My Muse Is Not A Horse: A Rock Star’s Rejection of his MTV Music Award

What drives us?  Psychologists argue there are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation is when we feel compelled to take a course of action or perform a certain behavior either to avoid punishment or earn an external reward.  The serious student who spends long hours hunched over textbooks in the library, most likely, is extrinsically motivated: he memorizes the major battles of the Civil War and labors so intensely to understand the causes of the Russian Revolution not because he’s appalled by the bloodshed of Antietam or genuinely interested in why communism appealed to millions but because he wants to get an A in his high school history class and gain Ivy League admission.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when we take up a hobby or pursue a passion for its own sakenot recognition or reward.  The children’s lit fanatic who collects rare first editions of classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret Garden; the lover of romance languages who finally dedicates herself to learning Italian; the thrift store addict who adores all things retro and spends Sunday afternoons perusing secondhand shops for mid-century furniture: all are intrinsically motivated. 

Sadly, most of what we do in life is extrinsically motivated: we work in a monochrome gray cubicle for eight mind-numbing hours a day at a miserable job so we can afford designer handbags and luxury vacations; we stay late at the office to get a promotion; we save money so one daywe can leave our cramped apartment in the city and finally buy our own house with navy trim and a red door.  We might scribble sentimental love poems to our crush or play terrible thrash metal in our friend’s garage for fun butas time goes onwe long for fame and fortune, acclaim and awards.  After all, why else would we subject ourselves to the humiliation of playing lame high school dances and gigs in dimly-lit half-empty bars?  If you’re a musician, isn’t the goal to sign to a major record label and tour the world?  Why endure the long hours of rehearsal and sleepless nights on the road if not for the stadiums of screaming fans, the wild parties, the feathers and platform shoes, the profiles in Rolling Stone?

nick cave & the bad seeds

According to the intelligent Nick Cave, lead singer of post-punk band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, there are more reasons to create than glamorous perks and prestigious awards.  We shouldn’t make a movie to get a glittery gold star on the Hollywood walk of fame or write a song to win an MTV Music Award.  We should make art for its own sake: for the satisfaction of saying exactly what we mean, for the incomparable joy of expressing who we truly are.

Like many struggling musicians, Cave and his band toiled in obscurity for years.  But when in 1996 their haunting ninth album Murder Ballads was hailed as a masterpiece of morbidity by critics, they finally gained the attention of MTV, who nominated Cave for its Best Male Artist of the Year award.  In this glorious “fuck you” of a letter to the network, Cave courteously (if cheekily) rejects his nomination, explaining his muse is not a horse and doesn’t deserve to be subjected to the indignities of competition:

“21 Oct 96

To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you all for the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist.  The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P. J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated.  So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies.  I myself, do not.  I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring.  I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition.  My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.  My muse may spook!  May bolt!  May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Cave”

nick cave & the bad seeds #2

Ultimately, Cave is modest enough to recognize that such competitions are meaningless.  Winning an MTV Music Awardjust like earning the prestigious honor of a Man Booker or MacArthur Fellowship doesn’t mean you’re a genius, or the voice of your generation, or actually the “best” artist: winning is often the result of luck and happenstance.  As Jennifer Egan remarked about winning her Pulitzer:  “If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes…Deserving only gets you so far.  Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.”

Lesson?  We shouldn’t treat our art like a sport: our goal shouldn’t be to win a gold medal or cross the finish line ahead of our competitors.  As Brenda Ueland so beautifully expressed nearly a century ago, everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.  Because we are human, we are entirely unique: we can’t be compared to others and what we create certainly can’t be categorized into “winners” and “losers.”

Oscar Wilde on Why All Art Is Rather Useless

wilde

What is the purpose of art?  Pablo Picasso believed it was to wash the dust of daily life off our souls while Proust contended it was to reawaken us to extraordinary beauty of the ordinary worldLeo Tolstoy held that the aim of art was to instruct: we read and write stories to be better people.  According to the great Russian novelist, we should read Pride and Prejudice— not for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s witty banter or the delightful charm of high society and British manners but to learn valuable lessons about love.  Romance is not enough, Jane Austen teaches us, and we shouldn’t judge a potential paramour on first impressions alone.

Aesthetes, on the other hand, held the philosophy of “l’art pour l’art”: art for art’s sake.  A 19th century intellectual and artistic movement, aestheticism asserted art was valuable in and of itself— it didn’t need to have a moral purpose.  Unlike Tolstoy, the aesthetes, most notably poet, playwright, and lover of lavish capes Oscar Wilde, maintained art (at least, good art anyway) was concerned with one thing: beauty.  Art seduced the senses; it didn’t stand on a soapbox to lecture or promote a political opinion.

