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Here and Now: An Illustrated Guided Meditation Inviting the Practice of Noticing as a Portal to Presence

A sensorial serenade to the art of awareness.

Here and Now: An Illustrated Guided Meditation Inviting the Practice of Noticing as a Portal to Presence

Looking back on the most important things I have learned about life, I keep returning to a central paradox of our culture: We know that the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst, yet we crave stories of overnight success and spontaneous self-actualization, disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming, in the incremental ripening by which we become who we are, the innumerable tiny choices, the imperceptibly small steps by which we pave the path to our own destiny in the very act of walking it. We are each a continuous becoming, our future a rosary of presents strung along the strand of presence — presence with the smallest corpuscles of existence: the smell of a neighbor’s curry slipping through the window cracked in midwinter, the atlas of wrinkles on the hands of the cashier scanning the box of strawberries at the grocery store. Sensing, noticing — the raw materials of presence, and thus the elemental stardust of our becoming. Emerson knew this when he reflected on how to live with presence and authenticity in a culture of busyness and surfaces a century and a half before the Age of Haste:

Life goes headlong… Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.

That is what author Julia Denos and illustrator E.B. Goodale invite in Here and Now (public library) — a kind of illustrated guided meditation, tender and soulful, and a splendid belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of 2019.

The book begins where all presence must always begin — exactly where we are: The reader is invited to attend to the actuality of reading — the sensorial meta-reality of being with the book. Presence then radiates outward in widening circles of awareness — the floor under the feet, the grass and soil under the floor, the earthworms and fossils in the the hidden universe of the underland.

We are reminded that the Earth is spinning in the vast expanse of spacetime, and so are we, along with it; that during each now we experience here, countless things are happening in countless elsewheres — “rain is forming in the belly of a cloud,” “an ant has finished its home on the other side of the planet,” “an idea is blooming,” “grass is pushing up through cement,” “unseen work is being done.”

What emerges is a delicate reminder that we snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence. “Right here, right now, YOU are becoming,” Denos writes.

In a postscript, Denos explains that the book grew out of a poem she had written as part of her meditation practice — a kind of lyric breathwork. Two millennia after Seneca offered his Stoic’s key to living with presence and a generation after Wendell Berry began his formula for how to be a poet and a complete human being with “Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet,” she writes:

Meditation is just another way of noticing and a little bit like magic. It brings us, just as we are, into the present moment, just as it is. This freedom is a place I call “Here and Now.” It is a land well known by young children and plants and animals; it is a place and possibility root, a place where we feel connected to the greater unfolding story. Sometimes, when our minds and bodies are busy, we forget how to get back. But all we need to do to return again is to notice the world around us. We don’t need to sit down, or stop what we are doing. We don’t even need to close our eyes. Let’s open our senses instead.

Complement Here and Now with Be Still, Life — a kindred-spirited songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers — a picture-book serenade to the art of noticing — then revisit Annie Dillard’s timeless clarion call for choosing presence over productivity, Hermann Hesse on breaking the trance of busyness by learning to savor the little joys, and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in training the delight muscle.

BP

The Shortest Day: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence with the Passage of Time, Our Ancient Relationship with the Sun, and the Cycles of Life

A lovely homage to a universal human impulse radiating across time and space and cultures and civilizations.

The Shortest Day: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence with the Passage of Time, Our Ancient Relationship with the Sun, and the Cycles of Life

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timely exhortation for presence over productivity. It may be an elemental feature of our condition that the more scarce something is, the more precious it becomes. Just as the shortness of life calls, in that Seneca way, for filling each year with breadths of experience, so the shortness of the day calls for the fulness of each hour, each moment. No day concentrates and consecrates its elementary particles of time more powerfully than the shortest day of the year. With our awareness pointed to its brevity by ancient rites and modern calendars alike, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” something rapturous happens — a kind of portal into heightened presence opens up as every minute ticks with a supra-consciousness of its passage, pulsates with an extra fulness of being, while at the same time attuning us to the cyclical seasonality of time, reminding us of the cycles of life and death.

That is what writer Susan Cooper and artist Carson Ellis celebrate in The Shortest Day (public library) — an illustrated resurrection of Cooper’s 1974 poem by the same title, originally composed for John Langstaff’s beloved Christmas Revel shows, which fuse medieval and modern music in grassroots theatrical productions across local communities.

