Wednesday, June 15, 2011


The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm. 
The reader became the book; and summer night  

Was like the conscious being of the book.  
The house was quiet and the world was calm.  

The words were spoken as if there was no book,  
Except that the reader leaned above the page,  

Wanted to lean, wanted so much to be  
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom  

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.  
The house was quiet because it had to be. 
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:  
The access of perfection to the page.  

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,  
In which there is no other meaning, itself  

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself  
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

~ Wallace Stevens


First, let me quote again the wisdom of Larry Levis: “The moment of writing is not an escape; it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.

Ecstasy is our birthright, our inalienable right – this rings more true to me than the “pursuit of happiness.”

The reason it rings more true may lie in the fact that ecstasy consists of moments. Call them “eternal moments” since they become such in memory, but as they happen, they are measured in minutes. We can bear ecstatic moments, while longer duration is not even desirable: moments are enough. And we certainly don’t have to feel guilty about moments. Should lovers apologize for their delicious dissolving? Yet next door to the lovers someone may be dying a lingering, painful death of cancer.

That’s how life is: agony and ecstasy side by side. If we live long enough, we’ll get to know both heaven and hell. There is no getting out of it – both heaven and hell, side by side, right here. It seems a reasonable assumption that we’d clamor for more heaven, for more ecstasy here on earth. Much of it is accessible, doesn’t cost much (if anything), might be as close as one’s stereo and listening to great music. Yet even when I do have the leisure, I often have to force myself to engage in blissful activities. I know I am not the only one with a rather undeveloped will to bliss.


Few people even have the leisure. Overworked and overwhelmed seems to be the “normal” condition of working mothers, for instance, and they are not the only ones. Let’s face it: building paradise here on earth has never been humanity’s major goal, much less a priority (though some scholars claim a small-scale exception for early Christianity, with their agape feasts – trying to create an earthly paradise of respect and affection for everyone).  We’ve heard the excuses, the chief one being capitalism, driven by greed rather than, say, love of man and nature. But then communism has been tried and shown to create efficient armies (or if not efficient, than at least they could sing: the Red Army chorus remains a favorite of mine), and a life of luxury for top Party members rather than the well-being of ordinary citizens.

Why is the will to bliss so weak? How come the phrase “pursuit of happiness” always makes me wince? Perhaps because meaning is more important and satisfying than any form of what we usually think of as happiness. For me the sense of meaning seems to come from feeling useful, and I don't experience that as often as I’d wish (fellow poets, how useful do you feel?) I still have no doubt that if I had a really strong sense of meaning, an urgent goal, I wouldn’t need much in way of pleasure. I could easily live without erotic pleasure, good food, movies, maybe even music (that would be the greatest sacrifice) – without all manner of comfort. Just give me something to live FOR. Nietzsche: “If you have a why, you can endure almost any how.”

And maybe the greatest happiness is having that why. Jonas Salk, trying to develop a vaccine for polio, had the why. Mother Teresa had hers. After the Haiti earthquake, I watched on TV an American surgeon who was doing surgery there on a volunteer basis, and thought, “This is the happiest man in the world.”

Alas, we live at a time when educated people whose talents lie in the humanities often find themselves “mentally underemployed.” Not too many jobs provide intellectual fulfillment. We manage to invent our own work projects, but the question of audience remains that “tooth that nibbles at the soul,” in Dickinson’s wonderful phrase. Even so, “think small” can save us here, so that an audience of ten is already a sufficient blessing (my first reading in Escondido had an audience of four – and I was already an advanced poet with a strong publication record).

But let me not digress. As one man said to me, “If you don’t have a goal, you might as well die happy.” Since feeling happy, or at least contented, is good for health and longevity (yes, we want to die happy, but only in very ripe old age), I’ve researched the subject and have come to several conclusions, some of which will sound untrendy or unusual. Examples: think small, think less, eliminate choice (or at least severely limit choice) , make yawning and smiling and push-ups your spiritual practice; the answer lies outside. No, I’m not just being provocative. I mean all of the above, and more.



“What blocks you is that you think too much,” a friend diagnosed me. She wasn’t the only one. Since my early teens, I’ve been told, “Your problem is you think too much.” I used to dismiss that as typical misology (misologos = hater of reason). It’s only relatively recently that it occurred to me that friends see overthinking as my greatest problem because it IS my greatest problem.

Or at least used to be. In the last two years I have made progress against the kind of thinking that is either “analysis-paralysis” or, worse, feels like being attacked by a powerful demon. I still experience “thought attacks,” but I make sure they don’t last long. Now I take steps to defend myself rather than getting paralyzed or riding the adrenalin high of a good dose of hatred (not funny if it happens close to bedtime).  

