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Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer

Revolutions in design and education technology, underpinned by the conviction that women “are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole.”

Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer

“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere,” Hannah Arendt wrote as she considered time, space, and the thinking ego when she became the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. A century and a half earlier, another woman of uncommon genius and drive revolutionized the way we fathom and locate ourselves in the world by bridging space and time in wholly original cartographies of thought: Emma Hart Willard (February 23, 1787–April 15, 1870), America’s first professional female mapmaker.

The sixteenth of seventeen children, Willard grew up in an era when girls were barred from formal education beyond primary school. In her long life, far exceeding her generation’s life expectancy, she went on to become a pioneering educator, founding the first women’s higher education institution in the United States when she was still in her thirties. Willard understood that improving the future requires a robust understanding of the past, so that one may become an informed, engaged, and effective agent of change in the present. In her early forties, she set about composing and publishing a series of history textbooks that raised the standards and sensibilities of scholarship. In 1828, having just turned forty, she authored what would become the country’s most widely read history textbook: History of the United States, or, Republic of America.

Emma Willard

What made Willard’s textbooks so successful was her understanding that we are not mere intellects who cooly compress and compute facts and figures, but embodied creatures who yearn to locate themselves in space and time in order to make sense of the flow of existence. She taught herself mapmaking in order “to give the events of history with clearness and accuracy; with such illustrations of time and place addressed to the eye, as shall secure their retention in the memory; and, at the same time, with such an order of arrangement, as will enable the mind to recall, at need, what it thus retains.” Willard considered this approach a supreme means of “laying out the ground-plan of the intellect, so far as the whole range of history is concerned,” which would in turn empower people to become better citizens, “enlightened and judicious supporters” of democracy. In a passage of extraordinary pertinence today, she writes in the preface to her famed textbook:

There are those, who rashly speak, as if in despair of the fortunes of our republic ; because, say they, political virtue has declined. If so, then is there the more need to infuse patriotism into the breasts of the coming generation. And what is so likely to effect this national self-preservation, as to give our children, for their daily reading and study, such a record of the sublime virtues of the worthies of our earliest day, and of Washington and his compatriots, as shall leave its due impress? And what but the study of their dangers and toils, their devotion of life and fortune, can make our posterity know, what our country, and our liberties have cost?

In a diagram originally created in 1845 and later printed as the frontispiece in an abridged edition of the textbook, she draws on the long tradition of tree diagrams to depict America’s history as an organic development rooted in the Earth itself:

Willard’s Chronographer of American History. Buy print.
Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History
Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History

Many of Willard’s maps and diagrams were astonishingly ahead of their time. We have, of course, long used the language of space to refer to time (e.g., my ahead to denote the future, my long to denote duration). But a century before Einstein radicalized science by exposing the single entity of spacetime as the elemental fabric of the universe, depicting space and time in a unified image was the work of an inspired and daring imagination. Willard lived not in Einstein’s era but in Kant’s — shortly before her birth, Kant had shaken the world with his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he defined space and time as the purest intuitions of the transcendental self. Willard took these elemental intuitions and enlisted them in making history — the hindsight of civilizational time — comprehensible, a clear somewhere of thought rather than an opaque nowhere.

Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools. Buy print.
Detail from Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools

Half a century before W.E.B. Du Bois (with whom she shared a birthday) created his modernist data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair, Willard’s 1846 chart Temple of Time won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in London and earned the praise of Prince Albert himself. In the poetic rubric accompanying the diagram, she summarizes her design philosophy a century and a half before the golden age of data visualization:

The attempt to understand chronology by merely committing dates to memory, is not only painful, but it is as useless as to learn latitudes and longitudes, without the study of maps. As in geography, the relation of any place to all other places is what is important to know; so in chronology, the relation which any given event bears to others constitutes the only useful knowledge… By putting the course of time into perspective, the disconnected parts of a vast subject are united into one, and comprehended at a glance; — the poetic idea of “the vista of departed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.

Willard’s Temple of Time was an expansion upon a diagram she had drawn a decade earlier — a century before John Sparks’s famous Histomap — in which she depicted the ebb and flow of empires along the stream of time:

Picture of Nations or Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire, from Willard’s 1836 Atlas to Accompany a System of Universal Geography. Buy print.

