Lessons From Books: Walden

Henry David Thoreau famously encapsulated two years of his life in a book called Walden. The name derives from Walden Pond near which Thoreau lived in a cabin for those two years as he practiced his minimalist philosophy. And as one would assume, the book focuses on Thoreau’s observations on his philosophy, and additionally, the importance of nature, and the uniqueness of the present moment and everyday life. But there is also a significant attempt by Thoreau to not only find his individuality but to embolden it, strengthen it, and become an individual. It is this notion of individuality that is the focus of this post.

Lessons:

Importance Of Self Reflection

I should not talk so much about myself if there was anybody else whom I knew as well.

In Walden, Thoreau is constantly dissecting his beliefs and ideas, exploring his likes and interest, and most importantly, questioning himself. The reason for this is that you will never know anyone as well as you’ll know yourself. Thoreau understood this idea and wished to understand himself completely, hence why he ventured into the woods and live alone with his thoughts.

We can question other people’s motives and beliefs, discuss their actions, and speculate on their behaviours but mostly the conversation hovers on the surface because we haven’t experienced what the other person has, we don’t know the thoughts they were having when they acted; we don’t know the thoughts they have when they’re alone; we don’t know what their beliefs systems are. But you can know these things about yourself.

Self-reflection should be a vital part of your day-to-day. Journaling is one way to explore yourself. Question yourself. Write down your thoughts and see what you’re really thinking. Do the same with your opinions and beliefs and study them. Where did they come from? Who influenced them? Why do you believe in the thing that you do? What caused you to act in a manner that results in shame and guilt afterward? Why do certain things make you angry? What makes you happy? What gives you the feeling of fulfillment? Why aren’t you doing more of that? What’s precious about life? How can I make each day more vivid?

Thoreau kept a journal with him the entire time he was at Walden. The journal is full of his daily observation of himself and of his environment and life. This journal was a tool to build his own character, to find his individuality, to reinforce who he wanted to be.

You would do a disservice to yourself if you are not dissecting and exploring your own being because there is only person you can ever come close to knowing fully, and that is yourself.

Solitude is another way to achieve this goal.

I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me. Beside, there were wafted to me a evidence of unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side.

We constantly distract ourselves with societal needs and influences. Especially in our current age where from the morning alarm bell to the time you go to bed, there is this need to go online and scroll through social media, surf the web anytime you find yourself alone, or have some free time. You can turn these moments into an exploration of your own needs and exert your own influence. Sit alone with your thoughts, be mindful of what is happening inside your heads, reflect upon your past actions and future intentions. Have solitude from the outside world.

Cultivate solitude so you can cultivate yourself. My belief is that the better you understand yourself, the better you understand your fellow man because we are all the same. So through solitude, you gain universal understanding and become closer with other people, and not just yourself.  

Influence Your Thoughts, Don’t Let Your Thoughts Influence You

What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates his fate.

The stories we tell ourselves can either put limitations on us or liberate us. If we are constantly talking down to ourselves, pointing out the things that we cannot do or aren’t good at, it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy where we act out in ways that will eventually lead to failure. Then we look at them as examples to affirm our negative thought process. If you don’t monitor your thoughts and allow all the negative ones to roam free, then they can cause you to self-sabotage.

Be careful what thoughts you repeat and reinforce. One way to apply your own influence is through self-affirmation practice. The famous writer, Scott Adams, would write the following sentence upwards of fifteen times a day: “I Scott Adams will become a syndicated cartoonist.” This positive affirmation would then have a trickle-down effect where Adams took actions to affirm this sentence. Affirmations can work for your career goals, as Adams suggests, but they can also work on your character traits and behaviours.

Another way to influence your thoughts is through mindfulness or detachment, where you view your thoughts from a third-person perspective and discard the ones that you wouldn’t want your friends or family members to have. 

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.

Find Your Own Beat

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

Thoreau left behind society in large and spent two years alone in a cabin because that is the beat he heard. The intuition he felt he needed to follow. Many people would consider this to be a form of madness, but for Thoreau, the daily grind of life in the city was madness, so he followed his own path. In doing so, he emboldened his individualism.

