Pema Chodron on Learning to Stay

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion; only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life,” Henry David Thoreau once mused.  Who hasn’t had the unsettling experience- in the hush of an ordinary morning, on the unremarkable commute home from work, amongst friends and the convivial chatter of dinner- of being physically present yet somehow not there?  As the wonderfully erudite Maria Popova articulates, the tragedy of our times is that we routinely show up for life but are rarely present.  In our restless age of instant communication, we’re bombarded by a ceaseless onslaught of distraction, not living but simply existing in a sort of half-conscious stupor.  Like pinballs, we mindlessly ricochet from one meaningless diversion to the next, compulsively checking the ding of every text message and notification until we lose what little sanity we have left.

At no other juncture in human history has it been more vital to carve out periods of stillness than in our hurried, heedless hour.  For many, meditation offers this much-needed repose from modern life’s madhouse.  Once sanctified as the path to enlightenment in Eastern spiritual traditions, today meditation has metamorphosed into something far more secular-not an impossibly serene Buddha sitting under a lotus tree, but a practical exercise whose avid proponents include everyone from top-performing athletes to Oprah.  So why has this ancient religious practice seen a resurgence in popularity in our decidedly non-religious culture?  Perhaps it has to do with the abundance of scientific evidence demonstrating its wide-ranging physical and psychological benefits: not only has meditation been shown to improve self-control, lessen anxiety and depression, and decrease stress, it’s been proven to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and actually boost the immune system.  Meditating as little as twenty five minutes a day can literally restructure the brain, increasing gray matter in the hippocampus, the hub of human memory and learning, and forever transforming its architecture. 

Why we meditate is the question at the heart of The Places That Scare You, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron’s endlessly wise but endearingly accessible guide to cultivating courage in difficult times.  Of all meditation’s far-reaching benefits, Chodron asserts the greatest is its capacity to teach us a kind of spiritual grit.  Though many imagine the goal of meditation is to achieve a blissful state of trance-like tranquility, its chief aim is not to silence thoughts but to learn to sit still amidst the noise:

Why do we meditate?  This is a question we’d be wise to ask.  Why would we even bother to spend time alone with our selves?

First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good.  To think that’s why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure.  We’ll assume we’re doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences physical and psychological pain.  Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and sanity.”

pema meditation

Just as running instructs us in the invaluable art of perseverance, meditation teaches us to persist- even when we think we can’t go on.  To meditate is to observe the disarray of the mind from a place of level-headed detachment- without getting swept up by the tumult of every tempest.  We look upon our mental landscape as a spectator would a play: interested but not involved in the drama unfolding before us.  Worries, anxieties, obsessions: all are but stars on the stage of a never-ending saga.  Rather than shriek in terror at the sight of our countless neuroses (or too brutally, too unmercifully judge them), we learn to courageously confront our demons:

When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves.  No matter what comes up- aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions- we develop a loyalty to our experience.  Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t run screaming out of the room.  Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong.  This is no small task.  Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt.” 

 A portal to grasping the mysterious workings of our own minds, meditation also sheds light on the universal human psyche- particularly our shared tendency to retreat into the reassuring realms of imagination and fantasy so as to elude the present in all its dismaying insecurity.  Though the present has the profound power of transporting us to transcendent heights of rapture, to exist completely in the here and now- or, as patron saint of presence Thoreau once said, to realize there is “no other land but this”- is to come face to face with life’s startling uncertainty.  Unadulterated life is both torture and bliss, torment and rhapsody:

In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness.  Sometimes we get up and leave.  Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds are far away.  This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay.  Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it means to be human.  All of us derive imaginary security and comfort from the imaginary world of memory and fantasy and plans.  We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of present experience.  It goes against the grain to stay present.”  

While the idea of sitting cross-legged atop a mountain sounds wonderfully replenishing to many a weary spiritual seeker, meditation practice is just that- practice, in other words, hard work.  Instead of a few stolen moments of calm restorative bliss, meditating is most often a terrifying submergence into the storm-tossed seas of our subconscious.  “How much longer do I have left?”  “I’m hungry…what am I going to eat for lunch?”  “Crap…I still have to walk the dog!”  This chronic mental chatter brings about a startling- if distressing- revelation: we very rarely are where we are.  But rather than castigate ourselves for our hopeless inability to stay present, Chodron pleads with us to be compassionate toward our shortcomings as self-love is the most priceless lesson meditation can impart.  Only when we develop an attitude of loving-kindness, can we learn to “stay” with both our selves and the world at large:

The pith instruction is, stay…stay…just stay.  Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog.  If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible but rather terrified dog.  The dog may obey when we say “Stay!” “Come!” “Roll over!” and “Sit up!” but he will also be neurotic and confused.  By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.

