So, another self-improvement book rooted in a little positive psychology?
A work rooted in profound philosophy and penetrating psychology—flowering into the most exhilarating understanding of the joy of experiencing our greatest creation: our soul.
Because I am familiar with some of the author’s other work, I expected more than that. But I certainly did not expect to encounter a work rooted in profound philosophy and penetrating psychology—flowering into the most exhilarating understanding of the joy of experiencing our greatest creation: our soul.
In retrospect, I see that I have been ready for a book like this for a while. My lifelong commitment has been to a philosophy explicitly upholding the individual’s happiness as his highest purpose and moral compass. The philosopher and novelist, Ayn Rand, demonstrated that our life is our highest value (even if we do not recognize it as such) and the good is to live it fully, with happiness that proceeds from achievement of our values.
My lifelong comrade in this pursuit has been my brother, Roger.
My lifelong comrade in this pursuit has been my brother, Roger. He could be called my soulmate. Sometime ago, he said to me, with a tone of wistful wonder: You know, for two intelligent people who have spent a whole lifetime talking about an ethos of individual happiness, we’re spent remarkably little time actually arranging to experience it.
True. I hadn’t and I kind of knew it. I had devoted my days to achievements like knowledge, mastery of writing, promulgating my philosophy of egoism, succeeding in my profession, raising a son, and marrying. I had gotten satisfaction along the way. I had cultivated reason, rational values.
But when did I celebrate my single greatest achievement—myself? Not that Ayn Rand had failed to make the point brilliantly. Because our defining faculty, reason, operates by volition, with no automatic values but only those we choose—we are “beings of self-made soul.”
That is our supreme achievement and our highest value. It is the best within us.
“I celebrate myself and sing of myself…” begins the famous lines by Walt Whitman. When during my days of non-stop work, ever-seeking new achievements, did I celebrate myself?
I can tell you that: at cocktail hour sitting at my computer reading poetry or listening to music. Always alone. Sometimes tearfully as the rarely met good feelings about myself and my life slipped out.
Yes, I had been waiting most of my life for my journey with Alexandra York through Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks. The book would not have persuaded me of this, not so thoroughly, without its compelling philosophical and psychological logic.
York takes as her compass throughout Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks, the philosophy of Aristotle, specifically his ethics.
Alexandra York takes as her compass throughout Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks, the philosophy of Aristotle, specifically his ethics, which apparently has guided her since she moved on from religion in college.
It is eudaimonia, Aristotle’s theory of ethical guidance by our best rational grasp of values essential to a good life—a morality of rational pursuit of our highest fulfillment—that York identifies with the soul.
Success is the achievement of a lifetime—an inner achievement of logic and the architecture of values that shape our souls. Of course, from one perspective, it is just who we are. And our choices, actions, behavior proceed from it. That is daily life as many of us live it.
But what about the achievement that is our soul, as such, “the deepest personal value system that constitutes our inimitable individuality” asks York. We speak of the “spirit”—and those not religious realize that there is a secular spirit—and we wonder if somehow there is something missing without the great historic realm of religious institutions and avenues to experience of the soul.
Soul Celebrations and Spirit Snacks is at once a robustly philosophical and a fully concretized exploration of the imperative to celebrate our person not with a merrily lifted glass but in “‘stopped time’—time taken to experience fully, as a mind-body-integrated individual, the sum of who we have become.”
It is a challenging assignment. York first leads us to a deeper understanding of the process by which we choose and embrace our highest values. And then explains in terms of both commonsense and neuroscience how those values, as we interact with the world, give rise to the emotions that are our direct, immediate experience of our relationship with life.
When we speak of happiness, celebration, the experience of ourselves we mean our emotions. That is true on many levels, but, as York explains in compelling terms, our spirit—our soul—can be moved to express a category of emotions that are unique. They are emotions such as exaltation, oneness with the world, ecstasy, hero worship, “merging” with existence, triumph, serene acceptance, sanctity, the sublime, “rightness,” and much that we learn as we read on.
What, then, are the contexts where we encounter these moments of “powerful, mind-body-integrated immersions into sustained spiritual states of bliss”?
York makes a powerful case for three areas of life overwhelmingly important for soul celebrations—religious or secular, though her own focus is on the latter. They are immersion in the natural world, our home on earth, our place in the Universe; the experience of the arts as they engage our personal defining values, our slant on life, our personal style; and romantic love, where the “other” so embodies and reflects our values and sense of life that the romantic-sexual relationship becomes a celebration of our self.
