The Kremlin in Russia

I started reading война и мир to prepare for a trip to Russia – this is inside the Kremlin in Moscow on a beautiful April day. I didn’t finish until long after we got back.

It’s difficult to imagine that a 1200+ page classic can be a page turner. From the first page, War and Peace pulls you into early 19th century Russia and doesn’t let go. It’s partly about the Napoleonic wars, and partly about the love and money affairs of a few aristocratic families. In each case, the author Leo Tolstoy gets inside the heads of the characters and describes what they are thinking and feeling. You feel like you are there in the room, or on the battlefield, observing all the little gestures and nervous tics that form human interactions.

One of the central characters is Count Pierre Bezuhkov. He is very rich and dreamy, constantly analysing himself and his actions and his meaning in life. If he had lived 200 years later, he might have written a blog like this one. The book carefully charts his long philosophical progression to happiness. Towards the end he is captured by the French after they take over Moscow in the autumn of 1812. In captivity and desperation he finds more happiness than all his wealth ever gave him. “In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity” (i.e. having too much, page 1060 in my translation).

Throughout the book, Tolstoy constantly questions why the war happened. What caused 600,000 Frenchmen to walk all the way across Europe to kill several hundred thousand Russians? Surely it couldn’t have been the will of a single man, Napoleon? In the Epilogue and Appendix Tolstoy discusses free will and history. He acknowledges that humans do have a small bit of free will – the freedom to raise or lower their arm when they wish to. But only when they act independently. When people act jointly or in a society, they lose almost all their free will. So the soldier must attack when his regiment attacks, and flee when they flee, and march when they march. He views human history as the combination of all these millions of bits of free will, lurching in one direction or the other. And they are not guided from above. After the event, historians say “Napoleon ordered his troops to conquer Russia”, but at the time, he is just the figurehead at the helm of a vast ship drifting in rough sea.

If you have a few months to spare, this is a book worth reading. It gives you an inside view of peoples’ thoughts – vain people, desperate people, dying people, heroic and pathetic people, happy and lost people, rich and poor people, and people living through an extraordinary and awful period of human history. It shows that soul-searching is not a modern activity.

Cliffs of Moher - the sort of place that inspires me to make lists of all the things I want to do in life

Cliffs of Moher – the sort of place that inspires me to make lists of all the things I want to do in life

I often make lists of things I should do. This happens especially when I’m on holiday. I come back with a piece of paper scribbled with a list of topics – such as Spanish, piano, physics, writing, kickboxing, etc. I have a vague feeling that once I focus and learn all these new skills, I’ll be a better, happier person.

I recently realised that this is not the case. The lists become a burden and an obligation. I feel overwhelmed if I do them, guilty if I don’t. They don’t add anything to my life. I would be better off not having the list and just doing things as I feel like doing them. Hopefully the activities I truly feel like doing will get done.

And hopefully I’ll have more time and space for the random people and excitements that are so enriching, rather than the self-betterment duties that aren’t.

Inspired by a line from the book The Prophet, I thought of these  skills and activities as if they were arrows from a bow:
My arrows are already airborne
There is no need to stare
Let them fall where they may fall
And later find out where


Beautiful scenery - Winspit Cove

Beautiful scenery – Winspit Cove in Dorset

I have read a lot of Agatha Christie books – 47 in total since my partner Mara joined the Agatha Christie book club a couple years ago. They are almost all page turners, which take between a few hours and a few days to read. They suck me in and capture me, and before I know it, they are over.

The characters and situations are starting to get predictable – it’s almost always about an inheritance – but she still manages to provide unexpected twists at the end. And sometimes there are some wonderful nuggets of wisdom.

In The Hollow a character refers to her youth saying “…to have been so happy and not to have known it”. In Sad Cypress, detective Hercule Poirot refers to how a person can change after a brush with death, referring to a Psalm: “…to walk in the valley of the shadow of death, and to see the sunshine again”.

A book which I really enjoyed was Parker Pyne Investigates. It is a collection of short stories about a private investigator. No murders this time, just various people who are dissatisfied with life and/or their spouses. Parker Pyne’s solutions usually involve adding some zest to his unsuspecting client’s life. In one story, Pyne brings together a bored former soldier and a lonely woman in a dramatic kidnapping situation. They fall into danger, and then fall in love and live happily ever after.

The problems and their solutions seem simple and yet real. And they make me think that maybe a bit of excitement and distraction is one of the ingredients of happiness. And that other people often provide that excitement. It is not usually a solitary thing (for me at least). Things like – hiking along a beautiful coastal path with a friend. Or meeting a new person in a youth hostel. Or having an impromptu dance in the living room. Or an unexpected conversation on the train. Or having someone come to stay.

All things which have happened to me recently and which have had a much more positive effect than hours of sitting and pondering and wondering what life is all about. I should include reading an Agatha Christie novel in that list. Even if I read alone, it feels like I am joining a world full of people and intrigue.


A nice animal which liked me

Some books and traditions refer to the mind as having an observing part and a thinking part. Meditation seems to involve letting the thoughts float away so only the observer is left behind. I like to think of it as an experiencer rather than an observer. Under the layers of thought, is there a centre of pure experience?

