Category Archives: Non-conformity
A long time ago, I watched a black-and-white movie about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. The title escapes me, as does most of the plot, but I vividly remember one scene. A young recruit had snuck off to a local village to visit a girl he liked and was arrested for deserting his post. He was brought before his commanding officer, who gave him a lecture very similar to a bit of dialogue in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film I have watched over and over. I think that’s why I remember the scene from the former otherwise forgettable film.
In any case, the lecture went something like this: You think you care about this girl, but you’ve already seen people die all around you. You think you want to go back home someday, have a family, and grow old comfortably. But these are civilian dreams. You are not part of that world. You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The recruit is visibly agitated, angry, surprised. He asks whether they aren’t there to make the world a better place as they have been told—to fight the National Front for democracy and to preserve social order. The commander shakes his head and says: Today, we fight them. Tomorrow, we fight with them against somebody else. Politics changes like the weather. But we stay the same.
I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory. So it may not be exact, but I think I’ve captured the essence of the dialogue. It was a good scene, maybe the only good scene in the movie, but still very romantic in how it evoked the “this life is not for you” sense of doomed heroism we love in stories about the cult of the warrior.
For many years, I’ve rejected this romantic perspective. I’ve thought about professional soldiers the way I’ve thought about sport hunters: anachronisms at best. More often, they seem dangerous and cynical, full of misplaced machismo and the need to justify their existence with bullets instead of brains. So I felt annoyed when someone recently referred to my freelance writing as “being a hired gun.” Not only is that inaccurate—though I can see it in terms of private investigators, lawyers, even lobbyists—but I think it sensationalizes what is basically a very humble line of work.
While there is a lot of professionalism in the field, writing content for media sources and corporations has always struck me as nothing like being a mercenary, a legionnaire, or even a samurai. It always felt more like being a craftsman who specializes in a very specific sort of product. Still, it got me thinking about what a “professional” actually is in a philosophical sense. And now I’m not so sure about these distinctions. This morning, I gave myself a writing assignment, something working writers, especially freelancers, need to do on a regular basis. I set a goal of 700 words in response to: what is a professional?
The Existential Condition of the Professional
I started thinking about that Foreign Legion movie scene and the moment in Seven Samurai when the samurai have successfully defended the farmers against the bandits; though, their friends have died in the process. Kambei Shimada expresses the inherently Pyrrhic nature of military victory: “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”
It’s a melancholy moment that resonates with You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. But, thinking about it in terms of my many varied writing jobs over the years, I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding. Being a professional means walking the path of mastery and radical individualism. So while it may be true that “civilian life is not for you,” such a path seems more like an existential choice than involuntary alienation from normal life.
It seems to me that if you are a true professional, you engage in one thing so deeply and exclusively that it emerges as an aspect of your nature. Your will, your inner self, and this thing you do are indivisible, indistinguishable. Essentially, you learn that it is who and what you have always been. It’s an inner part of your character that has now found expression in your life as some kind of career or activity. This emergence ultimately transcends existing categories of normal, mundane life, realigning your values with the profession as the most profound and worthwhile source of meaning. All else must take second place or no place.
The I-Ching alludes to it in hexagram 32, Heng / Duration: “The dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed.” To embody an enduring meaning is to become synonymous with it, to presence it such that you are its student and its conduit. As Yeats says at the end of “Among School Children,” “O body swayed to music,/ O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
The Superior Man vs. the Inferior Man
Not everyone is called to be a professional in this esoteric sense of the term. Its exoteric definition simply indicates a level of proficiency where one can expect to be paid for one’s efforts. But there seems to be a deeper stratum of self-awareness that emerges in some practitioners. The I-Ching calls this person the “superior man,” meaning that he or she operates on a more profound, more philosophical level.
The “inferior man” is someone content to live more superficially within existing, inherited cultural frameworks. Above all else, the inferior man values gratification and relief from the problems in his life and offers up obedience to conventional society in exchange. Conversely, the superior man seeks mastery and will pursue it to the detriment of family, friends, finances, and even social respectability—which is not to say she automatically gives up these pleasures. Rather, she assigns them second place in her life.
In The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a 17th century Edo samurai in the service of Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, writes “Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.” To a samurai, “awakening from your dreams” means accepting death as the most likely consequence of your profession. It is pursuing the path of mastery regardless of the consequences. And it is therefore the way of the superior man, who embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life above and beyond the conventional joys and trials of mundane existence.
