Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Never Summer Range,
Colorado Rockies

On the slopes of Specimen Mountain,
between patches of eternal snow,
a dozen ewes and lambs.
Horns even on the watchful females,
but the lambs not skittery –

one stops in the saddle of the pass,
stares at me like a child.
Then, near wind-twisted, green
island of krummholz, four rams –
triangular faces between

spiral galaxies of horns.
this is their acropolis,
this plateau of cloud and stone.
I crouch, creep up
until I can see the fused rings –

If only I could come
closer yet –
if they’d sniff my hand,
lick sweat off my skin.
Being human is exile.

I stir, collect my pack.
they grow agitated.
pressing through dense branches,
the fifth ram, the biggest,
steps out.

He walks over to another ram,
waiting, frozen in profile –
he surveys me again, then slowly
lowers his great scrolled head,
and they retreat. 

I too retreat, descend.
Behind me, the sky
pulsing with good luck;
before me, the great bells
of the thunderheads. 

The wind parts the grass,
combs it close to the ground.
I gather a few threads
of the coarse wool.
At least we are granted

glimpses, wisps
among thickets and thorns.

~ Oriana © 2013


I have had my glimpses. There is something sublime about suddenly encountering beautiful animals in the wild. Now that I’m pondering visits to orthopedic surgeons, do I wish I could repeat that hike? No. Been there, done that. And thinking of the joggers I passed by during my leisurely sunset stroll the day before -- the usual panting and pained gasping, the usual contorted faces -- I felt almost blissful thinking that this self-imposed torment would never be mine: I had no choice in the matter. This morning again I woke up feeling wonderfully posthumous. There was nothing I felt I had to accomplish, nothing to strive for.

I did, however, need to fill out a lengthy application. The deadline was still far-off, but I knew from experience that if I didn’t do it as soon as possible, I’d be haunted by the darn thing, my energy drained from more enjoyable thoughts and activities. So I decided to give myself no choice: I’d do it right away. Not tomorrow or next week. I closed those options. I filled out the application; it turned out to be quite easy and took less time than I expected. As someone observed, we don’t procrastinate because the task is difficult; the task is difficult because we procrastinate.

With no choice except doing it, I sat at my desk and did it. Now when I happen to glance at the large envelope waiting to go off into the mail, there seems to be something like the smile of the Cheshire cat about it.

As a brilliant neuroscientist I knew in Warsaw said, “We try to avoid a minor discomfort now, and end up suffering a much greater discomfort later.” 


Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and writer, has a book called THE WISDOM OF NO ESCAPE. Sometimes just the title can cause a moment of insight, as happened with a different book, Susan Nolen’s Eating, Drinking, Overthinking. I didn’t have to read the book. Simply seeing Overthinking next to Eating and Drinking made me become aware that my overthinking was an addiction -- and an addiction can be overcome.  That “title satori” was a minor step on my way to a major satori about depression. Minor but important.

But back to The Wisdom of No Escape. Our first impulse is to try to escape even a minor discomfort, Pema Chodron states. Of course we have an aversion to pain. But if we put up with it and even get curious about something that appears unpleasant, we will gain, Chodron promises. If we close the door to escape, we may end up in a larger space.

Right in this life, we all get to experience heaven and hell and resurrection. And hell, major or minor, is sometimes a prerequisite of resurrection. Or, as Sartre said, “Life begins on the other side of despair.” When there is no escape, with luck we’ll eventually get tired of despair and being to move forward.

And sometimes life does it for us: escape is no longer possible. There is no choice. And that’s when something amazing can happen: we become quite happy with what we have. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes a crippled man’s reaction to the question about his happiness:

And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu’s question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and the dancing sheep, and cries, “Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!”


Sartre famously said that freedom is found in commitment. By closing the other options, we are free to concentrate on our choice. (Not that it’s easy to know what we want since the human brain contains multiple minds that often compete -- but that’s a separate issue.)

Heidi Halvorson explains that most of us want to “keep our options open”:

Given the choice, would you prefer to make an iron-clad, no-turning-back decision, or one you could back out of if you needed to?

People overwhelmingly prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones.  They believe it’s better to “keep your options open,” whenever possible.  They wait years before declaring a major, date someone for years before getting married, favor stores with a guaranteed return policy (think Zappos), and hire employees on a temporary basis (or use probationary periods), all in order to avoid commitments that can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to un-do. 

