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18 MAY, 2015

Nine Podcasts for a Fuller Life

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A short playlist of intellectual, creative, and spiritual invigoration.

We are storytelling animals and the actual telling of stories — that ancient aural mesmerism of the human voice — continues to bewitch us somehow more thoroughly than any other medium of tale-transmission. This, perhaps, is why podcasts have emerged as a storytelling modality capable of particular enchantment — a marriage of the primeval and the present.

Here are nine favorite exemplars of the medium, each showcased via one particularly spectacular episode and a sampler-playlist of three more treats from the show’s archives.

On Being with Krista Tippett (iTunes): Mary Oliver // Listening to the World

The Pulitzer-winning poet and shaman of paying attention, beloved and oft-quoted but rarely interviewed, cracks open her inner world at the age of 79 — and what gushes forth is nothing short of magic.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

Other episodes of note: Margaret Wertheim // The Grandeur and the Limits of Science :: Joanna Macy // A Wild Love for the World :: Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin // The Inner Life of Rebellion



Radiolab with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (iTunes): Translation

From poetry to 911 calls, WNYC’s Jad and Robert embark upon a characteristically mind-bending exploration of how close words can get us “to the truth and feel and force of life” and how far they can lead us stray from the actual meaning of things.

Any person is kind of a universe — they’re too big to comprehend in their entirety, and so any translation [of a person’s work] is only going to get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny fraction.

Other episodes of note: Super Cool :: Things :: Speedy Beet



Design Matters with Debbie Millman (iTunes): Dani Shapiro

The celebrated novelist, memoirist, and author of the superb Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life discusses the experience of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, her ongoing quest to master the art of presence, and the interplay of courage and vulnerability necessary for being an artist.

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

Other episodes of note: Chris Ware :: Morley :: Seth Godin



The Tim Ferriss Show (iTunes): Amanda Palmer on How to Fight, Meditate, and Make Good Art

In a wide-ranging and wildly inspiring conversation, Amanda Palmer expands on her ideas from the indispensable The Art of Asking as she contemplates creativity, sanity, integrity, and what it means to be an artist.

Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success — which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day.

[…]

Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid — swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out.

Other episodes of note: Matt Mullenweg on Polyphasic Sleep, Tequila, and Building Billion-Dollar Companies :: Tony Robbins on Morning Routines, Peak Performance, and Mastering Money :: Rolf Potts on Travel Tactics, Creating Time Wealth, and Lateral Thinking



Invisibilia with Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel (iTunes): The Secret History of Thoughts

From psychologists’ multiple theories about why a young man found his mind suddenly flooded with horribly violent images to how someone trapped in his body for thirteen years found true love, co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the seemingly simple yet life-shaping question: “Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?”

The world of therapists and how they think about thoughts … is in the middle of a huge revolution. And it’s one I don’t know if most people know about.

Other episodes of note: The Power of Categories :: Entanglement :: Fearless



TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz (iTunes): The Source of Creativity

In another stimulating installment of this ongoing collaboration between TED and NPR, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, musician Sting, brain researcher Charles Limb, and education reform champion Sir Ken Robinson explore the origin of creativity from multiple perspectives.

I had a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was 6, and she was in the back, drawing. The teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. In this drawing lesson, she did. And the teacher was fascinated.

She went over to her, and she said, what are you drawing?

And the girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God.

And the teacher said that nobody knows what God looks like, and the girl said, “They will in a minute.”

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go… They’re not frightened of being wrong… If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

Other episodes of note: Success :: Framing the Story :: The Money Paradox



The One You Feed with Eric Zimmer (iTunes): Edward Slingerland

The eminent scholar of Chinese thought, author of the excellent Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, discusses the paradoxical nature of conscious intention.

There are a lot of goals that we cannot pursue directly: relaxation, happiness, attractiveness [and] creativity — when you pursue them directly, they flee from you… If you think about the two-system nature of the human mind, when you’re trying to relax, or you’re trying to be happy and not think about things, the part of the brain you’re trying to shut down is the part you’re using to do the shutting down. It’s like trying to dissemble a bicycle while you’re riding on it — it’s directly paradoxical.

Other episodes of note: Carol Dweck :: Andrew Solomon :: Oliver Burkeman



Stylus by WBUR’s Conor Gillies and Zack Ezor (iTunes): Songs of the Earth

A formidable roster of voices — from bioacoustician Bernie Krause to conductor Benjamin Zander to ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour — explores the siren songs of our planet, from the Golden Record that carried Earth’s sounds into space aboard the Voyager in 1977 to how humanity’s impulse for music was born.

The human ear is alert, like that of an animal. From the nearest details to the most distant horizon, the ears operate with seismographic delicacy.

