The "Technologies of the Self" I Wanted to Read

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Some Context

Living is seeing, and I do my best to look as widely and incisively as possible. But as a creature, an animal, I often look for sweets, or status. And as a self-aware animal, I am also startled by my own existence, by my incessant searching after sugars and dopamine despite the enormity of what remains unknown, life’s imperceptible dark matter sprawled out before me, and its domain of latent possibilities. So I look for ideas, too; the kind that might enrich my view of what’s going on here. 

One thing I’ve learned is that humans do not carry the gift of pure sight. The trope goes that I don’t see things as they are, but as I am. And so the instrument of looking, the mechanics and nuances of my perception, and of myself, are as active an ingredient in what of life I observe as the things perceived. 

Looking at different things, swiveling my sight from this object to that, from a walk in the park to a study of quantum entanglement, reveals new objects, while cultivating diverse modes of perception reveals old objects in new lights. William Blakes’ transcendental, immortalized line is about a common grain of sand. A thorough study of existence, to the degree that we can study such a fog, utilizes both of these observational pivot points: seeing a variety of things, and seeing things in a variety of ways. 

Developing various ‘ways of seeing’ is the central metaphor in Rob Burbea’s latest meditation book, Seeing that Frees. But meditation is just one branch of a larger tree, one that the omnivorous French thinker Michel Foucault called Technologies of the Self. 

The phrase is both tantalizing and vague, remarkable in its unstated practicality. It suggests a spectrum of technologies, or practical applications of knowledge, taking one’s own consciousness — the prism through which sight refracts — as their subject. 

Technologies imply practices, concrete things to be done, providing refreshing contrast to much of the literature on consciousness. Practices are ideas lived in the flesh. Our lives are comprised by constellations of practices, networked systems that serve as the locomotive force that propels our own becoming.

Foucault began a book shortly before his death, titled Technologies of the Self, defined by the anonymous Wikipedia authors: 

 
Foucault defined technologies of the self as techniques that allow individuals to effect by their own means a certain number of operations on their own bodies, minds, souls, and lifestyle, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, and quality of life.
 

So many manuals on how to live refrain — perhaps wisely — from any definite instruction on how, practically, to live. How should we fill the hours? This absence of direct instruction on how to live in our daily realities leaves space for the self-help marketplace to flourish, where less thoughtful authors gladly distill existence into 10-step routines. 

So I took up Foucault’s book anticipating a rich survey of technologies that I might apply or work into my present life. Rather, I found a historical survey that paid far more attention to the past than the present.

Perhaps his death cut him short, or perhaps he was wise enough not to risk the dogmatism of concretely suggesting what others might do with their lives. But I found a direct response to my disappointment in his collected writings, Dits et Écrits:

 
And if I do not say what ought to be done, it is not because I believe there is nothing to be done. Quite on the contrary, I think there are a thousand things to be done, to be invented, to be forged, by those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they are implicated, have decided to resist or escape them. From this point of view, my entire research rests upon the postulate of an absolute optimism. I do not undertake my analyses to say: look how things are, you are all trapped. I do not say such things except insofar as I consider this to permit some transformation of things. Everything I do, I do in order that it may be of use.
 

So what I propose here, while I still carry the naivety of my 20’s and lack the wisdom of restraint, is an encyclopedia — a revised wikiHow — for living well, an inventory of time-tested technologies of the self that cultivate both enriched ways of seeing and nourished modes of being. A repository of practices to coax our “bodies, minds, souls, and lifestyle[s]” towards the good, towards vitality, towards vividness and generosity, towards wisdom and compassion, towards whatever words signify to you a life well lived.

Most importantly, an ongoing list of methods that carry these ideals into the flesh. That might help us live, rather than preach, our best responses to the immensity of life.

 

Technologies of the Self

This list will be inevitably and horrendously incomplete, and so I encourage suggestions, additions, etc (either via comments below, or my contact form), to nurse it towards some measure of health. 

