Lessons From Stories: Kafka On The Shore

Kafka On The Shore is a novel by Haruki Murakami. The narrative follows two central characters, Kafka and Nakata, as they interact with other humans, cats, spirits, and even figures like Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. Murakami uses aspects of magical realism in order to explore concepts such as fate and past trauma. It’s in this exploration of life that we can find valuable lessons.

Lessons:

Embrace The Storm

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.

[…]

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Fate is at the core of Murakami’s novel. Kafka’s fate is to confront his mother, who abandoned him at a young age. All his actions lead him towards this fate. He tries to run away from it, to hide from it, but he is constantly driven towards his fate. He eventually relents to the inevitable and faces his fate/storm in order to grow.

Such storms are always present in our life. We can view them as fate or perhaps challenges and obstacles life has set in front of us. Trials for us to complete and mature or to ignore and hide from and remain the same person. These storms can involve our career choices, relationships, habits, or ideologies. The very thing that causes us discomfort is what we need.

Of course, real life is not like a story. Our life isn’t a plot that will cause us to confront the uncomfortable aspects. Here is where the story of Kafka can influence us. If Kafka never confronted his mother, then he would always be a prisoner to his past feelings. But because he was able to come to terms with his abandonment issues, he was freed.

The story urges us to face our storm or fate, so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and move forward in life freely.

Take Responsibility

It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.

This is significant in two ways. First, the more practical approach. Taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. We have to imagine that we have some control over our circumstances, whether good or bad. Our actions matter. Our choices matter and so, through our imagination, we can then develop ownership of our actions and thus create order.

Second, the potentials that imagination opens up also require our responsibility. If we imagine ourselves running a marathon, then it becomes a responsibility to work towards that imagination. This is true with creating art, traveling, setting goals, and so on. We have to imagine it first and then bring it to life.

Be Open

“If I had to say anything it’d be this: Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

Nothing ever comes exactly the way we expect. There has to be a sense of letting go when we seek whatever it is that we want. To give up control and accept whatever it is that life thinks is best suited for us.

Otherwise, with a close mind, we can overlook the blessings presented to us.

Have Empathy Towards Others

“Miss Saeki’s life basically stopped at age twenty, when her lover died. No, maybe not age twenty, maybe much earlier…I don’t know the details, but you need to be aware of this. The hands of the clock buried inside her soul ground to a halt then. Time outside, of course, flows on as always, but she isn’t affected by it. For her, what we consider normal time is essentially meaningless.”

[…]

“Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

The character of Miss Saeki is portrayed as a shell of a human being. Her essence, her spirit, is stuck in a time when she was happily in love. However, a traumatic incident caused her to be severed from the present and to live in the past.

Miss Saeki is a fictional character, but her portrayal is very much real. From an outsider’s point of view, Miss Saeki appears perfectly normal. Just as we may think of the people we encounter in our daily life. We cannot know what is going on inside the person’s head. We don’t know what past events still haunt them. This is why empathy and kindness need to be at the forefront of our actions.

These two qualities can be viewed as a luxury, for we may not receive them from others. However, we all have the capability of showing these qualities and it becomes an obligation to do so, regardless of whether others show it to us.

As long as there’s such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

“Man doesn’t choose fate. Fate chooses man. That’s the basic worldview of Greek drama. And the sense of tragedy—according to Aristotle—comes, ironically enough, not from the protagonist’s weak points but from his good qualities. Do you know what I’m getting at? People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues.”

Too much unselfishness can breed greed, as others can take advantage of the unselfish nature. Too much love can breed resentment, as the person can be viewed as overbearing. We can have a boundless work ethic in order to improve our life or our family’s life but can end up with a broken home because of overworking.

In themselves, no virtue is good or bad, but when the human element is added to the mix, then there needs to be some kind of boundary. Otherwise, what we imagine being a good thing can cause negativity.

The Ebb and Flow of Life

“Picture a bird perched on a thin branch,” she says. “The branch sways in the wind, and each time this happens the bird’s field of vision shifts. You know what I mean?”

[…]

“It bobs its head up and down, making up for the sway of the branch. Take a good look at birds the next time it’s windy. I spend a lot of time looking out that window. Don’t you think that kind of life would be tiring? Always shifting your head every time the branch you’re on sways?

“I do.”