People believe that this is the best way to ensure their own happiness and success.  But people, as it turns out, are wrong.

Why does keeping our options open make us less happy?  Because once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in.  This is how psychologists . . . refer to the mind’s uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions.  Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives.  Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.


After quoting so much, I thought, might as well be hanged for a sheep than a lamb -- let me be totally shameless, and quote from an earlier blog post:

Again I want to quote that crucial passage from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code:

Extraordinary people display calling most evidently. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate. Perhaps, too, they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it . . .  They seem to have no other choice . . . Extraordinary people are not a different category; the workings of this engine in them are simply more transparent. (p. 28-29)

“Extraordinary people are not a different category”; it’s just that they have clarity about their vocation and a great loyalty to it. And this brings me to another article:


The title is misleading. By “quitters,” the author, Nick Tasler, means people who can commit oneself to one option and eliminate the rest. To use an extreme example (mine, not his), Frank Lloyd Wright also loved music. But he didn’t try to be both an architect and a piano virtuoso. He chose his path early and persisted. Architecture is a kind of frozen music – but we don’t need to go that far. He made his choice, and became extraordinary.

Here we come back to the finding that less choice is better, and no choice may be best (depending on the matter at hand). REDUCE OR ELIMINATE CHOICE. Keeping options open is not only stressful, but virtually guarantees failure.

But how can we know if option 1 is the best if option 2 looks yummy also, and option 3 has its seductive angles as well? If the pull of a single option is not that distinct, we have to make a leap of faith. I hate to confess how many times I simply tossed a coin . . .  but even that is better than sitting half-dressed at the edge of a bed, like a woman in a painting by Edward Hopper. Should she put on the red dress or the blue one? (Do I hear someone say, “But Oriana, she is trying to decide if life is worth living!” – Listen, I know what it means to be a woman. She can’t make up her mind about what to wear. The problem is that it all looks good. It’s the cumulative microtrauma of trivial choices that makes women so exhausted.)

Decisiveness: the ability to choose one thing, one course of action, while “quitting” others. Eliminating the stress of choice. To quote from the article:

The inability to make what Harvard ethics professor, Joseph Badaracco, calls “right vs. right” decisions can be a fatal strategic flaw. An otherwise talented manager who can’t bring himself to focus on one customer segment at the expense of others (but what if they want to buy, too!?!) winds up taking his team in circles, and his career into a rut.

At the heart of strategic thinking is the ability to focus on one strategy while consciously quitting the pursuit of others. Choosing what we want to do is easy. It's choosing what else we want to do that we are nonetheless going to quit doing that is the hard part—to build the school by stripping funding from the hospital; to develop this product while shutting down production of that one. As David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame) once said “more companies die from overeating than starvation.” The same truth applies to our careers and personal lives.


In the Western world, people certainly die from overeating rather than starvation. But I’m not sure if I agree with the statement “choosing what we want to do is easy.” For some people it is, for others it isn’t. Perhaps the author should have said: “choosing what we most want to do.” But even then . . . Try asking someone, “What’s the most important thing in your life?” People I know would sooner discuss their sex lives (or lack of them).

I do agree, though, that paying the price of focusing – sacrificing other attractive things and activities – may be even harder. Not particularly for me – once I have clarity, it’s relatively easy for me to be single-minded. But I’ve known people so immersed in a dozen attractive activities that they are always in a rush, frantic, unable to do anything at the level of excellence.

We live in a manic, multi-tasking, short-attention span culture. My most important motto is DO LESS. The less you do (but the more thoroughly you do it, and the more you enjoy doing it), the more you will accomplish.

Why? For one thing, you’ll be eliminating a lot of choice-making, possibly the primary source of stress in modern life. The future belongs to the decisive – the “quitters,” those who quit doing too many things.

Arguably the foremost problem in life is that we “can’t have it all.” Once we accept that, the rest is . . . well, not exactly easy, but doable. As one visual artist told me, “When you concentrate on one small thing, something huge begins to unfold.”   