Needless to say, aesthetes who made art for its own sake were condemned as degenerate debauchees and hedonistic pleasure seekers.  As 19th century Europe entered the industrial revolution, factories rose, millions moved from the quiet countryside to the noisy commotion of crowded cities, and goods that once took months to make could be produced quickly on a mass scale.  In the efficiency-obsessed industrial age, it was thought immoral to pursue pointless pleasure.  After all, what’s the “use” of a poem or painting or sculpture?  Why labor to capture the loneliness of a diner in the middle of the night or the loveliness of a floral tea cup, jar of apricots and loaf of bread when you could be doing something useful?  Art seems frivolous when there are crops to grow and railroads to build.

hopper painting

In this clever, charming 1890 letter to one of his fans, Wilde concedes that all art is rather useless.  Much like a flower or sunrise or sunset, art is a thing of beauty— that’s it.  But just because art is useless doesn’t mean it has no value.  Though our capitalistic society contends a thing is only worthwhile if it can be exchanged for dollars and cents, making art is its own reward.  As Brenda Ueland wrote in her endearing classic, one of the most important intrinsic rewards of making art is the “stretched understanding, the illumination.  By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”  With his trademark irreverence, Wilde explains that—above all— art brings us bliss:

“My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood.  It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.  It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.  If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.  A flower blossoms for its own joy.  We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.  That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.  Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower.  It is not part of its essence.  It is accidental.  It is a misuse.  All this is I fear very obscure.  But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde”

floral tea cup chardin

Our society tells us that writing a book is only worthwhile if it becomes a New York Times bestseller, a film only if it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.  If our portrait of a Parisian couple never hangs in the Louvre and is only ever featured on the mantel of our mother’s living room, we will be fools; if we dedicate our lives to our art but never “make it”— never publish our work, never experience the exhilaration of seeing our book at Barnes and Noble— we will have failed.  Why had we worked so hard?  Why did we devote years to something that never “got us anywhere”?  Wasn’t all that time a waste if— like Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and Vincent Van Gogh— our work was lost to the dusty oblivion of history and we died tragically unknown?

For Wilde, the answer is a resounding no.  Even if we write a book no one reads or toil for years and squander our life savings to make a film audiences loathe, we should not regret it.  We’re always better for having created.  If you’re still feeling discouraged because you have yet to “make it,” remember the encouraging words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Write a six line poem,” he implored a class of high school students, “Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents…Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you already have been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

Kurt Vonnegut on Why We Should Make Art Every Single, Solitary Day of Our Lives

“All art is rather useless,” dapper dandy and master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once quipped.  Art might startle and surprise, astound and astonish but it has no practical purpose.  After all, a play can’t fold the laundry, a poem can’t fix a flat tire, a painting can’t change your motor oil.  Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” can’t end global warming; Cezanne’s apples and oranges— no matter how charming— can’t cure cancer or rebuild coral.  So why bother to scribble a sonnet or compose a villanelle?

According to Kurt Vonnegut, postmodern genius behind such masterpieces of counterculture as Slaughterhouse Five and sage behind some of the wisest writing advice, we should paint and write and act and sing and dance and draw because making art helps us better understand ourselves and the world.  Will our still life save the rain forest?  Will our exhibit of black-and-white photographs find a more sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels?  No, but trying to capture something will stretch our understanding and deepen our appreciation of whatever we write and draw.  Or as Brenda Ueland once wrote, “By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”

As sensible adults, we want results.  If we spend all day at our desk, we want something to show for our work; if we devote years to writing a novel, it better win the Pulitzer Prize and become a New York Times bestseller; if we go through the trouble of painting a Renoir blue sky, it better hang in the Louvre.  What’s the point of dedicating untold hours to writing or painting if it never earns us acclaim?  if it never sells and increases our net worth?

It’s so important to make art because it reconnects us to our inner child.  Unlike too-serious, too-solemn adults who believe we are what we accomplish, children understand there is more to the day than a to-do list.  Children don’t make mud pies or build sandcastles or construct bed sheet fortresses because they want to be the envy of their friends or see their essay published.  They don’t care if their crayon drawing is hung proudly on the fridge or is forgotten in a junk drawer. They create because it brings them joy.  For them, making art is its own reward.

Vonnegut believes we can all learn from children.  Even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time is wasted.  We’re always better for having created.

kurt vonnegut

With his zany wit and exuberant, playful love of life, Vonnegut implores a group of Xavier High School students to live creatively.  In this lovely letter, featured in the altogether inspiring Letters of Note: Volume 2, he writes:

I thank you for your friendly letters.  You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years.  I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously!  I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.  Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her.  Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on.  Make a face in your mashed potatoes.  Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed.  No fair tennis without a net.  Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood.  OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

go into the arts

Being creative doesn’t have to be pompous or pretentious; it doesn’t have to be a poem or a painting on a canvas.  Everything is art: how you stir your tea, how you organize your spice cabinet, how you arrange a bouquet of flowers, how you frost a cake, how you tell bedtime stories to your children, how you kiss your husband goodnight, how you greet the day, how you laugh, how you love, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you decorate your home.  Want to learn more about how you can be an artist of the everyday?  Rejoice in Proust on how art reawakens us to the extraordinary beauty of ordinary things and 3 things I learned from Sarah Ban Breathnach.

Anais Nin on the Secret to a Satisfying Sex Life

Ours is a sex-saturated society.  On television, 2 out of 3 programs contain suggestive, sexual anais & diariescontent; spectacles like the Super Bowl regularly feature twerking and pole-dancing.  On social media, millions follow shirtless men and scantily clad women in thong bikinis.

Half a century ago, porn was limited to your dad’s Playboys and a few rare home videos; today porn is mass produced by a multi-billion dollar industry, as easy and convenient as french fries from the McDonald’s dollar menu.  The internet is a portal to a pixelated play land where your filthiest fantasies can come true.

Despite the prevalence of porn and the widespread acceptance of casual sex, today our sex lives are less satisfying— not more.  By giving men unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies, porn extinguishes male libido and can even hinder their ability to perform.  In the words of groundbreaking feminist Naomi Wolf, “real naked women are just bad porn.”  Not only does porn ruin real sex, it causes women to loathe themselves.  After all, how can a flesh-and-blood woman begin to compete with a submissive sex slave whose only purpose is to fulfill her male viewer’s every fantasy and whose vocabulary is limited to seductive moans and exaggerated exclamations of “yes!  more!”?

