The best books that I read in 2017, pt. 2

Back in June, I posted the first half of this year’s ‘best of’ reading list, and now that 2017 is coming to a close, I think it’s a good time to post the second half. As I wrote in a recent post, these lists are by no means full of ‘must reads.’ If you try one of these and don’t like it, put it down! My only hope with my book lists is to point the way to some books that (in my opinion) are well worth the read for those who actually want to read them. So with that, I give you my favorite books from the latter half of 2017.

 

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum

selfish shallow and self absorbed

A collection of sixteen essays by sixteen writers on why they have remained childless in their lives, it was not at all redundant. Some I could relate to more than others, but mostly I was just thankful to be reading about people like me— people who are the weird ones in the room anytime the topic of having children comes up, people who have to face the pressure and disappointment of almost everyone for a choice we made as we go about our lives. I found it heartening.

“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe. But when I looked around, from what I could tell, this could have been said of a lot of people. It was not that I thought most people were bound to make terrible parents, only that the group that would make ideal parents was surprisingly small—especially given that those who chose to have children far outnumbered those who did not.”

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“Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal—and I believe it is—perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity.”

 

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

May Sarton

Sarton kept this journal over the course of a year while living in the countryside of New Hampshire. She follows the natural seasons and also the changes in her mood and emotional life. Flowers and animals affect her, mostly for the positive, and human interactions often drain her. I felt so connected with her writing– it was the type of journal I keep, much more internal than external. I felt in her a kindred spirit, and I appreciated her honesty about people and solitude/loneliness. (It has to mean something– this I learned after I had read and loved this book– that she and I share a birthday, as well…)

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange– that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'”

 

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson

art of cruelty

Based on a college course Nelson teaches, this book covers various forms of art, artists, and art pieces/performances that allude to or invoke cruelty in some way. It had my mind going so much– I loved how unsure it made me of my own thoughts and inclinations. Is it ok to agree with that quote? Is it bad to disagree? She would present these ideas and opinions of others and then come at them from a completely different angle. It’s how I want to think and see things.

“It is unnerving to realize how much one’s compass or tastes can shift throughout a lifetime, how one’s sense of “okayness” is contingent on a host of factors, including the simple question of whether one is experiencing something for the first or the second time, not to mention the twentieth.”

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“So long as we exalt artists as beautiful liars or as the world’s most profound truth-tellers, we remain locked in a moralistic paradigm that doesn’t even begin to engage art’s most exciting provinces.

By virtue of its being multiply sourced, art cannot help but offer up multiple truths. […] Worse still, because of its episodic nature, art offers the passing impression of truth, without the promise that the truth revealed will have any lasting power. For however powerful any given artistic truth might seem, a new, contradictory, or at least adumbrating truth might appear in the next instant, the next installment, the next frame, the next line, the next chapter, the next canvas.”

 

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott

hallelujah anyway

Does Anne Lamott ever disappoint? In this book, she covers the familiar topics: grace, living through the difficult moments, surrounding yourself with people who are honest yet loving and humorous. This book was small, but it was good. I copied lines from almost every page into my notes. There were stories from her life I hadn’t read before, and everything she wrote about mercy resonated with how I want to live my life (just as her problems with it resonated with my own flaws and difficulties).

“This is the greatest mercy I know, a loved one hearing and nodding, even if over the phone. Thomas Merton said, ‘No matter how low you may have fallen in your own esteem, bear in mind that if you delve deeply into yourself you will discover holiness there.’ But this is not my experience. I find silt and mental problems. My only hope is to delve deeply into a friend.”

 

Nothing Twice: Selected Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

nothing twice

This was Szymborska’s first collection of poetry that I actually liked. I highlighted several lines, like this one: ‘Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different. Or a little bit different– which is to say, completely different.’ She is cheeky and clever while appearing naive and simple. I appreciate her commentary on the state of things that is always laced with humor.

“Life, however long, will always be short.

Too short for anything to be added.”

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“Poetry —

but what is poetry anyway?

More than one rickety answer

has tumbled since that question first was raised.

But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that

like to a redemptive handrail.”

 

The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí by Salvador Dalí

secret life of dali

Dalí reveals and confesses to his own megalomania in the introduction, and the rest of the book supports it– but somehow that only endeared him to me. He was ever only entirely himself: antagonistic, alone, experimental, exhibitionist, honest, obsessed, and in love with his wife, Gala. Even how he would always add ‘my best friend’ whenever talking about ‘Mademoiselle Chanel’ was adorable to me. He was against -isms of all kinds, politics in every vein, and being part of a group. I know I’m not like him in most ways, but I do want to be more like him in certain ways, such as thinking for myself at all costs and doing life in my own way no matter what anyone says. (I came to love him so much that I went on to read his Diary of a Genius and even his cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala.)

“In this book I want to dissect one and only one person— myself!— and this living dissection of myself I am performing, not through sadism, or through masochism. I do so through narcissism.”

 

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

pleasures of reading

A book in praise of reading and of the effort of returning to reading after drifting away, it spoke to me on so many levels: as a lifelong book-lover; as one who reads quickly rather than slowly, as I should; as one who also believes in reading by Whim rather than by plan or force or status or ‘ought.’ I loved it so much that I wrote a post about it here. I just want to hand the insights and encouragements inside this little book to everyone.

“Thus Rudyard Kipling: ‘One can’t prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person. If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him.’

In such a context of friendship and mutual interest, the making of recommendations is a pleasure. Outside of that, it quickly becomes an onerous (and perhaps pointless) duty, and I don’t like mixing reading with onerous duties. Moreover, in many cases these requests have little to do with actually reading anything, but rather with having read— with the desire to say, ‘Yes, now I can check that one off.'”

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“…we should not underestimate what can be accomplished by those who are willing to read more slowly and with greater care.”

 

Dancer by Colum McCann

dancer

This is a novel about the famous (and infamous) Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, who defected from Communist Russia to dance around the world and who died at the age of 54 in 1993 from AIDS-related complications. He was beautiful, volatile, charming, mean, hard-working, and hard-playing. Just like he did in Let the Great World Spin, McCann wrote from different characters’ perspectives and voices to tell the story (and the different, but connected, substories). As someone inexplicably fascinated by both ballet and Russia, I was easily drawn into this book.