Back now to today, the lovely overcast “no sky.” I’m pondering something recently posted by Max Flumerfelt: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” Knowing who you are and what you want to say is not easy for the reason I mentioned near the beginning: our brain contains multiple minds with competing priorities. Information overload makes focus (or we can call it style) even more difficult. I remember when I wanted to know all about astrophysics, and the history of great ideas, and art, and theater, and all the names of plants and animals, and . . . and . . . and . . .

Soon I was on the road to nowhere, my twenties largely lost due to trying to travel in too many directions at once. Yes, I picked up all kinds of sundry facts, a small portion of which did make way into my writing. Only later I realized that no, there is no time to read The String Theory and The New Yorker, see all the great plays and movies, and write in all the genres besides. And then there were long letters to friends to be written. Alas, all kinds of wonderful things simply had to go if I was to accomplish even one thing at the level of excellence. Anyone can choose between good and bad; it’s the choice between good and good that drives us to despair.

Life begins on the other side of that despair (Sartre again). The wisdom of “less is more” finally dawns. We grasp mortality, as mortality grasps us. A few years before her death, my mother started saying, “That’s not important,” dismissing most of the things of the world. It took me a while to  understand this. I think of myself as a late bloomer, but look! I didn’t have to turn eighty before understanding how little time is left, and how selective we have to get, how many doors we have to close. And as the doors close, what remains is infinitely precious.

I know I flatter myself by calling myself posthumous, above a life of distractions and straining to please (including pleasing my perfectionist self). And I admit that I can’t recall the specific moment when I had my “posthumous” satori. I remember the moment of the my big satori about depression, but not the moment when the sweetness of being posthumous first registered.

But being a writer, I can imagine it. I am in Europe, roaming in the streets of an ancient town. I walk into a lovely old church, shivering with pleasure at finding myself in the cool twilight of that stone building that rightly continues the tradition of Neolithic sacred places. But out of the silence, voice, above me in the choir. The singers are rehearsing “Nunc dimittis.”

How can I, a committed atheist (that was another closing of a door, and what a burden fell away from me), imagine an important moment taking place in a church? Because I take from religion whatever is beautiful. Buddhism or Catholicism, it’s all my heritage -- but I swallow nothing whole. I select.

And I select “Nunc dimittis”: now you let your servant depart for my eyes have seen salvation. This needs translation so that it would have a personal meaning: now I let go of the busy and distracted life, of striving, of trying to please. What writing may come will come without effort, both out of the moment and out of the past. Now my eyes see the path of Less so that something larger may emerge.

And now I walk out of the church into the hum and rush of the streets, but with a beautiful silence within me. 



Hear the word of Lachesis, daughter of Necessity. . . .
let he who draws the first lot have the first choice,
and the life he chooses shall be his destiny.
                                                ~ Plato, Book 10, The Republic

Cries of seabirds lifting like needles
from tissues of mist. The brocade
of breaking sea. The faintest discernment

of salt. The silk of your breath spun
into cloth in early morning air.
The loom of the mast, the shuttle of the sail,

the quiet design of the harbor. The stone
of a house set like a gem in a fabric
of hills. The shimmer of lambent late

afternoon light. The weave of the lover’s
lavish touch. The rise and fall
of flesh, petals in a night-blue bay.

If only you had paused when Lachesis
spread the patterns of life like pieces
of quilt. If only, when she asked you

to choose, you had recalled the tangled
knots of the world, the groans of discontent,
the torn tapestry of your last life.

You might have asked for less,
settled for a gown of dreams—
for this, the life you might have had.



Ah, that gauzy dream life poem! Thank you for this engauzement! And dear old Plato with his gorgeous nonsense, as some Victorian remarked.

Some case might be made for choosing a “challenging” life, but nobody would choose, before birth, the horrors that do happen to someone after all: early-onset Alzheimer’s, for instance.

For me the alternate life was, for decades, what it might have been like if I’d stayed in Poland. It was easy to see myself having a ball as a student at the University of Warsaw, the city a succession of blossoms: lilacs, then chestnut trees, then linden trees. And after the lush summer in the countryside, a return to the golden autumn in my favorite parks. And love, love, love. One child more likely than two. And then vagueness, fog, Decembers when sometimes it's dusk all day -- and the knowledge that of course there’d be suffering, just different. When you change countries, you change problems.