Though pornography had yet to completely spoil sex in her lifetime, dedicated diarist Anais Nin understood sex is a matter— not of the body— but of the mind.  Along with her lifelong friend, lover and fellow writer Henry Miller, Nin wrote erotica for an anonymous client at a rate of $1 a page.  “Leave out the poetry and concentrate on sex!” the collector demanded.  In this passionate and prophetic letter, featured both in the indispensable Letters of Note and the exquisite The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3, the always articulate Nin responded:

“Dear Collector:

We hate you.  Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession.  It becomes a bore.  You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships which change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.

You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of others, which are the fuel that ignites it.  Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional.  This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements.  You are shrinking your world of sensations.  You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.

If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world.  The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion.  You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation.  Sex does not thrive on monotony.  Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed.  Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all of the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.

How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of discrete and never-repeated wonders?  Not two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; not two odors, but if we expand on this, you cry “Cut the poetry.”  Not two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore.  What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art, natural and graceful animals.

We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look.  If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up.  There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it.  Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

seduction & anais nin

A writer of erotica and a notorious seductress herself, Nin had the prescience to know porn would pose serious problems.  Pornography is provocative in the most predictable ways: lewd profanities, unimaginative dirty talk, obscenely large breasts, huge cocks.  Its purpose?  To immediately satisfy our most depraved desires. 

Seduction, however, depends on delaying— not gratifying— desire.  After all, who is more alluring: the belligerently drunk bro who instantly agrees to come home with us or the mysterious man who only longingly looks at us across the bar?  It’s the tease that’s most tantalizing.  If you want to make yourself irresistible, you should conceal, not reveal: the curve of a hip, the graceful arch of a back, the neckline that reveals just a bit of your decolletage, the entrancing scent of perfume on the wind, the forbidden, flirtatious glance across the table that lasts a little too long seduce us in a way the most x-rated porn cannot.  As Proust so wittily observed over a century ago, we most want what is denied us.

The great tragedy of our time is we have porn, but no passion; we have sex but have forgotten how to make love.  For sensualist Nin, sex can only enrapture if it involves all the senses, if it’s connected— not divorced— from head and heart.  Hungry for more of Nin’s intriguing insights and luminous prose?  Read her on the mystery of memory and the bliss and hell of New York.  Need more advice on sex and love?  Revisit Alain de Botton on how to be charming and Proust on how to be happy in love.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on What’s Worth Worrying About

What worries us?  Countless pointless things.  We worry about our social status, whether we have aletters of note large enough bank account/an impressive enough job/a prestigious enough degree.  We worry we’re “falling behind” because our closest friends are buying houses and having babies.  We worry about our appearance: do we look boyish and flat-chested compared to those voluptuous Victoria Secret models on fashion runways?  is our ass too flat?  are our tits too small?  are our thighs too big?  We endlessly worry about what other people think: do our mother and father approve of our unconventional choice of career?  do they brag about our accomplishments at family dinners or sit in silence while the other relatives boast of their children’s community service trips to Somalia and admissions to the Ivy League?  is our date— whom we care little for and see absolutely no future with— charmed by our attractiveness and captivated by our conversation?  do our Instagram photos in far-flung, exotic places provoke the envy of our high school friends?  does our neighborhood barista refuse to make conversation—not because they’re exhausted or introverted or having a bad day— but because there’s something fundamentally wrong with us as we’ve always suspected? 

As a curator of wisdom and diehard devotee of The Great Gatsby, I was delighted to discover what chronicler of the glittery excess of the jazz age F. Scott Fitzgerald had to say about worry.  Found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, a printed treasury of one hundred and twenty five letters that began as a digital museum of the same name, Fitzgerald’s letter reminds us very few things are worthy of worry.  His advice?  We should care about living in accordance with our deepest values and beliefs; we shouldn’t give a single damn about what other people think.

On August 8, 1933, Fitzgerald wrote the following to his daughter, whom he affectionately called Scottie:

Dear Pie,

I feel very strongly about you doing duty.  Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French?  I am glad you are happy— but I never believe much in happiness.  I never believe in misery either.  Those are the things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly.  If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

[…]

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Daddy

F. Scott Fitzgerald & family

Including letters ranging from literature’s finest writers like Emily Dickinson and Anais Nin to history-making public figures like Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill to iconic rock n’ roll singers like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger, Letters of Note is an invaluable addition to any library.  If you love encyclopedic compendiums of timeless wisdom and want more insight into the art of writing specifically, read the Paris Review interviews in Women Writers at Work, which include Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, Maya Angelou on the exquisite torment of the creative life, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Why We Should Delight in the Little Things in Life

“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt red poppies & daisiesWhitman assured us nearly two centuries ago.  Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do?  Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home?  No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.

Why do we become so joyless?  Is it because the glamorous lives of movie stars and social media influencers leave us perpetually unsatisfied and always wanting more?  because as we get older, we simply lose our capacity for wonder and become superficial social climbers obsessed with impressive job titles, designer handbags, and flashy cars?  Or is it because life almost never goes as planned and inevitably disappoints us?

According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment.  When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour.  We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.

But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us?  Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires?  No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model.  So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.

