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15 JULY, 2014

Physician Allison Ballantine’s Short, Stirring Commencement Address on Living with Presence

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How the hamster wheel of achievement and approval can cheat us.

In culling the greatest commencement addresses of all time, I wondered whether the convocation speech genre might be the modern secular sermon of our time. But imparting life-advice that touches on the spiritual without veering off into the contrived and the aphoristic is a rare feat.

Several years ago, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatric physician Allison Ballantine addressed the class of graduating medical students at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught. Ballantine sent a transcript of her commencement speech to the wonderful Tara Brach, who read an excerpt from it on an episode of her indispensable mindfulness podcast.

Coming from anyone, Ballantine’s words are a simple yet powerful reminder that unless we live with presence, we aren’t living at all. Coming from someone whose daily task is to protect the sanctity of life against the demands of death, they are nothing short of an awakening:

We become so accustomed to life on the hamster wheel of achievement and approval that we just forget. We scamper on and on, chasing the ephemeral promises of “someday…” or “if only I…”

Growing up, I learned a hard lesson about how that hamster wheel could cheat us.

My father was a pediatric surgeon, with tremendous enthusiasm and drive to succeed that encompassed his work, his family, and his friendships. He was a huge influence in my life — he taught me the value of hard work and the satisfaction of a job done right. But on a winter day when he was driving home from the hospital where he worked, his car slid on a patch of black ice, hitting a telephone pole on the driver’s side, killing him instantly.

He was forty-eight and I was eighteen.

[...]

This … serves as a reminder that I cannot live my life on the hamster wheel, waiting for “someday…” or “if only I…”

[...]

What you have is in the present moment, and it is unfathomably precious.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Complement with Annie Dillard on presence over productivity, Debbie Millman on not wasting time, and Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

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15 JULY, 2014

Swami Vivekananda on the Secret of Work: Intelligent Consolation for the Pressures of Productivity from 1896

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“Every work that we do… every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff…”

In December of 1895, the renowned Indian Hindu monk and philosopher Swami Vivekananda, then in his early thirties, traveled to New York, rented a couple of rooms at 228 West 39th Street, where he spent a month holding a series of public lectures on the notion of karma — translated as work — and various other aspects of mental discipline. They attracted a number of famous followers, including groundbreaking inventor Nikola Tesla and pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, and were eventually transcribed and published as Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action (public library) in 1896. Among the most timeless of them is one titled “The Secret of Work,” in which Vivekananda examines with ever-timely poignancy the ways in which we mistake the doing for the being and worship the perspirations of our productivity over the aspirations of our soul.

Vivekananda begins by noting that a great deal of our existential confusion about work has to do with our chronic judgment — and, most cripplingly, self-judgment — regarding “good” and “bad.” (Those of us with Type A tendencies know all too painfully how easy it is to feel “bad” for not being productive at all times.) He writes:

Good and bad are both bondages of the soul… If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul… This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it.

In a sentiment that Western psychology godfather William James would come to echo two years later in his influential treatise on habit — quite possibly influenced by the Indian monk’s lectures, which James attended — Vivekananda observes how our choices and actions shape who we become:

Every work that we do, every movement of the body, every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff, and even when such impressions are not obvious on the surface, they are sufficiently strong to work beneath the surface, subconsciously. What we are every moment is determined by the sum total of these impressions on the mind… This is really what is meant by character; each man’s character is determined by the sum total of these impressions.

(Cue in Joan Didion on character.)

Writing shortly before Gandhi popularized this idea, Vivekananda returns to the notions of “good” and “bad” as they relate to the architecture of our character through these “impressions on the mind-stuff”:

If good impressions prevail, the character becomes good; if bad, it becomes bad. If a man continuously hears bad words, thinks bad thoughts, does bad actions, his mind will be full of bad impressions; and they will influence his thought and work without his being conscious of the fact. In fact, these bad impressions are always working, and their resultant must be evil, and that man will be a bad man; he cannot help it. The sum total of these impressions in him will create the strong motive power for doing bad actions. He will be like a machine in the hands of his impressions, and they will force him to do evil. Similarly, if a man thinks good thoughts and does good works, the sum total of these impressions will be good; and they, in a similar manner, will force him to do good even in spite of himself. When a man has done so much good work and thought so many good thoughts that there is an irresistible tendency in him to do good in spite of himself and even if he wishes to do evil, his mind, as the sum total of his tendencies, will not allow him to do so; the tendencies will turn him back; he is completely under the influence of the good tendencies. When such is the case, a man’s good character is said to be established.

