On Romanticism

This article won’t be about the cultural relevance, history nor critique of Valentine’s day. For that you may need to go somewhere else. Instead, I want to talk about the spirit behind what makes the 14th of February so popular, and how, over the years it has come to be synonymous with an icon of something very interesting in human philosophy – Romanticism. This article will talk about it particularly in the context of human relationships.

Romanticism, as we know in mainstream philosophy, originated as a collective movement in what we identify as the Romance period, immediately following the Enlightenment era. In this period, a great number of artists, writers, playwrights and poets started emphasizing more on the value of individualism, virtue of pursuing our unleashed emotions and the primacy of subjectivity and aesthetics. Some scholars and historians speculate that this trend arose out of being somewhat frustrated with the then prevalent hardcore emphasis on Rationality, which the preceding era of thinkers had brought forth. Others opine that the Romantic thinkers and artists spoke largely against what was the norm in their society – rigid social rules and traditionally approved relationships commissioned by arranged marriages. It was their commonsense perspective that such arrangements were more like business agreements than union of human beings, each otherwise individually capable of expressing emotions and living through their own sets of imaginations. Thus commenced a series of countless reveries, stories and poems rebelling against the then status-quo of a hardhearted society that invited unforgiving consequences for any who dared to defy the norms. This is one reason why tragedy is such a recurring theme in any Romantic novel or drama, even to this day.

Rediscovery after rediscovery of Romantic virtues by many generations and cultures of people thereafter, made the theme a rather popular one among even the lay folk, let alone the nobility or aristocracy. Tragedy as a genre was (and still is) easier to grasp and had far greater entertainment value compared to art that dealt with other aspects of the human condition. It was, more importantly, relatable to anyone. Because people in general have the ability to fantasize about great stories of love, passion or courage complicated by unforeseen obstacles that leave the concerned individuals with only a few choices to overcome them – which could often times result in failure or even death. Much like in life, but somewhat exaggerated of course.

Romantic art forms often show us that what seems so achievable to us in near sight, can prove to become a gargantuan feat to accomplish – be it a love affair across the classes, enemy lines or taboo. These were able to spark deep emotions within readers or viewers in every generation and leave them in the end to freely interpret the experience in their own subjective ways. Romantic stories demanded readers or viewers to use less of their rational brains and instead to delve into a purely emotional experience. And Romantic themes could always be molded into different keys of social issues, which made them a timeless form of art and entertainment. Portrayals of near-impossible longings or courting of people being hindered by social restrictions or other random events can easily be accepted by people of any generation; as it’s only our human nature to be able to envision ourselves in a position of constant struggle which the characters in such stories are seen enduring. But an important yet often overlooked tenet of the Romantic movement was to bring about the feeling of empathy in people, and I personally think this is the most valuable aspect of all. For this reason, many people today who enjoy any form of art or literature, new or old, are in some ways Romantics themselves. Even if not in terms of human relationships, perhaps for some other vision which they have created for themselves, for example the virtues of Heroism and courage we can find in superhero comics or movies (But this is beyond the scope of this article today).

Where Romanticism may have done unintended damage in the modern era could be said to be in our individual psychologies and possibly even on our mental health. Influenced by generations upon generations of epic romantic stories of people going out of their way to please the ones they wish to court, I think many people have, at least in some sense, lost track of what the ethos of the romantic movement really was about. The core idea of Romanticism lies in the appreciation of our emotions, struggles and sufferings as human beings and their subjective or aesthetic portrayals, along with an emphasis on the value of empathy. Romanticism isn’t just about being extravagant in terms of action or finance for courtship purposes. It also isn’t about falling into self-justified emotional turmoil at the near-chance of failure in that regard. It’s also not just about relationship idealism, like the myth of finding the “perfect one”; although nowadays it’s a catchy theme for drawing out audiences to buy novels or to fill out movie theaters.

But unlike back in the 16th century, I think people today have a wide variety of philosophical as well as entertainment options from which they can choose – thanks to the internet of things and the technologies that we possess. If used cautiously and with direction, it could lead us into channels that could actually improve our skills or insight when it comes to dealing with people. Romantic ideals such as zealous emotions, if taken lightly in the form of subtle and harmless entertainment, could instead have positive effects. It could win us the admiration of those we love and perhaps even more people could be attracted to us for they could perceive us as being jovial or simply ‘fun’ to hang out with. I have to admit that this is a position I have come to conclude after much thinking over the years; when before, I used to shun Romantic ideals altogether. I used to call myself an anti-romantic, which was a radical position to take as I realize now in retrospect. I understand today, that if taken lightheartedly, it could help us attain psychological soundness or perhaps even help revive a sense of optimism in mildly straining relationships. The goal, it seems, is to not stick to the either extremes of this ideal. Most importantly, the Romantic philosophy’s insistence on the human quality of empathy has lead me to personally stress on it’s importance more than ever.

While some elements of Romanticism may be relevant for purposes of attracting mates or partners, other elements may foster in us undesired feelings of insufficiency or inadequacy. If not carefully understood or examined, Romantic ideals could instead lead us to fabricate this alternate reality where perfection actually exists, forgetting about the values of empathy which it teaches us, and in the end – to suffer the consequences of our bloated expectations not meeting the harsh nature of a somewhat frugal reality. This could then lead us into a slippery slope of emotional turmoil, full of unstable relationships, vindictiveness and hostilities – which may in effect package us into a kind of negative outlook or attitude for life. I think, if we are not vigilant, Romantic idealism can skew our perception of actual human psychology and human relationships, all towards certain detrimental effects.

Even in clinical psychology, we see this effect of exaggerated Romanticism in the form of what professionals call Borderline personality disorder or a similar one known as Histrionic personality disorder. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming an absolute causation pattern, just a linked observation. There’s evidence which suggest that other factors such as genes, development inside our mother’s womb and trauma experienced during childhood may play much significant roles for the same. But what can be said with certainty, is that based on our personality types and our sensitivities, we should probably weigh our abilities to grasp important lessons from Romantic stories or art. If we see ourselves either overtly attached or overtly detached, then perhaps an objective study of the Romantic philosophy could do us good. But this just remains my speculation at this moment.

And in this way, the 14th of February, is tied intimately (even if in a historically distorted way) as we all know, to the essence of the Romance era. It already is a global event, regardless of some pockets of local resistance it suffers in some places around the world  (which is kind of expected since it is basic human nature to be defensive at the advent of a newfangled cultural idea). And because of that, we should use it’s inevitably increasing popularity to spread awareness about especially the practical lessons of the Romantic spirit which it comes attached with, not just the superficial and oftentimes immature kind of materialism which we can witness today. And I think, as in any other philosophy, sticking to one extreme will not do our lives much justice. In my opinion, any human philosophy, if observed objectively, can give us much needed practical tools to better our lives and thus our general well-being, while simultaneously helping us identify with clarity, the negative aspects which may not be so useful in our everyday lives.

Art: Anonymous
Mental Health, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology

On Meditation…

Upon reading the title of this article, you may be imagining a serene and tranquil environment where calm-appearing people clad in white apparel are seated with their legs crossed and backs straight on a mat, while gently breathing in and then out in synchrony. This is also exactly what may come into your minds every other time you hear the word ‘meditation’ and you are partly correct – this is one form of it, not really the sole definition. But that’s just half the story.

The term itself is probably one of the few positive sounding words out there in our everyday lingo. When people tell you that they meditate, you may automatically assume that they may be doing something constructive and healthy. To be fair, that is what it actually is, most of the time for many people – meditation is a positive thing to do.

But what concerns me is the apparent skewed understanding of this mental exercise, tipping mostly towards the narrative set by the rapidly growing wellness industry. And seeing how things work in the global economy, such a skew is oftentimes an expected affair. We often assume that the practice of meditation is something extra-corporeal and so we tend to see it through this presupposed net of airy mysticism. Now I’m not trying to belittle people’s perception of this art form through this blog, as I’m fully aware that attaching such mystic themes may sometimes be helpful to the some people who want that. What I’m trying to reveal is a well-known yet widely understated fact – meditation is a purely down-to-earth affair and there’s nothing magical about it. But this also doesn’t mean that we’ve fully understood it’s neurological significance and workings.

Subjective perceptions apart, let’s come to the interesting part. First and foremost, let’s talk about what exactly meditation means, regardless of the various forms. What does it mean to meditate? What are the common grounds between the various choices -contemporary or ancient?

Above all, one thing is fairly certain and is agreed upon by people from all sectors concerned: meditation is about attaining deep focus and psychological equilibrium. We do not know how exactly this is achieved, but evidence is mounting that it has mostly to do with our biological brains. It’s hypothesized that since every form of meditation somewhat deals with focusing on the fewest possible things for the longest possible time, and on diverting our conscious awareness to reflect upon our thoughts, personalities and behaviors – it may help strengthen our ability to better understand ourselves and thus others. What I assume on a personal level, being fully aware that I may be mistaken, is that training to meditate may actually help us train this area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. Perhaps the mechanism could be explained by more neural connections being formed in this region, or maybe by the strengthening of existing ones (or maybe even both). I’m not throwing out airy assumptions, just making some educated speculation based on the basics of neuroscience. But people who know better than me are conducting research into this and it may be better to look them up instead for more information.

Making at least this much clear, I’d like to move on to what the various forms of meditation can be. We usually assume that meditations have mostly to do with ancient eastern philosophies such as Buddhism or Hinduism, owing to their popularity. But as I’ve said before, this is a human practice (or should I say art form) and much like how human nature is universal, meditation is too. To put this into perspective for instance, we can’t rightly say that the art form of painting is a western construct can we? So the same argument applies for meditation.

History has documented many instances of human cultures that have come up with their own forms of meditation. From Epicurean subsistence communes in antiquity Greece and Vipasana or Yoga in ancient India, to Christian Monasteries of medieval Europe and Sufi dance schools during the Mughal era. These are all forms of meditation established by different human cultures, independently or under influence.

But what many of us may not grasp is the fact that it doesn’t always have to be limited to a certain ancient discipline or spiritual schools of thought. Any hobby of your liking that you pursue solely for your own pleasure can prove to be an equally effective form of meditation. Painting, composing music, playing musical instruments, writing stories, trekking or hiking, sports, photography, exercise, dance or martial art, you name it. These being the intuitive ones, other less intuitive and unconventional forms of meditations could be even found in computer programming, digital art, video gaming, or for some, maybe even You-tubing. Any act that involves deep focus and is enjoyable especially for ourselves in one way or the other could be said to be a form of meditation. And I assume even in this direction, my earlier thesis – of meditative actions strengthening our prefrontal cortex and thus helping us focus more efficiently – stands. Of course, the common sense notion of moderation being key will still apply.

It will be interesting to see what actual science will tell us in the coming years, since research into meditative practices such as basic mindfulness is currently ongoing. Where I do have some doubts about them, they may lie in the fact of such practices having mostly subjective outcomes through the individuals being tested – which makes it very hard for any known scientific method to empirically document the effects. But as newer brain imaging and electroencephalographic modalities are being developed as I write, it may only be a matter of time before we start uncovering the enigma associated with meditative practices and their widely stated benefits on our brains. The only thing to look out for then, I assume, would be for people’s range of acceptance of the hard facts.

Featured Image: JJ Studios Designer Abstract Painting