I caught a glimpse of it a couple weeks ago while on holiday and it set me wondering. Is it plausible that the experiencing and thinking minds are really separate? If so, did the experiencing mind evolve first in the more ancient parts of the brain, with the thinking mind coming later in the neocortex? Or did they evolve together?

This is important, because if they evolved separately, then it feels they should be easier and more natural to separate now, in my own mind. But if they evolved together, and are just two aspects of the same huge mesh or neurons, then trying to separate them is trying to create an artificial boundary where none exists.

So I spent a while watching a cat and wondering what goes on in its head. Perhaps it spends much of its time purely experiencing – with its senses tuned to the world. And once in a while, a visual thought like “I’m hungry”, “What’s that noise?” comes along and it responds. Or perhaps it, like me, is constantly processing visual thoughts, and paying as little attention to its surroundings as most humans do. Or perhaps between thoughts it is not really conscious at all, not experiencing, not thinking, just processing.

I don’t have an answer to this of course. But I like to think that animals do spend a lot of their time purely experiencing and not thinking or worrying. And therefore, I could in theory do it too.

Psychology and religion amongst business advice

Psychology and religion amongst business advice

I was so impressed with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow, that I read another of his books: Good Business. Flow is the state of complete absorption in an activity. The book encourages companies to create the right conditions for their employee’s to flow, pointing out the many benefits this will bring to employees and employers.

Mixed in with the business stuff though, were some truly beautiful and philosophical passages about life and happiness. Below are some of my highlights from this book:

In chapter 3, he describes how flow feels:

  1. momentary goals are clear (not final goals, it’s about the journey)
  2. feedback is immediate
  3. balance between opportunity and capacity
  4. concentration deepens
  5. present is what matters
  6. control is no problem
  7. sense of time is altered
  8. loss of ego

As with Finding Flow, I particularly liked the parts that related religion to psychology. At the end of chapter 3, he says “Indeed flow and religion are different faces of the same quest: to find a reason, a justification for being alive.” And later, “flow experiences … give an intimation of what the rapture of life can be, and point toward an existence more imbued with soul”.

In chapter 4, he draws the distinction between “pleasure” and “enjoyment”, saying that enjoyment builds up our “psychological capital” (or “psychic energy”) and pleasure consumes it. He also says that our basic resource is “attention”and that our brains can process about 110 bits of information per second, roughly 173 billion bits in an average lifetime. We can choose how we pay this attention. We can use it on activities that encourage flow and build our psychological capital (like playing a sport), or on ones which deplete it. But doing a flowing activity often requires a big initial investment of psychological capital/energy (to plan and arrange going out), so it’s easier to just slump in front of the TV.

Later in chapter 7 he proposes that “what we call ‘soul’ can be viewed as the surplus energy that can be invested into change and transformation”. Surplus after we’ve taken care of our own needs.

Aside from the (rather large) business focus, I think this is a wonderful book. Though I really think that the author should distil all the philosophy into a philosophy book, and discuss where psychology meets religion and where east meets west.

Nice relaxing scenery near Wilmington

I told my friend Bill about the great book Finding Flow. Flow is the state of complete absorption that happens during challenging and stimulating activities – like sports, work and interesting conversation. The book suggests (in my opinion) that a more flowing life would be more satisfying. Bill thought that people also need relaxing downtime, and we initially thought that downtime might be the opposed flow.

So I wondered what exactly is downtime or relaxation? It’s definitely not work. But it’s also probably not sports or socialising – except maybe very light things like taking a walk. I think that watching TV counts, as does sunbathing, sitting on a bench or in a pool, or staring into space. These are all physically relaxing activities. They are also mentally undemanding – the mind can wander and daydream and solve problems. So far, downtime does seem opposed to flow.

But how about playing a game, doing a puzzle or reading a book? These activities give more opportunity for flow. Are they also relaxing? I would say yes, and therefore conclude that downtime is a physical, whereas flow is mental, and the two are unrelated.

I wonder if Bill would agree.

Bluebell carpet in Sussex in May

I read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran about a year ago. It is a short book with 26 chapters. Each chapter is a discourse given by a prophet to the people of the city which he is about to leave. Each chapter covers a different aspect of human life – like love, marriage, children, work, etc.

I copied down my favourite passages into a beautiful notebook Paolo gave me for my birthday, using the accompanying fountain pen. Almost all of the other religious and philosophical books I’ve read look at things from the outside – observing and measuring and drawing conclusions. Like Be Here Now, this book looks at it from the inside. Here are a selection of my favourite passages and the section they came from:

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

You often say “I would give, but only to the deserving”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

The wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass.

Joy & Sorrow
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Crime & Punishment
Your god-self dwells not alone in your being
Much in you is still man and much in you is not yet man,
But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the mist, searching for its own awakening.

And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.

And that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.

Good & Evil
Surely the fruit cannot say to the root “Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance.”

And shall your flame or your smoke burden the wind?
Think you the spirit is a still pool which you can trouble with a staff?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered.