Letters to Montaigne (2003 - 2004)

The following entries are excerpts from my first book
entitled Letters to Montaigne. Completed in 2004, each
essay is written in the form of a letter and is addressed
to the 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Informal in tone, they cover a variety of philosophical subjects.



Sunday
Jul172011

On Einstein and Intuition

Monsieur,

Like I mentioned to you in my last letter, I thought I would tell you about another famous Pisces thinker. A few years ago, I spent a month or two reading a couple of his books, and as usual, I wrote down a few excerpts for future reference. It’s funny really, I’ve spent most of the last five years reading books and carefully taking notes, and now while writing these letters to you, I’ve been referencing all of those notes constantly. I love when my seemingly illogical actions and intuitions end up becoming logical after all.

OK, so here he is…. Albert Einstein, the most renowned 20th century scientist, in his own words.

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.

I have no special gift, I am only passionately curious.

Although I’m certainly not an authority on Mr. Einstein’s scientific theories, I do believe that I understand his way of thinking quite well. It seems to me that he was a fundamentally independent and creative personality who was easily bored by the assumptions that had already been accepted by his contemporaries. Essentially, he was an innovator who realized that if he followed existing rules, he would inevitably end up relearning what was already understood. His focus and his challenge was to experiment with new possiblities and to have faith in his own meandering intuitions. One of my favorite statements by him is this,

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.

Not only does this quote reference Einstein’s own intuitive or faith driven proclivity, it also suggests that anyone who clings to a purely rational way of thinking will never achieve anything great, unique, or innovative. The mediocre minds Einstein refers to are those people who think they are smart because they understand what is already accepted. Because of their lack of intuition and their lack of insight, they are not capable of formulating new hypotheses. Thus, the mediocre mind opposes what it doesn’t understand. It dismisses independence as foolishness. And, it becomes enraged when its assumptions are questioned. Tuition is secondary for Einstein; intuition primary. Here are a few more statements that further clarify his intuitive, faithful orientation.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery - even mixed with fear - that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds - it is this knowledge and the emotion that constitute true religiousity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

The divine reveals itself in the physical world.

When the solution is simple, God is answering.

Given his respect for the spiritual, it’s not surprising that Einstein didn’t value the traditional educational system either. Here are a few quotes that give us an idea of how he felt about traditional forms of education and institutional indoctrination.

It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

I believe, on the whole, that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.

Because of my poor memory for words, this presented me with great difficulties that it seemed senseless for me to overcome. I preferred, therefore, to endure all sorts of punishments rather than learn to gabble by wrote.

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.

If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

I shall not become a Ph.D... The whole comedy has become a bore to me.

A few years ago, I completed a Master of Fine Arts degree, and I must say that I agree with Einstein’s suggestion that degrees are essentially comedies. Many of my professors were unable to step outside of their own limited perspectives. Although I studied with a few thoughtful teachers, most of them seemed more interested in gathering a group of followers or admirers than they were in helping their students develop a unique voice. Too much ego and silly jargon, not enough trust and faithful curiosity.

Shouldn’t teachers see themselves as resources? Shouldn’t they hope that their students disagree with them on a regular basis? And, shouldn’t they know to leave their more advanced students alone most of the time – encouraging them to find their own unique voice by their own unique methods? After all, aren’t the students who need to be prodded simply wasting everyone’s time and energy? If a student doesn’t love what he’s doing, he’ll never achieve anything of substance. And, he definately won’t continue working after finishing his academic requirements. In my mind, a student who must be prodded is simply studying the wrong thing; he has not uncovered his inborn area of interest.

If I were ever to open a school of learning, I would only have one requirement. All students must enjoy their studies. Any student who does not will be expelled. Although this might sound extreme, I think that expelling uninterested students would be helpful to all involved. A student’s expulsion may be just what he needs in order to find his rightful place in the world. His expulsion would remind him that he is not on the right track – the track that will lead to his inner fulfillment.

I might also require that grades would only be given to teachers. In fact, I might even have the students do the grading. That way, helpful, uplifting teachers would feel rewarded, and negative, critical teachers would know where to improve. Ideally, students would simply study what they like with whichever teacher they like. The interests of the students would serve as the foundation upon which their education would be built. In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confusius,

Those whose paths are not the same do not consult one another.

I think that knowing with whom to consult is a powerful gift. And, I also think it is a powerful gift to be aware of when you feel at home. Perhaps our greatest challenge in life is to understand where and with whom we belong. Which teachers help us the most? Which friends seem most interested in our mental, spiritual, and physical health? Which partner is most supportive of our deepest interests and passions? Which job is both challenging and rewarding? Maybe this is what Einstein is referring to when he says,

When the solution is simple, God is answering.

Maybe we actually don’t need a bunch of reasons to do something or to be with someone? Maybe we only need to have an intuitive feeling of rightness or an inexplicable sense of belonging. I think that this is the feeling that I had when I started reading your essays Monsieur. The truth is that although I’ve studied both Philosophy and Fine Art at several different universities, I feel most at home while hunched over a book like yours – reading, writing, and pondering.

As I’m sure you are aware, intuition is truly a powerful gift. But, it is a subtle gift, and a gift that is often difficult to hear. In order to hear its whispering voice, we must be calm and undistratcted. Lately, I’ve been reading the work of a psychologist named Erich Fromm, and I’ve been discovering the many wonderful things he wrote about personal awareness. He also wrote a book about Love, but I better tell you about him in my next letter. This one feels like it needs to be finished up today.

Take care,
Brian

Ps. I can’t resist giving you one last quote by our friend Einstein.

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician,” he once said.

