Brain Pickings

The Elusive Art of Inner Wholeness and How to Stop Hiding Our Souls

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“Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”

“Do not despise your inner world,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum admonished in her reflection on what it takes to live a full life. “Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you,” Anna Deavere Smith wrote in her spectacular letters of advice to young artists. And yet in a culture where we’re devouring one another’s outward selves with accelerating “aesthetic consumerism” as we scroll through social media feeds, we’re increasingly bedeviled by the rift between private person and public persona, inner world and outward projection. The soul-salving art of bridging that gap is what Parker Palmer explores in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (public library) — an ennobling field guide to living with the grace and integrity of being your whole self, titled after the famous Thomas Merton line, “there is in all things … a hidden wholeness.”

Palmer — founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a contemporary Thoreau of the psyche, and one of the wisest human beings I’ve had the fortune of meeting — begins with the root of our dividedness:

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”

That separation, he notes, can take many forms, from the misalignment of work and purpose, with which young William James tussled, to denying or hiding some fundamental part of our identity in fear of being judged or rejected, the “play-acting” Kierkegaard lamented, to the all too familiar and endemic impostor syndrome. And yet Palmer makes an important distinction between perfectionism, which only ever oppresses the soul, and wholeness, which liberates it:

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

Palmer argues that the pathology of the divided life isn’t something to be solved by ethics — a discipline typically taught through the lens of abstraction and reason rather than embodied empathy for the human experience, ours and that of others; a kind of costume we put on to stage our own good-personhood production. Palmer writes:

As teenagers and young adults, we learned that self-knowledge counts for little on the road to workplace success. What counts is the “objective” knowledge that empowers us to manipulate the world. Ethics, taught in this context, becomes one more arm’s-length study of great thinkers and their thoughts, one more exercise in data collection that fails to inform our hearts.

I value ethical standards, of course. But in a culture like ours — which devalues or dismisses the reality and power of the inner life — ethics too often becomes an external code of conduct, an objective set of rules we are told to follow, a moral exoskeleton we put on hoping to prop ourselves up. The problem with exoskeletons is simple: we can slip them off as easily as we can don them.

[…]

When we understand integrity for what it is, we stop obsessing over codes of conduct and embark on the more demanding journey toward being whole.

Dividedness, Palmer notes, is a kind of survival instinct that helps mitigate our excruciating discomfort with uncertainty, shielding our inner lives with those protective but ultimately pernicious outer shells:

Not knowing who or what we are dealing with and feeling unsafe, we hunker down in a psychological foxhole and withhold the investment of our energy, commitment, and gifts… The perceived incongruity of inner and outer-the inauthenticity that we sense in others, or they in us-constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s reflection on personal responsibility, Palmer considers the conduit to wholeness:

We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole.

[…]

The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.

Making that choice, he argues, requires that we “create spaces between us where the soul feels safe enough to show up and make its claim on our lives.” In fact, the soul is something Parker treats with a great deal of gentle attentiveness as he contemplates the crux of wholeness.

The concept of the soul seems to have fallen out of fashion over the past century, but its trials and triumphs are the perennial substance of the human journey. In Buddhism, it is known as “original nature.” Quakers call it “inner teacher” or “inner light.” Hasidic Jews call it a “spark of the divine.” The Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton called it “true self.” Humanists see it as an “indestructible and eternal” part of the universe. Palmer writes:

What we name it matters little to me, since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For “it” is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs — diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives.

He illustrates this with a personal example to which most mindful parents and grandparents can relate:

When my first grandchild was born, I saw something in her that I had missed in my own children some twenty-five years earlier, when I was too young and self-absorbed to see anyone, including myself, very well. What I saw was clear and simple: my granddaughter arrived on earth as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.

[…]

In my granddaughter I actually observed something I could once take only on faith: we are born with a seed of selfhood that contains the spiritual DNA of our uniqueness-an encoded birthright knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and how we are related to others. We may abandon that knowledge as the years go by, but it never abandons us.

