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Getting Out of Your Own Light: Aldous Huxley on Mind-Body Integration and How You Become Who You Are

“In all the activities of life, from the simplest physical activities to the highest intellectual and spiritual activities, our whole effort must be to get out of our own light.”

Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963) endures as one of the most visionary and unusual minds of the twentieth century — a man of strong convictions about drugs, democracy, and religion and immensely prescient ideas about the role of technology in human life; a prominent fixture of Carl Sagan’s reading list; and the author of a little-known allegorical children’s book.

In one of his twenty-six altogether excellent essays in The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment (public library), Huxley sets out to answer the question of who we are — an enormous question that, he points out, entails a number of complex relationships: between and among humans, between humanity and nature, between the cultural traditions of different societies, between the values and belief systems of the present and the past.

Aldous Huxley

Writing in 1955, more than two decades after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley considers the stakes in this ultimate act of bravery:

What are we in relation to our own minds and bodies — or, seeing that there is not a single word, let us use it in a hyphenated form — our own mind-bodies? What are we in relation to this total organism in which we live?

[…]

The moment we begin thinking about it in any detail, we find ourselves confronted by all kinds of extremely difficult, unanswered, and maybe unanswerable questions.

These unanswerable questions, the value of which the great Hannah Arendt would extol as the basis of our civilization two decades later, challenge the very “who” of who we are. Huxley illustrates this with a most basic example:

I wish to raise my hand. Well, I raise it. But who raises it? Who is the “I” who raises my hand? Certainly it is not exclusively the “I” who is standing here talking, the “I” who signs the checks and has a history behind him, because I do not have the faintest idea how my hand was raised. All I know is that I expressed a wish for my hand to be raised, whereupon something within myself set to work, pulled the switches of a most elaborate nervous system, and made thirty or forty muscles — some of which contract and some of which relax at the same instant — function in perfect harmony so as to produce this extremely simple gesture. And of course, when we ask ourselves, how does my heart beat? how do we breathe? how do I digest my food? — we do not have the faintest idea.

[…]

We as personalities — as what we like to think of ourselves as being — are in fact only a very small part of an immense manifestation of activity, physical and mental, of which we are simply not aware. We have some control over this inasmuch as some actions being voluntary we can say, I want this to happen, and somebody else does the work for us. But meanwhile, many actions go on without our having the slightest consciousness of them, and … these vegetative actions can be grossly interfered with by our undesirable thoughts, our fears, our greeds, our angers, and so on…

The question then arises, How are we related to this? Why is it that we think of ourselves as only this minute part of a totality far larger than we are — a totality which according to many philosophers may actually be coextensive with the total activity of the universe?

Illustration from You Are Stardust

At a time when Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern teachings in the West and prominent public figures like Jack Kerouac were turning to Buddhism, Huxley advances this cross-pollination of East and West. With an eye to pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, who was among his greatest influences, he considers the notion that our consciousness is the filtering down of a larger universal consciousness, distilled in a way that benefits our survival:

Obviously, if we have to get out of the way of the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, it is no good being aware of everything that is going on in the universe; we have to be aware of the approaching bus. And this is what the brain does for us: It narrows the field down so that we can go through life without getting into serious trouble.

But … we can and ought to open ourselves up and become what in fact we have always been from the beginning, that is to say … much more widely knowing than we normally think we are. We should realize our identity with what James called the cosmic consciousness and what in the East is called the Atman-Brahman. The end of life in all great religious traditions is the realization that the finite manifests the Infinite in its totality. This is, of course, a complete paradox when it is stated in words; nevertheless, it is one of the facts of experience.

But this deeper and more expansive sense of self, Huxley argues, is habitually obscured by the superficial shells we mistake for our selves:

The superficial self — the self which we call ourselves, which answers to our names and which goes about its business — has a terrible habit of imagining itself to be absolute in some sense… We know in an obscure and profound way that in the depths of our being … we are identical with the divine Ground. And we wish to realize this identity. But unfortunately, owing to the ignorance in which we live — partly a cultural product, partly a biological and voluntary product — we tend to look at ourselves, at this wretched little self, as being absolute. We either worship ourselves as such, or we project some magnified image of the self in an ideal or goal which falls short of the highest ideal or goal, and proceed to worship that.

