Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – John O'Donohue on desire, Bertrand Russell on the four motives driving all human behavior, Elizabeth Gilbert on creative courage and how to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
"Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?" Elizabeth Gilbert asked in framing her catalyst for creative magic. This is among life's most abiding questions and the history of human creativity – our art and our poetry and most empathically all of our philosophy – is the history of attempts to answer it.
Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900), who believed that embracing difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life, considered the journey of self-discovery one of the greatest and most fertile existential difficulties. In 1873, as he was approaching his thirtieth birthday, Nietzsche addressed this perennial question of how we find ourselves and bring forth our gifts in a beautiful essay titled Schopenhauer as Educator (public library), part of his Untimely Meditations.
Nietzsche, translated here by Daniel Pellerin, writes:
Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: "Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you."
Every young soul hears this call by day and by night and shudders with excitement at the premonition of that degree of happiness which eternities have prepared for those who will give thought to their true liberation. There is no way to help any soul attain this happiness, however, so long as it remains shackled with the chains of opinion and fear. And how hopeless and meaningless life can become without such a liberation! There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever.
Echoing Picasso's proclamation that "to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing," Nietzsche considers the only true antidote to this existential dreariness:
No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don't ask, walk!
Illustration by Tove Jansson for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland
But this path to finding ourselves, Nietzsche is careful to point out, is no light stroll:
How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, a man may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, "Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside." It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one's being. How easy it is thereby to give oneself such injuries as no doctor can heal. Moreover, why should it even be necessary given that everything bears witness to our being – our friendships and animosities, our glances and handshakes, our memories and all that we forget, our books as well as our pens. For the most important inquiry, however, there is a method. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: "What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?" Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far; for your true self does not lie buried deep within you, but rather rises immeasurably high above you, or at least above what you commonly take to be your I.
Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin's Heart
With this, Nietzsche turns to the true role of education in the excavation of this true self – something Parker Palmer addressed a century later in his beautiful meditation on education as a spiritual journey – and writes:
Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being, something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else, but that is always difficult to access, something bound and immobilized; your educators cannot go beyond being your liberators. And that is the secret of all true culture: she does not present us with artificial limbs, wax-noses, bespectacled eyes – for such gifts leave us merely with a sham image of education. She is liberation instead, pulling weeds, removing rubble, chasing away the pests that would gnaw at the tender roots and shoots of the plant; she is an effusion of light and warmth, a tender trickle of nightly rain...
In a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace's superb commencement address on the true value of education, Nietzsche concludes:
There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud – but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one's educators and cultivators.
Complement the altogether fantastic Schopenhauer as Educator with Nietzsche on the power of music and his ten rules for writers, then revisit Florence King on how to find yourself and Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak.
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Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) is both among the twentieth century's most magnificent minds and its greatest cultural oddities. Born into a family of nonreligious, freethinking Jews from the French bourgeoisie, she became a philosopher – placing first in France's competitive national university entrance exam, with Simone de Beauvoir placing second – and got involved in radical left-wing politics. She advocated for worker rights, labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year to better understand the reality of her working-class compatriots, and even served in the anarchist militia during the Spanish Civil War.
Then, in her mid-twenties, Weil experienced something akin to Philip K. Dick's famous exegesis – a hallucinatory mystical experience that turned her toward spirituality. Due to the tragedy of her early death – itself an act of modern sainthood – her work penetrated the world only posthumously, but it went on to influence such intellectual titans as Susan Sontag and Albert Camus. The latter famously declared Weil “the only great spirit of our times."
Even for those of us who identify as nonbelievers and disagree with her theological ideas, Weil's Waiting for God (public library) is a masterwork of human thought – her philosophical investigations and the intellectual elegance with which she delivers them are immeasurably rewarding in their own right.
In one particularly piercing passage, she considers the art of thought in its purest, most elevated, and most fertile form:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.
Waiting for God is a powerful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with John Dewey on how to think, then revisit Weil on attention and grace, science and our spiritual values, making use of our suffering, the true measure of genius, and how to be a complete human being.
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"Something nameless hums us into sleep," the poet Mark Strand wrote in his beautiful ode to dreams. But what is that nameless something, exactly? By now, scientists know that sleep obeys our complex internal clocks, affects our every waking moment, and even tames our negative emotions. But even as they're beginning to shed light on what happens while we sleep, they don't yet know why we evolved to sleep in the first place.
In this fascinating short video, PBS's Joe Hanson explores the mysteries of sleep, synthesizing science from David Randall's excellent Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library) and other scientific curiosities, from how tiny ocean-dwelling worms explain our brains' response to daylight and darkness to Edison's power-napping strategy for success.
Sleep might be the single most important behavior that humans and other animals experience.
Complement with the chronobiology of why you're so tired, the science of sleep and the teenage brain, and the relationship between dreaming and depression, then revisit this visualization of famous writers' sleep habits vs. creative output.