For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore.  To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth.  As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.  In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:

“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.

Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.  We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”

For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability.  Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality.  Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs.  Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.

the skull jean morin

When we’ll perish, we cannot know.  We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow.  The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.

Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder.  When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live.  No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon.  We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to.  Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.

Pema Chodron on How Peace Begins With Individuals- Not With Nations

What is war?  In its most literal sense, war is conflict between nations and soldiers on a battlefield.  But a domestic dispute over dirty dishes, an argument about abortion with our right-wing great uncle are their own kind of war.  War is just as much seething tempers and screaming matches as the thunderous hail of bomb blasts and gun shots.

The greatest (and perhaps most ironic) tragedy is that our closest relationships are often the most brutal battlegrounds.  In the heat of an argument, we understand our husbands and wives— not as people we love/adore/admire— but as hostile enemies we must overpower.  A lover’s quarrel is an attempt to defend your territory, a petty desire to be right and plant your flag in the ground.  When a marriage— or any relationship for that matter— becomes strained enough, the two parties can’t leave the battleground and actually talk.

So how do end war both in our own lives and in the greater world?  around the block and around the globe?  In her small but infinitely insightful Practicing Peace, Buddhist monk and forgiver of our all-too-human frailties Pema Chodron suggests war and peace have less to do with nations than with individuals.  After all, a nation will only attack another if its citizens harbor hatred in their hearts.  If we want to end hostilities between countries, we first have to be loving and open-minded ourselves. As Chodron so eloquently notes:

“War and peace start in the hearts of individuals…war begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily— in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice— whenever we feel uncomfortable.  It’s so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we’re feeling.

Someone once gave me a poem with a line in it that offers a good definition of peace: “Softening what is rigid in our hearts.”  We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.”

protestors vs. police

It’s not news that political polarization is at an all-time high.  Recently, one study found that Americans feel disgusted by those who disagree with them— not just angered.  The liberal, for instance, no longer views the stanch conservative as a supporter of nationalism, small government, and free enterprise; he sees him as a ruthless, greedy capitalist, a bigot, a racist, an anti-Semite.  The conservative, on the other hand, no longer views the long-haired liberal as merely a lover of flower child notions like multiculturalism and income equality; he sees him as a threat to wholesome family values, a socialist, a menace to national security and the very foundations of American life. 

In our polarized climate, it’s difficult— near impossible— to have a discussion with those on the other side of the political divide.  If a liberal and conservative do try to have an open dialogue about an important topic— immigration, climate change, black lives vs. all lives— they usually argue, not debate.  The aim?  To prove they are wrong and we are right. 

The problem is if we close our hearts to each other, we’ll eventually close our minds.  When we make up our minds that an entire political party/nation is worthy of our condemnation, that they are wrong and we are right, we can no longer hear the other side.  As Chodron writes, 

“The next time you get angry check out your righteous indignation, check out your fundamentalism that supports your hatred of this person, because this one really is bad— this politician, that leader, those heads of big companies.  Or maybe it’s rage at an individual who has harmed you personally or harmed your loved ones.  A fundamentalist mind is a mind that has become rigid.  First the heart closes, then the mind becomes hardened into a view, then you can justify your hatred of another human being because of what they represent and what they say and do.”

race riots

WWI and  WWII.  The Holocaust.  Hiroshima.  The 20th century was the most blood-stained in human history.  The total number of deaths caused by war during the last one hundred years has been estimated at 187 million, more than 10% of the world’s population in 1913.  If we want to create a world of concord and compassion and put an end to all this bloodshed and brutality, we have to soften what is rigid.

What, exactly, does this mean?  It means that when we’re feeling certain of our position’s moral superiority, when our beliefs are dangerously close to solidifying into dogmatic ideology, we fight to keep an open heart and an open mind.  The conservative Catholic shouldn’t condemn women who support abortion as murderers and degenerate sluts who have no respect for human life.  Nor should the radical feminist denounce those who are pro-life as puritanical upholders of the patriarchy and oppressive violators of women’s rights.  Will the two ever find common ground?  Most likely not.  But they can at least respectfully listen to each other’s point-of-view without resorting to school yard insults and self-righteous moralizing.

War in all its forms— from the micro-scale of personal relationships to the macro-scale of relationships between countries— only occurs when we adopt an us vs. them mentality.  They’re wrong, we’re right; they’re ignorant, we’re informed; they’re gullible idiots who believe any half-brained conspiracy theory on Fox News; we’re critical thinkers who fact-check and only read the New York Times.

This notion of “us” and “them” is responsible for the most atrocious of human crimes— the massacre of millions of Jews, the enslavement of African Americans, the subjugation of women since the beginning of time.  To stop violence of all kinds, we must never forget each other’s humanity: our opposition isn’t the enemy— we’re all on the same side.

Chodron might be an ordained Buddhist monk, but she— too— occasionally struggles to be compassionate and kind.  Outraged that her opposition is being so small-minded, Chodron decides he’s headstrong and rigid.  But after some reflection, she has a rather humbling realization: she’s being just as small-minded!  In order to have a real conversation, both would have to empathically listen and let go of the egotistic need to be right.  In the end, the goal of a conversation shouldn’t be to prove our position— it should be to gain some sort of wisdom or insight:

“I try to practice what I preach; I’m not always that good at it but I really do try.  The other night, I was getting hard-hearted, close-minded, and fundamentalist about somebody else, and I remembered this expression that you can never hate somebody if you stand in their shoes.  I was angry at him because he was holding such a rigid view.  In that instant I was able to put myself in his shoes and I realized, ‘I’m just as riled up and self-righteous and close-minded about this as he is.  We’re exactly in the same place!”  And I saw that the more I held on to my view, the more polarized we would become, and the more we’d just be mirror images of one another— two people with closed minds and hard hearts who both think they’re right, screaming at each other.”

