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 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.”


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 as James Joyce so poetically phrased the sentiment, “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

A Calendar of Wisdom: Leo Tolstoy on the Treasure of a Small, Selected Library

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!” transcendental philosopher a calendar of wisdomRalph Waldo Emerson once marveled when contemplating the miracle of books.  “A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  For Emerson, libraries were more than dusty receptacles of an outmoded past- a collection of classics was a potent distillation- in the words of Matthew Arnold- “of the best that’s been thought and said.”  To read a great book was to be guided by the most enlightened of teachers.  

It is this idea that books offer invaluable insight into life that inspired Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to embark on A Calendar of Wisdom, a delightful daily devotional meant to “nourish the soul.”  Though not nearly as well-known as his masterpieces War and Peace or Anna Karenina, Tolstoy considered A Calendar of Wisdom to be his most important contribution to the world.  His mission?  To collect a “circle of reading” in which ordinary men could seek counsel from history’s most extraordinary thinkers.  “What,” he meditated in his diary, “can be more precious than to communicate every day with the wisest men in the world?”  On March 15, 1884, Tolstoy first articulated his idea for a reflection book:

“I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament.  This is also necessary for all people.”

 A year later in a letter to his assistant Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy shared the vision for his ambitious project to amass “one wise thought for every day of the year”:

“I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book…in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.”  


Tolstoy would spend the next fifteen years assembling a diverse array of thinkers from a wide range of religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds.  Turning through A Calendar of Wisdom, you’re just as likely to encounter Jesus as Buddha.  On one page, you might discover a thoughtful Stoic meditation; on another, an ancient Persian proverb.  Whereas some entires contain the stunning revelations and lush lyricisms of a poet, others spotlight an elevating piece of scripture.  Artists and writers, poets and philosophers: all converge to bring their immeasurable wisdom to the modern reader.  

In 1904, Tolstoy would finally publish the first edition of his day book under the title Thoughts of Wise Men.  Between 1904-1907, he worked diligently on an expanded second edition, which included not only a compendium of quotes organized by universal themes such God and morality, love and law, perfection and work, but a compilation of Tolstoy’s own thoughts in his own words.  Tolstoy later revised and simplified the third edition in hopes of making his “circle of reading” more accessible to the masses.  “To create a book…for millions of people,” he believed, “was incomparably more important and fruitful than to compose a novel of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time, and then is forever forgotten.”  Though widely read in pre-revolutionary Russia, Tolstoy’s final masterwork was eventually banned and sadly sunk into oblivion under communism.

It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall that A Calendar of Wisdom remerged from behind the iron curtain.  Only re-released in post-soviet Russia in 1995, it quickly sold a staggering 300,000 copies before being translated into English.  The book begins with a few thoughts on the importance of learning only what is edifying and essential:

“Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive.”- Leo Tolstoy 

Later, Tolstoy and the transcendentalists he so admired contemplate the definition of genuine knowledge.  Man may have an obligation to respect his intellectual heritage but-they argued- he must still establish his own opinions with his individual intellect:

“Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.  Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.”- Henry David Thoreau 

“A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has the knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.”- Leo Tolstoy

“We are like children who first repeat the unquestionable ‘truth’ told to us by our grandmothers, then the ‘truth’ told to us by our teachers, and then, when we become older, the ‘truth’ told to us by prominent people.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A man should use that spiritual heritage which he has received from the wise and holy people of the past, but he should test everything with his intellect, accepting certain things and rejecting others.”- Leo Tolstoy 

In another entry, Henry George warns we must purge ourselves of our preconceptions if we are to apprehend reality:

“We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind.  A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor.”- Henry George

Besides noting the ways rigid narrow-mindedness can hinder the quest for truth, many of Tolstoy’s thinkers remark on the revolutionary power of kindness:

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”- Leo Tolstoy 

“For a truth to be heard, it must be spoken with kindness.  Truth is kind only when it is spoken through your heart with sincerity.  You should know that when a message you convey to another person is not understood by him, at least one of the following things is true: what you have said is not true, or you have conveyed it without kindness.  The only way to tell the truth is to speak with kindness.  Only the words of a loving man can be heard.”- Henry David Thoreau 