In terms of personal happiness, I have little doubt that I would have been happier. I don’t know if it’s evident, since I never wanted to sound like a kvetch, but I suffered a great deal as result of my displacement -- as happens to most immigrants. Some stay bitter for the rest of their life. When I first met those unhappy immigrants, I swore not to become like them. Of course soon enough I was devastated and growing more and more bitter. I caught myself at the last moment, I think, not wanting to lose it all.

But is happiness the right criterion? Many people have asked me, “Would you have become a poet?” Possibly, but as a completely different person, probably one who’s more intent on playing with the language. I might be experimental, avant-garde. I had a gift for that, apparent already in childhood.

In any case, eventually I realized that it’s pointless to spend time imagining that other potential life, making myself miserable that way, rather than making the best of my real life. It seems almost surreal how long we can stay wedded to a doomed dream rather than commit to reality. 

Cathedral in Sandomierz, Poland



I think this blog has more wisdom than any other.

Favorite line in “Bighorn Sheep” is
"The wind parts the grass,
combs it close to the ground."

Love the so many pearls of wisdom starting with: We don’t procrastinate because the task is difficult; the task is difficult because we procrastinate.

This blog is so great. I think you and I intuitively have many self-imposed limitations to limit choice. That's exactly why we can get ahead in the world.

More people die from overeating than from starvation is also a truism.

“It’s the choice between good and good that drives us to despair” is another favorite.


Yes, the choice between good and good, and bad and bad -- those are the heartbreakers. But especially the choice between good and good -- that in-your-face announcement that you can’t have it all. Recently that has been hitting women more: that realization that you can’t be a super-dedicated professional and a super-mom too. Come on, hire a nanny. But in this country, it’s disapproved of. “Here you do everything yourself,” I was told.

I like your choice of favorites. Those are mine as well. Thank you.

One of my recent surprises was the gain in strength and focus once I closed the door on “theist doubt” (wondering if god exists after all -- not a Judeo-Christian god or any other man-invented god, but some unknown “real god”). Until then I didn’t even realize there was that dribble of energy going into the question, like precious water from a leaking faucet.

Long live self-imposed limitations! Facebook is a huge enemy of focus. And even quality newspapers and magazines, full of fascinating stuff that will nevertheless be forgotten almost instantly, since it doesn’t fit the framework on the ongoing major project. Fascinating, yes, and I could spend all day reading those articles, and not accomplish a thing.

When in doubt, there is a tool one can use: “red light, green light.” Before plunging into an activity, ask yourself: Does it serve my purpose? If yes, it’s a green light for go; if no, it’s a red light for stop. Soon all you are asking is “Green light? Red light?” After a while, you don’t even ask. You instantly know if it’s a green light or a red light.

Before I knew the red light/green light technique, I used to bypass intellectual distraction by saying to myself, “This is from Satan.” I’m not kidding. It served me well.

Now, nobody is on the path 100% -- except under deadline pressure. Of course now and then I too stray into the New York Times, say. But how shallow those articles seem after a stretch of concentrated work. And you know you’ll be going in all directions at once and not getting anywhere. Or, to change metaphors, we are dying of intellectual overeating, not of starvation.


I already hear a chorus of voices asking, BUT DON’T YOU BECOME TOO NARROW?

And I can joyfully and with 100% certainly shout back, “No!” The paradox of focusing in depth on any subject is that a whole infinity opens up. You narrow down, and get to something huge. Cultivate one garden, and you gain the world.

But if you don’t focus on anything coherent, all turns into dust. You are not building anything.



Yes, it's all interesting... I wonder though in what sense you mean 'many minds'... I find that the most interesting - the thought that there may be 'many minds' within one brain, but I am not sure how you are defining mind here. You mean self-contained wholes, within a whole?

I am reading about the extended mind at the moment, in my PhD stuff, and inclined more and more to think that our minds are pretty much where we draw the lines (and how much choice in that matter we have is debatable, but the illusion of choice is necessary - the illusion of free will, and control - and also, limitations on the choices are necessary, as you point out.

I think it's maybe not a question of too much choice but of not bringing enough of the organism into play when we decide. If everything is on the one level, say the rational level (but not necessarily) then we have no real grounds to choose one thing rather than another - we can create arguments for anything. If on the other hand we bring all of our resources into play - it seems to me that our choices are 'automatically' reduced by our own 'whole organisms' (again, that's where we draw the line).