Other episodes of note: Silence :: Ru Paul on Fantasy and Identity :: Seeing and Illustrating Music



The New York Public Library Podcast (iTunes): Mark Strand on Artistic Imagination

The Pulitzer-winning poet, MacArthur genius, and sage of creativity on the artistic imagination, shortly before his death. That Strand’s final interview should be a conversation with his daughter, the New York Public Library’s own Jessica Strand, only adds to the beauty and poignancy of that conversation.

I can’t imagine a life without books — without reading. I don’t know how people get through a day without reading!

Other episodes of note: Cheryl Strayed on Wild Success :: Ru Paul on Fantasy and Identity :: Sarah Lewis and Anna Deavere Smith on Inspiring Failures

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15 MAY, 2015

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Anger, Forgiveness, and What Maturity Really Means

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“To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt.”

“Our emotional life maps our incompleteness,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her luminous letter of advice to the young. “A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger.” Anger, indeed, is one of the emotions we judge most harshly — in others, as well as in ourselves — and yet understanding anger is central to mapping out the landscape of our interior lives. Aristotle, in planting the civilizational seed for practical wisdom, recognized this when he asked not whether anger is “good” or “bad” but how it shall be used: directed at whom, manifested how, for how long and to what end.

This undervalued soul-mapping quality of anger is what English poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a section of Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — the same breathtaking volume “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty,” which gave us Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Many of Whyte’s meditations invert the common understanding of each word and peel off the superficial to reveal the deeper, often counterintuitive meaning — but nowhere more so than in his essay on anger. Whyte writes:

ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for E.T.A. Hoffmann's 'Nutcracker.' Click image for more.

Such a reconsideration renders Whyte not an apologist for anger but a peacemaker in our eternal war with its underlying vulnerability, which is essentially an eternal war with ourselves — for at its source lies our tenderest, timidest humanity. In a sentiment that calls to mind Brené Brown’s masterful and culturally necessary manifesto for vulnerability“Vulnerability,” she wrote, “is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” — Whyte adds:

What we have named as anger on the surface is the violent outer response to our own inner powerlessness, a powerlessness connected to such a profound sense of rawness and care that it can find no proper outer body or identity or voice, or way of life to hold it. What we call anger is often simply the unwillingness to live the full measure of our fears or of our not knowing, in the face of our love for a wife, in the depth of our caring for a son, in our wanting the best, in the face of simply being alive and loving those with whom we live.

Our anger breaks to the surface most often through our feeling there is something profoundly wrong with this powerlessness and vulnerability… Anger in its pure state is the measure of the way we are implicated in the world and made vulnerable through love in all its specifics.

One need only think of Van Gogh — “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do,” he wrote in a letter as he tussled with mental illness — to appreciate Whyte’s expedition beyond anger’s surface tumults and into its innermost core: profound frustration swelling with a sense of personal failure. (Hannah Arendt captured another facet of this in her brilliant essay on how bureaucracy breeds violence — for what is bureaucracy if not the supreme institutionalization of helplessness?)

With remarkable intellectual elegance and a sensitivity to the full dimension of the human spirit, Whyte illuminates the vitalizing underbelly of anger:

Anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here; it is a quality to be followed to its source, to be prized, to be tended, and an invitation to finding a way to bring that source fully into the world through making the mind clearer and more generous, the heart more compassionate and the body larger and strong enough to hold it. What we call anger on the surface only serves to define its true underlying quality by being a complete but absolute mirror-opposite of its true internal essence.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a related meditation, Whyte considers the nature of forgiveness:

FORGIVENESS is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it.

Echoing Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s historic dialogue on forgiveness, Whyte — who has also asserted that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness” — explores the true source of forgiveness:

Strangely, forgiveness never arises from the part of us that was actually wounded. The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not actually meant to forget, as if, like the foundational dynamics of the physiological immune system our psychological defenses must remember and organize against any future attacks — after all, the identity of the one who must forgive is actually founded on the very fact of having been wounded.

Stranger still, it is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting. To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt, to mature and bring to fruition an identity that can put its arm, not only around the afflicted one within but also around the memories seared within us by the original blow and through a kind of psychological virtuosity, extend our understanding to one who first delivered it. Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.

To forgive is to put oneself in a larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seemed to hurt us. We reimagine ourselves in the light of our maturity and we reimagine the past in the light of our new identity, we allow ourselves to be gifted by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

This question of maturity, so intimately tied to forgiveness, is the subject of another of Whyte’s short essays. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that maturity is a matter of “unifying” and “integrating,” he writes:

MATURITY is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts; most especially, the ability, despite our grief and losses, to courageously inhabit the past the present and the future all at once. The wisdom that comes from maturity is recognized through a disciplined refusal to choose between or isolate three powerful dynamics that form human identity: what has happened, what is happening now and what is about to occur.

