Ideals, Repose and the Prefrontal Cortex

woman-face-300x230An ideal is a standard of perfection. It lives in the imagination. It’s a conception of something excellent, an ultimate object, an aim or an ultimate “good” that we imagine. An ideal can be anything. It doesn’t have to be universal or other-worldly.

cardinalYou can have your ideal summer, your ideal sandwich, your ideal bird. You can imagine your ideal wife or ideal husband. A parent can imagine their ideal child and a farmer their ideal cow. It’s a dream image of perfection. We invent ideals to serve our deepest needs and happiness. Our ideal life will be this way or that – ideal house, ideal lover, ideal friend, ideal environment – and then, we measure the success of our expectations against those ideals.

George Santayana (1862-1952)

The “surprise” is that most things don’t meet our expectations which makes things appear ugly. The philosopher George Santayana said that there are two modes of consciousness: there’s day-to-day life as a Homo sapiens (Latin for wise man or knowing man), and there’s escape. Escape comes as freedom from anxieties, cares and problems.

forestEscape is about seeing the whole forest that couldn’t be seen because you were too close, and focusing on trees. It’s when you realize the world is ideal as it is and you can enjoy whatever comes along. Ideal enjoyment goes with the Lucretian goal of “happiness.”


Lucretius, who probably died in 55 BC at age 44, wrote, “Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another’s tribulation: not because any man’s troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant” (Book II, Line I).

Lucretius loved Epicurus.

“What is good is easy to get, and What is terrible is easy to endure” (Epicurus).

Epicurus (341-270 BC) was a gentle man who said, “The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity” (Vatican Sayings 8). 

Strife and violence in ancient Rome partly explains Lucretius’ commitment to the Epicurean ideal of “intellectual pleasure and tranquillity of mind” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Heraclitus (540-470 BC).

Aside from there being more of us and new technologies, Homo sapiens haven’t changed since ancient Rome. We’re still stupid. We lack higher levels of understanding. We can’t help it. It’s our brains. It isn’t easy being human. You can be absolutely certain about something and be absolutely wrong. You can plan ahead, but things change: you get sick, lose a job, fail, get old, disasters strike. Heraclitus said a mouthful when he said with his mouth full, “All is flux. Nothing is stationary.”

We’re overly optimistic, mechanistic and absorbed in “stuff.” We fool ourselves with gregarious pleasures we don’t really enjoy. To feel profound enjoyment, takes brain training.

spockIn “The Vulcanization of the Human Brain” scientist J. Cohen (2005) describes the conflict between emotional and cognitive parts of the brain. We have an “old” brain (about the size of a fist) that makes quick, inflexible decisions driven by emotion, desire and physical needs, and we have a “new” brain (the prefrontal cortex and cortical layer).

This “new” part can override anger, pride and impatience, but it takes reasoned practice. You can train this “new” part through contemplation, cogitation, deliberation, meditation and rumination. You can override emotional vexations and frustrations by stepping back, reframing, reassessing and reposing.

Wisdom personified.

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy” (Proverbs of Solomon).

To feel this kind of happiness is to live the repose of a heath as described by Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native (1874).egdon-heath2

In the novel Hardy wrote, “To do things musingly, and by small degrees… not the repose of actual stagnation, but the… repose of incredible slowness. A condition of healthy life…” (p. 10).

Take lucky moments of awareness and mix them with moments of simple pleasures. Moments of pleasure are illustrated in the movie Chocolat (2000).

lucky moment

We would do well to take the kind advice of the young priest in the movie who said, “We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, by what we resist and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”

The narrator is the little girl in the film who is now grown up looking back on her life. In her closing narrations she says, “The parishioners felt a new sensation that day: a lightening of the spirit; a freedom from the old tranquillity.”

chocolatThis “new sensation” of lightening of spirit and freedom is to enjoy an escape from anxiety, fear and worry. In this, ideal enjoyment can be realized any time you so choose. One need only contemplate, slow down, reason and enjoy.

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A Philosopher of Enjoyment.