So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to stay and settle down.  Are we experiencing restlessness?  Stay!  Discursive mind?  Stay!  Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay!  Aching knees and throbbing back?  Stay!  What’s for lunch?  Stay!  What am I doing here? Stay!  I can’t stand this another minute!  Stay!  This is how we cultivate steadfastness.”

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The Little Prince: An Elegy for the Lost Wonders of Childhood

the little prince“Every child is an artist,” Picasso once observed, “the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Much like the artist, whose sensitivity can discern the potential for revelation in the seemingly mundane, children possess a marvelous capacity for wonder.  Not yet made weary by experience, children remain astonished by the most ordinary of things: a dandelion blowing in a summer wind, the miracle of an insignificant speck of a planet containing the only known life in existence, the discovery of a mathematics principle as basic as 2 + 2 equals 4.  Nothing is too banal to capture their curiosity.  But it is a sorrowful fact of the human condition that the frolicsome wonder of childhood must give way to the sensible concerns of being an adult.  As we age, we cease dancing to the carefree melody of the joyfully frivolous and settle into the monotonous rhythms of obligation and habit.  Playing, puttering, daydreaming: all are eventually sacrificed on the altar of mortgages and car payments. 

This is what French writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine De Saint-Exupery mourns in his timeless classic The Little Prince — a delightful part spiritual autobiography, part parable of the tragedies of becoming a too serious, too solemn adult.  With splendid wisdom and irresistible, tender-hearted charm, Saint-Exupery tells the story of a pilot who’s misfortunate enough to crash his plane in the Sahara.  Believing himself to be stranded alone in the desert, the pilot’s stunned to stumble upon a mysterious golden-haired boy, whom we come to learn is the prince of the story’s title.  A visitor from a faraway asteroid, the Little Prince recounts his extraordinary odyssey across the universe where he encounters first-hand the absurdity of so-called “rational” adults.  

For a champion of imagination as spirited as Saint-Exupery, adults’ most substantial flaw is their severely limited powers of perception.  The magic of children is their willingness to look at the world in new ways, ways that might be preposterous or downright bonkers.  Whereas adults are often constricted by customary modes of thought and stifled by linear logic, children are open-minded enough to detect possibilities unseen by their adult counterparts.  After becoming fascinated by boa constrictors at age six, the pilot sketches his first picture, a drawing of one of these monstrous snakes digesting an elephant he simply entitles, “Drawing Number One.”  But anytime the young pilot shows his drawing to an adult, they insist it’s a hat.  This sort of bland, run-of-the-mill interpretation, he realizes, is a symptom of a widespread malady, being a grown up:

“But he would always answer, ‘That’s a hat.’  Then I wouldn’t talk about boa constrictors or jungles or stars.  I would put myself on his level and talk about bridge and golf and politics and neckties.  And my grown-up was glad to know such a reasonable person.”

boa constricterBesides losing their glorious powers for imagination, adults preoccupy themselves with things that fundamentally don’t matter.  More than any other character, the businessman exemplifies Saint-Exupery’s distaste for the heartless achievement-orientation of adults.  Obsessed with quantifying all he owns, the businessman barely lifts his head when the Little Prince bids him good morning, a tragic symbol for the way adults prioritize the petty and pointless pursuits of success-seeking over the soul-affirming miracle of meaningful human bonds:

“Good morning,” the little prince said to him.  “Your cigarette has gone out.”

“Three and two make five.  Five and seven make twelve.  Twelve and three make fifteen.  Good morning.  Fifteen and seven make twenty two.  Twenty two and six make twenty eight.  I haven’t time to light it again.  Twenty five and six make thirty one.  Phew!  Then that makes five-hundred-and-one-million, six-hundred-twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.”

“Five hundred million what?” asked the little prince. 