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“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from," Carl Sagan wrote in his meditation on science and spirituality, "we will have failed."
Between April and September of 1980, as Sagan's Cosmos was making its debut and exactly half a century after Einstein's famous dialogue with the Indian philosopher Tagore, trailblazing physicist David Bohm and Indian spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti sat down for a mind-bending, soul-stretching series of conversations about some of the most abiding human concerns: time, transcendence, compassion, death, the nature of reality, and the meaning of existence.
They were at once an unlikely pair and perfect counterparts: After completing his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley under Robert Oppenheimer, Bohm went on to teach at Princeton, where he collaborated closely with Einstein; he spent the vast majority of his career tussling with the nature of reality and his unorthodox ideas revolutionized quantum theory. At the age of thirteen, Krishnamurti was declared a vehicle for the "World Teacher" – a high spiritual entity – by the Theosophical Society; he firmly renounced the role at thirty-four and went on to become one of the most influential Eastern thinkers of the twentieth century, practicing and teaching meditation as a way of life from a deeply philosophical and psychologically astute perspective dedicated to advancing our understanding of the nature of the mind.
By the time the two met, Krishnamurti was eighty-five and Bohm sixty-three. Their dialogues, eventually published as The Ending of Time: Where Philosophy and Physics Meet (public library), are among the most intensely intelligent and illuminating packets of human thought ever produced.
In one of the most stimulating portions of the conversation, they probe the interplay of freedom and the ego – a centerpiece of Eastern philosophy. Echoing Simone Weil on the purest form of thought, they consider the question of an intelligence that transcends thought:
JK: Thought is the movement between the particular and the general, and thought is also born out of the image of what has been accumulated. All that is one’s inward state. That is deeply embedded in me. I recognize it is somewhat necessary physically. But how do I set about realizing that psychologically it is not? How do I, who have had the habit of accumulating for millennia, general and particular, not only recognize the habit, but when I do recognize the habit, how does that movement come to an end? That is the real question.
Where does intelligence play a part in all this?
DB: There has to be intelligence to see this. JK: Is it intelligence? Is it so-called ordinary intelligence or some other intelligence, something entirely different?
When Krishnamurti points out that this intelligence is something quite different from what we know as ordinary intelligence, Bohm suggests the wonderful phrase "skill in thought." And yet there is a crucial element of it that transcends thought:
JK: Is that intelligence related to love?
DB: I’d say they go together.
JK: I’m asking further if this intelligence is associated with or related to or part of love. One cannot accumulate love.
DB: No, people might try. People do try to guarantee love.
JK: It sounds silly! That is all romantic nonsense, cinema stuff. You cannot accumulate love. You cannot associate it with hate. That love is something entirely different. And has that love intelligence? Which then operates? Which then breaks down the wall?
Illustration by Charles Addams from his vintage take on Mother Goose
The wall refers to the limitations of the human mind – the barrier, erected by our consciousness, between what we perceive to be true and the larger Truth of reality. Krishnamurti considers why love, not thought alone, is necessary for breaking down that wall:
JK: I don’t know what that love is. I know all the physical bit. I realize pleasure, desire, accumulation, remembrance, images, are not love. I realized all that long ago. But I’ve come to the point where this wall is so enormous that I can’t even jump over it. So I’m now fishing around to see if there is a different movement which is not a man-made movement. And that movement may be love. I’m sorry to use that word because it has been so spoilt and misused, but we’ll use it for the time being.
So is that love, with its intelligence, the factor that will break down or dissolve or break up this wall? Not “I love you” or “you love me.” It’s not personal or particular. It’s not general or particular. It is something beyond. I think when one loves with that intelligence, it covers the whole; it’s not the particular or general. It is that. It is light; it’s not particular light.
DB: The wall itself is the product of the process which is illusion.
JK: Exactly. I’m realizing that the wall is this movement. So when this movement ends, that quality of intelligence, love and so on, is there. That’s the whole point.
Perception is part of love, isn’t it? So the very perception, without any motive, without any direction, of the wall – which has been brought into being by this movement of accumulation – is intelligence and love.
Art by John Vernon Lord from a special edition of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
In their thirteenth conversation, they revisit the subject from a different angle, exploring the mental patterns that keep us from perceiving and breaking down the wall:
JK: What makes the mind always follow a certain pattern? Always seeking? If it lets go of one pattern, it picks up another; it keeps on functioning all the time like that. One can give explanations why it does so – for protection, for safety, from slackness, indifference, a certain amount of callousness, a total disregard of one’s own flowering, etc.
It is really very important to find out why our minds are always operating in a certain direction.
We have said that one comes, after going through travail, investigation, and insight, to a blank wall. And that blank wall can only wither away or be broken down, when there is love and intelligence. But before we go into that, I would like to ask why human beings, however intelligent, however learned, however philosophical and religious, always fall into this groove.
DB: Well, I think the groove is inherent in the nature of the accumulated knowledge.