Cooper’s buoyant verses and Ellis’s soulful, mirthful illustrations bring to life, across time and space and cultures and civilizations, the ardor with which our ancestors have welcomed the winter solstice since long before the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the word orbit in an era when few dared believe that the Earth spins on its axis while revolving around the Sun. (It is a function of the tilt of Earth’s axis and the elliptical shape of its orbit — another radical contribution of Kepler’s, who debunked the millennia-old dogma of perfect circular motion — that when our planet’s axial tilt leans one pole as far away as it would go from our star, we are granted the shortest possible day and the longest possible night of the year.)

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.

In an afterword reflecting on the universal human impulse to celebrate light — its departure and its return — Cooper writes:

If you live on a planet that circles a sun, your time is governed by the patters of light and darkness, summer and winter, warmth and cold. And, of course, life and death. Once our forebears learned to farm, they planted and harvested at the equinoxes, but it was the solstices that caught their attention. The extremes. They watched their days shrink from the bright abundance of high summer to the bleak, dark cold of winter, and they invented rituals to make sure the light would come back again: to bring the new day, the new year, the rebirth of life.

The rebirth rituals have become traditions we still celebrate, whether or not we remember where they came from. Some of them are so old that only their monuments remain. On the morning of the winter solstice at the great earthwork Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, the day’s first beam of sunlight shines in through a passage that Neolithic people built there five thousand years ago to catch it, and for seventeen minutes, a dark room deep within is filled with the sunshine of the shortest day.

Complement The Shortest Day with the great nature writer Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely ode to the leap day, then revisit Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditations on the cycle of life and the many meanings of home.

Poem text © Susan Cooper; illustrations © Carson Ellis, courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Marcus Aurelius on Embracing Mortality and the Key to Living with Presence

“The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the great Lebanese poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her beautiful meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence. It is a sentiment of tremendous truth and simplicity, yet tremendously difficult for the mind to metabolize — we remain material creatures, spiritually sundered by the fact of our borrowed atoms, which we will each return to the universe, to the stardust that made us, despite our best earthly efforts. Physicist Alan Lightman contemplated this paradox in his lyrical essay on our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change: “It is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.”

Two millennia earlier, before the very notion of a universe even existed, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) provided uncommonly lucid consolation for this most disquieting paradox of existence in his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the timeless trove of ancient wisdom that gave us his advice on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, the mental trick for maintaining sanity, and the key to living fully.

Eons before the modern invention of self-help, the Stoics equipped the human animal with a foundational toolkit for self-refinement, articulating their recipes for mental discipline with uncottoned candor that often borders on brutality — an instructional style they share with the Zen masters, whose teachings are often given in a stern tone that seems berating and downright angry but is animated by absolute well-wishing for the spiritual growth of the pupil.

It is with this mindset that Marcus Aurelius takes up the question of how to embrace our mortality and live with life-expanding presence in Book II of his Meditations, translated here by Gregory Hays:

The speed with which all of them vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real nature of the things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — and that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary one.)

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death.

In a sentiment Montaigne would echo sixteen centuries later in his assertion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Marcus Aurelius rebukes our pathological dread of death by demonstrating how it ejects us from the only arena on which life plays out — the present. Long before Rilke made the countercultural, almost counterbiological observation that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” he adds:

Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

Remember two things:

1) that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period;

2) that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.

Art by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson — a lyrical illustrated invitation to living with presence.

He concludes by summarizing the basic facts of human life — a catalogue of uncertainties, crowned by the sole certainty of death — and points to philosophy, or the love of wisdom and mindful living, as the only real anchor for our existential precariousness:

Human life.

Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.

Then what can guide us?

Only philosophy.

Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.

Complement this portion of the altogether indispensable Meditations with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what Freud and Darwin taught us about how to live with death, neurologist Oliver Sacks on gratitude, the measure of living, and the dignity of dying, and philosopher, comedian, and my beloved friend Emily Levine on how to live with exultant presence while dying, then revisit two other great Stoics philosophers’ strategies for peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and Epictetus on love, loss, and surviving heartbreak.

BP

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time.”

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)

That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:

Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

Art by Ohara Hale from Be Still, Life

Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:

I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.

BP

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