Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

14 AUGUST, 2015

Vacation and the Art of Presence: Anaïs Nin on How to Truly Unplug and Reconnect with Your Senses

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“As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”

If leisure is the basis of culture, how can we harness its true rewards given our pathological addiction to productivity? That’s exactly what French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin — an enchantress of love and life, a woman of extraordinary cultural prescience, and one of the most dedicated diarists of all time — explores in a portion of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5 (public library).

In the winter of 1947, drained by the bustle and constant striving that drives life in New York, Nin took a holiday in Acapulco, Mexico — still a mostly undeveloped patch of wilderness, on which the Hotel El Mirador had been built as twelve rooms on the edge of a cliff just a few years earlier. She was immediately struck by the world of difference between the local way of life and the obsessive living-making of the workaholic culture from which she had taken respite.

Three decades before Susan Sontag lamented the “aesthetic consumerism” of vacation photography, which commodifies the experience by prioritizing its record over its livingness, and more than half a century before we came to compulsively catalog every private moment on the social web, Nin writes:

I am lying on a hammock, on the terrace of my room at the Hotel Mirador, the diary open on my knees, the sun shining on the diary, and I have no desire to write. The sun, the leaves, the shade, the warmth, are so alive that they lull the senses, calm the imagination. This is perfection. There is no need to portray, to preserve. It is eternal, it overwhelms you, it is complete.

Nin had many friends of color in an era when that was rather uncommon for the average white person, and saw white Americans’ and Europeans’ way of life as a rote existence greatly inferior in its sensorial unimaginativeness compared to the cultures from which jazz, the art-form she most admired, sprang. Faced with the radically different disposition of the Mexican locals, she considers what they know about living with presence that the society from which she escaped does not:

The natives have not yet learned from the white man his inventions for traveling away from the present, his scientific capacity for analyzing warmth into a chemical substance, for abstracting human beings into symbols. The white man has invented glasses which make objects too near or too far, cameras, telescopes, spyglasses, objects which put glass between living and vision. It is the image he seeks to possess, not the texture, the living warmth, the human closeness.

Illustration from a rare first edition of Nin's 1944 short-story collection 'Under a Glass Bell.' Click image for more.

Many decades before we became transfixed by the glowing screens of our devices, which came to interfere with the very basics of being a city life, Nin adds:

Here in Mexico they see only the present. This communion of eyes and smiles is elating. In New York people seem intent on not seeing each other. Only children look with such unashamed curiosity. Poor white man, wandering and lost in his proud possession of a dimension in which bodies become invisible to the naked eye, as if staring were an immodest act. Here I feel incarnated and in full possession of my own body.

Four years later, Nin returns to Acapulco and is once again enchanted by the aliveness that its invitation to presence awakens in the spirit:

To me Acapulco is the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success in money, the continuous contagious presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals who want to become known, to be in the limelight, noticed, as if life among millions gave you a desperate illness, a need of rising above the crowd, being noticed, existing individually, singled out from a mass of ants and sheep… Here, all this is nonsense. You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body… As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.

Complement The Diary of Anaïs Nin, full of wisdom just as electrifying and alive, with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, the elusive nature of joy, and what maturity really means, then revisit Josef Pieper, writing around the same time, on how to reclaim our human dignity by mastering leisure.

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13 AUGUST, 2015

How to Begin Each Day: A Recipe for Unshakable Sanity and Inner Peace from Marcus Aurelius

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A perspective-shifting lens for your exasperating daily interactions with unpleasant people.

“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself,” the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer counseled the young in his superb Naropa Unviersity commencement address. Only by accepting our own interior contradictions and dualities, he argued, are we liberated to put the shadow’s power in service of the good in the exterior world.

This seems like a particularly timely message, urgently needed in a culture intolerant of duality, where we hasten to polarize everything into good and bad, unfailingly placing ourselves in the former category and the Other — whether their otherness is manifested in race, gender, orientation, or sports team preference — in the latter. And yet the message is a timeless one, most piercingly articulated two millennia earlier in the writings of Marcus Aurelius — the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors and one of the most influential Stoic philosophers.

In his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the same indispensable proto-blog that gave us the philosophic emperor on what his father taught him about honor and humility — Marcus Aurelius, translated here by Gregory Hays, offers a remarkable recipe for how to begin each day in order to live with maximum sanity and inner peace:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Meditations, it bears repeating, is a requisite read in its entirety. Complement it with Seneca, a fellow Stoic, on how to fill the shortness of life with greater width of aliveness and Richard Feynman on the choice between good and evil.

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12 AUGUST, 2015

Sylvia Plath’s First Job: How the Beloved Poet’s Formative Experience as a Farm Worker Shaped Her Writing

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“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are.”

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) began honing her craft by reaping the creative rewards of keeping a diary from a young age and was barely a teenager when she first started writing poetry. By the time she graduated high school, she had amassed dozens of rejection slips and only a few acceptances. Young Plath studied both carefully and noticed a curious pattern — much like the response her first tragic poem had garnered, her sadder pieces tended to be the ones accepted, while her more exuberant and joyous poetry and prose ended up rejected. It would be quite crass to seek in this a direct metaphor for Plath’s life — certainly, despite her enormous capacity for livingness, Plath perished by her own hand; but had she not held on to that very capacity for joy and wonderment, had she not defended it tirelessly against the behemoth of her mental illness, she may have lost the battle far sooner, without gifting the world some of the most beautiful poetry ever written — the very record of her tussle with light and darkness.