“Eh?  Are you still there?  Five-hundred-and-one-million-I can’t stop…I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence.  I don’t amuse myself with balderdash.  Two and five make seven…” 

little prince banker

A poignant reminder of Annie Dillard’s simple yet profound observation that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” the businessman squanders his finite hours counting stars that hold no resonance for him simply so he can claim them as his own.  Like an ambitious Wall Street trader who bears long, miserable hours for the sake of status, the businessman’s existence is an exercise in futility, a lifetime of burdensome labor for the bragging rights of having money- a conceptional notion that, Saint-Exupery argues, essentially means nothing.  Much like the money we devote our lives to accumulating, his stars are an abstraction that have no real practical utility:

“Five-hundred-and-one million what?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question once he had asked it.

The businessman raised his head.

“During the fifty-four years that I have inhabited this planet, I have been disturbed only three times.  The first time was twenty-two years ago, when some giddy goose fell from goodness knows where.  He made the most frightful noise that resounded all over the place, and I made four mistakes in my addition.  The second time, eleven years ago, I was disturbed by an attack of rheumatism.  I don’t get enough exercise.  I have no time for loafing.  The third time– well, this is it!  I was saying, then, five -hundred-and-one millions–”

“Millions of what?”

The businessman suddenly realized that there was no hope of being left in peace until he answered this question.

“Millions of those little objects,” he said, “which one sometimes sees in the sky.”

“Flies?”

“Oh, no.  Little glittering objects.”

“Bees?”

“Oh, no.  Little golden objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming.  As for me, I am concerned with matters of consequence.  There is no time for idle dreaming in my life.”

“Ah!  You mean the stars?”

“Yes, that’s it. The stars.”

And what do you do with five-hundred millions of stars?”

“Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.  I am concerned with matters of consequence: I am accurate.”

“And what do you do with these stars?”

“What do I do with them?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing.  I own them.”

“And what do you do with them?”

“I administer them,” replied the businessman.  “I count them and recount them.  It is difficult.  But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”

The little prince was still not satisfied.

“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me.  If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me.  But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven…”

“No.  But I can put them in the bank.”

“Whatever does that mean?”

“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper.  And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”

“And that is all?”

“That is enough,” said the businessman. 

“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince.  “It is rather poetic.  But it is of no great consequence.”

On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown-ups.

the fox and the little prince

In an exchange that embodies the beautiful but oft forgotten sentiment that love is another form of attention, the Little Prince learns that the time he spends cultivating his stunning (if immodest) rose is what makes her distinct from all others.  Though the nature of love has puzzled poets and philosophers for millennia, Saint-Exupery conceives a rather uncomplicated definition, one that has much in common with Buddhist ideas of mindfulness: love is heedful care.  Sadly in the mania of our productivity-fixated culture, most grown ups proceed at too hurried a pace to devote the time meaningful relationships require:

It was then that the fox appeared.

“Good morning,” said the fox.

“Good morning,” the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.

“I am right here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”

“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

“I am a fox,” said the fox.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”

“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah!  Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added: “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox.  “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox.  “They have guns, and they hunt.  It is very disturbing.  They also raise chickens.  These are their only interests.  Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince.  “I am looking for friends.  What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox.  It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox.  “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys.  And I have no need of you.  And you, on your part, have no need of me.  To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.  But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.  To me, you will be unique in all the world.  To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince.  “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”

“It is possible,” said the fox.  “On the Earth one sees all sorts of things.”

“Oh, but this is not on the Earth!” said the little prince.

The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.

“On another planet?”

“Yes.”

“Are there hunters on this planet?”

“No.”

“Ah, that is interesting!  Are there chickens?”

“No.”

“Nothing is perfect,” sighed the fox.

But he came back to his idea.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said.  “I hunt chickens; men hunt me.  All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike.  And, in consequence, I am a little bored.  But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.  I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others.  Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground.  Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.  And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder?  I do not eat bread.  Wheat is of no use to me.  The wheat fields have nothing to say to me.  And that is sad.  But you have hair that is the colour of gold.  Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me!  The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you.  And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

“Please– tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied.  “But I have not much time.  I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox.  “Men have no more time to understand anything.  They buy things all ready made at the shops.  But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more.  If you want a friend, tame me…”

“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox.  “First you will sit down at a little distance from me– like that– in the grass.  I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing.  Words are the source of misunderstandings.  But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”

fox

The next day the little prince came back.

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox.  “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy.  I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances.  At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about.  I shall show you how happy I am!  But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”

“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.

