wisdom

We Need Reminders

We Need Reminders

"The choice isn’t between religion and the secular world, as it is now — the challenge is to learn from religions so we can fill the secular world with replacements for the things we long ago made up religion to provide. The challenge begins here."

~ Alain de Botton

Born from Within

Baroque Library Hall at the Klementinum in Prague"Wisdom does not loom large in the modern psyche. It has been replaced by knowledge, which does not pretend to emotive value; in its least appealing forms, it even eschews such associations. It is strictly about things and the manipulation of them; and, unsurprisingly, it’s directed outwardly, towards the technologies of life and not their meanings. So we have many people who, externally speaking, are able but not wise; active but not prudent.

And perhaps this defines our society and our age as much as any other set of words: activity without prudence, or, imprudent doing.

To have prudence is to have foresight, to attend to. But attention is born from within, not from outward circumstances; and in the great esoteric traditions, as well as the traditional religions, attention is of a divine origin, not a worldly one."

~ Lee van Laer, on "Inner Wisdom," from Parabola Magazine, Spring 2014

Read the full article... 

Freed from the Factitious Urgencies of Earlier Days

Oliver Sacks

Excerpt from "The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)," by Oliver Sacks, The New York Times, July 6, 2013:

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

I am looking forward to being 80.

Read the entire editorial...


See also: "William Maxwell, the 'Wisest, Kindest' Writer," Fresh Air, Jan. 25, 2008

The Difference Between Wisdom and Understanding

Excerpt from The Forms of Things Unknown: An Essay on the Impact of the Technological Revolution on the Creative Arts by Herbert Read:

Le Penseur (The Thinker), Auguste RodinA distinction which runs through the whole development of human thought has become blurred during the past two hundred years. Implicit in all ancient philosophy, acknowledged by medieval scholastics and the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, and even by Locke and Newton, is a difference of kind, if not of value, between wisdom and understanding.

By wisdom was meant an intuitive apprehension of truth, and the attitude involved was receptive or contemplative. Intellectus was the name given to this faculty in the Middle Ages.

Understanding, on the other hand, was always a practical or constructive activity, and ratio was its name — the power by means of which we perceive, know, remember and judge sensible phenomena. Philosophy was conceived as an endeavour to perfect this constructive power of the mind as an aid to wisdom.

To clarify perception, excluding all distortions due to emotion and prejudice; to analyse statements so that our knowledge is consistent; to establish facts, so that our memory is consolidated; to bring the inquiring will into harmony with the intuitive intellect, so that our judgment is true and constant — such have been the aims of all who called themselves philosophers.


See also: "The Forms of Things Unknown: A 1963 Essay on the Role of the Creative Arts in Society," Brain Pickings, August 29, 2012

Mature Wisdom

Topiary Park, November 4, 2012

"Wisdom, the Buddha says, starts with a simple question: What actions will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?

The wisdom here lies in realizing that your happiness depends on what you do, and that the pursuit of happiness is worthwhile only if it’s long-term.

The test of how far your wisdom has matured lies in the strategic skill with which you can keep yourself from doing things that you like to do but that would cause long-term harm, and the skill with which you can talk yourself into doing things that you don’t like to do but that would lead to long-term well-being and happiness.

In other words, mature wisdom requires a mature ego."

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from "Hang On To Your Ego," Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2007

The Ego Will Be Asked to Open to Something Larger

"The ego wishes comfort, security, satiety; the soul demands meaning, struggle, becoming. The contention of these two voices sometimes tears us apart. Ordinary ego consciousness is crucified by these polarities. Again, the paradox emerges that in our suffering, in our symptoms, are profound clues as to the meaning of the struggle, yet the path of healing is very difficult for the apprehensive ego to accept, for the ego will be asked to be open to something larger than itself."

~ James Hollis, from Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up

More than Enough

Satan in his Original Glory: 'Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee', William Blake, circa 1805

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.<
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
...

Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

~ William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Proverbs of Hell)

What Young People Really Need to Hear about What Lies Ahead

The below essay was adaptated from Charles Wheelan's new book, 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, and was posted on the The Wall Street Journal site, April 30, 2012 (Thanks, Liz!):

Class of 2012,

I became sick of commencement speeches at about your age. My first job out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. Every spring, I would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds—which was quite a feat given that I was 23 at the time. In the decades since, I've spent most of my career teaching economics and public policy. In particular, I've studied happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. And I've found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead. Here, then, is what I wish someone had told the Class of 1988:

1. Your time in fraternity basements was well spent.

The same goes for the time you spent playing intramural sports, working on the school newspaper or just hanging with friends. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your postgraduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years.

2. Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation is a happy day. But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I'll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple. The only difference between when I graduated and today is that now no one can afford to retire.

