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How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

Tree-wrestling for resistance training, vigorous recitation for cardio.

How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

The question of whether we are minds in bodies or bodies with minds has animated philosophers for millennia. But whatever our cerebral orientation to the question, we must each answer it for ourselves — a kind of private embodied illumination.

My own accidental answer arrived long ago, when I began noticing that my morning workout provided the most fertile hours for reading and thinking. Every single morning for more than fifteen years, I have journeyed to the gym with a book, filling margins with motion-mangled notes and scribbling ideas sparked in the connective tissue of the mind as blood and electricity course through my muscles.

In the midst of a difficult year, I found myself unable to read anything but Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) during this morning regimen of body and spirit — perhaps because the poet himself so strongly believed in and enacted the relationship between the creaturely and the creative, the physical and the poetic.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

More than a decade after his experience as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the vital relationship between body and spirit, Whitman described his own physical regimen in Specimen Days (public library) — the indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art gives meaning to life, what makes life worth living, and his most direct reflection on happiness.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an entry from the winter of 1877, still recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled five years earlier, the sixty-six-year-old poet describes his workout in the gymnasium of the wilderness:

A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high — pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

The great nature writer John Burroughs — Whitman’s longtime friend, and his first and to this day foremost biographer — further described the poet’s workout in his superb and loving more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), published four years after Whitman’s death.

Burroughs writes:

His exercise for an hour each day consisted in tossing a few feet into the air, as he walked, a round, smooth stone, of about one pound weight, and catching it as it fell. Later in life, and after his first paralytic stroke, when in the woods, he liked to bend down the young saplings, and exercise his arms and chest in that way. In his poems much emphasis is laid upon health, and upon purity and sweetness of body, but none upon mere brute strength.

Both Whitman’s Specimen Days and Burroughs’s Whitman: A Study are books of vigorous and timeless delight. Complement this particular portion with psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how our minds and our bodies converge in healing, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on how our minds obscure our bodies, and Rilke on the relationship between the body and the soul, then revisit Whitman’s advice to the young on the building blocks of character and his timeless wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


William James on Consciousness and the Four Features of Transcendent Experiences

“Our normal waking consciousness… is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

William James on Consciousness and the Four Features of Transcendent Experiences

“Queer, in fact maddening, to think that ‘beauty’ in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her journal. “All of nature, all of the given ‘world,’ is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it.” Four decades earlier, Virginia Woolf had recorded the selfsame sentiment in what remains the most stunning passage from her own journal; four decades later, neuroscientist Christof Koch would echo the sentiment in the unsentimental chamber of science: “Without consciousness there is nothing… Consciousness is the central fact of your life.”

Long before Koch and Oates and Woolf, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) examined the mystery and complexity of consciousness in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook) — the 1902 masterwork based on his Gifford Lectures, in which James explored science, spirituality, and the human search for meaning.

William James

James considers the central function of human consciousness — to make sense of reality through abstract concepts:

The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims… in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend it its significance. As time, space, and the ether soak through all things so (we feel) do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant, and just.

Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all our facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilities we conceive of. They give its “nature,” as we call it, to every special thing. Everything we know is “what” it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions. We can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and predicates and heads of classification and conception.

Three decades after Nietzsche lamented how our abstractions blind us to the actuality of life, James adds:

This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the cardinal facts in our human constitution. Polarizing and magnetizing us as they do, we turn towards them and from them, we seek them, hold them, hate them, bless them, just as if they were so many concrete beings. And beings they are, beings as real in the realm which they inhabit as the changing things of sense are in the realm of space.

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

And yet our consciousness, James argues, is capable of states that radically disrupt its own neat model-universe of abstractions. He considers how these transcendent states discompose our constructed, concept-constricted experience of reality:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.

A quarter century before quantum mechanics founding father Niels Bohr formulated the principle of complementarity and its corollary that, in the words of the Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” James offers the defining feature of these transcendent forms of consciousness:

It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself.

One of Arthur Rackham’s revolutionary illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

James had arrived at this conclusion not merely as a philosopher, but as an empiricist, using his own body-mind as a laboratory for experiments with nitrous oxide — a favorite of the visionary chemist and inventor Humphry Davy’s, who christened the substance “laughing gas” for its pleasurable euphoric effects. The mild hallucinogenic properties of nitrous oxide gave James a glimpse of a whole other side of his own consciousness, which he used as a springboard into understanding so-called mystical, or transcendent, experiences — “a group of states of consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study.”