Let me pause here to note that while I side with Sam Harris on matters of spirituality and find the notion of the eternal “soul” somewhat problematic as a delusory salve for our chronic dread of our own impermanence, I side most of all with Carl Sagan, who wrote in history’s most lucid treatise on science and spirituality: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

The point, of course, is that the mystery of what we call the “soul” — the stuff of Hannah Arendt’s elegant case for “unanswerable questions” — need not be resolved in order for the concept itself to be a useful one in advancing our understanding of and compassion for ourselves, right here and right now, in this blink of cosmic time that is our existence.

Crucially, Palmer points out, inner wholeness will continue to evade us for as long as we shackle the soul to the artificial exoskeleton that protects it — a perilous tendency that will eventually lead us to confuse the latter for the former:

Here is the ultimate irony of the divided life: live behind a wall long enough, and the true self you tried to hide from the world disappears from your own view! The wall itself and the world outside it become all that you know. Eventually, you even forget that the wall is there — and that hidden behind it is someone called “you.”

Palmer calls this rift “the gap between our onstage performance and backstage reality” and writes:

If we want to create spaces that are safe for the soul, we need to understand why the soul so rarely shows up in everyday life.

One particularly poignant aspect of this soul-shyness has to do with our fraught relationship with solitude. Palmer paints a wonderfully nuanced yin-yang:

Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people-it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people-it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.

How we can build “a space between us that is hospitable to the soul” and “a community of solitudes where we can be alone together” is among the wealth of soul-stretching questions at the intersection of the practical and the philosophical that Palmer goes on to explore in A Hidden Wholeness. Complement it with Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing and Victoria Stafford on what it really means to “live our mission.”

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Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time in 4,000 Years of Mapping the Universe

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A visual catalog of our quintessential quest to understand the cosmos and our place in it.

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope, antagonizing the church and unleashing a “hummingbird effect” of innovation, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (public library) — a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness.” From glorious paintings of the creation myth predating William Blake’s work by centuries to the pioneering galaxy drawing that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night to NASA’s maps of the Apollo 11 landing site, the images remind us that the cosmos — like Whitman, like ourselves — is vast and contains multitudes. This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

Illustration from Henry Russell’s 1892 treatise 'Observations of the Transit of Venus.'

Courtesy of The Royal Society

The book’s title is an allusion to Italo Calvino’s beloved Cosmicomics, a passage from which Benson deploys as the epigraph:

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

Long before the notion of vacuum existed in cosmology, English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, which depicts multiple chaotic fires subsiding until a central starlike structure becomes visible amid concentric rings of smoke and debris. Even though Fludd believed in a geocentric cosmology, this image comes strikingly close to current theories of solar system formation.

Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections

Paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, from 1693–1698. Eimmart's depictions are based on a 1659 engraving by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the first to confirm that Saturn’s mysterious appendages, which had confounded astronomers since Galileo, were in fact 'a thin flat ring, nowhere touching.' What makes Eimmart's painting unique is that it combines the observations of more than ten astronomers into a depiction of superior accuracy.

Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita di Bologna

In 1845, Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, equipped his castle with a giant six-ton telescope, soon nicknamed the 'Leviathan,' which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1918. Despite the cloudy Irish skies, Lord Rosse managed to glimpse and draw the spellbinding spiral structures of what were thought to be nebulae within the Milky Way. This print, based on Lord Rosse’s drawing of one such nebula — M51, known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy — became a sensation throughout Europe and inspired Van Gogh's iconic 'The Starry Night.'

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

The project, which does for space what Cartographies of Time did for the invisible dimension, also celebrates the natural marriage of art and science. These early astronomers were often spectacular draughtsmen as well — take, for instance, Johannes Hevelius and his groundbreaking catalog of stars. As Benson points out, art and science were “essentially fused” until about the 17th century and many of the creators of the images in the book were also well-versed in optics, anatomy, and the natural sciences.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

De Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, particularly the triangular form and its interplay with the circle.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

This cryptic and unsettling 'Fool’s Cap Map of the World' (1580–1590), made by an unknown artist, appropriates French mathematician and cartographer Oronce Finé’s cordiform, or heart-shaped, projection of the Earth; the world in this iconic image is dressed in a jester’s belled cap, beneath which a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes reads: 'The number of fools is infinite.'