“Perhaps, then, you should forget everything I have said to you and remember only this: The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur.”

 

How to Think by Alan Jacobs

how to think

This is a relatively small book, but it is filled with so much goodness. It is all about thinking well, which includes being skeptical of your own positions and generous with others, being wary of the pull of the Inner Ring rather than the inclusion of true membership, and resisting reliance on myths/metaphors/trigger words that do the intellectual heavy-lifting for you. There was so much more than that, and I think that everyone who leans in any direction politically/philosophically/religiously would do well to keep the insights in this book in mind during any and every interaction. (It inspired a post I recently wrote here.)

In particular I’m going to argue that we go astray when we think of our task primarily as “overcoming bias.” For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?”

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The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.”

 

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

meditations

For such a slim volume, it took me so long to finish, mostly because I had to stop at least once per page– and often more than that– to write out an excerpt into my notes. The Stoic principles outlined in every point (the book is basically several lists of life advice the author felt were important to make note of) reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, both in how they are written and what they say. True to the book’s name, these principles are truly worth meditating on and incorporating into daily life: not to be bothered by what happens, to remain kindly disposed to even those who act poorly and do wrong, to examine myself first (and continuously) before examining others. (I compiled the excerpts I really liked in posts on change, facing death, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity.)

Judge every word and deed that are naturally fit for you, and do not be diverted by words of blame or criticism; if it is good to do or say something, do not consider it unworthy of yourself. For those persons have their peculiar leading principle and follow their peculiar movement; ignore them and go straight on, following your own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one.”

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When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.”

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It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.”

 

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

girl named zippy

I bought this years ago– maybe even in high school– but put off reading it until now, when I expected to find it terribly written and to finally have an excuse to get rid of it. But I was charmed into rethinking my position: this was actually a hilarious, endearing memoir of an independent-spirited little sprite of a kid and her relationships to the residents in her small hometown (population: 300) of Mooreland, Indiana. Every story was captivating in its own way, and while I’m so glad I decided to pick it up after procrastinating for so long, I’m a little sad I didn’t pick it up earlier.

“I had to lie straight down in the dirt. Oh, my god. This explained so many things. I couldn’t think of any right offhand, but I knew my life was about to become tragically clearer to me.”

 

Runners up:

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi

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Marcus Aurelius on equanimity and playing the cards dealt to us

The philosophy of Stoicism can pretty much be boiled down to one word: equanimity. I love this word, even though it is possibly the most elusive principle to live by. Maintaining an evenness of emotion and reaction, no matter what happens, has a profound impact on our ability to deal with what life throws at us yet is incredibly difficult to achieve without continual practice. This is the entire premise of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: to put down in writing what we should all be doing. I have collected some excerpts on change, accepting death, and guarding our thoughts, but here are some on the broadest (and maybe even most important) subject of Stoicism, our good friend equanimity:

 

“It is natural that certain things should be done by a certain kind of person; it is a matter of necessity. And if a man will not have it so, he will not allow the fig tree to have juice. But by all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both you and he will be dead; and soon not even your names will be left behind.”

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“That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse, nor does it harm him either from without or from within.”

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“Love the art, poor as it may be, that you have learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul all that he has, making yourself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.”

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“. . . Remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.”

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“In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am going to do the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm?”

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“You say, ‘Men cannot admire me for the sharpness of my wits.’ So be it: but there are many other things of which you cannot say, ‘I am not formed for them by nature.’ Show those qualities then that are altogether in your power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with your portion and with a simple life, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity. Do you see how many qualities you are immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet you still remain voluntarily below the mark? Or are you compelled through being defectively furnished by nature to grumble, and to be stingy, and to flatter, and to find fault with your poor body, and to try to please men, and to make great display, and to be so restless in your mind? No, by the gods: but you might have been delivered from these things long ago. Only if in truth you can be charged with being rather slow and dull of comprehension, you must exert yourself about this also, not neglecting it nor yet taking pleasure in your dullness.”

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“What then is there that still detains you here? The objects of sense are easily changed and never stand still, and the organs of perception are dull and easily receive false impressions; and the poor soul itself is an exhalation from blood. But to have good repute amidst such a world as this is an empty thing. Why then do you not wait in tranquillity for your end, whether it is extinction or removal to another state? And until that time comes, what is sufficient? Why, what else than to venerate the gods and bless them, and to do good to men, and to practice tolerance and self-restraint; but as to everything that is beyond the limits of the poor flesh and breath, to remember that this is neither yours nor in your power.”

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“Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm, if you are doing your duty; and whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of life, this act by which we die: it is sufficient then in this act also to do well what we have in hand.”

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“When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.”

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“In the gymnastics exercises suppose that a man has torn you with his nails, and by dashing against your head has inflicted a wound. Well, we neither show any signs of vexation, nor are we offended, nor do we suspect him afterward as a treacherous fellow; and yet we are on our guard against him, not, however, as an enemy, nor yet with suspicion, but we quietly get out of his way. Emulate this behavior in all the other parts of life; let us overlook many things in those who are like antagonists in the gymnasium. For it is in our power, as I said, to get out of the way and to have no suspicion or hatred.”

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“It is a shame for the soul to be the first to give way in this life, when your body does not give way.”

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“Whatever any one does or says, I must be good, just as if the emerald (or the gold or the purple) were always saying ‘Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.'”

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“About pain: The pain that is intolerable carries us off; but that which lasts a long time is tolerable; and the mind maintains its own tranquillity by retiring into itself, and the ruling faculty is not made worse. But the parts that are harmed by pain, let them, if they can, give their opinion about it.”

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“From Plato: ‘I would make this man a sufficient answer, which is this: You are mistaken if you think that a man who is good for anything at all ought to consider the risks of life or death, but rather should consider only in all that he does, whether he is doing what is just or unjust, and the works of a good or a bad man.'”

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“Everywhere and at all times it is in your power piously to acquiesce in your present condition, and to behave justly to those around you, and to exert your skill upon your present thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.”

