New York School of Practical Philosophy

Taste. Smell. Ahhhh, Wisdom.

New York Times/January 17, 2010

It starts with The Exercise. "Become aware of where you are right now. Be aware of any expectations or concerns that may be present in the mind or heart. Now, let them go." Feel your feet on the ground, your clothes on your skin. "Taste. Smell. Watch the breath as it enters and leaves the body. Now be aware of hearing." And so on.

That's the centerpiece of Practical Philosophy, a movement that began in England in 1937, and whose subway advertisements promise to "make you happier than any other on the subway." (Take that, Dr. Zizmor.) The underlying idea is that the great teachings of the world all point to the same central truths, and that wisdom is the key to a better life.

To prove the point, the New York School of Practical Philosophy offers a 10-session, $90 introductory course (once a week for two and a half hours, come to any of six meetings each week). I was one of 400 people who signed up in the fall semester; spring sessions begin Monday.

The school's home, a mansion on East 79th Street, still exudes much of its Taft-era splendor. The philosophers seem a bit embarrassed about their fancy digs: twice in my first session, the instructor assured us the school bought the building at the bottom of the market. He mentioned it again the next week.

I attended the Thursday night class, which started out standing room only. More striking than its size was its diversity - young immigrants and wizened retirees, pretty actresses and tired parents. It was touching to see so many people from so many backgrounds join in the pursuit of wisdom.

The school maintains that philosophy should not be engaged on a purely intellectual level. It has to be put into daily use; that's the practical part. So every class started with The Exercise, which we were asked to do twice a day.

Many students said they struggled to quiet their mental chatter. For me, it was my mental jukebox. With effort I could slow the tape to a halt, but then I was thinking about that instead of being there in the moment, "watching the breath." When I was busiest, probably when The Exercise could help the most, I found it hard to make the time.

Halfway through each class we adjourned for a break to the basement, where we could buy vegetarian snacks and chat. During the first week, I sat with a pair of shy South Asian cousins and a recent Silicon Valley transplant, who were speculating about the police presence across the street.

It's because Eliot Spitzer lives there, I said. Who? they asked.

From the stillness of The Exercise, the teaching expands to a new concept each week, like being conscious of our actions ("what would a wise man or woman do?"), trying to learn from each experience ("whatever or whoever is in front of you is your teacher"), overcoming negative thoughts, and concentrating on the things that truly matter to us.

At each new class, fellow students described their efforts to incorporate the lessons into their lives. "It made me slow down, think before I yelled," one said in reference to the "wise man or woman" lesson. "This is an exercise I'll take with me for the rest of my life."

I was impressed by their candor and eloquence. But the concepts were not esoteric. They're practically conventional wisdom, so prevalent that they swirl around in the breeze and get stuck in tree branches. Why should hearing them in a philosophy seminar suddenly have such a powerful effect?

I asked a hippie friend, whom I had talked into leading me through a few rounds of The Exercise. "It's one thing to hear it," he said with a shrug. "It's another thing to do it."

The maxims are useful, more or less. "What we give our attention to grows" (and, by extension, what we deprive of our attention withers). A great reminder to dwell on the things that nourish us, rather than those that bug us. But it only works on a personal scale. In the world at large, tyranny and corruption thrive when ignored; they wither when people pay attention. So where does all this wisdom lead? Does it help you become a better person? Or just more self-aware? I asked a few questions in that vein but got vague answers. Often the discussion got so slippery that trying to take notes felt like chasing a bead of mercury around the room.

Google the School of Practical Philosophy and you'll find some accusations that it's a cult. If so, it must be an unsuccessful one: no one tried to sign me up for the next course, let alone get me to donate my earthly possessions. At one point we were encouraged to attend a Philosophy Works party, but it was canceled because of lack of interest.

As the weeks went by, attendance fell off considerably. And I started to dread going to class. Part of it was Thursday-night fatigue. By that point in the week you should either be someplace fun with a drink or home with a bowl of soup. So during the break, when the other students filed down to the basement, I walked around the block to wake myself up. A couple of times I walked to the subway instead.

Still, whenever I'd lose patience with the instruction, one of the students would talk about incorporating these lessons into life, and the honesty and eloquence would win me over again. Gary Russo, an ironworker who saw the subway poster on his way to a union meeting, said he had come because he saw a wisdom in his 6-year-old daughter that he felt he no longer had. "I wanted to get that back," he said.

Mr. Russo re-upped for the second semester, as did many of our classmates. I did not. Nor do I still do The Exercise. I do still think about what I give my attention to, though. And I do still feel touched by the enthusiasm of the other students. One night I asked a woman who had taken a few years' worth of courses about their effect. She thought for a moment, then said, "My life is so much more zingy now."

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