“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox.  “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.  There is a rite, for example, among my hunters.  Every Thursday they dance with the village girls.  So Thursday is a wonderful day for me!  I can take a walk as far as the vineyards.  But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”

So the little prince tamed the fox.  And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince.  “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”  And then he added:

“Go and look again at the roses.  You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world.  Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”

The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.

“You are not at all like my rose,” he said.  “As yet you are nothing.  No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one.  You are like my fox when I first knew him.  He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.  But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”

And the roses were very much embarrassed.

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on.  “One could not die for you.  To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you– the rose that belongs to me.  But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing.  Because she is my rose.”

And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox.  “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” 

little prince rose

Translated into 300 languages and selling nearly 2 million copies annually, The Little Prince ranks as one of the most beloved books of all time.  Why has this over half-a-century-old novella remained a cherished volume on so many book shelves?  This enchanting tale continues to enthrall, I think, because it speaks to a hunger unending and universal: the desire to recapture the lost wisdom of childhood.

Pema Chodron on How Pain Enlarges Our Heart

German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s pithy aphorism “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so oft uttered it borders on cliche.  But, like all timeless platitudes, his words endure because they capture a truth abiding and incontrovertible: pain- though unpleasant- is essential.  As satirist Russell Baker quipped, “I’ve had an unhappy life, thank God.”  Though most of us would happily forgo crisis and catastrophe, adversity fortifies the soul; indeed, it is the life tormented by hardship and misfortune, trauma and woe that builds the most resilient, courageous individuals.  Those unfortunate enough to lead a blissful existence never develop real moral character.  Not only that, but it’s a fact of life that to fully experience any emotion, one must experience its converse: there can only be satisfaction if there’s discontent, enchantment if there’s disillusion, hope if there’s despair.  After all, we wouldn’t giddily anticipate Fridays unless we had to return to the office three days later.  “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” Nietzsche once wondered.  To sidestep suffering, then, is nothing short of denying ourselves the magnificent heights of human potential.

young pema chodron

Though philosophers have preached the value of suffering for millennia, it remains our natural inclination to avoid pain at all costs.  Rather than meet the behemoth of pain boldly and stout-heartededly, we cowardly retreat, erecting all kinds of barriers to protect us from the intolerable discomfort of vulnerability.  But it is pain, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron suggests in her slim but imponderably insightful volume Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears, that reminds us of our shared human predicament and connects us with bodhicitta, the Buddhist term for “enlightened mind” or “open heart.”  In Buddhist tradition, pain is not something to flee but rather something to embrace as an inevitable part of life.  Despite our cultural aversion to anything difficult, hardship is crucial because it sheds light on the conundrum of the human condition and makes us kinder and more merciful.  When her mother dies and she has to sift through box upon box of her things, Chodron comes to the dispiriting realization that- though her mother cherished these belongings- they, in themselves, possess no objective meaning.  But rather than let such a distressing insight send her into an existential tailspin and ponder the grim futility of life, she uses pain as a portal to better understand the human plight.  Warm and boundlessly wise, Chodron comes to feel compassion for all the people who-like her and her mother- suffer because they attribute too much significance to the inconsequential:

Before we know what natural warmth really is, often we must experience loss.  We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted.  Then we or someone close to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if the blinders have been removed from our eyes.  We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.

When my mother died and I was asked to go through her personal belongings, this awareness hit me hard.  She had kept boxes of papers and trinkets that she treasured, things that she held on to through her many moves to smaller and smaller accommodations.  They had represented security and comfort for her, and she had been unable to let them go.  Now they were just boxes of stuff, things that held no meaning and represented no comfort or security to anyone.  For me these were just empty objects, yet she had clung to them.  Seeing this made me sad, and also thoughtful.  After that I could never look at my own treasured objects the same way.  I had seen that the objects themselves are just what they are, neither precious nor worthless, and that all the labels, all our views and opinions about them, are arbitrary.

This was an experience of basic warmth.  The loss of my mother and the pain of seeing so clearly how we impose judgements and values, prejudices, likes and dislikes, onto the world, made me feel great compassion for our shared human predicament.  I remember explaining to myself that the whole world consisted of people just like me who were making much ado about nothing and suffering from it tremendously.”

