Rule 12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street.

The fact that there is much talk of dogs and cats in this chapter is not the only reason why it is my favourite. It is also because this is the most personal chapter and there is no agenda. Sure Peterson is hopeful that we are out of the Post Modernist despair, that we can and do have higher aims to strive towards, and that life is worth living with courage in the face of tragedy and the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Peterson generously discusses aspects of his family life, he describes his daughter Mikhaila’s  juvenile arthritis and auto-immune disease, her dependence on opiates to ease the pain and the struggle to find good treatment. Such a brutal and serious illness inflicted on an innocent child is a real test of your faith. We are all going to be faced with illness and crises in those we love, and this last chapter is a meditation on what to do in these awful instances. It is a practical guide to coping with those sorts of times. One of the things you do when you are overwhelmed by crisis is to shorten your time-frame. You can’t think about next month or next week, maybe not even tomorrow, because now is just so overwhelming that that’s all there is. So you cut your time-frame back until you can cope with it, and if it’s not the next day you can get through then it’s the next hour. ‘And if it’s not the next hour then it’s the next minute. And you know, people are very very very tough. It turns out that if you face things then you can put up with a lot more than you think you can put up with. And you can do it without becoming corrupted.’ Pet the dogs and cats that you encounter, because when you’re suffering you have to be alert to the unexpected beauty in life.

Eventually Mikhaila figured out what was wrong with her through nutrition. By eliminating certain foods, specifically dairy, legumes, soy, and gluten, she cured herself of auto-immune symptoms, arthritis, and depression. Incidentally Peterson followed suit and inspired by his daughter, improved his own health in the same way. It is not written about in the chapter, but there is a video where they describe it on a television discussion program called Digesting Depression.

Those days when Mikhaila was suffering, a pretty ginger siamese cat who lived across the street from Peterson would stroll over to them and roll over near their lovely American Eskimo dog and they were friends. ‘You have to look for that little bit of sparkling crystal in the darkness when things are bad. you have to look and see where things are still beautiful and where there’s still something that’s sustaining and you narrow your time-frame and you be grateful for what you have, and that can get you through some very dark times.’ So then maybe it can be only tragic and not absolute hell. In the worst situation, you can make it only tragic and not hell. ‘There’s a very big gap between tragedy and hell.’

Peterson closes the chapter with the idea that if we didn’t all attempt to make terrible things even worse than they already are then maybe we could tolerate the terrible things that we have to put up with in order to exist. Maybe we could make the world into a better place. It’s what we should be doing and what we could be doing because we don’t have anything better to do.

And that is what the book is about.

Next blog FODMAP! What’s That??

Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are skateboarding.

The crux of this chapter may be the sentence ‘It is certain that a woman needs consciousness to be rescued, and consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.’

Not as provocative as it sounds. This chapter is about the assault on the positive masculine. Peterson observes that our society seems to have concluded that strong men are dangerous, partly because we think Western culture is a tyrannical patriarchy and that the only way you get to the top is because you mis-use power. And all the men who have the ambition to reach the top are tyrants in training, and that’s the basic attitude we have towards young men now. ‘Everything about that is pathological, inexcusable, and shameful.’

The idea that Western culture is primarily a patriarchal tyranny is historically ignorant. There are only about 30 civilised countries in the world. The rest of them are run by brutal thugs, where the corruption is spread through the entire country. ‘we’re not like that. And that’s that!’ says Peterson. Western culture is fundamentally honest. One of the best predictors of success in the Western world is conscientiousness. Conscientious people are honest, have integrity, are dutiful and do what they say they will do, and that is an accurate predictor of long term life success.

In terms of the positive masculine, Peterson says ‘I read it partly as a continuation of what Nietzsche announced back in the late 1800s as the death of God. In Western culture God is a masculine figure, and the idea that the divine masculine has been decimated, which is basically Nietzsche’s pronouncement, has filtered all the way down to masculinity itself. That is an appalling outcome. It is something that could only be desired by someone who is a true enemy of humanity.’ So this chapter is a call to encouragement, for young men to understand that their failure to participate fully in Being ‘leaves a hole that is precisely the size of their soul in the cultural landscape. ‘We need all the light we can bring to bear on the situation.’ says Peterson.