Men generally prefer action; women often get stuck in thinking. Now, I don't mean the kind of thinking that Einstein did (although we tend to underestimate the role of intuition in the sciences). I mean fruitless brooding about the past or worrying about the future. The sort of thinking that's basically on automatic. It's not a search for solutions; it's thinking for the sake of thinking, rumination as a kind of hobby.

It helps to have the “happy genes.” Every parent can tell you that there are happy babies and miserable, whining ones, and the pattern often continues well into adulthood. But regardless of genes, we are human, we can learn!  Happiness, too, takes practice. One skill I had to learn is avoiding overthinking.

Hiking – when I was more capable of it – used to give me a lovely feeling of well-being. This “hiker’s high” is usually explained as being due slight oxygen deprivation at high altitudes, which impairs cognitive function. The brain can't cogitate without sufficient oxygen. There is simply not enough brain power for brooding, and a carefree feeling takes over.

The same goes for just the right amount of alcohol. Alcohol impairs thinking. So does nitrous oxide, better known as the “laughing gas.” A bit of ether does the same. We use alcohol, oxygen deprivation at high altitudes, strange yoga postures, sex, etc precisely to kill thought (I’ll never forget the man who told me, “The great thing about sex is that it kills thought”) – because to think is to say goodbye to being carefree. The only other solution may be to channel the capacity to think into something unrelated to self, e.g. a scientific inquiry. Now that is what Buddhism calls “radiant thinking.” Likewise, an artist fully immersed in creative work can feel euphoric. No self, no problem.

Buddha tried to kill thinking with meditation, but for a fidgeting Westerner it seems to be the most difficult way. Doing nothing is more difficult by far than doing something with full concentration. Hard work, hard exercise, sex. Dancing of course. Petting a cat or dog, interacting with any animal. Dr. Jill Taylor, author of The stroke of Insight, may be right about happiness coming from the right hemisphere – except for reading something intellectually fascinating. I love the sense of learning something new. That’s where most poetry fails to deliver, and that's why it's never enough for me – it's not intellectually fulfilling. If I read a lot of poetry, my brain goes into rebellion and a feeling of revulsion is born -- even if it's good poetry (e.g. Hirsch). (How did I ever end up in this medium? I, a lover of essays? Rilke seduced me. Plath. Stevens. The difficult poets.)

Why does thinking, especially “overthinking,” lead to unhappiness? It could  be simply the tragic condition of human life, our awareness of mortality. We know we are not headed for a happy ending. Maybe when people expected to go heaven (utterly boring as that place always seemed), there wasn't such a strong need to suppress overthinking. I use primarily hard work, but I’m trying to develop more resources. I wish I had even more interesting reading on hand. Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, a novel about a Carmelite nun who has mystical visions because of a tumor in her temporal lobe, amazed me – it was a magnificent pleasure to read. Short sentences, none of the usual slog through a clotted plot and pedestrian details that mediocre fiction tends to be. And yes of course I envied the fictional nun her mystical experiences; I envied her her tumor, even just for a while.

Significantly more women than men are overthinkers. Men, blessed with testosterone, the “let’s do it, let’s go” hormone, tend to be action-oriented. Women are more likely to brood over their problems, and are vastly more prone to depression. Women often feel they are helpless “victims of fate,” as my mother used to call it. “Don’t be a victim of fate,” she constantly warned me. I didn’t understand what she meant until I finally grasped it: don’t just sit there analyzing your misfortunes and mistakes; do something, anything.

This something need not be related to the stress-causing problem. It can be cleaning up clutter, washing the dishes, or getting exercise (see the section on push-ups). Not appealing? That’s where self-discipline comes in. You give yourself an order. With brooding made impossible by focusing on some type of action (it’s hard to worry while doing push-ups), within a short time you feel better, and may actually hit on a solution without even trying.


I used to ponder subjects such as "Why did so many kinds of suffering hit me in my youth all at once?" Now I fully realize that I am not going to discover the answer to this mystery, and anyway, it’s over. I have already done all the mourning for my youth that could be done. So if I come anywhere near the no-think zone, I have to quickly shift into action that will increase my well-being. I am terrifically lucky that I can do not just writing, but push-ups -- my most reliable feel-good exercise.

One of my tools in staying depression-free has been not straying into my "no-think zones." These are questions such as, "What is the greatest mistake I ever made in my life?" I wince to think how many precious hours/days/months/years I have wasted meditating on the "greatest mistake" and similar depression-inducing subjects, e.g. the wretched relationships in my youth, or my friends’ speculations that I would have gained more recognition, both in Poland and in America, if I wrote in Polish. It’s impossible to know. What I do know is that great wave of sorrow that starts drowning me when I venture into the no-think zones.


