Notes From My Journal: “Living Rich” Advice From an Unexpected Source
“One ought, every day, at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and – if at all possible – speak a few reasonable words.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I liked this thought when I first came across it years ago. I still do. In one sentence, Goethe articulates one of many ways anyone can live a richer life. Let’s think about this one…
Good music at the right moment will put your heart in tune.
Mozart with your morning coffee. Marley on the way to work. Madame Butterfly with the Sunday crossword. Dylan with a good cigar. Choosing what you’ll be listening to is a second bliss – a moment when you exercise your freedom to set the tone you need for the next part of your day. I’ve got 40 channels preselected on Sirius – everything from the Grateful Dead to Philip Glass to the Gregorian chants. Scrolling through that list is always 30 seconds of fun.
And of course there’s a pragmatic advantage to putting music in your daily life. Countless studies have supported the notion that background music improves human performance in just about every activity. For reading and writing, classical music or music created from natural sounds is said to be best. For charging yourself up before a performance of some kind, it’s hard to beat rock & roll. For conversations with friends, jazz works for me.
Recently, I’ve made it a habit to read a poem every day. I subscribe to a few free services that put poems in my email box every morning. (Poem-a-Day/Poets.org is one of them.) Because I’m always pressed for time, I rarely read a poem that runs beyond a page, although on Sundays I allow myself more time. More than half of what I read does nothing for me. Ten or 20 percent of it is bad. But two or three times a week I read something that’s smart and insightful and moving. Those poems I file away for future enjoyment.
Here’s something I read yesterday:
Ode to the Duduk
by Peter Balakian
It’s not the wind I hear driving south
through the Catskills— it’s just bad news from the radio
and then a hailstorm morphs into sunlight
—look up and there’s—
an archipelago of starlings trailing some clouds—
But how does the wind come through you
primordial hollow—unflattened double reed—
so even now when bad news comes with the evening report—
I can press a button on the dashboard and hear your breath
the way wind blows through the slit windows of a church in
then a space in my head fills with a sound that rises from red clay
and slides through your raspy apricot wood—
Hiss of tires, wet tarmac, stray white lines
night coming like wet dissolve to pixilation—
Praise to the glottal stop of every hoarse whisper, every sodden
which speaks through your hollow carved wood—
so we can hear the air flow over starlings rising and dipping as
the mountains glaze the sun—
so we can hear the bad news kiss the wind through your whetted
I’ve been collecting art for most of my adult life. There isn’t a room in any of my homes or offices that isn’t covered with paintings or drawings or whatnot.
Every so often I’ll spend a few minutes soaking in a particular piece. But most often I’m stealing momentary glances that give me moments of surprise or spark memories or excite or soothe me just a little bit but just enough.
Goethe was talking about paintings, but there are all sorts of visual images that give pleasure. In fact, there have been a number of studies on this subject showing that certain shapes (round rather than angular) and colors (bright) have a mood-enhancing effect, regardless of your age, education, nationality, etc.
I used to think this was about having a conversation, something more than just “a few reasonable words.” It’s not easy to have a deep or insightful or elucidating conversation on a daily basis. (One reason: A conversation requires the willing and able participation of two people.) But you can have small, meaningful exchanges several times a day, and those add up. Of all the sorts of “reasonable words” I muster up the energy to speak, those that convey kindness provide me with the greatest returns.
From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket
“Renouncing Desire”… “Attachment”… “Intentionality” – Three Ancient Buddhist Concepts in Today’s World*
When one wishes to endeavor at sitting in dhyana cultivating stopping and contemplation, it is absolutely essential to renounce… the five desires… worldly forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and touchables. They are ever able to deceive and delude all ordinary people causing them to develop fond attachment. If one is able to become deeply aware of the negative consequences of desires, one will not become involved with them. This is what is meant by renouncing desire. – from a Buddhist meditation text
Like many college-educated Americans my age, I’ve had a longstanding attraction to Zen Buddhism. It became a popular part of the vernacular during the Woodstock years. An appreciation of Zen indicated a more enlightened way of thinking and a worldview that was both more spiritual and also less linear than the western Weltanschauungof power and possessiveness that had brought us segregation and the Vietnam War.
Bit by bit, I exposed myself to the ideas of Zen literature. First indirectly by reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Later by reading the Zen meditation texts in translation.
I liked many of the ideas I encountered. But there was one that I had a difficult time accepting: that a person must renounce or relinquish desire.
Being a young man, I was ripe with passions and derived great pleasure by indulging them. The idea that I should give them up felt like giving up, like a cowardly rationale for dropping out of the contest of success.
Also – my passions didn’t feel wrong. They felt great. And they seemed to be responsible for everything I was achieving in my young life. Ridding myself of desire made no sense. What would it get me? A lifetime of contemplating my navel?
So I embraced the elements of Buddhism that felt good and rejected this one. I’d have tranquility and a ticket to nirvana, but I’d have my passions too.