The Basics

The basics are things grandmothers preach. They’re banal, boring, and anticlimactic. And yet, they’re often the most actionable elements of living well we most readily overlook. 

  • Sleep Enough. In Laurie Santos’ infamous Stanford course, Psychology and the Good Life, one of the first thing she presents students is the science of sleep. I won’t belabor this point, or any of the basics, as they’ve been written about and substantiated ad nauseam. 95% of adults require 7–9 hours a night. Also, sleep debt is cumulative, so 1 week of 6 hrs a night has the same cognitive consequence as one full night of no sleep.

  • Eat Well. My favorite plug for eating well is a Michael Pollan quip, where he remarks ‘the link between food and mood is underrated’. Longer Pollan essay if interested.

  • Exercise. Even a moderate regime of exercise, balancing anaerobic and aerobic, does all kinds enriching biological and neurochemical things.

So much of modern life is an ongoing regime of small cuts, small negligences that aggregate into lives drained of vitality. 20 years of 7, rather than 8 hours of sleep; food hastily prepared/purchased before work in the morning that fills our bodies with preservatives & chemicals; daunting mountains of debt that’ve somehow been normalized; lack of time to develop a creative or original relationship to the universe through artistic or leisurely activities. Visakan’s full thread above lays this out accessibly. For a deeper view, David Graeber’s book, Bullshit Jobs, is a phenomenal read, and draws out the role our economic systems play in perpetuating it.


Disciplines in Nonverbal Perception

I’ve written elsewhere about why I meditate, but the broader point is that practicing some form of nonverbal perception broadens the registry of consciousness, opening up fuller, richer regions of experience. 

The stream of consciousness is not a ceaseless flow of words. Words are just imperfect nets with which we fish experience from that tangled stream of internal sensations. Words, like nets, are porous. So cultivating some discipline in nonverbal perception affords a diversity of tools for plumbing, examining, and expressing that internal flow of sensations. It cultivates multiple ways of seeing, and thus organizing experience. 

  • Seated Meditation. Eyes open or closed, spine & neck erect, muscles relaxed. Concentrate awareness upon the breath, or perform a body scan by moving awareness, slowly, from the tip of your head to the sole of your feet. Either of these methods, or both, help calm the mind and still awareness. Then, just sit, and observe your mind. Practice noticing thoughts as such, and gently turn awareness back to the breath, letting awareness rest in the spacious, dark expanse that exists in the space between thoughts. My personal practice has simply been one of elongating the amount of time I can dwell, uninterruptedly, in that blank spaciousness between thoughts.

  • Yin Yoga. In Yin, poses are held for 3–5 minutes, eyes closed, awareness concentrated on the part of the body being stretched. Poses are passive, rather than active (as in vinyasa yoga), meaning the body is in an ongoing state of letting go & relaxing the muscles, rather than contracting them as in a strength pose. Again, during this practice, thoughts are observed and gently turned away from. The area of the body targeted by the pose serves as the anchor of awareness, as the breath does in seated meditation.

  • Music, both making & listening. Music is a technology of both expression and evocation that operates on a different register than language, and thus carries and refines its own spectrum of experience.

  • I’m tempted to include things along the lines of interpretive dance, Japanese calligraphy, and drawing here, activities that bypass the linguistic mind and give rise to a thoughtless state of action, but I have little experience in these realms, and am unsure if crossing the barrier from passive contemplative activities to these more active forms constitutes another category of technology altogether, perhaps landing them under ‘Craft’. Would love feedback on this.


Verbal Perception

“Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born — the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality…” (Aldous Huxley)

Once it develops, language is our default mode of consciousness. The stream of experiences that comprise our lives are filtered through this linguistic, grammatical medium. 

Fine, except each language’s grammatical structure harbors implicit philosophies, and conditions us into unexamined ways of being in the world, packing us into implicit relations between ourselves, others, and nature. Peter Sloterdijk comments: “…possession by an unconsciously or semi-consciously followed rule cannot be the right way for humans to act.” And the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf writes: 

“Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.”

