brainpickings.org newsletter I like


 This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Keith Haring on loving life in the face of death, Mary Oliver on what an owl taught her about happiness, the author of “The Little Prince” on love — you can catch up right here. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, as I have been for fourteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

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“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”

To divert the beam of your attention to nature, to take in the the staggering scale of spacetime under the starlit sky or the miniature cosmos of aliveness on the scale of moss or the blooming of a single potted flower, is to step beyond the smallness of your own experience, beyond its all-consuming sorrows and its all-important fixations, and into a calibrated perspective that arrives like a colossal exhale from the lung of life.Skybreath_by_MariaPopova.jpg?resize=680%2C800

“Skybreath” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of Figuring Natascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s equally, differently perspectival poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Natascha’s enchanting narration of Hermann Hesse’s 100-year-old love letter to trees, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/
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Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination

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“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.mauricebucke.jpg?resize=680%2C852

Maurice Bucke

By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.

Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.

When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.margaretcook_leavesofgrass19.jpg?zoom=2&resize=640%2C823

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIt was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.margaretcook_leavesofgrass17.jpg

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Bucke identifies three layers of consciousness, each built upon the lower: Simple Consciousness — a basic awareness, which most non-human animals also possess; Self-Consciousness, which render one aware not only of trees, rivers, and one’s own body, but also of oneself as “a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe,” capable of treating one’s own thoughts and feelings as objects of consciousness itself; and Cosmic Consciousness, which Bucke defines as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” In a passage of striking consonance with William James’s framework of transcendent experiences, he writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAlong with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.

In language that closely parallels the way people describe the effects of psychedelics, Bucke limns the nature and sequence of this revelatory experience:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLike a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise — is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.

[…]

The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach. Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.

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One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

A year before William James published his classic treatise on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences, Bucke — whom James references — outlines the characteristics of cosmic consciousness, at the heart of which he places the Eastern concept of “Brahmic Splendor,” also reflected in Dante’s transhumanized state in Paradisio.

  1. A sudden appearance, often accompanied by immersion in a cloud of haze or fire. “The instantaneousness of the illumination,” Bucke writes, “is one of its most striking features. It can be compared with nothing so well as with a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view.” (A century later, physicist Freeman Dyson would describe one of his most significant scientific breakthroughs as “a flash of illumination.”)
  2. An ecstatic surge of emotion — “joy, assurance, triumph, ‘salvation’” — transcending “the pleasures and pains, loves and hates, joys and sorrows,peace and war, life and death, of self conscious man.”
  3. An intellectual illumination, arising from the emotional ecstasy, difficult to put into words. (William James also lists ineffability as the foremost feature of transcendent experiences.)
  4. Dissolution of the fear of death.
  5. Dissolution of the sense of sin or wrongness.
  6. A sense of immortality accompanying the moral elevation. “This is not an intellectual conviction, such as comes with the solution of a problem, nor is it an experience such as learning something unknown before,” Bucke writes. “It is far more simple and elementary.”

Of central importance in this experience of illumination, he argues, are the character — “intellectual, moral and physical” — and age of the person undergoing it. The illumination is truer and richer, Bucke suggest, when experienced at a later age:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngShould we hear of a case of cosmic consciousness occurring at twenty, for instance, we should at first doubt the truth of the account, and if forced to believe it we should expect the man (if he lived) to prove himself, in some way, a veritable spiritual giant.

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Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Drawing on the memoirs, biographies, and letters of historical figures, he goes on to compose a kind of ledger of such spiritual giants who have reported experiences indicative of cosmic consciousness, noting next to each person the age at which they underwent the illumination. Among them he lists:

  • Francis Bacon (30)
  • William Blake (31)
  • Blaise Pascal (31)
  • Honoré de Balzac (32)
  • Walt Whitman (34)
  • Gautama Buddha (35)
  • Edward Carpenter (37)
  • Baruch Spinoza (45)

Bucke sees the attainment of cosmic consciousness as a vital step in the spiritual and moral evolution of our species, but he takes care to emphasize that it “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal — as anything more or less than a natural growth.” With electric exuberance, he channels his optimism, both prescient and bittersweet in the hindsight of history:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe immediate future of our race… is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material,economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils — riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question.

Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands.

The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new.

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Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

The net result, Bucke envisions, will be nothing less than a revolution of the human soul. While human beings will remain resolutely spiritual, this revolution would be predicated on the dissolution of organized religion:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngReligion will… not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life,belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers,hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye.

Complement Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness with Virginia Woolf’s ecstatic description of a psychedelic experience, physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic account of a secular transcendent experience, and neuroscientist Christof Koch on the central mystery of consciousness, then revisit Edward Carpenter, who inspired Bucke’s ideas, on love, pain, and growth.

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The Sun, the Shadow, and the Unselved Self: Helen Macdonald on Eclipses as an Antidote to Ideologies of Otherness and a Portal to Human Connection

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Just when you begin rueing that nothing original could possibly remain to be written about the cosmic spectacle of a total solar eclipse — after astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay detailing the science and enchantment of the 1869 eclipse, after Virginia Woolf’s arresting 1927 account of total darkness in the celestial lighthouse, after Annie Dillard’s 1979 classic of totality — Helen Macdonald comes along to remind you that the intersection of nature’s sublimity and the singular splendor of each human consciousness is vast and inexhaustibly vibrant.

In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether tremendous essays in her collection Vesper Flights (public library), simply titled “Eclipse,” Macdonald recounts with abashed amusement her youthful notion that the ideal mode for beholding totality must be romantic solitude — a notion absurd to anyone who has actually savored the amplified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human consciousnesses. (Nor is it even a properly romantic notion — even Byron, the (mostly self-appointed) monarch of the Romantics, envisioned in his staggering poem “Darkness” how when “the bright sun was extinguish’d,” humanity sought not isolation but community as “men were gather’d round their blazing homes / to look once more into each other’s face.”) Macdonald’s own first experience of a total solar eclipse in 1999 — the same eclipse, though partial, in which I too dissolved as a child in Bulgaria — was instead a revelation of just how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality”; how it effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”eclipse.jpg?resize=680%2C552

Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

With her uncommon gift for dilating the pinhole of a specific and subjective experience into a wide lens on a universal human tendency, Macdonald writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIt’s reassuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things — trees, clouds, hills and valleys — which have no voice except the ones you give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature.

But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own. There’s another way of escaping social conflict, of course, and that is to make yourself part of a crowd that sees the world the same way that you do, values the same things as you.

With an eye to the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017 — a collective experience qualitatively different from the nationalism-tinted mass pilgrimages to see monuments of territorial pride like the Grand Canyon or spectacles of national triumph like the Apollo launches — Macdonald adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe millions of tourists who flocked to the total eclipse of 2017 didn’t see something time had fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American ingenuity, but a passing shadow cast across the nation from celestial bodies above. Even so, it’s fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the event chimed with the country’s contemporary struggles between matters of reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. Of all crowds the most troubling are those whose cohesion is built from fear of and outrage against otherness and difference; they’re entities defining themselves by virtue only of what they are against. The simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way, for confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.

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“Tendering Totality” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

That selfsame recognition radiates from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue — that iconic, almost unbearably tender meditation on how the cosmic perspective vanquishes our artificial lines of otherness, which inspired Maya Angelou’s stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” This is the recognition at which Macdonald arrived in an embodied way, far beyond the cerebral awareness, during her own first encounter with totality:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI was nervous of the people around me and still clinging to that sophomoric intuition that a revelation would only come if none of them were there. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds, and as the hours passed it became obvious that none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. But when the light dimmed, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd became a thing of overwhelming importance, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a fleeting, urgent concern for the safety of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon too, and night slammed down on us. Though I could hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out across the sea hung clouds tinted the eerie sunset shade of faded photographs of 1950s atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day.

