This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Art of Being by Erich Fromm. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A book that leaves you with more questions than answers – and you love it exactly for this. Published in 1989, The Art of Being is strangely relevant today. As if the text was waiting to be discovered in our current times – our busy times. Erich Fromm explains how our unstoppable urge to have more of everything is destroying us from the inside. The cure is the book itself. Teaching us the art of living – i.e., to properly self-assess so we can find our authentic selves.
The Core Idea:
Instead of being collectors of things, Erich Fromm argues that we should adopt a different orientation about life – orientation towards not-having. Focusing on love, reason, and productive activities. These three cannot be possessed, only practiced. But arriving to this realization and changing our course is painful. Not only because we live in a commercialized society, but also because we are unaware of our slavery without visible chains. Thus, liberation requires deep inner work.
Reason To Read:
Escaping the widespread deception that great results can be achieved without effort. Realizing that the easy results famous gurus suggest (yes, the book talks about gurus that fully resonates with what’s happening today) are only said to convert more people into customers. Furthermore, the text gives you a model to live by that is nothing but easy. Yet, exactly for this reason, it’s the right one.
- We need a strong will to resist the modern propaganda spreading messages that more things equal more happiness.
- True liberation comes from awareness. Being aware of what is hidden in your unconscious.
- We underestimate the power of stillness. More precisely, the daily practice of sitting alone by ourselves and doing nothing.
6 Key Lessons From The Art of Being:
- Lesson #1: The Main Goal of Every Man Is To Have Happiness
- Lesson #2: Instead of Freedom of Will, We Have Freedom of Whim
- Lesson #3: Awareness Leads to Independence
- Lesson #4: Learn From Others, Don’t Blindly Follow Them
- Lesson #5: Regularly Conduct Self-Analysis To Keep Moving Forward
- Lesson #6: Instead of Collecting Things, We Need To Actively Create
Lesson #1: The Main Goal of Every Man Is To Have Happiness
It all starts with a simple question: What is the goal of living?
Evolution was kind enough to give us a wish to live. However, we can’t adequately articulate why we want to live. All we know is that we really like to live.
Digging deeper into this question, Fromm arrives at the conclusion that we live to be happy. That’s the aim of human existence. Regardless of our actions, we want to reach a happier state.
But since happiness is a broad term and it cannot be clearly defined – different people feel good doing different things. We should then pursue a different question: What does happiness mean to us?
Most commonly, it’s this: We achieve happiness if we have what we want.
As you can see, this leads to yet another question.
“OK, if happiness is having what I want. What do I want then?”
The above almost always transforms into: “What do I need?”
If we tie this question to an object – i.e., to be happy, I want and need a bigger house because I don’t have enough room in the current one – it always leads to a loop.
When the need is obtained – say we do get the house – we feel happy about this but it’s only a temporary thing. A new need arises.
Similar to eating your favorite food, this type of thinking is dangerous.
Eating is what you need to survive. But it will be quite unhealthy to eat only the food you want – nor it will lead to permanent happiness because eventually, you’ll be hungry again.
Consuming what you want and need, if not carefully considered, can lead to the opposite of happiness in the long run.
So what’s the other option?
Transitioning your orientation from possession-centered to activity-centered.
Reaching inner liberation is achieved by breaking free from the shackles of greed. Realizing that happiness is not having more, but doing things according to a more reasonable model of living. A path paved by the Masters of Living – the great philosophers who lived long before us.
“Read the writings of Masters of Living, learn to understand the true meaning of their words, form your own conviction of what you want to do with your life; and get over the naïve idea that you need no master, no guide, no model, that you can find out in a lifetime what the greatest minds of the human species have discovered in many thousands of years—and each one of them building with the stones and sketches their predecessors left them. As one of the greatest masters of living—Meister Eckhart—said: ‘How can anyone live without being instructed in the art of living and of dying?'” Erich Fromm
Lesson #2: Instead of Freedom of Will, We Have Freedom of Whim
We pursue whims, not will.
The difference is huge.
In the era of supreme connection and what seems like endless opportunities. We think that we’re free. That we have the option to create the life we want by simply consuming what is created by others.
After all, there are thousands of corporations offering dream jobs. Renovations in cities are making our lives easier. Technological progress is empowering our everyday life, and new products that make our lives less boring are appearing all the time.
Everything seems better. Effortless, even at times. This creates an understanding that we are totally free. That we are the boss of our lives. But beneath this illusion, the reality is quite different – that we are unaware of our powerlessness.
The “side effect” of our established revolution, as the author labels it, is that we have a “freedom of whim instead of the freedom of will.”
We feel deceivingly good because we can easily, through consumption, satisfy all of our emerging cravings. The desires the author calls whims.
Whims are spontaneous. They arise out of nothing and usually lead to nothing useful.
Summoned from the underground of our unconscious desires because these are not properly understood, whims disturb our current tasks and force us to pursue goals that are not even closely related to our current doings.
In today’s times, even the most irrational desire is pursued until fulfilled.
You see an ad about a new type of food and you immediately want it. If you can’t have it at this exact moment, you will start to consume something else even if you’re not hungry.
Or another scenario is when we are bored – even slightly bored. In these moments, you hop on your phone to indulge in mindless scrolling that makes you feel a bit better but contributes zero to a better future life.
Nowadays, thanks to our technological progress, we can satisfy even the most outrageous whim in less than 24 hours. Money is often not a problem too.
Once something appears in front of us – an object, an experience, a story about a person traveling the world – we suddenly decide that we need this no matter the cost. This compulsive need to obtain everything we see interrupts all of our tasks and prevents us from making substantial progress on… everything.
Erich Fromm mentions that when we’re exposed to something new – and nowadays, we are always exposed to new things – we ask “Why not?”. And, “Why not?” most definitely leads to consumption. After all, the barrier to spending more money, eating more food, consume more information is nonexistent. This persuades us that we are free to do what we want while we’re merely responding to signals spread by big corporations – propaganda messages in the form of ads and political campaigns that are not aimed to help, but focused to make you more attached to things you don’t really need.
Being free is not responding or pursuing everything that enters your orbit. It’s not responding to “Why not?”, it’s asking yourself, “Why?”
It’s about doing what you want.
In opposition of whim stands will.
Will is based on your true desires often hidden beneath a pile of possessions. Will is a long-term pursuit. The path is always painful and not that clear. There is hardly anyone who could help you. Not because others don’t want to aid, but because following your will is something personal. Something unique for every person.
“This “Why not?” implies that one does something simply because there is no reason against doing it, not because there is a reason for it; it implies that it is a whim but not a manifestation of the will. Following a whim is, in fact, the result of deep inner passivity blended with a wish to avoid boredom. Will is based on activity, whim on passivity.” Erich Fromm
Lesson #3: Awareness Leads to Independence
Looking at the world objectively has a liberating effect.
You don’t only start to see what was previously out of sight. But it also clears the mist in your head – awareness de-fogs the mind.
But what exactly is awareness?
Commonly we’ll say that is noticing what’s happening to us and in us. If we feel pain, joy, love, fear, or hate, and if we are aware of these feelings – actively think about them. We’ll most probably find the root cause of the feeling and avoid it or focus on gaining more of it – if it’s a pleasant sensation.
However, the power of awareness is not only noticing what’s happening to us. It’s acknowledging what’s hidden. Fromm describes it as “becoming conscious of what is unconscious (repressed).”
This falls into the category of unknown unknowns.
You begin to see things inside you that you thought do not exist. And by finding these things, you strengthen your position in the world.
This is a difficult task because it’s the opposite of our common logic – if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, our turbulent times are making it even harder. Especially today, where there are so many delusions. The most common one is believing that we should avoid pain – at all costs.
Since the modern world offers extreme comfort by just plugging inside the consumption phase. We prefer to live in the illusion.
