Diving Into The Wisdom of Rapper-Philosopher J.Cole

How Listening to J.Cole Can Inspire You to Improve Your Life

Estimated reading time: 9 mins

“Free your mind and everything will follow” – J.Cole

Over his career, J.Cole went through a dramatic transformation. From a hungry boy obsessing with girls in high school [Dreams], to a modern-day philosopher, learning to appreciate his life [Love Yours], practicing meditation [FRIENDS], and expressing true love [Foldin Clothes]. All while continuing to produce hit singles and platinum albums.

The evolution of J.Cole

As my perspectives evolved in a similar way, I connected with his music on a deeper level. I was able to find connections between Cole’s lyrics and philosophical ideas that can help people improve their lives.

In this essay, I’ll use J.Cole’s lyrics to take you through an exploration of two common obstacles to happiness and practices to overcome them.

  • Obstacle 1: The Great Happiness Illusion & The Hedonic Treadmill
    • Practice 1: Appreciation and Acceptance (Amor Fati)
  • Obstacle 2: Suppressed Emotions and Traumas
    • Practice 2: Meditation and Letting Go of Negative Emotions

The Great Happiness Illusion & The Hedonic Treadmill

“Once I get this, I’ll be happy”

We’re constantly told by society that to be happy we need to have a lot of money, a beautiful house, success, etc…. While it is true that up to a certain point having more money will make us happier, most people place too much importance on seeking money and material success.

We focus on seeking external achievements, thinking that only once we obtain them we will be happy. So, we neglect our internal state, and we feel like we’re always lacking until we achieve “material success”. The constant unfulfilled craving makes us miserable.

The irony is that the people who manage to become successful find that after a short burst of excitement, they go back to misery. They are still craving for more or stressing to protect what they accumulated.

Cole talked about this in an interview on the Angie Martinez Show and in the songs Love Yourz and ATM.

Always gon’ be a bigger house somewhere, but n**ga feel me
Long as the people in that motherfucker love you dearly
Always gon’ be a whip that’s better than the one you got
Always gon’ be some clothes that’s fresher than the ones you rock
Always gon’ be a bitch that’s badder out there on the tours
But you ain’t never gon’ be happy ’til you love yours.

Proceed with caution
I heard if you chase it (money) only results in
A hole in your heart

Stoic philosophers were discussing very similar ideas over two thousand years ago.

“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.” ― Seneca

Today, psychology has explained this phenomenon, known as the Hedonic Treadmill. Its idea is that as a person makes more money (or becomes famous), he will adapt to his new situation and he will desire more. Thus, in the long run, he will not increase his happiness baseline.

Graph displaying hedonic adaptation and the happiness baseline

Cole also refers to this in False Prophets, where he talks about his friend (and acclaimed rapper) Wale dealing with depression. Even though Wale has hundreds of thousands of fans and is successful by any standard, he is still “always worried ’bout the critics” and “so bitter he can’t see his own blessings”.

As Cole skillfully explains, the way out of the Hedonic Treadmill starts by recognizing that we can’t find lasting happiness in external achievements. Rather, we should be working on cultivating a happy internal state. A way to do that is by practicing appreciation and acceptance. 

“I know Heaven is a mind state, I’ve been a couple times”
– J.Cole [The Cut Off]

Practice 1: Appreciation and Acceptance (Amor Fati)

Cole discusses appreciation and acceptance exceptionally in Love Yourz. As the title suggests, the main message of the song is:

“Love your life”, no matter what happens or how hard it seems. 

This might sound simplistic, but it is a concept that has been explored for centuries by Stoicism and Buddhism. In Western philosophy, this attitude is known as Amor Fati (Latin for “Love of one’s Fate”), its basic idea is that you can learn to accept and even love everything that happens to you, whether you think it’s “good” or “bad”. 

You can begin practicing Amor Fati by reminding yourself to be grateful for all the good things in your life that you often take for granted (family, love, health, food etc…).

But Amor Fati also means accepting (and eventually learning to appreciate) the unpleasant things that come our way.

“It’s beauty in the struggle” – J.Cole [Love Yourz]

Bad shit will always happen, to everyone. That’s inevitable. But it’s important to recognize that the way we react to events shapes our world much more than the events themselves.

“Throw me into hell, and I’ll find a way to enjoy it.” – Ikkyu Sojun (Zen monk)

If you’re constantly complaining and dissatisfied with things that happen to you, people will want to spend less time with you, you’ll have less energy and fewer opportunities. Your life will drown in a downward spiral.

Downward spiral of negativity

Alternatively, you can choose to see negative events as providing you with opportunities to learn and grow. 

Events outside of your control represent the cards that have been handed to you. Complaining about how bad they suck is not going to help. Rather ask yourself, “how can I play these cards to get the best result?”

God shuffled the cards, dealt me a hand with impossible odds
Put an obstacle course up. Look, and I conquered them all”
– J.Cole [Tribe]

Breaking free of the downward spiral of negativity

With the right mindset, bad times can also help you appreciate more the good times when they (also inevitably) arrive.

“To appreciate the sun, you gotta know what rain is.”
– J.Cole [Coming Home]

And as you practice gratitude and acceptance for everything in your life, you learn to love your life.

No such thing as a life that’s better than yours (Love yours)
No such thing, no such thing.”

– J.Cole [Love Yourz]

There’s no such thing as a life that’s better than yours because “the way things are” is perfect.

Each of our lives is part of God’s (or The Universe’s) plan, and God doesn’t make mistakes.

