INGREDIENTS

These are mini-posts; espresso shots of things that excite the brain. Usually centered around a primary quote & idea, they’re short, hopefully sweet, and un-edited. Tiny launchpads into interesting questions. 

Espresso Archives

Tony Schwartz: From Trump to Transcendence

Tony Schwartz is the ‘coauthor’ of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. As a journalist, the Trump book carried Schwartz to the peaks of material success, and the forefront of his field.

You might not associate the author of a Donald Trump book with a seeker of perennial wisdom, but following this wave of success, Schwartz embarked upon a 5-year journey of seeking for wisdom in America, culminating in his next book, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America.

Ken Wilbur comments in his private journals:

Tony’s is one of the great stories: an accomplished journalist – he had worked for the New York Times, New York magazine…and he had just finished coauthoring Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, which promptly…tossed Tony into the big time of megabucks, glamour, and glitz. Being immersed in Trump’s extravagant world let Tony know that, even if he had all that material wealth, it somehow wouldn’t touch the really important issues in life. So, with the money he made on the Trump book, Tony spent the next five years on his own search for wisdom, crisscrossing this country and talking to over 200 psychologists, philosophers, mystics, gurus, therapists, and teachers of all sorts…What Tony wants to do next is work on an integral approach to human growth and transformation…He is determined to take this integral message to a larger audience…”

Ken Wilber, One Taste

It’s fascinating, and almost too fitting, that an author steeped in Trump-style luxury immediately rebounded towards wisdom; having to reconsider what’s important.

Schwartz, of course, made headlines back in July for reneging on the myth his Trump book constructed with a feature in the New Yorker:

‘I put lipstick on a pig,’ he said. ‘I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.’ He went on, ‘I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.’ ”

I still find the recoil from luxury to wisdom a far more compelling and newsworthy story than these quips, though certainly satisfying to read, offer.

Maybe Trump’s trajectory will follow suit, moving from self-aggrandizement to self-enquiry. Who knows?

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Obama’s Spirituality & the Imperative Depth of Narrative

In a 2006 speech, Obama departed from the moral & religious neutrality of the liberal platform to deliver a speech on the necessary relationship between faith & politics. In doing so, he affirmed the idea that human beings are narrative creatures, where the degree of purpose and fulfillment we may experience is linked with the depth & scope of our narratives. This sentiment echoes that of David Foster Wallace:

And it’s so true it’s trite that human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as a culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his life-time as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and a middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.” 

– David Foster Wallace, Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young

By cleaving any talk of morality or spirituality from public discourse, as well as from shaping the policies that directly affect our everyday lives, we impede our stories from transcending trivialities. Our lives lose their vitalizing sense of telos. In Obama’s words:

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds – dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets – and they’re coming to realize that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives….If we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at – to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own – then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.”

Find the full speech here.

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Fiddling with Impermanence, or Animating an Inevitable Dream?

Where does one look when looking for life? Even when acknowledging that looking misses the point, I often can’t help but feel it’s somewhere other than here, or something other than this.

I’m sitting in a Cambridge coffee shop staring out at Harvard’s red-brick offices, wondering if those professors have some deeper, more incisive view into the Universe’s workings, or at least the superimposed human ones, than us mere non-Harvard mortals.

Or are they so enclosed by their conceptual walls, so deeply burrowed into their minds that they waste their time fiddling around with impermanence? The more infrastructure you build into your narrative, the more believable these follies become.

Are beauty, worth, and value really to be discovered from within a fluorescently-lit office? From behind a desk that’s forgotten it used to be a tree? Or from the exposed brick of what’s new & hip, a new wave of cage?

Where’s raw life in the nude today? Who’s trying to walk around naked anymore, and is anyone trying to build a nudist colony that isn’t crazy? To what moon can the modern Ginsberg howl? Life is just a passing dream. Or maybe it’s the part before you fall asleep. Either way I, this particular bundle of flesh & habits, aspirations & insecurities, am going somewhere and never coming back. Decaying or transcending, what’s the difference? So are you.

