Brain Pickings

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back.”

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Give me solitude,” Whitman demanded in his ode to the eternal tension between city and soul, “give me again O Nature your primal sanities!” In those primal sanities, we come to discover that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” as May Sarton wrote in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude — her hard-earned testimony to solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery, for it is in that intimate place that we see most clearly what our animating spirit is made of. Solitude, Kahlil Gibran knew, summons of us the courage to know ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop believed — a belief I can attest to with my own life — that everyone must experience at least one long period of solitude in life in order to know what we are made of and what we can make of our gifts. “There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, “but… we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all persons engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are often one life — how this solitary self-discovery becomes the wellspring of all the meaning-making that makes life worth living, whether we call it art or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and train our eyes to look with wide-eyed wonder at the improbable fact of it all. Solitude, so conceived, is not merely the state of being alone but the art of becoming fully ourselves — an art acquired, like every art, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling in the often lonesome inner light of our singular and sovereign being.

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Its mastery, delicate and difficult, is what the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor explores in The Art of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it but the practice of it against the real world’s pressures — as “a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration, and care,” he writes:

True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

Nearly forty years after he first began bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Batchelor draws on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — directly, through his own contemplative practice and multiple silent retreats, and indirectly, through his immersion in the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi ranging from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, at once elemental and embodied, at the heart of the art of solitude:

Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?

Ask “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows. Be open to this question in the same way as you would listen to a piece of music. Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s trust in the loneliness of creative work — a byproduct of the solitude necessary for creative work, natural and needed, often terrifying and always clarifying — Batchelor adds:

To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

[…]

Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Drawing a link between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to live with mystery and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative practice trains the ability to see each moment as a chance to start anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever capable of being changed. He considers the essential building blocks and ultimate rewards of contemplative practice:

To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

In consonance with poet and philosopher Wendell Berry’s life-tested belief that “true solitude is found in the wild places,” where one is without human obligation,” where “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Batchelor adds:

By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself, you can see more clearly what distinguishes you from other people. Standing out in this way serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude can help you understand better what kind of person you are and what your life is for. In this way you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice.

[…]

Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.

Complement The Art of Solitude with Hermann Hesse on solitude, hardship, and destiny, then savor Batchelor’s spacious On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

BP

Alain de Botton on the Myth of Normalcy and the Importance of Breakdowns

“Crisis… is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and constitutes an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis.”

Alain de Botton on the Myth of Normalcy and the Importance of Breakdowns

The moment we begin to see that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, we cease being captive to the myth of normalcy — the cultural tyranny that tells us there are a handful of valid ways to be human and demands of us to contort into these accepted forms of being. But the great hoax is that they are Platonic forms — the real reduced beyond recognition into the ideal, an ideal too narrow and symmetry-bound to account for the spacious, uneven, gloriously shambolic reality of being what we are.

With his characteristic eloquence and sensitivity, Alain de Botton offers a mighty antidote to that mythos in a portion of The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the book companion to his wonderful global academy for skillful living, which also gave us De Botton on what emotional intelligence really means and how to move through rejection. He writes:

Any idea of the normal currently in circulation is not an accurate map of what is customary for a human to be. We are — each one of us — far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, tender, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed, and at sea than we are encouraged to accept.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1926 illustrations for The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (Available as a print.)

Given how opaque we are to ourselves most of the time, how encased our rawest emotional reasons are in elaborate cathedrals of rationalization, we struggle to imagine that anyone else could possibly see, understand, and accept the dazzling complexity with which we live inside. “Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the young Van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul… and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” Meanwhile, we move among other chimneys — all the taller built by the artful self-masonry of social media — from which we intuitively infer, even if we rationally understand this to be an illusion, that the fires burning in others are far tamer than those roiling in us; that they live with far lesser levels of confusion and complexity; that we are, in other words, not normal by comparison. De Botton writes:

We simply cannot trust that sides of our deep selves will have counterparts in those we meet, and so remain silent and shy, struggling to believe that the imposing, competent strangers we encounter can have any of the vulnerabilities, perversions, and idiocies we’re so intimately familiar with inside our own characters.

A healthy culture, he suggests, calibrates this mismatch of perception and reality by inviting us into the inner worlds of others, worlds just as shambolic as ours — worlds into which literature uniquely invites us.

Art by Mouni Feddag for Alain de Botton’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting The New York Public Library.)

In those moments when our culture fails to calibrate our insecurities and instead assails us with its mythos of normalcy, in those moments when we lack the psychological skills and emotional resources to face our elemental vulnerabilities with equanimity, tenderness, and patience, we might experience a breakdown. With his singular talent for consolatory perspective-pivoting, De Botton suggests that a breakdown is not a failure of our growth-process but assuring evidence of our ongoing search for better understanding and tending to ourselves:

A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction; it is a very real — albeit very inarticulate — bid for health and self-knowledge. It is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development that it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jump-start a process of getting well — properly well — through a stage of falling very ill.

[…]

In the midst of a breakdown, we often wonder whether we have gone mad. We have not. We’re behaving oddly, no doubt, but beneath the agitation we are on a hidden yet logical search for health. We haven’t become ill; we were ill already. Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and constitutes an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis. It belongs, in the most acute and panicked way, to the search for self-knowledge.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The School of Life: An Emotional Education is a salve in its entirety. Complement this fragment with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on why vulnerability is the key to our sanity and resilience, then revisit Alain de Botton on breaking the psychological Möbius strip that keeps us in painful relationships, the meaning of emotional generosity, and what makes a good communicator.

BP

The Beauty of the Overlooked: Philip Henry Gosse’s Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations of Coastal Creatures and Reflections on the Delicate Kinship of Life

“These objects are, it is true, among the humblest of creatures that are endowed with organic life… Here we catch the first kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame in the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.”

“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote with her mind perched on the water’s edge, contemplating the ocean and the meaning of life in an era when the boundary between land and water marked the shoreline between knowledge and mystery, between the mapped terrestrial world and a world still more mysterious than the Moon.

Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

A century earlier, the poetic English marine biologist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (April 6, 1810‐August 23, 1888), inventor of the seawater aquarium, extended a tender and trailblazing invitation into the wonders of the water world in his 1853 treasure A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (public library | public domain) — an uncommon marriage of scientific investigation and poetic presence.

Published the year Gosse created and populated the world’s first public aquarium at the London Zoo — a decade after Anna Atkins walked those selfsame shores to collect the seaweed she rendered in stunning cyanotypes that made her the first person to illustrate a book with photographic images, a decade before the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and left Darwin wonder-smitten with his exquisite paintings of jellyfish, and exactly 100 years after Carl Linnaeus created the modern nomenclature of nature — Gosse’s lyrical guide to the life of the shore features twenty-eight exquisitely painted plates of marine creatures, labeled with their Linnaean names, “all drawn from living nature, with the greatest attention to accuracy,” comprising “about two hundred and forty figures of animals and their component parts, in many instances drawn with the aid of the microscope.”

Jellyfish detail from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Urging the reader not to expect “a book of systematic zoology; nor a book of mere zoology of any sort,” Gosse instead offers an invitation to contemplative companionship in lively curiosity about and amid the living world:

I ask you to listen with me to the carol of the lark, and the hum of the wild bee; I ask you to stand with me at the edge of the precipice and mark the glories of the setting sun; to watch with me the mantling tide as it rolls inward, and roars among the hollow caves; I ask you to share with me the delightful emotions which the contemplation of unbounded beauty and beneficence ever calls up in the cultivated mind.

Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Gosse made what he made — his visual art and the art of understanding we call science — in the spirit in which all genuine creators make what they make:

The following pages I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to make a mirror of the thoughts and feelings that have occupied my own mind during a nine months’ residence on the charming shores of North and South Devon. There I have been pursuing an occupation which always possesses for me new delight, — the study of the curious forms, and still more curious instincts, of animated beings… Having conveyed pleasure and interest to myself, I thought might entertain and please my reader.

Tide pool creatures from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

To the then-common, still-common, unconsidered objection that to bridge science and beauty is “to degrade science below its proper dignity,” Gosse counter-objects with a sentiment of lyrical lucidity:

That the increase of knowledge is in itself a pleasure to a healthy mind is surely true; but is there not in our hearts a chord that thrills in response to the beautiful, the joyous, the perfect, in Nature?

In this poetic spirit, leaning on Wordsworth’s timeless pronouncement that “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [and] the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Gosse plunges into raptures about particularly dazzling facets of these overlooked animals, many of them wholly novel to human eyes. He kneels on the rocks to peer into the “exceedingly charming” “natural vivarium” of the tide pool with its colorful underwater forest of seaweed, exults in discovering the valved mechanics of how Pecten opercularis — the queen scallop — climbs and leaps with its “delicate little foot,” marvels at its frilly microscopic gills, delights in its diamond eyes, “possessing all the brilliancy of precious stones.”

Dead man’s fingers coral and eye of scallop from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Each of the animals he describes — the mollusk and the medusa, the shrimp and the sea lemon, the dinoflagellate and the dead man’s fingers coral — he describes with absolute reverence for its beauty and microscopic magnificence, all the more enchanting for being so overlooked.

Although, throughout his life, Gosse struggled to reconcile science and religion, through this portal of creaturely awe he touched the elemental truth to which his culturally conditioned mind blinded him — the unbroken link between these exquisite primitive creatures and ourselves. Six years before Darwin exposed the science beneath the kinship of life-forms in On the Origin of Species and a century before Lucille Clifton celebrated the poetics of “the bond of live things everywhere,” Gosse exulted:

These objects are, it is true, among the humblest of creatures that are endowed with organic life. They stand at the very confines, so to speak, of the vital world, at the lowest step of the animate ladder that reaches up to Man; aye, and beyond him… Here we catch the first kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame in the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.

Jellyfish detail from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Jellyfish detail from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with Gosse’s compatriot William Saville Kent’s kaleidoscopic illustrations from the world’s first pictorial glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef and the living wonders rendered in Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, drawn from the epoch-making Valdiva expedition and published a decade after Gosse’s death, upending the longtime belief that the ocean is lifeless below 300 fathoms: a testament to the frequency with which every time we have let our self-referential imagination limit the complexity, diversity, and resilience of life, we have limited the wonder of possibility and we have been wrong.

BP

Thich Nhat Hanh on the Art of Deep Listening and the 3 Buddhist Steps to Repairing a Relationship

“The intention of deep listening and loving speech is to restore communication, because once communication is restored, everything is possible.”

Thich Nhat Hanh on the Art of Deep Listening and the 3 Buddhist Steps to Repairing a Relationship

One fact that never fails to astound me: Despite the immense cultural changes and leaps in knowledge over the epochs, the human brain — that crucible of consciousness, roiling with the psychologies that govern the behaviors we call human nature — has remained virtually unchanged for the past hundred thousand years. How humbling to consider that what is cognitively true of our ancestors — who, lacking a knowledge of astronomy as the correct frame of reference for planetary motion, explained eclipses as acts of god and comets as omens of ill fortune — is as true of us.

The explanatory contexts in which this tendency manifests today may be different, but it manifests just the same — especially in our interpersonal relationships, where so much of the correct frame of reference that is the other person’s inner reality is invisible to us. It helps to remember that between our feelings and anything in the external world that causes the ripples of consciousness we call feelings — any difficult situation, any painful event, any hurtful action of another — there lie myriad possible causal explanations.

One fact I have learned about life through the empiricism of living: When we are hurt in a relationship, when we are spinning in the blooming buzzing confusion of sensemaking, the explanation we elect as correct usually has more to do with our own fears and vulnerabilities than it does with the reality of the situation; almost always, that explanation is wrong; almost always, the true explanation has more to do with the fears and vulnerabilities roiling in the other person invisibly to us.