4 thoughts on “Ideals, Repose and the Prefrontal Cortex”

  1. I often wonder why we lose so much time to worry, lost expectations, and living in the past, when not only reading the words “to enjoy a lightening of spirit and the enjoyment of escape from anxiety, fear and worry” can make a difference, but actually practicing it on a daily basis instantly changes how you enjoy life and what you see. Thanks for another thoughtful post on enjoyment.


  2. It’s just one of those things I guess. I know how I get. I get self-absorbed and forget to slow down and smell the coffee. Today I fell into a contemplative zone of peace in my front porch. It was beautiful and simple. The danger for me is to not come across like a conceited know-it-all. I don’t like know-it-alls. I don’t know much but I read wise words that resonate and think about things. Sometimes, all it takes is a piece of music to lift my spirits.

    Someone told me in the form of constructive criticism, that this blog is too deep. It’s boring, not very good and a waste of time. I lost this person as a reader. My first reaction was to feel annoyed and then sad, but then, I listened and said nothing. I let the knee-jerk reaction pass. I can’t help what others think. If they don’t get what I’m talking about, I can only try another approach. To each his own. I present what I think are keys to an enjoyment of a particular kind and if someone doesn’t like it (the majority of people I suppose), it’s beyond my control. I look at wisdom and my own experience and put it out there. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just to help me, but then I see a few followers like yourself who leave a like or a kind comment now and then, and I know it’s worth it. Maybe the words I send out as a reminder of what people already know can help someone out of a difficult time or to feel enjoyment. Maybe in some infinitesimal way, the words I send strike a chord in someone and make them happy. It does my heart good to see that you got something out of this and I like that you used the word ‘thoughtful’. If nothing else, that’s what I try to be. Thanks again! Enjoy your day! That’s an order! (just kidding)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A few questions, not really specific to the post but ones that occurred to me while reading it:

    * Is there a positive place for pessimism in the Philosophy of Enjoyment?
    * You reference a lot of western Philosophers and Philosophies, have you spent much time looking at other traditions?
    * I was reading about Hedonism this morning, what concern (if any) should there be for the other when it comes to ones own enjoyment?

    The last image in you post reminds me of the movie Antonia’s Line, if you haven’t seen it you might enjoy it:

    Something else to enjoy:


  4. Hi Rob!

    I’ll look for that movie (looks great!) and the music, well, excellent! Thanks for that. When you see what a person enjoys, you know that person better. The points you make must be explored! Yes! Is there a place for pessimism? Definitely. I see a connection between pessimism, other traditions (as in Eastern philosophers) and hedonism. Pessimism goes with the Buddha’s first noble truth: “Life is suffering,” (especially if you’re wearing uncomfortable high heals or too-tight wooden clogs!) Is someone who avoids (or is attracted to) such footwear a hedonist? Is it good to avoid physical and mental suffering as much as you can and to appreciate some forms of suffering – not like a sadist, but as one who enjoys life in it’s totality? In music, isn’t that what the blues are about?

    As for pessimism and a philosophy of enjoyment, a pessimist entering a canoe puts on a life-jacket. A pessimist isn’t likely to participate in extreme sports. It’s not worth the chance. Even if a dangerous activity is considered enjoyable, a bit of pleasure isn’t worth death or dismemberment. (Interestingly, pessimists tend to live longer than optimists.)

    I reference western Philosophers but I love other traditions! I’ve been negligent! The closest I’ve come to another tradition was in the post about games in “Horizons, Games, Connections and Enjoyment” ( ).

    I’m a fan of Lao Tzu (Tao te Ching), Raman Maharshi (Who am I?), Confucius, Alan Watts (Way of Zen), D. T. Suzuki’s essays – just to name a few – and I live Zen in a way: “this stick is short. this stick is long”, “chop wood, carry water” “before enlightenment, a mountain was a mountain; after enlightenment, a mountain is a mountain” – so good! I’m probably doing a disservice to these ideas, but I’ll work on including non-western traditions in future posts. As for hedonism, and concern for the other, that’s definitely a topic to be explored! I’ll get my head around that and put ideas out the for further contemplation. Often we don’t know what we think until we try to tell someone else. Thanks for this!


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