Practical Philosophy

“Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring”

I don’t listen to a ton of music. But I do get caught on songs. Most recently, I’ve been caught on Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” — here’s a great live performance of it. I discovered it not because I’m a Leonard Cohen fan, or that I heard it playing, but rather because someone cited a few lines from it that caught my attention (and kind of blew my mind). The chorus of the song is as follows:

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in

The song is a celebration of imperfection. The world is not perfect, but we should not lament it. Injustices occur, but we shouldn’t dwell on them. We should, instead, “Ring the bells that still can ring.”

The one thing almost everyone can agree to is that the world is not exactly how we’d like. And what’s more, it was never really exactly the way we wanted it to be. And if we’re really self-aware and honest, I think we know that it can never be “just so.”

Surely we can (and should) work to make the world we live in more like the one we want to live in. Surely there are tremendous gains made by the people who see an imperfection in the world and then spend a minute, a week, or a lifetime working to change it. When the direction they point is one we agree with, we owe them a real debt.

But all of that can be true without it changing the need to celebrate what we have right now. The only time we’re in is now and the only condition we’re in is our current one. We can spend our time dwelling on the imperfections in the current conditions, or we can acknowledge and celebrate the great things in them.

This is, in a real sense, the thing that separates the happy from the miserable. Everyone alive has an imperfect life. Maybe it’s imperfect because they just lost the love of their life, and maybe it’s imperfect because they weren’t named People Magazine‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” But it’s almost certainly not exactly the way they would make it in their dreams.

But you spend all your time contemplating those imperfections and you’re almost guaranteed to feel frustrated with the way your life is. You’re going to have a low-level agitation all the time. You’re going to have a short temper, and carry a constant sense of dissatisfaction.

What’s needed for you to feel satisfaction in your life isn’t to drastically change it — finally land the man of your dreams, get the promotion you envy, or the house you’ve had your heart on since you were six — but to cultivate satisfaction with the present. To really make a practice of feeling grateful and pleased with the way your life is right now. It’s not that it’s great — “there is a crack in everything” — but you can (and I’d argue should) celebrate it. “Ring the bells that still can ring.”

Practical Philosophy

The Bliss of Blamelessness and the Golden Rule

If we cede all moral theory, any notion of spiritual or religious rewards or justifications, or any through-going vision of philosophy, is there a rational case to be made for something like the Golden Rule, most often rendered in English as: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”?

The obvious answer is, no. I’ve ceded the fact that religions preach it, philosophers have pieced together complex arguments to justify it, and that it may just make you feel better because of your sense of right and wrong. But I think I’ve found, hidden in a less-explored bit of Buddhism, a practical case for the Golden Rule.

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big ideas

On the Banality of Profound Truths

If there was one obstacle, beyond laziness, that made me hesitate to get back to writing in more than the few-sentence bursts I regularly produce for Link Banana it was my uncertainty about what of value I could say.

It’s not that I don’t think people need to hear things I think that I know–while there may be merit in possessing that type of modesty, I do not–it’s that they’ve already heard those things I think they most need to hear.

Things about how money doesn’t buy happiness. That understanding is rooted in attention. That the greatest obstacle to your happiness is your waiting to be happy. That happiness is not the same as pleasure, or a lack of sadness. That ignoring the present situation is the worst way to change it. That you can always find something to be thankful for. That anger is never the best way to solve a problem. That an act of kindness is never squandered.

These statements–and many others I didn’t list–are all, at least to my ears, the most obvious of truths. There are hundreds of famous quotations that attest to all of them. Anyone unacquainted with those quotations probably wouldn’t be reading anything I said anyway.

These short and obvious cliches are exactly what conventional wisdom says a writer should avoid.  But anything that takes more than a sentence to express seems overstated to me. While a sentence can’t explain the political climate of Somalia, or what spin means with relation to the bonding of atoms, or how the crash of the US stock market in 1929 was influenced by Germany, none of those things hit you where you live. Between your insides and your outsides none of those things matter.

The only things that really affect your quality of life exist within a radius about the length of your arms from your body. Everything outside of that radius is not acting on you in any direct way, and is thus irrelevant to your true quality of life.

I think that if there’s a single reason that the facts I consider most essential are simple, it’s this: not that much exists between your mind and fingertips. And even the most teeming of minds doesn’t contain much more than twenty thoughts at a time. And chatter among twenty idea’s can only get so complex.

People searching the edges of human knowledge are unlikely find anything there that will, or should, fundamentally affect their life as it’s lived daily. The confirmation of string theory says absolutely nothing to that longing you feel lying alone in your bed for the first time in years. A better understanding of the relationship between modern man and neanderthals, or market demand and labor supply, will not correct your dysfunctional relationship with everyone in your family. The existence or nonexistence of God changes nothing about your difficulty controlling your drinking.

But a single new idea, if it’s strong, simple, and powerful enough, added to the constant mental chatter can fundamentally change the timbre of the conversation in your mind. And that constant chattering is the very substance of your disposition, your life, and your reality. It is you, more than anything else anyone thinks they know about you. And you’re the one I’m interested in.


OPW: Matthieu Ricard on Busyness

I’ve talked about Matthieu Ricard’s excellent Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill twice before. This bit is about how we’re all so afraid to slow down.

“Living it up” has become the leitmotif of modern man–a compulsive hyperactivity without any downtimes, no gap of unscheduled time, lest we end up alone with ourselves. The meaning doesn’t matter, so long as it’s intense. We feel that without constant activity, life would be fatally insipid. Friends of mine who lead cultural tours in Asia have told me how their clients can’t bear the least gap in their itinerary. “Is there really nothing scheduled between five and seven?” they ask anxiously. We are, it seems, afraid to turn our gaze in in upon ourselves. We are fully focused on the exterior world, as experienced through our five senses. It seems naive to believe that such a feverish search for intense experience can lead to a lasting enriched quality of life.

If we do take the time to explore our inner world, it’s in the form of daydreaming and imagination, dwelling on the past of fantasizing endlessly about the future. A genuine sense of fulfillment, associated with inner freedom, can also offer intensity to every living moment, but of an altogether different sort. It is a sparkling experience of inner well-being, in which the beauty of each thing shines through. It is knowing how to enjoy the present moment, the willingness to nurture altruism and serenity and bring the best part of ourselves to mature–transforming oneself to better transform the world.

big ideas, religion, retroview

Retroview: Happiness: A Guide

Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is probably the most important book in my life. No work has ever influenced so many aspects of my life or caused me to see the world so differently. Were there only one book that I could take with my to a desert island, I think this would very likely be it.

All of this is not to say that the book is flawless. On the second reading, some parts of the book seemed superfluous. Most memorably, the results of scientific studies which Ricard dutifully reports are interesting, but not as good as much of the rest of the book.

All of this may lead to the most important question: what is this book about? And were I a more careful writer I would edit this to answer that question at the start. Alas, I am not.

The book is, as you can probably infer from the title, a how-to to happiness. As such, the label “self-help” could be applied to it, but that conjures up images of hundreds of unsavory hucksters and swindlers who claim that they’ll make your life better in a snap. This book does no such thing.

Ricard, as the spelling of his name signals, is French by birth. He’s also a Buddhist monk who spends his time between Nepal and Tibet, serving as a translator for the Dalai Lama. And though it would be reasonable to say that Ricard’s answer to happiness grows out of Buddhism, one needn’t understand the first thing about the practice to get something from Ricard’s book.

Many, upon first introduction to Buddhism, see it not as a religion, but as a philosophy or even a type of positive psychology. The fact that Buddhism takes no explicit stance on the existence of deities (or a deity) makes this interpretation easier. And though Buddhism can be endowed with as many dogmatic traditions as any Western religion, the parts which Ricard discusses are not.

For those doubters of Buddhism (and religions in general), Mr. Ricard does conveniently provides scientific evidence–that stuff I said was dull–that Buddhist practice can and does make people happier, more controlled, and peaceful.