There are a lot of unknowns in life, so it makes sense why people follow their companions down whatever road they are going. It is the safer decision. But by doing so, you can miss out on the opportunity to explore what makes you feel alive. What makes life feel special to you. These types of sensations are more vivid when you decide to listen to your own beat, your own needs, and follow them regardless of the direction your peers took.

Have An Imbalance Between Comfort and Discomfort

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

Most luxuries and comforts help ease life and bring immediate pleasure. The desire for luxuries and comfort often comes from our focus on external pleasure. Our concern with appearances, reputation, and competition with others. But if you shift that focus from the external to the internal, and concentrate on what will help you grow, then luxury items take a backseat to real challenges like facing your fears. The individual grows through the discomfort, as Thoreau demonstrated by venturing away from daily comforts. It is in the struggle when we see who we are and decide whether we like that person.

Need to achieve an imbalance where there is more discomfort than comfort. Or at the very least, have pockets of time dedicated to making your life more uncomfortable. Exercising is a good way to practice this. We can view it as an hour of discomfort where you chose exercises and workouts that challenge your weaknesses and test your mind. Through these tests, we can elevate our person.

Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries.

This imbalance of priorities and overabundance of pleasure can distract you from the real aim which is to grow as an individual.

Need an Aim in Life

In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

Reminder to set lofty goals and high personal standards. People often aim for low goals because that comes with lesser pain when we fail. The higher the aim, the higher the disappointment, but equally, the higher the fulfillment. So, not only is it important to have aims, but have to make sure the aims are high so you give yourself an opportunity to experience life to its fullest. Even the pain of failing to achieve your aim is a blessing, for feelings are so vivid, so life-affirming to the individual.

Have Faith

That if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Lessons From Books: The War Of Art

Steven Pressfield defines Resistance as self-sabotage. Essentially, any action you take or don’t take that leads you away from your goals results from Resistance. This can vary from indulging in procrastinating, giving into thoughts like “let me just spend another five minutes on my phone” or “I feel hungry, let me grab some food first before I start my work” to more long-term consequences such as the relationships you choose to stay in or the career paths you follow. These are conscious decisions you make, hence why Pressfield associates Resistance with self-sabotage. In his book, The War of Art, he dives further into the specifics of Resistance and how to identify and overcome Resistance.

Lessons:

Resistance Dwells In The Moments Prior To Taking Action

It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Typically, the actual act of doing something isn’t daunting. What is daunting are the moments before the action when you allow your mind to get the best of you. Your thoughts are flooded with distractions, negativity, and fear which keeps you from acting. Thoughts that want to delay actions, whether that be for just another moment or day to even months or years. If you can overcome the initial discomfort and Resistance and simply act, all those prior thoughts and feelings go away and the work takes over. Two main takeaways from this experience are that the fight against Resistance starts way before the actual action, and only through action do we overcome Resistance. 

The Consequences Of Giving In To Resistance

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.

This may sound dramatic, but it is a realistic perspective towards your failure to control your desires. Resistance desires comfort and immediate gratification. There two things are often the polar opposite of what you need in order to grow and attain your goals. We all have an ideal version of ourselves. The one who has achieved everything we wanted and became the person we desire to be. Each time you yield to Resistance, a piece from that version loses its boldness. Each time you overcome Resistance, a piece of that version becomes emboldened, solidifying. So, attaching a sense of urgency and fate, it can cause you to think twice before acting in a manner that aligns with what Resistance desires.

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution; the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

How To Use Resistance Against Itself

Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favour of long-term growth, health or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.

When you feel Resistance, then you know you are likely on the right path, about to take the right action. This way, wherever there is Resistance, there is your path. This is like the notion the Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius expressed regarding the obstacles in your life determine the path you should take.

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Additionally, when you act and you feel no Resistance, then perhaps you are doing what Resistance wants. Reflect on your feelings prior to taking action and you will determine whether Resistance is manipulating you.

