Tag Archives: Montaigne

6. Use Little Tricks

Every mystery or philosophical tradition from the beginning of time has invented mechanisms to help adherents pay attention to the right things, or stop paying attention to the wrong things. I’ve always been fascinated by Zen koans, Sufi teaching stories, and parables of all kinds. After all, that everything that is communicated contains messages at more than one level, geared especially for those at each level who can grasp the meaning, has always been more appealing to me than the idea that there is hidden knowledge out there in the world that requires learning specific hand signals, and paying certain club dues, to learn. Of course, the big thing you learn after investing in any system of this kind is that NO KNOWLEDGE IS HIDDEN. If it’s actual and real knowledge, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and right there in constant view. Again, we return to perspective. You wanna know how small and unimportant you are, and how ultimately ineffective you are likely to be in this lifetime, go out every day to the beach, find and examine the same single grain of sand each day – if of course you can even find it. You can after all only be humble by practicing humility. For years, I’ve practiced imagining looking down at myself in space, starting from just a few feet away, and gradually pulling away, seeing my house, the neighborhood, our town, the state, the continent, the Earth, slowly becoming smaller and smaller and ultimately lost in the everything else that there is. Having a GPS system and playing with the zoom gives you a taste of that. I mean, where ARE you as far as the universe is concerned? And why even bother considering the universe? There are so many infinitely closer and more immediate things that are so much bigger, and grander than we are.

An interesting little trick that is worth trying is the Stoic imagining of the happy death – to imagine yourself on death’s doorstep, imminently departing this mortal coil. With what in your life are you satisfied? What mistakes would you rectify? Most importantly, what that you could have done have you left undone? Whether there is a judgmental overseer to be faced at the portal of the next Bardo is irrelevant. To appease an unfair or despotic deity is no great show of worthiness; likewise, to bully your way past an ineffective and less than omnipotent ruler with an excess of bravado or cash shows no surplus courage or chutzpah. So stripping it down to the bare bones, to the essence of the thing in itself, life, what use have you made of it? Montaigne suggested that a true Stoic approach would be to approach death believing that you either did everything you could, and lived that life to its fullest, wearing it out, in which case you have nothing to regret and can leave this world satisfied – or if you did not fully life, to realize that the opportunity was lost, and that the life was wasted on you in the first place. In either case, no cause for sorrow, no occasion for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are of course little tricks you can play every day. One I recently noted was that every night I go to bed hoping to be happy to be alive when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes that works; so I keep doing it. Of course, they are all games we play with ourselves – and often with those who live with us. You say, “good morning” even if you don’t believe in either goodness or the state of the current day. Just like so many “religious” people keep icons, guru pictures, shrines, and happy little “churchy” slogans or out of context Bible verses strewn profusely around their houses to “remind” them that they are “good” people and will act accordingly, the games we play with partners, lovers, children, parents, friends, co-workers, and incidental strangers on the street help us maintain a premise (usually only shared in part with others) not about how the world actually is, but how we believe it should be, or could be.

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10. Wake From the Sleep of Habit

I suppose one could take this advice two different ways: to wake from the sleep of habit, but also to wake from the habit of sleep. That is for the former, to be aware of everything you do by rote, simply going through the motions without conscious attention to the details; for the latter, to work in Ben Franklin again, to refrain from idleness, sleep only enough to replenish your batteries, and avoid lounging around altogether.

One could argue however there are good habits and bad habits – to which I think at least Montaigne (and perhaps Lao Tzu) might counter, since we can’t accurately discern between the two subjective extremes, it might be better to leave off all habits, regardless of their moral superiority. Cigarettes, lack of punctuality, procrastination, voting strict party candidates, prejudice, daily reading, obsessive social media checking – all habits by that standard of comparable if not equal import simply because they tend to take up little bits of time, here and there, that do not seem consequential when looked at as individual moments, but when accumulated can represent some pretty large chunks.

There are of course energy cycles in everyday life. My own approach what used to be called manic-depressive, but of course the height and depth of any cycle just as subjective as anything else, and just as subject to both internal and external perception. Any cycle flattens over time: what seems very high today may be only average for the course of a month. The severity of a habit, like a risk, matters to its overall impact only as relates to its likelihood. You probably could manage them similarly. Some habits eat up a lot of time, certainly. But if they achieve something “positive” (again, highly subjective), then they can be preferable to another activity that is more likely to result in a “negative”. It is not because it’s better to be constantly positive that so many philosophies talk about balance. It is because that is reality. It is not possible to be “up” all the time, any more than it is possible for any habit, when indulged to excess, to always be a good thing.

