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10 APRIL, 2015

How Do You Know You Exist? A Mind-Bending Animated Homage to Descartes Exploring the Conundrum of Reality

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“When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t.”

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” But what is the thing we call reality, exactly, and how are we even sure it is in the first place? Long before Philip K. Dick proclaimed that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” and E.F. Schumacher considered how we know what we know, the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) tussled with these questions in his foundational 1641 treatise Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) — a quest to shake and uproot all beliefs not grounded in what is known with absolute certainty, and to advance a framework for what we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This pleasantly mind-bending animation from James Zucker and TED-Ed turns our most fundamental sense of certainty on its head by directing Descartes’s inquiry at the most seemingly solid bastion of reality — the self: How do you know you’re real?

When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t — so you can’t prove you aren’t dreaming. Maybe the body you perceive yourself to have isn’t really there. Maybe all of reality, even its abstract concepts like time, shape, color, and number are false.

Complement with Alan Watts on what we really mean by “reality”, Mark Strand’s poetic ode to dreams, and a wonderful animated take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which remains humanity’s greatest parable about the nature of reality, then find a necessary counterpoint in astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s beautiful case for living with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude.

Previous TED-Ed primers have explored how melancholy enhances our creativity, why we love repetition in music, how to detect lies, and why bees build perfect hexagons.

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10 APRIL, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Harvey Milk, Humanitarian Martyr for Love

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How a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and answered it with a clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his indispensable 1963 letter from Birmingham City Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” One rainy January Sunday fifteen years later, long before Edie Windsor catalyzed the triumph of marriage equality, Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930–November 27, 1978) was sworn into office on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall and became the first openly gay elected city official in America. His assassination eleven months later devastated millions and rendered him modernity’s great secular martyr for love. His tenure, however tragically brief, forever changed the landscape of civil rights.

In The Harvey Milk Story (public library) — a wonderful addition to the best LGBT children’s books — writer Kari Krakow and artist David Gardner tell the heartening and heartbreaking story of how a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and how he answered it with a groundbreaking clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

Harvey was Born the second child of a middle-class Jewish family in upstate New York. He was a boy at once brimming with joy, frequently entertaining the family by conducting an invisible orchestra in the living room, and full of deep sensitivity to the suffering of others.

He was deeply moved when his mother, Minnie, told him the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews who courageously defended themselves even as the Nazis outnumbered them — a story that imprinted him with a profound empathy for the oppressed even before he had a clear sense that he would grow up to be one of them.

Although Harvey was athletic and popular in school, he anguished under the burden of a deep wistfulness — by the time he was fourteen, he knew he was gay, but like many queer people of his time, he kept this centerpiece of identity a closely guarded secret for a great many years to come.

He came of age, after all, in an era when queer couples celebrated their love only in private and when geniuses as vital to humanity as computing pioneer Alan Turing were driven to suicide after being criminally prosecuted by the government for being gay.

After graduating from college, Harvey joined the Navy, becoming an expert deep-sea diver and ascending through the ranks until he came to head a submarine rescue vessel.

When he went to his bother Robert’s wedding, he looked so handsome in his navy uniform that his family and friends all wondered when he would settle down and get married to the “right girl.”

But instead, like the hero of the heartwarming King & King fairy tale, Harvey fell in love and settled down with the right boy, a young man named Joe.

They moved together to a little town in New York, where Harvey became a high school math and science teacher. But after six years, Harvey and Joe separated — as Krakow points out, the pressure to hide their relationship in fear of losing their jobs put an undue strain on their love. Weary of hiding his identity, Harvey moved to San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro neighborhood — where queer couples walked down the street holding hands like any other couple would in any other city — and he fell in love again.

Together with Scott, his new partner, Harvey opened a small store called Castro Camera, which soon turned into a community center as Harvey became a one-man Craigslist, counseling neighbors on everything from finding apartments to applying for jobs.

The more Harvey listened to the people, the more he sensed that they needed a leader — not only an informal one, but one who fought on their behalf in the eyes of the law, standing up to the police who harassed them constantly and fighting against the daily indignities of discrimination, from which the political system failed to protect them. Harvey saw only one course of action — to apply for office. His customers and the community embraced his campaign and volunteered their time.

Eleven-year-old Medora Payne came every day after school to lick envelopes and hand out brochures for Harvey. She organized a fundraiser at her school, earning $39.28 for his campaign.

Bigots believed that it wasn’t right or even possible for an openly gay candidate to be elected. Indeed, Harvey lost three consecutive election cycles between 1973 and 1976, but didn’t lose faith. He remained emboldened by the unflinching conviction that the rights of minorities — not only the LGBT community, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, senior citizens, and the disabled — weren’t adequately represented in and protected by the government. His people loved him for the dedication.

At last, in 1977, he was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors and sworn into office the following January as Supervisor Milk. He immediately set out to champion greater quality of life for the people of the city — a kind of Robert Moses without the evil genius, bolstering the city’s parks, schools, and police protection. Eventually, he introduced a pioneering gay bill of rights. After ten of the city’s eleven supervisors voted for it, Mayor George Moscone signed it into law, proclaiming with gusto as Milk stood by his side:

I don’t do this enough, taking swift and unambiguous action on a substantial move for civil rights.

It was a historic moment, marked by a moving speech Milk made in front of City Hall, calling for a gay rights march in Washington.

But as the city celebrated, one man sat consumed with hateful bigotry and personal jealousy — Dan White, the only Supervisor who hadn’t voted for Milk’s bill and who had resigned from office in a petty act of protest, only to ask for his job back ten days later. Sensing his ill will, Mayor Moscone had refused to hire him back.

On a gloomy November morning, White crept into City Hall through a basement window, with a loaded gun. He barged into Moscone’s office and shot the mayor, promptly reloading his gun and heading down the hall to Harvey Milk’s office. Five shots echoed through the marble building.

Harvey Milk was dead.

People everywhere were stunned by the news of the double assassination. They left their homes, jobs and schools to mourn the loss of these two great leaders. Crowds began forming in front of City Hall. By nightfall thousands filled the mile-long street and ran from the Castro to City Hall. They stood in silence, carrying candles. That night the people of San Francisco wept.

Harvey Milk was gone, but his legacy only gained momentum in the fight for civil rights. The following October, a hundred thousand people brought his dream to life and took to the streets of Washington in the capital’s first-ever Gay Pride March, many carrying portraits of the slain San Francisco hero.

Thirty-four years later, one brave woman picked up where he left off and made possible a dream even Milk didn’t dare to dream — one which the president himself proclaimed “a victory for American democracy,” the triumphant road to which Milk had paved.

Complement The Harvey Milk Story with marriage equality patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, these moving vintage photographs of queer couples, and history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters.

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09 APRIL, 2015

How to Find Your Bliss: Joseph Campbell on What It Takes to Have a Fulfilling Life

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“You have to learn to recognize your own depth.”

In 1985, mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) sat down with legendary interviewer and idea-monger Bill Moyers for a lengthy conversation at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in California, which continued the following year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The resulting 24 hours of raw footage were edited down to six one-hour episodes and broadcast on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, in what became one of the most popular series in the history of public television.

But Moyers and the team at PBS felt that the unedited conversation, three quarters of which didn’t make it into the television production, was so rich in substance that it merited preservation and public attention. Shortly after the broadcast, the full transcript was published as The Power of Myth (public library) — a dimensional discussion of Campbell’s views on spirituality, psychological archetypes, cultural myths, and the mythology of self. The book is nothing short of secular scripture — a trove of wisdom on the human experience in the canon of such rare masterworks as Thoreau’s journals, Simone Weil’s notebooks, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

As Moyers notes in the introduction, Campbell saw as the greatest human transgression “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake.” This, perhaps, is why the most rewarding part of the conversation deals with the dictum that has come to encapsulate Campbell’s philosophy on life: “Follow your bliss.” Decades before the screaming tyranny of work/life balance reached its modern crescendo, Campbell put a sympathetic ear to the soul’s cry and identified with enormous elegance and precision the root of our existential dissatisfaction. He tells Moyers:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Discerning one’s bliss, Campbell argues, requires what he calls “sacred space” — a space for uninterrupted reflection and unrushed creative work. Far from a mystical idea, this is something that many artists and writers have put into practice by way of their peculiar workspace rituals, as well as something cognitive science has illuminated in exploring the psychology of the perfect daily routine. But Campbell sees past the practical rituals of creativity and into the deeper psychic and spiritual drivers — that profound need for a “bliss station” into which to root ourselves:

[Sacred space] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

[…]

Our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it.

Two centuries after Kierkegaard admonished against the cowardice of the crowd, Campbell argues that we often lose our way on the path to our bliss station as society’s limiting notions of success peer-pressure us into unimaginative, fail-safe pursuits:

It’s characteristic of democracy that majority rule is understood as being effective not only in politics but also in thinking. In thinking, of course, the majority is always wrong.

[…]

The majority’s function in relation to the spirit is to try to listen and to open up to someone who’s had an experience beyond that of food, shelter, progeny, and wealth.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Opening up to those more meaningful dimensions of bliss, Campbell insists, is simply a matter of letting your life speak:

We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mark Strand’s beautiful meditation on the poet’s task of bearing witness to the universe, Campbell points to poets as the most attentive of listeners to the language of bliss:

Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss. Most people are concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and political activities, or get drafted into a war that isn’t the one they’re interested in, and it may be difficult to hold to this umbilical under those circumstances. That is a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow.

But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns have the capacity that is waiting to be awakened to move to this other field. I know it, I have seen it happen in students.

