Stress as Personal Engagement Barometer

"The same circumstances that give rise to stress, also give rise to these positive experiences and that’s what I call the stress paradox. That even though we experience stress in the moment as distressing and we often think of it as being undesirable in our lives, we might wish for a less stressful life."

~ Kelly McGonigal

To Be Fully Alive

Double-crested Cormorants traveling over Lake Champlain, July 6, 2014

Excerpt from "The Pursuit of Happiness" by Phillip Moffitt:

Herein lies the paradox common to mystical teachings in most spiritual traditions: In order to be fully alive, you also have to die. When you cling to the past or future, believing you are holding onto something precious, you are denying what is sacred about life. Your life, with its unique pains and joys, can only be reconciled in your surrender to the truth of your experiences as they arise one moment after another, never fixed, always moving. A beautiful sunrise, a baby's smile, a broken heart, cancer, the loss of love; open fully to the experiences of your life in all their mysterious manifestations. Meet each of these moments with compassion, loving-kindness, and your very best response. Then let loose of each in turn, for however beguiling in their beauty or their horror, they are truly only life dancing."

Read the entire essay...

Limitations and Richness of Experience

Sunny Autumn Day, 1892 George Inness (American, 1825-1894)

"I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content and its purple of resignation and death."

~ Lin Yutang, from My Country and My People

Very Little Pleasure in Joy

Excerpt from "Joy," by Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2013: 

We were heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile. That was joy. But it’s no good thinking about or discussing it. It has no place next to the furious argument about who cleaned the house or picked up the child. It is irrelevant when sitting peacefully, watching an old movie, or doing an impression of two old ladies in a shop, or as I eat a popsicle while you scowl at me, or when working on different floors of the library. It doesn’t fit with the everyday. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?

. . .

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, "It hurts just as much as it is worth.". . . What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.

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Fully Open to the Reality of Relationship

Parque del Retiro, Madrid, August 2012

If we are to hold solitude and community together as a true paradox, we need to deepen our understanding of both poles.

Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one's self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.

Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people — it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.

~ Parker J. Palmer, from A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

[Thanks, Pat!]

The Power of Negative Thinking

The Power of Negative Thinking

"Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it's our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans." 

~ Oliver Burkeman

To Want to See, but Not Being Able To

“There is always a paradox inherent in vision, an impossible desire to see yourself seeing. A lot of my work probes this tension; to want to see, but not being able to."

~ Spencer Finch


“Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).” Photo: Art Evans/Mass MoCA

Excerpt from by Blake Gopnik’s exhibit review of “My Business with the Cloud,” at the Corcoran, Washington Post, September 9, 2010: 

"Passing Cloud," the single, giant piece that he's installed in the Corcoran's grand rotunda, gives a picture of the cloud in its title and of the light that passes through it. It does that by giving us the light itself along with the cloud. High under the room's dome Finch has suspended a huge "cloud" assembled from 110 crumpled theatrical gels in an assortment of pale blues and grays. Light piercing the rotunda's skylight passes through the tangle of filters on its way to us below, so that it winds up matching the blueness and brightness of the light we'd see on a bright day under a passing cloud.

Finch could have given us that cloud by painting or photographing it, like his great cloud-art predecessors John Constable and Alfred Stieglitz. But he prefers to make cloud art that actually works on us the way a cloud-filled reality would. Cross from one side of the rotunda to the other, while keeping your eyes focused on your hands or clothes, and you see the light on them pass from blue to a sunny yellow-white.

One way to understand Finch's piece, then, is to keep your eyes turned away from it. There aren't many other art works you can say that about. Is a cloud mostly about what it happens to look like or what it does? For Finch, it's the doing that matters.

NOW: Spencer Finch at the Corcoran from Corcoran Gallery of Art on Vimeo.

*     *     *     *     *

Excerpt from “Trying to Capture a Trick of Light, a Tug of Memory,” by Bridget L. Goodbody, New York Times, June 19, 2007:

In “What Time Is It on the Sun?” Spencer Finch takes viewers on a journey — equal parts psycho-autobiography, travel log and science experiment — to demonstrate that even with light and eyes, vision doesn’t give you unmediated access to the world.

Because he often uses light and color as his primary tools, it’s easy to place Mr. Finch among artists like James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson. But while Mr. Turrell’s goal is to illuminate light’s transcendent qualities, and Mr. Eliasson’s is to emphasize humanity’s place in nature’s construction, Mr. Finch wants to replicate, through scientific means, his experience of light and color in a specific place and at a specific time…

Mr. Finch is at his best when both the art and the science in his work embrace the poetic, as they do, literally, in “Peripheral Error (After Moritake).” These watercolors, exquisite small spots of jewel-like colors on otherwise large, blank sheets of paper, portray a butterfly — not head on, but out of the corner of the artist’s eye. The series pays homage to a haiku by the Japanese poet Moritake:

The falling flower

I saw drift back to the branch

was a butterfly

Cymothoe Coccinata
22” x 30”, Watercolor on Paper.

The Fool in Me

“I must learn to love the fool in me, the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes to many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and break promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool.”

~ Theodore Isaac Rubin


Understanding a Mask as a Mask

From Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls by Norman Fischer:

Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls It may seem surprising, or quite counterintuitive, that finally arriving home would require us, first of all, to take great care to conceal ourselves. Doesn’t coming home mean coming home to our true selves, finally dropping all the masks and standing revealed as we are? Why then is such caution, such deception, necessary?