One thinker who has helped me gain clarity about those “no-think zones” has been Czeslaw Milosz – not exactly an optimistic poet. He certainly confronted the tragic aspects of the human condition, but he also gave us poems and essays that point to how to carry on without succumbing to despair.

delectatio morosa ~ indulging in gloomy thoughts, taking pleasure in sadness, brooding, dwelling on melancholy matters

Once you've opened the door to depression, you seek to enhance the sadness. Milosz, by his own admission, was prone to gloomy meditations and feelings of worthlessness. Here is what he writes about it:

The classic result of all sudden ruptures and reversals is the rumination on one’s own worthlessness and the desire to punish oneself, known as delectatio morosa. I would never have been cured of it had it not been for the beauty of the earth. The clear autumn mornings in an Alsatian village surrounded by vineyards, the paths on an Alpine slope over the Isère River, rustling with dry leaves from the chestnut trees, or the sharp light of early spring on the Lake of Four Cantons near Schiller’s rock, or a small river near Périgueux on whose surface kingfishers traced colored shadows of flight in the July heat–all this reconciled me with the universe and with myself.

But it was not the same as it had been in America; it was not only nature that cured me. Europe herself gathered me in her warm embrace, and her stones, chiseled by the hands of past generations, the swarm of her faces emerging from carved wood, from paintings, from the gilt of embroidered fabrics, soothed me, and my voice was added to her old challenges and oaths in spite of my refusal to accept her split and her sickliness. Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help . . . ”

~ Czeslaw Milosz, “Tiger 2,” Native Realm, 293

In this case, Milosz feels healed by directing his attention outward, by "gazing at the world," as Larry Levis would put it (he advised his students not to look inward, but outward, at the world).

Later Milosz also gained a philosophical outlook that helped him combat his proneness to depression (caused, he states, by "all the sudden ruptures and reversals," i.e. losses and heartbreaks). Unexpectedly, it was existentialist philosophy that helped (and not, as some dearly wanted to show, Catholicism).  Specifically, it was the Existentialist insistence that our past constantly changes, i.e. our recall is selective and dependent on how we see the meaning of a past event in the present.

“Do you know what the gravest sins in your life are? – I have made too many mistakes to trust my ability not to err now when thinking of my past.

I am not what I am. My essence escapes me. It is a durable achievement of existential philosophy to remind us that we should not think of our past as definitely settled, for we are not a stone or a tree. In other words, my past changes every minute according to  the meaning given to it now, in this moment.

Jeanne [Hersch], a disciple of Karl Jaspers, taught me the philosophy of freedom, which consists in being aware that a choice made now, today, projects itself backward and changes our past actions. That was the period of my harsh struggle against delectatio morosa to which I have always been prone. Monks suffering from delectatio morosa would plunge into meditation on their sins and found it a good way to shirk their daily tasks. The philosophy of freedom, practiced by existentialists, took over the classical methods of confessors and spiritual guides, precisely in that it advises us to direct our sight always ahead, not backwards. Largely thanks to its counsels, I stopped meditating and set about my work, which has always been to me an escape forward.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, 121-122. (emphasis mine)

My own escape has been strictly pragmatic. I realized that I could waste endless time, and, in the end, my whole life, brooding over the disasters of the past – or I could throw myself into work. The choice was not between depression and happiness; it was between depression and work. Milosz has just provided the philosophical scaffolding for that position. Thank you, Czeslaw! I hope this reaches others who are prone to delectatio morosa.


The Buddhist idea of no-Self fascinates me: no self, no depression. When the self becomes a verb, for me it’s mostly “I read, I learn, I write, I love.” Sometimes: I stumble, I fail – but that’s not a permanent “I AM a failure” condition.


This mantra comes from Dr. Jill Taylor, the neuroanatomist who experienced a massive stroke that disabled her left hemisphere. She lost speech; the constant nattering voice inside her head fell silent, and she got to experience the euphoria of communing with the world through its interface with the right hemisphere.

While there has been criticism of Jill Taylor for her insistence on the specialized functions of each hemisphere along the traditional division that places cognition and logic in the left hemisphere, and music, emotion, imagination, and metaphorical thinking in the right hemisphere, and while apparently things are less separate and more intertwined than that, Taylor’s advice to step into activities that are traditionally identified with the right hemisphere seems to work on the practical level. Instead of obsessively cogitating, listen to music, sing, dance, open an art book, look at a tree, pet a dog, take a swim  . . .  

Touching a significant other or a pet is especially recommended, since it raises oxytocin levels, and oxytocin is one of our feel-good hormones.