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“Love only that which happens to you and is spun with the thread of your destiny. For what is more suitable?”

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“The art of life is more like a wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”

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“It is your duty to order your life well in every single act; and if every act does its duty, as far as is possible, be content; and no one is able to hinder you so that each act shall not do its duty. But something external will stand in the way. Nothing will stand in the way of your acting justly and soberly and considerately. ‘But perhaps some other active power will be hindered.’ Well, but by acquiescing in the hindrance and by being content to transfer your efforts to that which is allowed, another opportunity of action is immediately put before you in place of that which was hindered, and one which will adapt itself to this ordering of which we are speaking.”

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“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.”

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“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in your own disposition gives you pain, who hinders you from correcting your opinion? And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing that seems to you to be right, why do you not rather act than complain? ‘But some insuperable obstacle is in the way.’ Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you. ‘But it is not worthwhile to live if this cannot be done.’ Take your departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased, too, with the things that are obstacles.”

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“To my own free will the free will of my neighbor is just as indifferent as his poor breath and flesh. For though we are made especially for the sake of one another, still the ruling power of each of us has its own office, for otherwise my neighbor’s wickedness would be my harm; and this was not God’s will, in order that my unhappiness may not depend on another.”

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“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

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“Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event no small matter.”

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“To her who gives and takes back all, to nature, the man who is instructed and modest says, ‘Give what you will; take back what you will.’ And he says this not proudly, but obediently and well pleased with her.”

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“At first tragedies were brought on the stage as means of reminding men of the things that happen to them, and that it is according to nature for things to happen so, and that, if you are delighted with what is shown on the stage, you should not be troubled with what takes place on the larger stage. . . .”

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“How plain does it appear that there is not another condition of life so well suited for philosophizing as this in which you now happen to be.”

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“If the things do not come to you, the pursuit and avoidance of which disturb you, still in a manner you are seeking them out. Let them your judgment about them be at rest, and they will remain quiet, and you will not be seen either pursuing or avoiding.”

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“Eighth, consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves at which we are angry and vexed.”

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“The Lakedaimonians at their public spectacles used to set seats in the shade for strangers, but they themselves sat down anywhere.”

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“Practice that also wherein you have no expectation of success. For even the left hand, which is ineffectual for all other things for want of practice, holds the bridle more vigorously than the right hand; for it has been practiced in this.”

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“How ridiculous and what a stranger he is who is surprised at anything that happens in life.”

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“Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power. Take away then, when you choose, your opinion, and like a mariner who has rounded the headland, you will find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay.”

Marcus Aurelius on guarding our thoughts and not comparing ourselves to others

From thoughts come actions, reactions, and fixed judgments. Much of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations focus on the importance of thoughts: on our controlling them rather than letting them control us, on judging our own thoughts before judging others, and on being humble enough to change them when it is right to do so. I’ve posted some excerpts from Meditations on change, accepting death, and equanimity, so here are some excerpts that serve as reminders to be wary of our thoughts and to stay true to our own paths:

 

“Wrong yourself, wrong yourself, my soul; but you will not much longer have the chance to honor yourself. Every man’s life is sufficient. But yours is nearly finished, and still your soul reveres not itself, but seeks your well-being in the souls of others.”

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“Nothing is more wretched than a man who traverses everything in a round, and pries into the things beneath the earth, as the poet says, and seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the daimon within him and to revere it sincerely.”

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“Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, when you do not refer your thoughts to some object of common utility. For you lose the opportunity of doing something else when you have such thoughts as these. What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving, and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own ruling power. We ought then to check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the overcurious feeling and the malignant; and a man should use himself to think of those things only about which if one should suddenly ask, What are you thinking about? With perfect openness you might immediately answer, this or that; so that from your words it should be plain that everything in you is simple and benevolent, as befits a social animal, one that is unconcerned with pleasure, sensual enjoyments, rivalry, envy, suspicion, or any other thoughts that you would blush to admit.”

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“A man then must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.”

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“Take away your opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed.’ Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.”

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“A man should always have these two rules in readiness: one, to do only whatever the reason of the ruling and legislating faculty may suggest for the use of men; the other, to change your opinion, if anyone sets you right and dissuades you from any opinion. But this change of opinion must proceed only from a genuine conviction about what is just or of common advantage, and the like, not because it appears pleasant or brings reputation.”

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“How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.”

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“. . . nevertheless let that part that forms opinions about these things be quiet, that is, let it judge that nothing is either bad or good that can happen equally to the bad man and the good.”

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“Judge every word and deed that are naturally fit for you, and do not be diverted by words of blame or criticism; if it is good to do or say something, do not consider it unworthy of yourself. For those persons have their peculiar leading principle and follow their peculiar movement; ignore them and go straight on, following your own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one.”

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“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”

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“The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer.”

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“If it is difficult to accomplish something by yourself, do not think that it is impossible for man: but if anything is possible for man and conformable to his nature, think that this can be attained by you, too.”

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“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.”

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“When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as possible. Hence we must keep them before us.”

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“It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.”

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“Accustom yourself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, try to inhabit the speaker’s mind.”

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“In discourse you must attend to what is said, and in every action you must observe what is being done. And in the latter you should see immediately what end is intended, but in the former watch carefully what thing is signified.”

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“About fame: Look at the minds of those who seek fame, observe what they are, and what kind of things they avoid, and what kind of things they pursue. And consider that as heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events that go before are soon covered by those that come after.”

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“No joining others in their wailing, no violent emotion.”

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“In everything that happens, keep before your eyes those to whom the same things happened, and how they were vexed, and treated them as strange things, and found fault with them: and now where are they? Nowhere. Why then do you, too, choose to act in the same way? And why do you not leave these agitations, which are foreign to nature, to those who cause them and those who are moved by them? And why are you not altogether intent upon the right way of making use of the things that happen to you? For then you will use them well, and they will be a material for you to work on. Only attend to yourself, and resolve to be a good man in every act that you do . . .” 

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“. . . for it is very possible to be a divine man and to be recognized as such by no one. Always bear this in mind; and another thing, too, that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life.”

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“It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.”