Governed by the conviction that “phenomena are best understood when placed within their series,” he morphologizes the four defining features of these experiences — the first two necessary and sufficient to qualify the transcendent state of consciousness as such, the remaining two subtler and not required, but often accompanying the experience:

  1. Ineffability. — The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.
  2. Noetic quality. — Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
  3. Transiency. — Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
  4. Passivity. — Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so-called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.

More than a century after its groundbreaking publication, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature remains a fascinating read. Complement this particular portion with physicist Alan Lightman’s stirring account of one such secular, non-hallucinogenic transcendent experience in his encounter with a baby osprey and mathematician-turned-physician Israel Rosenfield’s pioneering anatomy of consciousness, then revisit Albert Camus on consciousness and the lacuna between truth and meaning.


Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Be still, life, be still at the break of dawn, and you’ll feel the sun’s light when you hear the morning’s song.”

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “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.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

The ending calls to mind Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem about our odd tendency to see the rest of nature as a separate world parallel to our own. “You are also a part of the wonderfulness of life,” Hale exults on the final page, inviting the reader — who can be any one of us, child or adult, nursed on a chronic civilizational delusion — to unlearn the artificial severance from the natural world that modern life has inflicted upon us and relearn the creaturely presence with life that radiates from our most elemental humanity.

Be Still, Life comes from the largehearted and singularly imaginative Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such uncommon treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and Bertolt. Complement it with Sidewalk Flowers — another illustrated invitation to living with wakefulness to the world — and Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known, kindred-spirited Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Alan Watts on how to live with presence and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books © Ohara Hale; photographs by Maria Popova


Egon Schiele on What It Means to Be an Artist and Why Visionaries Always Come from the Minority

“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.”

Egon Schiele on What It Means to Be an Artist and Why Visionaries Always Come from the Minority

To be an artist is to have a particular orientation to the world — the interior world and the exterior world — the exact composition of which is somewhat like temperature, impossible to deconstruct into individual phenomenological components without ceasing to be itself. Perhaps this is why the question of what it means to be an artist has been the subject of myriad theories, even the most insightful of which are complementary to one another but inherently incomplete. For James Baldwin, being an artist meant serving as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian”; for Georgia O’Keeffe, it meant “making your unknown known…and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” For Albert Camus, the artist was a person endowed with the courage to create dangerously; for E.E. Cummings, with the courage to be oneself. Virginia Woolf believed it requires a certain “shock-receiving capacity.”

Adding to the richest meditations on the inner life of artists is the visionary Austrian painter Egon Schiele (June 12, 1890–October 31, 1918) — an artist whose uncommon genius and creative courage were cut short by his untimely death at twenty-eight in the grip of the Spanish flu pandemic that had taken the life of his young pregnant wife three days before it claimed his own.

Egon Schiele: Self Portrait with Physalis, 1912

In the spring of 1912, after several exhibitions that scandalized Europe with Schiele’s electric eroticism, the twenty-one-year-old artist was arrested for indecency and imprisoned for twenty-four days while awaiting trial — a trial during which the judge demonstratively burned one of Schiele’s drawings over candle flame. The charges were eventually dropped, but in the course of his arrest, the police raided his humble studio and confiscated more than a hundred drawings they considered pornographic. That summer, Schiele, still shaken by the experience, contemplated what it means to be an artist in a world so often hostile to new ways of looking that challenge the status quo and to the seers who invite the rest of us to view that world with new eyes.

In a letter found in Egon Schiele: Poems and Letters 1910–1912 (public library), he writes:

One needs to observe and experience the world with naïve, pure eyes in order to attain a great weltanschauung; — that is a living cult. — the proper tone is a book which, for some, may be nice to consult, but proves itself completely useless in the world; in other words, there are those who should live through books and those who exist through themselves; who are better? — that is clear. — Few see the sun and everyone else must read novels and novellas in order to finally realize that there is light.

Egon Schiele: Girl (Museum of Modern Art)

Decades after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Schiele considers the power of the visionaries, who are always in the minority:

The “many” are those who are dependent upon each other, — the people. — The “few” are the direct leaders of the world because they introduce only that which is new and are therefore repugnant; that should be clear enough. Beyond that are the fighters — leaders… — One battles against the capital and the philistines; the large spirit wishes to see the smaller one equally large whereas the small spirit forever wishes to overshadow every small spirit around him. — That is a lack of will and whatever else… — Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.

Complement with Rilke, writing a decade earlier, on what it means to be an artist, and Kafka, writing a decade later, on why we make art, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.

Thanks, Neri


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