In the atlas accompanying her history of the United States, she used color to denote the settlement patterns of the pilgrims and the migrations of Native American tribes — an innovative effort to visualize movement in a spatial map.

While Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art and Maria Mitchell was doing the same in science, Willard was swinging the doors to historical scholarship and information visualization open to women. Undergirding her textbooks and her cartography was the broader conviction that, as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted a generation before her, “the mind has no sex” — young women have a life of the mind as worthy of being nurtured as that of young men. At twenty-seven, Willard opened her first boarding school for girls, in Vermont, but soon grew dissatisfied with the low intellectual aims of those types of institutions. She envisioned something greater, more ambitious, more on par with the education boys were receiving to prepare them for college — an avenue wholly closed to women at the time. (The founding of America’s first college for women was still four decades away.)

For the next four years, Willard surveyed the landscape of education and mapped out what worthy schooling for a young woman would look like. In 1818, she published a pamphlet titled A Plan for Improving Female Education, in which she set out “to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and the magnanimity of such an undertaking, to persuade that body to endow a seminary for females, as the commencement of such reformation.” Decades before the pathbreaking feminist and cultural critic Margaret Fuller insisted that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Willard argued that raising the character of half of society raises the whole of society. She entreated politicians and legislators to put their pen and funding behind this obvious yet radical equation. Writing 100 years before American women earned the right to vote and thus to steer the course of their country, she appealed to the patriotic spirit by framing the advancement and empowerment of women as a pathway to progress and a means to attaining “unparalleled glory” for the nation:

Ages have rolled away; — barbarians have trodden the weaker sex beneath their feet; — tyrants have robbed us of the present light of heaven, and fain would take its future. Nations, calling themselves polite, have made us the fancied idols of a ridiculous worship, and we have repaid them with ruin for their folly. But where is that wise and heroic country, which has considered, that our rights are sacred, though we cannot defend them? that… we are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole?

When the Governor of Vermont refused to fund such an institution, Willard took her plan to New York. In the spring of 1819, she opened the Academy for Female Education, soon the Troy Female Seminary — an experimental school in upstate New York, which New York’s Governor Clinton proudly lauded as “the only attempt ever made in this country to promote the education of the female sex by the patronage of government.” Willard immersed her pupils not only in geography and history, but in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, higher mathematics, and rigorous physical education. (A lifelong advocate of physical fitness herself — a rarity among women in the era — she saw the vitality of the mind as inseparable from the vitality of the body and exercised vigorously each morning, well into old age.)

Pupils at the Emma Willard School in the early twentieth century.

This bold experiment spread across the nation and became the model for a new breed of “female academies” (including Mount Holyoke, where the adolescent Emily Dickinson received her education and composed her stunning herbarium at the intersection of poetry and science). Eager to take her educational ideals beyond the classroom walls, Willard commenced her career as a textbook author and mapmaker. In her eighty-three years, she embodied her contemporary and kindred spirit Elizabeth Peabody’s insight into midlife and the art of self-renewal. In her forties, Willard taught herself mapmaking and wrote poetry and ran her school and labored tirelessly on the broader project of education reform in America. In her fifties, she continued publishing authoritative textbooks on history and geography, mentoring young reformers, and traveling the world to survey other educational enterprises. In her sixties, she wrote about astronomy and authored a groundbreaking book on cardiovascular health.

Diagram of diurnal rotation from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
Climate zones by length of day from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
The Solar System planets to scale, from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854

To the charge of choosing “a subject unsuited to her sex,” she answered with the quintessential motive force of every true revolutionary and artist:

This is not so much a subject which I choose, as one which chooses me. It comes unbidden to my mind, and like an intrusive guest, there it will abide, and irresistibly claim my attention.

HT The Paris Review / Open Culture

BP

Margaret Fuller on What Makes a Great Leader: Timeless Political Wisdom from the Founding Mother of American Feminism

In praise of the leader “to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others.”

Margaret Fuller on What Makes a Great Leader: Timeless Political Wisdom from the Founding Mother of American Feminism

At age six, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) was reading in Latin. At twelve, she was conversing with her father in philosophy and pure mathematics. By fifteen, she had mastered French, Italian, and Greek, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning for mental discipline. In her short life, Fuller — one of the central figures in my book Figuring, and the person whom Emerson considered his greatest influence — would go on to write the foundational treatise of American women’s emancipation movement, author the most trusted literary and art criticism in America, work as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper and the only woman in the newsroom, advocate for prison reform and African American voting rights, and become America’s first foreign war correspondent, trekking through war-torn Rome while seven months pregnant. In her advocacy for African American, Native American, and women’s rights, Fuller would ardently espouse the simple, difficult truth that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble.” All of this she would accomplish while bedeviled by debilitating chronic pain at the base of her neck — the result of a congenital spinal deformity that made it difficult to tilt her head down in order to write and was often accompanied by acute depression.

The only known photograph of Margaret Fuller

In her thirty-third year, in the midst of heartbreak, Fuller left her native New England to journey westward into the largely unfathomed frontiers of the country. She returned home transformed, awakened to new social, political, and existential realities. Eager to supplement her observations with historical research, she persuaded the Harvard library to grant her access to its book collection — the largest in the nation. No woman had previously been admitted for more than a tour. She then set about relaying her impressions and insights, ranging from a stunning portrait of Niagara Falls to a poignant account of the fate of the displaced Native American tribes with whom she sympathized and spent time. This became Fuller’s first book, Summer on the Lakes — part travelogue, part anthropological study, and part political treatise.

At the heart of the book — which greatly inspired the astronomer Maria Mitchell, another key figure in Figuring — was the search for truth of a higher order. Punctuating Fuller’s lyrical prose are sentiments worn all the truer by time. In a passage that should be emblazoned on every voting ballot (and composed before what Ursula K. Le Guin wryly termed “the invention of women,” when every woman was “man”), Fuller observes:

This country… needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others; a man who hives from the past, yet knows that its honey can but moderately avail him; whose comprehensive eye scans the present, neither infatuated by its golden lures, nor chilled by its many ventures; who possesses prescience, the gift which discerns tomorrow — when there is such a man for America, the thought which urges her on will be expressed.

Find more of Fuller’s towering, prescient, yet tragically forgotten genius in Figuring, then revisit Walt Whitman, who admired her greatly, on democracy and resistance.

BP

Empathy Is a Clock That Ticks in the Consciousness of Another: The Science of How Our Social Interactions Shape Our Experience of Time

“We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.”

Empathy Is a Clock That Ticks in the Consciousness of Another: The Science of How Our Social Interactions Shape Our Experience of Time

When I was growing up, my father — a kind man of quick intellect and encyclopedic knowledge about esoteric subjects — had, and still has, one habit that never failed to make other people uneasy and to infuriate my mother: In conversation, the interval of time that elapses between the other person’s sentiment or question and my father’s response greatly exceeds the average, a lapse swelling with Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”

At first, one might suspect that my father is taking an incubatory pause to produce a considered response. But, soon, it becomes apparent that these disorienting durations have no correlation with the complexity of the question — even when asked something as simple as the time of day, he would often let miniature eternities pass and lasso the other person in anxiety as the contrast between the natural response time and my father’s gapes its discomfiting abyss of ambiguity.

It turns out that my father’s liberal pauses are so discomposing because our experience of time has a central social component — an internal clock inheres in our capacity for intersubjectivity, intuitively governing our social interactions and the interpersonal mirroring that undergirds the human capacity for empathy.

This social-synchronistic function of time is what New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick examines in Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library) — a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

Burdick begins at the beginning — the ur-question of how the universe originated from nothing and what this means for time, a question at the heart of the landmark 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson that shaped our modern understanding of time. Burdick asks:

For argument’s sake, I’ll accept that perhaps the universe did not exist before the Big Bang — but it exploded in something, right? What was that? What was there before the beginning? Proposing such questions, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has said, is like standing at the South Pole and asking which way is south: “Earlier times simply would not be defined.”