Huxley admonishes against “the appalling dangers of idolatry” — a misguided attempt at communion with a greater truth that, in fact, renders us all the more separate:

Idolatry is … the worship of a part — especially the self or projection of the self — as though it were the absolute totality. And as soon as this happens, general disaster occurs.

Illustration by Giselle Potter from To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays — Gertrude Stein’s little-known alphabet book.

Nearly half a century before Adrienne Rich lamented “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions” in her spectacular critique of capitalism, Huxley argues that the uses and misuses of language mediate our relationship with the self and are responsible for our tendency to confuse the deeper self with the superficial self:

This is the greatest gift which man has ever received or given himself, the gift of language. But we have to remember that although language is absolutely essential to us, it can also be absolutely fatal because we use it wrongly. If we analyze our processes of living, we find that, I imagine, at least 50 percent of our life is spent in the universe of language. We are like icebergs, floating in a sea of immediate experience but projecting into the air of language. Icebergs are about four-fifths under water and one-fifth above. But, I would say, we are considerably more than that above. I should say, we are the best part of 50 percent — and, I suspect, some people are about 80 percent above in the world of language. They virtually never have a direct experience; they live entirely in terms of concepts.

It’s a sentiment triply poignant today, in an era when the so-called social media rely on language — both textual and the even more commodified visual language of photography — to convey and to manicure our conceptual perception of each other, often at the expense of the deeper truth of who we are. To be sure, Huxley recognizes that this reliance on concepts is evolutionarily necessary — another sensemaking mechanism for narrowing and organizing the uncontainable chaos of reality into comprehensible bits:

When we see a rose, we immediately say, rose. We do not say, I see a roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks. We immediately pass from the actual experience to the concept.

[…]

We cannot help living to a very large extent in terms of concepts. We have to do so, because immediate experience is so chaotic and so immensely rich that in mere self-preservation we have to use the machinery of language to sort out what is of utility for us, what in any given context is of importance, and at the same time to try to understand—because it is only in terms of language that we can understand what is happening. We make generalizations and we go into higher and higher degrees of abstraction, which permit us to comprehend what we are up to, which we certainly would not if we did not have language. And in this way language is an immense boon, which we could not possibly do without.

But language has its limitations and its traps.

Much like Simone Weil argued that the language of algebra hijacked the scientific understanding of reality in the early twentieth century, Huxley asserts that verbal language is leading us to mistake the names we give to various aspects of reality for reality itself:

In general, we think that the pointing finger — the word — is the thing we point at… In reality, words are simply the signs of things. But many people treat things as though they were the signs and illustrations of words. When they see a thing, they immediately think of it as just being an illustration of a verbal category, which is absolutely fatal because this is not the case. And yet we cannot do without words. The whole of life is, after all, a process of walking on a tightrope. If you do not fall one way you fall the other, and each is equally bad. We cannot do without language, and yet if we take language too seriously we are in an extremely bad way. We somehow have to keep going on this knife-edge (every action of life is a knife-edge), being aware of the dangers and doing our best to keep out of them.

This, perhaps, is why David Whyte — as both a poet and a philosopher — is so well poised to unravel the deeper, truer meanings of common words.