There is so much in this book than even can be summarized, here. Each of the three arenas of spiritual engagement is explored by York on the philosophical and psychological levels and with dozens of imaginative and inspiring examples and suggestions. In the end, this book is an astonishing dramatization of life lived philosophically every day, every hour. Another way of putting that is taking happiness seriously.
Yes, it is that fundamental. York is talking about a “transvaluation of values” to put experiences of “the best within us” into the mainstream of our lives. Among the myriad imaginative and often surprising examples are her lists of “soul celebrations”—those “immersions” in the experience of our attained self—and soul snacks”—a term York has adopted from a 16th Century Italian Cardinal, Giles of Viterbo—which refers to briefer moments snatched from life at home, at work, or anywhere to refresh the spirit.
You will have to experience and enjoy for yourself the imagination, diversity, and seductive descriptions that York brings to celebrations and snacks. They are not new under the sun, of course, you cannot read far without realizing you are invited into the life of an exceptionally accomplished individual: musician, novelist, actress, writer and host for television, ubiquitous talk-show guest, leader of a movement to restore the arts in our time to beauty and life-affirming values, publisher and editor of ART ideas, and advisor to arts organizations.
Therefore, when York talks about “making time” in your day, however busy, for experiencing the reality of “the vital essence of our Being,” you know if she can, you can do it!
York turns first to nature—the earth and its timeless wonders, the stars in the Milky Way, the cosmos—and makes the case that we should experience ourselves as part of something “never ending” and thrill to share in its existence.
Is it a night under the stars, lifting our minds to a floating cloud, listening to the sounds of water’s music beside a river, or just lying back in the leaves and gazing up through the interweaving branches and smelling the scene of pines?
I had begun to read this book when, as often on summer afternoons, I went with my wife to our broad Atlantic beach stretching miles in either direction. At first, by water’s edge, I just glanced aside at the breaking waves curling into pure white foam in the sun. But then, I lifted my gaze. Down the beach as far as I could see dazzling white waves reached up the beach. This rushing of the mighty ocean up the beach, again and again, was occurring as far as I could see. And where I could not see, too, on all the shores of the earth. I never had stood for even a minute to gaze at this sight. Now, I took five minutes just to look and think that I stood on the shore of the world where day and night this sometimes soothing, sometimes wild rhythm continued and had continued for time out of mind. I had connected with nature, my world, with my time and all time—and, yes, I had connected with Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks.
If I have not taken time in systematic way to experience what my mentor Ayn Rand calls “love of existence,” I console myself that in the second area that York discusses, the arts, I have known a lifetime of active communion with great literature, above all, poetry.
I intuit what York means by “Art as Spiritual Experience.” And that “Beauty in art is immeasurably greater than beauty in nature…” because purposeful human creation offers not only intensified and focused beauty but a humanistic meaning, including beautiful ideas.
I fully and finally “experience my experiences” when I encounter them in verse.
Over decades of my love affair with reading, writing, and listening to poetry, I have sensed that. Often, I fully and finally “experience my experiences” when I encounter them in verse. So it is with the other arts from painting and sculpture to concert music and opera to theater to movies to fiction and poetry.
The artist selectively recreates reality, and the criterion of selection is an emotional response proceeding from the artist’s deepest values, values that are almost metaphysical that evoke emotions about the nature of existence itself. York interprets each of the arts by reference to these philosophical and psychological insights. At the same time, she is beside us in a museum, at the theater, in a concert hall coaching us in appreciation of the arts at a level deeper than entertainment, an afternoon’s diversion, an outing with a friend. Walk through the museum (sans headphones), pause before art that moves you until you have a chance to connect your response with some of your values, return a little later to watch your soul respond again and understand it better…
If we saw someone in a museum do this, we would guess that the person took art seriously—unusually so. And that is what York is inviting us to do not only in museums, theaters, and concert halls, but every day of our lives with “spiritual snacks” we arrange in our workplace, home, in get-togethers with friends.
I will not rate myself, here, on the third area of life that York identifies as a celebration of our soul: “Romantic Love and Sexual Experience,” where our most desirable and beloved human being is a living embodiment” of “our own personal highest values.”
I know that sexual passion and romantic love have obsessed my adult life, but I wonder: How often have I attended to the daily, hourly beauty and meaning of relationships to an extent commensurate with their importance to me?
York never ignores the work needed to achieve the realism and consistency of the values that underlie the emotional experiences we cherish. In love and sex, the integrated-mind-body experience of ourselves that is most deeply rewarding cannot be achieved by casual sex, by promiscuity. The price of ecstatic romantic love is pursuit of eudaimonia.
