Category Archives: Philosophy

The Great Work of Your Life – Stephen Cope

Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu Institute for extraordinary Living, undertakes the challenge of relating the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita to the tricky prospect of discovering–and embracing–your true dharma. The Great Work of Your Life is the result. It’s a very easy read, but a reflective one. Cope tells the tale of Arjuna the warrior at the moment of battle, collapsing to the floor of his chariot in despair. In front of him are lined up neighbors and kinsmen who will die at his hand or kill him. Yet it is his destiny as a great warrior to proceed. He is paralyzed and he begs his old friend and charioteer for advice. What he gets is full-bore Krishna (the charioteer) and a relentless instruction about surrender, action and detachment that Arjuna can’t quite grasp for a while.

Cope relates the Gita to the lives of celebrated and ordinary figures: Gandhi, Beethoven, Camille Corot, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, a priest caught in a mid-life identity crisis, a Jungian therapist facing her own mortality, a college friend who believed he was the reincarnation of John Keats, the poet Keats himself.  The stories illustrate the ways in which people encounter their dharma, deny it, accept it, live it. Jane Goodall was drawn to animals from the time she was a young child and had the good fortune to have a sympathetic and supportive mother. Thoreau tried his luck as a writer in greedy Gotham, was chewed up and spit out and repaired to light isolation at Walden Pond (his mother brought him sandwiches and cookies–not the wilds of Borneo) to figure out who he was and what he should do about that. Walt Whitman wrote and rewrote his genius work Leaves of Grass but was entering a period of serious aridity when the Civil War broke out and he found himself all over again caring for wounded soldiers. Robert Frost turned his back on the literary world and bought a farm so he could write poems after he repaired a few fences and gathered the apples.

They are wonderful teaching tales and Cope skillfully draws the heart of the message from each life. The task of discovering your dharma and turning it into the hours and days of your life is similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, from the invitation to enter the unknown, through initial hesitations, eventual trust, the loss of all familiar, fear, epiphany, the forging of a new identity, a re-entry to the known world and the integration of this richer new self and all it implies. Embrace your dharma, Cope asserts, and things unfold without much prodding. You can’t evade loss and pain but you encounter ecstasy and calm assurance. It sounds like mindfulness to the nth degree–you live in the now, fulfilled and contented and very present, fully alive, even when facing death.

I liked the book a lot. I’m going to haul out my Mahabharata and re-read the Bhagavad Gita as soon as I have time to think about it and take it slow. Some things really can’t be rushed (another teaching in The Great Work...). This book didn’t fall into my lap–I was looking for it when I found it. But it arrived at a convenient moment, as I sunset a business and way of working that’s no longer working for me and attempt to create something new and exhilarating in the ruins. If I don’t have to return The Great Work of Your Life to the library before next week, I might just read it again.

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling   Stephen Cope | Bantam Books  2012

How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “A Novel from Life.” So you know it isn’t exactly a novel or she wouldn’t have invented some new category of novel for it. What novel isn’t from life? Life is the stuff from which we make novels. Maybe her life is the stuff of this novel, in which case…oh, never mind. The book is sort of Life of Pi meets Kurt Vonnegut–or something. It’s part philosophy, part exploration of what it means to be an artist, part unfiltered recollection of random sex and playwright’s ennui and painter’s acrylic navel gazing and a Zen bit about apprenticing in a hair salon.

The narrative is studded with luminous observations like: “You are only given one. The one you are given is the one to put a fence around. Life is not a harvest. Just because you have an apple doesn’t mean you have an orchard. You have an apple.  Put a fence around it.” Sheila, the narrator, wanders from Toronto to Art Basel and South Beach to the East Village and back to Canada. She has sex with an untalented artist named Israel–or she surrenders to whatever Israel needs from her at the moment. She has a female painter-friend named Margaux who waxes philosophic at every turn but is the slightest bit touchy about any number of things. Sheila can’t believe in a feminist play she has been commissioned to write, wants to abandon it, can’t abandon it, considers abandoning it–anything but writing it actually.

Art is hard. Art Basel is pretentious. Art is a business. Art is however someone else defines it. Life is art. Or not. Probably not. Life is hard, though. Good writer, odd book, interesting but a little too self-observant. If you lived inside the heads of these characters you’d go mad and end up working in a convenience store. Unless you produced some world-shattering art.  But then there’s that whole art is hard thing.

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life   Sheila Heti | Henry Holt and Company   2012

A Cat – Leonard Michaels

A cat is not owned by anybody. Leonard Michael writes a meditation on felines that is as gorgeous and full of mystery as–a cat. Not surprisingly, the book of wonderful line drawings and short reflections is called A Cat. If you have ever been privileged to reside in the same space as one of these rare creatures you would appreciate the attempt to capture the essence of cat on paper, in ink. No one can actually do that, but Leonard comes close. It’s clear he has been intimately acquainted with a cat or two.