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“You have not leisure or ability to read. But you have leisure or ability to check arrogance: you have leisure to be superior to pleasure and pain: you have leisure to be superior to love of fame, and not to be vexed at stupid and ungrateful people, nay even to care for them.”

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“Let no man any longer hear you finding fault with the court life or with your own.”

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“Speak both in the senate and to every man, whoever he may be, appropriately, without affectation: use plain discourse.”

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“It is not fit that I should give myself pain, for I have never intentionally given pain even to another.”

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“Neither in your actions be sluggish nor in conversation without method, nor wandering in your thoughts, nor let there be in your soul inward contention nor external effusion, nor in life be so busy as to have no leisure.

Suppose that men kill you, cut you in pieces, curse you. What then can these things do to prevent your mind from remaining pure, wise, sober, just? For instance, if a man should stand by a limpid pure spring and curse it, the spring never ceases sending up potable water; and if he should cast clay into it or filth, it will speedily disperse them and wash them out, and will not be at all polluted. How then shall you possess a perpetual fountain and not a mere well? By forming yourself hourly to freedom conjoined with contentment, simplicity, and modesty.”

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“Do you wish to be praised by a man who curses himself three times every hour? Would you wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does?”

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“When you are offended with any man’s shameless conduct, immediately ask yourself, Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this man also is one of those shameless men who must of necessity be in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of the knave and the faithless man, and of every man who does wrong in any way. For at the same time that you remind yourself that it is impossible that such men should not exist, you will become more kindly disposed toward everyone individually.

[…]

But most of all, when you blame a man as faithless or ungrateful, turn to yourself. For the fault is manifestly your own, whether you trusted that a man who had such a disposition would keep his promise, or when conferring your kindness you did not confer it absolutely, nor yet in such way as to have received full recompense simply from having done it. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you have done something conformable to your nature? Do you seek to be paid for it? It is as if the eye were to demand a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking. For as these members are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their separate constitutions obtain what is their own, so also as man is formed by nature to acts of benevolence; when he has done anything benevolent or in any way conducive to the common interest, he has acted conformably to his constitution, and he gets what is his own.”

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“When you have assumed these names— good, modest, truthful, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous— take care that you do not change these names; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them. And remember that the term “rational” was intended to signify a discriminating attention to every object and freedom from negligence; and that “equanimity” is the voluntary acceptance of the things that are assigned to you by the common nature; and that “magnanimity” is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh, and above that poor thing called fame, and death, and all such things.”

=========

“Inquire of yourself as soon as you wake from sleep, whether it will make any difference to you if another does what is just and right. It will make no difference. . . .”

=========

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.”

=========

“Accustom yourself as much as possible, on the occasion of anything being done by any person, to inquire with yourself, For what object is this man doing this? But begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.”

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“As those who try to stand in your way when you are proceeding according to right reason will not be able to turn you aside from your proper action, so neither let them drive you from your benevolent feelings toward them, but be on your guard equally in both matters, not only in the matter of steady judgment and action, but also in the matter of gentleness toward those who try to hinder or otherwise trouble you. For this also is a weakness, to be vexed at them, as well as to be diverted from your course of action and to give way through fear; for both are equally deserters from their post, the man who does it through fear, and the man who is alienated from him who is by nature a kinsman and a friend.”

==========

“Fourth, consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a man like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults.”

=========

“Fifth, consider that you do not even understand whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstances. And in short, a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgment on another man’s acts.”

=========

“. . . for you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts.”

=========

“Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae [ghouls], bugbears to frighten children.”

=========

“Neither in writing nor in reading will you be able to lay down rules for others before you shall have first learned to obey rules yourself. Much more is this so in life.”

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“If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it. For let your impulse be in your own power.”

Marcus Aurelius on focusing on the present, living simply, and not fearing death

If ever we should forget our own insignificance, Marcus Aurelius is there to remind us: we don’t matter much at all in the scheme of things; we might as well do the best we can in this moment we were given; and when we must return to whence we came, we will be able to do so with acceptance and equanimity because it is just a natural part of life’s cycle. In addition to my posts on change, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity, here are some excerpts in his own more eloquent words on the transitory nature of life from his Meditations:

 

“For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose something he does not already possess.”

=========

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

=========

“Occupy yourself with few things, says the philosopher, if you would be tranquil. But consider if it would not be better to say, Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires. For this brings not only the tranquillity that comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things. Since the greatest part of what we say and do is unnecessary, dispensing with such activities affords a man more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly on every occasion a man should ask himself, Is this one of those unnecessary things? Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.”

=========

“To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a speck of semen tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end your journey in contentment, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced I and thanking the tree in which it grew.”

=========

“. . . Although the interval is small between birth and death; and consider with how much trouble, and in company with what sort of people and in what a feeble body, this interval is laboriously passed. Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look to the immensity of time behind you and to the time that is ahead of you, another boundless space. In this infinity, then, what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?”

=========

“You are not dissatisfied, I suppose, because you weigh only so many pounds and not three hundred. Do not be dissatisfied then that you must live only so many years and not more; for as you are satisfied with the amount of substance that has been assigned to you, so be content with the time.”

=========

“In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you.”

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“Think not so much of what you lack as of what you have: but of the things that you have, select the best, and then reflect how eagerly you would have sought them if you did not have them. At the same time, however, take care that you do not through being so pleased with them accustom yourself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if you should ever not have them.”

=========

“Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine yourself to the present. Understand well what happens either to you or to another. Divide and distribute every object into the causal (formal) and the material. Think of your last hour. Let the wrong that is done by a man stay there where the wrong was done.”

=========

“From Plato: ‘The man who has an elevated mind and takes a view of all time and of all substance, do you suppose it possible for him to think that human life is anything great?’ ‘It is not possible,’ he said. ‘Such a man then will think that death also is no evil.’ ‘Certainly not.’”

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“Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live, according to nature, the remainder that is allowed you.”

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“The perfection of moral character consists in this, in passing every day as if it were the last, and in being neither violently excited nor torpid nor playing the hypocrite.”

=========

“See that you secure this present time to yourself: for those who rather pursue posthumous fame do not consider that the men of tomorrow will be exactly like these whom they cannot bear now; and both are mortal. And what is it in any way to you if these men of tomorrow utter this or that sound, or have this or that opinion about you?”

