For days when you feel torn or dissatisfied, when you wake up and all the toughness of determination seems to be weakened for no apparent reason, the words of others can save you.
They can fill the spaces between moments of clarity or confusion with meaning.
Where you stumble to understand let alone express yourself, and where you understand but can’t do the feeling or the knowledge justice, it can be useful to delegate the task of communication.
Is this a cop out? Maybe. As a writer, I often wonder if my ferocious reading habit is a form of professional distraction, because, as Susan Sontag put it: “what you accumulate as a writer is mostly uncertainties and anxieties”, whereas to be a reader is a far more satisfying skill.
Nonetheless, when my own words refuse to flow, when concentration eludes me, when the momentum won’t build, whether out of fear of failure, confusion about the purpose, or a frenetic mind that refuses to settle, reading someone else’s finely crafted verse can give me the jolt I need. To channel Seneca:
“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application – not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech – and learn from them so well that the words become works.”
Let’s face it, we all need a little help sometimes.
There are a few passages that I reflect on often, as reminders to draw my attention back to what’s important when it strays, or when my resolve threatens to waiver, which it does a little less often each time I remember to contemplate in a focused way rather than succumb to the noise.
Here’s a sample of the wise words of others that I’ve collected over the years to help me through muddled times. I hope they give you pause for thought:
On reconciling yourself with life’s vicissitudes:
There isn’t a single word uttered by the philosopher Alan Watts that I haven’t found illuminating. He’s pretty much my go-to thinker. Which is not to say I absorb his wisdom without contemplation. Far from it.
I’ve wrestled with this particular quote a lot – I wholly embrace the need for a calmer, more considerate pace in life. But as for the world not going anywhere, well, the more troublesome elements of humanity are bringing on a sorry, rapid decline. This wasn’t as terrifying a prospect in Watts’ heady days of the 1960s, before the escalation of climate change and the destruction brought on by the hubris of progress.
Still, the fact Watts makes me reflect in this way, perhaps more so when I question the context and the relevance of his words, proves how vital his ideas remain.
“Because the world is not going anywhere, there is no hurry. One may as well take it easy, like Nature itself. This is the first principle of Zen – hurry, and all that it involves, is fatal.” Alan Watts, The Way of Zen.
Continuing with the theme of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, approaches to life that I have personally found life-changing, is this from The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Read this book in its entirety. I have a post-it flag on practically every page. This is just one excerpt that resonates:
“By the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, ‘There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.’”
On simplicity as a virtue:
Again, from Pooh:
“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made – or imagined – by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.”
As the ultimate master of the fruits if idleness, and an unrecognised pioneer of minimalism with his bare bottom and red t-shirt, Pooh also reminds us that there is more to life than the stuff we fill it with:
“Many people are afraid of Emptiness, however, because it reminds them of Loneliness. Everything has to be filled in, it seems – appointment books, hillsides, vacant lots – but when all the spaces are fills, Loneliness really begins. Then the Groups are joined, the Classes are signed up for, and the Gift-to-yourself items are bought. When the Loneliness starts creeping in the door, the Television Set is turned on to make it go away. But it doesn’t go away. So some of us do instead, and after the emptiness of the Big Congested Mess, we discover the fullness of Nothing.”
On living in spite of your fears:
In recent years, I’ve taken to reading more of what are categorised as self-help books. Frankly, I think all books are about self-cultivation. As Bruce Lee said, “all knowledge leads to self-knowledge”.
Change has to start at the individual level. It’s mere snobbery when intellectuals dismiss this entire class of writing. All literature, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, philosophy, science, all of it can help us become versions of ourselves. Philosophy itself is, in essence, a way of finding the right way to live. Thankfully it has become a lot more accessible in recent years.