A cat weighs about as much as a baby, and it sleeps most of the day; but if a cat were fifteen pounds heavier, it wouldn’t seem cute, and it could tear your throat out.

A cat doesn’t look at itself when you hold it up to a mirror. It acts as if nothing appeared in the glass. That’s because a cat believes it is invisible. A cat has to believe this because, when stalking, it has to be invisible in the eyes of its prey. To be a cat, you must be invisible and very real at the same time. Worshippers believe this of God.

When a cat shuts its eyes, you disappear.

Dogs tend to look like their masters, but this is never true of a cat. A cat is a highly particular creature.

Dogs, birds and ferrets can be trained to hunt. A cat refuses to be trained. Superb hunter, it will not enslave its genius for a person. However, if a cat loves you, it may bring you a kill, warm and bleeding, and drop it on the living room rug where you can’t fail to see it, or drop it beside your bedroom slippers so that, first thing in the morning, you can step on it. A cat’s gift–warm, soft, wet kiss against the bottom of your naked foot–leaves a red blotch, like lipstick.

I lived with two spectacular cats for nearly 21 years. They were fabulous, photogenic, affectionate, jealous, graceful, clunky, playful and brilliant. One could fly and she taught me several games she liked to play. One was a puddle of affection and loved to sleep curled up on my laptop. I had no idea about cats until they took over my life. Now we have an amazing and shockingly adorable rabbit. He lives in a dollhouse. He is very aware of his status as prey. Anxiety is a palpable thing for him. He is so covered in fluff that I doubt a predator could even figure out what he was or how to stalk him. Nevertheless, we will not be opening the door to any more cats out of respect for his personal views. He does resemble one of our cats, though, in physical attributes and a certain quizzical look now and again. And he runs the house, a very cat-like quality.

A Cat   Leonard Michaels | Riverhead Books   1995

The Classic of Tea – Lu Yu

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It’s worth hunting for a copy of the 1974 translation of the eighth-century The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu if you are fascinated by tea lore. Lu Yu was an herbalist and tea master who wrote the first and the definitive manual about Chinese tea preparation. His chapters include explicit instructions for the utensils used in preparation and every step of the ceremony involved in brewing fresh tea. The best ladles should be made from pear wood. The best water is from mountain streams. River water may do but it should never be from a part of the river that is turbulent or cascades. Well water is “quite inferior.” 

Tea, according to Lu Yu, is best picked in the second, third and fourth moons, early in the morning when the dew is cool and only on a perfectly clear day. The finest tea leaves may “shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots…look like the dewlap of a wild ox…like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak…” Lu Yu was also a poet of some note and he waxes most eloquent about his favorite beverage.

Tea is a complex subject, the most common drink in the world beside water for thousands of years, and one that has elaborate rituals surrounding it in several cultures. The Chinese started the whole thing and Lu Yu’s “best seller” on tea spawned generations of competition to find and serve the most exquisite teas with the most extraordinary accessories. Tea is a culture and Lu Yu is its guru and he campaigned for purity in cultivation, roasting and brewing.

Not for Lu Yu were flavored teas with the base additions of spices or other herbs. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches…”  So, let’s just be really clear about that.

There is some great dish about royal and distinguished tea drinkers of the time and careful lists of the best tea-producing regions–some of those areas still grow the most sought-after teas.  I collected some rare teas on trips to China that are fun to brew and delicious to drink. I’m pleased that many of them would have met Lu Yu’s exacting standards. But his touchy spirit has infused the business of tea even today. I was able to find tiny-rosebud tea at a little shop in Hong Kong, along with some very fine white tea. The shopkeeper, however, made it plain that she was selling the rose tea to me under duress. I suppose ignorant foreigners get special dispensation. No true Chinese ch’a connoisseur would dream of polluting delicate taste buds with anything as fey as rosebud tea. Lu Yu, I’m reasonably certain, would be haughtily dismissive. 

The Classic of Tea   Lu Yu (translation by Francis Ross Carpenter) | Little, Brown and Company   1974

Open Heart, Open Mind – Tsoknyi Rinpoche

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Open Heart, Open Mind is a how-to manual–how to prepare for and practice as a bodhisattva–one who lives to bring enlightenment to all people. In practical terms, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a very practical Buddhist, that means learning to access the deep wells of peace and knowing within us and sharing what we have achieved with gratitude and generosity. 