Over time, our efforts to feel more comfortable and to avoid pain are the things that make us more obedient, not more independent. We live to follow others, a sheep life, because we are afraid. Afraid of failing. Unsure of our skills.
It kinds of looks like this: We do a lot of things on top of the things we’re already doing never concentrating on one simple idea. We consume, we start projects, search for more people to meet, listen to different “gurus” because they seemingly have all the answers. The more we have and do, the more comfortable we feel.
This comforting feeling, however, is preventing us from seeing the truth.
We avoid concentrating on one simple thing, an idea, a concept, a single person, because we don’t believe in ourselves. We are afraid that we might fail and lose our position in the world.
After all, if I do a lot of things at once and I fail at one of them, that’s OK. At least I have these other things.
Opposingly, if I focus on just one thing and if I fail, I fail for good. Thus, I’m a failure. I have nothing else. It’s all lost.
That’s why we do everything to avoid concentration. We read articles while listening to music while also watching TV.
Exactly concentration is the path towards a life fully lived though. That’s the first step towards transforming your life from having to being.
If one believes that nothing is worth concentrating on means that one is still not fully aware of his limitations. Of his submissive life. There is nothing burning inside of him that can make him lose track of time when working on a certain task.
So where do you start?
Fromm argues that we should practice stillness.
Start concentrating on a few things. But first, start by just sitting and doing nothing. Think of nothing. If you think it’s easy, this means that you have never before tried doing nothing for a brief moment.
“People are afraid to concentrate because they are afraid of losing themselves if they are too absorbed in another person, in an idea, in an event. The less strong their self, the greater the fear of losing themselves in the act of concentration on the non-self. For the person with a dominant having orientation this fear of losing oneself is one of the main factors that operates against concentration. Finally, to concentrate requires inner activity, not busy-ness, and this activity is rare today when busy-ness is the key to success.” Erich Fromm
Lesson #4: Learn From Others, Don’t Blindly Follow Them
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to benefit from what Buddhism has to teach us.
For example, Erich Fromm disagrees with many Buddhist doctrines. However, this does not prevent him from learning from Buddhist traditions.
In particular, he shares his fascination regarding how Buddhists define the goal of life: “To overcome greed, hate, and ignorance.”
Sounds simple. But is it?
- To overcome greed, you need to cleanse your desires.
- To overcome hate, you need to find love even when everything around you screams hatrated.
- To overcome ignorance, you need a sober view of everything happening around you and inside you.
The first step is always the same if you wish to overcome these corruptions: awareness.
You need to regularly enter a state of optimal awareness. The process of fully synchronizing both with what’s happening inside and outside.
I know, at first, this sounds like a total woo-woo thing. Like, “let me pack my crystal magic ball in addition to my meditation necklaces.”
But when you think about it you can easily spot how this seemingly easy task is so important: You can’t fix something unless you first see that there is a problem.
Awareness has nothing to do with exotic cultish activities. But it has everything to do with helping you gain full control over your life.
It means that you start to notice things.
And when you finally do see, your daily life is not simply passing by – unlived. You start to notice your intentions. Why they exist. What feeds them. What empowers them. What crushes them. Once you know what’s happening around you and inside you, you can only then start to make progress. Plus, start the process of preventing things you don’t want to enter your life.
I can easily label this practice as a superpower. After all, in an era where a large part of humanity has lost its ability to feel. Where we actively try to avoid hard tasks and decisions. Spending time to spot what forms the thoughts in your mind and propels movement in your body will help you guide yourself in the direction you desire. Not the direction the outside world is pushing you towards.
“‘Mindfulness comprises the entire man and his whole field of experience,’ says Nyanaponika. It extends to every sphere of being: to the state of one’s mind and to the mental contents of one’s mind. Every experience, if it is done with mindfulness, is clear, distinct, real, and hence not automatic, mechanical, diffuse. The person who has reached a state of full mindfulness is wide awake, aware of reality in its depth and concreteness; he is concentrated and not distracted.” Erich Fromm
Lesson #5: Regularly Conduct Self-Analysis To Keep Moving Forward
The core piece of the book is this: Self-Analysis.