=========

“This, then, is consistent with the character of a reflecting man, to be neither careless nor impatient nor contemptuous with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature.”

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“All things are the same, familiar in experience, and ephemeral in time, and worthless in matter. Everything now is just as it was in the time of those whom we have buried.”

=========

“What a great soul is that which is ready, at any requisite moment, to be separated from the body and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist. But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade and her, without tragic show.”

==========

“Not even death can bring terror to him who regards that alone as good which comes in due season, and to whom it is all one whether his acts in conformity to right reason are few or many, and a matter of indifference whether he look upon the world for a longer or a shorter time.”

 

Marcus Aurelius on change

A couple weeks ago, I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It has fewer than 100 pages, yet it took me almost the entire week to get through it because I kept stopping to copy down something from pretty much every page. (The book itself is basically a few long lists of reminders on how to live well.) I wanted to soak up the entire thing, let it seep into my body so that I just emanated the Stoic principles. As it is, I have to work really hard to keep them in mind and even harder to put them into practice. To help, I am compiling the excerpts I collected in some loosely-categorized posts: change, accepting death, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity. (Technically, all of the principles could be filed under the header of ‘equanimity,’ but I tried teasing it out a bit to prevent having just one, long post that would inevitably end up being an abridged version of the book.)

To start, here are some words of wisdom on change and its ever-presence in life:

 

“In human life time is but an instant, and the substance of it a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of certainty. And, to say all in a word, everything that belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapor, and life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion. What then can guide a man? One thing and only one, philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daimon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from the same source, wherever it is, from which he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil that is according to nature.”

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“But among the things readiest to hand to which you should turn, let there be these two: One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; so our perturbations come only from inner opinions. The other is that all the things you see around you change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”

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“Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.”

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“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom yourself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change the things that are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

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“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?”

Some thoughts on thinking

After my post a few months ago about no longer identifying with the label of ‘feminist,’ the response was swift and mostly silent: I felt a virtual chill, telling me that I had become a pariah to the circles that once accepted me. With as small of a reader/follower base on any given social media platform as I have, it is not hard to notice when the numbers fluctuate or when the comments and likes slow. Slow they did; down the numbers went. It stung, but I had tried to prepare myself for it: it comes with the territory of changing your mind. I have to accept the consequences.

Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking more about thinking and about how my group affiliations have stood in the way of my truly examining something rather than sharpening my thinking skills. This bothers me. I don’t want to have ready-made, knee-jerk reactions. I want to have thoughtful and generous responses. But that’s also scary, because a thoughtful response does not always align with the group’s approved set of responses, and standing outside of the group is a cold, lonely place.

Alan Jacobs (I guess I’m on an Alan Jacobs roll right now) writes about the importance of thinking and the effects it (or its opposite, not thinking) has on life in How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Much of the book is about how we bypass thinking in favor of our social group and at the expense of the outgroup(s). I say ‘bypass’ because what often happens is that we rely on words, phrases, or subjects not only to convey meaning but also to signal our membership in the group. Jacobs writes,

“The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group, the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of that term against—well, against any kind of standard. People who like accusing others of Puritanism have a fairly serious investment, then, in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.”

Of course, not only can we not escape thinking within of a social context, but we are made for and by the social world. Everything I believe, everything I think, I learned from someone, even if it was someone who lived hundreds of years ago whom I’ve encountered only through books.

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

The painful part (or one of the painful parts) of being written off so easily after writing my post on feminism was that my change of heart was attributed to some corruption done by ‘the enemy.’ I was accused of falling prey to the mistaken and destructive ideology of the Other. Before I was an independent thinker; after I was brainwashed. It felt like I was only seen as human as long as my ideas aligned with everyone else on the ‘right’ side. Once the ideas starting differing, I became at best a weak victim, at worst a repulsive, dismissable piece of scum. Jacobs addresses this phenomenon:

“This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say ‘she really thinks for herself’ when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.

[…]

And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.”

I should point out that the response to my post was not entirely negative. My fear exceeded the severity of the response, and those I was most afraid of disappointing, for the most part, didn’t seem to be disappointed at all. They were able to hear me out and love me all the same. Jacobs describes it well:

“I had chosen to interact with people who had very little in common except that I knew—from experience—that they wouldn’t write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with.”

Thankfully, those in my closest circle don’t write me out of their Books of Life when I say things that are wrong, offensive, or merely different from what they think. Jacobs goes on to differentiate ‘true membership’ from the deceptive and potentially dangerous membership of groups based solely on like-mindedness. Because my family is the base from which I function, I especially identified with the definition of true membership as C.S. Lewis put it:

“Lewis explains: How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself….If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.”

As I have wrestled and questioned and challenged myself to hold a little less tightly to my own thinking, I have begun to appreciate the beauty of a social network that consists of varying political, religious, and philosophical perspectives, “…for there can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.”

The facelessness of the Internet and dichotomization of our political climate in general leans less toward kindness and generosity, though, and more toward dehumanization and argument-as-war. We easily slip into ideology mode, actively seeking out what we already agree with and ignoring (or attacking) what we don’t.

“When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears.”

I am working on understanding better, which means listening more and reacting less. I’d love to have more interactions styled after the debates described in this post by Robin Sloan, in which one person states her position, then the other person must re-state the first person’s position to that person’s satisfaction, then the second one states his position, and then the first person must re-state the second person’s position to his satisfaction. Even if I don’t find people who want to engage in an actual debate or listening session like that, I still love having it in my mind– a mental practice of truly hearing the other side, almost embodying it, before pushing my own viewpoint.

“After switching back and forth for a while, you may find one of [the viewpoints] philosophically or practically superior to the other, but the one you like less won’t be totally alien to you. It’ll be a world you could live in if you had to, even if you don’t particularly want to.”

We must have patience to listen like this.

“This matters because it’s when our forbearance fails that the social fabric tears. The key to strengthening this necessary forbearance . . . is that you have to be willing to switch codes. You have to be willing to inquire into someone else’s dialect, even, or especially, when it’s a moral dialect. You have to risk that impurity.”