“Birds are used to it. It comes naturally to them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it. So it’s not as tiring as we imagine. But I’m a human being, not a bird, so sometimes it does get tiring.”

“You’re on a branch somewhere?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she says. “And sometimes the wind blows pretty hard.”

We can see the natural rhythm of life as the individual trying to remain stable as events outside of their control create disorder. The actions of other people, chance events, unlucky instances, absurd misfortunes are to us what the wind is to a bird. Knocking us about, disrupting our flow, causing us to readjust. So, there is a constant ebb and flow, push and pull, as we adjust to the new rhythm of life and just as we master the new, another challenge arises.

The cycle is endless, and it is by accepting this cycle that can gain some peace of mind. So that when we are knocked off balance, we don’t view it as some grave misfortune but as the natural rhythm of life. And perhaps we can even be prepared for the next gust of wind.

True Inner Strength

“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.”

Too often we wish that nothing bad happens to us. But that just isn’t realistic. Hoping gets us nowhere. What we need is to cultivate certain characteristics so that when misfortune strikes, we can manage them in a calm and orderly manner. One practice is to meditate on the worst possible scenario, as the Stoics advised. So when bad things happen, we aren’t surprised by them.

Another way to cultivate inner strength is by purposely exposing ourselves to suffering. Whether it be physical training, which can help with mental endurance, or by constantly trying new things and failing, and trying again. Both of these tactics can bring us insight into how to endure. How to be patient. How to deal with that inner voice which wants comfort and ease. How to dust ourselves off and keep going.

This type of thinking puts the control in our hands. Gives us an understanding of how to behave when faced with difficult challenges.

Overcome Yourself

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about.”

We all have our defects. No individual is perfect. Part of living is about finding the pieces of yourself which are broken or maybe even missing and mending them and creating them anew.

“Even though she loved you, she had to abandon you. You need to understand how she felt then, and learn to accept it. Understand the overpowering fear and anger she experienced, and feel it as your own—so you won’t inherit it and repeat it. The main thing is this: You have to forgive her. That’s not going to be easy, I know, but you have to do it. That’s the only way you can be saved. There’s no other way!”

“Mother, you say, I forgive you. And with those words, audibly, the frozen part of your heart crumbles.”

The core of the novel is Kafka coming to terms with the abandonment by his mother. He gets angry; he lashes out; he runs away from home but wherever he goes; he carries with him this burden that his mother left him. Until he can come to terms with that, he’ll never truly evolve and grow. Once more, this requires Kafka to overcome himself. To forgive someone requires us to subdue our own feelings and our ego. Kafka is able to do so and move on with his life. But many people get stuck in the past. They harbor a singular event or person and let the past dictate their present. To be free in the present, we have to face the past and deal with it and in turn, deal with our own issues. This is what Kafka’s journey is all about.

Great Lines

“Mr. Nakata, this world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence. Please keep that in mind. You can’t be too cautious. The same holds true for cats and human beings.”

“There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story.”

“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to.”

He lived in a world circumscribed by a very limited vocabulary.

“Having an object that symbolizes freedom might make a person happier than actually getting the freedom it represents.”

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

Poem: The Present

Moments past,

Take with it future hope,

Leave behind present guilt,

Chaining you to your judgement.

But each moment is renewed,

Like the passage of a stream,

The present need not be tied to the past,

As a new set of eyes or ears or a new breath or thought can unchain the present from what has been.

Past judgements left in the past,

The now, gives birth to new possibilities,

Which open new paths,

As the present allows for you to be born again.

Lessons From Books: The Power Of Myth

 

Joseph Campbell was a world-renowned teacher and mythologist. He spent much of his life studying and dissecting myths from all over the world. It was his belief that myths can act as blueprints for our lives by acting as a navigational tool. In the book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell sat down with the journalist, Bill Moyers, and discussed everything from the importance of mythology to why one should follow their bliss, to the meaning of life, the purpose of life and even topics such as nature, sin, morality, marriage, rituals and many more practical topics.

The following are a few lessons picked from the book.

Lessons:

On The Importance of Myths

Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

Myths typically have a beginning, middle, and end. This complete picture can then act as a guide for us to follow as the hero deals with many failures and struggles. These can be as relatable as having to leave home and finding your own path in life, to managing the ego, or understanding harmful relationships, or maturing from naïve thinking, and so on. 