3. Don't make the world worse. I know that I'm supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I'm going to lower the bar here: Just don't use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that "changing the world" also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.

4. Marry someone smarter than you are. When I was getting a Ph.D., my wife Leah had a steady income. When she wanted to start a software company, I had a job with health benefits. (To clarify, having a "spouse with benefits" is different from having a "friend with benefits.") You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water. I also want to alert you to the fact that commencement is like shooting smart fish in a barrel. The Phi Beta Kappa members will have pink-and-blue ribbons on their gowns. The summa cum laude graduates have their names printed in the program. Seize the opportunity!

5. Help stop the Little League arms race. Kids' sports are becoming ridiculously structured and competitive. What happened to playing baseball because it's fun? We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey. We know that success isn't about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. Yet the message we are sending from birth is that if you don't make the traveling soccer team or get into the "right" school, then you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else. That's not right. You'll never read the following obituary: "Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place."

6. Read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives. [Portraits of Grief, The New York Times]

7. Your parents don't want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn't always the same thing. There is a natural instinct to protect our children from risk and discomfort, and therefore to urge safe choices. Theodore Roosevelt—soldier, explorer, president—once remarked, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed." Great quote, but I am willing to bet that Teddy's mother wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer.

8. Don't model your life after a circus animal. Performing animals do tricks because their trainers throw them peanuts or small fish for doing so. You should aspire to do better. You will be a friend, a parent, a coach, an employee—and so on. But only in your job will you be explicitly evaluated and rewarded for your performance. Don't let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one tossing you peanuts. If you leave a work task undone in order to meet a friend for dinner, then you are "shirking" your work. But it's also true that if you cancel dinner to finish your work, then you are shirking your friendship. That's just not how we usually think of it.

9. It's all borrowed time. You shouldn't take anything for granted, not even tomorrow. I offer you the "hit by a bus" rule. Would I regret spending my life this way if I were to get hit by a bus next week or next year? And the important corollary: Does this path lead to a life I will be happy with and proud of in 10 or 20 years if I don't get hit by a bus.

10. Don't try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.

Good luck and congratulations.

We Have Secularized Badly

Excerpts from "Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0," TED Talks, July 2011:

There are many, many gaps in secular life and these can be plugged. It's not as though either you have religion and then you have to accept all sorts of things, or you don't have religion and then you're cut off from all these very good things. It's so sad that we constantly say, "I don't believe so I can't have community, so I'm cut off from morality, so I can't go on a pilgrimage." One wants to say, "Nonsense. Why not?" And that's really the spirit of my talk. There's so much we can absorb. Atheism shouldn't cut itself off from the rich sources of religion.

We need to be polite about differences. Politeness is a much-overlooked virtue. It's seen as hypocrisy. But we need to get to a stage when you're an atheist and someone says, "Well you know, I did pray the other day," you politely ignore it. You move on. Because you've agreed on 90 percent of things, because you have a shared view on so many things, and you politely differ. And I think that's what the religious wars of late have ignored. They've ignored the possibility of harmonious disagreement.

See also: Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

 

One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don't -- into the religious and the atheists. And for the last decade or so, it's been quite clear what being an atheist means. There have been some very vocal atheists who've pointed out, not just that religion is wrong, but that it's ridiculous. These people, many of whom have lived in North Oxford, have argued -- they've argued that believing in God is akin to believing in fairies and essentially that the whole thing is a childish game.

Now I think it's too easy. I think it's too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way. And it's as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And what I'd like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist -- if you like, a new version of atheism we could call Atheism 2.0. Now what is Atheism 2.0? Well it starts from a very basic premise: of course, there's no God. Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let's move on; that's not the end of the story, that's the very, very beginning.

I'm interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, "I can't believe in any of this stuff. I can't believe in the doctrines. I don't think these doctrines are right. But," a very important but, "I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament." Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I'm talking about -- people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can't bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It's almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you're living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.

...

The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly, I would argue. And a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well. And I'd like to run through a few of these today.

I'd like to kick off by looking at education. Now education is a field the secular world really believes in. When we think about how we're going to make the world a better place, we think education; that's where we put a lot of money. Education is going to give us, not only commercial skills, industrial skills, it's also going to make us better people. You know the kind of thing a commencement address is, and graduation ceremonies, those lyrical claims that education, the process of education -- particularly higher education -- will make us into nobler and better human beings. That's a lovely idea. Interesting where it came from.

In the early 19th century, church attendance in Western Europe started sliding down very, very sharply, and people panicked. They asked themselves the following question. They said, where are people going to find the morality, where are they going to find guidance, and where are they going to find sources of consolation? And influential voices came up with one answer. They said culture. It's to culture that we should look for guidance, for consolation, for morality. Let's look to the plays of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen. In there, we'll find a lot of the truths that we might previously have found in the Gospel of Saint John. Now I think that's a very beautiful idea and a very true idea. They wanted to replace scripture with culture. And that's a very plausible idea. It's also an idea that we have forgotten.

