Sam Keen

author, professor, and philosopher

Sam Keen (born 1931) is an American author, professor and philosopher who is best known for his exploration of questions regarding love, life, religion, and being a man in contemporary society.



The Passionate Life (1983)

  • A major component of the western myth is the belief that myth is a primitive and mistaken way of thinking about the world that has been replaced by science. Commonly, the word “myth” is now used to mean an illusion or a lie... Enlightened moderns are accustomed to looking at the queer beliefs of the Mayas or the Tassaday and seeing them as mythical. But we look on our own belief systems as rational and rooted in the realities of politics and economics. As Joseph Campbell says: “Myth is other people’s religion.”
    • p. 20
  • Myth is the system of basic metaphors, images, and stories that in-forms the perceptions, memories, and aspirations of a people; provides the rationale for its institutions, rituals and power structure; and gives a map of the purpose and stages of life.
    • p. 21
  • A living myth remains largely unconscious for the majority. It is the reality, not the symbol. … Some people in every culture, however, see through or beyond the myth. … Those whose amphibious minds move both within and beyond the myth may be though of as outlaws or metaphysicians. Myth and metaphysics are related to each other in the same way that religion is related to theology. The mythical mind is unreflective. It lives unquestioningly within a horizon of the culture’s images, stories, rituals, and symbols, just as the religious person rests content within the liturgy and creedal structure of the church or cult. The metaphysical mind reflects upon the myth and tries to make it conscious. It plays with the stories and images and lifts the basic presuppositions about life into the light of consciousness. In this sense, metaphysics is the thinking person’s religion.
    • p. 21
  • It has been fashionable in the twentieth century not only to debunk myth, … but to pretend that that reasonable and educated people could avoid the embarrassment of religion and the risk of metaphysics by sticking close to demonstrable facts and testable hypotheses. However, in the course of reducing our beliefs and hopes to certainties and proofs, we impoverished and deluded ourselves. The modern anti-myth reduced human life to a story without a point, a tale told by an idiot, a process without a purpose, a journey without a goal, an affair without a climax (Godot never comes), an accidental collision of mindless atoms. … We have hardly noticed that economics, technology and politics have become the new myth and metaphysic. We haven’t avoided myth and metaphysics, only created demeaning ones.
    • p. 22
  • [Some of the] rules and articles of faith [of the western myth]:
    Questions that cannot be answered should not be asked.
    Knowledge and power are the twin pillars of human identity.
    Knowledge consists of organized facts.
    Sensation, intuition, and feeling are primitive, immature forms of thought.
    Wealth is created by fabricating natural, raw materials into finished products; the production of goods is the basis of value.
    Economics has replaced religion as the ultimate concern.
    The chief motivation (eros) of human beings is to accumulate and consume.
    Advertising and propaganda are the chief erotic sciences of the modern age.
    • pp. 23-24
  • Within the horizon of this [western] myth, love is understood as the artificial restraining of our natural impulses toward unbridled aggression.
    • p. 24
  • In a political situation where tyranny reigns and rebellion is not tolerated, few men and women will have the luxury of going beyond the stance of the rebel.
    • p. 77
  • Where authority represses freedom, rebellion becomes the hard work of love, which is necessary because love, freedom, and spirit are inseparable.
    • p. 77
  • There are at least three fundamental ways in which the rebel impulse may become perverse: (1) [we can] get caught in a stance that always positions us against others; (2) [we can be] deficient in the power to say “no,” and hence follow the path of least resistance; and (3) [we can] seek to prolong the adolescent dream of endless possibilities, and hence live in a moratorium from commitments.
    • pp. 78-79
  • If you live out of a negative identity, … others will always be cast in the mold of the enemy against whom you must struggle.
    • p. 79
  • Pleasers … make up what Earl Shorris has called “the oppressed middle,” the middle-managers who enjoy “the comforts of fearful people” and pay by submitting to their superiors’ definitions of happiness and success.
    • p. 82
  • Beneath the smiling mask, we can see the injury that results from a deficiency of rebellion. The nice ones are never quite real. They lack self-definition, self-confidence, because they have never created boundaries and limits for themselves by making decisions. Having never dared to break the taboos they suffer from shame. Their sins are ones of omission rather than commission. They “have left undone those things they ought to have done,” most especially deciding for themselves what is good and evil.
    • pp. 82-83
  • Being impotent because they have never dared to assert themselves, they continually play the blame game. They are innocent and powerless and, therefore, others are always to blame when things go wrong. … They have yet to bite the apple of consciousness.
    • p. 83
  • The “bleeding hearts” who want love without anger, relationship without conflict, harmony without contradictions, are forced to create an illusory world of unambivalent love. … It is not accidental that such perfect persons (who never question their own motives, or suspect their hidden ideology or self-interest) make other feel tainted and guilty. Every sentimental sermon is served with a side-dish of guilt. In their presence, honest doubt is named cynicism, anger is called evil, and ambivalence is castigated as craziness.