A heroic journey teaches us what is possible. What sacrifices to make. How many obstacles and failures we must overcome in order to reach our goal. More importantly, how we aren’t alone in our struggle. We can avoid certain hardships and/or emulate heroic decisions in our own life.

Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being divine.

Answers to most of our problems and concerns are already out there. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Stay Optimistic In The Darkest Of Times

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

The transformation is only possible if we are willing to listen to the voice. We might not like what the voice has to say. The transformation might require us to confront our own issues, belief systems, ideologies, things that we have based our identity on.

Sometimes it is more comfortable to stay in the darkness. It may require a great struggle to move towards the light. This is where individual choice matters and personal ownership comes into play. 

Take Action

God must have known very well that man was going to eat the forbidden food. But it was by doing that that man became the initiator of his own life. Life really begins with that act of disobedience.

Our life begins when we take actions based on our own judgment. Our judgment may contradict the beliefs of other authority figures in our life however, this disobedience then allows us to claim both the success and failure in our life as our own and so creating our own way. 

One of the great challenges of life is to say “yeah” to that person or act or that condition which in your mind is the most abominable.

How To Live

Follow your passion:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Nurture experiences:

People say that we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Find your internal meaning, rather than seeking external meaning for life:

There’s no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.

How To Improve Your Character

Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in a situation that will evoke higher nature rather than your lower.

Situations that will evoke our higher nature are often those which make us uncomfortable. They challenge our beliefs, our relationships, our commitment, and our mental fortitude. 

Life also tests our character, but it does so on its own accord. At random. So, instead of waiting for life to create challenges for us, which we might fail, it’s best to take responsibility and seek situations that make us uncomfortable so our higher nature can get more repetitions and be ready for the randomness of life. 

Listen To Yourself

If the person insists on a certain program and doesn’t listen to the demands of his own heart, he’s going to risk a schizophrenic crackup. Such a person has put himself off-center. The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.

In order to be an individual, we have to listen to our own individual voice. This can be scary because that voice may go against what others have told us our entire life. However, it’s in the pursuit of our own individual needs do we come to live our own life. Otherwise, we are basically matching the steps of those who have come before us and living a life best suited for others. 

Different Parts Of Life Require A Different You

The tradition in India, for instance, of changing your whole way of dress, even changing your name, as you pass from one stage to another. When I retired from teaching, I knew that I had to create a new way of life, and I changed my manner of thinking about my life, just in terms of that notion — moving out of the sphere of achievement into the sphere of enjoyment and appreciation and relaxing to the wonder of it all.

What has helped us in the past may not help us in the present and could be outdated for the future. Actions, habits, belief systems, and relationships all fall in this realm of thinking.

We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved.

The very thing that has had a direct impact on our past success can become the new barrier. 

To evolve out of this psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey — leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.

Have A Private Place

This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

A place to decompress. A place to organize our thoughts. A place to plan future actions. A place to unpack experiences. A place that can keep us sane. Too often we delve into our phones, or computers when it is time to take a break. Instead, we need to deep dive into our own minds and spend some time observing ourselves. Through such a measure, maturity and growth can be achieved. 

How To Read

Sit in a room and read — and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, “Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did” — and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such poem — but he hasn’t said anything to you.

Commit to a line of thinking and let go. Every now and then we have to allow another person to lead us. Allow their words and thought processes to influence our own. This is a way to go deeper and find true value instead of staying on the surface and jumping from one line of thinking to another, from one writer to the next, and being unable to recall anything of substance. 

How To Become An Individual

[In Thus Spoke Zarathustra] Nietzsche describes what he calls the three transformations of the spirit. The first is that of the camel, of childhood and youth. The camel gets down on his knees and says, “put a load on me.” This is the season for obedience, receiving instruction and the information your society requires of you in order to live a responsible life.

But when the camel is well loaded, it struggles to its feet and runs out into the desert, where it is transformed into a lion — the heavier the load that has been carried, the stronger the lion will be. Now, the task of the lion is to kill a dragon, and the name of the dragon is “Thou Shalt.” On every scale of this scaly beast, a “Thou Shalt” is imprinted: some from four thousand years ago; others from this morning’s headlines. Whereas the camel, the child, had to submit to the “Thou Shalts,” the lion, the youth, is to throw them off and come to his own realization.