Maybe, as American poet Anne Waldman says,

We’re all just conglomerations of tendencies, hopeless bundles of quivering meat bound on a wheel. We have no souls, no tangible selves.” 

And as we cycle the wheel, both metaphorically and as our literal blue/green conglomerate of rock & water & gas turns in the milky Universe, we animate the ride, because why not? Maybe that’s our nature. If we’re the animators, if it’s our choice how this inevitable ride goes, then I resoundingly agree with Waldman when she concludes:

We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid & generous as we can.”  

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Bertrand Russell’s Evolution from Utilitarian to Contemplative; Captured in a Letter

…unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, and largely witty fellow. Though firmly grounded in rationality and logic, he was fascinated by, and certainly unafraid of acknowledging, those dimensions beyond human comprehension. His term for these realms was usually some variant of “contemplation“, gathered in a beautiful collection of essays: Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays.

I recently stumbled across a letter he sent to his friend, British scholar Gilbert Murray, documenting Russell’s transition from believing in the hedonism of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain as the most self-evident truth in human life, to an urgency for maintaining the human ability of “contemplation of eternal things” 1:

[Unlike the] utilitarian… I judge pleasure and pain to be of small importance compared to knowledge, the appreciation and contemplation of beauty, and a certain intrinsic excellence of mind which, apart from its practical effects, appears to me to deserve the name of virtue. [For] many years it seemed to me perfectly self-evident that pleasure is the only good and pain the only evil. Now, however, the opposite seems to me self-evident.”

What first turned me away from utilitarianism was the persuasion that I myself ought to pursue philosophy, although I had (and have still) no doubt that by doing economics and the theory of politics I could add more to human happiness. It appeared to me that the dignity of which human existence is capable is not attainable by devotion to the mechanism of life, and that unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs.”

 — Letter to Gilbert Murray, April 3, 1902

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Kerouac & Camus: Odious Comparisons & Absurd Humans

An unlikely duo, Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus, independently touch upon the human tendency towards comparisons, and how this approach ultimately undermines the search for reality 2.

In Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, while Ray Smith (fictionalized Kerouac) muses to Japhy Ryder (fictionalized Gary Snyder) about how fresh & pure the crisp mountain air along their hike feels in comparison to his smoggy, drunk place in the San Francisco city life, Ryder retorts:

‘Comparisons are odious, Smith,’ he sent sailing back to me, quoting Cervantes and making a Zen Buddhist observation to boot. ‘It don’t make a damn frigging difference whether you’re in The Place or hiking up Matterhorn, it’s all the same old void, boy.'”

The book largely documents Kerouac’s introduction to Zen Buddhism via Gary Snyder, and the idea of the void refers to Śūnyatāone of Buddhism’s closest stabs at labeling reality 2

The idea that “comparisons are odious” resonates across a number of disciplines implicated with metaphysics and reality. Albert Camus, notorious proponent of absurdism, writes along similar lines:

…the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation…There can be no absurd outside the human mind.”

– Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)

The Absurd is defined by the magnificent Wikipedia as: “the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.” This absurdity, Camus notes, arises only from comparisons. It is a manifestation of the difference between the way things are, and the way we are. This difference, of course, exists nowhere other than our own minds, therefore pushing Camus to conclude that absurdity is an emergent property of the human mind.

When he speaks of the world that transcends an action, the bare fact that a human mind is comparing something against, this can be seen as a representation of Śūnyatā. Comparisons are absurd, because it’s all the same old void.

Nevertheless, we draw comparisons because it’s a useful thing to do sometimes. Once we accept the absurdity of our situation, embrace that comparisons are odious, we’re liberated to use them anyhow. This is precisely what Camus wanted. Again, from Wikipedia:

Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.”

It’s a good thing he concluded that we should continue to “defiantly explore and search for meaning”, it excuses the irony of a post like this that draws comparisons to point out the futility of drawing comparisons. I find comparisons ultimately useful in my defiant process because they can be used to point out shared undercurrents. Hopefully, these undercurrents flow towards the realization that it is all, indeed, the same old, absurdity-free, void.

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Bertrand Russell & Carl Jung On the Purpose of Culture

Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness provides a fascinating rumination on the motivating mentalities behind our actions:

For my part, I think action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion…A life confined to what is personal is likely, sooner or later, to become unbearably painful; it is only by windows into a larger and less fretful cosmos that the more tragic parts of life become endurable.” 

Perhaps unnecessarily cynical in its end, but Bertrand Russell joins the chorus of great minds noting the undesirable route of self-interest. Somewhat ironically, the often proposed remedy for this “unbearably painful” self-assertion is to pay greater attention to that self. This is in line with what many Asian philosophies have taught for decades, that an obsession with self, and its subsequent self-assertion noted by Russell, is a principle root of suffering. By studying that self intensely, it’s said that we can attain a more enduring well-being for both ourselves, and others.

Nourishing the diversity of interests beyond self-assertion is a role Russell attributes to culture:

Culture gives a man less harmful forms of power and more deserving ways of making himself admired.”

Taking this to an extreme, Carl Jung depicts the purpose of culture as an infrastructure supporting the pursuit of self-knowledge:

Attainment of consciousness is culture in the broadest sense, and self-knowledge is therefore the heart and essence of this process.”

The ‘purpose’ of culture is an interesting question. Should culture have a purpose? Or is culture just an incidental byproduct of its citizens’ behaviors? This probably dips into the difference between society and culture, and ultimately back to social contract theory. As a collective group of humans abiding by relatively shared norms and interwoven by our many shared institutions, are we, on the whole, aiming at something, or not?

I like Russell’s comfort in striving towards “windows into a larger and less fretful cosmos”, whatever that means. Maybe those windows are to be found though Jung’s self-knowledge?

 

 

 

 

 

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Sam Harris & the Wisdom of Taking Our Own Advice

On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.”

– Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)

Trite but true. It’s easier to advise others than to embody our own recommendations. Why is that? I have an ideal morning route I’d like to follow, but I often don’t. More often than not, it’s because I don’t feel like it.

I imagine this is true for most of us; that there are things we’d like ourselves to do, but when it comes time to act, we don’t feel like actually doing the work. Reason #2 of the Harvard Business Review’s article, How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want Tois just that:

But as [Oliver] Burkeman asks, ‘Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?’…Think about that for a minute, because it’s really important. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea – without consciously realizing it – that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action. We need to be eager to do so. I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100% nonsense.”

So should we respect the way our body feels in each moment, tailoring our itineraries to its transitory states, or push past these blocks to follow our more rational agendas? I suppose it depends on how we want to live our lives. In my story, I admire the contemplative agenda surmised by Harris:

…what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

– Sam Harris, Waking Up, p. 14

It’s in this constant stream of self-conversation that those temporal states of not feeling like meditating, or working out, or whatever you’re into, really comes into focus. Harris tells us that we can live & identify with our continuum of thoughts, feelings, and emotions, or we can dispel these false identifications that bundle together to create our illusory notion of self. Choosing the latter, I then ask how to reach the alternative:

There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds – and lives – are largely shaped by how we use them.”

– Sam Harris, Waking Up, p. 31

Poetically echoed by Annie Dillard:

The mind fits the world and shapes it as a river fits and shapes its own banks.”

– Annie Dillard, Living with Fiction

Recognizing that how we feel about doing something in a particular moment is only one of multiple potential motivating forces proved somehow liberating for me. That feeling will pass, and if the action is something I believe in, I will invariably feel better afterwards than if I stay in bed that extra 5 minutes.

The task then becomes to investigate what that second motivating force is beyond the ordinary stream of consciousness that heeds our transitory states of lethargy. Cultivating this is what Tim Urban calls the “core internal human struggle”:

The battle of the Higher Being against the animals — of trying to see through the fog to clarity — is the core internal human struggle…part of the same core conflict between our primal past and our enlightened future.”

Still, even after writing this, tomorrow morning’s inevitable struggle between sleeping longer or meditating will remain just that: a struggle. My primal past talks a lot.

