An encounter with Theo Roos is as refreshing as his “philosophical vitamins” – books and TV shows which present philosophical exercises for anyone looking for new and holistic inspiration. A film director, musician and philosopher, he lives in Cologne where he also runs a Philosophical Practice. Christina Lissmann visited him for friendly hunting on his rooftop terrace.
What does a good day for you look like?
When I manage to let go. When things evolve. When the day approaches me and I can respond by saying, “Yes, this is how it should be!”
What are your happiest moments of flow?
When I’m with my 6-year-old son Raffael and an atmosphere emerges in which he can just be who he is, and so can I. Then things are perfect those are moments of happiness.
Or at work while I’m editing my movies when I succeed in removing myself from the process so much that the material, sounds and images become magnetic around the edges and find their own points of connection, their own flow. In Greek the phrase “panta rhei” is an expression of happiness – “everything flows” – and those are times when I’m happiest, too.
Do you have particular techniques for finding inner balance?
When I manage to, I try to observe myself and remind myself to be present in the moment, to bring myself into my here and now and my synchronicity, to make sure my thoughts are neither in the future nor in the past. You can practice this. I appreciate the kind of philosophy that deals with practicing. In ancient Roman times, they called this “epimeleia heautou” or “self-care” and a whole series of exercises focus on taking care of yourself. The ultimate task is reviewing the day before you go to bed at night. Ask yourself, “What did I actually do today?” If you do this for months and years, you establish a new connection to yourself. You become your own friend. The famous phrase “gnothi seauton” “Know thyself!” was something to practice, an important aspect of care of the self. Philosophy has become more and more of this kind of exercise for me. I take up an exercise and spend months practicing it. In doing so, I notice how I develop a different relationship to myself and how I change in my everyday life.
For most people, philosophy is a more theoretical topic. The fact that you integrate practical aspects is remarkable. How does the academic world see this does it upset the status quo?
Initially I was the one who was upset, back when I was studying at university. I thought to myself, the professors are talking about such hot topics that are really interesting, but they as people aren’t linked to it something was off. I then turned to Indian philosophy and started practicing yoga and meditating. I found a teacher who I went to southern India with. There I met his friends who had spent their lives practicing. We sat by the sea and rarely discussed philosophy or meditation, but nevertheless I noticed that these people gave off a really pleasant energy. It always gave me the feeling of being uplifted a little. Whenever I left their presence, I had the feeling of having learned something from them even though they hadn’t imparted any major theoretical teachings. It was their way of being. And then I understood that philosophy is an art of living, a way of being, and apparently you can practice it.
But you didn’t stay in India. What did you do with your new insights?
I came back to Europe, and that’s where the hotspots that interested me flared up. Friedrich Nietzsche led the way even before I went to India, but then came great minds from ancient times like Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, obviously a fresh look at Socrates, mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Ávila – all grand masters of living. Since then I have been trying to collect these texts in which spiritual exercises are described. There were books in which such exercises were gathered, philosophical manuals, but they have disappeared, and you can find them scattered throughout various texts and then experiment with them.
I always loved Gilles Deleuze’s idea of getting out and “doing something” with philosophy. Or Foucault, who called his books “toolboxes,” with ideas that could shape or twist or cut, whatever his readers needed to get the job done.
What do you say to people who don’t understand these texts?
It’s not about understanding: that’s exactly what always keeps at arm’s length from philosophy. I often hear people say, “It’s so difficult, so theoretical I just don’t get it!” and I always tell them, “You don’t have to get it! Relax! Simply take a sentence that speaks to you somehow and see what it does with you.” The smartest approach is to stick with something, even if you don’t understand it right away. It can happen with a movie, a text or even with people. You might say to yourself, “I don’t really get this, but there’s something there that appeals to me and interests me,” and you set your understanding aside. It clicks into place much later: you’ll be in the middle of an everyday situation and think to yourself, “Oh, that’s how it was back then. Now I understand.” There is something we do not practice nearly enough in our culture: being good at frustration. Letting yourself get frustrated by something and tolerating frustration: I believe that only frustration gets us somewhere. If the only thing we get is what we already understand things that can be quickly categorised and put in a drawer then nothing will happen with us. A love no longer exists if we have fully understood it. If philosophy means the love of wisdom, then it should move things in us, change us. The things you don’t understand at first continue working in you: they do something. A thought we continue to examine throughout our lives and keep practicing will make its way into our muscles at some point: it will become a way of being.
So you develop a new attitude?
