“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”
By Maria Popova
“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend. Somehow, despite our sincerest intentions, we repeatedly fall short of this earthly divinity, so readily available yet so easily elusive. And yet in our culture, it has been aptly observed, “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” In his stirring Syracuse commencement address, George Saunders confessed with unsentimental ruefulness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” I doubt any decent person, upon candid reflection, would rank any other species of regret higher. To be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. To be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.
In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a reliable springboard for these moral leaps by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project.
In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.
Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:
The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.
Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.
You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.
In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:
Kindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.
After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:
Love is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.
Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.
“The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world.”
By Maria Popova
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity,” Walt Whitman wrote in contemplating the central paradox of the self. And yet the most paradoxical feature of consciousness might be precisely the elusiveness of the self in an identity composed of porous, ever-shifting multitudes. A century after Whitman, the Austrian poet, playwright, and novelist Thomas Bernhard addressed this in his exquisite meditation on the attendant paradox of self-observation: “If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, [for then] we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else.”
Nearly a century after Woolf and many turns of the cultural wheel after Whitman, the German psychologist and chronobiologist Marc Wittmann — a pioneer in the research on time perception — takes up these enormous, elemental questions in Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self (public library), translated by Philippa Hurd. Weaving together the phenomenology of perception, clinical research in psychiatry and neurobiology, patient case studies, philosophy, literature, and landmark experiments from psychology labs around the world, Wittmann examines the extremes of consciousness — near-death experiences, epilepsy, intensive meditation, psychedelics, mental illness — to shed light on the abiding enigmas of what consciousness actually is, how body, self, space, and time intertwine, where the boundaries of the self are located, why the dissolution of those boundaries might be the supreme wellspring of happiness, and how consciousness of time and consciousness of self co-create each other to construct our experience of who we are.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the closing verse of Ursula K. Le Guin’s splendid “Hymn to Time” — “Time is being and being / time, it is all one thing, / the shining, the seeing, / the dark abounding.” — Wittmann writes:
Altered states of consciousness very often go hand in hand with an altered perception of space and time… Ultimately our perception and our thoughts are organized in terms of space and time. Extraordinary states of consciousness must therefore also affect space and time.
In consonance with Borges’s timeless refutation of time — “Time is the substance I am made of. 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.” — Wittmann adds:
Subjective time and consciousness, felt time, and experience of self are closely related: I am my time; through my experience of self I reach a feeling of time. If we have a better understanding of the subjective experience of time, then important aspects of self-consciousness will also have been understood better.
In extraordinary states of consciousness — moments of shock, meditation, sudden mystical experiences, near-death experiences, under the influence of drugs — temporal consciousness is fundamentally altered. Hand in hand with this goes an altered consciousness of space and self. In these extreme circumstances, time and concepts of space and self are modulated together — intensified or weakened together. But in more ordinary situations, too, such as boredom, the experience of flow, and idleness, time and self are collectively altered.
Wittmann points to one fundamental difference between our sense of time and our other senses, which highlights the centrality of time perception to our experience of selfhood:
The sense of time is “embodied” in a more all-encompassing way than the other senses. Ultimately, time perception is not mediated by a specific sense organ, as happens in the case of the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch. There is no sense organ for time. Subjective time as a sense of self is a physically and emotionally felt wholeness of our entire self through time.
And yet in his own research at UC San Diego, Wittmann located if not a separate sense organ, at least a particular brain region chiefly responsible for our sense of time. Using fMRI, he and his team furnished the first systematic empirical evidence that time perception is encoded in body signals governed by the insula — a fragment of the cerebral cortex folded deep within each lobe of the brain, already implicated by earlier research as a crucial locus of consciousness involved in emotion, self-awareness, and social interaction. With an eye to the delicate interleaving between our bodies and our minds, Wittmann writes:
The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct, but rather the organism interacts as a whole with the environment… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world. Or, to put it another way, subjective experience means living that is embodied in the environment and social interaction with other people.
The bodily feelings that are linked to the insula — body temperature, pain, muscular contractions, physical contact, and signals from the gut — are also an integral component of emotions and trigger positive or negative feelings. Short-term affects as well as longer-lasting moods are essential for the modulation of the sense of time.
In fact, some of the most compelling evidence for the self as a temporal entity comes from the various experiments and case studies indicating that people with disrupted mental and mood states exhibit impaired time perception. Depression, which William Styron so memorably described as a “smothering confinement” in prolonged despair, dilates the perception of time to a tortuous degree. Citing a study in which patients hospitalized for depression demonstrated strong positive correlation between the severity of their symptoms and their inability to correctly estimate time, Wittmann writes:
People suffering from depression are temporally desynchronized; their internal speed does not match the speed of the social environment. Depressiveness and sadness, expressed in a negative self-image, self-blaming, and a feeling of worthlessness, among other things, go hand in hand with the intensified, unpleasant sensation of time passing more slowly.
In addiction, time becomes arrhythmic. When intoxicated by a stimulant, thoughts and actions speed up from their ordinary rate but the brain fails to encode these sped-up experiences as proper memories. During withdrawal, the opposite happens — time dilates and expands. Hyperfocus on the present craving for the drug makes the tortuous physical symptoms seem interminable and a dependency-free future seem infinitely distant. Wittmann sums up the cruel temporal trap of addiction:
In a state of addiction the individual loses his or her temporal freedom — the freedom to choose between present and future opportunities.