This chapter is not as odd as it may appear at first, with its statements that might sound outrageous to even a mild feminist, and its prolonged study of fairy tales and Disney movies. The religious core to ’12 Rules’ is accompanied by a solid grounding in evolutionary biology. And the idea of the divine masculine is not so unique to Western patriarchal society. In Eastern mysticism and yogic philosophy Shiva is the divine impulse, the move to order, and Shakti is the feminine chaos, similar to that discussed in this chapter with the fairy tales.

Essentially chapter 11 is a meditation on the difference between weakness and goodness; a call not to confuse the demand on young men to be soft with being good. Not to expect young men to go against the traits of their nature – ‘wakefulness, clarity of vision, tough minded independence’ – to become ineffective and as a result unattractive to women. Not to deny that women are in fact, yes, statistically, ‘tender minded, agreeable, more susceptible to anxiety and emotional pain.’ 

On this second reading, my reservations and objections of yesterday are mitigated, as far as they can be while I remain aware that the universe we have constructed is still only one version of possibilities. In the context of today’s Academic environment this is a brave chapter: ‘The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is, therefore, no more friend to woman than it is to man. It will object, just as vociferously and self-righteously (“you can’t do it, it’s too dangerous”) when little girls try to stand on their own two feet. It negates consciousness. It’s antihuman, desirous of failure, jealous, resentful and destructive. No one truly on the side of humanity would ally him or herself with such a thing. No one aiming up would allow him or herself to become possessed by such a thing. And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of’

Final chapter tomorrow.

Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They are Skateboarding.

And I think Peterson means boys in particular. Children of course need slightly dangerous play so that they can develop competence and learn how to measure risk and daring. A society that over protects children only results in them remaining unformed. The first section of chapter 11 (Danger and Mastery) makes sense and is well argued.

Further into the chapter there is what appears to be a comprehensive argument against Marxism, Feminism, and Post-Modernism. I say ‘appears’ because I read on unconvinced – not that Marxism, extreme feminism and Post-modernism are bad ideas, but that his arguments are objective – even though Peterson brings in many erudite examples. Also any chapter that mentions Derrida and Oedipus must be a little bit suspect. But his personal reflection on why he felt his friend committed suicide is moving and persuasive.

It was not until later, when Peterson talks about Sleeping Beauty, The Little mermaid, and Alice in Wonderland that I warmed up to what he was saying in terms of patriarchy.

It is the case that the Humanities subjects at Universities, especially in the US and Canada can be politically-correct to an unhealthy extreme, and it seems to be this that Peterson needs to counterbalance in chapter 11. For this reason I need to re-read it and report back: I have to get to grips with what he is really saying underneath the politics of Academia.

Therefore, more of chapter 11 tomorrow.

Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech

There’s a relationship between communication and the structure of being. This is a strong part of yoga, and especially in Kundalini yoga, Yogi Bhajan emphasised again and again the importance of clear and careful speech. So much so that one of the modules the the advanced Level 2 Kundalini Teacher Training is Conscious Communication. Peterson has it right here in that he knows that the link between speech and Being is part of the role that consciousness plays in the universe. Language takes the chaos and makes it into things, just like in Genesis when in the beginning was the Word. God told Adam to name all the animals and plants, and in doing so he makes them real. Once you name something you can deal with it.  In chapter 10 Peterson talks about the children’s story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon where a little dragon keeps on growing because it is ignored. Once it is acknowledged, it shrinks again. No matter how terrible the actuality is, it’s rarely as terrible as your imagination. Because your imagination is an old thing it’s seen a lot of terrible things in the history of life; it can put monsters everywhere. So it might be better without exception, to name the thing, no matter how terrible it is. ‘If you can’t name it what that means is you’re telling yourself that you’re so terrified that you can’t bring your attention to bear on it, and that makes you the loser, instantly’ says Peterson. When you think you can’t talk about something because it’s bad, it’s not as bad as what you conjure up if you can’t talk about it. ‘That’s how we demonise people. There isn’t a better synonym for what’s terrifying than that which is unspeakable. You want to bring things out of the realm of the unspeakable.’ This is why Peterson is a free speech advocate.