Seduction of the Youth
This way of life can seem very romantic. The young, in particular, are often attracted to its emphasis on integrity and its ostensible clarity. This is how it should be. If the long painful road to mastery didn’t enchant and seduce people from an early age, humanity’s deepest knowledge would eventually be lost to time and mortality.
And yet, very few set foot on the path of Duration fully realizing how much they will be asked to sacrifice. In the fullness of time, they will die to their old lives and be reborn in the image of their chosen profession, which is to say, they will embody this thing which now sustains them, which flows through them, and which has come to define the purpose of their existence.
Consider the difference between these two expressions: he is a dancer versus he dances. The first describes a professional. The verb of being shows equivalence. He = dancer. There is no distinction between the two. Contrast this with the second expression where dancing is something he does. It is an action undertaken by a noun, not an existential state. He does some dancing. It is not what he is.
Many people who are frustrated with their lives, especially teenagers and disappointed young adults, fantasize about being absorbed into the lifestyle of some profession. They think, if only I could be like so-and-so (often a professional athlete, artist, or celebrity), then I wouldn’t have these problems. But becoming a true professional involves as much pain as it does pleasure. It can mean cutting out everything that is not the profession—a high price to pay that becomes a brutal requirement for those trying to progress. Lawyers will sometimes say, “law is a cruel mistress,” which is undoubtedly true for all professions where mastery is concerned.
Who Becomes a True Professional
Anyone can do it, but few will, since the obstacles are wholly internal. Time, age, finances, social permission, and starting ability are ultimately irrelevant because the path of the true professional is a state of mind. Only the inferior man has to worry about those external things, since he functions primarily within the constraints placed on him by others. The true professional, being the superior man, develops his own set of constraints organically by paying attention to his character and the dictates of his heart.
This is a matter of discernment, of self-understanding, which makes the professional mindset possible through a succession of insightful shocks or moments of clarity. Such realizations often come when certain sacrifices have been made.
For example, the time, money, and logistical arrangements necessary for living in a remote cabin for three months in order to finish your novel will produce not only work product but also greater awareness of what you really want to write and who you really want to become. This, in turn, will provide a vision of the next step, the next goal and its necessary sacrifices. Every step entails a sacrifice to be made, something material that will be given and received, a self-insight, and an altered state of consciousness.
In some philosophies, this pursuit of mastery is considered dangerous, an outlaw ethos. It’s seen as “antinomian” (anti / opposite or against + nomos / rule or law) in the sense that it often disregards approved social norms. Those who have become proficient to the degree that they have “awakened from their dreams” have disregarded the desires and statuses manufactured by consensus culture. They threaten the system by their very existence. They have undertaken a path of radical individualism that privileges subjective personal meaning and depends on mastery and self-understanding for forward progress.
It is very hard to control such a person with conventional rewards and punishments. The path of the true professional stands in stark contrast to lifestyles that interpolate people into preexisting categories designed to provide gratification and relief in exchange for obedience in thought, word, and deed. Instead, having transcended superficial levels of meaning, the professional finds himself enjoying hidden pleasures and suffering from unique pains. He can talk about his discipline to beginners and to the uninitiated, but only to a point. There are things that can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, developed through firsthand experience.
There is no Going Back
It’s not hard to see that the path of the true professional, being extremely demanding and fraught with difficulties, is not for everyone, nor should it be. There is something to be said for the joys of a simple mundane life and the fun of dilettantism. Moreover, as you walk the path of individuation, you may come to a sobering realization: once you took the first faltering steps toward what would become a life-defining quest for mastery in your field, there was no going back.
In a sense, as the commanding officer says to the legionnaire recruit, you reach a point at which you have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The path has changed you forever as you’ve sacrificed and been reborn again and again. The Egyptologist, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, expresses this beautifully in Her Bak: the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, a speculative account of initiation into an Egyptian mystery cult where radical self-transformation is the highest goal:
What is life? It is a form of the divine presence. It is the power, immanent in created things, to change themselves by successive destructions of form until the spirit or activating force of the original life-stream is freed. This power resides in the very nature of things. Successive destruction of forms, metamorphoses, by the divine fire with rebirth of forms new and living is an expression of consciousness that is independent of bodily circumstance.