With gentleness and humility, Chodron suggests loving, understanding relationships between nations begin with loving, understanding relationships in our day-to-day lives.  For more from one of the foremost Buddhist practitioners of our time, read how pain can enlarge your heart, how to break your habitual patterns and how to be courageous enough to grow up.  If you want more Buddhist thought, learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.

1960s protestors

Pema Chodron on How to Break Our Habitual Patterns & Live More Mindfully

mindful Pema

What is a habit?  Oxford English Dictionary defines habit as a “settled or regular tendency or practice.”  Brewing a cup of coffee, stumbling into the bathroom and brushing our teeth, rising at six every morning: each is a habit, a task we ordinarily undertake.  Habits may make up the mundane material of our day-to-day, but they dictate our destiny (“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our our lives,” as Annie Dillard so exquisitely says.)  It’s simple: if we have good habits, we’ll lead good lives.  If, for example, we’re in the habit of exercising daily and eating only healthy, wholesome foods, we’ll be fit and full of vigor.  If, on the other hand, we’re in the habit of smoking half a pack of Marlboros and guzzling a gallon of Jameson every night, we’ll waste our days miserably hung over.

The beauty of habits is they’re automatic: they don’t require much— if any— effort.  When we leave for the office every morning, we don’t have to consciously think “turn the key in the ignition,” “shift from break to drive,” “press the accelerator.”  Nor do we have to consciously think to find our way there.  Because we drive to and from work twice a day, five times a week, we instinctively know where to get on and off the freeway, where to make a right or left turn.

Where would we be without such automated, unconscious processing?  Imagine how much energy we’d expend navigating streets!  Or deciding what to do when if we didn’t have daily rituals to divide our days!  Habits streamline our lives and sculpt the formless clay of existence into a beautiful, orderly shape.  Philosopher William James went so far as to advise we make as many useful actions habitual as possible.  “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work,” he believed.

Yet we don’t want to act from habit alone.  British philosopher Alain de Botton views habits more pessimistically, “Much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters,” he writes, “Habit dulls our senses and stops us from appreciating.”  After all, if we act out of habit, if we mechanically, mindlessly follow a routine, we’re by definition not thinking.  We’re reacting rather than responding.  It’s a habit to either sit and sulk or shoot back with a cutting comment when our mother makes a passive-aggressive comment about our dining room’s disarray.  It’s a habit to get defensive and retaliate when our boyfriend brings up something that bothers him, even when he does so in a constructive rather than critical way.

Rather than fall into familiar roles and act out the same habitual patterns, ordained Buddhist monk and master of mindfulness Pema Chodron suggests we pause and get fully present before we react in the same unhelpful ways.  In her life-changing Practicing Peace, she makes a radical, revolutionary assertion: war and peace begin with individuals, not with nations.  If we want to create a more loving world, if we want to build a society based on loving-kindness and mutual respect rather than hostility and hate, we must first look at ourselves: how do we behave with others day to day?  do we act with compassion and understanding or do we judge and discriminate?  if there’s conflict, do we seek to find a compromise or do we wage war against our enemies?  The key to peaceful relationships whether between nations and citizens or friends and family is thinking before we act and before we speak.  Maintaining our composure, of course, is difficult when we feel wronged or angry.  As Chodron writes:

“When we’re feeling aggressive— and I think this would go for any strong emotion— there’s a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution.  We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease.  It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved.  Right then, we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience.  But what do we usually do?  We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering.  We strike out, we hit back.  Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there— if you can practice patience, you can catch it— but usually you don’t even realize there was any softness.  You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind.  It has a very unforgiving quality to it.  With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain.”

What do we do when someone hurts or humiliates us?  When someone attacks us, our first impulse is to fight back.  Say our sister accuses us of being cheap.  Outraged, we want to defend ourselves and collect evidence to support our case.  Has she forgotten all the times we so generously picked up the tab?  or that we just covered her share of the security deposit at our new place?  How dare she call us cheap?  Blood boiling, we want to shout and scream: She was the money-grubbing miser.  She was wrong.  She owed us an apology.

But where does hurling accusations get us?  When two parties are in conflict, does criticizing or pointing fingers ever accomplish anything?  Even if someone wrongs us first— makes an unfair allegation, calls us names— do we reach an amicable compromise by launching our own crusade?  No, usually bombarding our enemies with bullets of belittlement only makes them fortify their walls and assault us more viciously.  For there to be any hope of resolution, we must not add fuel to the flames:

“If we want suffering to lessen, the first step is learning that keeping the cycle of aggression going doesn’t help.  It doesn’t bring the relief we seek, and it doesn’t bring happiness to anyone else either.  We may not be able to change the outer circumstances, but we can always shift our perspective and dissolve the hatred in our minds.”

It’s a common misconception that Eastern religions advocate pacifism that borders on passivity.  Buddhism recalls images of monks meditating serenely in monasteries or sitting cross-legged beneath bonsai trees, their tranquil faces radiating joy and peace.  To be spiritually enlightened, we imagine we have to be similarly all-loving and all-forgiving.  If a cashier is rude to us, if a hostess is discourteous after we’ve been waiting an interminable two hours to be seated, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be irritated/irate/angry.