Same as when you’re fixing something – the task requires detailed examination and looking under the hood. Self-analysis helps a person examine his own operating algorithms.
Asking yourself: “What am I doing?” And, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”
Self-analysis is a central activity for everyone who wants to make a change in his life.
The starting point of a years-long journey. And, it’s not something that a person should practice once. Fromm suggests regularly scheduling time to observe yourself from the inside. Even, and especially when, you’re not in the mood.
Imagine the activity like tidying your house. Nobody enjoys cleaning. But it’s a necessary activity to keep your home nice and cozy.
Similarly, self-analyzing is like tidying your mind. Re-arranging things to reach a state of calmness and clarity.
Be warned though. The methods presented by the author are not about making you feel good. There is a dose of suffering. Anxiety and pain even. Not because you’ll physically hurt yourself, but because you’ll uncover truths about yourself. Hidden desires that will make you feel uncomfortable, probably even a bit disappointed in yourself. After all, the point is to see what’s problematic in your life and attempt to fix it.
Here’s an overview of three of the five self-analysis methods mentioned in the book:
- Free association: You kick the door and you let all of your thoughts come inside your brain. Every thought is welcomed. By inspecting all the thoughts that are eager to come, your goal is to discover hidden connections between them. How this thought relates to that other one? Eventually, you find new connections that have been escaping your awareness.
- Autobiographical self-analysis: I can describe this approach as writing your memoir. You start from the beginning. Document your early childhood and aim to end by noting your desired future development. Where do you want to go? The goal is to get an overview of your feelings over the years and how these feelings changed – did your faith in yourself and others decreased or increased through the years? Erich Fromm shares the following critical, and highly important questions as you will see that can guide you: “On whom am I dependent? What are my main fears? Who was I meant to be at birth? What were my goals and how did they change? What were the forks of the road where I took the wrong direction and went the wrong way? Who am I now, and who would I be if I had always made the right decisions and avoided crucial errors? Whom did I want to be long ago, now, and in the future? What is my image of myself? What is the image I wish others to have of me? Where are the discrepancies between the two images, both between themselves and with what I sense is my real self? Who will I be if I continue to live as I am living now?”
- Find the discrepancies: So many of us live a double life. The author labels this state as “the conscious and unconscious plots.” The conscious plot is our official life – what we actually do. The unconscious plot, on the other hand, is the life we ought to live. The life we secretly want to live. For example, if you’re evil, but if you present yourself as good, there will be huge discrepancies that will surely manifest themselves at some point. Hopefully, you are not evil. But this doesn’t guarantee happiness. Most commonly, we suffer from doing something we don’t actually enjoy (a tedious type of work). This creates inner suffering. We spend all of our energy on making the official plot seem like it’s something joyful, while internally we want something else. Uncovering these contradictions will help you move forward in life with more clarity.
Generally speaking, the point of the self-analysis practice is to rebalance. By frequently taking the time to talk to yourself and to examine your feelings, you do two things: You acknowledge where you currently are and also see how this current position compares to where you want to be.
Are your feelings and doings aligned with the practices you actually want for yourself?
If the answer is yes, you are on the right path. Conversely, if the answer is no, you need to change directions.
“It is crucially important that it be done, like meditation and concentration, regularly and “not if one is in the mood.” If somebody says he has no time for it, he is simply saying that he does not consider it important. If he has no time, he can make time, and this is so obviously a matter of the importance he gives to self-analysis that it is useless to explain how he can make the time.” Erich Fromm
Lesson #6: Instead of Collecting Things, We Need To Actively Create
Nowadays, there is a surprisingly large number of things we can obtain. All promising to make us feel better. Feel happy. Feel fulfilled.