The miracle of pain is that it enlarges our hearts.  When we lie shattered after our partner deserts us, for instance, we join an infinite chain connecting millions of love lorn.  Suddenly, we can sympathize with anyone who has suffered a broken heart.  Empathy, tenderness, understanding: all are profound lessons pain can teach us:

When my second marriage fell apart, I tasted the rawness of grief, the utter groundlessness of sorrow, and all the protective shields I had always managed to keep in place fell to pieces.  To my surprise, along with the pain, I also felt an uncontrived tenderness for other people.  I remember the complete openness and gentleness I felt for those I met briefly in the post office or at the grocery store.  I found myself approaching the people I encountered as just like me- fully alive, fully capable of meanness and kindness, of stumbling and falling down and of standing up again.  I never before experienced that much intimacy with unknown people.  I could look in the eyes of store clerks and car mechanics, beggars and children, and feel our sameness.  Somehow when my heart broke, the qualities of natural warmth, qualities like kindness and empathy and appreciation, just simultaneously emerged.”

pema chodron

“How far that little candle throws his beams!” exclaimed Shakespeare when contemplating the far-reaching reverberations of a small, ordinary act of kindness.  However much we loathe its lessons, pain illuminates the world by instructing us in the vital ways of having a warm heart.

Alan Watts on Consciousness, Ego & the Myth of the Fixed Self

the wisdom of insecurity
Beautifully paraphrasing an author whose name I’ve now long forgotten, one of my most beloved professors once said the saddest word in the English language is “temporary.”  No other word has inflicted more despair, more torment, or more misery.  In fact, no struggle in human history has been more unrelenting than the struggle against impermanence.  It is an indubitable law of the cosmos that life is flux: just as peonies blossom under the renewing spring sun but one day disintegrate to rejoin the soil from which they came, all things must end- a fact that necessarily includes man.  The idea that we- creatures of such astonishing intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities-are still earthly beings whose bodies must perish along with the brutes and beasts is petrifying.  Nothing is more harrowing than confronting the inevitability of our own death.  So we spend our lives endeavoring, as Buddhists throughout the millennia have observed, to get an “I” out of our experience- a sense of stable security in a world that is hopelessly transitory.  
But it is our very attempt to sculpt an “I” from the clay of our day to day lives, our strong-willed effort to solidify our sense of self as separate and other, that estranges us from the awe-inspiring ecstasy and raw immediacy of simply being alive.

In his brilliant 1951 volume The Wisdom of Insecurity, British writer and popularizer of Eastern philosophy in the West, Alan Watts, mourns man’s regrettable inability to remain present.  Unlike animals, who are largely driven by the basic instinct to survive, man is blessed with the miracle of consciousness, or the ability to be aware of both the world and itself- a cognitive operation that’s been both exalted as a gorgeous fever and condemned as a thing to be subdued.  Watts would undoubtedly agree with this latter view as it is this very capability that divides the self and alienates us from the now.  Rather than truly hear music and surrender to all its evocative rhythms and beautiful cadences, for example, we bring our rational, egoistic self to the task, spending the course of the song analyzing and evaluating, judging and quantifying.  This ceaseless interior monologue satisfies our desperate longing for a solid self- an “I,” an ego, an experiencer who represents the part of our psyche that must comment on experience, not participate in experience itself.  But the tragic irony, of course, is that by trying to forge an “I” and fortify ourselves against the transience of life and the certainty of death, most of us forfeit living and simply exist:

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger.  The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.  Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.  To understand music, you must listen to it.  But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.”

Alan-Watts

For Watts, metacognition- mankind’s uncommon ability to think about thinking- is a means of fleeing the present moment in all its terror and uncertainty.  Although this self-defense mechanism supplies us with the steady sense of identity we so hopelessly crave, it divorces us from the love affair that is life.  It is a tragedy that is distinctly pertinent to our age, an anxious era of endless distraction and ceaseless Twitter feeds: we mistake the oblivious stupor of existing in our minds for the exuberance of actually being alive.  After all, to think, “The sky is spectacular!” is to not fully savor the stunning colors of a sunrise:

“While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it?  Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer?  Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it?  You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief second stop reading.  The first experience is reading.  The second experience is the thought, “I am reading.”  Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, “I am reading?”  In other words, when present experience is the thought, “I am reading,” can you think about yourself thinking this thought? 

Once again, you must stop thinking just, “I am reading.”  You pass to a third experience, which is the thought, “I am thinking that I am reading.”  Do not let the rapidity with which these thoughts can change deceive you into the feeling that you think them all at once.”