Looking back on how he arrived at this notion of finding one’s bliss, Campbell touches on the crucial difference between religious faith and secular spirituality:

I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” I think it worked.

[…]

The religious people tell us we really won’t experience bliss until we die and go to heaven. But I believe in having as much as you can of this experience while you are still alive.

[…]

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

Illustration from 'The Well of Being' by Jean Pierre Weill. Click image for more.

The most uncomfortable but essential part of finding your bliss, Campbell argues, is the element of uncertainty — the willingness to, in the timeless words of Rilke, “live the questions” rather than reaching for the ready-made answers:

The adventure is its own reward — but it’s necessarily dangerous, having both negative and positive possibilities, all of them beyond control. We are following our own way, not our daddy’s or our mother’s way… Life can dry up because you’re not off on your own adventure.

[…]

There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.

Complement The Power of Myth, the intellectual and spiritual enormity of which cannot be overstated, with David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of work/life balance, Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work in the modern world, and Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, then revisit the heartening and rather assuring story of how Van Gogh found his purpose after years of floundering.

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09 APRIL, 2015

John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life

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“The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.”

Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.” Mary Gordon saw in its “flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper” a reminder that “however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.” Indeed, the marks we leave on the paper are our most human trails of thought. Few things exercise — and exorcise — the not always seamless collaboration between brain and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. To be particular about one’s writing instrument is, then, to be particular about thought itself — one can’t afford to be careless about the corporeal transmitter of creative flow.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) captures this curious role of the pen as a negotiator between brain and body in a series of disarming observations in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — that remarkable volume that gave us a glimpse of how the great writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt when he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life, the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for his Nobel Prize.

In mid-July of 1938, three weeks into the work, Steinbeck makes an endearing note of his writing companion — that trusty conduit of thought:

This good pen holds up beautifully. I guess it will last out the entire book.

Then, on July 25, he records the growing intimacy with his writing instrument:

This pen writes thinner if it is steeper. This has been a good pen to me so far. Never had such a good one.

By mid-August, he is fully in love:

What a wonderful pen this is. It has and is giving me perfect service — never stops flowing for a second and never overflows and blots a word.

Like all love affairs, this one suffers occasional practical challenges. On September 7, Steinbeck decries his fate:

Burned my pen finger with a match the other day and the blister comes right where the pen fits. And it hurts like hell and my handwriting reaches new heights of badness because of it.

Even in the face of temptation by the new and shiny, Steinbeck upholds his calligraphic fidelity. By the following July, he is fully committed:

There is no doubt that this fine old pen is better and smoother than the newer one. I think I’ll keep with this good old pen. I’ve done a lot of writing with it. I only hope it holds up.

Ultimately, Steinbeck’s relationship with his pen parallels the promise of all great romances — a source of sensory satisfaction, but only in the service of the greater spiritual fulfillment. On July 26, 1940, he observes with nonjudgmental curiosity the irrational but deeply nourishing nature of that relationship:

My fingers get a little sticky in this weather so I rub alcohol on them so the pen will be slick in my hand. That seems to be important to me. I don’t know why. But it does. The good feeling of the pen should be kept — should be dry and a smooth point and fine paper like this. There’s something very good about this kind of affair.

He adds what seems to be his most concrete definition of success anywhere in the diary — success not in terms of public acclaim and commercial gain, the idea of which he deeply detested, but in Thoreau’s sense of profound private fulfillment. Steinbeck writes:

The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.

His language becomes increasingly poetic as his romance with the pen intensifies. On September 29 of 1940, he writes:

Oh! Lord, how good this paper feels under this pen. I can sit here writing and the words slipping out like grapes out of their skins and I feel so good doing it.

That day, as he tussles with news of ongoing wartime devastation, Steinbeck captures in a single exquisite passage the almost mystical quality of writing by hand — that strange way in which the pen becomes a projection of the psyche, channeling its deepest longings and languishings as the hand drafts the meaning of life itself:

Here is a strange thing — almost like a secret. You start out putting words down and there are three things — you, the pen, and the page. Then gradually the three things merge until they are all one and you feel about the page as you do about your arm. Only you love it more than you love your arm. Some day I will be all alone and lonely — either dead and alone or alive and alone, and what will I do then? Then those things I have now and do not know will become so desperately dear that they will be aches. Then what? There will be no way to cure those aches, no way. In that coldness nothing will come. Things are leaving me now because they came too fast — too many of them — and being unable to receive them I threw them out and soon they will not come any more. This process is called life or living or any one of a number of things like that. In other words these are the soundless words, the words that have no being at all. The grey birds of loneliness hopping about. I thought that there might be a time or a condition different from that. But I know now — there isn’t any other way.

Complement Steinbeck’s Working Days, which is rife with a myriad such rewarding asides and doubly rewarding in its central substance, with some of humanity’s most celebrated writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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