    • p. 84
  • Living mythical-political systems are invisible to those who live within them. The problem of myth and consciousness is reflected in the old saying: We don’t know who discovered water, but it certainly wasn’t a fish. Myth is the sea of commonly accepted assumptions that are not questioned by the majority of those living within a system. To the average, normal member of society, the myth is what is natural and obvious.
    • p. 99
  • It is only from the perspective of the outlaw … that we are able to see that mythically informed normality is a form of mass hypnosis.
    • p. 99
  • The man who comes home exhausted because he has been taught to believe without question that his male identity is based on nine-to-five loyalty and the giving of his best energies to the corporation has made a decision about his sexuality. He sacrifices his corpus to the corporation. His chosen method of expending energy and structuring time disallows afternoon dalliance with his wife or lover.
    • p. 101
  • Overstimulation of the adrenal glands (with consequent exhaustion of the spirit) is the price of our incorporation within the male womb of the modern corporate society.
    • p. 101
  • A society that trains us to specialize in making, doing, performing, and producing neglects to educate us in wonder and appreciation.
    • p. 102
  • The gentlest and most insidious way we are dominated by the body politic is by the official versions of the good life that are implicit in advertising and propaganda. Happiness is a new car, a color TV—fill in the gap with your own “freely chosen” artificially stimulated desire.
    • p. 102
  • What we should desire creeps silently inside us and replaces what we really desire. … We take jobs, make compromises, and settle down for the long wait, for the arrival of the future that will bring the reward of happiness we so justly deserve for our sacrifice of the pleasures of the moment. The process is so slow we scarcely notice the substitution of plastic for flesh. We forget how the body sang when it ran free; how it rejoiced in stretching, rolling, skipping, dancing, walking, eating, loving, bounding, leaping, resting.
    Gradually the body beings to change to protect itself against the intrusion of joy or sorrow. It armors itself against the threat of playfulness and spontaneity. … The working body is complete when it is thus armed against those emotions that would threaten the primacy of the work ethic and the pattern of delayed gratification upon which it rests.
    • pp. 102-103
  • The female has learned by long experience to win by losing, to wield power in the passive-aggressive manner of the sadomasochist.
    • p. 115
  • The decision to become an individual, to allow oneself to be moved by the deepest impulses of the self rather than the social consensus, can only be made with fear and trembling.
    • p. 129
  • The outlaw will often wonder whether asserting the right to know, to taste, to experience, to judge is not an act of arrogance. … To become an outlaw, I must decide that my personal experience rather than the mores of the tribe is the authority upon which I will base my judgments. In a bold act of self-love and self-trust, the outlaw proclaims that individual to be higher than the universal.
    • p. 130
  • There is a crucial difference between the criminal and the outlaw. The criminal is a perverse rebel who acts out against the law. … The outlaw is a supranormal individual who cares about others too much to accept the limitations on eros that are imposed by normal life. Thus the outlaw question moves outside end beyond, not against the law. While the rebel is an antinomian, merely rejecting the established, the outlaw is motivated by a quest for autonomy.
    • p. 130-131
  • The outlaw uses the knife to separate the persona from the self. The outlaw uses the warrior’s sword to cut through his own character armor to destroy the defense mechanisms that have kept him imprisoned within the citadel of personality and role.
    • p. 132
  • The outlaw is the conscious warrior who makes use of the aggression to break down the walls, barriers, and boundaries that artificially separate and alienate.
    • p. 132
  • Hero tales suggest the price of courage is beyond the ordinary budget. They tempt us to disown the common capacity of the human spirit to transcend normality.
    • p. 134
  • It is the vocation of each person to become unique.
    • p. 134
  • Outlaw consciousness is born the moment I drop out, stop the world, cease being an actor identified with the mythic roles I have been playing in society. Change begins when I do nothing except observe. The wisdom of the railroad crossing: Stop. Look. Listen. Meditation is the healthy form of voyeurism.
    • p. 135
  • For the adult, all the world is a stage and the personality is the mask one wears to play the assigned role. The outlaw quietly takes a seat in the back row of the theater of the mind and watches.
    • pp. 135-136
  • A prime time to catch yourself putting on your personality is in the moments between sleeping and waking.
    • p. 136
  • Self-awareness and self-consciousness are entirely different. When I am “self-conscious,” it is really someone else’s eyes that are watching, judging, and criticizing me. … It is these eyes that must be put out if I am to make sense of and remain in touch with my true self. And when we fail to find symbolic ways of destroying the watchers by becoming our own true witness, then the parents or authorities are sometimes literally killed.