When the dancer is the dance, both emerge as an expression of consciousness, a state of mind above and beyond the movements of the body. This is the reality of the true professional.
It’s 4:30 AM as I begin to write this. I’ve already been up for an hour. I’m not sleeping that much these days. Over the last 48 hours, I’ve lost friends, given a lot of advice, gotten advice, been told off, and been accused of hypocrisy for taking a political stand while using the term “antinomian” to describe myself. But I think people misunderstand.
The broad definition of “antinomianism” (originally a Protestant term used to mean that divine grace releases one from the need to follow secular law) can be used to indicate spiritual non-conformity, not necessarily secular or political non-conformity. And whenever I use the term “spiritual,” I’m talking about consciousness, becoming more conscious and less under the sway of conformist culture. That is my spirituality—to become more conscious, to wake up to the vertiginous complexity and potential of everyday life as I’m living it and, in that never-ending process, to make the world reflect my best qualities.
Therefore, being anti-nomos (against law) is, for me, an internal, subjective stance, which may find expression in the objective-world choices I make, but which begins in the mind and heart. In this sense, the usage of the term is a lot like what Emerson means when he writes that “every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.” Inwardly rejecting the “normalization” exerted by conformist culture is anti-nomos; it amounts to a spiritual revolution.
That said, I do not believe that abstaining from voting and posting cynical, defensive statements about the political system does a bit of good. Not participating in the political process is, in my opinion, the height of stupidity and the position of default conformity. It is rooted in fear of having to make a choice and having to take an external, painful, perhaps terrifying objective-world position. Further, I believe it expresses weakness of character.
True spiritual antinomianism is to find what you truly believe, what expresses your most deeply cherished values and then work to make those values manifest in the world. It mandates work and, in light of recent events, it definitely mandates political involvement, even if such involvement amounts to voting for a third-party candidate or writing one in. Non-participation hands power and its jurisdiction over to others. It is the ultimate capitulation to conformist culture. It is opting out of the hard work of citizenship. And it is irresponsible to one’s Self, to that degree of consciousness one already possesses.
I’ve been posting two kinds of things for the last few days: news items critical of Trump and music. Because that’s where I am emotionally right now. I’m still processing what I feel is my country’s latest, greatest political blunder. I’m also questioning whether I should never return to the United States or whether the next opportunity for me to become more conscious lies in that direction.
Many of you saw me write, before the onslaught of private messages (both supportive and accusatory), that I wouldn’t be returning to the States again. I still feel that way, still completely averse to the decision my country has made to choose the worst, most disastrous candidate for President. But I’m also beginning to wonder whether that pain, that aversion, is a meaningful indicator from “myself to my Self,” i.e. from that inward part of me always on the lookout for ways to become more awake, more conscious, and less subject to groupthink.
It brings to mind two myths of Odin. In exchange for wisdom, he sacrifices one of his eyes for a drink from Mimir’s well, which will impart ultimate knowledge. It’s a deep myth in the sense that it contains layers of meaning (among others, consider the implication of gaining insight and yet seeing with one eye instead of two). And yet the value of an eye is undeniable. How far would we go to obtain internal gifts at the expense of our external bodies?
The second myth comes from the Havamal, an old Norse poem from the Viking age: “I know that I hung, on a windy tree, for all of nine nights, wounded with a spear, and given to Ódinn, myself to myself, on that tree, which no man knows, from what roots it runs.” In order to obtain the Runes, Odin submits to a nine-night ordeal, again making an external sacrifice for an inward gain, the Runes symbolizing, among other things, the power to create meaning through language.
In both of these and in many similar world myths and legends, we find the theme of pain as a doorway to greater consciousness. And deliberately, consciously embracing such pain when it arises is nearly always anti-nomos, in direct violation of the Pleasure Principle that delimits popular opinion and what passes for common sense.
So I’m still exploring these ideas, but I can tell you one thing: voting in a legal election is revolutionary in the most profound sense. However, in the aftermath of a failed revolution, one does not dig one’s grave in accordance with the wishes of those in authority. If one seeks to act politically as a conscious revolutionary instead of reacting obediently as a sleepwalker, one practices discernment in moments like this. One looks inward and asks, “What’s next? What’s best? What will make me more conscious? What can I do to raise the consciousness of others and thereby make the world a better reflection of my best qualities?”
There’s a lot of work to be done, I think.