Sadly, as we’ve probably all experienced. We hardly feel long-lasting happiness by merely having.
Towards the end of the book, the author starts to form a practical checklist that can help us stop our aimless pursuit of getting more things. Instead, he suggests that we should become interested in doing productive efforts so we can achieve our inner desires.
Fromm argues that our body is a tool. If we don’t use our bodies, our minds, they become weaker. Don’t use them for a long period of time and these things will become unusable.
We hardly think this way. We imagine ourselves as these god-like creatures who have conquered the known world.
And who can blame us for these seductive thoughts?
Technological progress proves our almighty power.
But is this really the case?
While surrounded by marvelously designed machinery, modern man has become quite helpless. Erich Fromm writes, “modern man has many things and uses many things, but he is very little. His feelings and thinking processes are atrophied like unused muscles.”
The having orientation that dominates our time prevents us from ever trying something new. The more we have, the less we are interested in making active efforts toward creating something on our own. “Why bother when I can just purchase things?”, we say. Thus, we indulge in laziness and pure consumption.
Instead of mere collectors of things, we need to engage in activities that enhance our skills and ignite our brains.
We need to start creating. Become modern artisans.
Modern man in current society believes that he does a lot. He’s convinced that his labor is significant. But when examined, this statement stands short.
We work in giant factories but we, ourselves, produce no-thing. We play only a small, insignificant part of the big object the factory creates. Thus, when this is eventually registered by our brain, we feel weak. We feel powerless.
The book arrives at the conclusion that to reach wholeness, to practice the art of being, we need the following three:
- Let go: After becoming aware of your narcissistic nature – wanting to have more all the time. You start to let go. Not necessarily of things. But let go of your bad habits and practices. From your morning routine to the way you treat your spouse and kids. To the way you eat and even have sex. Letting go of your current ways will make room for better alternatives.
- Get wet: Grow an interest in a specific field and jump. Don’t simply look at people who create art. This means that you’re an outsider of the field. Get your hands dirty. The author metaphorically adds that we should jump inside the pool that interests us and get “wet.”
- Experience well-being: The previous two will only get you to a certain point. Once your clothes are dry after jumping in the pool, you’ll most likely want to go back to your former schedule. Here enters well-being. The final stage is identity shift. You no longer say, “I am what I have.” You proudly state, as the author notes: “‘I am what I do” or simply, “I am what I am.'”
“To sum up once more: Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed.” Erich Fromm
- Practice stillness: The world today offers an infinite amount of amusements. You’re quite literally a click away from pleasure. Such a variety of options is dangerous. Not only that we can’t stand still, but we don’t think that it’s necessary. But if you don’t have the power to sit alone with your own thoughts and observe them, you will never understand your real needs and desires. Never truly understand yourself. But how can one learn to stand still in a chaotic world? Simply put, by doing nothing. The author suggests regularly scheduling a “do nothing” time. A ten to fifteen minutes rounds of absolutely nothing to do. At first, thoughts will bombard your mind. Trying to take you to different places. Don’t try to fight them. Be gentle. Patient. See where they will take you. And then get back to trying to think about nothing.
- Optimal awareness: When other authors talk about meditation or about Buddhist traditions, they all sound so “out there”. Using cheesy lines and stating the obvious, “Meditation is good, just sit and mumble ‘ommm’.” Not Erich Fromm. With just a few sentences, he conveys the importance of meditation without provoking a frustrating eye-rolling effect in you. Fromm argues that meditation is necessary. Not only to clear your head, but also to reach “maximum awareness of our bodily and mental processes.” He says that meditation is not simply sitting and focusing. It’s executing everything with mindfulness. When you eat, you eat. You don’t do anything else. You’re fully concentrated on the current activity, and you don’t let other outer or inner sensations interrupt your condition. It’s a powerful state where your concentration is sharp and difficult to be disturbed. To begin, start with focusing on your breath. Regularly noticing your breath will result in a consistent breath rhythm that will help you achieve a steady and calm life rhythm.