All of this is not to say that Happiness is some extended argument for Buddhism as the happiest religion in the world. It is, at the most basic level, an introduction to what thoughts and practices have made Mr. Ricard “the happiest man in the world.” (It was, if you’re wondering, that article that led me to the book in the first place.)

This book didn’t by itself transform my thinking, but it clarified and made much more salient some arguments that I’d been hearing for sometime and not fully understanding. The triviality of difference. The merits of optimism. The way to value all time. The wastefulness of envy.

It’s very likely that you could read this book and recieve from it much less than I have. It’s even possible that I received from this book more than it endeavored to give. But I can say with firm conviction that this book could teach everyone something, and many a great deal. After two readings, I still look forward to returning to it again and again, getting as much as I possibly can.

OPW, poetry

OPW: Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”

There’s a large soft spot in my heart for broad and sweeping pieces of advice about how to live you life. Even if I don’t agree with everything such poems, columns, commencement speeches, or songs say, I still like them. And even if they seem to be off on a few points, they say things that are probably worth listening to. Such is the case with today’s “Other People’s Words,” Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata.”

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

fiction, personal, ruminations

On Slaying Dragons

Green dragon For a while, I was obsessed with the idea of slaying dragons. Perhaps it started when I read Tolkien’s immortal tale of The Hobbit, but it didn’t end there. Whenever low clouds would obscure the tops of the nearby foothills, I’d dream about venturing up there to slay the dragon that surely existed within the fog, in some hard-to-find cave.

But I never did it. I’d do what I needed to do that day in town. I’d work, I’d shop, I’d eat, I’d sleep. By the time I did these things, the dragon seemed an impossible chore.

I wondered if I’d really have my fight-to-the-death with a 30 meter long dragon. A dragon who was mostly green, could obviously fly, and had a small but valuable collection of precious metals and gems. Money is not something dragons care about.

Why I didn’t go off to fight my dragon was always a vexing question for me. After all, he was always there when the clouds came low. I could find him if I but looked.

Perhaps I was rightly afraid that I would lose. That he would overpower me. After all, all I had was a sword; he could breathe fire and fly. And I’d certainly been in better shape at other times in my life.

Perhaps I was sure that he wasn’t really worth fighting. After all, I’d heard no recent reports that my dragon had been doing any great damage. He seemed to have grown somewhat complacent in his old age, or perhaps he was merely becoming soft.

Then, one day, I came upon a bronze placard. It had these words by the famous Brian Andreas:

Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.

At first, I thought that Mr. Andreas what quite a joker. What could be more important than slaying an immortal beast? Then bringing back his treasure and sharing it with the people, now safe from his tyranny.

With time, Mr. Andreas’s words would come to my mind again and again. It didn’t seem like this man could have meant it as a joke. I began to think more and more of all that was good in the world. Less and less about my dragon. He wasn’t terrorizing the villagers after all.

Today, my dragon and I are old friends who’ve never met. I don’t worry about him much, and I’m glad of that. I’m happy to know that he’s there when I need him. But mostly, I’m happy just to be alive. Harrowing stories of great victories cannot make a man happier if he isn’t glad for all he has. Mr. Andreas taught me that.

big ideas, OPW

Other People’s Words: Happiness

These words are from Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard and translated by Jesse Browner. I really enjoy this book, and would encourage you to read it. This quote is about the difference between genuine happiness and what we often think of as means of achieving it.

Once at an open meeting in Hong Kong, a young man rose from the audience to ask me: “Can you give me one reason why I should go on living?” This book is a humble response to that question, for happiness is above all a love of life. To have lost all reason for living is to open up an abyss of suffering. As influential as external conditions may be, suffering, like well-being, is essentially an inner state. Understanding that is the key prerequisite to a life worth living. What mental conditions will sap our joie de vivre, and which will nourish it.

Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counter-balance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustrations that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves ‘I’m happy! I’m happy!’ over and over again as it would be to repaint the walls of ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.