Gifts, candlelit dinners, romantic weekends, shared experiences of nature and of the arts—none are new ideas. York is not selling magic potions. Her magic is awareness, attentiveness, and imagination that infuse every experience with the aliveness that is a focused mind. To focus is to exert our primal energy of mind because something is important. To give our loved one our full focus is itself romantic. (York likes to symbolize this by moments when the eyes meet and hold a gaze.)
Added to chapters on nature, art, and romantic love are a long chapter on the family and another on friends. York’s chapter on the family and how the growth, education, and intimate family life of children shape their souls, and express and model the eudaimonia of their parents, is a tour de force of educational philosophy and psychology. York grasps in full the dilemma of parents today facing the distortions in education, the indoctrination, the need for parents to take responsibility for what their children learn. But there is a path of love and discipline, firm consistency and exciting invitation, that fosters the personality—and the soul—ready for the world today and what it might become.
In my experience as a reviewer, this book is an unusual challenge. How to convey what emerges when an author combines command of philosophy and psychology, myriad imaginatively evoked examples, frankly star-quality narrative personality, an experience of life the yields frank mini-lectures on where we can go wrong, and a style as effective in describing an erotic caress at midnight as in evoking the pleasure of Chopin?
I had wondered, lately, if at my age I could achieve anything else of real importance. Yes, I will keep writing—more of the same. And, I want to support my son’s ambitions—as I always have.
Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks has upended my perspective on challenges ahead. I have understood achievements in life. Thanks to Ayn Rand, I have understood the achievement that is self. What I had not identified explicitly was the capstone achievement (not temporally but conceptually) that gives all else ultimate significance. That is, as we have seen, here, the fine art of celebrating the person that our reason, choices, values, actions, and daily experiences have created.
You would not have expected this highest mastery of valuing to be “easy.” It is not, of course. It demands understanding some of our highest-level abstractions. And understanding those lofty concepts right down to their referents in daily life. What is the soul as encountered in the lines of a sonnet? What is happening to the soul when we gaze into the eyes of a lover and feel “everything is right with the world.”
I was intrigued to read at the end of the book about the long and convoluted evolution of the idea for Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks.
I was intrigued to read at the end of the book about the long and convoluted evolution of the idea for Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks—the journey of research and discovery that finally yielded the idea.
In the end, that is not surprising. A book like this (if there is more than one!) in some sense must be the culminating expression of a lifetime of exploring ideas, a lifetime of experiences understood, and a lifetime of maturing a personal style and mastering its expression in writing.
In the end, the mastery York knows we must seek to make our soul celebrations the light of our lives is an understanding of our identity—our value system at the level of fundamentality that defines us. In her chapter, “Know Thyself,” York, as usual, gets specific. We never are advised to do something and left to dope out how to do it.
In this chapter, she leads us through a series of exercises that by means of associations, attributes, and metaphors we approach, albeit obliquely, the value hierarchy that makes us each a unique individual. I found myself challenged. Can you “reduce your value hierarchy down to one word that describes your fundamental core value as a unique individual?”
I thought: achievement? Self-expression? Personal security? Affirmation by other people? Knowing? Self-assertion?
After 10 imaginatively varied challenges driving at identifying who you are and therefore what you celebrate in our soul, you at least should understand the goal. Most of us, even those with a philosophical bent (myself), acquire our values—especially those deeply integrated into our self—by a not fully conscious, conceptually aware process.
So “assuming an afterlife, which one person would you take with you…and what fundamental values do they embody that have caused you to choose them?”
My wife? My brother? My son? My best friend from college? I realized that my deepest, most personal values were clashing with each other.
“Secular spiritual experiences of exaltation, empowerment, enlightenment, and mesmerizing awe are the rapturous rewards we reap by actualizing the deepest values that constitute our unique personhood.”
I have long believed in that chiefly because of my love affair with poetry. (Alexandra York, among so much else, is an ardent poet, beginning each chapter of her book with a poem inspired by its theme.)
Nothing but poetry, however, gave me “experiences of exaltation.” I think I see, now, that might have been because once I experienced the exaltation, or moment of awe, or the affirmation of life that a poem could evoke, I went back, again and again, seeking to relive the experience. I learned about how poetry achieves its effects and the complexity of the craft the poet must master. I sought to acquire that craft.
In other words, I brought to poetry the sustained focus, effort, and imagination that are the price of the “rapturous rewards” that Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks inspires us to win in the realms of nature, art, and romantic love—rewards not to crown a lifetime of achievement but to refresh every day of our lives.
This was originally published by The Savvy Street on August 20, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.
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