And then the revelation came. It wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t focused up there in the sky, but down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cameras to commemorate totality, and as they flashed, a wave of particulate light crashed along the dark beach and flooded across to the other side of the bay, making the whole coast a glittering field of stars. Each fugitive point of light was a different person. I laughed out loud. I’d wanted a solitary revelation but had been given something else instead: an overwhelming sense of community, and of what it is made — a host of individual lights shining briefly against oncoming darkness.

A generation earlier, as Apollo 8 was launching into space to take the epoch-making Earthrise photograph that would soon awaken our species to its ecological responsibility, the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi captured this singular gravitational pull of community around a shared cosmic enchantment as he contemplated how science and space exploration bind a fractured humanity back together by breaking our trance of separateness. This trance plays out in myriad ways and on myriad scales across our individual and collective existence. The habitual narrowing of perspective from which it arises is not a defect but a defining feature of our consciousness — the human animal’s central coping mechanism for parsing the incomprehensibly vast world beyond the boundaries of our individual experience. (We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.). This narrowing extends most perhaps most perniciously to our perspective on and perception of time, which is our perception of change. Drawing on another eclipse she witnessed with friends on the Turkish coast, Macdonald writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIt takes a long while between first and second contact — that is, when the sun is completely covered by the moon; it’s a long, steady diminution in the amount of light reaching the world. For a long while my brain tricks me. It has a vested interest in reassurance: Nothing is wrong, it says. It tells me I must be wearing reactive sunglasses, which is why I’m seeing the world changing through tinted glass. Why everything, the luggage-strap leaves of dune grass under my toes, the broken walls, bay trees, the sea in front, the mountains behind, everything’s still darkly fine. Then I remember I’m not wearing sunglasses, which hits me with the bad-dream force of an arm brought down hard across a piano keyboard, the psychological equivalent of that discordant crash as I have a fraught little struggle with my brain. Then I shiver. Surely it was absurdly hot here an hour ago? There’s a horrible old chestnut about boiling a frog to death. Put a frog in a pan of cold water and put it on the stove, and apparently the blithe amphibian will fail to notice the incremental rise in temperature until it’s dead. There’s something of that story’s creeping dread in what is now going on. I feel a strong need to warn people, to somehow jump out of the pan. Everything is changing, but our brains aren’t equipped to notice things on this scale.

As I read Macdonald’s essay, I am struck by something else — something both entirely unrelated and entirely relevant. (That, of course, is what an excellent essay is supposed to do — explode your comprehension with a fractal burst of quickenings fanning out to myriad elsewheres.) We have been regarding the environmental collapse around us — a drama not cosmic but human-made, not sublime but catastrophic — with the same insentience to incremental change, lulled by the brain’s same incapacity for noticing large-scale events, by the same nothing is wrong self-protective delusion. We are the amphibian in the seething cauldron. But we are also larger and more luminous, better capable of transcending the limitations of our minds by the force of our spirit — that, at least, is my hope.CastingCrescents_MariaPopova.jpg?resize=680%2C680

“Casting Crescents” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Awakened from the trance, Macdonald begins noticing the otherworldly strangeness that totality brings:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOn the ground, right by our feet, even stranger things are happening. Where I expect to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches — as confidently as I expect any other unacknowledged constant of the world — I am confounded: amid the shade are a perfect host of tiny crescents, hundreds of them, all moving against the sand as a wind that has come out of nowhere pushes at branches.