And so, when the dragon is throughly dead, with all its “Thou Shalts” overcome, the lion is transformed into a child moving out of its own nature, like a wheel impelled from its own hub. No more rules to obey. No more rules derived from the historical needs and tasks of the local society, but the pure impulse to living of a life in flower.

Accept Fate or Chance

This is a matter of being able to accept chance. The ultimate backing of life is chance — the chance that your parents met, for example! Chance, or what might seem to be chance, is the means through which life is realized. The problem is not to blame or explain but to handle the life that arises. Another war has been declared somewhere, and you are drafted into an army, and there go five or six years of your life with a whole new set of chance events. The best advice is to take it all as if it had been of your intention — with that, you evoke the participation of your will.

Life can be absurd and random. It can feel as if we have no control over it. However, the perspective of acting as if what happens in our life is what we intended can give us a sense of control. We don’t have to dwell on the pitfalls, instead we can make the best of a bad situation. We can bounce back into forward motion quickly instead of questioning fate or chance which will keep us stagnant. 

Also, by accepting fate, we get to live in the present. Instead of fighting the present moment because it doesn’t align with our past hopes, we can experience life as it is and live with awareness and attention.  

Think Positive

Ramakrishna once said that if all you think of are your sins, then you are a sinner. And when I read that, I thought of my boyhood, going to confession on Saturdays, meditating on all the little sins that I had committed during the week. Now I think one should go and say, “bless me, Father, for I have been great, these are the good things I have done this week.” Identify your notion of yourself with the positive, rather than with the negative.

Our internal dialogue influences our state of being. We can be overly self-critical and live with too much shame or guilt depending on how we talk to ourselves. This darkens the experience of life. Instead, self love needs to be administered. Ultimately we need a balance so we don’t become delusional or inflate our ego too much. But often we lean further towards the negative than we do towards the positive. 

Great Lines or Quotes:

You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

When you follow the path of your desire and enthusiasm and emotion, keep your mind in control, and don’t let it pull you compulsively into disaster.

You don’t understand death, you learn to acquiesce in death.

Freud tells us to blame our parents for all the shortcomings of our life, and Marx tell us to blame the upperclass of our society. But the only one to blame is oneself. That’s the helpful thing about the Indian idea of karma. Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.

I don’t think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal. Everybody has his own possibility of rapture in the experience of life.

Love is the burning point of life, and since all life is sorrowful, so is love. The stronger the love, the more the pain.

Going through a ritual day after day keeps you on the line

When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life — well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.

Do not pluck the mote from your enemy’s eyes, but pluck the beam from your own. No one is in a position to disqualify his enemy’s way of life.

Lessons From Stories: Siddhartha

Siddhartha had a goal, a single one: to become empty—empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. To die away from himself, no longer be self, to find peace with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfed thinking: that was his goal.

The story Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, deals with the human ego, desires, needs, vices, and the attempt to overcome all of it. In this journey of self-discovery, Siddhartha learns the important lesson that to find himself, he has to go his own way. To make his own path through personal experiences. All the good and bad that comes along with it is his own, as is the wisdom he achieves.

Lessons

There Is No Permanence

He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped from his ego into a thousand different formations. He was animal, was carcass, was rock, was wood, was water, and he always found himself again upon awakening. Sun was shining or moon, he was self again, swinging in the cycle, felt thirst, overcame thirst, felt new thirst.[…]Bu though the paths led away from the ego, in the end they always led back to the ego. Though Siddhartha fled his ego a thousand times, dwelling in nothingness, in animal, in rock, the return was inevitable since he found himself again, in sunlight or in moonlight, in shade or in rain, and again was ego and Siddhartha, and again felt the torment of the onerous cycle.

There is no permanent solution to the problem of human ego. Neither is there a simple solution to desires. The ego will always return and new desires will rise. We cannot truly be egoless or live without desires. We can only overcome these things in the present moment and then prepare ourselves for the next time ego or the cravings for desires show themselves.

This can overwhelm us in one sense because we know that by overcoming the ego once, we haven’t truly won. But there is also freedom in this notion because by losing one time doesn’t mean we are completely lost.

You Have To Find Your Own Way

You (Buddha) found the deliverance from death. It came to you from your own seeking, on your own path, through thinking, through meditation, through knowledge, through illumination. It did not come through a teaching! And—this is my thought, O Sublime One—no one is granted deliverance through a teaching![…]But there is one thing that the so clear, so venerable Teaching does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself has experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard the Teaching. That is why I am resuming my wandering.