Buddhism may advise us to pause and reflect before we rant and rave, but it never recommends we repress or deny our feelings.  We should validate how we feel: it is upsetting when the grocery store clerk barely raises his head to say hello, it is infuriating when the hostess doesn’t apologize for the long wait.  We can feel our feelings but choose how to express them.  The goal is to bring more alertness, awakeness, and aliveness to our interactions with our fellow human beings.  Or—to paraphrase the poetic Rebecca Solnit— we can feel ire without inflicting it.  No matter how strong the urge to exact revenge or unleash our rage, Chodron encourages us to simply stay with our difficult feelings:

“So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means slowing down at that point— just pausing— instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response.  You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot.  But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling.  You’re not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression.  In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.  If you wait and don’t fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous storyline and stay with the underlying vulnerability.  That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid.  And yet it is painful to experience.  Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and discomfort…This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy— knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.”

No human ability is more powerful than the word.  “In the beginning was the word,” the Bible reminds us.  Words birth new nations, begin and end bloody world wars.  They can build bridges or erect walls, promote forgiveness or harden a grudge, resolve differences or incite rancor.  They can be stitches and slings or bullets and bombs.  They can bandage wounds or leave lifelong scars.

“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Though it’s tempting to slight our sisters when they say something mean or strike back with a spiteful comment when our boyfriend hurts our feelings or otherwise insults our dignity, retaliating only perpetuates the cycle of suffering.  Yes, our boyfriend is a jackass for confessing he finds another woman attractive, but what do we accomplish by getting revenge?  We make him insecure and jealous?  Do we promote an atmosphere of trust by exaggeratedly checking out every remotely good-looking guy we pass on the street?  Do we strengthen our relationship by intentionally drooling over every six-packed movie star we see on TV?  No, no matter how much we want retribution for our lover’s insensitivity, our job in life is to keep our side of the street clean:

“At this point you’re getting to know anger and how it easily breeds violent words and actions, and this can be decidedly unnerving.  You can see where your anger will lead before you do anything.  You’re not repressing it, you’re just sitting there with the pulsating energy— going cold turkey with the aggression— and you get to know the naked energy of anger and the pain it can cause if you react.  You’ve followed the tug so many times, you already know.  It feels like an undertow, that desire to say something mean, to seek revenge or slander, that desire to complain, to just somehow spill out that aggression.  But you slowly realize that those actions don’t get rid of the aggression, they increase it.  Instead you’re patient— patient with yourself— and this requires the gentleness and courage of fearlessness.”

Every difficult conversation, every moment of doubt, fear, and insecurity offers an opportunity: will we reenact the same predictable patterns and believe our same habitual stories or will we behave in a new way?  Will we be courageous enough to be vulnerable and open up or will we defend ourselves against possible attack by hiding behind an impregnable stockade?

Often times, anger and aggression mask a deeper vulnerability.  Why, for instance, are we so outraged at discovering that our partner still stays in contact with his ex?  We feel indignation perhaps because we find such a relationship inappropriate, yes, but our swearing and screaming is really just a guise for our insecurity.  It’s easier to feel fury than realize just how utterly helpless we are at the hands of our beloved.  Those we love— more than anyone else— have the profound power to hurt us deeply: sure, they might love us now, but one day they might reunite with their ex or run off with their skanky, short-skirted secretary.  Rather than be vulnerable and reveal these anxieties to our partners (“I know you love me but it makes me feel insecure that you maintain a relationship with your ex.  I worry you still harbor feelings.”), we lash out.  We harden instead of soften, as Chodron might say: we call our husband a bunch of obscenities, we sulk and spoil our evening out to the movies, we reach out to our ex just to be petty.  We don’t dare articulate our actual feelings (“I love you/ I need you/ I’m scared you might leave me.”):

“Behind resistance— definitely behind aggression and jealousy— behind any kind of tension, there is always a soft spot that we’re trying to protect.  Someone’s actions hurt our feelings and before we even notice what we’re doing, we armor ourselves in a very old and familiar way.  So we can either let go of our solid storyline and connect with that soft spot or we can continue to stubbornly hold on, which means that suffering will continue.”

How can we break destructive, dysfunctional relationship patterns and express ourselves openly and honestly?  Chodron has a simple answer: live more mindfully.  If we return again and again to the present moment, we can observe our thoughts from a place of detached objectivity, label our thinking as “thinking,” and choose our actions accordingly: 

“Mediation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing.  It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows.  We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.  We train in sitting with the itch…and with our craving to scratch.  We label our story lines ‘thinking’ and let them dissolve, and we come back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great.  This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”

Practicing Peace illuminates how we can bring more compassion to a world so often driven apart by conflict and cruelty.  With mindfulness, we can improve relationships individually and globally between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, between people of different religions, races and nationalities.  For more Chodron, read how to be courageous enough to grow up and how to let pain enlarge your heart.  If you want more Buddhist wisdom, learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.

Pema Chodron on Having the Courage to Grow Up

What does it mean to grow up?  Is it putting on a suit and tie and commuting an hour each way to work?  solemnly sipping black coffee over the morning paper?  getting married and buying a 3 bedroom house?

