Nathaniel Branden on Passion and Soulfulness

Nathaniel Branden

I was interested in Nathaniel Branden‘s essay on spirituality, particularly because of his longtime association with Ayn Rand‘s philosophy, Objectivism, which is decidedly atheistic. I like what he has to say on the subject. I also liked reading about his epiphany regarding the process of writing and living in the present moment. I hope you enjoy it too!

Click here to visit Nathaniel’s website.

By Nathaniel Branden, Ph. D.

When I think of nourishing the soul, I think of nurturing the ability to respond positively to life—that is, the ability to sustain passion for our interests, values, and projects. I believe that the worst of all spiritual defeats is to lose enthusiasm for life’s possibilities.

Every life has its share of setbacks and disappointments—of tragedy and loss. So the question we all confront, in the face of negatives that may assail us, is: How do we keep our inner fire alive?

Two things, at minimum, are needed: an ability to appreciate the positives in our life—and a commitment to action.

Every day, it’s important to ask and answer these questions: “What’s good in my life?” and “What needs to be done?”

The first question keeps us focused on positives; the second keeps us proactive and reminds us that we are responsible for our own happiness and well-being.

Another aspect of focusing on the positive, and thereby nourishing the soul, is to stay focused on the inquiry “What in my life do I most enjoy? What most stimulates me?” Someone once said that you can know who a man is if you know what wakes him up.

The pleasures that nurture me personally may be as simple as enjoying the view of the city and the ocean from the window of my living room, or spending time in the garden, or appreciating good health. Of course, one of the greatest joys that nurtures me is that I have a loving relationship with my wife. In addition, when I think of nurturing the soul, I think of listening to music and rereading books that have meant a lot to me. I also think of the act of writing. When I spend time at my computer, writing, I almost invariably experience a tremendous sense of appreciation of how wonderful it is to be alive. If I am away from writing too long, I feel discouraged, or at least dispirited. Writing takes energy, and it also creates energy.

For all of us, the key is to pay close attention to which activities make us feel most alive and in love with life—and then try to spend as much time as possible engaged in those activities.

Even when our life is most difficult, it is important to remember that something within us is keeping us alive—the life force—that lifts us, energizes us, pulls us back sometimes from the abyss of despair. True spirituality does not exist without love of life.

If we feel unhappy or unfulfilled, the most urgent question is, “What needs to be done?” Or one might say, “What’s missing in my life—and what can I do about it?” The sin is to suffer passively. We must never forget that we have the capacity to act. So we must always be concerned to know “What avenues of action are possible to me? What can I do to make my life better?”

If we stay oriented to the two basic questions—”What’s good in my life?” and “What needs to be done?”—and strive to respond to those questions appropriately, the predictable result is that we will be happier human beings and get far more of whatever it is that we want in life.

Some writers—Erich Fromm, for one—contrast a so-called “being” orientation with a “doing” orientation. The implication is that being and doing are in some sense antithetical. Of course, they are not. Doing and being, action and stillness, are dependent on one another. Without action, we would cease to exist, and without stillness, we would neither be able to appreciate our existence nor have a foundation from which to act. We need stillness, we need the pure experience of being, in order to fully realize ourselves. Out of that stillness can come the motivation to act and also the awareness we need to act wisely, not to lose perspective. When being and doing are in harmony, when stillness and action are friends to each other, we create an integrated, satisfied soul. We are then in the best position to truly enjoy and appreciate life and not be destroyed by adversity.

Another aspect of nourishing the soul is the ability to stay focused on the present, to live in the present. Many years ago in the 1960s, I was writing a book called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem”. I was a young man at the time, in my thirties, and one day I was sitting at my typewriter, impatient for the book to be finished, thinking that my life would really begin to unfold only when this book was finished. Yet I intuitively knew that something was wrong with this line of thought. So I asked myself what I thought I would be doing when the book was finished, and I immediately answered, “Planning the next book.” And when the next book was finished? “Planning the book after that.” I saw that my life, first and foremost, was about writing: that was and is my passion. So, in the middle of writing “The Psychology of Self-Esteem”, I finally realized, “This is it. This is my life. If I can’t enjoy it now, every day, there is no reason to believe I’ll be better able to enjoy it in the future, after the seventh, eighth, or ninth book.”

That realization was a turning point for me. The impulse to focus on the future can be quite strong. It’s natural to look ahead. Yet I realized that the key to happiness lay in enjoying the process, not just the final result—because the greater part of my life was going to be spent at the level of process and not at the stage of contemplating the finished product. So now I bless each day I can get up and go to my computer and sit down to write and know and love the fact that this is what my life is about.

I believe that earning your living doing something you enjoy is one of the very best ways to nourish yourself. But even if you are employed at something that is not your ideal work, it is important to find ways to take as much pleasure in it as possible. Living in the present moment can make ordinary activities more interesting and joyful; you may be surprised, if you only look, at what you will find. If you try to stay connected with why you are doing what you are doing, for example, then even the parts of your life that aren’t especially exciting can become more meaningful. Sometimes I have to go to an event that doesn’t especially interest me. I’ve learned to tell myself, Make this experience as happy for yourself as you possibly can. Once that becomes a conscious purpose, it’s amazing how imaginative one can become. Life becomes infinitely more interesting.

Nothing I am saying about the importance of living in the present denies the value of being concerned with the future. We want to keep in mind our goals, what we’re moving toward, and to see the progression and direction that underlie our activities. We need to be able to plan for the future without sacrificing the present, and enjoy the present without making ourselves oblivious to the future. Obviously, we cannot control every single aspect of our life. We are not omnipotent. But we do have an enormous degree of responsibility for the shape our life takes. We have many options about how we will respond to events. We are not passive spectators, but active contestants in the drama of our existence. We need to take responsibility for the kind of life we create for ourselves.

How do we nurture the soul? By revering our own life. By treating it as supremely important. By reaching for the best within ourselves. By learning to love it all, not only the joys and the victories, but also the pain and struggles.

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2 Responses to “Nathaniel Branden on Passion and Soulfulness”

  1. ArrVee Says:

    this is a great post, that expounds on some of the ideas of Samuel Ullman’s “Youth”. Although engaging in our interests expends energy, it replenishes “the deep springs of Life” in us, from where the deep roots of our creativity and enthusiasm draw upon.

    we were given our talents and passions for a reason, and it is up to us to discover our raison d’etre and pursue it through thick or thin, with childlike enthusiasm.

    our life is like a firework rocket – as we expend our fuel, we gain altitude and light up the night sky, leaving interesting sub-bursts and patterns along the way, and culminating with the grand finale of our life story. Like the adversities of real life, the additives in our spiritual gunpowder add color, brilliance and texture to our light display. Our lives are likewise as evanescent, and we should shine while we can, for all we are worth, and make our Maker proud of the trail we leave behind, and how it has uplifted others.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    That’s a beautiful analogy, ArrVee. I love it. Thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom once again!

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