Buddha became Buddha by going his own way and finding his own path. So, just because we can recreate Buddha’s steps, it does not mean we will become him. Ideally, the point of seeking and self-reflection is to find ourselves, not to become someone else. There is a leap of faith involved in this by walking away from a set path that was successful for another individual and making our own way.

Slowly walking away, Siddhartha pondered. He realized he was no longer a youth, he had become a man. He realized that one thing had left him like the old skin that leaves the serpent, that one thing was no longer within him, a thing that had accompanied him throughout his youth and had belonged to him: the wish to have teachers and hear teachings.

The Importance Of Self Reflection

“There is only one reason, a single one, why I know nothing about myself, why Siddhartha has remained so foreign to myself, so unknown. The reason is that I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing myself! I was seeking Atman, I was seeking Brahma. I was willing to dismember my ego and peel it apart in order to find the core of all peels in its unknown innermost essence: to find Atman, Life, the Divine, the Ultimate. But I myself was lost in the process.”

We all have an inner voice that is always speaking if we listen. By following the directions of others, we can drown our inner voice. Too often we follow someone else’s instructions because it takes away self-responsibility and ownership and this comforts us.

If we listen to ourselves and then act upon that, then all the disappointments and failures of life result from our own actions. This possibility can overwhelm us, which causes us to go along with the herd instead. That way we aren’t alone in our mistakes. However, this also takes away our ability to live our own life.

Both thought and sense were pretty things; beyond them the ultimate meaning was concealed. Both had to be heard, both had to be played with, neither was to be scorned or overrated; and the secret voices of their innermost cores had to be listened to. He wished to strive for nothing but what the voice ordered him to strive for; stay with nothing but what the voice advised him to stay with. Why had Guatama once, in the hour of hours, sat down under the bo tree, where the illumination struck him? He had heard a voice, a voice in his own heart, which ordered him to seek rest under this tree, and he had not preferred castigation, sacrifice, bathing, or praying, eating or drinking, sleeping or dreaming; he had obeyed the voice. Obeying like that, not external orders, but only the voice, to be ready like that—that was good, that was necessary, nothing else was necessary.

By listening to others, we are molded. By listening to ourselves, we are created. Individualism is at the heart of Siddhartha’s decision. He believed in it so much that he was willing to turn his back on Buddha’s teachings and find his own way.

“I will learn from me, from myself, I will be my own pupil: I will get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha.”

Life Is In The Sensation

“But, I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my being, I, for the sake of a presumed meaning, scorned the signs and the letters, I called the world of appearances deception, called my eyes and my tongue random and worthless. No, that is past, I have awakened, I am truly awake, and today is the day of my birth.”

By trusting our own senses, we can strip away old values and find what we truly like and dislike. We cannot understand ourselves or the world through the teachings of others. We cannot teach the deepest understandings. We have to feel and experience them in our own unique way.

A Practice In Living in the Moment

But now his liberated eyes remained on this side, he saw and acknowledged visibility, he sought his home in this world, did not seek reality, did not aim at any beyond. Beautiful was the world if you contemplated it like this, with no seeking, so simple, so childlike. Beautiful were moon and stars, beautiful were brook and bank, forest and rock, goat and rose beetle, flower and butterfly. It was beautiful and delightful to go through the world like this, so childlike, so awake, so open to what was near, so without distrust.

Do These Three Things: Think, Wait, and Fast

“I can think, I can wait. I can fast.”

These are the three things Siddhartha can do. They may not seem like much. But, if we look deeper into the statement, we can see the value in these three disciplines. Thinking allows Siddhartha to find the best course of action. Instead of following the first thing that comes to his mind, he can dissect, poke holes in that line of action and come up with a better alternative.

Waiting is akin to patience. To gain the skill of patience is essential in navigating life. Patience plays a key role in attaining any goal that we set out for ourselves.

While fasting is summed up by Siddhartha in the following passage:

“It is very good, sir. If a person has nothing to eat, then fasting is the wisest thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned how to fast, he would have to accept any service today, whether with you or someone else, for hunger would force him to do so. But now Siddhartha can calmly wait, he knows no impatience, he knows no plight. He can stave off hunger for a long time and he can laugh at it. That, sir, is what fasting is good for.”

And all three of these virtues come together and allow Siddhartha to be committed and disciplined towards his goals.