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

Fear derived from Resistance is your ally. It’s because you want something so badly that emotion like fear surfaces. The more we want something, the greater the fear of failure becomes. Resistance focuses your thoughts on failure rather than the feeling of accomplishment that is equally possible. But in order to open yourself to the highest of pleasures, you have to be open to the highest of failures. Resistance wishes to dim the pain and stay as comfortable as you can in the short term. Whether you overcome and give in to Resistance depends on the choice you make between the amount of pleasure you want.

Develop Mental Endurance

The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.

Jocko Willink has a saying that applies perfectly to battling Resistance: The count is always zero. All the work you did yesterday, all the words you wrote, all the actions you took, all the repetitions and sets you did, and so on and so forth are back to zero when the new day begins and resistance waits for you again as you attempt to do your work all over. It’s good that you overcame Resistance yesterday and did what you needed to do. But today, it’s back to zero. This also applied to the mistakes you made and if you gave into Resistance yesterday. Today it’s back to zero, and yesterday’s failure need not be amplified. So it is best to build mental and physical endurance because you are in it for the long haul.

Sharpen Your Self Control

The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.

Resistance is such a master. It comes in many forms: social media, television consumption, radical ideas, self-loathing, web surfing, materialism. Essentially, anything that takes away your influence over yourself and places it in the hands of another person or thing. You have a responsibility to self-reflect. To see what consumes your thoughts and what drives your actions. Resistance may control you without your knowledge.

A way to strengthen self-control is through fasting. Not just dietary fasting, but also depriving and/or limiting your interactions with the external world. You can view fasting as a form of delaying gratification. You are in control of your technological diet, relationship diet, negative/pessimistic thinking diet. Whether you apply the concept to your physical health or your mental health or building healthy habits, it works the same way. The more you deny access to things that give you an immediate dose of dopamine, the more control you have over yourself.

Focus Your Efforts And Thoughts On Your Work

Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work.

Daydreaming and envisioning success have their value, but they can be a deterrent to actual action. Because of the time you should spend working, you are spending on fantasies. But also because grandiose fantasies can create fear because you might not believe you can ever achieve these dreams.

Not to mention things rarely come to fruition as you envision them.

Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tires, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.

So, if the results and/or success don’t match your expectations, then you might get discouraged to keep working. There will never be the perfect situation, the perfect time, perfect childhood, perfect health, or mental state to start your work. Have to learn to make the best of the imperfect present and get your work done.

While in reality, the work is the dream as the five-time NBA champion, Kobe Bryant said. 

But hopefully what you get from tonight is that those times when you get up early and you work hard; those times when you stay up late and you work hard; those times when you don’t feel like working — you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself — but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream.

Resistance is overcome by being a professional, and a professional is concerned only about his work.

Beware of Rational Thought

Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work.

The issue with rationalization is that it raises legitimate points, so it is easy to give in to it. You can always rationalize a reason not to do something. You can rationalize missing a workout by how tired you are feeling. You can rationalize a half-assed effort at work by determining how hard you worked yesterday. You can find legitimate cultural, genetic, financial reasons your dreams aren’t feasible. You can even rationalize your current mode of being to bad luck and fate.

More often than not that reason either stems from a fear of being uncomfortable because these rational choices point you towards inaction, towards staying where you are. But If you focus on the long-term goal and benefits, then the rational argument is weakened. Your physical and mental make-up changes through work. Your position in life only changes through work. Your dreams come true only through work. Your luck changes through work. Rational or irrational, you need to put the effort in. We all know what we should do and what we shouldn’t. Sometimes it is as simple as shutting that mind off, and Resistance along with it, and going to work. 

Lessons From Books: Wherever You Go, There You Are

In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zim defines mindfulness as the “art of conscious living”. The book dives further into the practical application of mindfulness, how to cultivate it, and the different practices and exercises. However, this specific post will concentrate on the importance of mindfulness meditation, why it is important, and how it can improve your life.

Many people drift from one moment to the next without having little control over their thoughts and impulses which dwell either in the past or in the future, moments coated with desires, needs, wants, disappointments, and failures. When you constantly dwell in those two realms, life passes by. In reality, only the present moment is alive. Focus on this moment in time and exert your influence right now so you can experience it. Mindfulness practice can be seen as a tool that helps you be fully conscious of the present moment. 