The point, again, is to get away from overthinking – particularly from self-centered overthinking. As you let go of overthinking, you may not experience mystical ecstasy, but you will certainly feel less stressed.  A friend of mine said, “I don’t pursue happiness. I pursue peace of mind.” When you feel at peace, everything else follows, she said. I was instantly convinced.  


Flowers: I have learned to always have at least one flowering plant in the house. Orchids are the most lasting, and I love to watch the buds swell and open. We know that looking at flowers generates the positive emotions that heal the brain and keep it healthy. I prefer potted flowering plants to cut flowers, since those die too quickly. Fortunately, orchids have become inexpensive (buying tip: don’t decide based strictly on the flowers; look for healthy leaves).

Music: Taking the time to listen to music, even though I love music more than poetry, has been more difficult than acquiring the habit of always having a flowering plant in the house. But at this point I do listen to my favorite classical music at least once a day.

Communion with Nature:  Wallace Stevens said, “The greatest poverty is not to live in the physical world.” Whenever I take a walk, I make sure to “tune in” rather than continue thinking about my various tasks.  When driving, I look at the trees and sky – again, I don’t want to be so swallowed up in thinking about writing projects and other matters that I don’t really see what’s around me.  Now even driving to a supermarket has become a pleasure and not a chore – I cherish every tree and shrub along the way, every cat sleeping on the hood of somebody’s car. Again, it took deliberate effort, but I have finally learned not to work and read so compulsively, and make more time for being in touch with nature.

Glenstall Abbey, Ireland

Reading for Pleasure: That was the easiest blissful habit to re-establish, since I have always been a voracious reader and have never completely ceased to read “irrelevant” books and articles – which subtly let me know that I love non-fiction more than poetry. I don’t know if anything will come of this knowledge, but there it is. It’s a recovery from being a compulsive poet and feeling more like a complete human being again, with a lively mind that’s not taken over by seeking a better ending for this or that poem.

Large Red Man Reading

There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae. 
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.

There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them. 
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,

That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves 
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly

And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:                                          Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,

Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are 
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

~ Wallace Stevens


Be a gazer at the world, not an obsessive gazer within.” I owe this motto to Larry Levis, who pointed out that bad advice was often given to beginning poets, to the effect that the source of poems is introspection. Look at the world, Levis insisted. Not that introspection is forbidden, but that looking at the world is likely to result in richer poems. Likewise, bringing other people into a poem will often enlarge and improve the poem.

Introverts do not need to be told to “look within.” They do that on automatic. The harder part is learning to look at the world. As with so many “good for you” things, it’s a matter of establishing a new habit. For an introvert, the answer does not lie inside. The answer most often lies in gazing at the world. 


I should say, “the best anti-depressant that is under your control.” Falling in love with the right person is life’s greatest feast, especially in the second half of life. Of course we’d rather be in love than do push-ups. But the right love object is not going to “manifest” just when we could use a mood lift. It’s one of the perverse laws of life that it’s easier to find a mate when you are already happy and don’t feel you particularly need to meet anyone. “Be happy and the beloved comes.” Men prefer happy women, studies find (some women are fixated on unhappy men, however: a mistake).

Consequently, we have to learn how to make ourselves happy. And there is a growing consensus that the most effective mood lift comes from exercise. Any exercise has some benefit for mood, but one surprising discovery concerns strenuous exercise. It has been found to change the neural networks in such a way as to create resistance to stress.

But isn’t strenuous exercise itself stressful? That’s precisely the point. It’s like fighting fire with fire – an extremely effective technique. An inkling of that came with the early discovery that a small dose of radiation actually resulted in greater resistance to all kinds of stressors, including radiation itself.  The same was found true of heat stress (think sauna). A certain controlled dose of stress revs up the body’s antioxidant enzymes and other defenses. (This is easy to overdo; stay away from personal trainers who are deconstructionists.)

Reader, if you are a super-athlete who can do a hundred push-ups without even breathing hard, skip to the next section. For those of us who start breathing hard after five or six – sooner if we do it slowly – it’s almost mandatory to develop a daily push-up regimen. No need for expensive exercise machines and sadistic personal trainers. No need to buy reverse-gravity beds, exercise books and videos. Push-ups engage every muscle in the body. While variety is more fun, if you have time for only one exercise, push-ups will do. The simpler you make it, the more likely you are to get results. And for me, “simpler” is often just one exercise. Sometimes I go through a period of doing Pilates roll-ups, but more often it’s push-ups – more demanding by far, especially for a woman. There is absolutely no way I can drift into overthinking while doing push-ups.

Another great exercise is standing on one leg – lifting the other leg forward, sideways, behind – try all three positions. It’s amazing how the entire lower body is engaged that way, how many muscles go into action to keep you from falling.  (By the way, talk about a great exercise for developing “buns of steel.”) You’ll be building muscles and improving your balance at the same time. And it’s impossible to worry about anything while standing on one leg.

