Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

I’ve been re-reading this each morning since the beginning of the year—what luck! It has supported my flimsy wandering flabby mind during this panic time by providing calm wisdom and basic guideposts to help train the brain to mindfulness. Three months into this reading, the pandemic swept us all into a new reality, making Goldstein’s words echo ever more helpfully: “Anything can happen anytime.”

I wrote out a few reflections on PostIts by my mirror so that every day I am reminded of the essential facts: that I am subject to old age, illness, death, I’ll be parted from every one and everything dear to me, and that I am the owner and heir of my karma. They are reminders of what is true and what will happen to everyone.

His sections on worry also provide relief in this time when we’re all worrying about the future, making ourselves tense and miserable. “To whatever inconvenience there may or may not be, [when we worry] we’re saying, in effect, ‘Let’s add a little suffering to the mix.'”

I found myself getting angry at the many people (read: joggers) who are not wearing masks when outside. Goldstein counsels: “Although different conditions may prompt different emotions to arise, how we relate to those feelings is up to us.” This is also where lovingkindness comes in, so I’m trying to make it a practice to seek out and relate to the good in each person.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; have joy and the causes of joy; remain free from attachment and aversion.

Night and Day

Woolf’s second novel was written during the Great War but makes no mention of it, causing criticism from Katherine Mansfield who complained about the aloof attitude, written as if “unaware of what has been happening.” Woolf herself later dismisses the novel as “interminable” but at the time it provided her a structure to work out the conventional form of a novel. Like painters, once she’s mastered that, she’s free to experiment with more modern forms. (Contrarily, she also writes in 1919 “I don’t suppose I’ve ever enjoyed any writing so much as I did the last half of N. & D.”)

Dreams and realities was the working title of the manuscript and the heroine, Katharine, floats in between those two states, confidently ordering the household of her aged parents and helping with her mother’s biography of the famous ancestor, a poet whose artifacts clog the house and make it impossible to breathe and think of a life for herself. She’s on a fast track to marriage with William Rodney because she believes it will give her the freedom to do what she wants to most in her life: study mathematics.

Instead, Ralph Denham captures her heart (eventually), and William gets paired with the more traditional Cassandra. But Ralph and Katharine have difficulty believing in their love, that it’s not an illusion.

Honestly, who cares about plot when you’re bound to run into lush descriptions of walks around London, Kew Gardens, the Zoo, the Embankment, the Strand, the Inns of Temple. Woolf makes you laugh but mostly makes your heart soar with her elegant prose.

Bonus points for memories dredged up by encountering detritus I’ve left throughout the years in my books—this has a train ticket stub from Paris to London and a sheet of paper from the London hotel I stayed in; additionally, I did much penance by having to erase my ill-advised college-era pencil notations as I read my way through again.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book Two

My reading of Europe’s “great bedside book” continued over the past month, sipping at Book 2 along with my morning coffee. One caveat with this entry is that I confess to having skipped chapter 12’s massive (nearly 200pp.) Apology to Raymond Sebond. I promise to go back and read it sometime as a separate project but couldn’t muster the dedication this month.

That said, there were plenty of other chapters to enjoy as a wormhole back to Renaissance times which itself contain wormholes back to ancient Greece & Rome. Continuing with favorite quotes:

“My business, my art, is to live my life.” (2:6)

“Nature has vouchsafed us a great talent for keeping ourselves occupied when alone and often summons us to do so in order to teach us that we do owe a part of ourselves to society but that the best part we owe to ourselves.” (2:18)

“I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” (2:10)

Quoting Ovid: “What is allowed has no charm: what is not allowed, we burn to do.” (2:15)

“Even if nobody reads me, have I wasted my time when I have entertained myself during so many idle hours with thoughts so useful and agreeable?” (2: 18)