Out of that noticing — that sudden wakefulness to the absolute strangeness of it all, the soul’s sudden cry of Everything is wrong over the brain’s lulling deception — arises a profound, humbling awareness of one’s own existence as both inseparable from and inconsequential to a larger cosmic inter-belonging with all other existences:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe backs of the swallows tracing their sinuous hunting flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but a deep indigo. They’re calling in alarm. A sparrowhawk is flying over, slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its search for thermals to soar upon. They’re all disappearing in the rapidly cooling air. The hawk shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while. I check the sun, again, through my eclipse glasses. All that is left of it now is a bare, fingernail curve of light. The landscape is insistently alien: short, midday shadows in a saturated world. The land is orange. The sea is purple. Venus has appeared in the sky, quite high, up to the right. And then, with a chorus of cheers and whistles and applause, I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye, intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely. Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect cannot grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars, just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is barely contained terror. I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience. But there are no human words fit to express all this. Opposites? Yes! Let’s conjure big binary oppositions and grand narratives, break everything and mend it at the same moment. Sun and moon. Darkness and light. Sea and land, breath and no breath, life, death. A total eclipse makes history laughable, makes you feel both precious and disposable, makes the inclinations of the world incomprehensible.

[…]

And then something else happens, a thing that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For it turns out there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it. Here I am, sitting on the beach in the underworld, with all of the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. But then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disc of the dead sun, bursts a perfect point of brilliance. It leaps and burns. It’s unthinkably fierce, unbearably bright, something (I blush to say it, but here it comes) like a word. And thus begins the world again. Instantly. Joy, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of emotion. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a spectacled bulbul calls a greeting to the new dawn.

Complement this slender fragment of the transcendent totality that is Vesper Flights with Coleridge on the dissolution of the self in a terrifying storm and Mabel Loomis Todd’s poetic 19th-century primer on the science of eclipses, with help from Emily Dickinson, then revisit Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir of what a hawk taught her about love, loss, control, and surrender.

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WORD OF THE DAY


WORD OF THE DAY
Trichromatic
tri-kro-MAD-ik
Part of speech: adjective
Origin: Greek, early 17th century
1

Having or using three colors.

2

Having normal color vision, which is sensitive to all three primary colors.

Examples of Trichromatic in a sentence

“Have you noticed that most flags are trichromatic?”

“My brother is colorblind, but I’m lucky to be trichromatic.”

wisdom quotes


True wisdom starts with asking the right questions.
A prudent question is one-half of wisdom. (Francis Bacon)
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Hope springs from the knowledge that there is light even in the darkest of shadows.
Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. (Desmond Tutu)

random acts of kindness


1. Help someone carrying a lot of stuff.2. Hug someone you love and tell them you love them.3. Out of the blue send flowers to your friend.4. Pick up litter off the street/parks.5. Send a thank you/congratulatory note to a coworker/classmate, appreciating their efforts and the difference they make.

Remember: You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond


Remember: You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. 

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

What better opportunity to practice this “chief task in life” than the one we’re currently facing? COVID-19 is here. If it isn’t where you live, there is a good chance it will be soon. No amount of yelling at the TV will make it go away. Cursing the origin of the virus, being racistperpetuating conspiracy theories, and hoarding toilet paper will not save you. It only distracts you from the many tasks at hand. Neither will sticking your head in the sand and pretending it’s “not that bad.” All those are wasting your time that could be spent saving your life and others.

What you can control, as always, is how you respond. What matters is not what other people are doing or have done, but what you do. That means: Keeping up to date with the latest advice from the World Health Organization (and then actually following it!). Wash your hands often, cover your nose when you sneeze, avoid large public gatherings, cancel unnecessary travel and work meetings. Don’t be stupid. Don’t think you’re the exception. Don’t do things that benefit you, at the expense of others. If you feel sick, stay at home. Stay at home even if you don’t feel sick. Do your part.

The goal now is to flatten the curve. To slow the spread of the virus until our hospitals can handle them. To prevent the unnecessary spreading of the virus. And to prevent unnecessary overloading of medical professionals, emergency services, airlines, and other critical infrastructure, so that the people who actually need it can access it. No one individual can accomplish this by themselves, but each of us, acting rightly, collectively, can make a big difference. As Zeno famously said, “Well-being is realized in small steps, but it is no small thing.” 

We realize this well-being and fight this virus by the choices we make right now. Some of those choices include:

  • Practice social distancing: as much as possible, stay away from people outside of your family. Avoid social events and public gatherings, work from home if possible. If you have employees, do what you can so they can do the same. And implement common-sense measures so that your employees and customers are safe: reduce face-to-face interactions as much as possible, grant generous sick leave, and limit the number of customers at a single time.
  • Cancel or postpone events if you have them. Make them remote-access, if possible. Do not prioritize your convenience or entertainment over the potential spread of the virus.
  • Practice safety measures: wash your hands as much as possible, especially before you eat. Don’t touch your face, and cough into a tissue or your elbow. Don’t shake hands with people, press buttons with knuckles or elbows, and avoid food that is uncooked.
  • Help others who are in more precarious situations. If you know your neighbor is elderly and planning to make a grocery run, see if you can help them get what they need without leaving their house. Think of the wonderful generosity of this Chinese company sending face masks to Italy (with a quote from Seneca on them no less!)
  • Hold off on visiting elderly friends or family members. Yes, you’re worried about them. Yes, you miss them. But you put them and their community at risk by stopping at their old folks home or visiting their house. Even if you feel healthy, even if the person you’re visiting seems to be in good health, the safest option is to wait to see them.
  • Don’t hoard: hoarding essential goods hurts other members of the community who lack resources to prepare. Slowly stock up with non-perishable foods and goods so that others can do the same. Long lines at stores only make things worse. 
  • Along those lines, don’t tie up medical resources that you don’t need. Save masks for doctors, nurses, first responders, and others who need them in the course of their jobs. And don’t forget that for now our testing supply is sorely limited; do your best not to tie up the critical resource of COVID-19 tests, and avoid being a hypochondriac.
  • Self-quarantine and self-isolate: if you believe you may have been exposed to COVID-19, stay in your home for two weeks to keep others safe. 
  • Use your time wisely: don’t let the possible weeks or months of isolation be for nothing. You can’t control how long you’ll need to engage in social distancing, but you can control if you spend that time productively. The version of you who steps out of quarantine at some future date can be better than the version that entered it, if you try.
  • Batch your online orders if you’re stocking up to reduce the need for inefficient shipments and stress on already stressed supply chains. 
  • Educate: don’t spread misinformation about the virus. Instead, make sure others know how to best handle the spread of the virus. If you’re someone with a platform, your number one obligation right now is to not spread bullshit or breaking information. You’re not helping, you’re hurting. 
  • If you get sick, isolate yourself at home as long as symptoms remain moderate. If you have trouble breathing, are an older adult (70+), have pre-existing lung conditions or are immunocompromised, be ready to call your doctor or visit an ER.
  • Remember that panic doesn’t help. Rushing to sell your stocks; ignoring the needs of others; freaking out; being cross with or cruel to others. You know what this does? It takes a bad situation and makes it worse.
  • Cherish the people you love and the present moment, as scary as it is. It is all we have for certain.

We study Stoicism for moments like these. To remain calm in the face of chaos. To put aside irrational thoughts and develop a plan to keep us moving forward. To be able to spread the only positive form of contagion there is: calm. So we can acquire wisdom from tragedy and danger. This our chance to embody these teachings, to prove them, when it counts. When life and liberty are on the line. 

As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations:

“It stares you in the face. No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.”

So do your part. Put your study to practice and inspire those around you to do the same. We are all individually the answer, in the choices we make. What we need from you now is what we’ve always needed and talked about here: Courage. Self-discipline. Justice. Wisdom. 

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Failories newsletter. I like. for startpreneurs


👋 Hey Failories! It’s Nico over here.

2 weeks ago we started working on our first eBook. Today I have some exciting news 😉

Based on the feedback I asked you some weeks ago for our #1 digital product, we came up with two eBook ideas.

In order to find which one would perform the best, we created some quick copywriting and images and launched two pre-sales pages on Gumroad.

