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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

03 NOVEMBER, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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31 OCTOBER, 2014

William James on Choosing Purpose Over Profit and the Life-Changing Power of a Great Mentor

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“After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.”

William James is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. His publication of The Principles of Psychology in 1890 established him as the father of American psychology. His 1901 treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, originally delivered at the prestigious Gifford Lectures, remains one of the most important theological works of all time and inspired Carl Sagan’s superb The Varieties of Scientific Experience. But if James were alive today, his contributions might well be dismissed under the fashionable accusation of privilege — he was born into a wealthy family and his father, a prominent theologian, was independently wealthy himself a century and a half before the term “independently wealthy” entered the vernacular; his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he also endured an undue share of physical hardship, suffering from a range of physical ailments since childhood — near-blindness, debilitating back pain, and various skin and stomach conditions — as well as regular bouts of severe, suicidal depression since early adulthood. His life was defined by dualities in deeper ways, too — James was a man straddling two epochs as a scholar of theology in an era when the dogmatic beliefs of the previous generation where past the point of repair and a science-minded skeptic before the golden age of twentieth-century scientific discovery.

And yet despite these vexing dualities, James navigated his life with tremendous faith in the power of personal choice in shaping one’s destiny — which included, as it always has and always will, the discomfiting luxury of making difficult decisions. Nearly four decades before he came to put this conviction into words in his timeless treatise on habit“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” — he enacted it in his own life as he stood on the precipice of a monumental choice, the kind all of us have to make at one point or another, the value of which we only ever appreciate in hindsight.

In 1861, 19-year-old William enrolled into Harvard to study science after a short apprenticeship with the artist William Morris Hunt. But as he immersed himself in the pursuit of a medical degree, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the prospects laid before him by this established path to a “successful” life as a respectable doctor — a life of steady income and steady petrification of his deeper aspirations. He knew he had to confront the trying choice between profit and purpose. (Around the same time, halfway around the world, a young Leo Tolstoy was tussling with a parallel tension between income and ideals.)

In a letter to his cousin Kitty from September of 1863, found in the altogether illuminating The Letters of William James, Vol. 1 (public library; free download), 21-year-old James outlines his choices with equal parts exasperation and snark:

I have four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary… After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre. To study natural science, I know I should like, but the prospect of supporting a family on $600 a year is not one of those rosy dreams of the future with which the young are said to be haunted. Medicine would pay, and I should still be dealing with subjects which interest me — but how much drudgery and of what an unpleasant kind is there!

He adds a lament about the crippling industrial model of higher education, which shoves young people down the conveyer belt of specialization and careerism before they’ve had a chance to find their true purpose — a lament equally, if not more, valid today:

The worst of this matter is that everyone must more or less act with insufficient knowledge — “go it blind,” as they say. Few can afford the time to try what suits them.

In a letter to his mother later that month, James exorcizes the growing urgency and unease of his impending choice:

I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots; but it seems a kind of selling of one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury.

James, longing to be a family man, peers into the future and considers how choosing the pursuit of purpose over profit would affect his imaginary future love, to whom he refers by a Shakespearean allusion, as he revisits his four options:

If I myself were the only one concerned I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., “that not impossible she,” to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is science, upon the other business (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of the advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own. I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his “higher nature.” But I fear there might be some anguish in looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity (necessarily reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth. It seems as if one could not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great.

And yet, admitting to being “undecided” still, James is aware of the rare privilege that renders him among those few young people who “can afford the time to try what suits them.” He tells his mother with a self-conscious wink:

I want you to become familiar with the notion that I may stick to science, however, and drain away at your property for a few years more.

James did choose to stick to science. Around the time he wrote that letter to his mother, he changed majors from Chemistry to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology — the Harvard department where he lucked into one of the most formative relationships of his life. There, he came to study under a professor named Jeffries Wyman, whose influence on James’s ideals and decisions became a spectacular testament to how unsung mentors and champions shape creative geniuses. A brilliant yet humble man — a perennially rare combination — he imparted on his pupils, by way of personal example, enduring values of kindness, generosity, humility, unflinching integrity, and resolute refusal to advance himself at anyone else’s expense. Under Wyman’s wing during those two critical years of determining the course of his entire life, James blossomed into himself — his ideals, his values, his character — with courageous authenticity. He would later come to write of his mentor:

His extraordinary effect on all who knew him is to be accounted for by the one word, character. Never was a man so absolutely without detractors. The quality which every one first thinks of in him is his extraordinary modesty, of which his unfailing geniality and serviceableness, his readiness to confer with and listen to younger men… Next were his integrity, and his complete and simple devotion to objective truth. These qualities were what gave him such incomparable fairness of judgment in both scientific and worldly matters… He had if anything too little of the ego in his composition, and all his faults were excesses of virtue. A little more restlessness of ambition, and a little more willingness to use other people for his purposes, would easily have made him more abundantly productive, and would have greatly increased the sphere of his effectiveness and fame. But his example on us younger men, who had the never-to-be-forgotten advantage of working by his side, would then have been, if not less potent, at least different from what we now remember it; and we prefer to think of him forever as the paragon that he was of goodness, disinterestedness, and single-minded love of the truth.

James graduated from Harvard with a degree in medicine, but wasn’t interested in practicing. Instead, he followed his calling and set out to study philosophy and psychology on his own, imbibing self-education with diligent visits to the Harvard and Boston libraries. He persevered through failing eyesight, debilitating depression, and frequent brushes with the very “beggary” he foresaw and feared. Decades later, having followed his purpose to become America’s first great psychologist, he joked: “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”

The Letters of William James is full of soul-stretching insight into one of the greatest minds and most visionary spirits humanity has ever known, featuring James’s meditations on melancholy, happiness, writing, creativity, and human nature. His brother, the great novelist Henry James, captures this beautifully in the introduction to the 1920 edition:

Life spoke to him in even more ways than to most men, and he responded to its superabundant confusion with passion and insatiable curiosity. His spiritual development was a matter of intense personal experience.

Complement this particular snippet with a recentering read on how to find your purpose, then revisit Alan Watts on money vs. wealth and Eleanor Roosevelt on living with integrity.

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30 OCTOBER, 2014

The Hand Through the Fence: Pablo Neruda on What a Childhood Encounter Taught Him About Writing and Why We Make Art

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“To feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know … widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

Since our cave-dwelling days, the question of why we make art and why we enjoy it has haunted us as a perennial specter of the human experience. For Leo Tolstoy, it was about the transference of “emotional infectiousness”; for Jeanette Winterson, about “active surrender”; for Oscar Wilde, about cultivating a “temperament of receptivity.”

That question is what beloved Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda answers with unparalleled elegance in a short essay from the early 1950s titled “Childhood and Poetry,” found in the altogether enchanting collection Neruda and Vallejo (public library).

Neruda relays an anecdote from his childhood that profoundly influenced not only his poetry but also his understanding of art and of life itself:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

He never saw the hand nor the boy it belonged to again. The lamb toy perished in a fire years later. But that boyhood encounter, with the simplicity of its symbolism, impressed upon him a lifelong learning — the second he grasped that faded-wool lamb he grasped a deep truth about the longing for mutuality that impels us to make art:

To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together…

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

Also included in the volume is a 1966 interview by Bly under the title “The Lamb and the Pine Cone,” in which Neruda revisits the formative incident and how it shaped his understanding of the creative experience:

This exchange of gifts — mysterious — settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit.

Neruda and Vallejo is a joy in its entirety. Complement it with Tom O’Bedlam’s beautiful reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book” and Robert Henri on how art binds us together.

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