If you went to a top university -- let's say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge -- and you said, "I've come here because I'm in search of morality, guidance and consolation; I want to know how to live," they would show you the way to the insane asylum. This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of. Why? They don't think we need it. They don't think we are in an urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. What we need is information. We need data, we don't need help.

...

Now we've given up with the idea of sermons. If you said to a modern liberal individualist, "Hey, how about a sermon?" they'd go, "No, no. I don't need one of those. I'm an independent, individual person." What's the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation -- and religions know that.

Another point about education: we tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they'll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, "Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it." That's what all religions tell us: "Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day." Otherwise our minds are like sieves.

...

Religious view says we need calendars, we need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters. This comes across also in the way in which religions set up rituals around important feelings.

Take the Moon. It's really important to look at the Moon. You know, when you look at the Moon, you think, "I'm really small. What are my problems?" It sets things into perspective, etc., etc. We should all look at the Moon a bit more often. We don't. Why don't we? Well there's nothing to tell us, "Look at the Moon." But if you're a Zen Buddhist in the middle of September, you will be ordered out of your home, made to stand on a canonical platform and made to celebrate the festival of Tsukimi, where you will be given poems to read in honor of the Moon and the passage of time and the frailty of life that it should remind us of. You'll be handed rice cakes. And the Moon and the reflection on the Moon will have a secure place in your heart. That's very good.

...

Oratory is absolutely key to religions. In the secular world, you can come through the university system and be a lousy speaker and still have a great career. But the religious world doesn't think that way. What you're saying needs to be backed up by a really convincing way of saying it.

So if you go to an African American Pentecostalist church in the American South and you listen to how they talk, my goodness, they talk well. After every convincing point, people will go, "Amen, amen, amen." At the end of a really rousing paragraph, they'll all stand up, and they'll go, "Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior." If we were doing it like they do it -- let's not do it, but if we were to do it -- I would tell you something like, "Culture should replace scripture." And you would go, "Amen, amen, amen." And at the end of my talk, you would all stand up and you would go, "Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen." And we'd know that we had a real rhythm going. All right, all right. We're getting there. We're getting there.

...

Let's look at art now. Now art is something that in the secular world, we think very highly of. We think art is really, really important. A lot of our surplus wealth goes to museums, etc. We sometimes hear it said that museums are our new cathedrals, or our new churches. You've heard that saying. Now I think that the potential is there, but we've completely let ourselves down. And the reason we've let ourselves down is that we're not properly studying how religions handle art.

The two really bad ideas that are hovering in the modern world that inhibit our capacity to draw strength from art: The first idea is that art should be for art's sake -- a ridiculous idea -- an idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble and should not try to do anything with this troubled world. I couldn't disagree more. The other thing that we believe is that art shouldn't explain itself, that artists shouldn't say what they're up to, because if they said it, it might destroy the spell and we might find it too easy. That's why a very common feeling when you're in a museum -- let's admit it -- is, "I don't know what this is about." But if we're serious people, we don't admit to that. But that feeling of puzzlement is structural to contemporary art.

...

My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum -- if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we've neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.

...

Books alone, books written by lone individuals, are not going to change anything. We need to group together. If you want to change the world, you have to group together, you have to be collaborative. And that's what religions do. They are multinational, as I say, they are branded, they have a clear identity, so they don't get lost in a busy world. That's something we can learn from.

...

So really my concluding point is you may not agree with religion, but at the end of the day, religions are so subtle, so complicated, so intelligent in many ways that they're not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone; they're for all of us.

Unknowing Transformers of Things

“I love your silence. It is so wise. It listens. It invites warmth. I love your loneliness. It is brave. It makes the universe want to protect you. You have the loneliness that all true heroes have, a loneliness that is a deep sea, within which the fishes of mystery dwell. I love your quest. It is noble. It has greatness in it. Only one who is born under a blessed star would set sail across the billowing waves and the wild squalls, because of a dream. I love your dream. It is magical. Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the world, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are the unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love.”

~ Ben Okri, from Astonishing the Gods

[Thanks, Deborah!]

Getting Right with Tao

A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching
by Ron Hogan

#28

getting-right-with-tao If you are strong,
but remain sensitive,
power will flow through you.
With that power,
you'll always be right with Tao:
It's like a whole new life.

If you are idealistic,
but stay rooted in reality,
you are an example to others.
Set that example,
and you'll always be right with Tao:
There is no limit to what you can do.

