For the Class of 2013 (& People Everywhere) — Four Brief Pieces of Advice


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1.

If I had one piece of advice for people everywhere, it would be this: think critically more often.  Try to spend some time every day thinking critically, examining yourself, your life, your relationships, your own deeds and words, your basic assumptions, your conscience and your principles.  Be a more reflective person.

2.

My second piece of advice would be to try to spend some time every day reading something of substance.  Not just something that affects you emotionally, but something that makes you think, that makes you go wow! or a-ha! or I hadn’t thought of it that way before.  Books and reading are too often abused; intellectually we Americans consume far too many books that only entertain us or that only speak to our biases.

3.

My third piece of advice would for people everywhere would be to learn to deal better with criticism.

I don’t mind criticism.  I really don’t.  The rejection part of it still stings, but nowhere near as much as it did at one time.  I learned these things about criticism (and dealing with it) long ago —

Don’t mind criticism; if it’s untrue, disregard it; if it’s unfair, keep from irritation; if it’s ignorant, smile; if it’s justified, learn from it.” — unknown

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill

I’ve found that the best way to deal with criticism is to make the decision to detach emotionally from it and instead think critically about it.

Criticism rarely is the enemy; our reactions to it more often are an issue; once we learn better how to deal with ourselves and our emotions and calm and soothe and talk to ourselves (talk ourselves down), then we become much more inwardly peaceful and much better able to deal with criticism.

If you’re not being criticized, you’re not really living.  A person can easily avoid criticism by saying nothing, doing nothing, standing for nothing, being nothing. (I think a quote similar to this has been attributed to Aristotle).

Or as Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  The same goes for criticism:  You’re being criticized?  Good  It means maybe you’re standing up for something.

Or it means that maybe you’re in the wrong and you have something to learn.  Either way, it’s a win for you if you can reign your ego in and not let it get in the way of things.

(And here’s a link to a blog post that might be helpful. — http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-criticism-well-25-reasons-to-embrace-it/)

4.

My last piece of advice to people everywhere (including myself) is this: whether you are young or old or somewhere in between, get your house in order.

Living constantly under perpetual threat of dying or of losing those around you, or of losing your health, can be exhausting, not to mention highly unnerving, anxiety-producing, and panic-inducing.

But what other option is there really?  Ignoring all of this?  Living in denial?  Only thinking every once and while about our own mortality?

If we don’t reflect at least occasionally on our own and others’ mortality, we tend to live badly, without much appreciation.  We tend to take other people and life and our own health and the good things we have in our life for granted.  Reflecting on death is one of the surest ways to cut through the morass and muddle and get to what matters most.

Of course thinking too much about death can completely unnerve us, cause us to take too many chances, live desperately, do rash things.

So what’s the solution?

Find an optimal balance.  Think about / acknowledge death just enough so that you don’t go off the deep end (or too far off the deep end) and live foolishly and recklessly, but think enough about death so that you don’t take life and those around you for granted, so that you live in a more deliberate but not desperate way.  Live in a way so that you focus on the things that will matter the most to you in the end.  Death is inevitable for each of us and for all of those whom we love and rely on.  This is not negotiable.  It’s a hard fact of life—the hardest, if we’re honest.  But how much time we and those around us each have is a bit more of a mystery, and it’s this leeway that tends to get us each in trouble.  We tend to play games with ourselves and others because of this leeway—taking them and ourselves and our health for granted, or we numb ourselves, we don’t live from our highest and best self, we don’t live a very examined life, we go through life on autopilot, we don’t live deeply and passionately and intensely enough, and we don’t live in such a way that we put our house in order.

Thoreau’s oft-quoted words about life and death still make for some very sound and good advice—

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. . . .”

Bonus point to ponder:

“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.”

How awake are you?

How awake do you want to be?

How much discomfort and unsettledness are you willing to endure to become more awake?

And is it possible to live a very meaningful life if one is not very awake?

Camus wrote, “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”  Great spiritual masters and leaders have spoken throughout the ages of human beings tending to go through life asleep, blind, deaf, and needing to “wake up.”  What if awareness is where it’s at?  And what if the more aware we are—the more we see and feel and think about—the less settled and less comfortable we are?  How aware are you willing to be?