This brings me back to where this post began: my own perceived impurity from writing my post a few months back. Impurity, to the ingroup, is cause for expulsion and excommunication. Though I am trying to think better, in some ways it feels like I’m walking alone in the wilderness. Even Jacobs, who advocates for Learning to Think, warns that the effects may not be wholly positive:

“I can’t promise that if you change your mind you won’t lose at least some of your friends—and that matters, because if you learn to think, genuinely to think, you will sometimes change your mind.”

My hope is that this process of seeking understanding and of genuine thinking catches on, that it becomes less lonely than it has been. More than anything, I am not trying to close people out with my ideas, even as they change. I am just trying to be true to the truth– whatever that is– rather than to the precariousness of social acceptance. As Jacobs says, “Thinking is hard.”

On book lists and reading for pleasure

It occurred to me this week that the book lists I create every few months to post here on my blog may come off as ‘must-read’ lists, lists that prescribe what someone should be reading or should enjoy when they are reading them, lists that only serve to create anxiety in me when I come across them myself because they make me feel like I’ve been reading and enjoying the wrong things, wasting time that could have otherwise been spent in the nobler and more worthwhile pursuit of reading those specific books on those specific lists. That is most definitely not the feeling I want to recreate with the lists I post here.

In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs, Jacobs argues for reading by ‘Whim,’ not out of duty or force or the desire to seem smart. The basic tenet is to read for pleasure—because you feel like it and because you enjoy it—and stop reading something you don’t enjoy or you’re just slogging through to be able to ‘have read.’

This is the whole point of the lists I make: to point out some books that I found enjoyable to help others gain some footing on the not-always-easy-to-navigate path of figuring out what to read. After all, we only have so much time in this life, time we’d rather not spend trying to find something to read, let alone something we actually want to read.

“One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay ‘Of Studies’— concerns the reading of books: ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.’ . . . I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from ‘information overload’ but from ‘filter failure.’ Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.” (Alan Jacobs)

That said, I don’t expect anyone else to like everything I like, to appreciate my filtering. I️ may not even like everything I like now at a different point in my life. Jacobs writes, “. . .there is little reason to think that a book will be especially interesting or helpful to someone else just because I like it. Another person may not have my inclinations, interests, or personal needs.” If my own interests and needs are different, depending on when you ask, then it is logical to assume that yours will differ from mine.

And yet, I make these lists and share them anyway. I want to offer as wide a selection as possible so that those with more limited tastes or tastes that vary drastically from mine may still find even one book that piques their interest, one they might enjoy reading and forget for a few minutes that reading often feels like hard work. I want my lists to be full of books that don’t feel like work, even if some are more daunting or challenging than others (War and Peace, anyone?). Someone might be craving an intriguing challenge, and my hope is that my lists provide some encouragement toward that end.

“Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble. In those times when Whim isn’t quite enough, times that will come to us all, we discover this. Such work strengthens our minds, makes us more capable of concentration, teaches us patience— and almost certainly a touch of humility as well. . . .” (Alan Jacobs)

But sometimes we find ourselves reading something we thought would bring us pleasure or that we thought we were up to the task of reading only to find that we are having a hard time continuing. Because I have struggled with this so much in my life, learning late the freedom that comes from closing a book before finishing it and not picking it back up again, I make it a point to let others know they can do the same. I’m pretty much an evangelist for leaving uninteresting or unenjoyable books behind. My advice for those who need to know how it ends, who need closure of some sort: look up the book on Wikipedia and read the plot there. It will save you so much time and headache. Still, I won’t be able to tell you when you need to desert a book. Unfortunately, we all have to decide that for ourselves.

“The better we know ourselves the better we will be able to make some of the decisions that all readers must face— for instance, and notably, the decision to persist in reading a book that fails to delight. . . . For if this particular book is not fixing me pleasure now, it may give me pleasure later, if I allow it to do so. . . . I needed to learn, as I eventually did, that if I set a book aside today I am not thereby forbidding myself to return to it later— nor am I promising to do so. To everything there is a season, and, by corollary, everything is sometimes out of season. . . . But no one will be able to tell me when that season comes; I will have to discern that for myself, with the aid of many years of reflecting on the kind of reader I am.” (Alan Jacobs)

Another concern I had while thinking all this over and its relevance to my posts was that I might be giving off the impression that to be a good or interesting person, you should be a reader. Jacobs puts it best:

“ …we have gone long enough without raising the question of whether reading makes you a better person. The short answer to that question is No. It doesn’t. And the long answer doesn’t differ too dramatically from the short one.”

I don’t think people should read, just as I don’t think people should eat kale every day or get up at five in the morning to do yoga. Life is miserable when we only do what we think we should, and when we’re miserable, we’re not our best selves. To reiterate, I want my book lists to provide direction toward pleasure. Edification is sometimes the point of some of the books I recommend, but I recommend them with the implied caveat that you read them if you are looking for edification. Otherwise, just ignore them.

“The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (‘I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,’ Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes.’Can I go back to my books now?’) Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always go back to their books.”

I know that not many people read as much as I do. I don’t see that as anything to flaunt. It just is. I take care of myself and get back to my books— that could easily summarize my life. But I share the best of what I read in case even a non-reader wants something pleasurable in the form of a book. And if none of my suggestions are up your alley, if I could impart the one rule (again, from Alan Jacobs) that I try to read (and live) by so that you are not discouraged in your own reading journey, it would be this:

“Read what gives you delight— at least most of the time— and do so without shame.”

May you choose to read and re-read the books you want to read when you want to read them just as freely as you choose not to read when you don’t want to read.