Nearly a century after Borges’s exquisite refutation of time in language“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Burdick adds with an eye to the inherent limitations of our metaphors:

Perhaps Hawking is trying to be reassuring. What he seems to mean is that human language has a limit. We (or at least the rest of us) reach this boundary whenever we ponder the cosmic. We imagine by analogy and metaphor: that strange and vast thing is like this smaller, more familiar thing. The universe is a cathedral, a clockworks, an egg. But the parallels ultimately diverge; only an egg is an egg. Such analogies appeal precisely because they are tangible elements of the universe. As terms, they are self-contained — but they cannot contain the container that holds them. So it is with time. Whenever we talk about it, we do so in terms of something lesser. We find or lose time, like a set of keys; we save and spend it, like money. Time creeps, crawls, flies, flees, flows, and stands still; it is abundant or scarce; it weighs on us with palpable heft.

[…]

Yet whatever one calls it, we share a rough idea of what’s meant: a lasting sense of one’s self moving in a sea of selves, dependent yet alone; a sense, or perhaps a deep and common wish, that I somehow belongs to we, and that this we belongs to something even larger and less comprehensible; and the recurring thought, so easy to brush aside in the daily effort to cross the street safely and get through one’s to-do list, much less to confront the world’s true crises, that my time, our time, matters precisely because it ends.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, Burdick goes on to explore such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how fetuses are able to coordinate their circadian activity, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time. In a fascinating chapter detailing the complex ecosystem of time-making — the inventions, standardizations, and global teams of scientists responsible for measuring and synchronizing earthly time — Burdick reflects on the tremendous coordination of human efforts keeping the world’s clocks ticking:

Time is a social phenomenon. This property is not incidental to time; it is its essence. Time, equally in single cells as in their human conglomerates, is the engine of interaction. A single clock works only as long as it refers, sooner or later, obviously or not, to the other clocks around it. One can rage about it, and we do. But without a clock and the dais of time, we each rage in silence, alone.

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

But our technologies are always prosthetic extensions of our consciousness — time, it turns out, is an innately social phenomenon not only in how it is measured, but in how it is experienced. Burdick cites the research of French neuropsychologist Sylvie Droit-Volet, who studies the warping of our temporal perception. In one experiment, she presented people with images of human faces — some neutral, some happy, some angry, some frightened — each displayed on the screen for anywhere between half a second to a second and a half. The research subjects were then asked to evaluate how long the faces appeared for.

She found that across images displayed for the same duration, happy faces were perceived to last longer than neutral ones and shorter than angry or fearful ones. Burdick explains:

The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate the pacemaker, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration… Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

We perform this kind of emotional mimicry intuitively and incessantly over the course of our daily social interactions, in some degree donning the emotional and mental outfit of each person with whom we come into close contact. But we are also, apparently, absorbing each other’s sense of time, which is encoded in our psychoemotional states. In another study, Droit-Volet found that research subjects perceived images of elderly faces to last shorter than they actually did and misjudged the duration of young faces in the opposite direction — viewers were essentially embodying the typically slower movements of the elderly. Burdick explains:

A slower clock ticks less often in a given interval of time; fewer ticks accumulate, so the interval is judged to be briefer than it actually is. Perceiving or remembering an elderly person induces the viewer to reenact, or simulate, their bodily states, namely their slow movement.

A book, Rebecca Solnit memorably wrote, is “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” In a very real sense, we are each a temporally open book and empathy a clock that only ticks in the consciousness of another. Burdick writes:

Our shared temporal distortions can be thought of as manifestations of empathy; after all, to embody another’s time is to place oneself in his or her skin. We imitate each other’s gestures and emotions — but we’re more likely to do so, studies find, with people with whom we identify or whose company we would like to share.