Public domain via Wikimedia

The book is, above all, a kind of conceptual fossil record of how our understanding of the universe evolved, visualizing through breathtaking art the “fits and starts of ignorance” by which science progresses — many of the astronomers behind these enchanting images weren’t “scientists” in the modern sense but instead dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and various rites driven by religion and superstition. (For instance, Isaac Newton, often celebrated as the greatest scientist of all time, spent a considerable amount of his youth self-flagellating over his sins, and trying to discover “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a mythic substance believed to transmute ordinary metals into gold. And one of the gorgeous images in Benson’s catalog comes from a 1907 children’s astronomy book I happen to own, titled The Book of Stars for Young People, the final pages of which have always struck me with their counterblast: “Far out in space lies this island of a system, and beyond the gulfs of space are other suns, with other systems: some may be akin to ours and some quite different… The whole implies design, creation, and the working of a mighty intelligence; and yet there are small, weak creatures here on this little globe who refuse to believe in God.”)

A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested.

Courtesy of the Huntington Library

The Nebra Sky Disc (2000–1600 B.C.), excavated illegally in Germany in 1999, is considered to be both humanity's first-known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known visual depiction of celestial objects.

Public domain via Wikimedia

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world's first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history's first true moon map.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Beginning in 1870, French-born artist and astronomer Étienne Trouvelot spent a decade producing a series of spectacular illustrations of celestial bodies and cosmic phenomena. In 1872, he joined the Harvard College Observatory and began using its powerful telescopes in perfecting his drawings. His pastel illustrations, including this chromolithograph of Mare Humorum, a vast impact basin on the southwest side of the Earth-facing hemisphere of the moon, were among the first serious attempts to enlist art in popularizing the results of observations using technology developed for scientific research.

Courtesy of the U. of Michigan Library

Étienne Trouvelot's 1873 engravings of solar phenomena, produced during his first year at the Harvard College Observatory for the institution's journal. The legend at the bottom reveals that the distance between the two prominences in the lower part of the engraving is one hundred thousand miles, more than 12 times the diameter of Earth. Despite the journal's modest circulation, such engravings were soon co-opted by more mainstream publications and became trailblazing tools of science communication that greatly influenced public understanding of the universe's scale.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

What makes Benson’s project especially enchanting is the strange duality it straddles: On the one hand, the longing to make tangible and visible the complex forces that rule our existence is a deeply human one; on the other, the notion of simplifying such expansive complexities into static images seems paradoxical to a dangerous degree — something best captured by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell when she marveled: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Unable to seize the infinite, are we fooling ourselves by trying to reduce it into a seizable visual representation? At what point do we, like Calvino’s protagonist, begin to mistake the presence or absence of “signs” for the presence or absence of space itself? It calls to mind Susan Sontag’s concern about how photography’s “aesthetic consumerism” endangers the real experience of life, which the great physicist Werner Heisenberg channeled decades earlier in a remark that exposes the dark side of visualizing the universe:

Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by science. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is studying its own picture.

Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' depicting Wright's trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

And yet awe, the only appropriate response to the cosmos, is a visceral feeling by nature and thus has no choice but to engage our “aesthetic consumerism” — which is why the yearning at the heart of Benson’s project is a profoundly human one. He turns to the words of the pioneering English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright, whose 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe Benson considers “one of the best-case studies of scientific reasoning through image.” Wright marvels:

What inconceivable vastness and magnificence of power does such a frame unfold! Suns crowding upon Suns, to our weak sense, indefinitely distant from each other; and myriads of myriads of mansions, like our own, peopling infinity, all subject to the same Creator’s will; a universe of worlds, all decked with mountains, lakes, and seas, herbs, animals, and rivers, rocks, caves, and trees… Now, thanks to the sciences, the scene begins to open to us on all sides, and truths scarce to have been dreamt of before persons of observation had proved them possible, invade our senses with a subject too deep for the human understanding, and where our very reason is lost in infinite wonders.

Illuminated solar eclipse prediction tables by German miniaturist Joachinus de Gigantibus, from the 1478 scientific treatise 'Astronomia' by Tuscan-Neopolitan humanist Christianus Prolianus.

Courtesy of Rylands Medieval Collection, U. of Manchester

NASA's 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Courtesy of USGS/NASA

Illustration from G. E. Mitton’s 'The Book of Stars for Young People,' 1907

Courtesy of AAVSO

Artist-astronomer Étienne Trouvelot's drawing of the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, in Wyoming.

Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cosmigraphics is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with a tour of parallel facets of humanity’s visual imagination, Umberto Eco’s atlas of legendary lands and Manuel Lima’s visual history of tree-like diagrams, then revisit the little-known story of how Galileo influenced Shakespeare and this lovely children’s book about space exploration.

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Butterflies and Iron Bolts: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About Great Design and the Value of the Ungoogleable

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Celebrating the significance of small things and the iron bolts that hold butterfly wings together.

In 2002, a small and confounding book titled Schott’s Original Miscellany (public library) was released to very little fanfare by British independent press Bloomsbury, publishers of such diverse and beloved offerings as Harry Potter and Lost Cat. The author of this unusual book was a young man named Ben Schott, whose level of public prominence was closer to that of a stray feline than of J.K. Rowling. And yet, within weeks, the book — a quirky and beautifully designed catalog of curiosities, partway between a Victorian encyclopedia a century after the golden age of Victorian encyclopedias and a meticulously curated Tumblr a decade before the golden age of Tumblr — became the publishing sensation of the year. Soon, it had sold a million copies and was translated into thirteen languages.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Schott — who identifies neither with being a writer nor with being a designer but describes himself instead as “a writer who uses design and a designer who uses word” — shares the unlikely, remarkably heartening story of his success. Folded into it are Schott’s reflections on how his father’s obscure scientific papers on the history of the footnote shaped his miscellaneous mind, what Virginia Woolf can teach us about the secret of great design and craftsmanship, and why the art of finding the ungoogleable is of ever-increasing value today. Highlights below.

On choosing creative purpose over a profitable or prestigious occupation, something with which young William James also tussled, and dropping out of advertising:

If you look up and you don’t want to get to the top of the ladder you’re climbing, then why are you climbing the ladder?

On being self-taught as a photographer and learning the craft through apprenticeship, via absorption:

That’s how I learned — you find a standard and think, “This guy is really good, or this girl is really good, and if I can be that good, I’m getting there.”

On being inspired by Virginia Woolf — his first book opens with a quote from The Common Reader: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” — and what Woolf, who herself had strong opinions on craftsmanship, can teach us about the secret of excellence in design and any craft:

I’m a fan Virginia Woolf — I’m a real fan of Mrs. Dalloway more than anything else she’s written. But what, I think, seduces her work is that sense that small things are significant. There’s another great quote [from To the Lighthouse] which sums up one of my theories of design, to the extent that I’m entitled to have any theories, which is: “light and evanescent but held together by bolts of iron.”

[Design] must be, on the surface, like a butterfly’s wing — but underneath it must be clamped together with bolts of iron…

This is what I think is the secret of so much craft — to make it look effortless and evanescent, like a butterfly’s wing, but it needs to have structure, rigidity, purpose.

But perhaps Schott’s most pause-giving point — at least for me, as someone who spends a considerable amount of time dwelling in archives and literature of which there is no pervious trace online — has to do with how he found the curiosities and quotes for the book in a pre-Google age. I frequently say that books are the original internet — every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another idea — and Schott captures this notion beautifully by inviting us into a time-machine that exposes all we’ve come to take for granted in just a few years:

Information totally changed in the last fifteen years, since this book came out. You have to remember what the mindset was then. So a lot of it was [spending] time in libraries and stumbling across things. People said, “Oh, have you seen this?” It was a wonderful paper chase. And anyone who’s spent time in libraries knows: you follow the footnote; you get taken for a walk — one footnote leads to another footnote leads to another footnote. By the time you know it, you’re drowning in paper…

The point was not to get stuff that was out there — it was trying to find things that no one else had talked about. Which is increasingly hard, by the way — to find stuff that is ungoogleable.

Schott’s Original Miscellany, which Schott describes as a book about “everything on the back of your mind and the tip of your tongue [and] all the things that you think you know or would like to know but don’t really know,” was followed by Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany in 2004, Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany in 2005, and Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany in 2011.

If you aren’t yet subscribed to Design Matters — the world’s first podcast about design, which celebrates its 10th birthday in just a few months — remedy the situation immediately and gladden yourself on iTunes.

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