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“Connection”


One of the blogs I follow and on occasion read is a blog titled Analyfe. Erin, the writer of the blog, is an intelligent 20-something year old, who lives somewhere in Arizona, and who has an undergrad degree in psychology (I think). I stumbled on her blog a year or so ago (or maybe vice versa, she stumbled upon one of my blogs; I don’t know or remember), and what I enjoy most of all in her writings is her “searchiness” and the time and thought she puts into her posts. I don’t always agree with her posts or her conclusions, but I am very appreciative that she actually has depth to her thinking and writing; and so even if I disagree with something she has said, it often will end up as good food for thought for me—which is really what I want most of all out of a blog I read—I want food for thought—whether it takes the form of something profound I’ve never thought of, or whether it takes the form of something that I disagree with but that has been intelligently written, makes little difference to me. I value the food for thought.

What follows is my recent comment on one of her posts—on the surface it’s about upgrading to spiffy new state of the art 4G cell phone, but it’s really more of a musing about living in the moment and the quest for human connection.

Her original post can be viewed here (http://www.analyfe.com/2012/11/12/a-bittersweet-upgrade/).

And here is the comment I left—
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Interesting as always, Erin! A lot of food for thought!

And at many points while reading what you wrote, I wondered, Is this really true? (That’s what I do in general when I read: I find myself asking often—is this really true?) And not just true for you, but is it really true in general? Much of what you are expressing is certainly and arguably a fairly popular contrarian / counter-culture point of view. But is it really true?

(And before I go into this, you wrote, “I’ve started writing little notes in Evernote on my phone, instead of in my notebooks and journals. . . .” Just as a heads up, if your phone crashes or gets submerged in water, those notes may be unretrievable.)

At one point, you write about the human connection void—

“I go to the park to read and then feel inclined to share an incredible picture of the lake and trees, because I can. And that bothers me. . . . When I glace up to the trees–still green and lively–and then look around, I notice that I’m alone. Everyone else is fiddling around with the smart phones. I can’t help but wonder: what am I missing? Nothing. I know that’s the answer, yet I pull out my phone and feign productivity. I pretend not to feel the extreme existential disconnect of being in a group where no one pays the slightest attention to anyone else. We’re attempting to fill the human connection void with technology. We’re fooling ourselves into thinking that the feat is even possible.”

Maybe we are. Maybe some people are. But this all begs the question: what does it mean to actually really connect with another human being? What does it mean to reach that essential common uncommon common-ground with another human being?

Over a hundred years ago—meaning well before cell phones and PDAs and the Internet, et cetera—Rilke wrote: “And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization.” (“Letters to a Young Poet, letter # 8)

Yes, even to begin from this realization—existential disconnect, the human connection void—this is our lot: we *are* solitary. As C. S. Lewis wrote (in “A Grief Observed”)—“Alone into the alone.” We are born alone and we die alone. And we may partner up, develop a few seemingly deep friendships, even get married and have children, and still be utterly barrenly irremediably alone—with those supposedly closest to us utterly incapable of understanding us, “getting us,” penetrating us, accessing our inner solitude. And we may be just as helplessly incapable of understanding them and penetrating them to their core. Which begs the question: are we even able to access our own inner depths or core? Most people aren’t. Most people haven’t. Most people are incapable of doing so—understanding themselves let alone another, connecting deeply and meaningfully with themselves (with what is essential in themselves) or with another (connecting with what is essential or deepest in ourselves seems to be a prerequisite to connecting deeply with another).

And is this because of technology or an excess of technology?

Is this because of the widespread availability and use of cell phones, obsessive twittering, facebook updating, pinteresting, even blogging, et cetera? Are we dummying ourselves down through all of this to the point of being ineligible for connecting with others, never mind ourselves?

Is this, in fact, even a new predicament that we modern humans find ourselves in?

Not according to Rilke. Or Thoreau—

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. . . . A stereotyped but unconscious desperation is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them. . . . Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand. . . . Simplify, simplify. . . . Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? . . . For my part, I could easily do without the post office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life—I wrote this some years ago—that were worth the postage. . . . And I am sure I have never read any memorable news in the newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned down, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up . . . we never need to read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? To a philosopher all “news,” as it is called, is gossip. . . .” (“Walden“)

It would seem that we were solitary and disconnected long before technology made us apparently even more so.

Being disconnected and unable to connect deeply seems to come with the territory of living in denial. To the extent that we’re living in denial, we will be unable to connect deeply with others; and to the extent that we are no longer living in denial, we will be better able to actually connect deeply with others (who are also no longer living in denial), but in reality we will find ourselves still alone—and perhaps even more alone— because the mass of our fellowmen and -women will still be living in denial, still leading lives of quiet desperation (or not so quiet desperation—see Lesley Carter’s blog: http://lesleycarter.wordpress.com), and thus flitting along the surface and dissipating themselves with whatever distractions their particular culture and epoch provides. . . .