Most of us would say growing up means being responsible: adults pay their rent on the 1st of every month, they thoroughly research their options before investing in a washer and dryer, they have a retirement fund and plan for the future.  To be an adult, we have to make decisions with our heads, not our hearts: we have to resist buying the gorgeous Spanish-style bungalow because it’s way out of our budget and doesn’t even have a backyard; we have to logically assess the strengths and shortcomings of a potential partner rather than allow ourselves to be blinded by first love.

In her simply-worded guide to spiritual surrender Wisdom of No Escape, ordained Buddhist monk Pema Chodron argues growing up is facing a few fundamental— if frightening— facts: we are born alone, we’ll die alone, and we alone our responsible for our existence.  With equal parts tough love and gentle compassion, Chodron asserts it’s our duty to continuously push the boundaries of our comfort zone and leap out of the nest:

“In every human life (whether there are puberty rites or not) you are born, and you are born alone.  You go through that birth canal alone, and then a whole process begins.  And when you die, you die alone.  No one goes with you.  The journey that you make, no matter what your belief about that journey, is made alone.  The fundamental idea of taking refuge is that between birth and death we are alone.  Therefore, taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha does not mean finding consolation in them, as a child might find consolation in Mommy and Daddy.  Rather, it’s a basic expression of our aspiration to leap out of the nest, whether you feel ready for it or not, to go through puberty rights and be an adult with no hand to hold.  It expresses your realization that the only way to begin the real journey of life is to feel the ground of loving-kindness and respect for yourself and then to leap.  In some sense, however, we never get to the point where we feel one hundred percent sure, ‘I have had my nurturing cradle.  It’s finished.  Now I can leap.’  We are always continuing to develop maitri and continuing to leap.  The other day I was talking about meeting our edge and our desire to grab something when we reach our limits.  Then we see that there’s more loving-kindness, more respect for ourselves, more confidence that needs to be nurtured.  We work on that and keep leaping.”

the wisdom of no escape

Most of us possess a harsh inner critic who punishes us whenever we misbehave.  No matter how small the infraction— we send an email with “there” instead of “their,” we indulge in one too many glasses of wine before bed, we yield to the temptation to smoke despite our determined resolution to quit— our stern inner schoolmistress sends us to the corner for time-out, our shoulders slumped, a humiliating dunce cap on our heads.

Though it’s our job to assume complete responsibility for our lives, we must forgive ourselves when we falter.  Rather than relentlessly reprimand ourselves, we should be gentle.  After all, it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of the nest and spread our wings on our own.  When we’re courageous enough to interview for a new job or leave a twenty year marriage, what we need isn’t nasty disparagement or unmerciful censure, a slap on the wrist or whack with a ruler— we need loving-kindness, a reassuring hand and sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder.  It is nerve-wracking to interview for another position, it is overwhelming to end a long-term relationship and start over.  Just as exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain de Botton insists self-love is the foundation of emotional health, Ms. Chodron believes difficulty is an invaluable opportunity to befriend ourselves:

“Taking refuge means that we feel that the way to live is to cut the ties, to cut the umbilical cord and alone start the journey of being fully human, without confirmation from others.  Taking refuge is the way that we begin cultivating the openness and goodheartedness that allow us to be less and less dependent.  We might say, ‘We shouldn’t be dependent anymore, we should be open,’ but that isn’t the point.  The point is that you begin where you are, you see what a child you are, and you don’t criticize that.  You begin to explore, with a lot of humor and generosity toward yourself, all the places where you cling, and every time you cling, you realize, ‘Ah!  This is where, through my mindfulness and my tonglen and everything that I do, my whole life is a process of learning how to make friends with myself.'”

boy in dunce cap - Version 2

Though courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it, we often scold ourselves for being afraid.  You sissy…you shouldn’t be scared!”  Yet fear is actually a sign we’re not cowards— if we’re afraid, we must be stepping outside our comfort zone.  Growing up means being brave enough to leave the comfort of mother’s nest and strike out on our own.  We become bigger, bolder versions of ourselves when we take monumental leaps, even minuscule steps, into the unknown:

“This need to cling, this need to hold the hand, this cry for Mom, also show that that’s the edge of the nest.  Stepping through right there— making a leap— becomes the motivation for cultivating maitri.  You realize that if you can step through that doorway, you’re going forward, you’re becoming more of an adult, more of a complete person, more whole.”

In Chodron’s philosophy, we have one purpose: to confront all aspects of the human condition with compassion and courage.  Recalling Rainer Maria Rilke’s lovely sentiment that “all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage,” Chodron asserts life’s trials have something to teach: our jealousy of a romantic rival, for instance, might reveal our lack of self-love, the schoolgirl insecurity we feel when we catch the man we love looking desirously at someone else might point to unresolved trauma and trust issues from being cheated on.  To be a bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior, we must face— rather than flee— the lessons our dragons have to impart:

“Working with obstacles is life’s journey.  The warrior is always coming up against dragons.  Of course the warrior gets scared, particularly before battle.  It’s frightening.  But with a shaky, tender heart the warrior realizes that he or she is just about to step into the unknown, and then goes forth to meet the dragon.  The warrior realizes the dragon is nothing but unfinished business presenting itself, and that it’s fear that really needs to be worked with.  The dragon is just a motion picture that appears there, and it appears in many forms: as the lover who jilted us, as the parent who never loved us enough, as someone who abused us.  Basically what we work with is our fear and our holding back, which are not necessarily obstacles.  The only obstacle is ignorance, this refusal to look at unfinished business.  If every time the warrior goes and meets the dragon, he or she says, ‘Hah!  It’s a dragon again.  No way I am going to face this,’ and just splits…[we] become more and more timid and more and more afraid and more of a baby.  No one’s nurturing you, but you’re still in that cradle, and you never go through your puberty rites.”

children playing sandbox - Version 2

More than anything, growing up means being in control of ourselves.  Unlike children, we can no longer get away with throwing temper tantrums in supermarkets or hurling petty insults at anyone who pisses us off.  As adults, it’s (unfortunately) no longer acceptable to call people “butt heads” or push the friend who hurts our feelings into the sandbox.  We have to maintain our composure, no matter what.