Fundamentally, mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.

Instead of allowing the unconscious, automatic behaviours and habits to direct your energy or your fears and insecurities to move you, mindfulness can help you control your actions and make decisions based on reason and logic. This is achieved by using your attention.

When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities open up and we have a chance to free ourselves from the straitjacket of unconsciousness.

When you aren’t bound by past thought processes and narratives, you can then act upon present needs. 

The spirit of mindfulness is to practice for its own sake, and just to take each moment as it comes—pleasant or unpleasant, good, bad, or ugly—and then work with that because it is what is present now.

Too often meditation is confused with the state of being calm and relaxed. Mistakenly believing that if you aren’t Zen, then you can’t be meditative. Although that is one aspect of it, mindfulness can be practiced at any moment, regardless of the emotional state you are in because human beings experience a wide variety of emotions and feelings and it is in the acknowledgment of these different states where mindfulness dwells and not in channeling yourself towards only one or two states of emotions or feelings.

Another misconception about meditation is that you are trying to dull the experience of life. That you are aiming to become unemotional so that the events of life don’t disturb you. There is that stereotype of a monk disconnected from society, living minimally, who sits with his feet crossed and meditates all day. That is unrealistic. Meditation strengthens your foundation so that you aren’t constantly thrown around by the shifting tides of life, but meditation is not about shutting things out. Rather, it is about building the ability to handle the tides of life. So, when something unexpected happens, you aren’t reactionary, but instead you can fall back upon your mindfulness training and observe your thoughts and impulses before making a decision. 

Stress is part of life, part of being human, intrinsic to the human condition itself. But that does not mean that we have to be victims in the face of large forces in our lives. We can learn to work with them, understand them, find meaning in them, make critical choices, and use their energies to grow in strength, wisdom, and compassion. A willingness to embrace and work with what is lies at the core of all meditation practice.

Mindfulness isn’t about shielding yourself from life’s difficulties. Rather, it about how to deal with the inevitable stresses and pressure, whether that comes as changing your perspective or controlling your thoughts or simply accepting the new events. 

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

Mindfulness can also help improve your self-control by examining and dissecting your thoughts before acting upon them.

Rather, it is to understand the nature of our thoughts as thoughts and our relationship to them, so that they can be more at our service rather than the other way round.

You are observing your thoughts instead of thinking different ones. Through observation you can then pick up on patterns of thinking, question the repetitive thoughts that come, or see if your thoughts are beneficial for you. 

There aren’t many things you can control in life. Much of life is outside of your influence. But how you think and what you think about is under your control and you need to exert your authority over them so that your thought process can align with the direction you want your life to head towards.

Another benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it can help cultivate patience.

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

Lao-Tzu, Tao-te-Ching

Without patience, you cannot see what the next step should be. Patience is having the ability to act at the right moment. Moments come and go, but if you can sit and wait, then you can filter through the different emotions, opportunities, or moments that present themselves and choose the one that would be the most beneficial for you. Instead of carelessly jumping on or acting upon the very first thing.

As you attend the gentle flow of your own breathing during times of formal meditation practice, notice the occasional pull of the mind to get on to something else, to want to fill up your time or change what is happening. Instead of losing yourself at these times, try to sit patiently with the breath and with a keen awareness of what is unfolding in each moment, allowing it to unfold as it will, without imposing anything on it…just watching, just breathing…embodying stillness, becoming patience.

Don’t give in to your first impulse. The more you resist, the more you can then create this narrative that you are a patient individual. That patience is one of your virtues. This is of importance because often what you tell yourself is what you become. If you reinforce the fact that you aren’t a patient individual, then you will act impatiently. But if you start the narrative that you are a patient individual and you can source this belief with your meditative practices, then you will act with patience. 

Another benefit of mindfulness meditation is that you can improve your ability to concentrate.