If you are honorable,
but remain humble,
you will see things as they are.
If you see things as they are,
you'll always be right with Tao:
Your life will become simple,
yet full of potential.

Let Tao show you
how to get right with Tao,
so your slightest gesture
can change the world.

*     *     *     *     *

#16

Keep your head clear.
Stay calm.
Watch as everything happens around you.

Everything reverts to its original state,
which was nothing.
And when something becomes nothing,
it gets right with Tao.

If you don't understand that,
you're going to screw up somewhere down the line.
If you figure it out, you'll always know what to do.

If you get right with Tao,
you won't be afraid to die,
because you know you will.

The Power of Mindful Awareness

"The goal of becoming a better person is within the reach of us all, at every moment. The tool for emerging from the primitive yoke of conditioned responses to the tangible freedom of the conscious life lies just behind our brow. We need only invoke the power of mindful awareness in any action of body, speech, or mind to elevate that action from the unconscious reflex of a trained creature to the awakened choice of a human being who is guided to a higher life by wisdom."

~ Andrew Olendzki, Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism

Here is a video interview from May 2010 in which Andrew Olendzki discusses his book with Tricycle’s Joan Duncan Oliver.

 

[Thanks, Whiskey River!]

This is the Time

Two of six excellent letters of advice to new college students from “Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend,” New York Times, September 25, 2010:

College is your chance to see what you’ve been missing, both in the outside world and within yourself. Use this time to explore as much as you can.

Take classes in many different subjects before picking your major. Try lots of different clubs and activities. Make friends with people who grew up much poorer than you, and others much richer. Date someone of a different race or religion. (And no, hooking up at a party doesn’t count.) Spend a semester abroad or save up and go backpacking in Europe or Asia.

Somewhere in your childhood is a gaping hole. Fill this hole. Don’t know what classical music is all about? That’s bad. Don’t know who Lady Gaga is? That’s worse. If you were raised in a protected cocoon, this is the time to experience the world beyond.

College is also a chance to learn new things about yourself. Never been much of a leader? Try forming a club or a band.

The best things I did in college all involved explorations like this. I was originally a theater major but by branching out and taking a math class I discovered I actually liked math, and I enjoyed hanging out with technical people.

By dabbling in leadership — I ran the math club and directed a musical — I learned how to formulate a vision and persuade people to join me in bringing it to life. Now I’m planning to become an entrepreneur after graduate school. It may seem crazy, but it was running a dinky club that set me on the path to seeing myself as someone who could run a business.

Try lots of things in college. You never know what’s going to stick.

— TIM NOVIKOFF, Ph.D. student in applied mathematics at Cornell

*     *     *     *     *

Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself.

Start by scheduling a few Internet-free hours each day, with your phone turned off. It’s the only way you’ll be able to read anything seriously, whether it’s Plato or Derrida on Plato. (And remember, you’ll get more out of reading Derrida on Plato if you read Plato first.) This will also have the benefit of making you harder to reach, and thus more mysterious and fascinating to new friends and acquaintances.

When you leave your room for class, leave the laptop behind. In a lecture, you’ll only waste your time and your parents’ money, disrespect your professor and annoy whoever is trying to pay attention around you by spending the whole hour on Facebook.

You don’t need a computer to take notes — good note-taking is not transcribing. All that clack, clack, clacking ... you’re a student, not a court reporter. And in seminar or discussion sections, get used to being around a table with a dozen other humans, a few books and your ideas. After all, you have the rest of your life to hide behind a screen during meetings.

— CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD, Ph.D. student in English and American literature at Columbia

Read the other essays here…

Unsarcastic Advice

From Steve Hannah,  C.E.O. of The Onion, from “If Plan B Fails, Go Through The Alphabet,” an interview with Adam Bryant, New York Times (May 14, 2010):

Steve Hannah, photo by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times “…never, ever do anything to deprive a human being of their dignity in work, in life. Always praise in public and criticize in private. You might be tempted, for example, when you’re letting someone go, to say something that would diminish the value of their work. Don’t ever do that.

…when you’re faced with something that’s really difficult and you think you’re at the end of your tether, there’s always one more thing you can do to influence the outcome of this situation. And then after that there’s one more thing. The number or possible options is only limited by your imagination…

Find what you really love to do and then go after it — relentlessly. And don’t fret about the money. Because what you love to do is quite likely what you’re good at. And what you’re good at will likely bring you financial reward eventually.

I’ve seen too many people who have plotted a career, and often what’s at the heart of all that plotting is nothing other than a stack of dollar bills. You need to be happy in order to be good, and you need to be good in order to succeed. And when you succeed, there’s a good chance you’ll get paid.

And while you’re at it, read. A lot. Start with Plato. He was a very practical man.”

Read the rest of this interview…