As the tortoise tucks its feet and head inside the shell, and you may kill it and break it in pieces, and yet it will not come out, even so the character of that man who has control over his motives and organs is unchangeably established. He controls his own inner forces, and nothing can draw them out against his will. By this continuous reflex of good thoughts, good impressions moving over the surface of the mind, the tendency for doing good becomes strong, and as the result we feel able to control … the sense-organs, the nerve-centers. Thus alone will character be established, then alone a man gets to truth. Such a man is safe for ever; he cannot do any evil.

And yet, Vivekananda notes, there is an even more important requirement for character than the acquisition of “good tendencies” — the desire for liberation from attachment, freedom from clinging to the very notions of good and bad, in work and in life. He writes:

Liberation means entire freedom — freedom from the bondage of good, as well as from the bondage of evil. A golden chain is as much a chain as an iron one. There is a thorn in my finger, and I use another to take the first one out; and when I have taken it out, I throw both of them aside; I have no necessity for keeping the second thorn, because both are thorns after all. So the bad tendencies are to be counteracted by the good ones, and the bad impressions on the mind should be removed by the fresh waves of good ones, until all that is evil almost disappears, or is subdued and held in control in a corner of the mind; but after that, the good tendencies have also to be conquered. Thus the “attached” becomes the “unattached”. Work, but let not the action or the thought produce a deep impression on the mind. Let the ripples come and go, let huge actions proceed from the muscles and the brain, but let them not make any deep impression on the soul.

It’s worth pausing here to note how challenging it is for a Western, individualistic mind to not mistake Vivekananda’s central point for advocacy of laziness or resignation. Quite the contrary, he suggests — subtly, unselfrighteously — that our best work comes when we stop being so preoccupied with the end result and instead surrender ourselves to the experience itself, nonjudgmentally. Vivekananda puts it beautifully, bridging the poetic with the practical:

Be “unattached”; let things work; let brain centers work; work incessantly, but let not a ripple conquer the mind. Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner; work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible.

But what keeps us from relating to work in this way is a kind of self-enslavement — something all the more pertinent today, more than a hundred years later, as we’ve plunged into the era of productivity and operate largely out of a sense of obligation, even if self-elected, rather than a sense of true purpose and passion. (A century before Karma Yoga, the French author and historian Chateaubriand wrote that “a master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure.”) Vivekananda considers the role of inner freedom in work:

Do you not see how everybody works? Nobody can be altogether at rest; ninety-nine per cent of mankind work like slaves, and the result is misery; it is all selfish work. Work through freedom! Work through love! The word “love” is very difficult to understand; love never comes until there is freedom… If you buy a slave and tie him down in chains and make him work for you, he will work like a drudge, but there will be no love in him. So when we ourselves work for the things of the world as slaves, there can be no love in us, and our work is not true work.

He offers a litmus test for whether you’re working out of love or out of self-enslavement:

Every act of love brings happiness; there is no act of love which does not bring peace and blessedness as its reaction. Real existence, real knowledge, and real love are eternally connected with one another, the three in one: where one of them is, the others also must be; they are the three aspects of the One without a second — the Existence — Knowledge — Bliss. When that existence becomes relative, we see it as the world; that knowledge becomes in its turn modified into the knowledge of the things of the world; and that bliss forms the foundation of all true love known to the heart of man. Therefore true love can never react so as to cause pain either to the lover or to the beloved… With love there is no painful reaction; love only brings a reaction of bliss; if it does not, it is not love; it is mistaking something else for love.

Noting that attaining this non-attachment is “almost a life’s work,” Vivekananda argues that it’s nonetheless the only true gateway to freedom. He offers a poignant analogy to better illuminate this freedom from preoccupation with results and returns:

Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children — expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.

Ultimately, he argues, our compulsion for productivity and our attachment to specific results are an act of selfishness. Doing meaningful work, on the other hand, is an act of mercy:

If working like slaves results in selfishness and attachment, working as master of our own mind gives rise to the bliss of non-attachment. We often talk of right and justice, but we find that in the world right and justice are mere baby’s talk. There are two things which guide the conduct of men: might and mercy. The exercise of might is invariably the exercise of selfishness. All men and women try to make the most of whatever power or advantage they have. Mercy is heaven itself; to be good, we have all to be merciful. Even justice and right should stand on mercy. All thought of obtaining return for the work we do hinders our spiritual progress; nay, in the end it brings misery.