“To help my defective and treacherous memory a little—and it is so extremely bad that I have more than once happened to pick up again, thinking it new and unknown to me, a book which I had carefully read several years earlier and scribbled all over with my notes—I have for some time now adopted the practice of adding at the end of each book (I mean of each book which I intend to read only once) the date when I finished reading it and the general judgement I drew from it, in order to show me again at least the general idea and impression I had conceived of its author when reading it.” (2:10)

“I have boundless love for [poetry]; I knew my way well through other men’s works; but when I set my own hand to it I am truly like a child: I find myself unbearable. You may play the fool anywhere else but not in poetry: ‘Poets are never allowed to be mediocre by the gods, by men or by publishers [quoting Horace, Ars poetica].’ Would to God that the following saying was written up above our printers’ workshops to forbid so many versifiers from getting in: ‘truly nothing is more self-assured than a bad poet. [quoting Martial, Epigrams]'” (2: 17)

“Evil fortune does have some use: it is a good thing to be born in a century which is deeply depraved, for by comparison with others you are reckoned virtuous on the cheap. Nowadays if you have merely murdered your father and committed sacrilege you are an honest honorable man.” (2:17)

“Not only does the wind of chance events shake me about as it lists, but I also shake and disturb myself by the instability of my stance: anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. … I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be  found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal—I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy.” (2: 1)

“Some forms of government have been concerned to decide when suicide may be legal and opportune. In our own city of Marseilles in former times they used to keep a supply of a poison based on hemlock always available at public expense to all those who wished to hasten their days; they first had to get their reasons approved by their Senate (called the Six Hundred); it was not permissible to lay hands on oneself, save by leave of the magistrate and for lawful reasons.” (2:3)

 

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1912-1918

It is a treat to descend into the cool, calming prose of Woolf’s reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which she continued to churn out even during this tumultuous time of war and death and illness and marriage. I pulled this volume out as I was uncovering the work of Samuel Butler to read her July 1916 review of a newly released biography; she praised it mostly because it causes us to take down Butler’s work itself to reread. I find her essays to be a great place to start when I’ve just discovered a new-to-me writer; she praises or eviscerates, she rarely hides her barbs. Here is a limited selection of hits I enjoyed:

Hours in a Library

Her November 1916 “Hours in a Library” is both a nod to her father’s collection of essays by the same title and a declaration of love for reading.

For the first time, perhaps, all restrictions have been removed, we can read what we like; libraries are at our command, and, best of all, friends who find themselves in the same position. For days upon end we do nothing but read. It is a time of extraordinary excitement and exaltation. We seem to rush about recognizing heroes. There is a sort of wonderment in our minds that we ourselves are really doing this, and mixed with it an absurd arrogance and desire to show our familiarity with the greatest human beings who have ever lived in the world. The passion for knowledge is then at its keenest, or at least most confident, and we have, too, an intense singleness of mind which the great writers gratify by making it appear that they are at one with us in their estimate of what is good in life.

This gets at the heart of my dilettantish curiosity about most topics under the sun:

And then there are the books of facts and history, books about bees and wasps and industries and gold mines and Empresses and diplomatic intrigues, about rivers and savages, trade unions, and Acts of Parliament, which we always read and always, alas! forget.

To Read or Not to Read

This 1917 review of a book by someone who thought books were evil.

‘Books!’ What sin do you most abhor? Is it drunkenness or lying, cruelty or superstition? Well, they all come from reading books. What virtues do you most admire? Pluck them in handfuls, wherever you like, the answer is still the same; that is the result of not reading books. The trouble is that somehow or other the vicious race of readers has got the virtuous race of non-readers into its power.

Mr Conrad’s ‘Youth’

I note this 1917 essay on Joseph Conrad’s latest batch of stories as the first place I’ve seen her mention what ultimately will be her own method of suicide twenty-four years later:

… when old Captain Whalley, betrayed by nature and by man, fills his pockets with iron and drops into the sea we feel a rare sense of adequacy, of satisfaction, as if conqueror and conquered had been well matched and there is here ‘nothing to wail’.