    • p. 136
  • The self-awareness that grows out of the habit of witnessing is nonjudgmental. I look at my actions, my feelings, my experience with soft and compassionate eyes, from a great distance as if I were God or a novelist. The chief rule of the witness is: Judge not. Do not identify with or against anything you observe. The witness must be amoral, a pure phenomenologist. The courtroom of civil conscience must be closed for a time. There is a time when the outlaw switches from contemplation to trans-moral action. But in order to stop the reactionary patterns of thought and behavior that make up the personality, there must be a prior time of inaction. As I gain skill as an objective and compassionate witness, my identity gradually shifts from my persona to my self. In place of the old compulsive, preprogrammed reactions, I find a growing ability to pause between the stimulus and the response. I cease being merely a biological creature who reacts automatically to steak and potatoes, the lure of immediate sex, or the invasion of my territory; I deliberate and choose what is most desirable. I am no longer captive either to my impulses or to the judgments made upon me by my society. In the newfound silence, I find the freedom to disengage from my old self-images and addictions.
    • p. 137
  • The carrot of happiness has been dangled in front of me, just beyond my reach for as long as I can remember, and I have never gained on it. It is always still just a step beyond me. And, what’s worse, I have been hypnotized by the promise so that I keep going for it, stay in the harness. The moment I turn my eyes from the carrot and ask the radical question about my true desires, I step out of the harness and begin to wander freely in search of what will satisfy my hungers.
    • pp. 137-138
  • The path that leads from the persona to the self, from the adult to the outlaw, consists of learning to distinguish between false desire and true desire, or superficial desire and profound desire, or obsessive desire and free passion, … or illusory needs and real needs.
    • p. 138
  • In back of the outward calm … a small terrified voice cries out: “I need it. I have to have it or ...” The end of the sentence is lost in chaos. The need is so strong that an illusion is created that it must be fulfilled, or the very existence of the self is threatened.
    • p. 139
  • In the presence of our addictions, we are not free to ask what we really desire. Eros is silent. The addiction floods us with the noise of its demands, the plans for its satisfaction. There is no interval for deliberation.
    • p. 139
  • Addiction depends upon keeping the multiplicity of our desires unconscious. When I invite all that I am into awareness, I realize that no one substance, activity, or person has the capacity to satisfy me fully. I leave aside the security of the fix and begin the adventure of falling in love with the multiplicity of the self and the world.
    • p. 140
  • Kierkegaard said that the only way we can be released from the enchantment, the siren song of the myths, is to play the music through backwards. To break the spell of the ego I must recover my personal and political history, I must demythologize the private, family, and public myths that have informed me.
    • p. 140
  • The neurosis of normality is a case of repetition compulsion caused by the repression of awareness.
    • p. 140
  • When … some intimation of the eternal significance of my time moves through the heart of my self, it must still battle a positivistic turn of mind and mean-spirited secularism that denies the existence of the holy.
    • p. 145
  • The evil we previously objectified and assigned to exterior agents—devils, communists, capitalists, chauvinists, faithless lovers, the system—must be discovered within. We can no longer divide the world between good and evil. The line between saints and sinners runs down the middle of my being. .. I destroy my propaganda machine that automatically casts me in a favorable light and others in the shadow.
    • pp. 146-147
  • The moment I step out of my adult identity, it becomes obvious that my tribe is not significantly different from other tribes in its habitual projection of blame for conflict onto an enemy. It is disturbing for an individual to reject the tribe’s claim to self-righteousness because it excludes him or her from the civil religion, the social immortality system, and the ritual of scapegoating, in which guilt is alleviated by being assigned to an outcast or enemy that the tribe may destroy in the name of God.
    • pp. 148-149
  • The standard Christian conscience does not permit the believer to look upon the self and find beauty, goodness, natural kindness, strength. Self-knowledge is tainted with self-hatred. The rules of the game of the Christian conscience are such that, when I look within, I must take the blame for all evil, all hardness of the heart that I find, but give God all the credit for any evidence of love. … It is not surprising that the practice of meditation … has remained under a cloud in the West, and that we have, consequently, created a culture of extroverts.
    • p. 162
  • Secular culture, with the aid of psychoanalysis, has continued the old Christian habit of observing the self only to criticize it.
    • p. 162
  • Meditation, like masturbation, has until recently been considered a form of self-abuse.
    • p. 162
  • The difference between narcissism and self-love is a matter of depth. Narcissus falls in love not with the self, but with an image or reflection of the self—with the persona, the mask. The narcissist sees himself through the eyes of another, changes his lifestyle to conform with what is admired by others, tailors his behavior and expression of feelings to what will please others. Narcissism is … voluntary blindness, an agreement … not to look beneath the surface.
    • p. 163
  • To love the carnal self means to love the body-mind. I cannot abuse my body with alcohol, stress, and self-indulgence and still claim to love my self.
    • p. 165
  • One of the commonest perversions of love is to limit it to the private sphere.
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