Why I Go To Practical Philosophy Class

Why Do I Keep Going Back?

Have you thought about coming along to a Practical Philosophy course? This post is about how these classes have helped me enjoy life more, have a great community around me to practice real enquiry with and to learn how to enjoy the life - enhancing practice of meditation. 

If you are thinking about attending Part 1; I hope this account of my experience gives you an idea of what to expect.

Getting Hooked - from Part 1 and Beyond

I attended the Part 1 Introductory Course in Practical Philosophy in Dublin for the first time a many years ago. There has been a course every term, starting September, January and April every year now for the last 50 years in Ireland. The courses are held in around 24 locations all over Ireland and in all those 50 years, there has been around 25,000 people who have taken the Part 1 course. 

It is a stand- alone course in itself, but many, like me, get hooked, and keep going back every term for the next ‘part’, each term we go back for our ‘group’ evening, for years and years - why do we do this? Don’t we know enough about practical philosophy already? And, what on earth are we doing in these classes? Is it some sort of secret club? 

Personally, I don’t have a great record of commitment, I’m not in a tennis or golf club, I never got married and I change jobs every few years. I tend to lose interest quickly in hobbies. But I’ve kept this up, like clockwork, signing up again each term for 15 years. These are my reasons for coming back.

  • Good, Practical, Reliable Content

When I left college and started as a newbie in the workplace, I used to pick up books and quotations from positive psychology authors and motivational speakers in self - help style. I found the transition to adulthood hard and I had no compass for direction except for what I’d learned from my upbringing, my family or from the Catholic church. This didn’t help me to understand who I was or my place in the world. All through my twenties I picked up little gems of books, like ‘Awareness’ by Anthony De Mello’, Paulo Coelho and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I also wasted time on less quality books and movies which may not have sent me astray, but certainly didn’t help move me along very much in helping me to be a happier, more contented human. Have you had this experience of not knowing which information to trust?

Attending classes in the School has given me access to a whole host of great writers and thinkers who are wise and kind and helpful and have been like friends offering sound advice along the way. You won’t find Tony Robbins or Louise Hay on the reading list here (although they have their place, just not here), the content is rock solid; ancient, simple and sound like Plato and accessible like Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, the poet Rumi. The school also takes inspiration from a leading exponent of the philosophy of non-duality in India – Shri Shantananda Saraswati.  

I take home my notes from class, stick them on the fridge and try and practice what these wise ones have to say. Then in our group class I usually complain that it was hard..but worthwhile and helpful in my week.

  •  Meditation - A Steady Rock in A Stormy Sea

I didn’t know anything much about meditation when it was offered to me in Part 4. To be honest I thought it would be pretty cool to be able to say I was a meditator. The lineage of meditation offered in the school has the same background as TM, or Transcendental Meditation (that term is copyrighted and is not associated with this School). This brought up images of the Beatles, India, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and that cool, retro hippyiness that I could discover in Dublin in the 2000’s. 

This type of meditation offered in the school is called mantra meditation. It sounded mysterious and special. I didn’t really believe the tutor when they said it was a simple practice. I imagined  that I’d close my eyes and see kaleidoscopes, lights and feel elated. Instead, its been like a steady rock that I can sit on for a rest, morning and evening. It nourishes, cleanses and heals the body and mind in ways I don’t really understand and it is very simple. You get a lifetime guarantee of support from the School when you learn meditation here. 

Sometimes I’ve found it really hard to keep up the habit, or I get anxious I’m not doing it right. Life doesn’t always make it easy to allow for time to dedicate to meditation. This is another reason for me to back to my group week after week; I can talk with them about it, meditate with them and be encouraged by the changes I see in me and in them as a result of having meditation in our lives. It’s like a reset valve for me. If I’m not doing great in life at any one time, it's usually because my meditation habits are off.

  • The People - Everyday Philosophers

Service

I can’t help being impressed by how everyone in the school is a volunteer; even if you just joined and you are in Part 1, you might be asked to serve the tea or stack the chairs. Some dig the garden, others tutor classes or arrange flowers for the room.  It’s like the GAA, but without the stadium and the jerseys. To be fair, I don’t know much about the GAA, but what this group of philosophers has done is pretty impressive; they have continued to deliver classes in Ireland for 50 years, they maintain a beautiful house in Townley Hall for retreats and they founded a junior and secondary school. There seems to be only one thing in common among all the diverse ages and cultural backgrounds here; and that’s a curiosity about how to live life better, about how to be happy, how to be fulfilled. In a recent talk, the leader of the school said we should call it our school; not the school, because we are the school. Our school is an interesting bunch of people, and I have made really great friends for life here.

The Power of the Group

Besides my own group on Tuesday evenings, I get to tutor Part 1 also on occasion. All kinds of people come to Part 1 and it is such a pleasure to see the group bring their everyday issues up to test and see if Proust, Einstein, Lao Tzu or Kipling has the answer ...or whether the answer is already in the room. The school is a big fan of Plato who was a pupil of Socrates in Ancient Greece and the classes are conducted in a way that encourages enquiry, rather than an information - offloading style of teaching that I remember from college. This is also a reason for me to keep coming back - I need to discuss these books on my bookshelf with other people, otherwise I don’t remember the wisdom contained in there. This is where the other people are your teachers. Have you ever read a book, that inspired you in a life - changing way and then forgot all about it soon afterwards? Your classes will help you remember and take on the information in a deeper way than before.

Are There Any Down Sides To Practical Philosophy?

Yes, certainly. These are the down sides that I have seen and you could potentially see:

  1. The Word: The word philosophy sounds a bit lofty, so your friends and family may think you have taken up something strange or pretentious. The ‘practical’ in Practical Philosophy should reassure you though. This isn’t an academic course, there are no exams. The work is in applying the practical advice of philosophers into your life as a bank teller or a solicitor or an advertising executive. Once you’ve tried to put it into practice, you share with the group (or you just listen to others) and the outcome is that for some reason, you feel lighter, less burdened by a problem and happy that you’ve learned a new approach from the work. The reason I keep going back is because I think this is an amazing service! There are so many problems to solve; it seems like the conversation has no end of potential!
  2. Showing up for class: going to practical philosophy class is a bit like showing up for your rugby or your hockey team. You will be missed if you don’t show. At the start I was oblivious to this. I thought I went to class for me and my learning. But I realise now, you show up for your group - they want to have a great conversation and they want as many of their group there as they started with. I realise this when I miss people from our group some evenings. I do miss class sometimes, but it is rare because my life is pretty settled now. There were times when I found it hard to get there every week; but priorities changed. There is great flexibility in our school though; and you can mix and match your evenings and  you can often re-sit classes that you missed very easily, certainly in the early parts.
  3. You might not like speaking in class: this is ok, don’t worry about this one. There are talkers and listeners in every class - you won’t be made to speak up if you don’t want to. It can take some people a few weeks to get cosy in the group so just speak when you are comfortable.

Summary

I am a regular student in our school and I really enjoy it. I am really grateful for the impact it has made in my life. Maybe you’re wondering what to do about someone in work who you just don’t get on with, or you’re throwing your arms up in despair at what life is all about.  Or maybe you’re just curious about how to be wise, how to be happy, and how to enjoy life more.

Come along and let's open up those philosophy texts together and see what gems are to be found. 

I hope my experience has been encouraging and maybe I’ll see you soon at the next Part 1 Practical Philosophy Course?

Do you have a story you'd like to share about practical philosophy that we can feature on our blog? Email your submissions to digitalteam@practicalphilosophy.ie