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 Books: The Power Of Myth

 

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

The following are a few lessons picked from the book.

Lessons:

On The Importance of Myths

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Optimistic In The Darkest Of Times

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

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

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

Take Action

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

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

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

How To Live

Follow your passion:

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

Nurture experiences:

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

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

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

How To Improve Your Character

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

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

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

Listen To Yourself

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

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

Different Parts Of Life Require A Different You

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

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

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

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

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

Have A Private Place

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

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

How To Read

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

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

How To Become An Individual

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

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

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

Accept Fate or Chance

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

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

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

Think Positive

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

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

Great Lines or Quotes:

You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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