Illustration by Giselle Potter from To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein

The root of our over-reliance on language, Huxley argues, lies in our flawed education system, which is predominantly verbal at the expense of experiential learning. (A similar lament led young Susan Sontag to radically remix the timeline of education.) In a prescient case for today’s rise of tinkering schools and mind-body training for kids, Huxley writes:

The liberal arts … are little better than they were in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages the liberal arts were entirely verbal. The only two which were not verbal were astronomy and music… Although for hundreds of years we have been talking about mens sana in corpore sano, we really have not paid any serious attention to the problem of training the mind-body, the instrument which has to do with the learning, which has to do with the living. We give children compulsory games, a little drill, and so on, but this really does not amount in any sense to a training of the mind-body. We pour this verbal stuff into them without in any way preparing the organism for life or for understanding its position in the world — who it is, where it stands, how it is related to the universe. This is one of the oddest things.

Moreover, we do not even prepare the child to have any proper relation with its own mind-body.

Long before Buckminster Fuller admonished against the evils of excessive specialization and Leo Buscaglia penned his magnificent critique of the education system’s industrialized conformity, Huxley writes:

One of the reasons for the lack of attention to the training of the mind-body is that this particular kind of teaching does not fall into any academic pigeonhole. This is one of the great problems in education: Everything takes place in a pigeonhole… The pigeonholes must be there because we cannot avoid specialization; but what we do need in academic institutions now is a few people who run about on the woodwork between the pigeonholes, and peep into all of them and see what can be done, and who are not closed to disciplines which do not happen to fit into any of the categories considered as valid by the present educational system!

The solution to this paralyzing rigidity, Huxley argues, lies in combining “relaxation and activity.” In a sentiment that calls to mind the Chinese concept of wu-wei“trying not to try” — he writes:

Take the piano teacher, for example. He always says, Relax, relax. But how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? Yet they have to relax. The singing teacher and the golf pro say exactly the same thing. And in the realm of spiritual exercises we find that the person who teaches mental prayer does too. We have somehow to combine relaxation with activity…

The personal conscious self being a kind of small island in the midst of an enormous area of consciousness — what has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what is what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should. In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing.

Two decades before Julia Cameron penned her enduring psychoemotional toolkit for getting out of your own way, Huxley makes a beautiful case for the same idea:

We have to learn, so to speak, to get out of our own light, because with our personal self — this idolatrously worshiped self — we are continually standing in the light of this wider self — this not-self, if you like — which is associated with us and which this standing in the light prevents. We eclipse the illumination from within. And in all the activities of life, from the simplest physical activities to the highest intellectual and spiritual activities, our whole effort must be to get out of our own light.

Illustration by Lizi Boyd from Flashlight

The seed for this lifelong effort, Huxley concludes, must be planted in early education:

These [are] extremely important facets of education, which have been wholly neglected. I do not think that in ordinary schools you could teach what are called spiritual exercises, but you could certainly teach children how to use themselves in this relaxedly active way, how to perform these psychophysical skills without the frightful burden of overcoming the law of reversed effort.

The Divine Within is an illuminating read in its totality, exploring such subjects as time, religion, distraction, death, and the nature of reality. Complement it with Alan Watts on learning to live with presence in the age of anxiety and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.

BP

How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure

“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter. “Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag resolved in her diary on New Year’s Day in 1972. And yet, although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s “outrage culture” for evidence, or to the rise of cynicism as our flawed self-defense mechanism against the perceived perils of kindness. We’ve come to see the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability — too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.

Kindness has become “our forbidden pleasure.”

So argue psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor in the plainly titled, tiny, enormously rewarding book On Kindness (public library).

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Taylor and Phillips write:

The kind life — the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness…

In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.

The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times — in large part thanks to Emerson — did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success. The need for belonging has become an intolerable manifestation of vulnerability — we’ve stopped believing in our own kindness and the merits of mutual belonging, producing what poet and philosopher David Whyte has elegantly termed “our sense of slight woundedness.” On a mission to examine “when and why this confidence evaporated and the consequences of this transformation,” Taylor and Phillips write:

Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names — sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy… The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called “open-heartedness,” the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

Perhaps because open-heartedness is impossible without vulnerability — an open heart is an aperture through which the world can enter us, but also one through which exploitive and cruel forces can penetrate the softest core of who we are without obstruction — the original meaning of and longing for kindness has been calcified by our impulse for armoring and self-protection. Taylor and Phillips write:

Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory… Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympathetic because of our kind-ness… And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where “respect” for personal status has become a leading value.