That was the plan. But as the years passed, it fell apart. I began to see that much of the trouble I got into and most of the anguish I felt was connected to my desires. Eventually, I took up the challenge of reconsidering the idea of rejecting them.
Back then, I equated this idea with the ancient Greek philosophy of asceticism. Ascetics – I was taught – viewed human passion as inherently destructive. To live an enlightened life, they believed, one had to separate oneself from the material world as much as possible.
And there is certainly a bit of that view in some Buddhist texts. But after many years of thinking, I arrived at a different understanding of what it means to renounce desire.
My “revelation” came after a conversation I had with an old friend and Zen scholar. We were talking about setting and achieving goals.
I was saying that I found that the pleasure I got from achieving my goals was always less than I had imagined and very temporary. If I was lucky, my achievement would charge me up for 24 hours. After that, a new goal would form itself in my mind and the day-old accomplishment would be all but forgotten.
He asked me if I had ever considered being “impassionate” about the goals I set. I shook my head. “If I could renounce my desire to achieve my goals,” I said, ‘I’d have no drive to do the necessary work. And it wouldn’t be fun.”
“Well, you’ve already told me that the payoff you get is disappointing.”
I ceded that point.
“And what happens if you fail? How do you feel then?”
“Worse,” I said. “I get angry.”
“And how do you feel as you are working toward a goal?”
“Anxious,” I said.
“So you are anxious in pursuing your goals, disappointed if you achieve them, and angry when you don’t? Is that right?”
“Okay,” I said. “I get what you’re saying. So what’s your idea?”
He had said that he believed it was possible to have a goal and work hard to achieve it without caring whether or not you did. “In other words,” he explained, “it is possible to have intentionality without the attachment of desire.”
I didn’t believe that to be possible and said so. “Anyone that says they do that is full of shit.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
We dropped the conversation. But I knew that he knew I would continue to grapple with what he had said.
I actually thought about it for many years. And I figured it out, almost by accident, while dealing with a trivial matter.
K and I decided that we would go to a movie over the weekend. I was eager to see it but aware that, by the time Friday came around, she could change her mind. When she had done so in the past, it always angered me. And that was not good. Neither for her nor for me.
Then, somehow, my friend’s voice came into my head. It said: “Imagine yourself at the moment she is telling you that she doesn’t want to go. And imagine you are okay with that.”
I tried to do it, but it wasn’t easy. Then I had a thought. What if I imagined doing something else instead, something else that I would enjoy? So I imagined myself spending the evening at home reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book that had been on my bedside table for nearly two weeks.
I kept imagining that until I actually didn’t care whether we saw the movie or not. If we did, great. If K didn’t want to go, that was great too.
That was just the first step in a process that had many steps. After all, I wasn’t really renouncing desire as much as substituting an equally enticing one.
But by practicing this imagine-and-replace technique many times, I got to the point where I didn’t need a substitute at all. All I needed to do was to imagine myself being okay if the goal I set was not achieved.
Eventually, I was able to do that with just about any goal. When, for example, I decided to invest a ton of time and money into making a feature film (a major goal that I’ve had for a years), I imagined it being a bad film and not being able to sell it. As a result, I was able to get the project done with very little anxiety because I truly didn’t care if it sold or even if it was any good. I focused, instead, on the process of making it. And that made the process fun.
I can’t tell you whether I was able to sell that film. I can’t even say whether it is good, because it’s still in postproduction. But it will be done soon. And when that happens, I’ll be okay with the end result because I really and truly don’t care. I’m not emotionally attached to it.
Now I’m quite sure that most people reading this will think, as I once did, that I am full of crap. I can only tell you that if you could look me in the eyes right now, you’d know I was telling the truth.
Think about your own emotional attachments. Are you a person who loves to win and hates to lose? Do you think, as many do, that’s a good thing, a secret to success?
For the last 18 years, I have cared not one whit about how well my business projects do, how much money I make, or even whether my business acumen is growing or diminishing. And yet I’ve been able to have more business and financial success than I ever had when. Of course, that in itself means nothing. But it does lend support to the idea that you can act intentionally without emotional attachments.
* In this series of essays, which hopes to become a book, I’m exploring an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time — that all of existence, or rather our experience of existence, can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation. My theory is that this movement — from expansion to contraction and back again to expansion — is the fundamental pattern of everything we experience and everything we do and could be said to be responsible for all of our technical, artistic, and philosophical achievements as well as all of our hurtful and destructive thoughts and actions.
Today’s Word: grok (verb)
To grok (GRAHK) is to understand profoundly and intuitively. According to MerriamWebster.com, it “may be the only English word that derives from Martian. Yes, we do mean the language of the planet Mars…. ‘Grok’ was introduced in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. [“There was so much to grok, so little to grok from.”] The book’s main character, Valentine Michael Smith, is a Martian-raised human who comes to earth as an adult, bringing with him words from his native tongue and a unique perspective on the strange ways of earthlings. ‘Grok’ was quickly adopted by the youth culture of America and has since peppered the vernacular of those who grok it….”
In descending order of intelligence: chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and pigs.
Look at This…