If we simply accept what happens to us, instead of resisting or complaining about it,  we learn to go with the flow and make the best of our situation (this is one of the main ideas in Buddhism and Taoism).

Oh, I swam for miles, only to realize the current
Is fightin’ against me and I’m so tired, I’m floatin’ now
Oh, from here on out, I’ve got to realize the power
Of learnin’ to let go, and just let God. Enjoy the ride

– J.Cole [Sojourner]

Obstacle 2: Suppressed emotions and traumas

Another obstacle to happiness that Cole discusses is emotion suppression and trauma. 

These topics are not talked about much, and many of us don’t even know that they are affecting our lives. But actually a lot of our fears, anxieties, and insecurities come from suppressed feelings. 

We run away from uncomfortable and painful feelings, whether it’s through drugs, TV, or social media. We get distracted because we are afraid to face our demons. That’s what Cole talks about in FRIENDS.

There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see
Type of shit that normally would call for therapy
But you know just how it go in our community
Keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be
Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees
And popping pills due to chronic anxiety

Without the drugs I want you be comfortable in your skin
I know you so I know you still keep a lot of shit in
You running from yourself and you buying product again
I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend
But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend

Buddhism has been exploring the issue of suppressed emotions for centuries. With Freud and Jung, Western psychology also recognized the destructive effect that repressing feelings has on our mental health.

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
― Sigmund Freud

“And nobody wants to encounter these things; one wants to avoid them. For thousands of years you have been told to repress, and because of repression you have become more and more unconscious. […] Repression is a way to destroy yourself. Repression is suicide – very slow of course, but a very certain, slow poisoning.” 
― Osho

In FRIENDS, Cole talks about people who turn to drugs after serious traumas. But, we are all in a way taught to repress our emotions, and we suffer from them.

Learning to recognize suppressed feelings and release them can be invaluable for our mental and emotional well-being. Cole mentions how he even struggled with this issue and is now on the path of overcoming it. 

“I’m tired of livin’ with demons ’cause they always invitin’ more”
– J.Cole [Apparently, 2014]

“I no longer bury demons, I be a vessel for the truth until I’m barely breathing”
– J.Cole [Change, 2016]

So, how do we deal with this? Cole suggests facing our demons (negative emotions) directly. A way to do that is through Meditation, which is also what the Buddhists have been advocating for thousands of years.

Practice 2: Meditation and Letting Go of Negative Emotions

“One thing about your demons they bound to catch up one day
I’d rather see you stand up and face them than run away
I understand this message is not the coolest to say
But if you down to try it I know of a better way

“I sit in silence and find whenever I meditate
My fears alleviate, my tears evaporate”
My faith don’t deviate, ideas don’t have a date
But see
I’m growing and getting stronger with every breath
Bringing me closer to Heaven’s doors with every step

As we speak I’m at peace, no longer scared to die”

J.Cole [Change]

From the lyrics above, it’s clear that Cole believes in the power of meditation and that it has helped him tremendously. And he’s not the only one, there’s growing scientific evidence showing that practicing meditation can literally change your brain for the better(1, 2) and help in treating depression and anxiety.

Meditation comes in different techniques and can be a bit overwhelming to start practicing. Just like any other skill, it takes time to learn and “get better” at it, but its benefits can be very powerful. There are a lot of great resources out there to get started  and I mention a few below. 

In FRIENDS Cole mentions Meditation as a way to deal with suppressed emotions by facing them directly. Similarly, the book Letting Go by David Hawkins discusses a meditation technique to help you feel and face suppressed emotions.

While facing your demons will be uncomfortable at first, with time you’ll feel lighter and happier as you release suppressed feelings. The book Letting Go can be a bit esoteric. If you’re not into that stuff, I curated some book notes that only include its most practical points.

But meditation is not only a way to deal with negative emotions. I’d say that it is primarily a practice to understand yourself and cultivate peace, resilience, and gratitude. For example, in Foldin Clothes, Cole describes how meditating and learning to be present, makes him appreciate times with his wife a lot more.

“Listen, this is a meditation for me
A practice in being present
There’s nowhere I need to be
Except right here with you”

J.Cole [Foldin Clothes]

If you want to hear Cole talk more about meditation, you can check this interview (minutes 4 to 9), where he discusses how he uses meditation to deal with stressful situations and how he wants to make meditation more a part of his life.

Recap: It’s all about the mind

I know Heaven is a mind state, I’ve been a couple times” – J.Cole

Free your mind and everything will follow” – J.Cole

The two lines above do an exceptional job at summarizing the core message of this essay.

Happiness is an internal state, almost like a skill, that we can develop by adopting the right attitude and practices.

To conclude I’d like to present some practical tips in case you’d like to integrate appreciation, acceptance and meditation into your life.

Cultivate appreciation and acceptance:

Keep a gratitude journal (every day write three things you are grateful for and why).

This will help you to appreciate what’s good in your life, and it will also condition your mind to accept “negative” events and find what’s GOOD in them.

Get started with meditation or mindfulness

I’d recommend starting with guided meditation apps such as 10% Happier or Waking Up (they both offer free guided meditations). I used both apps and found them really helpful. 

Start slow and feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions/doubts. I’ve been practicing for over six years and I love doing what I can to help people get started.

If sitting to meditate sounds too much for you, you can also practice being present in everyday moments, which will also help you enjoy them more. I wrote a short essay on how I do this.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

In either case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or via email.


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