And yet despite our resistance to kindness, some deeper, dormant part of us still registers it, still cringes upon encountering its absence. This paradoxical relationship with kindness, perhaps more so than anything else, explains the “outrage culture” of the internet:

We usually know what the kind thing to do is — and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not… We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Embedded in our ambivalence about kindness is a special sort of psychological self-sabotage — by denying our own kind impulses, we also deny ourselves the powerful pleasure our acts of kindness produce. Taylor and Phillips consider how, given our natural inclination for kindness, we end up cheating ourselves of this deep spiritual reward:

The forms kindness can take … are partly learned from the societies in which we grow up, and so can be unlearned or badly taught or resisted… Children begin their lives “naturally” kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society.

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

Picking up where Rousseau left off a quarter millennium ago, Phillips and Taylor consider what it takes to nourish our natural benevolence, asserting that it must begin with embracing the very vulnerability from which kindness springs:

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t also resilient and resourceful. Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other.

Illustration by Benji Davies from The Storm Whale

At some point in our lives, however, vulnerability becomes a threat and a trauma. Phillips and Taylor trace the developmental origin of that shift:

The child’s first, formative trauma is his growing acknowledgment of his need for others (in actuality the mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her; parents need their children not to worry them too much). The needy child experiences a trauma of concern (“How can I take care of my mother to ensure that she takes care of me?”), which calls up his natural kindness; but this concern — and the later forms of kindness that emerge from it — is too easily turned away from. This turning away we call self-sufficiency, and when we want to pathologize it we call it narcissism. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we are prone to call failings when we are at our most frightened). Vulnerability — particularly the vulnerability we call desire — is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we both long for and dread.

In a sentiment that echoes Phillips’s illuminating earlier work on why developing a capacity for risk-tolerance is essential to our self-reliance, Taylor and Phillips elegantly capture the dark counterpoint to our tendency to desire safety at whatever the cost:

If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.

[…]

It is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless, it is rather that real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can… Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them.

But rather than a lament, undergirding these observations is a powerful message of hope: For all of its pervasive undertones of and platforms for outrage, contemporary culture — and the digital universe that is part of it — offers fertile new soil in which to grow the natural inclinations that give rise to the pleasure of communion and kindness. Taylor and Phillips capture this beautifully:

By involving us with strangers (even with “foreigners” thousands of miles away), as well as with intimates, [kindness] is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. But … the child needs the adult — and his wider society — to help him keep faith with his kindness, that is, to help him discover and enjoy the pleasures of caring for others… People have long known this, and long forgotten it. The history of kindness … tells the story of this knowing, and forgetting, and reknowing, as central to Western ideas about the good life.

In the remainder of the altogether wonderful and acutely necessary On Kindness, Phillips and Taylor explore how we can build a society that nurtures rather than corrupting our natural kindness by learning, from childhood on, to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable risks of making ourselves vulnerable enough to be kind. Complement it with Einstein on kindness, Brené Brown on the crucial difference between empathy and sympathy, Adam Smith’s underappreciated wisdom on benevolence, and George Saunders’s magnificent commencement address on the power of kindness, then revisit Phillips’s insightful mediations on balance and the necessary excesses of life and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude”.

BP

24-Year-Old William Styron on Happiness, Presence, and the True Measure of Maturity, in a Letter to His Father

“I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most influential writers of the past century, a man as doggedly dedicated to the craft of writing as he was to his unflinching faith in the human ability to discern right from wrong and, based on that discernment, to act nobly, however difficult the choice might be. Nowhere does the wholehearted idealism for which he is most beloved shine more luminously than in a letter Styron sent to his father in the spring of 1949, found in Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — the same marvelous compendium that gave us the young man, while still a senior at Duke, on why a college education is a waste of time for writers.