‘It’s deeper than the intellect. It’s an assault on whatever rule consciousness has in Being.’ It means you can’t participate in the process of creation, it’s something that deep. ‘Freedom of speech – that’s the worship of the Logos in many ways. The deepest idea in our culture is that Logos is creative and what it makes is good. That’s God at the beginning of time saying Logos is good.’ To bring things out of the murk is a good thing.  ‘You don’t mess with that. It is the most sacred principle of western civilisation. Not only western, the Taoists know this as well.’ And of course, the yogis!

There’s nothing wrong with prudence, so you want to choose your words carefully but part of wisdom is knowing what to be afraid of. Often, with almost every important choice you make you have terror on one side and terror on the other. There’s no way forward that doesn’t involve risk. There’s a big problem with self censorship, and it is that every time you fail to express who and what you are in an articulated manner, you first of all lose an opportunity to know yourself better. That’s not good because you have to pilot yourself through life,  life is a dangerous and treacherous enterprise and if you don’t know yourself well then you won’t pilot yourself well and you may be hurt more often than you need to be. The other thing is that you also weaken yourself.

Your mind is wired up in many different ways to determine what constitutes a valid threat, and that’s not an easy thing to figure out. It is very difficult to determine. One of the ways your brain figures that out is to watch you, and it assumes that if you move away from something, if you retreat from something, that the thing you’re retreating from is bigger than you and that you are smaller than it. ‘And so it makes you just that bit more existentially weak and frightened. And so when you have something to say and then you don’t say it, not only do you miss an opportunity to articulate yourself properly which is fundamentally necessary, but you tell yourself right down to the level of your soul, that there is less of you than there could be. And that makes the next retreat even more likely… It’s a recipe for cowering in the corner and freezing.

You might be afraid to say what you have to say. And you may have every reason to be afraid. But you should be even more afraid of not saying what you have to say, because the consequences of that as they accrue over the long term will undermine everything for you. They will undermine your faith in yourself, they will undermine your family, they will undermine your society.’

You have been warned!

Chapter 11 tomorrow.

Rule 9: Assume That the Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t.

Psychotherapy is not advice. it is exploration, articulation and strategising. It is conversation and mostly listening. People can be so confused, that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation, says Peterson. But they need to figure it all out for themselves, and the way to do this is to think and talk and simulate the world and plan how they are going to act in it. The Freudian way was for the analyst not to speak and to be out of view of the patient, so that their facial expression could not betray any reaction to what the patient was saying. Peterson practices in a different way, as do most modern clinical psychologists, in that they will look the client in the eye and not hide their reactions to what the client is saying. This gives the client clues about how to gauge themselves and possibly the way they can go about the ordering of their psyche.

This is a chapter about conversation and the different forms that conversation takes. It is a chapter about humility and about listening. Peterson says it took him a long time to understand what the religious injunction to humility meant, and what the word humility means in it’s technical sense, and he concluded it was ‘what you don’t know is more important than what you know’ Then what you don’t know can start to be your friend. People are very defensive about what they know. But you don’t know enough. ‘You can tell that you don’t know enough because your life is not what it could be, and neither is the life of the people around you.’ You just don’t know enough. That means that every time you encounter some evidence that you are ignorant, if someone points it out, you should be happy about that. ‘Maybe I have to sift through a lot of nonsense to get to the message that you’re telling me, but if you can actually tell me some way that I’m wrong, and then maybe give me a hint about how to not be wrong like that, then I wouldn’t have to be wrong like that any more. That would be a good thing, and you can embark on that adventure by listening to people.’ If you listen to people they will tell you amazing things and many of those things ‘are little tools you can put in your toolkit like Batman and you can go out into the world and use those tools and you don’t have to fall blindly into a pit quite as often.’

Speaking of Batman, the artwork in the book is by a comic artist called Ethan Van Sciver, and is remarkable for its eye catching detail. Here are some more examples of his work:


The humility element is: ‘do you want to be right, or do you want to be learning?’ And it goes deeper, it’s ‘do you want to be the tyrannical king who’s already got everything figured out, or do you want to be the continually transforming hero – or fool, for that matter – who’s getting better all time?’ That’s actually a choice. It’s better to be the self-transforming fool who’s humble enough to make friends with what he doesn’t know, and to listen when people talk. Listening is a transformative exercise. If you listen to the people in your life they will tell you what’s wrong with them, and how to fix it, and what they want. They can’t even help it, because people are so surprised when you actually listen that they tell you all sorts of things that they never even intended to, things that they don’t even know, and you can work with that.

