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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

09 APRIL, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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09 APRIL, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By mid-August, he is fully in love:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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07 APRIL, 2015

Simone Weil on Temptation, the Key to Discipline, and How to Be a Complete Human Being

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“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.”

“The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating our moral responsibility as human beings. This relationship between morality and attention was a primary concern for French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most incisive thinkers of the past century, who dedicated her short life to the dual task of refining the truth of the human experience and alleviating its suffering, then pursued that task with the uncommon combination of transcendent idealism and piercing lucidity. Her ideas influenced such luminaries as Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. At the age of nineteen, she placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. Albert Camus — himself a man of strong opinions on our greatest moral obligation — referred to her as “the only great spirit of our times.” But what makes Weil’s mind so miraculous is that no matter the passage of time and the changing conditions of each era, hers remains one of the great and necessary spirits for all time.

Her death was a continuation of her life — that grand act of love and sympathy for the suffering of others: After joining the French Resistance in London and toiling tirelessly for the cause, she came down with tuberculosis; in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, despite the doctor’s orders to eat heartily, she consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation. Most scholars believe that this sympathetic starvation was the cause of Weil’s death. Although other theories have emerged, her first English biographer, Sir Richard Rees, puts it best in concluding: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”

The deliberate architecture of Weil’s character comes alive in First and Last Notebooks (public library) — a rare, revelatory, and infectiously unselfconscious self-portrait of this extraordinary mind-spirit. As Rees writes in the introduction, she “is not so much making notes as meditating, coherently and lucidly, with a pen in her hand.”

In 1933, shortly before taking a yearlong leave of absence from her teaching position to labor incognito at a car factory in order to better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil penned a notebook entry reminiscent of young André Gide’s rules of conduct, capturing the incredible moral vigor and ethical ambition with which she set about becoming the person she aspired to be — the person she ultimately was.

Weil writes:

List of temptations (to be read every morning)

Temptation of idleness (by far the strongest)

Never surrender to the flow of time. Never put off what you have decided to do.

Temptation of the inner life

Deal only with those difficulties which actually confront you. Allow yourself only those feelings which are actually called upon for effective use or else are required by thought for the sake of inspiration. Cut away ruthlessly everything that is imaginary in your feelings.

Temptation of self-immolation

Subordinate to external affairs and people everything that is subjective, but never the subject itself — i.e. your judgement. Never promise and never give to another more than you would demand from yourself if you were he.

Temptation to dominate

Temptation of perversity

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

In an entry shortly thereafter, she adds:

Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie — don’t keep your eyes shut…

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Some days later, Weil revisits this moral framework and considers the particularly problematic issue of time — that peculiar dual pull of hurrying and waiting, that elastic ongoingness:

Two internal obstacles to be overcome

—Cowardice before the flight of time (mania for putting things off — idleness…)

Illusion that time, of itself, will bring me courage and energy…. In fact, it is usually the contrary (sleepiness). Say to yourself: And suppose I should remain always what I am at this moment? … Never put something off indefinitely, but only to a definitely fixed time. Try to do this even when it is impossible (headaches…). Exercises: decide to do something, no matter what, and do it exactly at a certain time.

You live in a dream. You are waiting to begin to live….

This discipline, she goes on to reason, is best cultivated through the transformative power of habit. Echoing William James’s memorable wisdom, she writes:

One must develop a habit. Training.
Distinguish between the things I can put off, and those [I cannot].
Begin the training with small things, those for which inspiration is useless…

Every day, do 2 or 3 things of no interest at some definitely appointed time.

Reach the point where punctuality is automatic and effortless. — Lack of flexibility of imagination. An obstacle to be methodically overcome. The second screen between reality and yourself. Much more difficult. What is needed is something quite different from a methodical training… But precious.

She considers the trifecta of faculties necessary for attaining the optimal habit of mind:

Discipline of the attention for manual work — no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess even the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

Of special interest to Weil is the subject of the will, which she sees as the great mediator between body and mind, between the conditions of the present and the aspirations of the future. A few days later, in a related meditation, she examines its role in the carrying out of those moral resolutions:

The will. It is not difficult to do anything when one is inspired by the clear perception of a duty. But what is hard is that when one is suffering this clear perception vanishes, and all that remains is awareness of a suffering which it is impossible to bear.

But the converse is also true: at the moment of taking the decision, the duty is present and the suffering is still far away. The will could not triumph if it had not fight against forces stronger than itself. The whole art of willing consists in taking advantage of the moment before the struggle begins to contrive in advance that one’s objective situation at the moment when one is weak shall be as one desires it to be…

The will’s only weapon is that it is able, in so far as it consists of thought, to embrace the different moments of time, whereas the body is limited to the present. Therefore, in short, it is simply a matter of withholding the assistance of thought from the passions.

It is not a question of “making resolutions” but of trying one’s hands in advance.

Complement First and Last Notebooks, which is deeply out of print but well worth the hunt, with young Leo Tolstoy’s search for moral direction, André Gide’s rules of conduct, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

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06 APRIL, 2015

When Leaving Becomes Arriving: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Ending Relationships

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“Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you.”

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh cautioned in his illuminating treatise on love. But even when this incremental laceration finally becomes an irreparable rupture, leaving love behind is never easy, for it also asks that we leave behind the part of ourselves that did the loving. And yet for all but the very fortunate and the very foolish, this difficult transition is an inevitable part of the human experience, of the ceaseless learning journey that is life — because, after all, anything worth pursuing is worth failing at, and fail we do as we pursue.

The delicate duality of that experience is what English poet and philosopher David Whyte, a man of immense wisdom on life’s complexities, addresses with bestirring beauty in “The Journey,” found in his altogether exquisite third book of poetry, The House of Belonging (public library) — a poem he wrote for a friend undertaking that immensely harrowing yet hopeful act of leaving a wounding relationship and rewriting what was once a shared future into a solitary turn toward the greater possibilities of the unknown.

One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much, at the end, leaving the person themselves — because, by that time, you’re ready to go; what’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow — no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you would share with them — you will never, ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate of giving away but making space for another form of reimagination.

THE JOURNEY

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

The poem calls to mind Mary Oliver’s equally but very differently emboldening masterwork of the same title. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, Whyte is among the millions moved by the Oliver classic, which derives its magic from how open-endedly yet pointedly it speaks to multiple dimensions of the human experience, unified by the urgency of reaching for a greater life that is possible.

Whyte’s reading of the beloved poem — the way he gasps “finally” and chants “Mend my life!” and teases out that courageous grasp for a greater life — only amplifies its resonance in the realm of love.

Complement The House of Belonging, which is a tremendous read in its totality, with Whyte on another aspect of the art of relationship — the three “marriages” of work, self, and love.

Donating = Loving

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