Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

03 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on True Genius and the Crushing Illusion of Inferiority

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“When one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.”

“Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer,” Melissa Pritchard observed in her beautiful meditation on art as a form of active prayer. But for French philosopher, political activist, and mystic Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most lucid, luminous, and gravely underappreciated thinkers in human history — sainthood was more than a metaphor for her approach to writing. Weil endures as a rare kind of modern saint — a person who lived with absolute conviction and lived that conviction absolutely, not merely as a detached intellectual abstraction but as practical concreteness into which she threw all of herself, frail body and formidable mind.

To better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil — who had graduated with a degree in philosophy after placing first in the competitive national university entrance exam; Simone de Beauvoir placed second — quit her teaching job and labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year, despite having a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches. Although she was a proponent of nonviolence and was in poor health for the entirety of her short life, she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and beseeched an anti-fascist commander to let her assist in a mission to rescue a political prisoner, knowing it might cost her her life. Upon returning to Paris, she continued to write passionately about war and peace, labor rights, the moral responsibilities of science, and countless other subjects the ultimate aim of which was a more exalted humanity.

As she lay dying of tuberculosis, exiled in a British hospital, she defied the doctors’ orders by refusing to eat more than the rations her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France were given — a solidary self-sacrifice akin to a saint’s, and one that accordingly resulted in her death. Albert Camus proclaimed her “the only great spirit of our times.” The influential Canadian philosopher George Grant considered her “the supreme teacher of the relation of love and intelligence,” a singular spirit marked by the rare combination of a “staggeringly clear intellect with something that is beyond the intellect — namely, sanctity.”

In the spring of 1942, a year before she fell mortally ill, Weil penned a long letter to a dear friend and confidante, the theologian Father Perrin, which she considered a sort of “spiritual autobiography.” It was later included in the posthumously published Waiting for God (public library) — one of the most ennobling texts our civilization ever produced.

In a particularly poignant passage from the letter, Weil looks back on her life and contemplates the nature of genius. Although she had a great reverence for giftedness — having witnessed it since a young age in her brother, the influential mathematician André Weil — she believed genius was not a passive function of talent but an active and transcendent search for truth:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.

In a sentiment that cals to mind young Vincent van Gogh’s touching letter on finding one’s purpose“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” he wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Weil adds:

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside…

Under the name of truth I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of a conception of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.

Complement the immeasurably enriching Waiting for God with Weil on making use of our suffering, science and our spiritual values, and how to be a complete human being.

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30 JULY, 2015

Art as a Form of Active Prayer and What Writers Really Labor For

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“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”

Why do we humans create — why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to “a collective enterprise.” William Faulkner simply believed it to be “the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet.” But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why — and how — artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.

That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Pritchard writes:

Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.

This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:

Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.

With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:

Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable meditation on the artist’s task and Annie Dillard’s assertion that “writers serve as the memory of a people,” Pritchard adds:

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.

But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:

All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.

The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

She ends the piece like one might a commencement address — and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time — urging writers:

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.

Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on writing.

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27 JULY, 2015

A Zen Master Explains Death and the Life-Force to a Child and Outlines the Three Essential Principles of Zen Mind

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“Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.”

If death is so enormous a mystery that we remain unable to wrap our grownup minds around it, despite comfort from our great poets and consolation from our great philosophers, how are tiny humans to make sense of it all? Although there exist some exceptional children’s books about loss and grief, explaining death to a child remains one of the most challenging tasks for a human being to undertake.

Because the language of Zen, holding great complexity of experience in great simplicity of expression, is so organically suited to the child — children, after all, have a way of leaning their minds toward the profound by way of the simple — it is perhaps the best language we have in offering a befitting explanation, as much to ourselves as to our young ones.

That’s what the great Korean-born Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) offers in one of the chapters in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — a tiny treasure of a book originally published in 1976, irreverent yet immensely spiritually invigorating, collecting his correspondence and conversations with Zen students in the West.

Soen-sa recounts his conversation with Gita, the seven-year-old daughter of one of his students at the Cambridge Zen Center, after the death of the center’s beloved cat, cleverly named Katz. (“KATZ!” is the transcription of the famous Buddhist belly-shout, used as a way of focusing energy and intention during Zen practice.) Katz had died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but the little girl remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange:

“What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' by T.S. Eliot. Click image for more.