The Greeks had the lovely term ethos a position, an attitude, a stance but the term has become distorted because of military and disciplinary contexts. Ethos means practicing something in your thoughts for so long and internalizing it, as Goethe says, until it becomes a matter of course. Since I did a lot of sport, I understood the idea immediately: something happens when you do something over and over again, and that’s true of mental exercise as well. And you then know: “Now I’ve made my way to a particular level, but there’s more on the next levels.” It’s not the same thing if I acquire something only by knowledge. If I’m the choleric type, I can read 1000 descriptions about anger management, but that only helps me control my temper to a limited extent. But I can practice dealing with my anger, and suddenly it diminishes, and I realize that anger is not at all necessary in most situations. That’s something that only practice can achieve.
So, in your eyes, philosophy is more than thinking?
There are brilliant thinkers who can retain and call up a great deal of theory. That’s something you can practice as well, and then you’re brilliant, but there’s no drive behind it that would turn the theory into real life. Musicians have a word for this – they speak of a feeling. Keith Richards wrote a song with Tom Waits called That Feel, and there’s a great line: “There’s one thing you can’t lose: it’s that feel.” Practice helps you develop that feeling, that relationship to yourself which becomes more than just a vision. You’ve internalized it and are living it. For me, that’s philosophy. And that was an entire millennium, from the 5th century BCE until 500 CE. The centre of philosophy. This period has been forgotten, unfortunately, and has become academic, become theoretical. And I think nowadays we have reached a turning point where we have to re-discover this tradition and experiment with it so we can think differently and, more importantly, live differently. The Cynics in ancient times made an important distinction. There are long paths in philosophy, paths that lead through theory, through discourse. And then there are short routes that lead through practical issues and practicing. I like short paths!
Later in his career, Foucault, who was extremely interested in this very tradition, even said that these “technologies”, as he called them these philosophical practices – may be the only option we have today to actively resist the increasingly nuanced normative powers we are exposed to.
It is no longer the case that we are trained via disciplines: instead, we are more likely to be normalized with barely perceptible strategies. These strategies work as the extended arm of society in us, and we think they come from us, from within us. Consequently, we cannot clearly distance ourselves from them. Nietzsche spoke of an untameable force, a Dionysian “chaos „within us. And because this magma is inside us, we can interact and create something of our own, a self.
Many people have the feeling that something is wrong with them: for example, they may have anxiety disorders, so they go to a psychologist. But might they in fact be better off with philosophical exercises, like the sort of philosophical practice you conduct?
I think philosophers should not find anything in the human condition foreign. They themselves have tried our different ways of living, have experimented, really taken them seriously. If they live philosophically, they are familiar a wide variety of conditions, including anxieties they have experienced first-hand. Most people are afraid of themselves it’s a kind of autophobia. We set up so many escape routes. And theory itself could be an escape route, a form of distortion so as not to have to deal with ourselves. We talk about this in the idea underlying “Know thyself”, but we don’t practice self-knowledge. Theory is the most sophisticated way of avoiding self-insight and fear of ourselves. In philosophical counselling you can confront this fear. Nothing is categorised and nothing is pathologised; we just talk about things. And an exchange of experiences takes place outside of psychological symptoms.
What sort of things do you handle there?
Coping with the experience that frustration can change you. Camus said it best: If we continue licking our own wounds, they never let us rest. People often bring their problems to the Philosophical Practice and then don’t want to change what they’re accustomed to: instead, they show resistance. The things we have become used to give us a sense of security, even if they also make us suffer. And the challenge here is overcoming this resistance and letting someone undergo the experience that change doesn’t mean things will collapse or you will lose yourself. That’s panic. But experiencing what happens when you leave your suffering, that something new can arise that you’re taken care of, that there are hands out there. This is an important experience. Heidegger talked about the “big leap”. He wondered if we would keep our footing if we “jumped off” from what he called the “familiar ground of beings”. His answer? Yes, if we really and truly jump, but no, if we only imagine the jump: “The essence of identity is a property of the event.” And I believe these frustrations are necessary so we really appropriate something and change. We have to jump. In our culture, which has become an event culture a culture of “spectacle”, as Guy Debord would call it every true event is ruined by event planning. What matters is developing a stance that permits the event to happen so that a new process of identity formation can take place, can adjust. Once you have experienced that there are hands which carry you, you don’t want to go back into what Plato referred to as the cave in which you can only see the shadow of reality on the wall. And reality is usually much milder than what we imagine. The thing we fear most is what we imagine.
How can we overcome fear?
