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The Three Ways of Life: Love, Will, and Reason

Your authentic self will determine which approach to life you favour. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

Given the realities inherent in the human psyche, there are three ways of approaching life in this world. No one exists entirely within a single stream, but each mode has its own distinct set of characteristics. For the first approach, I have used love as a substitute for emotion since people who choose the feeling life emphasize love above all other emotions.

The way of love is a life dominated by instinct with its accompanying emotions. Rewards in this mode of existence arise almost exclusively from emotional gratification and the experience of sensual pleasure, which prompts a sense of eagerly desired physical happiness. It is a crudely conceptualized, non-intellectual, irrational, bodily approach to life, with little manifestation of will, a sort of corporeal drifting from one source of satisfaction to the next. Life lived in this way is often haphazard or even chaotic. People in love with falling in love epitomize the type.

The way of reason is a life dominated by analytical, judgemental thinking, and extensive, although not necessarily high-quality, conceptualization. Rewards in this mode of existence arise mostly from what research psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow,” a happy sense of comfortable absorption in what one is doing, and from status-enhancing displays of expertise and erudition. As in the way of love, will has little influence in the way of reason, with the result that, since this way of life also lacks emotion, it can grow irritatingly dry. Goethe’s temptable Faust would be a good example of the problem. False persona game playing and one-upmanship are common, but otherwise, life is usually quite prosaic and predictable with all the action going on between the ears.

The way of will, the middle way, entails the pursuit and attainment of bliss, the spiritual emotion. Since bliss is a feeling, albeit a spiritual and not an instinctual one, and since the pursuit of bliss (or resonance, in its less intense form) relegates reason to a supporting role, one might say that attaining bliss is like being in love. One pursues, regardless of reason’s warnings and protestations, and while studiously resisting the powerful urges of emotion, the object of one’s bliss. This accounts for the non-rationality so often seen in artists’ personalities and in their lives, for most artists live wilfully. It also goes a long way towards explaining the endless difficulties many serious artists seem to encounter.

Whether or not you are an artist of some kind, the way of will is the creative way of life. Wilfully navigating between reason and instinct is an important aspect of what creativity researchers are writing about when they outline how artists “tolerate” their inner polarities, conflicts, and contraries in the belief that creative opportunities lie between opposing poles. The suffering that artists are supposedly exploiting as a source of material and inspiration is in reality the anxiety that wilful individuals must endure when their will steers a course between the Scylla of the emotions and the Charybdis of reason. All serious artists make use of these creative, stormy experiences in their work.

I will add that living a strongly intellectual, that is, rational, life qualifies as living wilfully if such a life is what one truly wills. It is important to discriminate between an intellectual life pursued for the purpose of puffing up the false persona and the same style of living sought authentically by a self-actualizing will. Certain kinds of creative intellectual activity get a break here because authentic will seeks awareness as well as self-realization. The way of love enjoys no such exemption since a tumultuous feeling life interferes with self-realization.

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