With an eye to our tendency to mistake a thing’s name for its thingness, Soen-sa answers by urging the little girl to contact the universal life-force of the metaphorical cookie dough:

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’

So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.”

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.

Soen-sa ends the anecdote with an exchange intended to be funny, but in fact a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:

As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school. I’m going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.

Illustration from 'The Book of Memory Gaps' by Cecilia Ruiz. Click image for more.

In another section of the book, Soen-sa examines the principles and practices that help us cultivate the pre-thinking mind necessary for truly tasting the metaphorical cookie dough of the universal life-force. Responding to a letter from a Zen beginner, a young woman named Patricia who had trouble grasping the value and very notion of “don’t-know mind,” he writes:

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know… Your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people’s before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud, and you become one… The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.

A few months later, in another letter to Patricia, he explores the three pillars of Zen’s don’t-know mind:

Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.

What is great faith? Great faith means that at all times you keep the mind which decided to practice, no matter what. It is like a hen sitting on her eggs. She sits on them constantly, caring for them and giving them warmth, so that they will hatch. If she becomes careless or negligent, the eggs will not hatch and become chicks. So Zen mind means always and everywhere believing in myself…

Great courage … means bringing all your energy to one point. It is like a cat hunting a mouse. The mouse has retreated into its hole, but the cat waits outside the hole for hours on end without the slightest movement. It is totally concentrated on the mouse-hole. This is Zen mind — cutting off all thinking and directing all your energy to one point.

Next — great questioning… If you question with great sincerity, there will only be don’t-know mind.

Complement Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, indispensable in its entirety, with the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character, Alan Watts on death, and beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to do “hugging meditation.”

Donating = Loving

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





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22 JULY, 2015

Get Out of Your Own Light: Aldous Huxley on Who We Are, the Trap of Language, and the Necessity of Mind-Body Education

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“In all the activities of life, from the simplest physical activities to the highest intellectual and spiritual activities, our whole effort must be to get out of our own light.”

Aldous Huxley endures as one of the most visionary and unusual minds of the twentieth century — a man of strong convictions about drugs, democracy, and religion and immensely prescient ideas about the role of technology in human life; a prominent fixture of Carl Sagan’s reading list; and the author of a little-known allegorical children’s book.

In one of his twenty-six altogether excellent essays in The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment (public library), Huxley sets out to answer the question of who we are — an enormous question that, he points out, entails a number of complex relationships: between and among humans, between humanity and nature, between the cultural traditions of different societies, between the values and belief systems of the present and the past.

Writing in 1955, more than two decades after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley considers the stakes in this ultimate act of bravery:

What are we in relation to our own minds and bodies — or, seeing that there is not a single word, let us use it in a hyphenated form — our own mind-bodies? What are we in relation to this total organism in which we live?

[…]

The moment we begin thinking about it in any detail, we find ourselves confronted by all kinds of extremely difficult, unanswered, and maybe unanswerable questions.

These unanswerable questions, the value of which the great Hannah Arendt would extol as the basis of our civilization two decades later, challenge the very “who” of who we are. Huxley illustrates this with a most basic example:

I wish to raise my hand. Well, I raise it. But who raises it? Who is the “I” who raises my hand? Certainly it is not exclusively the “I” who is standing here talking, the “I” who signs the checks and has a history behind him, because I do not have the faintest idea how my hand was raised. All I know is that I expressed a wish for my hand to be raised, whereupon something within myself set to work, pulled the switches of a most elaborate nervous system, and made thirty or forty muscles — some of which contract and some of which relax at the same instant — function in perfect harmony so as to produce this extremely simple gesture. And of course, when we ask ourselves, how does my heart beat? how do we breathe? how do I digest my food? — we do not have the faintest idea.

[…]

We as personalities — as what we like to think of ourselves as being — are in fact only a very small part of an immense manifestation of activity, physical and mental, of which we are simply not aware. We have some control over this inasmuch as some actions being voluntary we can say, I want this to happen, and somebody else does the work for us. But meanwhile, many actions go on without our having the slightest consciousness of them, and … these vegetative actions can be grossly interfered with by our undesirable thoughts, our fears, our greeds, our angers, and so on…

The question then arises, How are we related to this? Why is it that we think of ourselves as only this minute part of a totality far larger than we are — a totality which according to many philosophers may actually be coextensive with the total activity of the universe?