Mystics from both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions naturally wax philosophically on doing exactly what Montaigne suggests, stated quite simply: pay attention. Awareness of what you’re doing as you’re doing it is the antithesis of habit – unless of course your habit involves becoming so absorbed in the execution of each component of even the simplest tasks that you maintain no forward motion, no momentum or velocity whatsoever. There is a thin line that runs the spectrum from habitually obsessive to obsessive-compulsive to habitually compulsive. The serenity prayer remedy for such a spectrum might as well be “give me the serenity to let go of the things I cannot control, the courage to unwillingly accept control of the things I can, and the wisdom to recognize control itself as a complete illusion.”

So perhaps again mindfulness is the answer. Unless mindfulness is itself your habit. What is it that Hamlet quipped, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.” What he’s suggesting is that there is a precipice at the extreme edge of paying attention. Once we become (and believe me, I’ve been there) a “man who thinks too much”. As the Bard again suggests, in a different context altogether, such men are indeed dangerous. Not just to ourselves, but to others. The wormhole of overthinking can suck in the innocent bystander just as easily as the thinker themselves. The Skeptic position to doubt everything is good up to a point; but you’ve got to put your feet down somewhere if you’re going to walk at all.

One of the nastiest habits to overcome is the insistent need for justification before acting. When I would tell her the long-drawn-out story of one of my current dilemmas, my dad’s bookkeeper used to tell me, “Do anything – even if it’s wrong!” There is the danger of taking the wrong step, wrong turn, certainly; but there is an equal and perhaps greater danger of doing nothing at all, of falling into wrongness simply by losing the opportunity to act.

So, where is the “happy medium”? And is there actually such a thing? Part of the problem in even answering that question lies in the highly subjective definition of happiness – as either an end or a journey. Does the medium, moderate, middle way imply stagnation or gestation? Is it that state when the door is closed between two rooms? Is stillness or movement the habit? Newton suggested that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, where an object at rest tends to stay at rest. He then proved through the demonstration of gravity that nothing, absolutely nothing, is “at rest.” It’s all movement.

Who is the weak, and who is the strong, when the river’s still flowing but the mountain’s gone?

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11. Live temperately

Most people I know, when they think of temperance, imagine crowds of people, mostly women, protesting the sale and consumption of hard liquor – usually proceeding and following the passage and repeal of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which prohibited production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States between 1920 to 1933. Other interpretations found in guides for living in many world religions and published in private “how to live” guidebooks suggest that temperance means moderation, in all things. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”. Many sages and saints talk about keeping the belly only partially full of solids, with the remainder air. The Stoic idea (and Buddhist monk) idea of unflappability in the face of adversity, hunger, pain, arousal, or any kind of distress provides the name for the Middle Path. Only during periods like the height of the Romantic period, when enlightened thinkers took William Blake’s the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough to its logical extreme, has the “advice” to humanity on a good and suitable life ever veered from a more or less strictly defined narrow way of barely enjoyed pastimes. Certainly, Montaigne’s ideal given his Stoic, Epicurean and Skeptic influences and nature included always seeking and preferring that Middle Way of centered non-perturbation.

Where one’s influence ends and nature begins is always a subjective argument. Without digressing completely into nature versus nurture again, I think unless we redefine what is meant by nature, and one’s natural state, any discussion is probably absolutely pointless. After all, is it more important that we possess a nature, that we become aware of it, or that we act in a way that we believe is in accordance with that perceived nature – even though in truth we probably have no idea how to actually define something so apparently outside ourselves (and if it is human nature, it is outside the purview of the individual), nor how to actually point our actions to achieve a demonstrably nebulous goal? What we know of nature is more or less a function of how we are nurtured. We are only able to subjectively make the distinction when we observe others; where these shades of gray melt into each other in our own persons is indistinguishable to our own eyes.
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5. Survive love and loss (part 1)

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I first became acquainted with Kübler-Ross my freshman year in high school – quite accidentally, and by osmosis. My freshman English teacher was Joanne Fahey, who also taught an upper-class elective on Thanatology that used Kübler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” as its primary text. Seeing students with copies and finding a couple of copies in Ms. Fahey’s classroom, I eventually picked it up and read parts of it. I also think Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “Think on These Things” entered by consciousness the same way. I was very lucky to land in Ms. Fahey’s Freshman Honors English class, by the way. As a transfer student (we had just moved from Ohio that summer), by the time I got to pick my first year classes, the Honors classes were full with a long waiting list. I therefore landed instead in David Spaid’s regular freshman English class. It is to Mr. Spaid’s credit that upon reading my first assignment, he pushed to have me reassigned to Ms. Fahey’s class almost immediately. Both of them saw something in me that I certainly took a long time to recognize myself, and I will never forget their encouragement (and often, gentle scolding).