Now and then you have a very good meaningful conversation with someone and you feel that you really connected and know more than you did when you come away from the conversation. During the conversation you felt engrossed in it. That feeling of being engrossed is the feeling of meaning, which is engendered because you are having a transformative conversation. So your brain produces that feeling that you are in the right place and time. It is a good place to occupy because you register the meaning. It is one of the truisms of clinical psychology. ‘A huge part of clinical psychology is just listening to people. So they come in, and they’re unhappy, and they’d rather not be. And you say “why do you think you might be unhappy?” and they don’t know. They might have some ideas, they may have to ramble around for a year before they figure out why they were unhappy.’ They get rid of a lot of reasons why they thought they were unhappy that were untrue and then you get to the heart of the problem. ‘Then you might ask them “well if you could have what you wanted so that your life would be ok, what would that look like?” and they’d have to ramble around about that because they don’t really know. But the listening will straighten them out’ because people can think by talking and having someone to listen. It is very hard to think, but almost everyone can talk. If you can listen to yourself talk and someone is there, you can note their reactions, which will work as a foil to your thoughts.

The well known clinical psychologist Carl Rogers suggested we paraphrase what someone tells us, and ask if that is correct. That way the person talking to us knows they are understood. So if you are arguing with someone the point is not to win the argument, it is to fix the problem, You need to grapple with what they mean and if you don’t deal with the problem fairly between you it will just keep on coming up again and again.

This chapter is not as dense and satisfying as some others, but still interesting, and it wraps up with Socrates – always a good idea: ‘The Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth. She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing.’

More tomorrow!

Rule 8: Tell the Truth – or, at Least, Don’t Lie.

’12 Rules for Life’ is about how to live properly in the face of vulnerability, tragedy and malevolence. One of the propositions in the book is that life existence is usefully characterised as an interplay of order and chaos or of known and unknown, and you are always striving to balance those two. if what you are doing is too familiar you are bored, and if what you’re doing is too unfamiliar then you are anxious. ‘What you want to do is find the harmonious line between those two and that’s signified by meaning. If you can get those two things right then you can have your cake and eat it too.’ says Peterson. ‘I hope people take away the idea that there is a mode of being in the face of the vulnerability and tragedy of life that is noble and powerful and capable of sustaining them through the worst possible times without becoming corrupt and bitter.’

It’s not that easy to tell the truth because who knows about the truth? But you can learn not to say things that you know to be false, and if you stop saying things that you know to be false then life will improve a lot. It simplifies it. It puts you in alignment with reality, and you should be in alignment with reality because there’s a lot more of it that there is of you. Peterson points to Sigmund Freud’s belief that repression contributed to the development of mental illness. The difference between repression of truth and a lie being a matter of degree, not of kind. Alfred Adler knew it was lies that bred sickness. CG Jung knew that moral problems plagued his patients, and that such problems were caused by untruth. Solzhenitsyn had exposed the lies of Stalin and the Soviet state. No educated person dared defend that ideology again after The Gulag Archipelago. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, drew a similar social-psychological conclusion: deceitful, inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism.

‘All these thinkers,’ writes Peterson ‘all centrally concerned with pathology both individual and cultural, came to the same conclusion: lies warp the structure of Being. Untruth corrupts the soul and the state alike…I have repeatedly observed the transformation of mere existential misery into outright hell by betrayal and deceit.’ Even if the truthful spirit might not yet be able to bring Heaven on Earth, it may manage to reduce suffering. Peterson quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost and the temptation of Lucifer and gives an intriguing psychological analysis. Also a wonderful reading of the Egyptian myth of Osiris, Set, and Horus.

Peterson calls it a meta-goal to live in truth. It is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. It is the sword that Christ sends in Matthew 10:34. It is the action needed to keep the machinery running smoothly. It is the vigilance that counteracts the fact that things unattended fall apart. The truth ‘will keep your soul from withering and dying while you encounter the inevitable tragedy of life.’

There are so many wonderful nuggets in this chapter. You will just have to read it for yourself.

I will tell you a bit about Chapter 9 tomorrow!