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust.' Click image for more.

At a time when Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern teachings in the West and prominent public figures like Jack Kerouac were turning to Buddhism, Huxley advances this cross-pollination of East and West. With an eye to pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, who was among his greatest influences, he considers the notion that our consciousness is the filtering down of a larger universal consciousness, distilled in a way that benefits our survival:

Obviously, if we have to get out of the way of the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, it is no good being aware of everything that is going on in the universe; we have to be aware of the approaching bus. And this is what the brain does for us: It narrows the field down so that we can go through life without getting into serious trouble.

But … we can and ought to open ourselves up and become what in fact we have always been from the beginning, that is to say … much more widely knowing than we normally think we are. We should realize our identity with what James called the cosmic consciousness and what in the East is called the Atman-Brahman. The end of life in all great religious traditions is the realization that the finite manifests the Infinite in its totality. This is, of course, a complete paradox when it is stated in words; nevertheless, it is one of the facts of experience.

But this deeper and more expansive sense of self, Huxley argues, is habitually obscured by the superficial shells we mistake for our selves:

The superficial self — the self which we call ourselves, which answers to our names and which goes about its business — has a terrible habit of imagining itself to be absolute in some sense… We know in an obscure and profound way that in the depths of our being … we are identical with the divine Ground. And we wish to realize this identity. But unfortunately, owing to the ignorance in which we live — partly a cultural product, partly a biological and voluntary product — we tend to look at ourselves, at this wretched little self, as being absolute. We either worship ourselves as such, or we project some magnified image of the self in an ideal or goal which falls short of the highest ideal or goal, and proceed to worship that.

Huxley admonishes against “the appalling dangers of idolatry” — a misguided attempt at communion with a greater truth that, in fact, renders us all the more separate:

Idolatry is … the worship of a part — especially the self or projection of the self — as though it were the absolute totality. And as soon as this happens, general disaster occurs.

Illustration by Giselle Potter from 'To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays,' Gertrude Stein's little-known alphabet book. Click image for more.

Nearly half a century before Adrienne Rich lamented “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions” in her spectacular critique of capitalism, Huxley argues that the uses and misuses of language mediate our relationship with the self and are responsible for our tendency to confuse the deeper self with the superficial self:

This is the greatest gift which man has ever received or given himself, the gift of language. But we have to remember that although language is absolutely essential to us, it can also be absolutely fatal because we use it wrongly. If we analyze our processes of living, we find that, I imagine, at least 50 percent of our life is spent in the universe of language. We are like icebergs, floating in a sea of immediate experience but projecting into the air of language. Icebergs are about four-fifths under water and one-fifth above. But, I would say, we are considerably more than that above. I should say, we are the best part of 50 percent — and, I suspect, some people are about 80 percent above in the world of language. They virtually never have a direct experience; they live entirely in terms of concepts.

It’s a sentiment triply poignant today, in an era when the so-called social media rely on language — both textual and the even more commodified visual language of photography — to convey and to manicure our conceptual perception of each other, often at the expense of the deeper truth of who we are. To be sure, Huxley recognizes that this reliance on concepts is evolutionarily necessary — another sensemaking mechanism for narrowing and organizing the uncontainable chaos of reality into comprehensible bits:

When we see a rose, we immediately say, rose. We do not say, I see a roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks. We immediately pass from the actual experience to the concept.

[…]

We cannot help living to a very large extent in terms of concepts. We have to do so, because immediate experience is so chaotic and so immensely rich that in mere self-preservation we have to use the machinery of language to sort out what is of utility for us, what in any given context is of importance, and at the same time to try to understand—because it is only in terms of language that we can understand what is happening. We make generalizations and we go into higher and higher degrees of abstraction, which permit us to comprehend what we are up to, which we certainly would not if we did not have language. And in this way language is an immense boon, which we could not possibly do without.

But language has its limitations and its traps.

Much like Simone Weil argued that the language of algebra hijacked the scientific understanding of reality in the early twentieth century, Huxley asserts that verbal language is leading us to mistake the names we give to various aspects of reality for reality itself:

In general, we think that the pointing finger — the word — is the thing we point at… In reality, words are simply the signs of things. But many people treat things as though they were the signs and illustrations of words. When they see a thing, they immediately think of it as just being an illustration of a verbal category, which is absolutely fatal because this is not the case. And yet we cannot do without words. The whole of life is, after all, a process of walking on a tightrope. If you do not fall one way you fall the other, and each is equally bad. We cannot do without language, and yet if we take language too seriously we are in an extremely bad way. We somehow have to keep going on this knife-edge (every action of life is a knife-edge), being aware of the dangers and doing our best to keep out of them.

This, perhaps, is why David Whyte — as both a poet and a philosopher — is so well poised to unravel the deeper, truer meanings of common words.

Illustration by Giselle Potter from 'To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays,' Gertrude Stein's little-known alphabet book. Click image for more.

The root of our over-reliance on language, Huxley argues, lies in our flawed education system, which is predominantly verbal at the expense of experiential learning. (A similar lament led young Susan Sontag to radically remix the timeline of education.) In a prescient case for today’s rise of tinkering schools and mind-body training for kids, Huxley writes:

The liberal arts … are little better than they were in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages the liberal arts were entirely verbal. The only two which were not verbal were astronomy and music… Although for hundreds of years we have been talking about mens sana in corpore sano, we really have not paid any serious attention to the problem of training the mind-body, the instrument which has to do with the learning, which has to do with the living. We give children compulsory games, a little drill, and so on, but this really does not amount in any sense to a training of the mind-body. We pour this verbal stuff into them without in any way preparing the organism for life or for understanding its position in the world — who it is, where it stands, how it is related to the universe. This is one of the oddest things.

Moreover, we do not even prepare the child to have any proper relation with its own mind-body.

Long before Buckminster Fuller admonished against the evils of excessive specialization and Leo Buscaglia penned his magnificent critique of the education system’s industrialized conformity, Huxley writes:

One of the reasons for the lack of attention to the training of the mind-body is that this particular kind of teaching does not fall into any academic pigeonhole. This is one of the great problems in education: Everything takes place in a pigeonhole… The pigeonholes must be there because we cannot avoid specialization; but what we do need in academic institutions now is a few people who run about on the woodwork between the pigeonholes, and peep into all of them and see what can be done, and who are not closed to disciplines which do not happen to fit into any of the categories considered as valid by the present educational system!

The solution to this paralyzing rigidity, Huxley argues, lies in combining “relaxation and activity.” In a sentiment that calls to mind the Chinese concept of wu-wei“trying not to try” — he writes:

Take the piano teacher, for example. He always says, Relax, relax. But how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? Yet they have to relax. The singing teacher and the golf pro say exactly the same thing. And in the realm of spiritual exercises we find that the person who teaches mental prayer does too. We have somehow to combine relaxation with activity…

The personal conscious self being a kind of small island in the midst of an enormous area of consciousness — what has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what is what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should. In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing.

Two decades before Julia Cameron penned her enduring psychoemotional toolkit for getting out of your own way, Huxley makes a beautiful case for the same idea:

We have to learn, so to speak, to get out of our own light, because with our personal self — this idolatrously worshiped self — we are continually standing in the light of this wider self — this not-self, if you like — which is associated with us and which this standing in the light prevents. We eclipse the illumination from within. And in all the activities of life, from the simplest physical activities to the highest intellectual and spiritual activities, our whole effort must be to get out of our own light.

Illustration by Lizi Boyd from 'Flashlight.' Click image for more.

The seed for this lifelong effort, Huxley concludes, must be planted in early education:

These [are] extremely important facets of education, which have been wholly neglected. I do not think that in ordinary schools you could teach what are called spiritual exercises, but you could certainly teach children how to use themselves in this relaxedly active way, how to perform these psychophysical skills without the frightful burden of overcoming the law of reversed effort.

The Divine Within is an illuminating read in its totality, exploring such subjects as time, religion, distraction, death, and the nature of reality. Complement it with Alan Watts on learning to live with presence in the age of anxiety and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.

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