I repeat: studies show that strenuous exercise makes us much better at handling stress. It remodels the brain so that we become more stress-resistant and more flexible when it comes to adapting to whatever life throws at us. It’s one of the most magnificent ironies to have come out of recent research: the best exercise for the brain is physical exercise.

The beautiful thing about exercise is that if you do it, you get results. It doesn’t take talent, only systematic effort. And “effort-related reward” is quite exhilarating. People in the creative fields where reward, or at least the external reward of recognition, is not clearly related to effort, especially need to find another activity where effort quickly and reliably pays off. Exercise is such an activity.


It’s official: smiling, for no reason at all, automatically lifts mood. No big surpise. But who knew that yawning could be a spiritual practice, a sacred ritual?

Yawning is relaxing, since it’s basically a long exhalation. Exhaling activates the “rest and digest” parasympathetic system, and laid-back twin of the fight-and-flight sympathetic system. Yawning lowers stress.

It apparently even increases empathy! Cats and dogs are great yawners, but yawning is contagious (even just reading the word makes you yawn – admit it, Yawning Reader) only among humans, great apes, and certain species of monkeys.


Yawn and think of a “big idea” (peace, compassion, a loving companion, “God as you understand him/her/it/them”)


This video explains it best:

Let me also quote this:

“The philosopher Odo Marquard has noted a correlation in the German language between the word zwei, which means “two,” and the word zweifel which means “doubt” – suggesting that two of anything brings the automatic possibility of uncertainty to our lives. Now imagine a life in which every day a person is presented not with two or even three but dozens of choices, and you begin to grasp why the modern world has become, even with all its advantages, a neurosis-generating machine of the highest order.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Committted


The Taoist sages said it best: the more you rush, the less you accomplish. “Slowing down to the speed of life” is fabulous! If only we remembered to slow down more often. As with so much else that’s good for us, it takes practice.


I realize that it might be more cautious to say, “Practice contentment.” That is a good principle. But at least some of the time, if bliss is attainable, why not?

At first, with my low will to bliss, I thought it might be a case of “fake it to make it.” It turned out to be much easier, and the benefits come quickly. For instance, I stopped torturing myself reading poetry the first thing in the morning. If “the truth shall make you free,” then my truth was that I get more out of a Reader’s Digest article than out of a typical contemporary poem. My favorite poems are in a special category, but the average poem by W.S. Merwin, say, or even by a  more lively poet, tends to be a dull exercise of plodding through contorted language, hoping to extract a sliver of meaning. You lift that sliver, hold it up to strong light, and . . . it isn’t much. But dive into a page-turner (and there are certainly non-fiction page-turners too), and at the very least you gain enjoyment. Often you learn something you didn’t know before, and I love learning new things perhaps more than even music. 

The surprise – though it’s not surprising in the light of the studies that show “pleasure comes first, then success” – is that I feel I have developed much more both as a poet and writer and as a human being ever since I ceased to whip myself through those grim first-thing-in-the-morning poetry-volume reading sessions. Life really is too short for that.

Now, an exquisite little poem the first thing in the morning, or even just one stanza – that might be worth trying – before I fall into a book that offers itself like a lover.  



[re: yawn and think of a big idea] 

I am struggling to breathe as I try to pry Waldman's empirical fingers from my sensitive Jungian neck. The thumb of convergent thinking is particularly painful. He's just, so reductionistic. Bring on the images that churn the mind, circle the mystery, welcome the shadows. And newsflash--he doesn't come close to the impact of your blog. I do agree that god is a big idea, and it is important how we handle it, but can't follow to the twist on positive thinking. Too much of a leap. 


Being an atheist with mystical leanings, I thought I'd always have to live with dissonance, the two selves, the irreparable division within. This remains, but it's less painful after doing the yawning exercise (which isn't the only one – I've started collecting brain-regeneration exercises), and focusing on a “big idea” – in my case, that of being a bearer of light. For you, it might be "I am a builder of god." The beautiful thing is that we won't try to kill each other over which it should be. And yet, centuries ago, vicious wars were waged over whether Christ was literally present in the Eucharist, or only symbolically.

For me it's a supreme thrill to contemplate the idea that you don't have to believe a bunch of archaic nonsense in order to reap the benefits of what I call "bliss therapy." Interesting, too, the way that sermons like "Sinners in the hands of an angry god" have mostly fallen by the wayside. The toxic, vengeful, monstrously cruel deity of the past is now ebbing away, even in Catholicism (“I am a sinner" was the desired self-image in my own traditional Catholic childhood).