So, what to do?

  • Learn multiple languages; the more diverse the basic grammatical structures, the better. Language is a way of organizing experience, so greater fluidity between these modalities affords wider views of experience itself.

  • To complement, learn the implicit biases harbored by your own native language. I’ve started looking into the differences between English and Chinese, specifically, how English clearly delineates between things and actions, leading to a worldview full of discrete entities, while Chinese words often function both as verbs and nouns, leading to a more process-oriented worldview. This alone leaves me wondering why we don’t include these topics in language classes. What if language curriculums included a comparative study of how world languages condition the minds that practice them?

  • Meditation also helps loosen perception from exclusively narrative modes of apprehending experience into more fluid, sometimes ‘pre-verbal’ methods of interacting with the stream of consciousness.


Therapy

Buddha put it simply: dukkha. Life contains suffering. Every human being has some relationship to suffering, some emotional baggage, some repressed clots of trauma that act upon the conscious mind from below, hidden in the unconscious haze.

Meditation is an Asian manifestation of therapy, like psychotherapy is in the West (though today, cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is emerging). Ken Wilber’s approach here is useful, viewing consciousness as a spectrum, and these various practices working on different parts of the spectrum.

Meditation is great, but it’s best complemented by an equally rigorous regime of Western therapy, to massage the emotional clots we carry from our past. Wilber writes: 

“It is certainly obvious that Eastern and Western approaches to consciousness can be used separately…but it should now be clear that they can also be used in a complementary fashion…Eastern approaches…[maintain] that the ego is itself the very source of all suffering in the world, and thus a ‘healthy’ ego is at best a contradiction, at worse, a cruel joke…But…Western psychotherapies can offer at least a partial release from the suffering entailed…”

There are two types of people in this world: those who receive therapy, and those who ignore the fact that they should.

  • See a therapist.Whether of the Jungian, Freudian, CBT, or whatever school. Attending therapy is an acknowledgment that life’s large enough to require some talking over. That our consciousness is complex enough to remain enigmatic to us.

  • A good group of friends. A circle of close friends might be able to serve the same function, if you regularly engage in conversations about your emotions or past traumas, though professional guidance probably has a higher degree of efficacy.

  • T-groups, or Encounter groups. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, and the entire broad spectrum of beat poets & philosophers in the mid 20th century dug deep into the practice of encounter sessions. Ginsberg & Kerouac would sit cross-legged on a bed staring into each others eyes all night, for 4–10 hours at a time, analyzing every movement, every facial twitch, every word, asking and examining why they’d do anything they did. Like a collaborative session of psychotherapy. This practice became known as T-groups. Some studies suggest it can be harmful, while others found significant benefits, depending on the openness of the participants. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting manifestation of therapy.

“…Western psychotherapies aim at ‘patching up’ the individual self while Eastern approaches aim at transcending the self…let us avail ourselves of the existing methods — largely ‘Western’ — of creating healthy egos, of integrating projections, of coming to grips with unconscious drives and wishes, of structurally re-aligning our bodily postures, of accepting responsibility for our being-in-the-world, of dealing with neuroses, of living us to our full potentials as individuals. But should we seek to go beyond the confines of the individual self, to find an even richer and fuller level of consciousness, then let us learn from those investigators — largely ‘Eastern’ — of the Level of Mind, of mystical awareness, of cosmic consciousness.” (Ken Wilber)


Craft

A craft of any variety — writing, photography, building with raw materials, singing, painting, drawing, etc. — fosters a vitalizing flow of creativity, and a relationship to the unknown. 

Further, Graeber presents a theory developed by German psychologist Karl Groose, ‘the pleasure at being the cause’, where “infants express extraordinary happiness when they first figure out they can cause predictable effects in the world”. Groose builds from this insight to found a larger theory of play resting upon a profound insight. As phrased by Graeber:

“We wish to exercise our powers as an end in themselves.”

