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 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)

 

 

Lessons From Books: Heroes of History

Heroes of History by Will Durant attempts to compile the lessons and ideas from some of the greatest figures in human history. The book uses the wisdom of philosophers, religious figures, artists, and scientists in order to tackle everyday issues people face such as finding happiness, dealing with the idea of death, finding peace, how to overcome obstacles, how to manage the ups and downs of life, seeking beauty, and so on.

There are many lessons in the book and depending on what phase in life you are in and/or what you are going through in your personal/professional life, you may find something specific and practical to help you through your difficulties.

The following are the lessons that I found important at the moment. 

Life Lessons:

On Action: Do Your Duty and Love Your Fate

All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfill their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their blood each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfillment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom. (Lao-tze)

In nature, there are no prizes or pats on the back. The ecosystem is ongoing and each thing has its role to complete and when completed, you transition to the next phase which may simply be to die and become nutrition for another part of nature.

The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius also had a similar notion about life and the point of living.

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present – I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?

Wake up, do your duty, and then rest. There is nothing more.

On Mindset: Be Good, Regardless 

If you do not quarrel, no one on earth will be able to quarrel with you…Recompense injury with kindness…To those who are good I am good, and to those who are not good I am good; thus all get to be good. To those who are sincere I am sincere, and to those who are not sincere I am also sincere, and thus all get to be sincere…The softest thing in the world…overcomes the hardest. (Lao-tze)

Many things in life aren’t in your control. However, how you react to other people and how you view other people is up to you. You can either add more negativity to the world or you can choose to add positivity regardless of the negativity you face. It’s in this choice that your character shines through.

On Character: Cultivate Your Character First

The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigations of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy. (Confucius)

The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has a saying where he urges people to start by cleaning up their room before attempting to make large societal changes. The idea behind it is that first, you have to manage yourself before you can manage others. Similarly, Confucius’ advises to first attain knowledge that will make your thoughts sincere before attempting to order society. Cultivate your own character first, overcome your own deficiencies first, master yourself first before pointing the finger at other people or institutions.

On Peace: One Way To Attain It

If one could still all desires for one, and seek only to do good for all, then individuality, that fundamental delusion of mankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire!—and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could ever know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, not hereafter, as many believe: only peace is possible, only the cool quietude of craving ended, which is Nirvana. And so, after seven years of meditation, Guatama went forth to preach Nirvana to mankind.

When we see ourselves as parts of a whole, when we reform ourselves and our desires, in terms of the whole, then our personal disappointments and defeats, our griefs and pains and inevitable death, no longer sadden us as bitterly as before; they are lost in the amplitude of infinity. When we have learned to love not our separate selves but all human things, then at last we shall find Nirvana—unselfish peace.

One way to find peace is by focusing on the collective instead of the individual. It is a shift in the mindset where instead of asking what you need most or what you desire most, you turn your attention towards your neighbor and/or your community and ask what will benefit them. What actions can I take right now that will improve their quality of life? This way you become part of the ecosystem and so as the system does better, you do better.

On Life: The Good Shall Pass. The Bad Shall Pass

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose… All rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

It too shall pass is a mantra that can bring peace of mind. Often times when we are in the thick of it when things aren’t going as we planned, we may think that this moment will be forever. But the sun will rise again. The bad moment will pass and with it, the good will come but we can’t fall into the illusion that the good will stay. It too shall pass. The good making way for the bad and then the bad overcome by the good, this cycle is everlasting. That’s how life works.

On Life: It’s Constantly Changing

Nothing is, everything becomes; everything is always ceasing to be what it is, and is becoming what it will be; “all things flow” (panta rei), and “you can never dip your foot in the same water in a flowing stream”; the universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless “Becoming.” (Heraclitus)

Life is constantly changing. There is no stagnation. Even if you’re passive, the world around you will change and that change will cause a shift inside of you. The same thing happens if you’re active. The only difference is that when you are active, you can have some kind of influence on your own “becoming” rather than living passively and becoming what other people or life itself makes you.

On Life: Finding Beauty

This feeling for order and proportion, for form and rhythm, for precision and clarity, is the central face in Greek culture.

“We love beauty with extravagance,” says Thucydides’ Pericles. The purpose is not to represent indiscriminately the myriad details of the real, but to catch and hold the essence of things, and portray ideal possibilities of form and life.

In order to make life more vivid and clear, an attempt to find beauty is valiant. Too many people associate beauty with great art pieces or sunsets at some tropical island. The Greeks, on the other hand, perceive beauty with form, rhythm, precision, and clarity. Elements that can be found in everyday life.

This is similar to the idea of the writer Marcel Proust. Proust attempted to see the beauty in the everyday. To observe an apple and find beauty in its harmonized shape, touch, feel, smell. This way, life becomes beautiful.