Sadly as many of us grow up, we develop emotional armor to protect ourselves from feeling much at all: we adopt a seemingly sophisticated cynicism to avoid getting our hopes up; we pretend not to care whether a new love interest calls.  Humans are a fragile species, helpless against a million and one threats: cancer diagnoses and heart attacks; Somali pirates and Islamic extremists; drunk drivers and plane crashes; dictators and genocides; money-hungry multi-national corporations and rigged elections; earthquakes and flash floods; world wars and pandemics.  We can’t defend ourselves against the inescapable sadness and suffering of existence.  To be vulnerable is the human condition.  Yet we spend our lives hiding behind a fortress.  Our defense mechanisms— our habit of making everything a joke, our unwillingness to get too close to people and open up— are bulwarks meant to protect us from being seen, being hurt, being judged.  But because we shut out potentially painful experiences like disappointment and rejection, we deny ourselves acquaintance with more exulted emotions like intimacy, connection and love.  To be truly alive, Chodron believes, we have to open— rather than shut down— our hearts:

“When you leave the cradle…you are in this beautiful suit of armor because, in some sense, you’re well protected and feel safe.  Then you go through your puberty rites, the process of taking off the armor that you might have had some illusion was protecting you from something, only to find that actually it’s shielding you from being fully alive and fully awake.  Then you go forward and meet the dragon, and every meeting shows you where there’s still some armor to take off.”

With simplicity and sagacity, Chodron suggests we all have our own choice of armor:

“I will spend my life taking this armor off.  Nobody else can take it off because nobody else knows where all the little locks are, nobody else knows where’s it’s sewed up tight, where it’s going to take a lot of work to get that particular iron thread untied.  I may have a zipper that goes right down the front and has padlocks all the way down.  Every time I meet the dragon, I take off as many padlocks as I can; eventually I’ll be able to take the zipper down.  I might say to you, ‘Simple.  When you meet the dragon you just take off one of your padlocks and then your zipper will come down.’  And you say, ‘What is she talking about?’ because you have sewn a seam up under your left arm with iron thread.  Every time you meet the dragon, you have to get out these special snippers that you have hidden away in a box with all your precious things and snip a few threads off, as many as you dare, until you start vomiting with fear and say, ‘This is enough for now.’…To the next person you meet, you say, ‘All you have to do is get your little snippers out of your precious box and you start—” and they look at you and say, ‘What is he talking about?’ because they have big boots that come all the way up and cover their whole body and head.  The only way to get the boots off is to start with the soles of the boots, and they know that every time they meet the dragon, they actually have to start peeling.  So you have to do it alone.  The basic instruction is simple: take off that armor.  That’s all anyone can tell you.  No one can tell you how to do it because you’re the only one who knows how you locked yourself in there to begin with.”

At the foundation of Wisdom of No Escape is the idea that we must wholeheartedly accept ourselves.  If you want more uplighting inspiration from Pema Chodron, read how to stay and how pain enlarges our hearts.  Want more enlightening Buddhist philosophy?  Learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.

Rilke on Possessing the Persistence to Wait

“Wait without hope,” modernist poet T.S. Eliot advised in 1941.  Mr. Eliot seems rather grim considering he wrote these words during history’s deadliest war: wait…without hope?  Where was the rousing patriotism and “never give in” determination of Winston Churchill?

Though it might seem defeatist to “wait without hope,” waiting isn’t pessimistic— it’s practical.  There are times in life— when you lose your life savings, when your mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, when your husband of twenty years leaves you— when waiting is all you can do. 

No book is a more comforting companion in despairing times than Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s life-affirming letters to budding young poet, Franz Kappus.  Suffering his own dark season of the soul, Kappus wrote seeking counsel.  When we are in that morose and  melancholy place, when the debilitating drizzle of depression drowns our will to go on, what— he wondered— did it take to live through the horror and the hopelessness to the other side, to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable darkness and find one small slant of light?

For Rilke, the answer was simple: have faith.  We have to trust that— no matter how devastating the dark of winter— spring always arrives.  If we simply wait, frost will melt, grass will grow, flowers will bloom.  Or as Rilke so beautifully writes:

 “You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.” 

rilke bench

When we feel forsaken in the desolation of the desert, what does it take to go on?  Anne Lamott, author of the much beloved classic Bird by Bird, contends we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water.  That means finding comfort in the small things: a cup of chamomile tea, a morning stroll through a picturesque landscape or charming park.  Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit urges us to simply do what we can.  Rilke offers a similar suggestion.  When Mr. Kappus confides he’s lonely and despondent, Rilke tells him to be kind with himself.  Like a patient who has fallen ill, he needs to be nursed back to health:

“In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both.  And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself.  But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait.  And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”

Want more stirring wisdom to set your soul aloft?  Read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist, the importance of patience to creative work, and the only courage required of us.