Downtown (a poem)

I wanted to catch the very next train, even though
I was only heading home and a train
comes every few minutes. I just can’t
be bothered to wait or get home ten
minutes later than I have it in my mind I
want to get home. So I was rushing across
the street, keeping my eyes on my book
but aware of the man hassling a guy walking
to the same corner I was heading from
the other side– which is to say, they
were heading my way. I picked up my
pace but couldn’t avoid the hassler,
who had clearly struck out with the guy
he had been hassling. ‘Excuse me, ma’am.’
‘Hm,’ I said, pained. It takes so much
effort to pretend to be humane sometimes.
‘Would you be able to tap me onto the train?’
I said yes– how could I not?– but we still
had most of the block to walk to get to
the train. I didn’t slow my pace, and he–
with great effort, I imagine– picked
up his own to keep up. He was short,
dirty, disheveled. He was carrying a plastic
bag. He asked for another favor– a few
dollars– but the convenience of debit
cards almost guarantees that at any point
in time, I will have no cash on me. I said
that maybe some of the people waiting
for the trains would have something.
‘Nah, they’re assholes down there.’ I said
that’s probably true. He mentioned Chicago
services, how unhelpful they are; I asked
where he was before and how the services
were there. He brought up the all-too-common
problem: no ID, no good. We were underground
by then. I tapped him on, and he managed
to get two temporary train cards from
visitors heading to the airport. We rode the
escalator down, talking about the weather
and winter’s coming. I wished him luck and
went to my usual place to wait for the train.
There were still several minutes before
it arrived. Another guy asked for a train
card. There is so much need here, I thought.
I couldn’t help him. I wondered what
would happen to the men when it gets
colder. I waited for the train some more,
got on, went home. I followed my normal
routine, got into bed, went to sleep. The day
wasn’t all that different from any other,
and there’s not much about it worth
sharing with anyone. And yet. One thing
continues to haunt me, all these weeks later:
I could have slowed down.

Ten days of silence

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

I don’t know where that quote originated, but I do know it’s the title of a book on meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s also very true about almost everything in life, a fact that really hit home for me while I just so happened to be taking a ten-day silent meditation course. See how everything connects?

Seven years ago, when I was preparing to join the Peace Corps, I corresponded with a volunteer who had been in Mongolia for a few years already by that point to glean any wisdom he might have. One of his suggestions was that I take a ten-day vipassana meditation course before leaving. He had done it and found it to be very beneficial. Considering I was a grad student at the time and had only a few days between leaving grad school and flying to Mongolia (and that there are only about twenty centers in the States, none of which were very close to Montana), a ten-day course was out of the question. But it remained in the back of my mind. Who knows? Maybe if only I took that course, my life would be so much better. It’s haunted me these seven years, and I’ve finally found myself in a living situation and location that would allow me to take ten days to get off the grid only a couple of hours out of the city and not speak to anyone. I took advantage of it. And I survived to tell the tale.

Here’s how the course it set up: you agree to the Code of Discipline, which means no speaking, no yoga, no meals after noon (except fruit and tea), no killing, no makeup, no quitting. There were a few people who left in the first couple of days (my roommate included, which made my stay just a little bit more palatable), but for the most part, you are asked to trust the teachers and work hard till the end. Men and women are kept separate the entire time, with separate walking paths, separate entrances into the buildings, signs around the grounds to remind you not to desegregate the genders, sheets hung up in the dining hall to remove any distractions while eating, and separate sides of the meditation hall for each gender to sit. For everyone, regardless of gender, the wake-up bell goes off at 4am, and you go to bed at the earliest at 9:30pm. For some reason, I thought this would be fine. Only after I felt the confused circadian effects of sitting all day in dark spaces with my eyes closed combined with trying to find restful sleep at night with my head next to a wall with clanging pipes in it did I realize that it was not.

The first night felt like an omen. It was sprinkling rain and then just turned overcast, but by the time our ‘light dinner’ was done, it was raining hard. We were told that dinner and meditation times would be marked with the ring of a bell, and as we were walking through what felt like the forest between our dorm and the meditation and dining halls, we heard a sound. We hadn’t previously heard the bell to realize that it did, in fact, sound like a bell and not a siren, so we can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this siren-like sound was just the dinner bell. It was actually a tornado siren, and the tornado warning lasted throughout our entire first meditation introduction that night. To get back to our dorms, we had to run in lashing, sideways rain and step in what felt like knee-deep puddles. I had only brought one pair of shoes, and, due to my forgetting to pack any kind of pajamas and resorting to one of the three pairs of pants and one of the shirts I brought to become substitute PJs, I was out two pairs of pants. This left me with exactly one pair of pants and no pairs of shoes. I was off to a good start.

By this time, the code of ‘noble silence’ was in place, so we couldn’t even commiserate or ask each other questions like, did your clothes also produce gallons of water when you got back?, or, is your shower as cold as mine?, or, is it just my shoes that smell so bad? We had to suffer alone together. Luckily for me, there were cubbies in the dorm hall with left-behind shoes from former students, so I nabbed a pair of knock-off Crocs to wear for the rest of the time. I’ve never worn Crocs in my life, but I can now see their utility.

The first full day was torture. Not the silence– I liked the silence and kind of wish all vacations had an option for a similar vow of silence. Nor was it the landscape– walking past the willows and cattails and bunnies and butterflies had a meliorative effect on me. Even the food tasted good! No, the torture was the lack of productivity and the pain. So much pain. I made myself sit for all ten and a half hours of meditation the schedule called for, and it hurt so much that I wanted to run screaming from the place. I hated it. I can’t stay here. I have to get out. This is terrible. What am I doing here?!? I didn’t see how I would come to appreciate any of it or even get used to it. If I had to summarize my thoughts that day, it’d probably be something like: I’ve made a huge mistake.

However. I also knew that I would always wonder What if? if I didn’t stick it out, so I made a game plan: shower on days 3, 6, and 9; shave legs on days 5 and 9; break up the ten days into segments, knowing days 4, 5, and 6 will be the hardest (and hoping that this knowledge will make them bearable); allow myself anything I needed to make it (naps, always choosing my room when given the option of the meditation hall or my room for meditations, doing yoga in the morning when I got up instead of the first meditation, letting my mind wander when it wanted). I would do this thing because I said I would. It just wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped.