Perhaps dropping the masks requires that we put them on. This is paradoxical, yet true to life. It’s naïve to think that there’s a real self behind all the masks, and that when we take off the masks we will find that self. In fact, there’s no way not to wear a mask. Our masks are our deceptive, partial, social identities that enable us to operate in the world, to reach out to one another, so that we can be revealed. Wherever we are we’ve got to be somebody. We always have a role to play. At work we are workers, professionals, managers; in our personal lives we are friends, acquaintances, relatives; at home we are fathers, mothers, spouses, siblings. In the course of any day we put on and take off masks many times. These masks can sometimes make us weary, especially if we feel we have become only a mask. We can long for a freedom beyond our roles, a place of quiet and truth. This is what our hearts have yearned for; this is why we’ve been journeying all this time toward home.

But once again we’ve mixed things up, we haven’t looked closely enough, we’ve failed to reckon on the complexity and paradoxical nature of the situation. Just as we have seen that true awareness includes unconsciousness, sleep, and dreams, now we see that fully revealing ourselves requires masks. To think we can throw off the masks and emerge pristinely as “I” is to be like the father who thinks he can be a pal, rather than a dad, to his son. He can be a pal, but only by wearing the dad mask. Understanding a mask as a mask, we can wear it properly. Wearing it properly, we can find out what’s behind it. A close friend of mine, a Zen priest and business coach, states this succinctly in one of his “business paradoxes.” “At work we should be completely ourselves,” he writes. “And we must play a role.” This wise saying applies to all spheres of life.

Give and Take

Excerpt from “Chopin’s ‘Soul and Heart’,” by Byron Janis, The Wall Street Journal (March 9, 2010):

No word is more important in describing the playing of Chopin's music than rubato. It comes from the Italian word robare, to rob, but in music it means "give and take." If you steal a little time here, you've got to give it back. For example, in playing a melodic phrase, if you go forward in the first two bars, you must pull back in the next two so that the freedom you took does not break the rhythmical pulse. The classic feeling will come from the left hand, which Chopin insisted should be played as evenly as possible. Then the right hand can have its romance and play as freely as the left hand will allow. Every performer will use that freedom differently, and that is the beauty of the "disciplined freedom" that makes Chopin Chopin.

Chopin said the Polish word zal—a "bittersweet melancholy"—best described much of his music. Paradoxically, it can also mean anger, even rage, an emotion also found in Chopin's musical vocabulary. Schumann agreed, describing Chopin's music as "cannons buried in flowers." For example, listen to the Ballade in G-minor and the Scherzo in C-sharp minor.

Massimiliano Ferrati plays Chopin's Ballade in G-minor

Artur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor

A Beguiling Call to Death

Johnny Quid’s (Toby Kebbell) cigarette monologue from RocknRolla (2008):

You see that pack of Virginia killing sticks on the end of the piano? All you need to know about life is retained within those four walls.

You will notice that one of your personalities is seduced by the illusions of grandeur. A gold packet of king size with a regal insignia. An attractive implication toward glamour and wealth. A subtle suggestion that cigarettes are indeed your royal and loyal friends. And that, Pete, is a lie.

Your other personality is trying to draw your attention to the flip side of the discussion.  Written in boring, bold, black and white, is the statement that these neat little soldiers of death, are, in fact, trying to kill you. And that, Pete, is the truth.

Oh, beauty is a beguiling call to death and I'm addicted to the sweet pitch of its siren.

That that starts sweet ends bitter. And that which starts bitter ends sweet.

An Adaptive Response to Affliction

Excerpt from “Depression’s Upside,” by Jonah Lehrer, New York Times Sunday Magazine (February 25, 2010):

The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

Boredom as a Delight

Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation "Boredom has many aspects: there is the sense that nothing is happening, that something might happen, or even that what we would like to happen might replace that which is not happening. Or, one might appreciate boredom as a delight. The practice of meditation could be described as relating with cool boredom, refreshing boredom, boredom like a mountain stream. It refreshes because we do not have to do anything or expect anything. But there must be some sense of discipline if we are to get beyond the frivolity of trying to replace boredom...As we realize that nothing is happening, strangely we begin to realize that something dignified is happening. There is no room for frivolity, no room for speed. We just breathe and are there. There is something very satisfying and wholesome about it. It is as though we had eaten a good meal and were satisfied with it, in contrast to eating and trying to satisfy oneself. It is a very simple-minded approach to sanity."

~ Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation

Into Great Silence

Genuine contemplative practices are difficult to describe with words. Director Philip Gröning captures the ineffable experience of daily monastic life by letting it speak without words for itself in Into Great Silence. It took him sixteen years to get permission to spend six months filming inside a nearly thousand-year old monastery in the French Alps. We were fortunate for the opportunity to see the documentary over the past weekend at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

The rhythms and repetition of the monastic routine whispered its secret: there is far too much noise and confusion in our contemporary lives. I have learned from direct experience that there is deep satisfaction gained from giving up talking, eye contact, news, weather reports, cell phones, television, movies, the Internet, and email even for a few days at a time. We assume that great simplicity results in intense boredom and can be surprised to discover the opposite. Iimagine the possibilities of developing an ability to be fascinated by boredom and completely absorbed in it.

Just as in meditation practice, not every sitting period can be overflowing with bliss. Impatience and even boredom provide their own lessons. I have sat countless times waiting and pleading for someone to strike a bell to release me from the exponential expansion of discomfort during a long period of  meditation. At times during this 162 minute film, I found myself wanting it to end. But that seems to be one aspect of this film's brilliance, its ability to convey so much without handing us explanations, analysis, background, or biography.

What a rare and generous gift: to glimpse the quiet insights acquired by those who give up everything in order to discover them before drifting back out into the noise we've surrounded ourselves with like a threadbare security blanket, wondering what it is in life that truly brings happiness.

I read somewhere recently that renunciation is not so much about relinquishing ownership of personal possessions as it is about profoundly embracing the reality that everything is impermanent.

See also: