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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

30 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Hopeful Dispatches on Love, Sex, Work, Friendship, Death, and Life’s In-Betweenery from Lena Dunham

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“It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.”

“I always say what’s in my head,” proclaims six-year-old Eloise in the movie adaptation of Kay Thompson’s iconic 1955 children’s books, which came at the precipice of monumental cultural change and envisioned a precocious proto-feminist with an ancient soul and an impressive vocabulary. Eloise’s freedom of expression was more than a storytelling trope — her bold willingness to externalize her inner life, in its full spectrum of darkness and light, was emblematic of the changes to which Thompson (1909–1998) was bearing witness and the directions in which she herself sought to ever so gently, ever so subtly shift the cultural current with her Eloise books. (Like Tolkien famously asserted and Sendak subsequently echoed, Thompson didn’t believe that there is such a thing as writing “for children” and thus never considered her iconic series to be “children’s books.”)

It is no coincidence that Thompson’s beloved protagonist appears as one of several classic picture-book illustrations tattooed on Lena Dunham’s body. Dunham is in many ways a modern-day Eloise of her own making, always saying what’s in her head — stuff of extraordinary insight, emotional intelligence, and unflinching vulnerability — as another generation of women and the men who seek to understand and love them leaps across another precipice. The substance of that abyss — love, work, sex, friendship, body, therapy, and all the messy in-betweenery of life — is what Dunham explores with equal parts wit, warmth, and wisdom in Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (public library).

Lena Dunham (photograph via Instagram / @lenadunham)

In one particularly neo-Eloisian passage in the introduction, Dunham recalls buying a used copy of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 book Having It All and argues that despite how questionable much of Gurley Brown’s advice might be, there is something to be said — something ought to be said — for the sheer courage of saying what’s in one’s head, especially when one happens to be a woman in a culture where, despite our best intentions, the expectation is otherwise:

There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.

Dunham parlays this into her own motives for writing the book:

I want to tell my stories and, more than that, I have to in order to stay sane… And if I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile… No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a dietitian. I am not a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.

Dunham pens these dispatches with ebbing honesty, both inner and outward, of which few of us are capable, always delivered with a yin-yang of imperfection and idealism, both her own and our culture’s. She explores, for instance, the particularly pervasive epidemic of people-pleasing from an angle we rarely dare consider:

I’m not jealous in traditional ways — of boyfriends or babies or bank accounts — but I do covet other women’s styles of being.

[…]

I have been envious of male characteristics, if not the men themselves. I’m jealous of the ease with which they seem to inhabit their professional pursuits: the lack of apologizing, of bending over backward to make sure the people around them are comfortable with what they’re trying to do. The fact that they are so often free of the people-pleasing instincts I have considered to be a curse of my female existence. I have watched men order at dinner, ask for shitty wine and extra bread with a confidence I could never muster, and thought, What a treat that must be. But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can’t articulate them. It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.

I know that when I am dying, looking back, it will be women that I regret having argued with, women I sought to impress, to understand, was tortured by. Women I wish to see again, to see them smile and laugh and say, It was all as it should have been.

She addresses this particular question of jealousy with great eloquence and generosity in her Ask Lena series of video teasers for the book:

If I weren’t so wary of how consistently the word “sensitive” has been used to describe women’s writing and politely tuck it away from the world of Real Writing, I’d speak to Dunham’s extraordinary sensitivity — for it abounds throughout the book, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the chapter where she recalls her little sister Grace’s coming out:

Twenty-three and sponging mightily, I forked some noodles into my mouth as Grace described a terrible date with a “dorky” boy from an uptown school.

“He’s too tall,” she moaned. “And nice. And he was trying too hard to be witty. He put a napkin on his hand and said, ‘Look, I have a hand cape.’ ” She paused. “And he draws cartoons. And he has diabetes.”

“He sounds awesome!” I said. And then, before I considered it: “What are you, gay?”

“Actually, yes,” she said, with a laugh, maintaining the composure that has been her trademark since birth.

I began to sob. Not because I didn’t want her to be gay… No, I was crying because I was suddenly flooded with an understanding of how little I really knew: about her pains, her secrets, the fantasies that played in her head when she lay in bed at night. Her inner life.

In another chapter, Dunham exercises her remarkable gift for taking the memes of our era — in this case, the listicle — and using them, irreverently but somehow without the self-defeating burden of irony, to demonstrate that it is not the medium that defines the message but the substance and the substance need not be humorless to be serious. Under the heading 17 Things I Learned from My Father, she offers:

  1. Death is coming for us all.
  2. There are no bad thoughts, only bad actions.
  3. “Men, watch out: the ladies are coming for your toys.”
  4. Confidence lets you pull anything off, even Tevas with socks.
  5. All children are amazing artists. It’s the grown-ups you have to worry about.
  6. Unhappy at a party? Say you’re going to check on your car, then exit swiftly. Make eye contact with no one.
  7. Drunk emotions aren’t real emotions.
  8. A sweet potato prepared in the microwave, then slathered with flaxseed oil, makes for an exceptional snack.
  9. It’s never too late to learn.
  10. “The Volvo is bad enough. I’m not putting a coat on the fucking dog.”
  11. A rising tide lifts all boats.
  12. That being said, it’s horrible when people you hate get things you want.
  13. Hitting a creative wall? Take a break from work to watch a procedural. They always solve the case, and so will you.
  14. You don’t need to be flamboyant in your life to be flamboyant in your work.
  15. Wear a suit to the DMV to speed things along a bit.
  16. Do not make jokes about concealing drugs, weapons, or currency in front of police officers or TSA workers. There is nothing funny about being detained.
  17. It’s all about tailoring.

Dunham dedicates an entire chapter to the first of these fatherly lessons — our complex relationship with mortality and the immutable human unease with our own impermanence:

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments — I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: Are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because . . . why the hell not? But occasionally the feeling stays with me, and it reminds me of being a child — feeling full of fear but lacking the language to calm yourself down. I guess, when it comes to death, none of us really has the words.

I wish I could be one of those young people who seems totally unaware of the fact that her gleaming nubile body is, in fact, fallible. (Maybe you have to have a gleaming nubile body to feel that way.) Beautiful self-delusion: Isn’t that what being young is all about? You think you’re immortal until one day when you’re around sixty, it hits you: you see an Ingmar Bergman-y specter of death and you do some soul searching and possibly adopt a kid in need. You resolve to live the rest of your life in a way you can be proud of.

But I am not one of those young people. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was born.

[…]

The fact is I had been circling the topic of death, subconsciously, for some time. Growing up in Soho in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was aware of AIDS and the toll it was taking on the creative community. Illness, loss, who would handle the art and the real estate and the medical bills — these topics hovered over every dinner party. As many of my parents’ friends became sick, I learned to recognize the look of someone suffering — sunken cheeks, odd facial spotting, a sweater that no longer fit. And I knew what it meant: that person would soon become a memorial, the name on a prize given to visiting students, a distant memory.

In another short video, Dunham addresses a reader’s question on the subject, echoing the notion that “thinking about death clarifies your life”:

Not That Kind of Girl is wonderful in its entirety, doubly so because it gleams an elegant sidewise beam of destruction at the various forms of lazy criticism Dunham has faced over the years, mostly for, well, being too damned good — particularly the kind of laziness that dismisses her intelligent introspection, with all the inevitable acknowledgement of imperfection it engenders, as mere self-abasement. Most of us live our lives desperately trying to conceal the anguishing gap between our polished, aspirational, representational selves and our real, human, deeply flawed selves. Dunham lives hers in that gap, welcomes the rest of the world into it with boundless openheartedness, and writes about it with the kind of profound self-awareness and self-compassion that invite us to inhabit our own gaps and maybe even embrace them a little bit more, anguish over them a little bit less.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Jane Goodall on Empathy and How to Reach Our Highest Human Potential

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“Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”

The question of what sets us apart from other animals has occupied humanity for millennia, but only in the last few decades have animals gone from objects to be observed to fellow beings to be understood, with their own complex psychoemotional constitution.

Hardly anyone has contributed more to this landmark shift in attitudes — or, rather, this homecoming to the true nature of things — than Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934), who has spent the past half-century fusing together the scientific rigor of a pioneering primatologist with the spiritual wisdom of a philosopher and peace advocate.

In this wonderful short video from NOVA’s series The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers, Dr. Goodall considers how empathy for other animals brings us closer to our highest human potentiality:

Empathy is really important… Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.

Complement with Dr. Goodall’s answers to the Proust Questionnaire, her beautiful poem about science and spirituality, and her meditation on our human responsibilities.

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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sam Harris on the Paradox of Meditation and How to Stretch Our Capacity for Everyday Self-Transcendence

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“Positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

Montaigne believed that meditation is the finest exercise of one’s mind and David Lynch uses it as an anchor of his creative integrity. Over the centuries, the ancient Eastern practice has had a variety of exports and permutations in the West, but at no point has it been more vital to our sanity and psychoemotional survival than amidst our current epidemic of hurrying and cult of productivity. It is remarkable how much we, as a culture, invest in the fitness of the body and how little, by and large, in the fitness of the spirit and the psyche — which is essentially what meditation provides.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library), neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argued that cultivating the art of presence is our greatest gateway to true happiness. After his extensive, decades-long empirical romp through the world’s major religious traditions and humanity’s most potent psychedelic substances, Harris returns again and again to meditation as the holy grail of self-transcendence, the single most promising practice for slicing through the illusion of the ego to reveal what Jack Kerouac so memorably called “the Golden Eternity.”