Right around the time Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West, formulating his enduring ideas on happiness and how to live with presence, 24-year-old Styron arrives at these eternal truths through incredibly insightful introspection, articulated with the intellectual elegance and pulsating prose of a great writer.

Having just moved to New York and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, Styron begins with an endearing rant on rent — second only to Vonnegut’s — certain to delight and mildly infuriate any past or present New Yorker with its embedded testament to the collusion of time, capitalism, and rent gouging:

Dear Pop,

I am writing this letter from my new home in — you wouldn’t believe it — Brooklyn. I arrived in New York a little over a week ago, immediately began hunting around for an apartment, but found that places to live in are still terribly difficult to get, even though I had heard beforehand that things had loosened up somewhat. The last isn’t true at all. You’d think that everyone in the country had converged upon New York, and that each was making a concerted effort to get an apartment, room — even an alcove somewhere. I suppose that it all involves some terrifically complicated economic theory, but it still strikes me as being a gigantic sort of fraud — that one has to knock his brains out and pay away his soul to boot to be able to get a roof over his head and a minimum of the necessities of life.

Brooklyn by pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott from her series ‘Changing New York.’ Click image for more.

But such struggles, young Styron precociously intuits, feed the empathetic muscle that fortifies the heart of all idealism and creative purpose:

I guess it’s merely the fact that I’m politically naïve, and that the way to knowledge is mainly through experience — such experience as I am going through now. I suppose, too, that 99% of the radicals, so-called liberals, and Communists are only that way, not through any a priori, bookish idealism, but because they were broke once, or out in the rain, and had to turn to some politico-economic father confessor. Which from my point of view is all the more reason for bucking life as you see it — artistically speaking, that is — or accepting it, or making the most of it — writing about it faithfully, in the long run, and not getting mixed up with the soothsayers. I suppose that if you really catch hell from life — as an untouchable, say, or a sharecropper — your artistic instincts wither, and you become political. That’s natural enough. But Americans are political enough as it is. We’ve got nearly everything, and we still bitch about this and that at every turn.

Which is all by way of saying that though I somehow resent not being able to settle down in a cozy Greenwich Village apartment at $40 a month, I am still glad to be in Brooklyn in a clean and decent place…

Actually I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m complaining, because this is a pretty nice place by anyone’s standards. It’s in an old weatherbeaten house overlooking Prospect Park. There are plenty of trees around, plenty of grass, and big windows to look at the grass through. I’m in an apartment on the ground floor — two rooms, bath, kitchen, all furnished, $70 a month — the rent being impossible were it not for the fact that I am — or will be in June — sharing the apartment with Bob Loomis of Duke, who is coming to N.Y. to get a job. Split, the rent will be $9 a week, utilities included, which isn’t bad.

Quite apart from the gobsmacking amusement of the then-and-now rent comparison — my own tiny apartment in Brooklyn, mere blocks from Styron’s, costs about fiftyfold as much — there is a deeper reward to his reflections, one found in the mindfulness with which he counters his complaints with an antidote of gratefulness.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Decades before Pico Iyer asserted that “what gives you lasting happiness is not the stuff you have but the use you make of it,” young Styron reflects on the real source of happiness, which has to do with mastering the art of presence, and the true measure of maturity, which requires learning how to be alone and savor one’s own company. He writes:

For some reason, although I’m not exactly ecstatic about the world and life in general, I’m very happy. I don’t know why that should be, as I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally melancholy person.* Maybe the melancholy was merely adolescent, and maybe, though I can’t really sense it, I’m growing up, or reaching an “adjustment,” as the psychologists say. Whatever it is, it’s nice.