So why is it that men rally so vehemently against remaining present?  To inhabit each moment fully, to be completely awake and alive is to confront the unsettling reality that “I” is nothing more than a psychological construct meant to alleviate our fears of impermanence- there is no such thing as a fixed self.  What we think of as “I” doesn’t exist beyond the present moment and is in a constant state of flux.  “Who are you?” the protagonist of my favorite novel demands to know of her eccentric mother.  “I am who I say I am and someone completely different the next,” the poet replies.  Or to borrow James Joyce’s poetic phrase, “Me. And me now.”  Though our capacity for memory gives us the illusion of a permanent, immutable self, at both the empirical level of behavior and the most fundamental level of molecules and atoms, “I” is continuously shifting, perishing only to transform itself:

“The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes.  It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire.  If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time.  This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences.  You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience.  If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.

But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience.  You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience.  When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.

[…]

To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.”

Triumphing Over Ego: Ryan Holiday on Passion & the Importance of Remaining a Student

ego is enemyWhat is ego?  According to Freud, groundbreaking progenitor of psychoanalysis, the ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the primitive hungers of the unconscious and the demands of external reality.  Ego is “I”- the wellspring of the self.  For others, ego is the source of individuality and innovation and, thus, of all human achievement.  For still others, ego is arrogance, a grandiose sense of one’s own importance that inevitably leads the extraordinary to their doom.  A defeated Napoleon retreating from a war-torn Moscow, his enormous army of 500,000 diminished to a mere 100,000 men.  A reckless, overconfident Icarus ignoring his father Daedalus’s warnings and flying too close to the sun.  An ambitious scientist so hungry to unlock the mysteries of nature that he oversteps the proper bounds of human knowledge and creates a monster.  History abounds with stories of such figures, proud men whose hubris precipitated their fateful end.  

It is the peril of ego that marketing genius and sage stoic disciple Ryan Holiday contemplates in Ego is the Enemyhis instructive handbook to being “humble in your aspirations, resilient in your failures and gracious in your success.”  A tour guide through the millennia, Holiday recounts the stories of remarkable men and women who transformed industries, revolutionized art forms, and won world wars by triumphing over the yearnings of what astrologer and spiritual guru Tosha Silver calls the “small self.”  

If you’re ambitious like me, when pondering ego, one question inevitably asserts itself: who are we if we’re not our “small selves”?  isn’t the “small self” behind history’s greatest achievements?  haven’t the most cutting edge visionaries, the most enterprising entrepreneurs been those very people who had “big” dreams?  whose faith in their capacity to do the impossible was so unwavering as to seem deranged?  This is where Holiday makes a crucial distinction: ambition, he clarifies, is often admirable; after all, where would mankind be without pride, determination, yearning, and something for which to aim?  There would be no advancement, no betterment, no change.  Not to mention the fact that longing for something instills life with meaning and purpose.  It is only when desire teeters on the edge of obsession, when self-confidence tumbles into arrogance, and when self-love metamorphoses into narcissism, its hideously conceited twin, that ego deludes us into believing the myth of our own importance and becomes dangerous:

“[the ego is] the petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else.  The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility-that’s ego.  It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.

It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

The sagest of philosophers concur that the mark of true wisdom is an appreciation of one’s own ignorance.  “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” Socrates once said.  Though ego is often thought of as the architect behind all human accomplishment, nothing poses more of a stumbling block to genuine mastery of a domain than an exaggerated sense of self-worth.  Why seek out the tutelage of an expert in your field or practice for several hours a day if you’re already a virtuoso?  Ego assures us there’s nothing more to learn: we’re already talented/intelligent/skilled enough.  It is this cocky bigheadedness, this smug belief in our own superiority that sabotages our ability to improve.  As Epictetus so wisely noted, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he already knows.”  Only when we possess an earnest sense of humility can we admit a lack of knowledge- the essential first step to real growth.  It is those humble few who are willing to be eternal students and enroll in the endlessly enlightening school of life that end up making the most significant contributions to their fields.

To illustrate the life-altering power of remaining a student, Holiday recalls the story of Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of 80s megastar band Metallica.  Rather than revel in the glory of having “arrived” after being asked to join the up and coming thrash metal group, Hammett decided to seek out the instruction of Joe Satriani, legendary guitar maestro.  The result?  By being humble enough to recognize he still had more to learn, Hammett was able to develop the distinctive style that would land him the #11 spot on Rolling Stone’s distinguished list of 100 greatest guitarists and catapult Metallica into superstardom:

“In April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job.  Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group.  With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. 