In parallel, people's physiological markers (e.g. blood pressure) improve when they meditate on “Elohim” but worsen when they are exposed to the name “Jehovah” – probably because the latter is associated with an a vengeful deity.

It’s Dickinson, however, who best renders faith. For the most part, she seems unorthodox, a doubter, an agnostic. But she also has a handful of poems where her faith – or her love – seems absolute.

I see thee better – in the Dark –
I do not need a Light – 
The Love of Thee – a Prism be – 
Excelling Violet – 

I see thee better for the Years 
That hunch themselves between – 
The Miner's Lamp – sufficient be – 
To nullify the Mine – 

611, 1862

I love these lines:

The Miner's Lamp – sufficient be –
To nullify the Mine –

How little it takes! But we must be willing to light that weak lamp.

In spite of dark and absence, we go on living and loving. In spite of various betrayals, we go on trusting. In spite of disillusionment, we go on believing in something. That is the most amazing thing about being human, that we manage to work, love, laugh and sing – knowing that any day, any moment, might be the last one.  Some claim that it is precisely mortality that gives life its enormous value; others, including myself, say that they would gladly live for centuries, millennia, and not find life any less precious for that.


What I love most is the quiet hours of my life – that is my greatest wealth, and that is when I feel “happy like God.”

On the other hand, there is no question that to some extent money does buy happiness: the rich tend to rate themselves as more happy, just as men rate themselves as more happy (the "happiness gap"). I would like to travel all over the world . . . it would enrich me, enlarge me . . . and look, I can't even afford health insurance.

But I've turned down several lucrative jobs because I'd have to give up my quiet hours, and that I refuse to do. Give me my quiet hours; all else is secondary.

Michael (this is an excerpt from my previous correspondence with Michael, used with permission; an update follows):

Rilke speaks for me:
If I had grown in some generous place -
if my hours had opened in ease -  
I would make you a lavish banquet. 
My hands wouldn't clutch at you like this, 
so needy and tight. 

~ But I didn’t. And they didn’t. I’m impoverished, and I don’t want to be. I used to think of it as the cold claw of depression but I've since decided it is only a claw – cold would be welcome – but depression is worse than numb. Rilke: I’m slipping, I’m slipping away like sand slipping through fingers. All my cells are open, and all so thirsty. I ache and swell in a hundred places, but mostly  in the middle of my heart. I want to die. Leave me alone. I feel I am almost there – where the great terror can dismember me. 

To some extent I welcome the descent into Saturn, much as Rilke loved the dark hours of his being (there he could find, as in old letters, the days of his life, already lived). But when the voice whispers - Destroy! - I listen every time, as if a new voice speaks, and every time, I ponder the suggestion. What if? and then? and why not? and after traveling the worn path again, oddly not recognizing the landscape, I decide to linger. Is this where hope springs eternal? And eventually all the clichés give birth -- there is light at the end, a silver lining appears, blah, blah. Nowadays I just look at it from consciousness's bleacher seat. It doesn't take the non-pain away - I just look, sometimes, when the energy is available, with fascination. Here I go again . . . 

But something needs to die. Through the haze it may come to me what it is. Or it may not. Then it returns for round two. Curse it all. Where was my generous place? What happened to my hours of ease? Many years ago I worked with several carpenters who would spend the tedious hours of nails and hammers pondering the virtues of various beers and plotting the post-work foray to a bar. I envied them. My life would not yield to simple pleasure. And still. And though I now understand William Carlos William’s juxtaposition of Springtime and hell, I'm heavily weighted in favor of hell. Hell is the default, I have to work for spring. 

The great insight of depth psychology for me, or at least as Jung models it, is seeing the landscape of the psyche just for what it is. No posturing needed. No lamentation – I don’t expect a tree to be other than a tree. Trees are just treey, that's what trees should be. Treey. Puppies can’t be other than puppies. Puppies do what puppies do. This realization has given me patience with my landscape. I just am what I am – pretty much mid-stream human.  

Michael’s 2011 update:

The excerpt from the letter comes up through my body and I'm reminded of that darkness! Agh! I appreciate your shift to “not succumbing to despair.” That I can savor. For a long time I put my hand on my sword when happiness came bouncing up the path – I thought it was not to be trusted, too easy to confuse with deflection, or distraction (or bliss), but I'm now happier with happiness. We're buds. So I now know, as you do, we do change. Life can be better.


Yes, we do change. The saying is “older and wiser,” but perhaps there ought to be another maxim: “older and happier.”