Swami Vivekananda concludes with sentiment that embodies the prevalent Western ideal of finding your purpose and doing what you love, quoting an old Indian sage’s wisdom on the secret of work:

Let the end and the means be joined into one.

Karma Yoga is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Buddhist Economics and Jack Kerouac’s Eastern-influenced meditation on selflessness and “the Golden Eternity,” then revisit some Western ideas on finding fulfilling work and working with love.

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14 JULY, 2014

The Art of Self-Renewal: A Timeless 1964 Field Guide to Keeping Your Company and Your Soul Vibrantly Alive

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“The self-renewing man … looks forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the claims of life — not only the claims he encounters but the claims he invents.”

In 1964, the prolific social science writer John W. Gardner published Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — a forgotten book of extraordinary prescience and warm wisdom, which rings even timelier today. It’s a must-read as much for entrepreneurs and leaders seeking to infuse their organizations with ongoing vitality as it is for all of us as individuals, on our private trajectories of self-transcendence and personal growth.

Gardner explores what it takes for us — as individuals, as a society, even as a civilization — to cultivate the capacity for self-renewal so vital to countering “the dry rot produced by apathy, by rigidity and by moral emptiness,” which often comes with attaining a certain level of complacent comfort or success. Referencing his previous book, Excellence — an equally prescient exploration of the educational system, its promise and its limitations, and the role of high standards in cultivating character — Gardner writes:

High standards are not enough. There are kinds of excellence — very important kinds — that are not necessarily associated with the capacity for renewal. A society that has reached heights of excellence may already be caught in the rigidities that will bring it down. An institution may hold itself to the highest standards and yet already be entombed in the complacency that will eventually spell its decline.

And yet, noting that “social renewal depends ultimately on individuals,” Gardner writes:

If a society hopes to achieve renewal, it will have to be a hospitable environment for creative men and women. It will also have to produce men and women with the capacity for self-renewal… Men and women need not fall into a stupor of mind and spirit by the time they are middle-aged. They need not relinquish as early as they do the resilience of youth and the capacity to learn and grow.

Illustration by Tove Jansson for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Self-renewal, he points out, requires a certain give-a-shitness — as E.B. White wrote in his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” Gardner argues:

The renewal of societies and organizations can go forward only if someone cares. Apathy and lowered motivation are the most widely noted characteristics of a civilization on the downward path.

He later adds:

Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature.

[…]

Institutions are renewed by individuals who refuse to be satisfied with the outer husks of things. And self-renewal requires somewhat the same impatience with empty forms.

In a sentiment that John Mooallem would come to echo half a century later (“Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything”), Gardner argues that self-renewal is impossible “unless we share a vision of something worth saving” and writes:

Unless we attend to the requirements of renewal, aging institutions and organizations will eventually bring our civilization to moldering ruin. Unless we cope with the ways in which modern society oppresses the individual, we shall lose the creative spark that renews both societies and [individuals]. Unless we foster versatile, innovative and self-renewing men and women, all the ingenious social arrangements in the world will not help us.

Echoing Buckminster Fuller’s admonition against specialization and Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,’”) Gardner outlines the process by which we fizzle out, socially and personally:

A society decays when its institutions and individuals lose their vitality.

[…]

When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions. Call to mind the adaptability of youth, and the way in which that adaptability diminishes with the years. Call to mind the vigor and recklessness of some new organizations and societies — our own frontier settlements, for example — and reflect on how frequently these qualities are buried under the weight of tradition and history.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Pointing to an infant’s openness to experiences and gradual acquisition of habits for navigating the world, Gardner echoes Henry Miller’s timeless wisdom on the secret of remaining young at heart and writes:

Each acquired attitude or habit, useful though it may be, makes [the infant] a little less receptive to alternative ways of thinking and acting. He becomes more competent to function in his own environment, less adaptive to changes.

All of this seems to suggest that the critical question is how to stay young. But youth implies immaturity. And though everyone wants to be young, no one wants to be immature. Unfortunately, as many a youth-seeker has learned, the two are intertwined.

From this springs the natural question of how one might “advance toward maturity without advancing toward rigidity and senility,” to which Gardner answers:

There may be a point at which raw young vitality and mature competence and wisdom reach a kind of ideal balance, but there is no possibility of freezing change at that point, as one might stop the motion in a home movie. There is nothing static in these processes.

Once again, this brings to mind Henry Miller’s memorable observation that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” as well as his longtime lover and lifelong friend Anaïs Nin’s defense of the fluid self. Gardner brings this paradox back to the notion of a vitally self-renewing society:

In the ever-renewing society what matters is a system or framework within which continuous innovation, renewal and rebirth can occur.

