief against those which bury us in unconsciousness.
This developmental approach has some major advantages. The first is that it discourages rationalism. While Ayn Rand did a fine job of defining rationality and explaining its philosophic importance, she offered little insight about how to nurture a rational "psycho-epistemology" — in oneself or in others. As a consequence, there are many admirers of her writings who accept and advocate her ideas but have an impoverished understanding of how to implement them in their own life. Branden's discussion is an antidote for this condition.
The second advantage of the developmental approach is its accessibility to the uninitiated. Presented in this fashion, the theory is more readily understood by non-Objectivists, because it speaks to people's experience, as well as to their intellect.
These very characteristics may cause some adherents of Ayn Rand's philosophy to have a difficult time with the book. A friend once told me in regard to a Branden book, "I really didn't "get it" until about half way through, when I stopped reading it like an essay or a novel and started reading it as a life-manual."
Like his other books, The Art of Living Consciously contains a strong element of material designed to bring the reader nearer to the type of experience Branden is advocating. Through stories, suggested exercises, and discussions, he invites us not just to understand his position, but to enter a state of mind where his principles make a difference in our own life. He does not just describe the good life, he invites us to discover it ourselves.
Like many manuals, the impatient will be tempted to skip ahead to the parts they find most immediately relevant. But as Branden says in his afterword, "This book contains doors that sometimes open only at the second or third touch of the handle."
Branden's discussion in the first six chapters suggests a certain view of the self, a sort of spirituality of reason. In the seventh, last, chapter he takes up the subject explicitly by raising the questions, "What is the relationship, if any, between living consciously and pursuing a spiritual path? If there is a connection between living consciously and spirituality, where and how does a belief in God fit into the picture — or does it? What is the relation, if any, between living consciously, spirituality, and the teachings of mysticism?" (178).
To avoid the shifting sands that take place in many discussions of spirituality, he begins by addressing the significance of definitions in this context and offers his own definition of spirituality: "pertaining to consciousness and to the needs and development of consciousness." He explains, "Whoever continually strives to achieve a clearer and clearer vision of reality and his or her place in it — whoever is pulled forward by a passion for clarity — is, to that extent, leading a spiritual life" (180-1).
Seen from this perspective, it is clear that simply attending church every Sunday, accepting uncritically one's parents" values, renouncing the self in favor of some higher authority — the trappings of conventional "spirituality" — may actually subvert spiritual growth. This is an important message for Objectivists as well as non-Objectivists, as the former may come to neglect their own spirituality, consciously or not, in the process of trying to be more rational.
All people, Objectivists emphatically included, need a sense of pursuing an important spiritual path, of continually striving for their own development. To renounce this in the process of becoming "a good Objectivist" is to miss an important component of leading the enlightened life.
Obviously, this conception of spirituality does not require, as many people would otherwise assume, a belief in God. Nor does it entail any belief in mysticism, although, Branden notes, it may well entail some of the practices traditionally associated with mystics, such as meditation — which, he observes, many Westerners are pursuing as a path to "self-understanding, enhanced creativity, a deeper appreciation of what is important in life, a clearer grasp of one's own mental processes, a more profound perception of reality, and the experience of greater serenity" (184).
Granting the strong traditional association between spirituality and mysticism, Branden then strongly distinguishes his view of spirituality from that of mysticism — which he defines as "the claim that there are aspects of existence that can be known by means of a unique cognitive faculty whose judgments are above the authority of sensory observation or reason" (200).
After refuting several beliefs advanced today by Eastern mystics, including the ideal of self-transcendence and an argument similar to David Hume's famous argument that self is an illusion, Branden concludes his discussion of the spirituality of reason by examining what happens when we apply the principle of living consciously to the realm of personal values. "What is this book," he asks, "but an attempt to demonstrate that living consciously — clearly a moral as well as psychological ideal — is to one's selfish interest?" (213).
Readers of Ayn Rand's novels and essays learn that there is no greater good than practicing rationality, the virtue lying at the heart of her philosophy. "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism," she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, "but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."
A great deal of territory remains to be covered, however, between recognizing the supremacy of reason and applying it consistently to one's life. It requires more than attending rational lectures, socializing with other admirers of Ayn Rand, and promoting Objectivist ideas — however important these may be. Often it requires reflection, persistence, and a delicate sense of honesty.
In providing his readers with both the insight and the inspiration to do the job, Dr. Branden has provided us with an invaluable tool for applying philosophy to life — and then reaping the rewards.
This book is available from Amazon.com.
Joshua Zader has a master's degree in psychology from the University of New Mexico and is CEO of Atlas Web Development. He is also owner and founder of the Atlasphere.
1 comment from readers
I'm not saying you shouldn't use a spiritual fantasy of the self if it satisfies your need for abstraction but words still have meaning, last time I checked. And no, this concept does not blur the lines between theism and atheism one bit. The only thing blurring the lines is a flawed grasp of the English language.