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10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Pico Iyer on What Leonard Cohen Teaches Us about Presence and the Art of Stillness

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“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

“Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments,” Alan Lightman wrote in his sublime meditation on science and spirituality, “and at others to ride the passion and exuberance.” In his conversation with E.O. Wilson, the poet Robert Hass described beauty as a “paradox of stillness and motion.” But in our Productivity Age of perpetual motion, it’s increasingly hard — yet increasingly imperative — to honor stillness, to build pockets of it into our lives, so that our faith in beauty doesn’t become half-hearted, lopsided, crippled. The delicate bridling of that paradox is what novelist and essayist Pico Iyer explores in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully argued case for the unexpected pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it,” revealed through one man’s sincere record of learning to “take care of his loved ones, do his job, and hold on to some direction in a madly accelerating world.”

Iyer begins by recounting a snaking drive up the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to visit his boyhood hero — legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. In 1994, shortly after the most revealing interview he ever gave, Cohen had moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to embark on five years of seclusion, serving as personal assistant to the great Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, then in his late eighties. Midway through his time at the Zen Center, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and given the Dharma name Jikan — Pali for “silence.” Iyer writes:

I’d come up here in order to write about my host’s near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

Cohen, who once described the hubbub of his ordinary state of mind as “very much like the waiting room at the DMV,” had sought in the sequestered Zen community a more extreme, more committed version of a respite most us long for in the midst of modern life — at least at times, at least on some level, and often wholeheartedly, achingly. Iyer reflects on Cohen’s particular impulse and what it reveals about our shared yearning:

Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts.

[…]

One evening — four in the morning, the end of December — Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.

Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

Iyer beholds his encounter with Cohen with the same incredulous amazement that most of us modern cynics experience, at first reluctantly, when confronted with something or someone incomprehensibly earnest, for nothing dissolves snark like unflinching sincerity. For Cohen, Iyer observes, the Zen practice was not a matter of “piety or purity” but of practical salvation and refuge from “the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows.” Iyer writes:

Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

“Nothing touches it,” Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

But the paradox thickens the closer we get to its source. The kind of stillness Cohen bows to is a capacity most reliably acquired through meditation. And yet even though meditation is our greatest gateway to everyday transcendence, most adults in the West don’t practice it. The second most common reason nonpractitioners have against meditating is that they don’t have the time to do it — not enough time to learn to live with presence. (The most common reason to resist, of course, is people’s protestation that they simply can’t do it or aren’t cut out for it, which is merely the time argument by a guise of greater denial — it simply means that they haven’t put in the time to get good at it; there is a reason it’s termed a meditation practice — mastering it obeys the same basic principles of attaining excellence as any skill.)

A century after Bertrand Russell admonished that the conquest of leisure and health would be of no use if no one remembers how to use them, Iyer paints an empirical caricature of the paradoxical time argument against stillness. Citing a sociological study of time diaries that found Americans were working fewer hours than they were 30 years earlier but felt as if they were working more, he writes:

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

As most of us would begrudgingly admit, not without some necessary tussle with denial and rationalization, the challenge of staying present in the era of productivity is in no small part a product of our age itself. Iyer captures this elegantly:

Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.

Much like we find ourselves by getting lost, Iyer suggests, we inhabit the world more fully by mindfully vacating its mayhem:

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Annie Dillard’s memorable notion of “unmerited grace [that] is handed to you, but only if you look for it,” Iyer considers the rewards that beckon us from that space of stillness:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

With a wink of wisdom that would’ve made William James proud, Iyer adds:

It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut.

The Art of Stillness, which comes from TED Books, is a wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent field guide to getting lost, Annie Dillard on presence vs. productivity, and some thoughts on wisdom in the age of information.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2014

Why “Psychological Androgyny” Is Essential for Creativity

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“Creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”

Despite the immense canon of research on creativity — including its four stages, the cognitive science of the ideal creative routine, the role of memory, and the relationship between creativity and mental illness — very little has focused on one of life’s few givens that equally few of us can escape: gender and the genderedness of the mind.

In Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — one of the most important, insightful, and influential books on creativity ever written — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines a curious, under-appreciated yet crucial aspect of the creative mindset: a predisposition to psychological androgyny.

In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

Csikszentmihalyi points out that this psychological tendency toward androgyny shouldn’t be confused with homosexuality — it deals not with sexual constitution but with a set of psychoemotional capacities:

Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

Citing his team’s extensive interviews with 91 individuals who scored high on creativity in various fields — including pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, legendary sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, philosopher and marginalia champion Mortimer Adler, universe-disturber Madeleine L’Engle, social science titan John Gardner, poet extraordinaire Denise Levertov, and MacArthur genius Stephen Jay Gould — Csikszentmihalyi writes:

It was obvious that the women artists and scientists tended to be much more assertive, self-confident, and openly aggressive than women are generally brought up to be in our society. Perhaps the most noticeable evidence for the “femininity” of the men in the sample was their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment that other men are inclined to dismiss as unimportant. But despite having these traits that are not usual to their gender, they retained the usual gender-specific traits as well.

Illustration from the 1970 satirical book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is a revelatory read in its entirety, featuring insights on the ideal conditions for the creative process, the key characteristics of the innovative mindset, how aging influences creativity, and invaluable advice to the young from Csikszentmihalyi’s roster of 91 creative luminaries. Complement this particular excerpt with Ursula K. Le Guin on being a man — arguably the most brilliant meditation on gender ever written, by one of the most exuberantly creative minds of our time.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2014

What Book Changed Your Perception of Reality?

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An animated phone call about the love and life of literature.

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her gorgeous reflection on why we read and write. The books most real to us fundamentally alter our relationship with reality — but they do so in ways less tangible than objects and less audible than music. They make us grow in spurts less visible than a plant’s. To communicate these private potentialities to one another is a herculean task, but an immensely rewarding one — a deeply human way of making ourselves less invisible to each other.

In collaboration with my friends at Call Me Ishmael — an unusual and absolutely wonderful celebration of bookishness via anonymous voicemails from readers about the books they love, transcribed on a real typewriter — I recently issued an “all-call challenge” inviting folks to share books that changed their perception of reality (with the caveat that all great books change our understanding of the world, but perception, in the psychological sense, is best defined as “the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment”). Along the way, I answer Ishmael’s questions about my own favorite books, as well as the general method and madness behind Brain Pickings:

The books I mention on the call: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, and The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman. Solnit’s gorgeous sentence, which Ishmael reads in closing, comes from this enchanting piece.

In the spirit of the challenge, I called Ishmael with my own answer — On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) by cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz. I’ve previously written about what makes the book so mind-stretching. For a deeper dive, give my conversation with Horowitz a listen.

You can reach Ishmael at 774.325.0503 if you live within the United States, or Skype in if elsewhere, and leave a voicemail about a book that changed your perception of the world — after all, what greater gift is there than to welcome one another into our private worlds?

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.