Concentration can be practiced either hand in hand with mindfulness or separately. You can think of concentration as the capacity of the mind to sustain an unwavering attention on one object of observation. It is cultivated by attending to one thing, such as the breath, and just limiting one’s focus to that.

Distractions are abundant in life. Especially in the current technological age. There are more apps and platforms trying to distract you from your task than ever before. In such times, those who can be patient and focus on one thing for an extended period of time can benefit tremendously. 

With extended practice, the mind tends to become better and better at staying on the breath, or noticing even the earliest impulse to become distracted by something else, and either resisting its pull in the first place and staying on the breath, or quickly returning to it.

In Sanskrit, concentration is called samadhi, or onepointedness.

You can practice onepointedness at any moment in your life. You don’t need to have a designated time and place to improve that ability. Even as you go about your day, you can focus your thoughts on your breath and keep it concentrated for a couple of breaths at a time. This can be viewed as repetitions, similar to the repetitions you do when you exercise in order to strengthen and build muscle.

Lastly, mindfulness can aid you in becoming more disciplined.

After all, the thinking mind always has the very credible-sounding excuse that since you will not be accomplishing anything and there’s no real pressure to do it this morning, and perhaps real reasons not to, why not catch the extra sleep which you know you need now, and start tomorrow? To overcome such totally predictable opposition from other corners of the mind, you need to decide the night before that you are going to wake up, no matter what your thinking comes up with. This is the flavor of true intentionality and inner discipline. You do it simply because you committed to yourself to do it, and you do it at the appointed time, whether part of the mind feels like it or not. After a while, the discipline becomes a part of you. It’s simply the new way you choose to live. It is not a “should,” it doesn’t involve forcing yourself. Your values and your actions have simply shifted.

Qualities like patience, concentration and discipline are viewed as characteristics. They can be improved, but equally, they can worsen. You can become more disciplined, but you can also lose your discipline. That muscle also atrophies. So, mindfulness practice can be used in your life to keep those muscles active. Mindfulness can work as a tool to sharpen those qualities and to improve your character. 

Lessons From Michel De Montaigne (Part One)

The Essays by Michel De Montaigne cover a vast variety of topics centered around human nature. At his core, Montaigne was a Humanist, and so the aim of The Essays was to explore the individual and to describe humans as truthfully as possible. Montaigne’s work is rich and yet, he could make complex topic seem simple as he discussed things like death, emotions, friendships, love, fame, the purpose of life, the meaning of life, the lack of control an individual has, ego, the mind, psychology, Stoicism and so on.

The following is part one of the series of lessons derived from his work.

From the Essay, On Sadness, Guard Yourself Against Extreme Emotions:

Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, but when pushed to the extreme, they can harm us. Extreme anger can cause us to act irrationally and out of character. Extreme sadness can lead to depression but the opposite emotion, extreme excitement and joy, can cause harm too as Montaigne relates in the antidote about a mother’s inability to handle the joy she felt when she saw her son return home from battle and ended up passing away. Extreme happiness can also be a catalyst to sadness as our overwhelming joy is temporary and we can fall into the trap of comparing our present times to those extremely happy ones.

Violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments.

Two practices to toughen one’s skin towards these emotions: 

Reminders: When good times or bad times occur, remind yourself they are temporary and they too shall pass. 

Reflection: Often when we set goals and take action, we think only of success. So, when the failure or disappointment happens, it intensifies the feelings associated with it. So, it is better to reflect on the worst-case scenario as well, in case it comes true. This way we have already built some resistance to the emotions which will accompany it. 

From the Essay, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, How To Deal With One Form Of Anxiety:

Wretched is the mind anxious about the future.

As Montaigne says, “We are never at home,” meaning that we spend much of our time either in the past or in the future. Lamenting upon the things that have happened or fearfully looking towards the things that might take place. Both realms of life are out of our direct control, and so we feel anxious. In order to remedy this feeling, we have to concentrate on the present moment. This very day, this hour, the minute, this second. When we concentrate on our actions right now, we can escape our mind and come home to the present. The present is where we can actually exert our influence. In the now we can take action and move ourself towards the desired future.