When it comes to surviving love and loss, I suppose everyone feels they’ve had their share. Of course, it’s a very subjective measure in any case. Throughout our lives what we call “love” and what we consider “loss” evolve almost geometrically, and often in directions that make both states probably unrecognizable to us at any other time of life.

When you’re young, love and loss are different from when you’re older. Maybe not different, maybe just profound on a different scale, measured by a different yardstick. When you’ve only had one friend in your short life, losing that friend is monumental – regardless of the reason. When you don’t make friends easily to begin with, a life that involves moving every seven years or so results in a pattern of loss that establishes how you interact and entertain people for the rest of your life. It’s hard to put down roots anywhere when you’ve been repotted several times. You learn to get your nourishment nearer the surface.
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4. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted

I think it goes without saying that my life has been full of books. But reading goes beyond literature, doesn’t it? Newspapers, magazines, comic books, bumper stickers, cereal boxes, email, blog posts, novels, short stories, poetry, music scores, instruction manuals, they all come in formats other than what we traditionally call books. And honestly, most of it I have forgotten. Except, as they say, you never forget anything; it’s only misfiled. My archive storage room must be packed to the gills.

As far as being slow-witted. Well, I suspect that in myself, and also in Montaigne, the appearance of slow-wittedness is more a propos. In the same way that Jack Benny worked extremely hard, with no small amount of technical ability, to appear as a horribly bad violinist, I believe the trick here as it applies to living well is to not appear quick-witted, that is, to not be the first to interject with a barbed comment, to be slow to engage in sarcasm or irony – since they are so often, particularly in print, misconstrued and/or deliberately misinterpreted. I cannot remember where I read it now, but somewhere two rules of true victory were imparted to me: first, to understand that you cannot understand everything, and second, that being right is the most effective way to lose an argument. It is enough, I think, to be perceived as dark, pessimistic and peevish, simply for insisting upon a doctrine of personal responsibility. To be completely without friends, all that is required is adding a sharp tongue and speaking with irony or sarcasm about those sacred cows that others find dear, and about which they permit no humor or levity. The obvious targets here are government, politics, religion, morality, life’s purpose, the sanctity of the home, work or marriage, and other life and death issues about which people are so often willing to extemporize or sermonize, and find it extremely difficult to remain objective.

I recommend reading. I would go so far as to say that if by the end of the third grade, you do not love to read – not merely to complete assignments, but to gain access to knowledge and ideas beyond those provided in the “nurture” that surrounds you – your lot in life will be more unpleasant and boring than necessary. Reading gives perspective, no less than physical traveling. Both take you out of your comfort zone – if you read or travel well. And perspective is essential to understanding both yourself and the world in which you exist. Of course, some will say that a single book, like the Christian Bible, is sufficient unto itself as a sole reading subject. In my experience, no worldview than cannot stand being seen from multiple angles, that cannot manage scrutiny from external, non-affiliated sources, is capable of free-standing.
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14. See the world

In my life, I’ve met a large number of people who have lived and traveled no more than 50 or 100 miles from their birthplace. To me, this gives modern people no advantage over generations and ancestors past who did, could, or would not travel further. There are ALWAYS sociological, technological, financial, political, religious and/or other logistical constraints. But I think traveling abroad seems fascinating and absolutely necessary to one’s education and philosophy of life, particularly if you’re interested in improving the world as a whole. To me, however, Americans should start foreign travel simply by leaving their current state. The size of the United States is sufficiently large that the time and distance in even this seemingly minor world gallivanting is the equivalent of crossing another continent, and the in process, passing through several to dozens of sovereign nations. And honestly, having lived in eight different US states, and travelled through or in 48, each one is unique enough to be considered a separate, foreign nation. There are a few similarities, true enough. The language is common (although, honestly, the dialectic differences between southern California, Maine, and southern Louisiana strain the bounds of that idea). A few “federated” functions operate exactly the same (but different): the postal service, private package delivery services (although delivery promises differ, especially to and from large remote areas like those found in Alaska). The system of law is generally the same, although its method of execution and consistency varies greatly between states. And in Louisiana, unique to its sister states, retains the French Napoleonic Code in addition to upstart America’s Federal statutes.