 

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Aristotle’s Take on Intelligence: Always Towards Happiness

Terence Irwin defines Aristotle’s usage of Happiness as:

Happiness is the complete (teleios) end, the only one that is not towards any other end.”

Further, in striking contrast with our understanding of Intelligence today, Irwin clarifies Aristotle’s use of the term:

Intelligence is good deliberation about things towards one’s own happiness in general…’Intelligence’ is misleading to the extent that we associate it with an intellectual ability that someone might have without any wisdom in planning his life (this mere ability would be somewhat like Aristotle’s ‘comprehension’).”

What we call intelligence today equates more towards mere comprehension in Aristotle’s view. When we talk about intelligence, we’re usually referring to various cognitive abilities (executive functions, memory, processing, etc.). But we have very meager, if any, conceptual connections between intelligence and our ultimate aims. In today’s terms, very intelligent people can lead very miserable lives. This is fine, so long as we don’t conflate intelligence with wisdom, or in any way mistake being intelligent for being better. Intelligence as cognitive ability disconnected from ultimate aims is arbitrary. It may be useful in increasing earning potential, but earning potential is only useful in so far as it propels us towards our complete end, Aristotle’s Happiness.

Intimately woven with purpose & happiness, true intelligence is wisdom in planning our lives. Let’s find a way to measure, and value, that.

 

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Some Alan Watts: The Basic Thing

In The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts distills the crux of spirituality, the core of the major religious traditions and substance of mystical experiences into a simple call:

We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience – a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.'”

And again:

The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”

 

To dispel is an action; we are used to experimenting and experiencing through things that we do. To dispel the “I” illusion is a basic theme underlying all spiritual practices, and most good Art.

But in Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality, Watts adds:

Robert Oppenheimer is said to have remarked that the whole world is, quite obviously, going to hell – adding, however, that the one slim chance of its not going to hell is that we do absolutely nothing to stop it. For the greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world….To be human, one must recognize and accept a certain element of irreducible rascality both in oneself and in one’s enemies.”

So, we’re to do nothing? What about dispelling the illusion of the separate ego? Is it possible to experiment and experience anew, rather than by doing something new, by doing nothing?

The notable difference, of course, is that the first two quotes refer to the individual’s work, while the Oppenheimer remark touches on the collective mentality. But at a certain point of traveling down Watts’ road, is there still a difference between the two?

He concludes the thought in Does it Matter:

For when it is understood that trying to have good without evil is as absurd as trying to have white without black, all that energy is released for things that can be done. It can be diverted from abstract causes to specific, material undertakings – to farming and cooking, mining and engineering, making clothes and buildings, traveling and learning, art, music, dancing, and making love. Surely, these are excellent things to do for their own sake and not, please not, for one’s own or anyone else’s improvement.”

So long as we’re here on earth, as “gods with anuses” as Ernest Becker puts it, “with our minds we can ponder the infinite, yet we’re housed in these heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying bodies” as Jason Silva elaborates, the best we can do are excellent things for their own sake.

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We’re All Philosophers, Like It or Not

Philosophy is not a topic, category, or subject separate from any act of life. The way it’s compartmentalized in Universities, given a department that ostensibly symbolizes separateness, fuels the illusion that only those who read Plato or actively study philosophy are, themselves, philosophers.

Aware of it or not, we are all philosophers. It’s not that some people are philosophers and others aren’t, but that some people are good ones, others poor ones. Being a poor philosopher is not signified by bad ideas, lack of reading, or even frequently being wrong. To be a poor philosopher is to neglect our duty as one. The poor philosopher is one who is either ignorant to the fact that she is, indeed, a philosopher, or one who consciously shirks the implicated duties.

A philosopher is an active, conscious agent of her own life; involved in every aspect of its being, seeking to exist from the grounds of wisdom. One of the best definitions of philosophy I’ve encountered is from Sharon Lebell’s book, The Art of Living, an interpretation of the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scrutiny applied with kindness is the main antidote.” 