Sunday
Jul172011

On Joseph Campbell and Sacred Space

Good Day Monsieur,

I’m sorry that I haven’t written to you recently. The truth is that, lately, my life has still felt a bit out of control. Like you probably realized after reading my last letter, since my friend Wally passed away, I kind of lost my bearings there for a while. I allowed certain things to get in the way of my normally contemplative frame of mind, and rather than taking some time to grieve and say goodbye to my friend, I think that I may have just allowed myself to get carried away by the busy-ness of life. I think I just lost my center, and now it’s time to find it again by addressing another letter to you.

If it’s alright with you, I’d just like to say a bit more about Wally before I move on to another, more uplifting, subject. I suppose the truth is that Wally was one of the few people in the world who really believed in me. Although my family and many of my friends understand certain aspects of my personality, I think that few of them are able to relate to me in certain essential ways. Maybe part of me, the most vulnerable part, had been depending on Wally too much. Although we only saw each other a few times a month, our lunches together always seemed to help me feel more confident and more secure with myself. That feeling of belonging we shared was a rare thing – at least for me it was.

Perhaps in a spiritual kind of way Wally had become a sort of father figure to me. Although my own father is still alive, I think that he and I are just very different, and we find it difficult to communicate with each other. I think that my father interprets my lack of interest in money and status as a sign of immaturity. In any event, since he has never understood me, I suppose it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that he’s never been able to believe in me. At the risk of sounding jealous, Monsieur, you were very lucky to have had such a perceptive and understanding father.

Maybe in the end, Wally and I were just good for each other’s spirit. He provided me with the wisdom and security that I had always craved, and I provided him with some youthful energy. I think I reminded him of himself when he was a young man. He always enjoyed telling me stories about his younger years, and I enjoyed listening to his voice and relating to his messages. Plus, I think we both just liked to laugh. I know he thought my sarcastic remarks were funny, and I always thought his laugh was wonderful - so heartfelt and infectious.

Anyway… I think that I’m mentioning all this again because I just wanted you to know that I have been feeling better recently. And, I think that I might finally be ready to believe in myself now. I think that after reading, writing, and turning inward so much for the last few years, I think that I’m finally ready to be more self-reliant. Even though my old and wise friend has just recently died, I’m starting to feel stronger than I felt before. Maybe I’m just beginning to realize that I can still awaken the deepest part of myself on my own.

Which reminds me, Monsieur, this past week I’ve been re-reading another one of my favorite authors - Joseph Campbell. I think that if you were still alive today you might have enjoyed reading his work. His most famous book is called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in it, Mr. Campbell outlines the stages that we all must pass if we want to evolve personally and spiritually. He constantly wrote about fulfilling one’s deepest potential.

Here are a few of his thoughts,

Everything in your life that seems to be obstructive can be transformed by your recognizing that it is the means for your transition.

The journey to this new life, a journey we all must make, cannot be made unless we let go of the past.

Where there is a way or a path, it’s someone else’s way.

If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.

When you follow your passion, society’s help is gone. You must be very careful. You are completely on your own.

You become mature when you become the authority for your own life.

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.

I think that Wally’s passing and my recent re-reading of Mr. Campbell have both convinced me that now is the time for me to finally stand up on my own two feet – without needing anyone’s reassurance. It is time for me to believe in myself completely, and, like Wally and each of my favorite authors have done so well in the past, it is time for me to express myself freely and openly to those around me. But, in order for me to be able to do this, I need to take better care of myself, and I need to set aside a personal refuge, so that I am able to maintain my center. Like Mr. Campbell also said,

Those who seek to achieve fully the goal of life should set aside a sacred space.

A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life… sacred space has no function in the way of earning a living or a reputation… you do not have anything in your sacred space that’s not of significance to you for the harmonization of your own life.

Sacred space and sacred time and something joyous to do are all we need.

What counts is being where you feel you’re in your place.

What did you do as a child that created timelessness that made you forget time? There lies the myth to live by.

Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.

Monsieur, I suspect that your private library was your sacred space, the place where you developed creatively. Remember, in your essay, Of Solitude, you wrote,

We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own.

And you also wrote,

The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.

Perhaps both you and Mr. Campbell are essentially referring to the same thing. In a very fundamental way, our lives are simply not our own unless we can love and nurture ourselves. And, we can’t live our best lives unless we know where and how to strengthen ourselves emotionally and spiritually.

It’s funny, although I live in a wonderful home of my own, I’m not sure that I would consider any particular part of it my back shop or my sacred space. Even though I am very selective about whom I allow inside, I don’t do much of my creative work there. Like most people, at home, I just tend to eat, sleep, relax, and retreat from the world, but that’s about all. Perhaps my most sacred space is at my friend Pete’s café. For it is there that I accomplish the most. It is there that I read my books and write these letters to you. And, it is there that time seems to fly by most quickly.

I wonder if I am most productive when a few other people are surrounding me. I wonder if a peripheral human presence helps me to feel most at home. Maybe noticing the smile on a familiar face reminds me why I continue to work – in order to share myself with others.

Who knows… perhaps I don’t actually have a literal or physical sacred space. Like I have mentioned to you before, I think that no matter where I am or who is around, I feel most comfortable while hovering over one of my books – reading, writing, and just allowing my mind to wander freely. Perhaps my sacred space, like everything else, is just a frame of mind or a state of being – an inner comfort zone that only I can awaken within myself.

OK, Monsieur, I feel better now. Take care and thank you again for writing your essays. After I return from visiting my family, I will write to you again. Did I tell you that my sister just recently had another baby? His name is Michael, and I am looking forward to meeting him.

Your friend,
Brian

Ps. One last thing about my friend Wally. He was bald, too, and sometimes we liked to eat omelets for lunch.