- Follow the artisan way: We work more, have more, want more, but we don’t produce anything. How does this make us feel? Empty. Unalive. That’s why we try to fill the void with things. Since we are surrounded by as many things as we want these days, we can’t see past them. We wholeheartedly believe that the cure to everything is more things. According to Fromm, it’s quite the opposite. Enjoyment comes from creating something meaningful. The artisan way is the path of having enough to focus on your craft. For an artisan, the joy in life comes from doing things, not from acquiring them. This shift changes your mind. You adopt a different perspective. Finally realize that the acquisition of more tangible products won’t solve your problems. Enjoyment comes from creating.
- Functional property: If you own a piece of land but if you don’t do anything with it, is it useful to have it, or is it just a burden? Some may argue that it’s an investment. A way to make more money in the future. And probably this is the correct answer. The point is that it’s useful to think about all of your positions. Fromm explains that we should aim to have only functional properties. We can’t function without certain things. After all, we need food, shelter, and a set of tools to secure our biological existence. At some point, though, we end up having more than we actually use. We own not one, but several suits and dresses, for instance. And while these are not especially harmful, we tend to obtain objects that encourage more passive consumption – a TV, a laptop, a video game. The more you have, the more you have to maintain. Not only. The more dead properties you have, the more you’ll end up wasting your time.
- Find a mentor: All great people had teachers. Someone to guide them. To point the way, uncover their mistakes, and help them improve. Furthermore, a guide, a model, is something more than just a person to turn for advice. This type of person will help you see your inner chains. By conducting a self-analysis, we’ll probably quickly see what outside “thing” is limiting our ascent. Sadly, we, alone, often can’t spot the inner chains that are holding us back. The destructive beliefs and emotional states that prevent us from progressing. To see those, we need outside help. Someone to look at how we operate and help us identify our sticking points. Only when we are aware of what we need to avoid, of the main obstacles that stand in our way – physical and emotional – we can only then move forward.
Commentary and Key Takeaway
Before I talk about the book itself, I want to talk briefly about why you need to read the book…
Every month, when your salary hits your bank account. You immediately think about what new to get. What new cool gadget you can add to your collection of things.
Not that you don’t have stuff. You do. Quite a lot, actually. But since the ones you already have are known and no longer provoke the pleasant sensations they once did. Seeking new things is what you want to ignite happy feelings.
This type of behavior grows inside you. You reach a point where you associate both your identity and the state of happiness in general with the stuff you own.
But for how long? How many things do you need to finally feel good?
The answer is depressing: If stuff is what you seek, you will never be satisfied.
Our modern society sends a clear message to the masses: Consume more and you will be more.
But there is never an end to consumption. The more we get, the more we want. Therefore, unsurprisingly, we never feel content because there is always something new to get.
The Art of Being is a masterpiece.
Erich Fromm paves the way towards an alternative route of existence. Or at least an alternative to our current route. He helps us become aware of how the current sick world is infecting our mindset with consumerism.
Full of sage advice and practices, this book can change the way you live and experience life.
Once someone realizes that not getting more, but being more is what matters, he feels like a sane man living in a sick society. But instead of feeling isolated and lonely, he should pursue his sane conviction. Not comply with the conventional “normal” belief the rest of the world follows.
“People are confused and unsure, they seek answers to guide them to joy, tranquility, self-knowledge, salvation—but they also demand that it be easy to learn, that it require little or no effort, that results be quickly obtained.” Erich Fromm
“People are afraid to concentrate because they are afraid of losing themselves if they are too absorbed in another person, in an idea, in an event.” Erich Fromm
“A different kind of awareness is that of becoming aware of what is hidden. This becoming aware of what is hidden is the same as becoming conscious of what is unconscious (repressed), or to make conscious what is repressed, since in general it requires an active effort if something unconscious is to become conscious. We could also call the same process revealing or uncovering awareness.” Erich Fromm
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