Nothing fed Plath’s appetite for exuberance and light more powerfully and enduringly than her formative first job as a farm worker, which she took with her brother the summer after graduating from high school in 1950. It made so strong an impression on her that fragments of it slipped into her writing throughout her life.

Sylvia Plath's high school graduation portrait

In an entry from her scrapbook-journal, included by her mother in the preface to the posthumously published Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the young poet’s thoughts on writing as salvation for the soul — Plath recounts that creatively and spiritually invigorating experience:

And so there are summers every year, but the one which brought my first job is unique. Warren and I went up to Lookout Farm [in Dover, Massachusetts] right after I graduated… Every day we biked up together early in the morning, left our bikes at Wellesley College usually and hitched a ride with one of the other hands. I can never go back to those days spent in the fields, in sun and rain, talking with the negroes and the hired hands. I can only remember how it was and go on living where I am… But … this Farm Summer will always be The First Job and the sweetest.

In an unpublished manuscript, included in the letters volume, Plath reflects on the experience:

I am now firmly convinced that farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are. As you work side by side in the rows, your hands move automatically among the leaves and your thoughts are free to wander at will. What, then, is more natural than to drift into conversation with your neighbor? It is really amazing what a receptive ear can do by way of encouraging confidences…

One of Sylvia Plath's little-known drawings. Click image for more.

That First Job sprouted Plath’s ongoing fascination with botany and her love of the land, which she would come to channel both in her poetry and, perhaps most directly, in her little-known drawings. But the farm work was also the seedbed for her first true sense of professional success: The experience produced a poem and an article, both published in The Christian Science Monitor — the first major publication not only to accept Plath’s work but to embolden her with a note from the editor: “We hope that you will try us again soon with articles and essays for these columns.” Only a year later, she was already seen as someone “born to write.”

In the closing words of that seminal article, published under the title “The Rewards of a New England Summer,” Plath captures the spiritual awakening kindled by that formative farm job, channeled with the same pensive beauty that marks her poetry:

When you see me pause and stare a bit wistfully at nothing in particular, you’ll know that I am deep at the roots of memory, back on the Farm, hearing once more the languid, sleepy drone of bees in the orange squash blossoms, feeling the hot, golden fingers of sun on my skin, and smelling the unforgettable spicy tang of apples which is, to me, forever New England.

Letters Home is a devastatingly beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on the spiritual rewards of housework, then revisit Plath on life, death, hope, and happiness, her breathtaking reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids.

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12 AUGUST, 2015

Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship: Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on the Beautiful Ancient Celtic Notion of Soul-Friend

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“A friend … awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

Aristotle laid out the philosophical foundation of friendship as the art of holding up a mirror to each other’s souls. Two millennia later, Emerson contemplated its two pillars of truth and tenderness. Another century later, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

But nowhere do the beauty, mystery, and soul-sustenance of friendship come more vibrantly alive than in the 1997 masterwork Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (public library) by the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008), titled after the Gaelic for “soul-friend” — a beautiful concept that elegantly encapsulates what Aristotle and Emerson and Lewis articulated in many more words.

O’Donohue examines the essence and origin of the term:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

The kind of friendship one finds in an anam cara, O’Donohue argues, is a very special form of love — not the kind that leads us to pit the platonic against the romantic but something much larger and more transcendent:

In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.

But being an anam cara requires of a purposeful presence — it asks that we show up with absolute integrity of intention. That interior intentionality, O’Donohue suggests, is what sets the true anam cara apart from the acquaintance or the casual friend — a distinction all the more important today, in a culture where we throw the word “friend” around all too hastily, designating little more than perfunctory affiliation. But this faculty of showing up must be an active presence rather than a mere abstraction — the person who declares herself a friend but shirks when the other’s soul most needs seeing is not an anam cara.

O’Donohue writes:

The heart learns a new art of feeling. Such friendship is neither cerebral nor abstract. In Celtic tradition, the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. It was a soul-bond that existed as a recognized and admired social construct. It altered the meaning of identity and perception. When your affection is kindled, the world of your intellect takes on a new tenderness and compassion… You look and see and understand differently. Initially, this can be disruptive and awkward, but it gradually refines your sensibility and transforms your way of being in the world. Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection.

The anam cara perspective is sublime because it permits us to enter this unity of ancient belonging.

O’Donohue borrows Aristotle’s notion of friendship and stretches it to a more expansive understanding:

A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.

[…]

The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit.

Anam Cara is a soul-stretching read in its entirety, exploring such immutable human concerns as love, work, aging, and death through the timeless lens of ancient Celtic wisdom. Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then treat yourself to O’Donohue’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — one of the last interviews he gave before his sudden and tragic death.

If you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us … we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential… It’s one of the lonelinesses of humans that you hold on desperately to things that make you miserable and … you only realize what you have when you’re almost about to lose it.

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