It seems to me that the groove, or the accumulated knowledge, has a significance far beyond what its significance is. If we say that we have knowledge of some object, like the microphone, that has some limited significance. But knowledge about the nation to which you belong seems to have immense significance... Because this knowledge seems to have a tremendous value beyond all other values, it makes the mind stick to that. It seems the most important thing in the world.
Knowledge stupefies the brain.
JK: Stupefies, all right. But the brain doesn’t seem to extricate itself.
DB: It is already so stupefied that it can’t see what it is doing.
JK: So what shall it do? I have been watching for many years people attempting to become free from certain things. This is the root of it. You understand? This psychological accumulation which becomes psychological knowledge. And so it divides, and all kinds of things happen around it and within it. And yet the mind refuses to let go.
More than a century earlier, Thoreau touched on this very tendency in his notion of "useful ignorance." But Bohm argues that we simply can't help this paralyzing accumulation of knowledge – it is part and parcel of our survival mechanisms:
DB: The knowledge deceives the mind, so that the person is not normally aware that it is destructive. Once this process gets started, the mind is not in a state where it is able to look at it because it is avoiding the question. There is a tremendous defensive mechanism to escape from looking at the whole issue... Because it seems that something extremely precious might be at stake... Once importance has been given to knowledge, there is a mechanical process that resists intelligence.
Art from The Well of Being by Jean-Pierre Weill
At the heart of all this is our persistent self illusion:
DB: This knowledge creates the “me,” and the “me” is experienced as an entity which seems not to be knowledge but some real being.
JK: Are you saying that this “being” is different from knowledge?
DB: It appears to be; it feigns a difference.
JK: But is it?
DB: It isn’t, but the illusion has great power.
The question is how do we get through that to break down the groove, because it creates the imitation, or a pretension, of a state of being?
How to get out of that groove is what Bohm and Krishnamurti explore in the remainder of the wholly revelatory The Ending of Time. Complement it with Alan Watts on the ego and the universe, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, and biologist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard in conversation with his father, the great French philosopher Jean-François Revel, about the nature of the self.
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"The sole purpose of human existence," Carl Jung wrote in his notebooks, "is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." In a universe devoid of purpose in the human sense, in which we are but a cosmic accident, the darkness of mere being can easily overwhelm us – and yet we go on striking the match of meaning. “However vast the darkness," Stanley Kubrick urged in a 1968 interview, "we must supply our own light.”
How we supply that light is what the great existential psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom (b. June 13, 1931) explores in a portion of the wholly illuminating 1989 classic Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (public library).
Yalom has done for psychotherapy what Oliver Sacks has done for neurology, using case studies as a storytelling springboard for contemplating some of the largest and most perennial human questions. Through the stories of ten patients, he examines what the four main aspects of psychotherapy – the inevitability of death, the freedom to shape our own lives, our ultimate aloneness, and the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.
The last of the four, which Yalom considers the existential human dilemma of "a being who searches for meaning and certainty in a universe that has neither," is both the most elusive and the most fertile, for embedded in it are the other three. He writes:
If death is inevitable, if all of our accomplishments, indeed our entire solar system, shall one day lie in ruins, if the world is contingent (that is, everything could as well have been otherwise), if human beings must construct the world and the human design within that world, then what enduring meaning can there be in life? ... We are meaning-seeking creatures. Biologically, our nervous systems are organized in such a way that the brain automatically clusters incoming stimuli into configurations. Meaning also provides a sense of mastery: feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them. Even more important, meaning gives birth to values and, hence, to a code of behavior: thus the answer to why questions (Why do I live?) supplies an answer to how questions (How do I live?).
Art from a vintage children's-book adaptation of Voltaire's philosophical homage to Newton and the human condition
Indeed, humanity's entire history of contemplating how to live is rooted in this question of meaning. And yet Yalom argues that we can only search for meaning indirectly. In a sentiment that calls to mind Virginia Woolf on the paradox of writing about the soul, he asserts:
The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts – not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter.
Art from The Well of Being by Jean-Pierre Weill
In both therapy and life, this sidewise gleam of meaning requires cultivating a comfort level with uncertainty and continually asking what Hannah Arendt so memorably termed the "unanswerable questions" that make us human; it then requires that, to paraphrase Rilke's immortal words, we live those questions. Yalom writes:
The capacity to tolerate uncertainty is a prerequisite... The powerful temptation to achieve certainty through embracing an ideological school and a tight therapeutic system is treacherous: such belief may block the uncertain and spontaneous encounter necessary for effective therapy.
I must assume that knowing is better than not knowing, venturing than not venturing; and that magic and illusion, however rich, however alluring, ultimately weaken the human spirit.
How to dispel those illusions and strengthen the human spirit through meaningful uncertainty is what Yalom explores in the remainder of the altogether revelatory Love's Executioner. Complement this particular focal point with Parker Palmer on how to discern your purpose, Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.
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