On Life: Make Your Weakness Your Strength 

[The Story Of Demosthenes] His father left him a moderate fortune, but the executors consumed it. He made his own fortune as a rhetor, writing speeches for litigants; something, according to Plutarch, he prepared pleas for bother parties to a dispute. He could compose better than he could speak, for he was weak in body and defective in articulation. To overcome those handicaps he addressed the noisy sea with his mouth half-filled with pebbles or he declaimed while running uphill. After years of effort he became one of the richest lawyers in Athens, flexible in his morals, but fearless in his views.

The lesson is simple and straightforward. Your limitations, your weakness, aspects of yourself that cause you to struggle don’t have to remain that way. Granted, not everything can be fully overcome. However, there is always room for improvement. What is required is discipline and work ethic and Demosthenes is an example of this.

On Art: The Art Of Poetry

The rules of good writing: clarity, directness, mingling the useful with the pleasant. Art assumes feeling as well in the artists as in the recipient: “If you wish me to weep, you must first grieve yourself.” But art is not feeling alone; it is feeling conveyed in disciplined form—“emotion remembered in tranquility.” (Horace)

A reminder for good writing: Keep it simple and convey true emotions.

On Life: Dealing With Bad People

He reluctantly concedes that there are bad men in the world. The way to deal with them is to remember that they, too, are men, the helpless victims of their own faults by the determinism of circumstance. “If any man has done thee wrong, the harm is his own…forgive him.” Does this seem an impracticable philosophy? On the contrary, nothing is so invincible as a good disposition, if it be sincere. A really good man is immune to misfortune, for whatever evil befalls him leaves him still his own soul. Philosophy is not logic or learning, but understanding and acceptance. (Marcus Aurelius)

It is difficult to be compassionate when emotions are riled up. But compassion is what is needed in order to bridge the gap between one individual and another. Reminding yourself to forgive and at the same time, guarding your reaction and attitude against the negativity of others is a good place to start.

On Art: Leonardo da Vinci’s Thoughts

His basic precept is that the student of art should study nature rather than copying the works of other artists. “see to it, O painter, that when you go  into the fields you give your attention to the various objects, looking carefully in turn first at one object then at another, making a bundle of different things selected among those of less value.” Of course the painter must study anatomy, perspective, modeling by light and shade; boundaries sharply defined make a picture seem wooden. “Always make the figure so that the bosom is not turned in the same direction as the head”; here is one secret of the grace in Leonardo’s own composition. Finally he urges: “Make figures with such action as may suffice to show what the figure has in mind.”

On Life: The Harsh Reality Of Being Alive

In Othello (1604), Iago stands for evil, falsehood, and treachery, and triumphantly survives; Desdemona is goodness, honesty, and fidelity, and is murdered.

The murderer in Macbeth judges life mercilessly:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Life is not fair. Your multitude of goodness will not likely be reciprocated. Sometimes bad things happen and keep happening and they happen to good people. And life is largely pointless and meaningless, signifying nothing. Yet, we need to keep acting and moving forward with the attempt to make life more bearable for people we care for and also for our fellow neighbors. There is no need for the individual to add hardship to what is already difficult.

We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us—we should work undiscourageable to lessen them—but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance.

On Life: Full Acceptance 

Men must endure their going hence,

Even as their coming hither;

Ripeness is all. (King Lear 5.2)

Maturity, not eternity, should be our goal. (Durant)

To be alive means to die one day. That can either be accomplished with your head held high or by kicking and screaming and throwing a tantrum like a child. Maturity means to accept the inevitable. To accept all that you have no control over and to keep your head high when the inevitable comes your way.

The individual soul is a passing tongue of the endlessly changing flame of light. Man is a fitful moment in that flames, “kindled and put out like a light in the night.” (Heracleitus)

Great Lines Or Quotes:

Those about whom you inquire have molded with their bones into dust…Get rid of your pride and many ambitions, your affection and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing at all from all these. (Lao-tze)

 

Sin is selfishness, the seeking of individual advantage or delight; and until the soul is freed from all selfishness, it will be repeatedly born.

 

“Man is the measure of all things.” (Protagoras)

 

Normally the philosophy of one age is the literature of the next: the ideas and issues that in one generation are fought out on the field of speculation or research provide in the succeeding generation the background of drama, fiction, and poetry.

 

Virtue lies not in the fear of the gods, nor in the timid shunning of pleasure; it lies in the harmonious operation of sense and faculties guided by reason: “the real wealth of a man is to live simply with a mind at peace.” (Lucretius)

 

“No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” (Sulla)

 

“I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze, loftier than the royal peak of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die.” (Horace)

 

Freedom is luxury of security.

 

We cannot know what God is, not understand a universe so mingled of apparent evil and good, of suffering and loveliness, destruction and sublimity; but in the presence of a mother tending her child, or of an informed will giving order to chaos, meaning to matter, nobility to form or thought, we feel as close as we shall even be to the life and law that constitute the incomprehensible intelligence of the world.

 

“Of all virtues and dignities of the mind, goodness is the greatest.” (Francis Bacon)

 

Philosophy is not logic or learning, but understanding and acceptance.