In schizophrenia, the temporal disruption is even more pronounced — the continuous unity as which the “self” is ordinarily experienced shatters into fragmentary moments that seem to freeze in time, preventing the person from integrating past, present, and future into a cohesive picture of being. Reflecting on patients’ consistent reports of time standing still, of all future perspective vanishing, and of feeling like they themselves are dissolving, Wittmann writes:
In schizophrenia, the continuity of temporal experience and with it the continuity of the self are disturbed. It is as if the “self” is stuck in the present. Time no longer moves on, and seems to stand still. Temporal standstill means the standstill of the subject. Normally we experience ourselves as a unity of our self. Our focus on anticipated events kick-starts our preparations for action. Mental presence means that we integrate past, present, and anticipated experience into a whole that is our self. As conscious beings we are constituted through self-experience in the three temporal modes… In schizophrenia… the dynamic of the passing of time, which underlies the subjectivity of all our experience, no longer functions. Because subjective time “gets stuck,” the experience of the self that depends on the underlying dynamic temporal structure is impaired. Without the dynamic of this temporal flow, the “self” collapses into fragments of now.
Boredom actually means that we find ourselves boring. It’s the intensive self-reference: we are bored with ourselves. We are tired of ourselves.
In boredom we are completely time and completely self — inner emptiness. Now I am I and nothing else — a surfeit of being oneself, in most cases when one is alone, but sometimes also being lonely when being with others.
If time unspools interminably in boredom, it races so rapidly as to vanish during creative flow. In such a state, one experiences the positive counterpart to the dissolution of the self schizophrenic patients report. Wittmann limns the experience:
On the one hand we have achieved something that will be permanent — writing this text, solving a syntax problem in programming — but our life as a whole has almost disappeared for minutes or even hours. We were concentrating fully and completely on the matter at hand, but in doing so we did not notice ourselves: a loss of the experience of both self and time. Expressing it negatively this way also shows how the perception of self and that of time are jointly modulated.
In the seconds of waking up, as the narrative self is not updating, consciousness is focused on something nevertheless: it is the physical self that is at the center of perception and thought, which enables the differentiation between the self and non-self. Under normal circumstances we are aware of our experiences, memories, and expectations, the objects of our consciousness. Below the surface, however, we also have a minimal self, the egocentric anchor of all experiences that in the above-mentioned situation of memoryless awakening is suddenly experienced very clearly, as the usual objects of our consciousness, perceptions, and memories are missing. I am thrown back upon myself.
In such a case the experience of self can be understood as an “ego-pole.” My “ego-subject” is focused on an “ego-object”: I perceive myself. However, there is a fundamental problem here, as the ego-object is categorically different from the ego-subject. If we observe ourselves self-referentially — that is, the ego-subject observes itself — it always observes itself as an ego-object.
In the transition from sleeping to waking we experience the boundaries of our usual state of self. Every time we wake we become conscious of our selves once again; we are inserted into our state of awakeness. But in isolated cases the process of becoming conscious does not happen seamlessly — the ego does not recognize itself. Through such moments we have the opportunity to investigate the enigma of consciousness, revealing how the conscious self depends on factors yet to be determined, which are constitutive of self-consciousness.
Scientific research on the effects of LSD and psilocybin has shown clearly that the states of consciousness involve striking changes in perception, emotions, and ideas, and also in the ways they are described: time, space, and the experience of self are dramatically altered. These changes are comparable only with other extreme states of consciousness such as occur in dreams, in mystical and religious ecstasy, or in acute psychotic phases in the early stage of schizophrenia. The dimensions of mystical experience include oneness of the self with the universe, the feeling of timelessness and spacelessness, the most intense feelings of happiness, and the certainty of experiencing a sacred truth which is, however, indescribable. The latter is the feeling of looking behind the veil of reality and seeing the immutable (that is, timeless and spaceless) truth of the world in its entirety.
Research into the mystical experience of the disintegration of time and the self under the influence of hallucinogens is a way toward understanding human consciousness.
It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.
That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?
Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:
For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.
With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:
I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.
One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.
I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.
But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:
I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.
Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.
The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.
So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.
The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.
As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.
The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”
To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.
When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.
So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.
I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.
So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.
This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:
Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.
Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:
Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.
This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:
Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.
To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.
As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.
Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:
It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.
One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.
Partway in time between O’Keeffe and Duras, a lovely answer comes from the imaginative and prolific mid-century children’s book author and artist (and, later, Peabody-winning documentary journalist) Helen Borten in her 1959 picture-book Do You See What I See? (public library) — a poetic primer on the building blocks of the perceptual world: line, shape, and color.
Although the foundations of art rest upon these elements, Borten also shines a sidewise gleam at the foundations of science. In depicting a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty,” she suggests not only aesthetic beauty but mathematical beauty. There is a Euclidean splendor to her bold illustrations, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques, and her lyrical words. “Bend a line far enough,” she tells the reader, “it becomes a circle.”
Up and down lines pull me up, up, up with them, until I feel as tall as a steeple and as taut as a stretched rubber band. I think of lofty things — giant redwood trees a lighthouse rising above the sea, a rocket soaring high into the sky, noble kings in flowing robes.
At the heart of the book is a primer not only on what and how to see, but also on what and how to be. Two centuries after William Blake asserted that “as a man is, so he sees,” Borten invites the young reader to become the sort of person who sees the world with uncynical eyes of wonder and generous curiosity.
I see the world as a great big painting, full of lines and shapes and colors, to look at and enjoy.