In an age where we worship convivial chatter and affable sociability, we’ve forgotten the value of silence.  When we’re careless with our words and unleash anger and hostility, we most often cause irreversible harm and suffer regret:

“Only speak when your words are better than silence.”- Arabic proverb 

“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence.”- Leo Tolstoy 

“If you lose your temper, count to ten before you do or say anything.  If you haven’t calmed down, then count to a hundred; and if you have not calmed down after this, count up to a thousand.”- Thomas Jefferson

“A gunshot wound may be cured, but the wound made by a tongue never heals.”- Persian wisdom 

Mindless gossip, malicious rumors,  nasty insults hurled in anger: thoughtlessness with words is an indefensible abuse of man’s greatest power.  Just as it’s wrong to weaponize language to belittle and wound, it’s unforgivable to squander hours in idleness and refuse to work:

“It is a sin to not be engaged in work, even if it is not necessary for you to make your living.”- Leo Tolstoy 

“Nothing can make a person feel more noble than work.  Without work, a person cannot have human dignity.  It is because of this that idle people are so much concerned by the superficial, outer expression of their own importance; they know that without this, other people would despise them.”- Leo Tolstoy 

 “It seems to us that the most important work in the world is the work which is visible, which we can see: building a house, plowing the land, feeding cattle, gathering fruits,” Tolstoy once observed, “and that the work which is invisible, the work done by our soul, is not important but our invisible work…is the most important work in the world.”  It was his hope that this trove of quotes would help generations of readers with the pressing work of bettering themselves.  A breathtaking treasury spanning centuries of human thought, A Calendar of Wisdom is a must-have for anyone who wants to enlarge their soul.

The Writing Life: Annie Dillard on Maintaining Objectivity & Having the Courage to Cut

“I hate writing; I love having written,” critic and satirist Dorothy Parker once confessed with herthe writing life defining cheeky wit.  Writing vs. having written: the only difference is a slight shift in tense.  The -ing form of “writing” is uncompromisingly confined to the present, to the act of writing itself: the endless hours spent trying to wrangle an idea to the page, the long stretches of silence and solitude, the nearly unendurable periods of self-loathing and self-doubt.  “Having written,” on the other hand, suggests a blissful future where the torment of writing is finally over.  A wellspring of wisdom, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is the sublime memoir of a woman who knows personally the pains and perils of a being a writer.

Andre Gide, winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature, once argued the artist resembled an explorer venturing into uncharted territory.  “One does not discover new lands,” he held, “without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”  Much like those dauntless Spanish explorers who first sailed across the Atlantic in search of the new world, the writer voyages on the stormy seas of the blank page in hopes of stumbling upon lands previously undiscovered.  In a passage that echoes both Andre Gide’s and Joan Didion’s beautiful reassurance that writing is a process of discovery, Annie Dillard asserts all creative work is essentially an adventure into the unknown:

When you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.  You wield it, and it digs a path to follow.  Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.  Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully.  You go where the path leads.  At the end of the path, you find a box canyon.  You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.

The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool.  The new place interests you because it is not clear.  You attend.  In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles.  Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless.  Process is nothing; erase your tracks.  The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.”

It was Kurt Vonnegut who so wisely advised that words be the slaves to our ideas.  “Be merciless,” he pleaded in his timeless treatise on writing with style, “If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”  Stephen King put it more bluntly: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Much like King and Vonnegut, Dillard warns us not to worship our words.  Being a writer depends on a healthy level of detachment.  When we begin glorifying our words as the pious praise God, we lose objectivity- an ability essential to assessing the quality of our work: we keep three sentences where one would suffice, though they contribute nothing to our meaning; we refuse to scrap sentences for the sheer reason that we can’t stand parting with such lovely words.  Much of writing, Dillard suggests, is not talent or brilliance but simply recognizing when a piece isn’t working and having the courage to start over:

The line of words is a hammer.  You hammer against the walls of your house.  You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere.  After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for.  Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down.  Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference.  Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go.  It cannot be helped.  There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is.  Knock it out.  Duck.

Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world.  Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work.  You must demolish the work and start over.  You can save some of the sentences, like bricks.  It will be a miracle if you save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won.  You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get over it now.  (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)”  

annie dillard

Later, Dillard contemplates the manifold reasons writers resist throwing away work:

“If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them.  He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust.  Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared- relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork.  But no.”  