[…]

Life dictates that we possess some sort of internal mechanism to keep time and monitor brief durations — yet the one we carry around can be thrown off course by the least emotional breeze. What’s the point of owning such a fallible clock? … Maybe there’s another way to think about it, Droit-Volet suggests. It’s not that our clock doesn’t run well; on the contrary, it’s superb at adapting to the ever-changing social and emotional environment that we navigate every day. The time that I perceive in social settings isn’t solely mine, nor is there just one cast to it, which is part of what gives our social interactions their shading. “There is thus no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time,” Droit-Volet writes in one paper. “Our temporal distortions directly reflect the way our brain and body adapt to these multiple times.” She quotes the philosopher Henri Bergson: “On doit mettre de côte le temps unique, seuls comptent les temps multiples, ceux de l’expérience.” We must put aside the idea of a single time, all that counts are the multiple times that make up experience.

Our slightest social exchanges — our glances, our smiles and frowns — gain potency from our ability to synchronize them among ourselves, Droit-Volet notes. We bend time to make time with one another, and the many temporal distortions we experience are indicators of empathy; the better able I am to envisage myself in your body and your state of mind, and you in mine, the better we can each recognize a threat, an ally, a friend, or someone in need. But empathy is a fairly sophisticated trait, a mark of emotional adulthood; it takes learning and time. As children grow and develop empathy, they gain a better sense of how to navigate the social world. Put another way, it may be that a critical aspect of growing up is learning how to bend our time in step with others. We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.

Perhaps Borges was right, after all, that time is the substance we are made of.

Complement the thoroughly fascinating Why Time Flies with James Gleick on how our time-travel fantasies illuminate consciousness, Patti Smith on time and transformation, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit the story of how Rilke and Rodin gave birth to the modern meaning of empathy.

BP

When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground. What then?

“In art,” Kafka assured his teenage walking companion, “one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.” As in art, so in life — so suggests the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library), she draws on her own confrontation with personal crisis and on the ancient teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to offer gentle and incisive guidance to the enormity we stand to gain during those times when all seems to be lost. Half a century after Albert Camus asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Chödrön reframes those moments of acute despair as opportunities for befriending life by befriending ourselves in the deepest sense.

Photograph by Maria Popova
Photograph by Maria Popova

Writing in that Buddhist way of wrapping in simple language the difficult and beautiful truths of existence, Chödrön examines the most elemental human response to the uncharted territory that comes with loss or any other species of unforeseen change:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

This clarity, Chödrön argues, is a matter of becoming intimate with fear and rather than treating it as a problem to be solved, using it as a tool with which to dismantle all of our familiar structures of being, “a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” Noting that bravery is not the absence of fear but the intimacy with fear, she writes:

When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

In essence, this is the hard work of befriending ourselves, which is our only mechanism for befriending life in its completeness. Out of that, Chödrön argues, arises our deepest strength:

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.

[…]

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Tree by Maria Popova
Photograph by Maria Popova

Decades after Rollo May made his case for the constructiveness of despair, Chödrön considers the fundamental choice we have in facing our unsettlement — whether with aggressive aversion or with generative openness to possibility:

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic — this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation — harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Half a century after Alan Watts began introducing Eastern teachings into the West with his clarion call for presence as the antidote to anxiety, Chödrön points to the present moment — however uncertain, however difficult — as the sole seedbed of wakefulness to all of life:

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.

[…]

We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Remaining present and intimate with the moment, she argues, requires mastering maitri — the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself, that most difficult art of self-compassion. She contrasts maitri with the typical Western therapy and self-help method of handling crises:

What makes maitri such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.

[…]

In the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.

Another Buddhist concept at odds with our Western coping mechanisms is the Tibetan expression ye tang che. Chödrön explains its connotations, evocative of Camus’s insistence on the vitalizing power of despair:

The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

[…]

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

Decades after Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation about atheism and the ultimate frontier of hope, Chödrön points out that at the heart of Buddhism’s approach is not the escapism of religion but the realism of secular philosophy. And yet these crude demarcations fail to capture the subtlety of these teachings. She clarifies:

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

[…]

Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security… Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.

[…]

When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.

Art from The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

Only through such active self-compassion to our own darkness, Chödrön suggests, can we begin to offer authentic light to anybody else, to become a force of radiance in the world. She writes:

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

Complement the immensely grounding and elevating When Things Fall Apart with Camus on strength of character in times of trouble, Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, and Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, then revisit Chödrön on the art of letting go.

BP

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