One of the so-called self-help books from which I have gleaned many a useful bit of guidance for when vulnerability and self-doubt strikes is Brene Brown’s The GIfts of Imperfection in which she says:
“Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Back to Bruce Lee, who accumulated and shared so much in the short life that he had, whose writings drew on Taoist philosophy, Stoicism, Zen Buddhism and a plethora of other influences that he assimilated to come up with his own unique approach – a reminder to face the reality of come what may, rather than capitulate under the inevitable cosmic gloom that has always undercut life as we know it:
“Don’t pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
A quote I use often when countering my own sense of cosmic gloom, and the pessimism expressed by anyone I converse with, often when the news (which I consciously avoid) is distributing its latest inflated sense of doom, comes from JRR Tolkien:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps the greater.”
On cultivating a sense of resolve and resilience:
I have long been drawn to the idea of water as a metaphor for life. It is life. From Bruce Lee's "be like water", to .......
Heraclitus: “Everything flow, nothing abides.”
Another book which I’ve annotated with marginalia to the point where I only need flick through it to remember its timeless wisdom is BKS Iyengar’s Light on Life, which reveals how yoga has the power to reconnect us with life on the individual, social and cosmic level:
“If you can adapt to and balance in a world that is always moving and unstable, you learn how to become tolerant in the permanence of change and difference.”
“Spiritual growth is only ever demonstrated by one’s actions in the world…Progressively we have to transform ourselves in such a way that we can engage and act in the world without becoming entangled and tainted by it.”
Life is a continual process of evolution at the individual level. That’s how we build resilience, by starting again each day, by holding on to what matters and discarding anything with a toxic influence, and by acting with resolve and a deep understanding.
On the interconnected nature of existence in all its forms:
One of the very practical applications of Stoicism to daily life is the principle of considering your “circle of concern”, recognising that you as an individual are but a small part of a grander scheme of things, a scheme in which all elements have equal importance and none at all. It is a sobering reminder of the relative value of life. Albert Einstein understood this, and we would all do better to contemplate it more often. That way kindness and compassion lies:
"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
For Arthur Schopenhauer, compassion was one of the cardinal virtues to cultivate that made individual and collective life worth living. He was one of the first philosophers to draw on Eastern philosophy to develop theories that were more fatally optimistic than they were pessimistic, the latter being the general assumption about his character.
Like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, Schopenhauer recognised the emptiness of existence, the futility of it all and the delusions of our attempts to find meaning in such a way that denied the harsh reality. But from that despair, from the realisation that history is merely a record of “the long, heavy and confused dream of mankind”, he developed a view of human life that is immensely profound in how it compels you to live in spite of what you realise:
“Every evening makes us poorer by a day. It would probably make us angry to see this short space of time slipping away, if we were not secretly conscious in the furthest depths of our being that the spring of eternity belongs to us, and that in it we are always able to have life renewed.”
On the ineffable value of art, creating it and observing it:
The Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives is one of my favourite places in the world. The atmosphere, her studios – left as they were from the last moment she sculpted in them before her death in 1975 – the serenity in spite of the visitors, is so utterly peaceful.
To be in the presence of her work, where she created it, transports your mind in ways that it’s hard to describe. Like most art, it has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. As Hepworth said:
"The very nature of art is affirmative, and in being so it reflects the laws and evolution of the universe – both in the power and rhythm of growth and structure as well as the infinitude of ideas which reveal themselves when one is in accord with the cosmos and the personality is then free to develop….In our present time, so governed by fear of destruction, the artist sense more and more the energies and impulses which give life and are the affirmation of life. Perhaps by learning more and letting the microcosm reflect the macrocosm, a new way of life can be found which will allow the human spirit to develop and surmount fear."
On writing even when it’s hard:
Writing isn’t just for writers. The act can be an invaluable meditative process, a psychological release, a way to greet the day intentionally, to end it thoughtfully, to live it purposefully.
It’s a way of coming alive on the page, clarifying your thoughts, finding out what you mean by figuring it out with a pen, it is beautiful and powerful in its sheer simplicity. It can fuel you, save you and guide you:
“Writing is a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To Fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating, to find your own freedom.” Susan Sontag.
“Write shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart – your stories, visions, memories, songs; your truth, your version of things in your voice. That is really all you have to offer, and it’s why you were born.” Anne Lammott