Rinpoche was born in Nepal to a Tibetan Buddhist family with a distinguished line of meditation teachers. At age eight, he was identified as a tulku, a reincarnation of an important teacher. By the time he was twelve, he had traveled from his family home in a small village in Nepal to Tashi Jong monastery for training. During his intensive studies, the boy discovered that his calling was not to monkhood but to the life of a householder and teacher of the Dharma. Today he is a highly-regarded international Buddhist teacher who uses prosaic examples to deliver esoteric knowledge that is accessible to both serious and curious seekers.

The book takes you through the simplest teachings about the mind and the heart and goes deeply into mindfulness practice and the ways to approach it. Rinpoche details the personal benefits from the growing mastery of mindfulness, a slowing down and a paying attention that makes space for inner peace and the discovery of who we really are. I particularly liked the examples that explained some of the workings of the mind. Anyone who has ever meditated knows that the chatter of our minds is relentless, filling our consciousness and sometimes our unconcious with thought after thought–most of it just junk messages and old tapes on an endless loop. Try to clear the mind, to make it perfectly still, and the thoughts rally like a third-rate street parade band, discordant, noisy and confusing.

But you can contemplate clouds scudding across a blue sky to put those thoughts in context. Different people may see clouds as a sign of impending rain that will flood a river or rescue parched crops. Clouds can give shade and they can soak you–when it is cold enough they can cover you in snow. But the sky is just empty space and it doesn’t change. Whatever you think of the clouds, the thoughts, the sky-mind stays the same.  Too often we fail to notice the sky and focus on the clouds.

The message in Open Heart… is that we can and must awaken the power of love to inform and illuminate our lives and Rinpoche gives pragmatic exercises to put the teachings into action. From listening to the wisdom of the body to connecting with our essential joyous nature, this is a compassionate primer that urges you to be kind to yourself as you begin the great work of uncovering the truth about life and your real purpose in this world. It is anecdotal, funny, historic, meticulous in its depiction of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and inspirational enough to send you to your meditation cushion and the beginning of a great bodhisattva adventure.   

Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love   Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson | Harmony Books   2012

The Book – Alan Watts

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Reading Alan Watts always leaves me feeling like a tangled snarl of string. He begins with a compelling premise, elucidates his considerable thinking on the matter, amplifying his views with quotes from poets like William Blake and from various scriptures and sacred writings. And, by the end of the argument, I have followed him down into a place where the light is either too faint or too glaring for me to see properly. I can’t get to the end of the lesson. Mostly there doesn’t seem to be an end—which is probably what he meant anyway.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is typically brilliant, ahead of its time and infinitely frustrating. Watts examines the social conditioning that teaches us we are separate beings in a physical world of distinct objects and boundaries. He counters this assumption with a mash-up of Vedanta and contemporary physics to assert that our personal selves don’t actually exist. Well, they don’t actually exist as independent beings, disconnected from everything else. We are, in fact, entirely interconnected—as much to the city bus as to the irritating dolt in the next cubicle. And to Mother Theresa and Oprah and all of our friends and to every river, cucumber, butterfly and star.

If your life is a bowl of cherry pits, the collective unconscious, including your own unconscious, created that for your awareness. Or possibly you perceived those pits from the specific level of your own awareness. Sigh.

Some of the most fascinating ideas in Watts’ book (first published in 1966) are his evaluations of the limits of technology and the damage we are doing to the planet with extraordinary depletion of its resources—all because we don’t realize that we are both divine energy and the ground of the universe. We are the creators and to wander around deluded about that is to be unhappy and dissatisfied and to make a complete muck of life.

Nearly half a century ago, Watts was warning about the loss of privacy, technology creep, the eventual restriction of travel, artificially-created foods, the destruction of the environment and the standardization that transforms Waikiki Beach into any island beach anywhere—or maybe an especially theatrical resort pool area far from a real ocean. Wonder what he would have had to say about reality TV?

The monetization of work exhausts you and turns you and your product/service/labor/innovation into cheap commodities. This holds for burger jockeys as well as architects, scientists, housemaids and oil paint slingers (otherwise known as artists). The twin skills of attention and awareness can reveal glimpses of your true nature. We need to acknowledge the existence of magic in the world because, at its heart, all of this is a mystery and there are no words that can adequately capture it, no philosophy that can serve it up to us in neat digestible bits.

I wish I could get a solid handle on the brain of Alan Watts. I think he is right and intellectually dazzling but what the words represent is elusive. I agree we are deluded—I am deluded. But my simple soul would do cartwheels at some graspable notion of how to wake up. Clearly, I will have to read The Book again.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are   Alan Watts | Vintage Books  1989