Tag: philosophy

Let Go of Other Possible Existences

In his latest newsletter James Clear included a quote from the physician Chris Ballas I felt was brilliant and true enough to requote here:

“The goal of adulthood is to let go of the other possible existences and to make the best of the one. A successful adult is one who understands that it doesn’t matter which life you ultimately pick, only that you live it well. The same potential for, say, happiness exists whether you are a construction worker, porn actor, or wealthy industrialist.”

A Surprising Number Of Teens Think They’ll Die Young, Or Live Forever, Whichever Comes First

Not to Dare is to Lose Oneself

Last night I watched Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a story of four friends languishing in middle age who decide to test a theory that humans are born with an alcohol deficiency of 0.05% by drinking everyday. The story closes with a quote from Denmark’s own, Soren Kierkegaard that I think articulates the need for us all, no matter our age, to take a risk:

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

I think sometimes we feel the itch to dare but for fear of the unknown we play it safe and it’s then we start to, as Kierkegaard put it, lose ourselves.

Quit your job. Ask someone out. Move to another country.

Your Real Life is Always Here

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life[.]”

C.S. Lewis

I was thinking the other day how easy it is to disown my problems just because they’re inconvenient and act as though my ‘real life’ is waiting for me over there once I deal with these problems as quickly as possible. But, seeing as though life is never going to stop giving me problems, when you add it all up, that’s a lot of time waiting for my ‘real life’.

Skilful Management of Attention

If you, like so many each year, were diagnosed with early stage cancer you would be forgiven for dwelling in each moment afterwards on how close death is to you and, by extension, your family. Only natural, right? But when the writer Winifred Gallagher stepped out of hospital some years ago after she received her own diagnosis she resolved to not allow the cancer to “monopolise” her attention. Instead she focused on what she called “the skilful management of attention.” Rather than chemotherapy, she focused on her daily walks; rather than thoughts of her funeral, she focused on movies and the occasional 6:30 Martini.

To the best of my memory I’ve resisted positive thinking ever since I first heard about it and my best guess for why that may be is that a good portion of my identity is rooted in so-called “negative” thinking*. Were you to ask me to think positively you’d get a flat “no”, but ask me to manage my attention skilfully and, if we can agree on what “skilfully” means, I’m all ears.

The anthropologist Carlos Castenada once said “The trick [for happiness] is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” I think it’s easier for me to think “negatively” because I’m accustomed to that way of thinking but, as Castenada points out, the amount of time I dedicate to making myself miserable (by how I allocate my attention) is the same amount time it would take to make myself “happy” by instead directing my attention, over and over, to those things that comfort and please me, even in the face of devastating circumstances.


*Perhaps the dichotomy of positive and negative is too simplistic of a model to apply to things as complex as thoughts?

See also: I wrote a short essay for StoneWater Zen a few years ago in response to a prompt by David Loy, a Buddhist scholar: When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.

Five Remembrances

I read a Dharma talk a few weeks ago by the late Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman about Birth and Death. She spoke about one of the many practices Buddhists use to remind themselves of those non-negotiable realities all humans face: The Five Remembrances.

Those remembrances are:

  1. I am of the nature to grow old. I can’t avoid ageing.
  2. I am of the nature to get sick. I can’t avoid illness.
  3. I am of the nature to die. I can’t avoid death.
  4. All I hold dear and everyone I love are of the nature to change. I can’t avoid being separated from them.
  5. My actions are my true possessions. I can’t avoid the consequences of my actions.

Since I read her talk I’ve adopted the practice as my own and kept those remembrances in the background of my mind.

It’s hard to notice someone ageing if you see them every day but if you find old photos of them, like I found of my parents from a decade ago when they had less wrinkles, less grey in their hair and less body fat, their age, as well as my own, hits home.

Yesterday I heard a surgeon on the radio talking about people waiting on organ donor lists and just this evening my parents drove my nan to hospital because doctors think she may have deep vein thrombosis.

A few days ago, on a morning walk around the village where I live, I saw two men in black suits carrying a stretcher out of a house with a body bag on top.

Last weekend a friend at work left for a higher paying job and, looking ahead into the not so distant future, I’ll soon leave the house and village I’ve grown fond of over many years to live elsewhere.

That my actions are my true possessions is more difficult to see because I can’t always link what I’ve done with what and who I have in my life in a way that’s satisfying to me but nevertheless I do feel, and somewhat understand, that this is in some part my karma.

Slippery Meanings

It’s not that words themselves are slippery. Their definitions more or less stay the same, but instead it’s the meanings we use words to find (and later express) that are slippery because, more often than not, we don’t know what we want to say until we have something down on the page (or screen) and go, “nah, that’s not it.”

In his latest blog post Alan Jacobs quoted the German philosopher Heidegger on the nature of art which I think applies to us:

“What art is we should be able to gather from the work. What the work is we can only find out from the nature of art. It is easy to see that we are moving in a circle. […] It is said that what art is may be gathered from a comparative study of available artworks. But how can we be certain that such a study is really based on artworks unless we know beforehand what art is?”

And on it goes.

I think the very slipperiness of writing, where we exert ourselves to discover meaning, makes it creative and I think this is apparent if we compare this ‘creative’ writing to writing we may find in some workplaces where meaning comes ready-made in the form of abbreviations and jargon. When we create our own meanings, in whatever form, that makes the writing creative or, at the very least, interesting to read.

The Poet’s Cardboard Box

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, wrote in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, “One of my first writing places was a cardboard refrigerator box pushed into the corner of the bedroom in a tiny apartment my first wife and I rented while I was in graduate school. I sat in the box to write my poems, and taped the drafts on the cardboard walls.”

A cardboard box isn’t an ideal desk to write on but I think Kooser understood, given the circumstances, that the writing itself was what mattered, not how it looked to others. Of course, if he could afford a desk he would have wrote on a desk.

It’s easy to get hung up on appearances and forget that the substance of a thing isn’t always revealed by its appearance. The beard does not make the philosopher.


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