The same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and a member of a band called Exodus, was given the job.  Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later.

One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life.  Indeed it was.  Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places.  Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun.  Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums.

It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization-that despite years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be.  At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher.  In other words, despite joining his dream group and literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction- that he was still a student

Think about what Hammett could have done- what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or soon-to-be rock star in our chosen field.  The temptation is to think: I’ve made it.  I’ve arrived.  They tossed the other guy out because he’s not as good as I am.  They chose me because I have what it takes.  Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band.  There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s.”

It’s easy to be students when we’re novices in our fields, when it’s so undeniably apparent that we know nothing, but the key to gaining true mastery and making a noteworthy contribution is remaining a student- even after we turn pro.  As we rise to the top of our professions and garner the esteem of the most prominent members of our domains, the tendency is to become complacent: we choose the harbor of the familiar over the expedition to the unknown.  Strengthening our command of a skill, deepening our expertise: all require we be vulnerable enough to risk looking like an imbecile.  But if we’re too egotistical, our very worth as a human being depends on being better than, recognized for.  Because we find being “less than” intolerable, we refrain from the very risks that would stretch our abilities and help us improve.  Like learning to ride a bike, it’s only the unflinching child who’s willing to stumble who ever parts with his training wheels:

“It is not enough to be a student at the beginning.  It is a position that one has to assume for life.  Learn from everyone and everything.  From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies.  At every step and every juncture in life, there is an opportunity to learn- and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.  

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know).  It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course.  This is where the silent toll is taken.  

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft.  Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song- which can lead to a wreck.  The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt.  That’s why Frank Shamrock said, ‘Always stay a student.’  As in, it never ends.” 

ryan holiday

As a lifelong proponent of passion, I’ve always cherished the idea that irrepressible vehemence for one’s vocation is what separated the exceptional from the mediocre.  It was when preoccupation verged on obsession, when zeal crossed the line into zealotry that- I thought- ordinary men became extraordinary.  However, throughout the ages, hysterical, irrational passion is what has led countless remarkable men to their doom.  Romeo is the quintessential example.  Enamored of the stunning Juliet, Romeo mistakes youthful infatuation for true love and allows his passion to interfere with his ability to make sound decisions.  Rash and foolhardy, Romeo marries a 14-year-old he barely knows, brutally murders her cousin, gets banished, and kills himself- all in a span of less than four days.  Had he taken the time to carefully consider any one of these decisions, his life (and Juliet’s) might have been spared.  

Though today Romeo & Juliet is seen as the pinnacle of romance (or, for teenage boys forced to read it against their will, as a syrupy, sentimental piece of 17th century chick lit), Shakespeare actually intended for these star-crossed lovers to warn against passion’s exhilarating- but intoxicating- effects.  Like a heady liqueur, passion entrances and elates- but ultimately hinders our capacity to make sober judgements:

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.  We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory.  With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a much greater demand than ever existed.  With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe.  The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation.  With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of real dangers.  We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with.  In many more examples we see the mistakes of over investing, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy- not so much malice as the drunkenness of passion.”  

So why does our cultural admiration of passion persist- despite evidence that fervor unfettered usually leads to catastrophe?  For one, passion is glamourous.  It’s exciting to write a 20-page letter confessing your love to a long-time crush at 3 in the morning; it’s exciting to risk your life savings on a business idea.  More moderate, reserved qualities- caution, prudence, pragmatism- are depicted as disgraceful signs of cowardice- or worse, harbingers of failure.  But those who attain real, lasting success embody these very traits.  Rather than be rushed headlong by passion or naiveté, rather than let their desire to accomplish a particular goal persuade them to overestimate its feasibility, successful people weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and rationally consider their consequences- in other words, behave responsibly.  Does this mean they refuse to be daring, that they tremble at the thought of taking daunting risks?  No, they just don’t act hastily:

“What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism.  Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries.  Realism is detachment and perspective.”