Then we split our newsletter into two and we sent each half a different eBook. Some of you received the eBook about failed startups; some others the one about product-market fit.

10 days later and we have a winner. The eBook titled “Product-Market Fit: Deep-dive into how 7 startups achieved it” has performed x2 better, which is why we’ve decided to put 100% of our efforts into it.

The price for that eBook started at $7 and has since been increased to $10. However, as you form part of Failory’s newsletter, I’ve created the discount code “failure” which will give you a 30% discount. Make sure to use it ASAP as I’ll be removing it soon!

The eBook will be an amazing reading, I promise you that. We’re defining the topics and case studies that it will include, so I’ll share final details next week, but I promise it will deliver a ton of value.

We’re also adding ideas suggested by customers. So if there’s anything (related) you would like to learn about in the eBook, I’m happy to add it!

This newsletter is sponsored by Formlets.
INTERVIEWTurning Pain into $5k/mo Revenues: Pathways’ success storyLondon-based Sandip Sekhon developed the pain-therapy app Pathways out of his own pain relief needs. After a life-changing meeting with a physiotherapist with knowledge of pain science, he got better and was 100% pain-free in just a couple of months. By then he realized the potential of pain therapy using evidence-based mind-body techniques, and thus Pathways was created.Read More +
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INTERVIEWHabitual’s Biggest Mistake: Underestimating the power of marketingHolger Sindbaek is the founder of Habitual, a habit-tracking app. With other successful apps under his belt like a Solitaire card game played by 3M people per month, it seems like he has the knack of making startups fly. So what went wrong with Habitual? Discover it in this interview.Read More +
Hope you enjoy this week’s stuff ❤️

One more time, here’s the link to the “Product-Market Fit” eBook. Make sure to use the discount code “failure” to get a 30% discount. We’re 26 copies aways from increasing the price by $3, so make sure to get it now.

I frequently openly share Failory’s numbers and metrics and thought some of you could find it interesting to see our Gumroad analytics:


If you have any feedback or ideas for the eBook, they would be highly appreciated.

– Nico

What comes first: ideas or words? The paradox of articulation | Aeon Essays


is an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is the author of Articulating a Thought (2019).

3,300 words

Edited by Sam DresserSYNDICATE THIS ESSAYTweet1,86410 Comments

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I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them – and I hardly know anymore when I look at it how I could ever have felt so happy when I caught this bird.
– From Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche

‘What is it about the proposal that strikes me as so disturbing?’ Reading through an article describing a local government measure, I feel opposition rising within me. Normally, forming an opinion about such things would take me some time. But not here. The proposal instantly strikes me as unjust. My reaction is not just intellectual; it is visceral. My emotions are engaged. My imagination is exercised. As I imagine the proposal playing out in practice, the distinctive brand of injustice seems to be jumping out of every word on the page.

I decide to sort out my problem with the proposal in writing, by replying to the colleague who forwarded me the article. ‘It’s unfair!’ Impatiently, I blurt out the kernel of what bothers me about it. But the statement is so general as to be almost empty. ‘Heavy-handed. Quietly authoritarian. Positively harmful.’ More words suggest themselves to me and, after a few false starts, I regain my confidence and press the formulation forward with each sentence. I edit some words, and the correction puts everything in order. Reading over what I wrote, I recognise that, even though there is room for elaboration, at this moment these words accurately capture my position. I have found the words to express my thought.

The gulf between our solitary thoughts and the words that would convey them to others constantly confronts us all. The thoughts we struggle to articulate might be as momentous as a transformative moral epiphany or as ordinary as an insight into a movie or the hurtful behaviour of a friend. They might seem hopeful or alarming, frivolous or serious, lead us to find value in certain things, or worry about others. They might be thoughts that we long had but never articulated or instantaneous insights in which something entirely new and unfamiliar suddenly comes to mind. In many cases, we articulate these thoughts in order to get clear on what they are; we wouldn’t bother making the effort if they were clear to us already