Another philosophical exercise is to prepare yourself for things ahead. You imaging the worst-case scenario that could occur in a particular situation. You really delve into it. And then you experience how much irrational thought is in our imagination. The irrational thought dissolves, and at the very site where there was resistance, a door opens. A door to something new. It’s not so much a self-fulfilling prophecy as it is an opening. You make the future you had imagined disappear. And if it does take place, you’ve already thought of everything and are prepared. So it doesn’t hit you as hard. You also learn to accept the things beyond your control. It’s similar to what Nietzsche called the love of fate – amor fati – accepting everything that comes to you. Not with cynicism, but with serenity.
How do you define or interpret love?
There’s a great Bob Dylan song called Sign Language. It describes a situation where there’s a couple sitting in a café: “You speak to me in sign language as I’m eating a sandwich in a small café at a quarter to three. But I can’t respond to your sign language. You’re taking advantage bringing me down. Can’t you make any sound?” And I believe that when people really approach each other in love, they exchange sounds. Love is sound. Love is a kind of timing: Connecting to your feelings at the right moment and allow them to happen. To stand linked to your feelings, accept the feelings and risk the danger is called “falling in love”. You have to allow yourself to fall if you want to experience this. You can’t use codes to protect yourself. Love is when it succeeds an experience. Most people are afraid of that and remain in these neurotic spirals of projections. When it comes to affairs of the heart, there is a great sentence by Lacan: “Don’t give me what I ask for because that’s not it.” This refers to projections. But that’s usually what happens in romances. You project something, a particular image you want to have, and then you are disappointed if the other person doesn’t fulfil that. And that happens mutually. You have to be able to court someone for a long time and cope with the wounds of love to notice that something’s taking place that can be called love. That also means that you have to be in synchronicity with yourself before you can be in sync with someone else. The more you are willing to make room for in yourself, the more you can make room for in a romance with someone else. A romance can become asynchronous one person keeps developing and the other stands still and then often there are separations which might not have been necessary if people had stuck it out a tiny bit longer. Firs you have to create a relationship with yourself, and of course a romance can be helpful here. “I” is always someone else, if you are honest. Rather than speak of communication, I prefer the religious term “communion”, being “in communion” when you want to communicate with someone. Nietzsche said, “Words are vocal symbols for groups of sensations. It is not sufficient to use the same words in order to understand one another: We must also employ the same words for the same kind of internal experiences.” Ultimately, we have to have undergone a similar experience to come together with someone else, and that is what I would call communion. These communion-like experiences are possible in other encounters, not just in romances. You notice, “Oh wow, we’re really together!” But then these people actually talk about themselves and give off a “sound”.
Nietzsche also said that music speaks more clearly to the heart than common language. In your eyes, is music an experience that can change you fundamentally?
Yes. In a best-case scenario, music can do something to us. Gilles Deleuze wished he could hold a lecture like Bob Dylan writes a song. And a philosophical lecture can be like a rock concert, like a piece of music, like a scream. There have been a few philosophers who really felt how close philosophy and music are to each other say, Nietzsche or Gilles Deleuze, who felt that thoughts are melodies. And sometimes I hear philosophy as music. Or I listen to its rhythm. A book that doesn’t have what jazz musicians call a groove is something I set aside. My only question is, does it have a groove for me, does it have a sound? No matter how brilliant the text may be, that has to be there.
There are Tibetan prayer flags hanging here on your rooftop terrace. Do they mean something special to you?
They’re somewhat older and are already wind-torn. We are afraid of these tears, we are afraid of showing a wound. Right now I’m reading this 1000-page book that Johannes Stüttgen wrote about the Beuys era, and it’s great. That Beuys quote, Zeige deine Wunde! (Show your wound!) applies to philosophy as well make yourself vulnerable, dare to approach untrodden and unconsidered territory. Discover new thoughts and new attitudes, experiment with philosophy, let something happen to you. This is one of the most difficult tasks there is. Once again, Leonard Cohen put it aptly in a song: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Nietzsche said we’d rather face the abyss than feel exposed, even for a brief moment. We all want to be in control, be cool and smooth, and appear that way too, but that’s not it. The people who are really interesting have cracks and flaws. And new light comes into our lives through these cracks. It’s really difficult to confront this, and once again we end up back where we were, dealing with our fear of ourselves. I think autophobia is a basic pattern which can stir up several other forms of distortion. And one of them can be creating theories to be even more brilliant to keep circling back around, adding another layer. But it’s like Lessing said in Nathan der Weise: “Not all who scorn their chains are free.” As I see it, that’s the most exciting and interesting part of practical philosophy: the direct route. Producing knowledge which loosens chains and changes us. Foucault calls this “intellectual knowledge and spiritual knowledge”. That’s it!
Thank you for the nice interview!