For most of my adult life, “hell was the default.” I don’t think it was due to any inborn “morose disposition.” When good things happened, I was radiant. And it took a lot of bad things happening, due mainly to bad luck, and also to my teenage ignorance (isn’t it frightening to consider that a teenager makes giant decisions about our future?), before I came to expect bad things to happen. And even when they were no longer happening, anything could set off bad memories. A nightmare could ruin several days that followed, until it gradually stopped haunting me.  

And then it happened: growing older. More wisdom. Lots of good mood and happy moments. Like Michael, I’m now happier with happiness.” 


I'm reminded of the Taoist saying that every state implies its opposite. Bliss is wonderful, but I think I'd prefer to be indifferent to bliss or its less pleasant counterpart. The Stoic ideal was Apatheia, for the Epicureans it was Ataraxia, both about the same thing in my view – indifference. And the Taoists would say live and stop watching yourself. Just live.

And as you said, an ecstatic vision would not be truly ecstatic without musical accompaniment ;)


It’s interesting that you brought up apatheia; I think I am genetically too passionate for it. But a certain measure of serenity strongly appeals to me, as long as I can have moments of transcendent, euphoric bliss as well. I agree about not watching yourself – but in bliss you don’t; likewise while serenely focused on work or maintaining good form while doing physical exercise.

I would like love to be like the Tannhäuser Overture, to which I can listen twenty times over (Solti conducting). Then silence, while the music keeps soaring in my head. But there is much to be said for solid everyday affection, some soothing little nocturne.

This brings me to the almost inevitable statement: “There are two kinds of bliss.” I like both euphoric bliss and what I call “serene bliss.” I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but serene bliss is what I experience while doing my favorite Pilates exercises, or even just lying on the mat, sensing the improved musculo-skeletal alignment – as though my body were saying “thank you.” There is a sense of peace, all worries disappear, I love the instructor and everyone in the class, and even the little Pilates jokes I’ve heard dozens of times before . . .  Who knew that an exercise class could be a religious experience.  


Oriana, interesting post. I think the Buddha wasn't trying to turn off thinking. He said people don't perceive reality correctly because they think the self is permanent. This is the mistake that leads to suffering. Also in meditation instruction one is taught that there is natural thought and deliberate (maybe obsessive is a better word) thought. Natural thought is OK. Deliberate thought is what you're trying to let go of in the mediation period. Of course, you need deliberate thought when it's appropriate to plan, etc., just not during meditation practice.


I apologize if my “Think Less” section gave the impression that thinking is to be turned off entirely. There is the kind of thinking that leads to real solutions (I believe the Buddha called it “radiant thinking”), and then there is dysfunctional thinking that has also been labeled “automatic negative thoughts” (ANTs). It’s this type of brooding and obsessing that is the “second arrow” in the Buddhist parable of two arrows (the second arrow being our response to something bad).

Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain has a wonderful discussion of how the evolution-wired “negativity bias” creates a vicious cycle of suffering, and how we can overcome that bias through deliberate practice. I am certainly in favor of meditation, but want to add that phenomena such as the “hiker’s high,” which I call “drunkenness of the heights,” not to mention moderate drinking, point to the benefits of mild cognitive dysfunction, or, in Dr. Jill Taylor’s terms, partly shutting off the left hemisphere. Her “step to the right” suggestion is in line with what we know about the healing benefits of music. 

Maja Trochimczyk on Facebook:

In her intensely intelligent essay, Oriana wrote an ode to non-thinking as a key to bliss. 


Yes, it takes a intelligence to argue against thinking – or introverted overthinking, to be exact. Interesting that the “think less” portion of this post is getting the most attention. I am certainly aware that some situations require us to think more. But productive thinking is “task-oriented thinking.” By “think less” I meant introverted overthinking that in my case invariably led to the conclusion: “I am a failure.” Maybe the word “thinking” should not be even applied to this phenomenon. It’s an automatic delusional train of thought that is not to be confused with functional thinking or the creative process.

I am also thinking of Dante’s warning against the misuse of the intellect. To Dante, misuse of reason was the source of all sin. But what truly haunts me is Jack Gilbert’s dementia. He used to be brilliant, and his best poems are indeed very good.  His earlier photos showed a craggy, gloomy face, all sharp features and no smile. His recent ones show him with a roundish, cherubic face, and a happy smile at last. I am tempted to say he (involuntarily, to be sure) traded intelligence for bliss (in some cases, dementia disables mostly the left hemisphere, leaving the victim cheerful and sweet and childlike, delighted by the smallest things). Would I ever trade my intelligence for this kind of bliss? Never.