And yet, Gardner points out in a caveat all the more relevant today, it’s important to understand that renewal is different from “innovation,” more dimensional and integrated with the whole microcosm of life, more rooted in an appreciation of the fact that everything builds on what came before:

Renewal is not just innovation and change. It is also the process of bringing the results of change into line with our purposes. When our forebears invented the motor car, they had to devise rules of the road. Both are phases of renewal. When urban expansion threatens chaos, we must revive our conceptions of city planning and metropolitan government.

Mesmerized as we are by the idea of change, we must guard against the notion that continuity is a negligible — if not reprehensible — factor in human history. It is a vitally important ingredient in the life of individuals, organizations and societies. Particularly important to a society’s continuity are its long-term purposes and values. These purposes and values also evolve in the long run; but by being relatively durable, they enable a society to absorb change without losing its distinctive character and style. They do much to determine the direction of change. They insure a society will not be buffeted in all directions by every wind that blows.

A sensible view of these matters sees an endless interweaving of continuity and change.

[…]

The only stability possible is stability in motion.

Gardner goes on to explore all the ways in which we imprison ourselves — something Albert Camus had contemplated a decade earlier — and examines “the individual’s own intricately designed, self-constructed prison [and] incapacity for self-renewal.” In one particularly interesting aside, he points to the commencement address genre — arguably the modern secular sermon — as a testament to how, unless we guard against it, life pushes us from a capacity for self-renewal to chronic rigidity: One of the most common commencement messages is to keep on growing and never settle, and yet Gardner notes that many of the wide-eyed recipients of that message are “absolutely mummified” by middle age and “even some of the people who make the speeches are mummified.” He considers what’s at play:

As we mature we progressively narrow the scope and variety of our lives. Of all the interests we might pursue, we settle on a few. Of all the people with whom we might associate, we select a small number. We become caught in a web of fixed relationships. We develop set ways of doing things.

Half a century before modern cognitive science revealed the same, Gardner observes one of our most toxic existential tendencies:

As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception. We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the faces of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world.

Illustration from 'The London Jungle Book' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

Echoing the ethos of the marvelous London Jungle Book, Gardner notes that the vivid experience of travel holds such allure to most of us precisely because it offers such “freshness of perception”:

At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us. Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience. The exhilaration of travel has many sources, but surely one of them is that we recapture in some measure the unspoiled awareness of children.

So what can we do to “avert the hardening of the arteries” that attacks both societies and individuals? Decades before Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering work on “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets, Gardner proposes a strikingly similar framework for understanding, and improving, our capacity for self-renewal:

Most human beings go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities.

[…]

Most abilities are not so readily evoked by the common circumstances of life. The “mute, inglorious Miltons” are more numerous than one might suppose, particularly in an age in which even an articulate Milton might go unnoticed, certainly unrewarded. Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives have never called them forth.

Exploration of the full range of his own potentialities is not something that the self-renewing man leaves to the chances of life. It is something he pursues systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of his days. He looks forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the claims of life — not only the claims he encounters but the claims he invents. And by potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range of his capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, aspiring.

One prerequisite for self-renewal, Gardner argues, is self-knowledge — something all the more relevant today, when we’re so busy being productive that we neglect to be present, lulling ourselves into a trance of doing as we forget to be, becoming absent from our own lives. Gardner writes:

We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within… By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.

[…]

The individual who has become a stranger to himself has lost the capacity for genuine self-renewal.

Related to self-knowledge and of equal importance to our capacity for self-renewal is cultivating our capacity for love, as well as our capacity for friendship. Gardner writes:

Another characteristic of the self-renewing man is that he has mutually fruitful relations with other human beings. He is capable of accepting love and capable of giving it — both more difficult achievements than is commonly thought. He is capable of depending on others and of being depended upon. He can see life through another’s eyes and feel it through another’s heart…

The man or woman who cannot achieve these relationships is imprisoned, cut off from a great part of the world of experience. The joy and suffering of those we love are part of our own experience. We feel their triumphs and defeats, their hopes and fears, their anger and pity, and our lives are richer for it…

Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.

Half a century later, Self-Renewal remains a remarkable and prescient read in its entirety — Gardner goes on to explore how we can optimize our capacity for self-renewal by understanding its obstacles and essential conditions, the limits of individuality, how our attitudes toward the future impact it, its relationship with creativity and innovation, and more. Complement it with another wonderful read on learning to see the familiar world with new eyes.

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