It’s not love — love of a girl, that is, because I haven’t found her yet.** It’s not the excitement of being in New York, because I’ve been in New York before and now know how to take with a grain of salt its synthetic stimuli (though I still love New York). Actually I don’t know what it is. For the past four or five days I’ve been alone, not seeing anyone or talking to anyone I know except over the phone. Ordinarily this aloneness would have made me miserable, utterly wretched. But I haven’t minded it at all. I haven’t drunk hardly anything — a few beers, that’s all. And yet I’ve been quite content, suffused with a sort of pleasant well-being that demanded really nothing strenuous of myself, or of anyone else.

Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve gained a measure of Emerson’s self-reliance. Perhaps it’s just that, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel surer of myself than I ever have before — more confident of my worth and my ultimate success, and less fearful of failure.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s wonderful notion of “a seizure of happiness,” Styron describes a quality of vibrant presence at the heart of his contentment:

Maybe — again for some reason I haven’t quite been able to analyze — I’m finding that life excites me, appeals to me in a way I’ve never felt before. I still have awful moments of despair, and I guess I always will, but they don’t seem to be as overpowering as in the past. I don’t take so much pleasure in my despondency any more; I try to throw my bleak moods off — which again perhaps is a sign that I’m growing up.

I don’t know how this novel will turn out. Naturally, I hope it’s good. But best of all is the fact that I’m not afraid of its being bad, literarily speaking, provided I know I’ve done my best. In the meantime I’m taking great pleasure in living, and in being alone without being a recluse. At night, after I’ve worked through the day, I walk up Church Avenue to Flatbush and thence down Flatbush, enjoying every minute of the walk.

Atlantic Terminal Tower, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for more.

But his most heartening insight is the precocious awareness that kindness, selflessness, and empathic understanding are not merely a gift to others but, above all, a gift to ourselves. Nearly a decade before Jack Kerouac advised that you should “practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” and three decades before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Styron tells his father:

It’s somehow all of a sudden wonderfully exciting. Maybe it’s just forgetting one’s self for a minute, not trying to be smug and self-centered and aloof. And I’ve learned to do finally — at least with far less effort and self-consciousness — something that three or four years ago you told me was one of the touchstones of maturity: being nice to people even when they’re not nice to you… I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.

Styron considers the ever-elusive art of balance in his closing lines, planting the seed for the beautiful credo that would come to define his literary legacy:

It’s incredible how one runs about frantically at times like a rat in a maze, not really knowing right from wrong (and often really not caring), victim of one’s own passions and instincts rather than master of one’s own soul. I suppose the proper thing to do is just to stop every now and then and say, Where am I heading? Actually, though I’m still much like the psychologist’s rat, I find myself asking myself that question almost too often. I suppose the very fact that I realize my indulgence in too much introspection is another sign (I hope) of maturity. Too much brooding is unhealthy and, although I still have my slumps, I’ve begun to realize that one of the great secrets is striking a balance between thought and action… Living, acting, thinking; not just vegetating neurotically, on one hand, or blundering about, on the other hand, like so many people do, like trapped flies. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it can be done, and that in this exciting-sorrowful age of ours it can make great literature.

Nineteen years later, Styron would win the Pulitzer Prize for transmuting that hard balance into great literature.

Selected Letters of William Styron is a trove of wisdom in its hefty totality. Complement it with young Hunter S. Thompson’s equally precocious, if bittersweet in hindsight, letter of advice on living a meaningful life and young Sylvia Plath’s breathtaking, and at least as bittersweet in hindsight, letters to her mother on living wholeheartedly.

* Decades later, Styron became painfully reacquainted with his melancholy nature and its deeper pathology — an experience he would come to recount in the 1990 masterwork Darkness Visible, perhaps the most powerful memoir of depression ever written.

** Styron did find the girl four years later in a young Baltimore poet named Rose Burgunder, who soon become Rose Styron and, after loving Bill until his dying day, brought to life this very collection of letters.

BP

A Biologist-Turned-Buddhist and His Philosopher Father on the Nature of the Self and the True Measure of Personal Strength

“You first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”

For the past few centuries, Western philosophy has maintained that human beings are driven by enlightened self-interest — a view predicated on the needs and desires of a solid self. Meanwhile, Eastern philosophies and spiritual traditions have long considered the self an illusion — a view with which modern science has recently begun to side.