But unless you actually travel to different parts of this country, stay there a while, and get to know each region’s both urban and rural population, you really have no idea what the “whole” of America is like. And you certain don’t understand that there truly isn’t a “plurality” or single way of doing things, speaking, practicing faiths, tolerating difference and indifference, that can be considered nationwide. The fact that there are national brands, television stations, chain stores, and holidays does NOT a heterogeneous population, identity or sense of self-awareness make. Yes, decentralization has split a lot of formerly isolated groups of individuals, as families separate to find employment, better weather, true love and/or “their own way”. But a Texan relocated to Oregon, regardless of how difficult the transition may be for either the host or the implant, eventually adopts at least some Oregonian ways – or through their own influence, makes at least some small part of Oregon more Texan. There are some that might tell you that communication, particularly as it concerns universal interests like music, of information purportedly nationalistic or nationally “popular”, serves as a way to enlarge the world views of recipient reasons. Whether in Maine or Georgia or Utah or Michigan, the National Top 40 is the National Top 40. So everyone shares that culture. But the funny thing is that what makes regions worth living in, culturally relevant, unique, and often magical, is not these shared contrivances. It is things that are absolutely human, absolutely essential, and absolutely transcendent when experienced first- hand: music, food, and language (i.e., slang, patois, idiom, dialect, literature, humor). And honestly, experiencing it on television is not enough – no more than sitting in your living room watching Marlon Perkins is NOT an experience of traveling the African veldt. When you participate, when you partake, in a southern Louisiana crawfish boil, or a Cincinnati Octoberfest party, or a baseball game in a place like Fenway Park, or visit a museum in a strange city, it becomes part of who you are. You cannot undo the experience, nor erase it from your psyche or DNA. Travel helps ensure you are never again an isolationist, a xenophobe, a stranger – unless, of course, you simply seek out the McDonald’s restaurants wherever you, stay in neatly sanitized chain hotels, and stick to the first three items listed in your AAA guidebook. Of course, these things have a place – they represent the concessions that local and regional diversity and culture make to accommodate those who aren’t interesting, therefore not interested. If you’re going to bother taking a foreign adventure, why stay in the American sector? It’s almost like you’re afraid of learning just how boring you actually are.

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3. Be born

Everyone that I know was at one point born – so far as I know, all joking about hatching in the desert sun under the watchful eyes of vultures aside. I am no exception. The facts are readily verifiable: at 2:55 am Eastern Standard Time, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan in the United States of America, Robert Leroy and Nancy Ann Litzenberg found themselves in possession of a male child. Interesting to note that I recently saw a film about Jack Kevorkian that included scenes from William Beaumont, where he practiced his euthanasia for a period of time, and although I have only two experiences in that facility (my birth, and a subsequent hospitalization for tonsillectomy at age 5, neither of which I remember very much if at all, although I do remember receiving ice cream and the board game Candy Land in a hospital bed) seeing the camera sweep through the halls gave my spine a shiver in recognition of a place for which I had physical, if not psychological, memory. In reference to the circumstances of my birth, I can only offer anecdotal evidence: first, that I was born in the midst of a quiet unusually violent blizzard. Second, that the timing of my birth resulted in two things that I think may have permanently affected my relationship with my father: he was forced to miss the broadcast of the Rose Bowl featuring his beloved Ohio State – and, due to an almost three-hour delay in my arrival, he was forced to forgo deducting my expense on his taxes for a full year.

Many of those who surround my life considered themselves “born again”. To borrow a bit more from Montaigne, I think this rebirth happens once or twice throughout your lifetime, if you are fortunate. The trick with any rebirth of course is that you must at some point grow up into life. You can’t remain a child of God, creativity, nature or anything else forever, any more than having experienced a first physical birth you can remain an infant interminably. Again, like Montaigne, I think I was born again the first time when I began to appreciate what music as an inseparable force felt like. I think I may have been 10 or 11 the first time performing music transcended being a purely physical act, an application of technique to muscle memory, and became an act of conscious yoga, or union, with the universe. The first time you “lose yourself” in any activity is a sign that you are susceptible, and in some way acceptable, to magic. While I had once or twice before 7 actually felt my bicycle was leaving the ground and I was flying across the yard, the experience of playing music amidst a group of other musicians was the first time I really began to understand the possibilities.

I think I was likely born again when I began writing songs. It seems so long ago: my first efforts coincided with the deaths of both my paternal and maternal grandfathers in 1974 – incidentally, the year I received my first record albums: Elvis Presley’s Gold Records Vol. 4 and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. A year or so later, when my cousin Jim gifted me a two-volume 8-track tape collection that he had recorded himself, including the Beatles’ collections Love Songs and Rock and Roll Music, supplemented by various singles and Live at the Hollywood Bowl, my initial introduction to popular music was complete. The rest, as they say, is history.

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