From the Essay, How The Soul Discharges Its Emotions Against False Objects When Lacking Real Ones, Harmful Effect Of The Unruly Mind:

But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.

With this singular sentence, Montaigne strikes at the root of many of our problems. The unruly mind and our lack of control over it. It is easier to blame other people or circumstances for our troubles than it is to take ownership of our own thought process and decision making. The unruly mind is rot with procrastination, inactivity, and lack of impulse control. The mind needs to be tamed. It needs to serve the individual instead of the individual serving it. The mind simply wants pleasure. It wants the path of least resistance. But in doing so, you can end up sacrificing things you don’t want to. You can sacrifice your health, your relationships, your goals and aspirations if you follow an unruly mind.

From the Essay, The Hour Of Parlaying Is Dangerous, It Is Not Enough To Achieve Something But What Matters Is How You Achieve It:

This line of thinking is similar to Scott Adams‘ idea of Systems versus Goals, as mentioned in Tim Ferriss‘ book Tools of Titans.

Fundamentally, “systems” could be thought of as asking yourself, “What persistent skills or relationships can I develop?” versus “What short-term goal can I achieve?” The former has a potent snowball effect, while the latter is a binary pass/fail with no consolation prize.

There might be easier, quicker roads to achieving your goals, but sometimes, it is better to take the more difficult route so you can hone particular habits, attitudes, and qualities which will be more beneficial in the long run.

This can require a shift in our perspective. Instead of looking at a goal as something to cross off our list, we can view that as the destination whose journey will help us build more discipline, or healthier relationships, or self-confidence, or simply the ability to persist.

From the Essay, That Our Deeds Our Judged By Our Intentions, Meditate On Your Obituary:

If I can, I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.

How do you want to live? One way to answer this question could be to meditate on your death, on what you want your loved ones to say about you after you pass. Which qualities do you want them to remember? What moments? Experiences? Achievements? And then work on making sure you will live up to those words. Aim for your life to personify each word and to make each word true. This way, when the end comes, the life you have lived can vouch for the kind of person you were.

From the Essay, On Idleness, Life Requires Aims:

When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere.

Along with the basic necessities for life, what human beings need are objectives. Aims are like beacons of light, helping the individual navigate life. What is best is to have goals in all areas of your life, health, relationship, career, hobbies, so that you are always moving forward. Having an aim forces the individual to work on his discipline and focus muscles. To stay consistent. All these tools can then further enhance the experience of life. 

From the Essay, On A Ready Or Hesitant Delivery, Achieve The Balance Between Wit And Judgement:

Like most things in life, our thought process also requires a balance. In its case, the balance is between judgement and wit. Meaning, you need to think on your feet and take advantage of sudden opportunities (wit) but also be able to take your time and come up with a proper plan of action, something more long term and structured (judgment). We can apply this kind of thought pattern to other aspects of life. For example, if you are a writer and you are working on a novel, you need to have a structured approach (judgement) but, you need to flow with the present moment and allow yourself to break the structure and discover new possibilities (wit). Even feelings can fall under this umbrella. There is a fine line between overriding lets say the feeling of being tired so you can stick to your routine and needing a break when you’re overworked.

In order to become more proficient at making the right call with judgement or wit, we need to act more in life so more scenarios and possibilities show up where the right balance is needed. This way we can add more repetitions to our decision-making process.

From the Essay, On Constancy, Bear What You Cannot Change Or Influence:

Constancy is an important quality to develop in order to deal with life’s difficulties. Montaigne defines constancy as the ability to bear misfortunes which have no remedy. We can fall into a hopeful trap where we believe every issue or problem has a way out. But some misfortunes are there, and they remain there, and all one can do is bear it with grace. Many aspects of life are out of our control. But one thing we do control is our attitude and reaction. To show constancy during trying times can be a sign of a strong character.

Sometimes the best course of action in the present moment is constancy. So, instead of making a rash decision which may cause us more harm, it’s better to bear the misfortune and in due time alternative possibilities may emerge which can allow us to find a positive in the misfortune.

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.”