The meditations themselves began with chanting by our teacher, S. N. Goenka, who died a few years ago yet continues to teach vipassana meditation to thousands around the world through his recorded meditations and video discourses (which we would watch every evening before retiring for the night). His voice was so calm and gentle, and his face was so kind (here's a clip if you want to see for yourself). I loved listening to him, even if I didn’t understand his chanting or agree with everything he said (like the part about reincarnation). When he spoke of equanimity and staying with the sensations of the moment as it is, not as we want it to be, I was with him all the way. Awareness and equanimity; this will also change; no clinging or aversion; all is impermanent. This was the good stuff. It just became a little difficult to keep in mind when my back was threatening never to work again by the 12348979th hour of sitting in the same position.

We were told not to open our eyes during the meditation hours and not to adjust our positions. If we absolutely had to adjust, we were asked to do so slowly and quietly. I opened my eyes a lot. I tried to keep them shut, but I had to check the time on my watch every five minutes, just to make sure time was still moving. And I liked looking at people, like our assistant teachers when they would whisper to each other or to their assistants when we were all supposed to be silent. (The female assistant teacher would whisper to the female teacher’s assistant to whisper to one of us students something, and the chain of reactions was comical to me. My favorite was their obsession with a 75-year-old student who breathed too loudly for their liking, so they were constantly shuffling over to tell her to breathe more quietly until they developed a system where they would just shuffle over and touch her somewhere as a signal that she needed to breathe quietly. I have no idea how she remained so nonplussed about the whole thing. I told myself every day that if she could make it, I could, too.)

Without being allowed to read at all during the course, I was hoping that my mind would fall back on books I’ve already read, so I was disappointed when my mind mostly went through reels of movie and TV show clips instead. The songs that ran through my head would also make a strange mix-tape (like the theme song to Sesame Street followed by Rihanna followed by Christmas carols). With all of that playing in the background, my mind did a lot of planning: what I was going to wear when I got back to work, a lesson on anger to do with the girls I volunteer with, which yoga plans I would do in the following weeks, how phone conversations with my siblings, my parents, and my best friend from childhood would go, what I would write in a blog post about the course (which is definitely not the one I'm now writing). I was supposed to be focusing on the sensations of my body, but that just gets so boring after a few hours (or minutes). Planning helped the hours pass with just a little less despair.

One day in the middle of my time there– around days five and six– my stomach started feeling weird. I skipped dinner (as in, the serving of fruit they provided) the first night it happened, and the next day, because I didn’t think skipping would be a good idea two days in a row, I told myself I would go to the dining hall, if only to eat a banana. But I fell asleep in my room before dinner and woke up ten minutes after it had already started. I was never late to anything, and I wasn’t really ready to wake up, so I was really disoriented: what time is dinner again? Am I supposed to be there right now? Why didn’t I hear anyone? I forced myself to get up, and as I left the dorm building, I noticed that the sky looked stormy. I decided against bringing an umbrella and regretted it halfway to the dining hall when I heard thunder and felt the rain start to sprinkle. I passed an older Russian woman running with her arms spread out, like she wanted to get wet or something (why?), and I soon started to run as well to try to beat the rain. Right as I was getting to the dining hall, HUGE drops of rain started falling. They were spread out from each other, and I thought their size and the sound of thunder meant a big storm was about to hit. I yanked open the dining hall door and rushed in, breathing hard and splattered from the water bombs. I stood there looking at all the other women sitting silently at the tables, and they looked silently and blankly back at me. The rain!, I wanted to warn them through our silence, but when I looked out the window where some of the women were already looking, there was no rain. It had stopped. There was hardly any sign it had fallen at all. The only rain that fell fell right on me, right as I was coming into the dining hall. I tried to act normal and nonchalant, but I ate too quickly and left before anyone else. I was dry the whole walk back to the dorm and, as it just so happens, the entire rest of the ten days. I still wonder if that whole sequence was just a dream.

On Day 10, the course allows the students to speak with each other so that our entrance back into the real world is less of a shock to our systems. Of course, the question everyone asked each other (and the question I most dreaded) was, ‘So how was the course for you?’ I didn't think I'd be able to answer honestly (‘It was terrible.’), so I tried to dodge that question. Somehow one such conversation began with swapping background info about ourselves, and when asked how the Peace Corps and foster parenting were for me, I answered, ‘They were like this week.’ I think they understood what I meant.

That’s what I think is the sad thing about my doing this, though: just how much it resembled other experiences in my life, where I found myself in situations I wanted to be in until I got in them and realized just how much I wanted out of them. Waiting for this course to end felt like waiting for all of those other things to end– the feeling wasn't new to me. I told myself by Day 2 that I shouldn't do this anymore, sign up for things that I pressure myself into for reasons other than actually wanting to do them. Moreover, during that waiting time, I realized that I wasn't changed– I wasn't any more ‘enlightened’; my life wouldn't take a previously unforeseen path just because I finally took the course; I was, however unfortunately, still me. My thoughts, my moods, my crankiness, my fatigue, they were all still there. Wherever I go, there I am. Which usually means, just because the scenery changes, I don't magically become a different (read: better) person.

But here's the good part: I realized just how much I like my life, because I am finally in an unforced situation, doing things I actually want to do. I like the people in my life. I like where I live and what I do. Goenka (and Seneca) would say that I shouldn't cling to these things, as they can just as quickly be taken from me, just as easily upset a ‘balanced mind’, and I know. I get it. But I am grateful for them all the same– there haven't been many phases of my life where I've felt so wholeheartedly content for such a sustained amount of time. That's a big deal.

The morning we were released, I hitched a ride with a fellow student who was leaving as early as we were allowed. I couldn't handle waiting longer than that. When I got home, the joy I felt on entering my apartment was unmatched: I felt so happy being there, unpacking and cleaning and existing in this place where I can sleep and talk on my own schedule. After I showered (in hot water!), I spoke to each of my family members, feeling like I had been kept as a prisoner somewhere with no ability to contact them. I just missed them all so much while I was away. I missed my life.

Now that I’ve been back for a couple weeks, I have returned fully to the world of electronics and sundry distractions. It feels good. The meditation course is behind me and has become just another experience to tell others about. I try to remain equanimous and accept the impermanence of every moment, but I'm not very good at it. And I might visit YouTube every now and then to catch a glimpse of Grandpa Goenka. But would I recommend this course to others? Probably not. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it once? Yes. Because you know what? At least now I won’t be haunted by the ghost of vipassana.

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