Bird By Bird: Anne Lamott on the Antidote to Overwhelm & the Beauty of Short Assignments

bird by birdIn life, how often have we become immobilized by the sheer enormity of a project?  Maybe we were writing a book or compiling a short story collection.  Perhaps when we first conceived of the idea, we were brimming with possibility- “This is going to be brilliant!” a heartening voice reassured us.  But come time to do the real work and we freeze up.  Sitting at our work stations, we feel like our desks: disorganized, in disarray and cluttered by crumbled notes and dusty encyclopedias.  Rather than focus on the next doable step, we become debilitated by the journey itself.  “What made us think we could possibly write a book?” we demand to know, scoffing at the impracticable naiveté we mistook for light-hearted optimism, “A book is hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages long.  How could we ever expect to accomplish something of such spectacular magnitude?”  A writer pondering the immensity of his project is akin to a Muslim dwelling on the distance to Mecca.  A man making a holy pilgrimage doesn’t stop to brood over the arduousness of his trek- he just puts one foot in front of the other.  So must the writer.  

Over half a century after Brenda Ueland published her stirring entreaty to lead a bold, creative life, endearingly candid novelist Anne Lamott professed the beauty of short assignments in Bird by Bird, her delightful instruction manual for writing and life.  For Lamott, whom Maria Popova called a “writer of exceptional lucidity and enchantment,” the antidote to overwhelm is breaking down the insurmountable into small, manageable tasks.  In a voice as resonant with humor as with wisdom hard-won, Lamott advises writers to focus only on what can be seen through a one-inch picture frame (a lovely idea that has often consoled me when I struggle at the page).  Rather than try to write a whole book at once, we must remember that every book- no matter its quality or length-was written one word, one page at a time:

“Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of-oh, say-say women.  But this is like trying to scale a glacier.  It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up.  Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives.  And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back. 

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop…I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.  This is all I have to bite off for the time being.  All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running.  I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.  Or all I’m going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch.  I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car- just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”   

Later, Lamott recalls the incident three decades ago that would inspire Bird by Bird’s title:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'” 

anne lamott

Because much of the creative life is plagued by self-disparagement and self-doubt, Lamott- like a warm, lovingly reassuring mother-encourages us to stop being so serious and approach the task of writing with a sense of humor.  “Lighten up” is the advice underlying her philosophy as a writer.  Instead of chastise ourselves for falling short of our impossible ambitions, we must adopt a gentler, more forgiving, more nurturing voice with which to speak to ourselves:

“In the Bill Murray movie Stripes, in which he joins the army, there is a scene that takes place the first night of boot camp, where Murray’s platoon is assembled in the barracks.  They are supposed to be getting to know their sergeant, played by Warren Oates, and one another.  So each man takes a few moments to say a few things about who he is and where he is from.  Finally it is the turn of this incredibly intense, angry guy named Francis.  ‘My name is Francis,’ he says.  ‘No one calls me Francis-anyone here calls me Francis and I’ll kill them.  And another thing.  I don’t like to be touched.  Anyone here ever tries to touch me, I’ll kill them,’ at which point Warren Oates jumps in and says, ‘Hey-lighten up, Francis.’  

This is not a bad line to have taped to the wall of your office.

Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry.  That is all we are going to do for now.  We are just going to take this bird by bird.  But we are going to finish this one short assignment.”

 

Colette’s Lovely Ode to Her Mother on Mother’s Day

earthly paradiseOur relationship to our mother is almost always complicated.  It can be as arduous as a trek up a mountain or as effortless as a stroll through the French countryside.  It can be loving, turbulent, affectionate, estranged, doting or impossible to please.  It can be fortified by time, diminished by resentment, magnified by tenderness, undone by rejection, bound by magnanimity, spoiled by neglect, buoyed by boundless love, or blighted by strife.

This profound relationship between mother and child is what great French writer Colette explores in Earthly Paradise, her stunning autobiography which Robert Phelps called a “vivid, year-by-year revelation of a long, eager, courageous life.”  A rare writer who can glimpse the transcendent in the mundane, Colette finds as much poetry in the concrete details of the physical as in the philosophical.  In her signature lush, evocative prose, Colette pays tribute to her mother, a passionate woman whose fervor for flowers comes to symbolize her unceasing commitment to growth.  Much like the flowers she lovingly tends, her mother possesses an instinct to blossom and- even in old age- refuses to wither.  Despite her own personal failings, Colette finds consolation in the fact that she was born of such a remarkable mother:

Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power, or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter- that letter and so many more that I have kept.  This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love.  I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, close-fisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant servant girls.  I am the daughter of a woman who many a time, when she was in despair at not having enough money for others, ran through the wind-whipped snow to cry from door to door, at the houses of the rich, that a child had just been born in a poverty-stricken home to parents whose feeble, empty hands had no swaddling clothes for it.  Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head, trembling, between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three quarters of a century.’”

french poppy field