“If you toss a stone into water, it takes the swiftest way to the bottom. And Siddhartha is like that when he has a goal, make a resolve. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like the stone through the water, never acting, never stirring. He is drawn. He lets himself drop. His goal draws him, for he lets nothing into his soul that could go against his goal. That is what Siddhartha learned among the samanas. It is what fools call magic and what they think is worked by demons. Nothing is worked by demons, there are no demons. Anyone can work magic, anyone can reach his goals if he can think, if he can wait, if he can fast.”

A Mindset To Practice

“Certainly, I traveled for my pleasure. For what else? I became acquainted with people and places, I enjoyed trust and friendliness, I found friendship. Now, dear friend, if I were Kamaswami, then the instant I saw that my purchase was thwarted, I would have angrily hastened back, and time and money would indeed have been lost. But instead I had good days, I learned things, I experienced joy, I harmed neither myself nor others with anger or haste. And if ever I go there again, perhaps to buy a later harvest or for whatever purpose, friendly people will give me a friendly and cheerful welcome, and I will pat myself on the back for not having shown haste or anger.”

This mindset comes down to perspective. We can look at a loss as a loss and allow it to have an influence over our feelings and emotions or we can look at a loss as a lesson and become a better person thanks to it. We can force ourselves to look at the positives of a failed action and discover the successes. In this way, we remain in control of our attitude.

Importance Of Experiencing The Good And The Bad

Slowly, the way moisture creep into the dying tree stump, slowly filling it and rotting it, worldliness and slothfulness had crept into Siddhartha’s soul; slowly they filled his soul, made it heavy, made it weary, lulled it to sleep. By contrast, his sense had come alive; they had learned a lot, experienced a lot.”It is good,” he thought, “to taste everything that one needs to know. As a child I learned that wealth and wordly pleasure are not good. I know it for a long time, but I experienced it only now. And now I know it, know it not only with memory, but also with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach. Good for me that I know it!”

As a child, Siddhartha attempted to overcome worldly desires and his own ego without actually having experienced these things. This is one reason he struggled with practicing and following Buddha’s teachings. How can he overcome something he has never experienced before?

True enlightenment comes through our own experiences. So, Siddhartha had to experience for himself vices such as greed, lust, and sloth before he could find a way to overcome them. And when he did, those lessons then became imprinted in his mind.

You Can Start Over Again

“Well,” he thought, “since all these so ephemeral things have slipped away from me again, I am now standing again under the sun, under which I once stood as a little child. I have nothing, I know nothing, I can do nothing, I have learned nothing. How wondrous this is! Now that I am no longer young, now that my hair is already half grey, now that my energy is ebbing—-I am starting all over again, like a child! I had to go through so much stupidity, so much vice, so much error, so much disgust and disillusion and distress, merely in order to become a child again and begin afresh.”

As we grow older, we become set into a form of thinking and acting. We come to believe that the person we are and the life we are living is how it will be. However, there is always an alternative. To start fresh again. This may require a great deal of humility as Siddhartha expresses. Siddhartha has to come to terms with the reality that he has gone the wrong way in life. Also, that he had given into vices which he had laughed at when he was younger. Acceptance is the root of all change. Siddhartha had to accept his failures and missteps in order to start all over again.

How To View Others

He now saw people in a different light, less cleverly, less proudly, but also more warmly, more curiously, more sympathetically.[…]He understood them, he understood and shared their lives, which were led not by thoughts and insights, but solely by drives and wishes.[..]Their greed, their vanity, their silliness had lost their silliness for him, became understandable, became lovable, became even venerable for him.

Everyone is just trying to make it through life with their own demons and insecurities. Some try to overcome them through overcompensating, which can cause friction with other people. Other’s project a certain image of themselves in order to satisfy their ego and pride.

In reality, we should look at these moments as reminders to check our own bad behaviours and actions instead of condemning others. We are all alike. We share the same basic emotions, desires and needs. So, it is easy to see why someone gives into their vices because we all have at some point in our lives. This is why Siddhartha leads with sympathy after coming to the understanding that all humans are one.

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the insight, the knowledge of what wisdom actually is, what the goal of his long seeking was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think the thought of oneness, to feel and breathe the oneness at every moment, in the midst of life.

Perspective On Life

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these “times to come” are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life.

[…]

Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.

Great Lines or Quotes:

But be warned, you who thirst for knowledge, be warned about the thicket of opinions and the fight over words. Whether beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, opinions are unimportant, anyone can follow them or reject them.

 

For, it seemed to him, thinking is recognizing causes, and that is the only way in which sensations become insights: they are not lost, they become substance and begin to radiate what is within them.

 

Everything not fully suffered, not fully resolved came again: the same sorrows were suffered over and over.

 

“Each person gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teaching, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish.”

 

“Writing is good, thinking is better. Cleverness is good, patience is better.”

 

“Most people, Kamala, are like a falling leaf, that wafts and drifts through the air, and twists and tumbles to the ground. Others, however, few, are like stars: they have a fixed course, no wind reaches them, they have their law and their course inside of them.”

 

“And now, Siddhartha, what are you now? I do not know, I know it as little as you. I am on the move. I was a rich man, and am no longer; and I do not know what I will be tomorrow.”

 

“Ah, Siddhartha, I see you suffering, but you are suffering pains that others would laugh at, that you will soon laugh at yourself.”

 

“Wisdom cannot be communicated. Wisdom that a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.”

 

“I see his greatness not in speaking, not in thinking, but only in doing, in living.”

 

“I am Siddhartha! And there is nothing in the world I know less about than myself, than Siddhartha!”

Lessons From Books: How To Live

How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, by Sarah Bakewell maps out the life of the french philosopher, Montaigne, and the life lessons he accumulated and expounded upon in his famous work, The Essays. In doing so, she provides the reader with a vivid experience of who Montaigne was, how he thought and behaved, and why it is worthwhile to listen to and examine his ideas.

How to Live? This is the central question that plagued Montaigne’s life. The question concerns all human beings to varying degrees, and this is why Montaigne’s work is still relevant centuries after it was written. When you read his essays, you feel as if you are talking to an old friend.

Stefan Zweig summed up what it is like to read Montaigne in this one quote:

Here is a “you” in which my “I” is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.

Certain aspects of being human are universal. You may not relate to Montaigne because he’s a well-to-do philosopher, however, you can find common ground because Montaigne was trying to figure out the best way to live while he dealt human universals like anxiety, death, love, friendship, anger, and aging, all the while living in a complex and ever-changing political and societal situations.

 

The Lessons:

 

Don’t Worry About Death

Concerning death, the Stoic philosophers recommend contemplation. They believe that meditating on death lessens its anxiety. Montaigne also trusted this notion and believed it to be true.

Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death.

However, the more he thought about and contemplated it, the more anxious he became. After almost dying when he fell from his horse, he had a perspective shift because as he was on the brink of death; he felt at ease.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

After this experience, he had the following to say on the topic:

Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life[…] it is not worth wasting any anxiety over.

Don’t over-complicate the simple aspects of life. By thinking too much about the inevitable, we cause needless stress. Instead of trying to control what is outside of our influence, we need to learn how to let go.

For Montaigne, death became a thing that didn’t concern him anymore because all the time he spent worrying about it didn’t matter when that random, absurd accident happened and he almost lost his life. None of the self-inflicted stress came into play at that moment. So, by not caring or worrying about death, we just have one less stress in our life and we can instead spend that time concentrating on the living.

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

Learn To Live With Yourself

We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.

Let us cut loose from all ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease.

We will know no one as well as we know ourselves. We will never spend more time with anyone as we will with ourselves. We don’t have the luxury to not be with ourselves. So, it’s best to make friends with who we are as we’re stuck with that person.

I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself…I roll about in myself.

One benefit that arises when we listen to ourself is clarity. Our mind is constantly working and trying to figure out things that bother us. Often, the answer to many of our stresses lies within ourselves. This is what Montaigne noted. He began watching and questioning his own experiences and writing what he observed. In doing so, he could simplify his life and figure out exactly what he needed.

Solitude is where the answers can lie. But too many of us avoid such a place because we aren’t comfortable with ourselves.

One Way To Practice Living in the Moment

The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience – but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are.

When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me. (Montaigne)

What we need to live in the moment is the skill to focus. It doesn’t come naturally to most people. Even someone like Montaigne needed to remind himself and create practices to hone this ability to live in the present.

This notion is both good and bad. Good in the sense that we can improve and get better at living in the moment. But also bad because this skill deteriorates if we don’t use it, as all skills do. So, we must practice often to sharpen this skill.