For all this brave talk about bliss, I put intelligence first. Nothing comes ahead of intelligence. If I had a choice between more intelligence or more bliss, I’d take more intelligence, in spite of the biblical warning that “in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccl 1:18). Intelligence can be either a source of deep pleasure – when I read a challenging book, for instance, one that makes me think – or a tool of torture when it turns against me, trying to find answer to questions such as “What is the greatest mistake I made in my life?” It’s thanks to my intelligence that I know there can be no reliable answer. I also know that it doesn’t matter what the mistake was, since the process of healing remains the same: I have to forgive myself, acknowledge the huge role of circumstances I couldn't control, and move on (what Milosz called “escaping forward into work”).

It’s thanks to my intelligence that I decided not to be depressed, and defined my “no-think zones” – my former portals to depression, which I could enter at will as a refuge against the hardship of engaging with the world. It’s thanks to my intelligence that I can read, re-read, and analyze – and write. I’d still choose to be intelligent rather than happy, assuming such a choice existed. But since the proper use of intelligence – going into a subject in depth, for instance, or “gazing at the world” – gives me great pleasure, it’s not an either/or. My new ideal is “intelligent AND happy.” 

There is the kind of bliss which gives the brain a rest from thinking, or else the thinking is effortless: the surprising discovery and insight, the right ending for a poem. For me, these are watery phenomena that occur while I am in the shower.  But there is also intellectual bliss, the bliss of making a huge, dedicated effort – the bliss of studying and learning, the bliss of writing a complex piece of prose (I typed “peace,” since writing prose is so beautifully peaceful in contrast to writing poetry, which easily slides into the hell of obsession). Of course I enjoy and welcome the watery bliss of non-thinking. But I am not giving up the bliss of complex thinking, of using my conscious mind to the utmost. 


Favorite lines: "the moment of writing is an insistence of imagination on human ecstasy" (even when writing about heartbreak?) Haiku seems the best medium for capturing a moment of ecstasy. It’s usually about nature, and as Milosz points out, Nature helps heal. I sit outside, now that I can’t walk and do my gratitudes, my form of meditation.

I think laughter is the greatest gift, the rolling on the floor laughter that children know and as adults we rarely find again.

Favorite word is Zweifel (“doubt”) – so accurate a description of the 21st century where choices are far too abundant.  Even down to little things like choosing a soup or a toothbrush. Maddening. this madness of too many choices.  Also the statement about how we think self is permanent – how arrogant.


I am so glad someone addressed what is an extremely important section here: ELIMINATE OR LIMIT CHOICE. Even retroactively, it helps to think, “I had no choice,” rather than be mired in regrets and might-have-beens.

Some people point to the success of arranged marriages as an example of the benefits of “no choice”: the bride and groom have no choice except to learn to love each other and be happy; otherwise, it’s hell. While I wouldn't go so far as to argue in favor of arranged marriages, I think we would do well to experiment with limited choice. I hate long menus; I hate being forced to ponder what to order. I love to go to the same places and order the same thing again and again – because it spares me the bellyache of trying to decide about such trivia. Katherine Hepburn dressed exclusively in black and white – she never agonized over what to wear. Think of the time women waste trying on a dozen outfits. It’s not fun; it’s sheer waste.

For me being in love is the ultimate feast, but it’s a complex and fragile joy, not without anxiety. Laughter is a supreme simple pleasure. And of course it’s also an element of being in love; happy lovers laugh a lot. A couple that laughs together stays together.

Yes, I think even when writing about heartbreak we imply previous or potential ecstasy. Or else the poet gives us the ecstasy of wonderful language. Anne Carson is a fabulous poet of heartbreak. Her genius turns it into a feast.

Milosz built most of his poetry on his protest against the impermanence of the self. Tough, we are attached to that quirky, unique person that we are. But thanks to my name changes, I have experienced a bit of impermanence, a certain flavor of it . . . with each name, with each language, with each person I interact with, there are personality shifts that seem enlarging. 

I love your phrase: “I do my gratitudes.” That’s why you are such an inspiration, a lantern to us all. And to "do one's gratitudes," or count one's blessings, means entering the "generous place." We are poor no more. Suddenly we see our wealth, our great good luck.

Let me end with a quotation from Joseph Campbell:

We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy. Sanctify the place you are in. Follow your bliss. . . . 


  1. Oriana, I'm forwarding this to the Endless Journey Facebook group.

  2. Just visited the group, and they seem New Age. Not a big strike against them, but my vision of what might be called spirituality is wanting to experience paradise in this life. I started awfully late, I know. I was distracted by tortures such as trying to win a poetry ms contest. And now this huge psychological shift toward "paradise here and now."

    This is where agnosticism helps. I'm using the softer term, but it seems to me that agnostics lean to the position that there is nothing after death -- and if there is something, it will be a wonderful surprise (just having consciousness of any sort would be magnificent). But the surprise is not likely, so we better concentrate on this life, and seek and build paradise right here.