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? . . . As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of these things at all. . . . The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, distraction; and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” – Pascal, Pensees,” #’s 167-171, 205 (circa 1660 AD)

I tend to think that the human connection void is due to much more than the prevalence of cell towers, cell phones, PDAs, the Internet, FaceBook, twitter, Pinterest, video games, et cetera. I think these things are merely the latest scapegoats. The reality is most people aren’t in touch with their deeper or more authentic selves, most people aren’t very self-aware, most people don’t lead very examined lives, most people don’t think very critically—especially about their own assumptions and biases and thinking (and I could be a prime example of this), and most people are afraid—afraid of death and living in denial—especially those who say claim they aren’t (in my experience most of those people are living in la-la land; they haven’t truly faced death or a real brush with death or had a long cancer scare—things that might actually lend some credibility to their claims).

Switching subjects, Erin . . . at another point in your essay, you write—

“It’s wonderful that you were able to capture Allison’s first steps or Derek’s first school play, but while focused on manipulating the camera, were you really present in the moment? I went to a concert recently and watched as a girl in front of me snapped several photos, then proceeded to post the pictures to every social networking site and tag everyone she was with. Ten minutes of an enjoyable event was spent broadcasting to her networks that she was out living life. But in those ten minutes, she wasn’t really there. Modern society–myself included– look forward to enjoying memories of these moments but, in doing so, sacrifice enjoying the actual moment. Rather than being present, we choose busyness–completing mundane and unnecessary tasks. We live in an era where most people view playing Angry Birds as a better use of time than sitting quietly at the park to hear the birds sing. Life becomes some big display. Each of us a caged animal–we spend our days priming and posing and trying to impress everyone else. While busy flaunting every tiny detail of our lives, we begin missing out on the big adventures. Worse yet, we set out on spectacular journeys and come back unchanged, but for a few neat photographs. The moments captured, are also moments lost. It seems we so fear losing our experiences–the youth of our first born, an incredible trip abroad, a new relationship, or the shifting seasons–that we make the ultimate sacrifice and step out of those noteworthy events in order to take notes…notes that may hold no future relevance.”

What does it mean to you to be really present in the moment? Why does recording the moment and savoring it later not count as being even more present in the moment? Regarding the girl in front of you at the concert—maybe she was posting pictures on FaceBook or what have you to get her ego strokes and reflected sense of self, but what would her really being there at those ten minutes have really been like? And what would she have after that? Would she be changed deeply as a person because of those 10 minutes? Would she have a deeper memory of the experience? But even memory is fallible. So many studies have been done regarding the unreliability of memory. In my experience. the more we remember something, we often end up remembering our memories and not the actual experience. It’s like making a cassette recording or a cassette recording, or opening a JPEG in photoshop and working the photo and saving it again as a JPEG. Each time the file is saved and compressed—or each time a cassette duplicates a duplicate of a duplicate, et cetera, cassette, quality is lost from the original recording or JPEG. Personally I prefer fact to fiction, so I do plan to take lots of videos of little Allison’s or Derek’s first steps and first kindergarten play. I want to be able to savor the original 20 years from now, should I live that long. And I want to be able to give those recordings to my child(ren). I wish my parents had taken videos of me when I was a kid. I wish they had taken videos of an average day around the house or on a Sunday afternoon outing to the beach. Think of how much those recordings would change the psychotherapeutic process—to not just have to take a client/patient’s word for what their relationship with their mom and dad was like, but to actually be able to get some sense of it. I would love to see with my 40-something-year-old eyes what my childhood was actually like!—the way that my mom and dad tried to parent me, interact with me, how I interacted with my brother and sister, what kind of kid I actually was. Instead all I’ve got to go on are a lot of memories—a lot of very subjective and likely distorted memories.

Thanks as always for the interesting post, Erin, and the food for thought! I hope you are well.

Kindest regards,

John

The Choice of Books


Snoop” – “What your stuff says about you”

Bookshelves” – “What your books (or lack thereof) say about you”

One sure window into a person’s soul is his or her reading list.” – Mary B. W. Tabor

I have about 7 or 8 bookcases (not bragging), averaging about 5 shelves per bookcase, in my house, all loaded with books. I must have accumulated thousands of books by now. Mostly psychology (Peck, Fromm, Becker, Bowen, Schnarch, Maslow, James Hollis, William James), modern pop-psyche and self-help/self-improvement (Jim Rohn, Neale Donald Walsch, Tolle, Don MIguel Ruiz, James Redfield), philosophy (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Emerson, Thoreau, Sartre, Camus, Alain DeBotton, Ken Wilber), poetry (Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Jack Gilbert, Roger Housden), religion (C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhert), spiritual (Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa, Krishnamurti, Rumi) books—basically all “how to live well” books.