Accept That You Are Human

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know. (Montaigne)

That final coda — ‘thought I don’t know’ — is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this one paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.

Humans are rational and irrational. Logical and illogical. They are lead by reason but also by feelings and emotions. There will be times when we behave well and other times when we behave poorly. Mistakes and correct judgment go hand in hand. This is the human condition and as Montaigne put it to ‘get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.’

Our being is cemented with sickly qualities…Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

What we need is to show kindness and sympathy not just towards others but also towards ourself as we are bound to mess up often but life moves on and we can too.

I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.

Be Slow-Witted

‘Forget much of what you learn’ and ‘Be slow-witted’ became two of Montaigne’s best answers to the question of how to live. They freed him to think wisely rather than glibly; they allowed him to avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and they let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led — which was all he really wanted to do.

This notion helped Montaigne to disassociate himself from all ideas and beliefs. He wasn’t married to one way of thinking or to one ideology. He could flow and change as life changed. His thoughts were boundless. They took shape of whatever he was feeling at that moment. This is why he has essay’s which contradict his other works. But that’s fine. But the freedom to be who we are at this moment in life can’t be experienced if we are bound by our past self.

Avoid Arguments

Pyrrhonians (skeptics) accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this manoeuvre: in Greek, epokhe. It means ‘I suspend judgement’. Or, in a different rendition give in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: ‘I hold back.’ This phrase conquers all enemies.

One person has an opinion they believe to be true, and another has their own opinion which they believe to be true, and when they clash, there is an argument. People cannot suspend their belief and entertain the possibility that the other person could be right.

This is more evident than ever before because of social media. All platforms are riddled with people arguing with each other for hours on end. People will go out of their way to start an argument with someone. When in reality, most of it just nonsense and it doesn’t really matter.

This is where the Pyrrohnian words ‘I suspend judgement’ comes into play. Three simple words that can allow us to navigate the useless clatter of life and keep on moving.

Montaigne took this practice a step further:

(He could) slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself with Pyrrhonian suspension of judgement.

In doing so, he could detach from his own beliefs and opinions and allow himself to be flexible.

Be Moderate

Moderation see itself as beautiful; it is unware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.

Montaigne even went as far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found ‘in mediocrity’.

This can be a hard concept to understand, especially in our goal-centered culture. People have grand ambitions and crave a passionate living, but Montaigne advised against such a thing.

Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions: for him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman.

Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one’s own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition.

We need direction in life, and goals often provide us with a path to move forward. However, we shouldn’t get lost in chasing these goals. There is a possibility that we won’t accomplish everything we aim for, which is why a passion-driven life can cause suffering because our highs are really high and our lows are really low when passion is leading.

Montaigne and many other philosophers believed moderation was key to life. You can control your actions, but not the results. Perhaps then the balance lies in having moderate expectations while we work passionately.

How To Travel

What he loved above all about his travels was the feeling of going with the flow. He avoided all fixed plans. ‘If it looks ugly on the right, I take the left; if I find myself unfit to ride my horse, I stop’ […] It was an extension of his everyday pleasure in letting himself ‘roll relaxedly with the rolling of the heavens’, as he luxuriously put it, but with the added delight that came from seeing everything afresh and with full attention, like a child.

But Montaigne would say it was impossible to stray from the path: there was no path.

Similar to life, Montaigne went with the flow when it came to travelling. There is a sense of freedom in this viewpoint. That no matter where we go, we are going the right way. This also allowed him to view each path as unique and important.

Stefan Zweig’s Lessons From Montaigne:

Be free from vanity and pride.

Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions and parties.

Be free from habit.

Be free from ambition and greed.

Be free from family and surroundings.

Be free from fanaticism.

Be free from fate: be master of your own life.

Be free from death: life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.

 

Great Lines/Quotes:

From now on, Montaigne would live for himself rather than for duty.

 

How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely? (Euripides)

 

Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.

 

Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from up close. (Pliny the Elder)

 

To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.

 

At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others. (Montaigne)

 

For not only inconvenient things, but anything at all, however ugly and vicious and repulsive, can become acceptable through some condition or circumstance. (Montaigne)

 

Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world? (Montaigne)

 

Habit makes everything look bland; it is sleep inducing. Jumping to a different perspective us a way of waking oneself up again.

 

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself. (Montaigne)