We’re born into this life, and innocently adopt all kinds of implicit assumptions & conventions. It’s philosophy’s job to weed through these, inspect them, discard the bad ones and nurture the good ones. To leave this work to only the “professional philosophers” is a horrible strategy, as they often have no idea how to communicate their findings without using 10-syllable words within 1,000 page books.

For more, check out this great article on Lebell’s interpretation of Epictetus.

 

 

 

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On Discipline

Whatever you’re trying to do, the best way is always consistency. 10 minutes a day is usually better than 30 minutes every now and then. You would think it’s easier to meditate for just 10 minutes in a day than for 50 minutes every couple of days, but I’ve found the opposite. Sometimes you feel like it, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes there are other things you’d rather do, but the thing with consistency is that it’s a conscious choice. Everyday, you’re saying you prioritize that action or practice over whatever else might come up, and all kinds of shit comes up during the course of a lifetime.

Annie Dillard writes:

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

That’s been my case, that the disruptions to the habits I try to form are usually hedonic. I want to sleep longer; I’d rather go out and have fun with my friends; skipping one day is no big deal; playing a game of Fifa would be way more fun. Dillard equates the life of the spirit to the disciplined practices; people don’t usually try to form consistent habits based around gratifying the senses, but around living what they would consider a better life.

Knowing that hedonic gratifications are fleeting, that staying in bed an extra half hour (provided, of course, I’ve already slept a solid 8 hours) rather than meditating, reading, or making a healthy breakfast, won’t in the long run do me any good is a good step towards bolstering that discipline. Staying out at the bar an hour or two later might feed my desire to have a fun night, but getting home with enough time to write might feed my soul. Framing it like that makes it sound like an obvious choice, but it really isn’t. It’s easy enough to justify anything in the moment. My dedication to the trajectory of my life has to outweigh the various ways I might feel on groggy morning, or the seductive vibe of a raging bar and fine whiskey.

We have to decide what our lives are all about. And we have to make this decision constantly, over and over, in every situation pitting the temporary against the eternal, the days against the lives.

Carl Jung made this choice and put it strongly:

The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance…In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”

Whatever your decision is, whether you think Jung sounds either delusional or prophetic, make it consciously, intentionally. Don’t let it happen to you. Make it for yourself.

 

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Writing Only for Yourself…Online?

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

This is one of the big floating hypocrisies of the intersection between artwork and the internet: many writers (myself included, or more prominently, Maria Popova of Brainpickings), make the claim that they write for no one else but themselves…and yet they (we?) publish that work online for the world to see. Many, if they’re lucky, make money off this writing that is “made for no one else but themselves.” What’s the deal with that?

I ask myself this question a lot. I firmly hold that I write for myself. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t I just keep all my writing in a journal somewhere, or a folder on my desktop, rather than creating an entire website to spread them across the internet?

Popova responds to this contradiction during an interview with Tim Ferriss:

Rather than hypocrisy it’s just this very human struggle to be seen and to be understood, which is why all art comes to be. Because one human being wants to put something into the world and to be understood for what he or she stands for and who he or she is.”

That resonates. That writing, art, is about interacting with the world; about participating in the collective human experience. The mass struggle to both understand though we can never fully understand, and be understood though we can never fully be understood.

Popova carries on to relate a similar response from Werner Herzog, where he says that the artist who creates for himself, in public, has no interest in the actual response of the audience, but just that the connection is being made. This hits at least one nail on the head, that the narcissistic personalities are the ones who worry about the perception of their work, thus they end up tailoring their creations for the audience and their response rather than as a vehicle for exploring their own innards. They end up writing, or doing whatever they do, for the audience, and inevitably for praise and recognition, sacrificing autonomy of the process, and thus a degree of, if not all, honesty. This ultimately sabotages the whole project, because the most interesting writing is the most honest. 

So I write only for myself, because it’s something that for now, I find tremendous value in. Similar to Popova, I see it as a living record of my thought process. I put it online because I’m not interested in living a mentally isolated life. I want to connect with people on that honest, human level of profound confusion & sublime fascination. That connection is only possible so long as the writing remains deeply honest. Tailoring it to anyone else erodes that possible connection, but keeping it to myself does the same.

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