The Dreaming Horses by Franz Marc, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

And so, sensemaking and storytelling creatures that we are, we move through the real world in a self-generated dream, responding not to reality but to the stories we tell ourselves about what is true — stories at best incomplete and at worst injuriously incorrect, stories about what we do and don’t deserve, stories the cost of which is connection, trust, love. This is why without charity of interpretation and without candor — the vulnerability of it, the courage of it, the kindness of it — all relationships become a ricochet of unspoken resentments based mostly on misapprehended motives, and crumble.

The great Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh offers a three-step remedy for this elemental human tendency in a portion of his slender, potent book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm (public library), which also gave us his warm wisdom on the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love.

Thich Nhat Hanh

He writes:

Much of our suffering comes from wrong perceptions. To remove that hurt, we have to remove our wrong perception.

Whenever we see another person take an action, he notes, we must remain aware that there could be a number of invisible motive forces behind it and we must be willing to listen in order to better understand them — not only out of the vain self-referential transactionalism masquerading as the Golden Rule, in the hope that others would be just as willing not to misunderstand our own motives by their perception and interpretation of our actions, but because correcting our wrong perceptions is a basic and vital form of caring for ourselves:

When you make the effort to listen and hear the other side of the story, your understanding increases and your hurt diminishes.

Half a century after the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm detailed the six rules of listening and unselfish understanding, Hanh offers a three-step process for correcting wrong perception in relationship conflict and emerging victorious with deeper love:

The first thing we can do in these situations is to acknowledge internally that the pictures we have in our head, what we think happened, may not be accurate. Our practice is to breathe and walk until we are more calm and relaxed.

The second thing we can do, when we are ready, is to tell the people who we think have hurt us that we are suffering and that we know our suffering may have come from our own wrong perception. Instead of coming to the other person or people with an accusation, we can come to them for help and ask them to explain, to help us understand why they have said or done those things.

There is a third thing we need to do, if we can. The third thing is very hard, perhaps the hardest. We need to listen very carefully to the other person’s response to truly understand and try to correct our perception. With this, we may find that we have been the victim of our wrong perceptions. Most likely the other person has also been a victim of wrong perceptions.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print, a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Part of why this is so challenging to the Western mind, with its individualistic ideal of self-reliance that too readily metastasizes into self-righteousness, is that we grow incredibly insecure at the prospect of being wrong and feel incredibly unmoored by the fact of having been wrong. In a culture conflating who we are with what we know and what we stand for, the Eastern contemplative traditions can be so salutary with their gentle, steady practice of releasing the clutch of selfing and unclenching the fist of righteousness into an open palm of receptivity.

Drawing on two powerful Buddhist practices that effect this release — deep listening and loving speech — Hanh writes:

If we are sincere in wanting to learn the truth, and if we know how to use gentle speech and deep listening, we are much more likely to be able to hear others’ honest perceptions and feelings. In that process, we may discover that they too have wrong perceptions. After listening to them fully, we have an opportunity to help them correct their wrong perceptions. If we approach our hurts that way, we have the chance to turn our fear and anger into opportunities for deeper, more honest relationships.

Art from the 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, who originated the “island universes” concept. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

This, he observes, applies to romantic relationships, to politics, to family and workplace dynamics — in other words, to all possible configurations of one consciousness embarking on the touching, terrifying endeavor of being known and understood by another.

With an eye to the ultimate aim of this process, he adds:

The intention of deep listening and loving speech is to restore communication, because once communication is restored, everything is possible, including peace and reconciliation.

[…]

We are all capable of recognizing that we’re not the only ones who suffer when there is a hard situation. The other person in that situation suffers as well, and we are partly responsible for his or her suffering. When we realize this, we can look at the other person with the eyes of compassion and let understanding bloom. With the arrival of understanding, the situation changes and communication is possible.

Any real peace process has to begin with ourselves… We have to practice peace to help the other side make peace.

Shortly after he wrote Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Hanh placed this insight at the center of his now-classic teachings about how to love — an insight that also animates Alain de Botton’s soulful wisdom on what makes a good communicator. Perhaps Walt Whitman, writing with ecstatic immediacy, best captured this in his intimation that the secret of Being is “to do nothing but listen,” so that the song of life — which is the song of love — may be heard.

BP

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