If we can live this way there is a lot more peace - eventually it seems you do not have to 'choose' anything, or if you do, that's because a problem has risen in the internal communication, and we can only 'think' or only 'feel'...when it all comes together there is usually a single outcome.


I am somewhat premature in speaking of “many minds.” Neuroscience isn’t quite there yet. I suppose you're getting at something like a "whole-brain response." In terms of traditional evolutionary neuroscience, that would include the reptile brain (survival), mammalian brain (attachment, at least in social animals), and cortical brain. This is an oversimplification that goes back at least thirty years, as if there existed little communication between those layers of the brain. Perhaps we need to include the extensive nervous system of the heart and the intestines as also a kind of "mind" (a word impossible to define precisely, but then the Catholic Encyclopedia is unable to define "soul").

I suspect that there are several “minds” within the cortex itself -- or call these subpersonalities. And perhaps the talk about "the highest self" and "inner child" and so on also has validity, but I doubt we'll ever be able to establish the coordinates of each realm, not to mention constant change and flow. All we know is that under stress we become more survival-oriented. As for subtleties such as my having a somewhat different personality when I speak Polish, forget it! I even have different moral values when I shift to Polish. As Ewa Parma said, "If you had stayed, you'd still write, but as a totally different person." Not sure about "totally," but sure about "different." (What would remain the same, I think since it feels like the core of my being: the love of books and ideas; the love of beauty.)

How do we integrate the many minds, the many subpersonalities? Your idea of listening to our whole being and not just to the rational mind is quite appealing, and when I seem to make a choice but my body shows discomfort I certainly “listen to the body.” But for me the integration is more about “being on the path” and not straying into every attractive direction. Then indeed there is hardly any need to choose: you keep on going.

So I am back to SELF-IMPOSED LIMITATIONS. When motivation is intense, I hardly notice the limitations, nor do I need to put any energy into enforcing them. There is also the question of building the habit of working. When Heraclitus said that “character is destiny,” by “character” he meant “daily habits” -- at least that’s what some scholars say, and that makes sense to me. Some people manage to accomplish things by manic fits and starts; I am the plodding type. (True, nobody sees me as plodding, since I have a relatively high level of animation when I am with people; but I know what I am like in private.)

I have certainly tried the opposite of limiting choice: hey, let the mind stray wherever it wants to. Hours and hours of browsing. It feels good while I’m doing it! I have a broad intellectual foundation and everything interests me, so I can flit from one article to another, from one intellectual blossom to another. I can’t complain about being bored! But afterwards: EMPTINESS.

The opposite is focused work. The kind of work doesn’t matter; it’s the focus that matters. I’m tempted to say: don’t worry so much if it’s the right goal; the important thing is to have a goal. Have something small and manageable planned for today, and something larger in mind as the overarching goal (that one can be somewhat vague; it will keep evolving toward clarity). “We manage best when we manage small” ~ Linda Gregg. The big goal doesn’t have to be fully known.

Doing something with concentration is not as easy as browsing. But afterwards, a feeling of accomplishment, of having done something and gotten somewhere. I’m tired but happy. I think of what I have written and smile to myself. And I know I will sleep well.
I noticed this already when I was leaving my childhood years. Playing began to bore me. And it puzzled me: why did work feel so much more satisfying than play? I don’t know if that true for everyone, but I know that my brain thrives on focus. 


Not that I feel “completely in control.” I’ll never forget the day when a neighbor gave me a newsletters for families of Parkinson’s patients. My father was dying of Parkinson’s, a slow, macabre death. I started reading 
“research news,” and became so fascinated that poetry couldn’t offer me anything that day, or in the following days. Soon I was spending my weekends at the UCSD Biomedical Library. I dropped poetry and gave myself to my new passion, which soon branched into hormones. And when I read a lot about something, I begin to write about it, so a new career opened up. For eight years I stayed away from poetry -- I, who once believed that poetry was such a strong addiction, there was no quitting it.

And then I saw “Shakespeare in Love,” with its divine passages from Romeo and Juliet. And I was a poet again, my “second coming.” Then came the blog and prose captivated me. So I know that if the attraction is strong enough, my brain decides for me. Resistance is futile. But ever since I became a writer, one thing held steady: I kept writing. The form and content have changed, but writing has remained the center of my life. 


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