For me the only reason to read a book is for what it has to say about “how to live well.”

And perhaps how to die well.

I went to the woods because I wished
to live deliberately, to front only the essential
facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.” – Thoreau

If a book doesn’t speak in some way to this, then the book is for me the equivalent of bound toilet paper (“Californication“). I can get entertainment in a more encompassing and interesting form from a movie or a TV—I get the sights, sounds, dizzying special effects, the full-blown sensory overload, et cetera. I profoundly do not care about Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, Stephen King, or anything that can be translated fairly decently into a movie. And I am profoundly indifferent to whether the book was or was not better than the movie. Life is short; I’ll gladly wait for the movie—even if the movie isn’t as good as the book—and I’ll shaprne my mind reading something of substance in the meantime. Who cares whether the book or movie is better; I’ll never know because I’m never going to read the book! Books that can be made into movies are at best intellectual training wheels—stuff to read before moving on to the “right effin’ books” (“Good Will Hunting“).  And at worst they’re voluntary mind rot—the equivalent of a steady diet of potato chips and fried foods and soda to the mind. Or they’re the equivalent of running your head into a wall. Repeatedly. The vast majority of books are an escape—a way of self-numbing and or distracting and dissipating oneself.

Some people claim that it is okay to read trashy novels because sometimes you can find something valuable in them. You can also find a crust of bread in a garbage can, if you search long enough, but there is a better way.

Don’t just read the easy stuff. You may be entertained by it, but you will never grow from it.

The book you don’t read won’t help.

It isn’t what the book costs; it’s what it will cost if you don’t read it. Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a book.

– Jim Rohn

Altogether, I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t startle us and grab our attention like a blow to the head, then why bother reading it? So it can make us happy? For God’s sake, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all! Books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, write for ourselves. What we need are books that affect us like a disaster, like the death of someone we love. We need books that make us feel like we’ve been banished into a desert far from everyone, books that hit us like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.

The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers.

What does our contemporary culture amount to? There is nowadays, with very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men and women really have little or no acquaintance with the best books. And as for the recorded wisdom of mankind—the ancient classics and Bibles—which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them. Someone who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best books of the last few centuries will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it. 

Any man will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; yet there are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; —and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.

There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.

I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature. Yet most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia (or Edward and Bella), and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth, but oh how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on, et cetera, et cetera. And all this they read with saucer eyes and erect and primitive curiosity, but without any improvement, that I can see, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.

I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him—my next neighbor and I never heard him speak or attended to the wisdom of his words. But how actually is it? His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them. We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper. – Thoreau, adapted and slighty modified from “Walden,” chapter 3, “Reading

If a book doesn’t bring us more to life or help make us wiser or suggest to us how to live better, then why read it? To be entertained? At a certain point, to read to be entertained is a waste of time and gray matter, it’s a voluntary dissipation of one’s finer faculties. (And a mind is supposedly a terrible thing to waste.)

I keep all of my books. I tend to mark up most of my books—highlighters, pencils, dog ears, bookmarks. The better (wiser, more profound) the book, the more marked up it gets. I don’t buy a book unless it stands a fairly decent chance of getting marked up one way or another, meaning some books I will tend to find kinship with and will mark up in that spirit, whereas others I will disagree with (sometimes vehemently) and will I argue with or refute and annotate in that fashion. But either way, both offer me something to think on and cut my teeth intellectually on (“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Books—good books, the right effin’ books—can and do perform that mental saw sharpening function). Most people read too quickly and not critically and mindfully enough; they don’t really examine the material or their own thoughts—or even give themselves and their own thoughts time and space to develop—

The purpose of a (really good) book . . . is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake. It may happen that his conclusion does not apply to you. God may want you to end up somewhere else. He may have planned to give you quite a different grace than the one the author suggests you might be needing.” – Thomas Merton, from “New Seeds of Contemplation”

And the wiser and more profound the book, the more this is true.

And necessary.

I don’t consider a book to have been properly read unless it’s been thoroughly annotated and highlighted. Annotating—writing your own thoughts either in the margins or putting down the book mid-paragraph or mid-sentence and journaling your own thoughts—and highlighting and dog-earing are the equivalent chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing. And even if a book has been well annotated and highlighted, it may need to be read again. And again. And re-annotated and re-highlighted.  (And all of the previous highlighting and annotating will serve to show you what you missed or overlooked [or weren’t ready for] the first [or even second] time you read the book.)

Most truly worthwhile books don’t become intelligible until we have enough life experience to bring to our reading of them. And even then we need to read and re-read them critically, slowly—all the more so the more depth and experience and wisdom they have packed into them.