Harris writes:

Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

We know that the self is a social construct and the dissolution of its illusion, Harris argues, is the most valuable gift of meditation:

The conventional sense of self is an illusion [and] spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

[…]

The feeling that we call “I” seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will. And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.

Such abolition may seem unnerving in the context of personal identity, something to which we are invariably attached, but as soon as we begin to understand just how mutable that identity is, dissolving the self illusion becomes not a punishing negation of free will but a promise of freedom. Harris writes:

The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment — the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists — perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein — you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found — and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.

And yet, and yet, this is where the essential paradox of meditation arises — if meditation is about cultivating the capacity to accept the present moment exactly as it is, then the notion of a meditation practice or of mindfulness training, which implies progress toward a future goal, seems at odds with the very concept of such pure presence. Harris captures this elegantly:

We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved. But here lies one of the central paradoxes of spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present. As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self — and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.

The solution to the paradox, Harris suggests, is in approaching mindfulness not as a compulsively productive practice of self-improvement — there is the “self” creeping up again — but as a state of active presence with everyday life:

The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.

He cautions against treating meditation as another to-do item:

Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize.

Reflecting on his training with the Burmese spiritual master Sayadaw U Pandita, who teaches meditation as an “explicitly goal-oriented” practice — mindfulness is approached not as freedom from the self illusion in the present moment but as a means of attaining the “cessation” of that illusion in the future — Harris writes:

[This approach] encourages confusion at the outset regarding the nature of the problem one is trying to solve. It is true, however, that striving toward the distant goal of enlightenment (as well as the nearer goal of cessation) can lead one to practice with an intensity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. The model of this practice is that one must climb the mountain so that freedom can be found at the top. But the self is already an illusion, and that truth can be glimpsed directly, at the mountain’s base or anywhere else along the path. One can then return to this insight, again and again, as one’s sole method of meditation — thereby arriving at the goal in each moment of actual practice.

Despite the paradoxes of the practice, however, Harris considers it our most promising access point to a fulfilling spiritual life:

It is very difficult to imagine someone’s not being able to see her reflection in a window even after years of looking — but that is what happens when a person begins most forms of spiritual practice. Most techniques of meditation are, in essence, elaborate ways for looking through the window in the hope that if one only sees the world in greater detail, an image of one’s true face will eventually appear. Imagine a teaching like this: If you just focus on the trees swaying outside the window without distraction, you will see your true face. Undoubtedly, such an instruction would be an obstacle to seeing what could otherwise be seen directly. Almost everything that has been said or written about spiritual practice, even most of the teachings one finds in Buddhism, directs a person’s gaze to the world beyond the glass, thereby confusing matters from the very beginning.

But one must start somewhere. And the truth is that most people are simply too distracted by their thoughts to have the selflessness of consciousness pointed out directly. And even if they are ready to glimpse it, they are unlikely to understand its significance.

Harris reframes the paradox with an admonition and an assurance:

Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy — while covertly hoping that they will go away — and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness. Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change. The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.

[…]

Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations — changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world — but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.

In a conversation with Tim Ferriss on the altogether excellent The Tim Ferriss Show, Harris argues that the mindfulness meditation cultivates — a quality of mind that allows you to pay attention to whatever arises without being lost in thought — is the most useful way to explore the phenomenon of self-transcendence “without believing anything on insufficient evidence.” He adds:

The human nervous system is plastic in a very important way — which means your experience of the world can be radically transformed. You are tending who you were yesterday by virtue of various habit patterns and physiological homeostasis and other things that are keeping you very recognizable to yourself, but it’s possible to have a very different experience… It’s possible to do it through a deliberate form of training, like meditation, and I think it’s crucial to do — because we all want to be as happy and as fulfilled and as free of pointless suffering as can possibly be. And all of our suffering, and all of our unhappiness, is a product of how our minds are in every moment. So if there’s a way to use the mind itself to improve one’s capacity for moment-to-moment wellbeing — which I’m convinced there is — then this should be potentially of interest to everybody.

Milton, it turns out, was not only philosophically but also neuropsychologically right when he penned his famous verse: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

If you are looking for a good place to start with meditation, or would like slow-burning fuel for your existing practice, I highly recommend Tara Brach, who has truly transformed my life — her teachings and guided meditations are available as a reliably excellent free podcast, and her four-part primer on meditation is indispensable for beginners. (If you are moved and enriched by her generously offered free teachings, consider making a donation — Brach’s work, like my own, is supported by direct patronage, and I am a proud monthly donor.)

Harris has also written about how to begin a meditation practice himself.

Waking Up, which you can sample further here, is a superb read in its entirety, quite possibly the best thing written on this ecosystem of spiritual subjects since Alan Watts’s treatise on the taboo against knowing who you really are.

Donating = Loving

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