Craft — when separated from the imperative of earning a living — is an exercise of our powers as ends in themselves. Where so much of modern life is utilitarian, doing things for other things, craft is an exercise in presence, seeking no further reward than the vitalizing force of the creative process, than our inborn delight that comes when exercising our abilities as ends in themselves.

  • Take up some form, any form, of craft. It’s true that living is an art in itself. But we’re made better artists of this existential variety when skilled, or at least regularly occupied, in a more explicit medium of creativity.


Discourse Practices

“Spiritual exercises almost always correspond to the movement by which the ‘I’ concentrates itself upon itself and discovers that it is not what it had thought. It ceases to be conflated with the objects to which it had become attached.” (Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy)

This covers a few terrains. From one angle, discourse was the philosophical practice of Western antiquity. Discourse was the method by which individuals improved themselves. Where philosophical discourse is a more pointed discussion, trying to get at or uncover something of a particular topic, discourse can be more broadly viewed as how we engage with others: Interpersonal relations. 

The state of politics today starkly demonstrates the poverty of our discourse skills. Our minds are closed, our guards are up, and we seek the faults of others more readily than the shared ground between even the most divided political views. 

  • Mirroring. Mirroring is a practice most recently described by philosophy professor Jacob Needleman. In short, it’s a format for debate that employs one condition: before responding or stating one’s view, one must restate the other’s previous point, faithfully enough that the other agree their point was fairly summarized. Once I satisfactorily restate my debate partners previous point, I’m free to state my own. And so on. Needleman employs this in undergraduate classrooms, and reports that even in passionate disagreements, the method unearths recognition of a common humanity that transcends political disagreements, and imbues the conversation with compassion.

  • Mirroring practice can be extended beyond debate, as a practice employed in every interaction. When in conversation, rather than imagining what we might respond with while listening to someone, or following our own thoughts, we can internally seek to understand and restate what the speaker is saying as faithfully as possible. This shifts our mental focus from the stream of self-referential thought onto the other person, renders us better listeners, better conversationalists, and more empathetic.

This is a practice of inhabiting opinions that aren’t ours, rather than the typical fashion of viewing them from afar. In doing so, and building skills of faithfully inhabiting foreign landscapes of opinion, we may bring a richer perspective back into our own views. 

In this vein, the scholar of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot gives ‘the principle of the ethics of dialogue’: 

“…we can engage in dialogue only with the people who sincerely want…to change [their] way of life.”

To engage in meaningful dialogue, participants must be willing to change their lives. This suggests an odd virtue: some measure of existential insecurity, an unsettledness in our ways and a general state of being unsure how best to live, and therefore always open to better, different ways. Discourse, then, can foster openness through skilled inhabitations of foreign opinions, and improving listening through a detachment from our self-defensive monologues. 


Kindness

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” (George Saunders)

Beyond anything we may know about life as human beings, there seems no better force to encourage, no better perspective to develop, no better value to invite into every fold of our lives than kindness

More than a feeling or an orientation, kindness is a practice. It can be employed as a technology for improving our experience of life. 

  • Mettā meditation. Popularized in the West by Sharon Salzberg, mettā is a meditation practice of ‘loving-kindness’. Begin in a meditation posture, whether seated or lying down. Eyes closed, direct loving-kindness towards yourself. Often, this takes the form of internally repeating “may you be happy, may you be free from suffering” while visualizing oneself. This might feel particularly squeamish, which is a strong indication the practice might be well suited for you. After focusing unconditional love upon yourself, expand it to someone you love in your life, and sit in meditation simply directing loving-kindness towards that person. Next, expand this towards someone towards which you feel neutral, then to someone you dislike, followed by a focus upon all beings, everywhere, without distinction.

  • Would love suggestions on how to conceive of kindness as a practice, or other practices that aid in developing kindness as a baseline orientation towards others, life, and all that jazz (aside from meditation techniques. Are there Western approaches to kindness practice, etc.).