These contradictory conceptions of the self as a centerpiece of identity and success, per the Western view, and as an illusion, per the Eastern one, are what French philosopher Jean-François Revel and his biologist-turned-Buddhist son, Matthieu Ricard, explore in their extraordinary conversation, published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (public library).

What makes the conversation particularly compelling is the unusual pairing of perspectives — it is not only an intergenerational dialogue between a father and a son who both possess enormous intellectual potency, but a dialogue between Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality with a strong emphasis on science. The scientific perspective, in fact, comes not from Revel but from Ricard, who gave up a promising career as a molecular biologist — he had worked with Nobel laureate Jacques Monod — to move to Nepal and study Tibetan Buddhism. Doubly significant is Ricard’s route to Buddhism: Raised in the strongly secular home of two prominent French intellectuals — his mother, Revel’s wife, was the painter Yahne Le Toumelin — he grew up with only an intellectual curiosity toward religion and turned to Buddhism not out of disappointment with Western faiths but out of what his father calls “a state of indifference to any religion, a kind of religious weightlessness.”

Matthieu Ricard (right) with his father, Jean-François Revel (Photograph: Raphaelle Demandre)

So in 1999, when Revel traveled to Ricard’s home in Kathmandu and the two sat down for this remarkable intellectual encounter, it was the philosophical rather than the religion dimensions of Buddhism that took center stage as the father and son contemplated such immutable human concerns as free will, the meaning of life, the value of scientific progress, and the pillars of the good life. As they speak, each addresses the other as much as he is confabulating with himself, which results in a masterpiece of the art of conversation at its most elevated and ennobling — an exchange of dynamic contemplation between and within minds, driven not by the self-righteous slinging of opinions but by a deep commitment to mutual understanding and to enriching the shared pool of wisdom.

One of the most pause-giving dimensions of the conversation deals with this notion of the self and its illusory nature. When Revel takes issue with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, pointing out its mystical and scientifically ungrounded suppositions, Ricard emphasizes its metaphorical and philosophical importance over its literal interpretation. Embedded in that notion, he suggests, is the key to unmooring ourselves from the tyranny of the self in the here and now:

It’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some “entity” or other… As long as one thinks in terms of entities rather than function and continuity, it’s impossible to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth.

[…]

Since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together… It’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

Illustration from ‘The Magic Boat’ by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud’s niece. Click image for more.

Ricard likens this concept to “a river without a boat descending along its course” and is careful to point out a common misconception: Although Buddhism denies the existence of the individual self, it doesn’t deny individual consciousness. He explains:

The fact that there’s no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn’t mean that there can’t be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn’t prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there’s no boat floating down the river doesn’t prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we’re trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved.

Echoing the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Ricard argues that this recognition of individual consciousness is central to the dissolution of the ego-shell:

It’s not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we’d never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.

[…]

A nonexistent self can’t really be “abolished,” but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place… whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish… The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it.

Ricard, who has since written about the secret of happiness, considers how our natural, everyday experience of the “I” mutates into the illusion of the self, from which all of our suffering stems:

There’s a natural feeling of self, of “I,” which makes you think “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m walking,” and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn’t specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, “myself,” a “person,” and of “my” body, “my” name, “my” mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Click image for more.

When his father probes how one is expected to effect positive change in the world without a sense of personal agency — another common critique by those who misunderstand the foundational philosophies of Buddhism — Ricard responds:

The wish to allay others’ suffering, which may inspire a whole lifetime’s work, is an admirable ambition. It’s important to distinguish between negative emotions, like desire, hatred, and pride, that solidify still further our self-centered outlook, and positive ones, like altruistic love, compassion, and faith, that allow us to free ourselves little by little from those negative and self-centered tendencies. Positive emotions don’t disturb our mind, they reinforce it and make it more stable and more courageous.