Immaturity is shown by making false choices: living only in the past, or only in the present, or only in the future, or even, living only two out of the three.

Maturity is not a static arrived platform, where life is viewed from a calm, untouched oasis of wisdom, but a living elemental frontier between what has happened, what is happening now and the consequences of that past and present; first imagined and then lived into the waiting future.

Maturity calls us to risk ourselves as much as immaturity, but for a bigger picture, a larger horizon; for a powerfully generous outward incarnation of our inward qualities and not for gains that make us smaller, even in the winning.

Maturity, Whyte seems to suggest, becomes a kind of arrival at a sense of enoughness — a willingness to enact what Kurt Vonnegut considered one of the great human virtues: the ability to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Whyte writes:

Maturity beckons also, asking us to be larger, more fluid, more elemental, less cornered, less unilateral, a living conversational intuition between the inherited story, the one we are privileged to inhabit and the one, if we are large enough and broad enough, moveable enough and even, here enough, just, astonishingly, about to occur.

Consolations, it bears repeating, is an absolutely magnificent read — the kind that reorients your world and remains a compass for a lifetime. Complement it with Whyte on ending relationships and breaking the tyranny of work-life balance.

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15 MAY, 2015

Ralph Steadman’s Rare and Rapturous Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

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“Stuff your eyes with wonder… live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

Something decidedly magical happens when a great visual artist interprets a literary classic, translating a beloved text into image. Take, for instance, William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Delacroix’s illustrations for Goethe, R. Crumb’s twist on Kafka, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Among the most rewarding such reimaginings are those by the great British cartoonist Ralph Steadman (b. May 15, 1936), who has illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm, created one of history’s greatest visual interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, and remains best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

In 2003, Steadman turned his talent to one of the most important books ever written and illustrated a gorgeous 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (public library) — Ray Bradbury’s celebrated dystopian novel, titled after “the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns” and originally published when Bradbury was only thirty-three.

Exactly 451 copies were printed, each signed by both Steadman and Bradbury.

In his magnificent 2013 monograph, Proud Too Be Weirrd (public library), Steadman admits to having grown jaded with illustrating other people’s prose — “not much more than shameless self-indulgence” — but writes of having gladly completed the Bradbury project due to its “vitally important theme — the burning of all books.” He reflects on the significance of Bradbury’s masterwork:

As someone once said, I think it was me: There is nothing so dangerous as an idea. Particularly one whose time has come…

And who can forget the ever-timely ideas emanating from Bradbury’s glorious lines? “Stuff your eyes with wonder… live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” Here was a rare integrated man — even in his fiction, he channeled the wholehearted truths by which he lived his life.

Hard though it may be to find, this uncommonly bewitching edition of Fahrenheit 451 is well worth the hunt. Complement it with Steadman’s illustrated biography of Leonardo, then explode with Bradbury on emotion vs. the intellect and the secret of work, life, and love.

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14 MAY, 2015

The Diffusion of Useful Ignorance: Thoreau on the Hubris of Our Knowledge and the Transcendent Humility of Not-Knowing

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“My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.”

A century and a half before the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry championed the way of ignorance, long before Jacob Bronowski admonished against the dark side of certainty and scientists came to recognize “thoroughly conscious ignorance” as central to human progress, another sage of the ages made this point with enormous elegance and piercing precision.

A year before his death and seven years after Walden, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) penned his equally ennobling treatise Walking (free ebook | public library) — a magnificent manifesto for “the spirit of sauntering,” tucked into which is a larger meditation on life’s ample complexities.

In one particularly incisive passage, Thoreau considers our blind cult of concrete answers — something arguably exacerbated today, in an age when we continually mistake information for wisdom — and writes:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that knowledge is power, and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense: for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers … a man accumulates a myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, and then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the Great Fields of thought, he, as it were, goes to grass like a horse and leaves all his harness behind in the stable.

With his penchant for evocative metaphor, Thoreau illustrates this alternative way of knowing the world:

I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sometimes, — Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The spring has come with its green crop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

Thoreau’s chief concern is the hubris that knowledge breeds, to which conscious not-knowing offers a counterpoint of humility:

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful — while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with — he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

In a passage that calls to mind the singular wisdom of moss, Thoreau contemplates the self-transcendence that embracing ignorance makes possible:

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.

Complement the wholly wonderful Walking with Thoreau on optimism, the deepest measure of “success”, the greatest gift of growing old, what it really means to be awake, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit this charming children’s book about his philosophy.

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