Design

“The received view is that behavior is what follows from the intentions of a rational, self-determining agent; to initiate change, we simply need more will, more discipline. In contrast, the practice I outline here, ecobehavioral design (EBD), implies a different take. From the EBD perspective, the individual in interaction with their environment is construed as a complex adaptive system, an organizational unity of diverse though interdependent parts that self-organize to meet adaptive needs, where behavior is a relational term that describes the attunement between embodied subject and changing milieu.” (Mark James)

Design — of everything from our living spaces to our technological interfaces — is a driving force behind human behavior.

The approach sketched above by Mark James conceives of humans as interwoven elements of their environment. Rather than thinking of ourselves as separate, rational, free-willed agents who decide our own behaviors, his approach situates us as adaptive parts of a broader ecology. Design of our ecologies, then, is a crucial component in guiding behavior. 

This rips habit formation from the domain of individual willpower, and places it at the intersection of society, culture, politics, and economics. Designing our environments to encourage desirable behaviors becomes crucial in pursuing autonomy. 

We are subject to our environments, but to a significant degree, our environments are subject to us (for the two aren't separate). Design is a technology for creating, and sustaining, our-selves. 

  • Environment design. Designing our most frequented spaces to support a particular lifestyle, or set of habits, is a craft of its own. This extends to designing a bedroom for better sleep, a space to encourage meditation, a kitchen to encourage healthier eating, a living room to encourage connection & stimulation rather than mindless unwinding, and so on. The term ‘environment design’ is taken from a James Clear essay, quoted below:

"Here's an easy way to apply environment design to your own life: think about your environment in relation to the number of steps it takes to perform a habit. To make good habits easier, reduce the number of steps to do them. To make bad habits harder, increase the number of steps between you and the habit."


So Many Technologies, Such a Short Life

This list could carry on for a while. It could occupy an entire lifetime simply to write a moderately robust list. So what to do about these myriad practices?

I cannot immediately uproot my life and become a 1-hour-every-morning meditator, gym rat, vegan, voracious reader, inspired writer or carpenter, weekly therapy attendee, 8-hour-a-night sleeping, multilingual polymath who feels nothing but kindness. Beyond the sheer magnitude of it all, it just doesn’t seem there’s enough time to pack into any individual life the entire scroll of technologies humanity has discovered for living well.

In response to this, Ken Wilber again used an approach whose basic principles are useful. He divided existence into four quadrants (itself a brazen endeavor): objective, subjective, interobjective, intersubjective. 

Each quadrant houses a genre of practices, and his ‘integral approach’ is to adopt at least one practice for each quadrant. True to his spectrum of consciousness metaphor, this approach seeks to cultivate a life in balance, across its entire spectrum. 

Setting aside the specifics of his contentious approach, its baseline principle is intuitively appealing. The technologies employed in our lives should act upon as wide a terrain of our being as possible. This approach operates with that same virtue of existential insecurity at its heart, a kind of trans-systemic approach to living well that blossoms from a fundamental aversion towards singular methods and their narrowed vision. It views vitality (or wisdom & compassion, or whatever your words for ‘The Good’ are) as something that refracts through all perspectives, at least to some degree, and therefore erects a syncretic philosophy of broad inclusion. It brings together practices from various domains, plumbing diverse perspectives for all their worth, scrapping the inessential and appropriating the useful. 

This approach is not new. It recalls early stirrings of ‘metamodernism’, or the diversity of a ‘mental models’ approach, built from the philosophy of Warren Buffet’s partner, Charlie Munger, and spread by Shane Parrish. 

But insights of value require stubborn repetition from innumerable angles, in ever-more creative ways, before taking hold in cultural consciousness. This is but one more articulation of that same old maxim: the unexamined life is not worth living. Or my preferred contemporary echo of this hallowed truth, bellowed from the pen of American poet Anne Waldman

“We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid & generous as we can.”

These inventoried technologies work in tandem to pursue a sense of vitality, of a life lived in vivid and generous strokes, oscillating throughout and learning from the varieties of conscious experience.