As artists and writers, we often feel an intense attachment to what we create.  When a passage was particularly laborious to bring into being, therefore, we hesitate to delete, even if it no longer suits our purposes or fits the structure of the piece.  But the finest writers understand the importance of separating the creative process from the critical and refuse to let an irrational, groundless penchant for a passage interfere with a dispassionate assessment of its shortcomings and strengths.  John Trimble, author of the lively, indispensable Writing With Style, believes writing is a matter of courtesy: the writer has an obligation to respect his reader.  Dillard would agree.  Writing is neither a narcissistic display of our own talent nor an excuse for pointless, trifling self-indulgence- it’s an authentic yearning to communicate something of consequence to another human being.  Having worked tirelessly on a passage just isn’t enough reason to refrain from hitting delete.  Though we tend to cherish the art we’ve labored hardest for, our feelings are in no way reliable measures of the quality of a piece.  In a humorous moment, Dillard recounts the story of an aspiring photographer who insists his landscape has merit despite his more experienced mentor’s critiques:

“Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.  Every year the old man studied his prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.  Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.  At length he turned to the young man: ‘You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack.  Why do you like it so much?’  The young photographer said, ‘Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.'”

The Stoics on Reason, Desire & Self-Control


According to Maria Popova, erudite lover of letters and founder of the insanely popular Brainpickings blog, few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of Stoicism.  Today, she maintains, stoic is a word “rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy” and has rather been “warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation.”  However, at the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy is not the insistence that we ruthlessly suppress our emotions but merely the conviction that we use judgement and common sense.  If man is to ever achieve lasting contentment, the Stoics believe, he has to master his baser, more ungovernable emotions- lust, fear, terror, rage- and instead commit to a life of the mind-cultivating a steady inner calm and prioritizing rationality and reason.  

In the days of ancient Rome, Stoicism bestowed the gift of the good life to its many loyal adherents, instructing them in such practical matters as how to live with integrity, how to distinguish what you can control from what you can’t, and how to step off the hedonic treadmill and liberate yourself from desire’s perpetual prison.  Today everyone from brilliant heads of state to millionaire CEOs attributes their success to the bygone wisdom of Stoic philosophy. 

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s lovely The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, the daily stoicPerseverance, and the Art of Living resurrects this ancient school of thought from the dusty shelves of obscurity and distills its timeless wisdom so lucidly that it can now reach an even larger audience.  A daily devotional overflowing with inspiration and insight, The Daily Stoic features a quote from one of the foundational Stoic philosophers for each day of the year.  Organized into three parts, the Discipline of Perception, the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Will, and twelve themes, one for each month, Holiday and Hanselman’s illuminating volume makes accessible the central tenets of Stoic philosophy like never before.

Beginning the year is founding philosopher Epictetus who shares the bedrock of Stoic thought:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.  Where then do I look for good and evil?  Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”  

Later, we learn that for Epictetus the root of all suffering can be traced to the futile (but pathetically human) desire to control the uncontrollable:

“Some things are in our control, while others are not.  We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing.  We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing.  Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own

For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.”  

In prose characterized by unsurpassed elegance, Epictetus goes on to define the one path to happiness:

“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night-there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.”


For the Stoics, bemoaning our fate and protesting circumstances over which we have no control is not only pointless- it’s a squandering of precious time.  The only thing man has control over, indeed, the only thing he will ever have control over, is his own psyche.  It is for this reason that the Stoics argue we spend our finite lives civilizing the most savage frontier: ourselves.  Philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca believes the most difficult thing to defeat is not exterior conditions but the interiors of the self:

“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant.  A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command.  But an uncontrolled, desire-ruled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing- a tyrant.”

Much like the Buddhists, the Stoics contend desire afflicts the greatest suffering.  In fact, it is this very aching for more, this perpetually unsatisfied sense of lack that eliminates happiness’s possibility:

“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.  Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst

Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning.  It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another…where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”

Whenever I feel myself overcome by a desperate, impatient yearning, a brattish ingratitude that what I want isn’t here yet, I finally recall the sagacious words of Epictetus:

“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet.  As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping.  Does it pass you by?  Don’t stop it.  It hasn’t yet come?  Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you.  Act this way with children, a spouse, toward a position, with wealth- one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”