In a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Ricard makes an important distinction between the two types of ambition:

Positive ambition — the pursuit of others’ well-being by all possible means, the fervent wish to transform oneself — is one of the cardinal virtues in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhists nurture one main ambition without any limits, that of removing the suffering of all living beings throughout the whole universe. That sort of ambition stops you succumbing to inertia and makes you strong-minded and determined. So the distinction between the positive and negative, selfless and self-centered sides of ambition is important. You could say that ambition is positive if its aim is to help others. That’s the simplest definition. Conversely, ambition is negative if achieving it is detrimental to others, and an emotion is negative if it destroys your own and others’ inner peace.

He illustrates this with a verse from the eight-century Buddhist sage Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
Is there need for lengthy explanation?
Childish beings look out for themselves,
While Buddhas labor for the good of others:
See the difference that divides them!

With that great Eastern capacity for holding paradox and fusing contradictory concepts into a unity of wisdom, Ricard argues that shedding the ego-shell actually requires first fortifying our ego — more than that, he suggests, true altruism is the product not of selflessness but of a strong sense of self:

Buddhism’s goal of uncovering the “imposture of the ego,” this ego that seems so powerful and causes us so much trouble while having no existence in itself. Nevertheless, as a first step it’s important to stabilize this feeling of a self in order to distinguish all its characteristics. You could say, paradoxically, that you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist. Someone with an unstable, fragmented, amorphous personality has little chance of being able to identify that powerful feeling of “me,” as a prior step to recognizing that it doesn’t correspond to any real entity. So you need to start with a healthy and coherent self to be able to investigate it. You can shoot at a target, but not in fog.

[…]

But it’s important not to think that once the imposture of the ego is unmasked you find yourself in a state of inner nothingness, to the point that the destruction of the personality renders you incapable of acting or communicating. You don’t become an empty container. It’s quite the opposite. When you’re no longer the plaything of an illusory despot, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, your wisdom, love for others and compassion can be freely expressed. It’s a freedom from the limitations imposed by attachment to a self, not at all an anesthesia of the will. This “opening of the eyes of wisdom” increases your strength of mind, your diligence, and your capacity to take appropriate and altruistic action.

Revel contrasts this with the West’s “cult of the self” and our civilizational emphasis on “the strong personality” as a hallmark of success, questioning whether there can be a common ground between cultural and philosophical traditions so diametrically opposed in this regard. But Ricard, once again, meets the problem with semantic lucidity that melts away the apparent conflict:

If by personality you mean exacerbation of the ego, simply to have a strong personality seems to me, unfortunately, a highly dubious criterion of success. Hitler and Mao Tse-tung had very strong personalities.

Illustration by André François from ‘Little Boy Brown’ by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s famous assertion that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult… and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Ricard adds:

It’s important not to confuse strong individuality and strength of mind. The great teachers I’ve been able to meet had indomitable strength of mind. You could say they had very impressive personalities, and that they radiated a sort of natural strength that everyone who met them could perceive. But the big difference was that you couldn’t find the slightest trace of ego in them. I mean the kind of ego that inspires selfishness and self-centeredness. Their strength of mind came from knowledge, serenity, and inner freedom that were outwardly manifested as an unshakable certainty. They were worlds apart from Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and the like, whose powerful personalities arose from an unbridled desire to dominate, and from pride, greed, or hatred. In both cases, we’re faced with immense power, but in the first that power is a flow of constructive altruism, while in the second it’s negative and destructive.

The Monk and the Philosopher is a remarkable read in its totality, addressing with enormous depth and dimension such aspects of the human experience as happiness, suffering, education, ethics, and love. Complement it with D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character and Jack Kerouac’s Zen-inspired meditation on the self illusion and “the golden eternity,” then revisit Albert Einstein and the Indian philosopher Tagore’s historic conversation entwining Eastern and Western perspectives with great mutual curiosity and goodwill.

BP

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