Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

22 DECEMBER, 2014

Why We Lost Leisure: David Steindl-Rast on Purposeful Work, Play, and How to Find Meaning in the Magnificent Superfluities of Life

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“A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning.”

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive,” Seneca wrote in his sublime meditation on the shortness of life, adding that when we reap these contemplative fruits of leisure, all the ages that have passed before ours are added to our own — “unless we are very ungrateful.” Two millennia later, in 1926, philosopher Bertrand Russell reflected on the urgent need to undo the Industrial Revolution’s legacy of equating an efficient life with a life worth living when he lamented: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” In the centuries since Seneca and decades since Russell, we have forgotten more and more how to imbue leisure with the kind of gratefulness that makes possible its true purpose of contemplation — instead, we treat leisure as a luxury, as another good to be gotten from the hamster wheel of material achievement.

In one particularly pause-giving portion of his Essential Writings (public library), the Benedictine monk and interfaith dialogue activist David Steindl-Rast — best known for championing the practice of gratefulness, defined as “the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift” — addresses with great gentleness and great firmness our warped modern understanding of leisure:

Leisure … is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

Our culture betrays this in one aspect especially — the toxic divide between “work” and “life.” I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive. Steindl-Rast makes a vitalizing case for reclaiming this ennobling purpose of leisure not outside the context of work but within it:

To recover a healthy understanding of leisure is to come a long way toward understanding contemplation. But few words we use are as misunderstood as the word “leisure.” This shows itself right away when we speak of work and leisure as a pair of opposites. Are the two poles of activity really work and leisure? If this were so, how could we speak of leisurely work? It would be a blatant contradiction. We know, however, that working leisurely is no contradiction at all. In fact, work ought to be done with leisure, if it is to be done well.

What then is the opposite of work? It is play. These are the two poles of activity: work and play.

Finding purposeful work is, of course, perhaps the surest way of resolving this paralyzing polarization — but Steindl-Rast cautions against confusing purpose with productivity, pointing to meaning as the differentiating factor:

Whenever you work, you work for some purpose. If it weren’t for that purpose, you’d have better things to do than work. Work and purpose are so closely connected that your work comes to an end, once your purpose is achieved. Or how are you going to continue fixing your car once it is fixed?…

In play, all the emphasis falls on the meaning of your activity… Play needs no purpose. That is why play can go on and on as long as players find it meaningful. After all, we do not dance in order to get somewhere. We dance around and around. A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning that is there in each of its movements, in every theme, every passage: a celebration of meaning. Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the magnificent superfluities of life. Every time I listen to it, I realize anew that some of the most superfluous things are the most important for us because they give meaning to our human lives.

When our purposeful work also is meaningful, we will have a good time in the midst of it. Then we will not be so eager to get it over with. If you spend only minutes a day getting this or that over with, you may be squandering days, weeks, years in the course of a lifetime. Meaningless work is a form of killing time. But leisure makes time come alive. The Chinese character for being busy is also made up of two elements: heart and killing. A timely warning. Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely.

The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.

C.S. Lewis echoed this beautifully in his memorable meditation on friendship, where he argued that things “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself” have no survival value but are among “those things which give value to survival.” Reframed in this way, leisure reveals itself as precisely one of those things — not a luxury of life, but an essential vitalizer of it.

In the remainder of his Essential Writings, Steindl-Rast goes on to explore how the practice of gratefulness — which is different from gratitude — enriches our experience of such vital, often misapprehended and misapplied aspects of the human experience as silence, love, and hope. Complement it with Parker J. Palmer on the art of inner wholeness and Alan Watts on how to live with presence, then treat yourself to Steindl-Rast’s wonderfully grounding and elevating TED talk on gratefulness:

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18 DECEMBER, 2014

At What Point Are You Actually Dead?

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The science of why you can’t resurrect a dead body but might be able to, sort of, in the future.

Despite living in a universe where, as the aphorism goes, change is the only constant, we humans have a quintessential longing for permanence. True as it may be that, as Rilke believed, befriending death helps us live more fully, the prospect of death — our own, and even more so that of loved ones — remains utterly terrifying and mostly incomprehensible beyond the most abstract understanding.

In this illuminating short film from TED Ed, writer Randall Hayes and animator Anton Bogaty trace the history of our beliefs and misbeliefs about death, the curious biological realities of it, and what future scientific advances might bring to our quest for immortality.

Complement with John Updike’s sage perspective on death and this unusual children’s book that helps kids make peace with the dark subject, then revisit Alan Watts’s assuring wisdom on why our fear of death is beside the point of life.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Fluid Dynamics of “The Starry Night”: How Vincent Van Gogh’s Masterpiece Explains the Scientific Mysteries of Movement and Light

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“In a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind.”

In 1889, inspired by a famous astronomical drawing that had been circulating in Europe for four decades, Vincent van Gogh painted his iconic masterpiece “The Starry Night,” one of the most recognized and reproduced images in the history of art. At the peak of his lifelong struggle with mental illness, he created the legendary painting while staying at the mental asylum into which he had voluntarily checked himself after mutilating his own ear.

But more than a masterwork of art, Van Gogh’s painting turns out to hold astounding clues to understanding some of the most mysterious workings of science.

This fascinating short animation from TED-Ed and Natalya St. Clair, author of The Art of Mental Calculation, explores how “The Starry Night” sheds light on the concept of turbulent flow in fluid dynamics, one of the most complex ideas to explain mathematically and among the hardest for the human mind to grasp. From why the brain’s perception of light and motion makes us see Impressionist works as flickering, to how a Russian mathematician’s theory explains Jupiter’s bright red spot, to what the Hubble Space Telescope has to do with Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes, this mind-bending tour de force ties art, science, and mental health together through the astonishing interplay between physical and psychic turbulence.

Van Gogh and other Impressionists represented light in a different way than their predecessors, seeming to capture its motion, for instance, across sun-dappled waters, or here in star light that twinkles and melts through milky waves of blue night sky.

The effect is caused my luminance, the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas. The more primitive part of our visual cortex — which sees light contrast and motion, but not color — will blend two differently colored areas together if they have the same luminance. But our brains primate subdivision will see the contrasting colors without blending. With these two interpretations happening at once, the light in many Impressionist works seems to pulse, flicker and radiate oddly.

That’s how this and other Impressionist works use quickly executed prominent brushstrokes to capture something strikingly real about how light moves.

Sixty years later, Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov furthered our mathematical understanding of turbulence when he proposed that energy in a turbulent fluid at length R varies in proportion to the five-thirds power of R. Experimental measurements show Kolmogorov was remarkably close to the way turbulent flow works, although a complete description of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics.

A turbulent flow is self-similar if there is an energy cascade — in other words, big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales. Examples of this include Jupiter’s great red spot, cloud formations and interstellar dust particles.

In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to Kolmogorov’s equation hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.

The researchers digitized the paintings, and measured how brightness varies between any two pixels. From the curves measured for pixel separations, they concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. His self-portrait with a pipe, from a calmer period in Van Gogh’s life, showed no sign of this correspondence. And neither did other artists’ work that seemed equally turbulent at first glance, like Munch’s ‘The Scream.”

While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.

Complement with Van Gogh on art and the power of love and a peek inside his never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

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