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An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence

An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless reflection on presence over productivity — a timely antidote to the central anxiety of our productivity-obsessed age. Indeed, my own New Year’s resolution has been to stop measuring my days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. But what, exactly, makes that possible? This concept of presence is rooted in Eastern notions of mindfulness — the ability to go through life with crystalline awareness and fully inhabit our experience — largely popularized in the West by British philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who also gave us this fantastic meditation on the life of purpose. If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” What keeps us from happiness, Watts argues, is our inability to fully inhabit the present: Thanks, Ken Related:  BP10

Albert Camus on What It Means to Be a Rebel and the Heart of Human Solidarity “You say you want a revolution,” the Beatles sang in 1968 as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was erecting the pillars of nonviolence on the other side of the Atlantic, “Well, you know / We all want to change the world… But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out… If you want money for people with minds that hate / All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.” Perhaps such is the curse of our species: Only in violent times do we remember, in our bones and our sinews, that hate is not a weapon of rebellion but of cowardice; that no true revolution is achieved through destruction and nihilism; that the only way to change the world is through constructive and life-affirming action. Six years before he became the second-youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize, 38-year-old Camus writes: What is a rebel? * Let not the gendered language detract or distract from the lucidity of Camus’s wisdom, for it is a function of his era — something on which Ursula K.

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives “If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve,” Debbie Millman counseled in one of the best commencement speeches ever given, urging: “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities…” Far from Pollyanna platitude, this advice actually reflects what modern psychology knows about how belief systems about our own abilities and potential fuel our behavior and predict our success. Much of that understanding stems from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesized in her remarkably insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (public library) — an inquiry into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives. One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality.

Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome “We know that we live in contradiction,” Albert Camus wrote in his magnificent meditation on strength of character, “but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it.” One of the most pervasive and perennial contradictions pulling the human spirit asunder is our yearning for greatness, which coexists with our chronic propensity for self-doubt. How to reduce that abiding contradiction is what social psychologist, researcher, and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy explores in Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (public library) — a potent antidote to one of the most common yet secretive and stigmatic maladies of modern life: impostor syndrome. At the heart of Cuddy’s research is the idea that the opposite of powerlessness, that ultimate fuel of impostor syndrome, isn’t power but what she terms presence — the ability to inhabit and trust the integrity of one’s own values, feelings, and capabilities. She writes:

Creative Courage for Young Hearts: 15 Emboldening Picture Books Celebrating the Lives of Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists Margaret Mead extolled the value of “spiritual and mental ancestors” in how we form our identity — those people to whom we aren’t related but whose values we try to cultivate in ourselves; role models we seek out not from our immediate genetic pool but from the pool of culture the surrounds us, past and present. Seneca saw in reading, one of the oldest and most reliable ways to identify and contact these cultural ancestors, a way of being adopted into the “households of the noblest intellects.” And what better time to meet such admirable models of personhood than in childhood, that fertile seedbed for the flowering of values and identity? Collected here are thirteen wonderful picture-books celebrating such worthwhile “spiritual and mental ancestors.” “One should want only one thing and want it constantly,” young André Gide half-observed, half-resolved in his journal. “Then one is sure of getting it.” At night, Jane and Jubilee read books to better understand what they saw. Sís writes:

In Praise of Missing Out: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the Paradoxical Value of Our Unlived Lives “In the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation,” Alain de Botton wrote in his meditation on Nietzsche and why a fulfilling life requires difficulty. “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion wrote in contemplating the value of keeping a notebook. But we are just as well advised, it turns out, to keep on nodding terms with the people we could’ve been, the people we never were, the people who perished in the abyss between our ideal selves and our real selves. So argues psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (public library) — a fascinating read, acutely relevant to our culture so plagued by the fear of missing out that we’ve shorthanded it to “FOMO.” The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?

A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility By Maria Popova NOTE: This is the first installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. You can read Part 2, focusing on identity and the immigrant experience, here. On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) and James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. They talked for seven and a half hours of brilliance and bravery over the course of the weekend, bringing to the dialogue the perfect balance of similarity and difference to make it immensely simulating and deeply respectful. On the one hand, as a white woman and black man in the first half of the twentieth century, they had come of age through experiences worlds apart.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Power, Oppression, Freedom, and How Imaginative Storytelling Expands Our Scope of the Possible “We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel urged in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” That’s what Ursula K. In an ennobling and pleasurably unnerving essay titled “A War Without End,” which Le Guin describes as “some thoughts, written down at intervals, about oppression, revolution, and imagination,” she writes: My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another. When these dominant narratives become so deeply embedded in a society, Le Guin suggests, even those whom they oppress end up internalizing them. In turning to the subject of resistance to oppression, Le Guin invokes the memorable words of the poet and onetime slave Phillis Wheatley, who wrote in 1774: “In every human Breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” Power not only corrupts, it addicts.

Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means By Maria Popova Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous. There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library). Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.” Russell writes in the preface: In human affairs, we can see that there are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery.

The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human. In the mid-1970s, twenty years after his influential treatise on the art of loving and four decades after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead turned to him for difficult advice, Fromm became interested in the most basic, most challenging art of human life — the art of being. At the height of a new era that had begun prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Fromm penned a short, potent book titled To Have or To Be? — an inquiry into how the great promise of progress, seeded by the Industrial Revolution, failed us in our most elemental search for meaning and well-being. Fromm frames the inquiry: This is indeed well understood by any gardener.

Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture — from her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her devastatingly beautiful letter to Borges to her decades of reflections on writing recorded in her diaries. But nowhere did she address the singular purpose of storytelling and the social responsibility of the writer with more piercing precision than in one of her last public appearances — a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. The speech is included in and lends its title to the endlessly enriching posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Aging and What Beauty Really Means “A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul,” T.S. Eliot simpered in his beloved 1930s poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” proclaiming that “Cats are much like you and me.” Indeed, cats have a long history of being anthropomorphized in dissecting the human condition — but, then again, so do dogs. We’ve always used our feline and canine companions to better understand ourselves, but nowhere have Cat and Dog served a more poignant metaphorical purpose than in the 1992 essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty” by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library), which also gave us Le Guin, at her finest and sharpest, on being a man. Le Guin contrasts the archetypal temperaments of our favorite pets: Dogs don’t know what they look like. Cats, on the other hand, have a wholly different scope of self-awareness:

The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease I had lived thirty good years before enduring my first food poisoning — odds quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but miserably unfortunate in the immediate experience of it. I found myself completely incapacitated to erect the pillars of my daily life — too cognitively foggy to read and write, too physically weak to work out or even meditate. The temporary disability soon elevated the assault on my mind and body to a new height of anguish: an intense experience of stress. Even as I consoled myself with Nabokov’s exceptionally florid account of food poisoning, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming malaise that had engulfed me — somehow, a physical illness had completely colored my psychoemotional reality. This experience, of course, is far from uncommon. Pre-modern medicine, in fact, has recognized this link between disease and emotion for millennia. But no researcher has done more to illuminate the invisible threads that weave mind and body together than Dr. Sternberg writes:

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