Mindfulness recognizes most of the past is forgotten and the future is unknowable. The mean is found in the leading edge of the present.
Our minds are made to forget. A perfect memory would overwhelm our cognitive circuits with minutiae.
"More memory is not generally better... Forgetting prevents the sheer mass of life's detail from critically slowing down the retrieval of relevant experience and so impairing the mind's ability to abstract, infer and learn."
Gert Gigerenzer, Gut Feelings
A perfect memory would make us too literal, too rational, too predictable. Enslaved to our past. Unable to navigate the future as it unfolds.
Yet, when we look back there are exquisite memories in rich detail. How can that be if so much is forgotten?
Our brains play tricks on us with those compressed memory threads.
"When we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating‒not by actually retrieving‒the bulk of the information we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time."
Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness
And what does the brain use to fabricate our long-term memories?
What we are experiencing in the present.
Likewise, predictions of the future tend to be extrapolations of what is occurring in the present.
What gets left out of all predictions is the unpredictable‒the unexpected events, the surprises. It is these surprises that often have the greatest impact on the future. They are the game changers that can swamp the incremental improvements and current trends.
Our past memories and future dreams are heavily skewed by our present experience.
How important it is, then, to fill our present lives with wonder and variety. To live The Good Life.
Our brains are best suited for navigating the adjacent possible. Our ability to connect apparently unrelated items to come up with novel solutions is remarkable. Such skill is what allows us to adapt and thrive in the future as it unfolds without having to predict it.
The leading edge is in the present, yet it is not. It is in the future, yet it is not. It is constantly flowing. Mindfulness is learning to ride that flow.
-J.D. Stein | February 2014
All things have a mean. A sweet spot where there is neither excess nor deficiency. A life that achieves that golden mean is called The Good Life.
One might think such a life would not be materialistic and that the world today is too materialistic.
The opposite is true.
The Good Life embraces materialism while the world is not materialistic enough.
A materialist values Supreme Objects, items that are inherently good for their own sake.
The opposite of a materialist is not a person who spurns material goods. To live in this world means to own and use physical things.
Even minimalists value the select objects they own.
The opposite of a materialist is someone who cares about the symbolic value, the social meaning of what they buy, rather than the inherent qualities of the goods themselves.
The focus of buying becomes more about the message the object conveys about the purchaser rather than how well it performs its inherent purpose.
More and more consumers care less about the quality of materials and construction and more about what others will think of them when they wear or use the item.
Raymond Williams writes:
"It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realizing that the material object being sold is never enough: this indeed is the crucial cultural quality of its modern forms. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly."
Raymond Williams, Advertising: The Magic System
The problem with valuing the social meaning of goods rather than the goods themselves is it exponentially increases the volume of goods we consume.
A world that values symbolism over quality is a world drowning in garbage. Literally. We become a throwaway society, always searching out the next new thing.
If an object will not enhance our social status because no one will see it or care then our default criteria for choosing it is price. The lower the better.
The way to break this destructive cycle is to buy less things and pay more, much more for what we do buy.
We need to seek after objects and experiences that exhibit exceptional quality, beauty and uniqueness.
We need to slow down and admire the elegance of how those gifts were packaged and delivered.
We need to relish the stories of the makers and acknowledge what was sacrificed in order to hold that chosen object in our hand.
Such goods fill an inner need.
Most useful objects of the present day are too superficial to answer our daily inner need: they are the victims of commercialism that characterizes the contemporary artistic world, for commercialism is the enemy of man, extirpating all beauty from his culture.
Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
I own a waxed canvas laptop case. It is made by ateliers PENELOPE. Their studio and store is hidden in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood surrounded by traditional Japanese houses. It took us thirty minutes of walking and searching to find it. Their selection is small and they sell almost exclusively in Japan.
The small label on the outside of the case says fait-main dans un atelier par ateliers PENELOPE 1996 (handmade in a workshop by Ateliers PENEOLPE 1996).
The bag cost less than $100 and it will last the rest of my life.
Every time I open it I am reminded of that shop and the kind man who interrupted his sewing in order to help us.
I remember the intoxicated young man who stepped out of a restaurant and invited us in for a soda on our walk back to the train. As we sat with him, he lamented how difficult it is to be a gay man in Japan and how he longed to visit the U.S. again.
My bag is plain looking. It is a nondescript brown. No one has ever complimented me on it. No one I know has heard of ateliers PENELOPE.
But if you held it in your hands and ran the canvas through your fingers, you would understand immediately why this bag is special. You would say, "It is beautiful."
"Only an object that is natural and wholesome manifests true beauty, and this "natural beauty" is the Buddhist ideal. Objects that reveal ambition, objects in which lack of taste is knowingly simulated, objects where some quality such as strength or cleverness is exaggerated ‒ these will not be universally admired for long, although they may create a momentary furor."
Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
May we all learn to be materialists in the true sense of the word.
-J.D. Stein | February 2014
Silence Like Thunder is about finding the mean. Both the golden mean and the Buddhist mean.
The golden mean is that sweet spot in life where there is neither excess nor deficiency.
It is a single point whereas the Buddhist mean or fusoku furi is not fixed but flowing.
The Buddhist mean is understood intuitively. As such, it is best illustrated with metaphors and analogies.
I first introduced the Buddhist mean in my essay Mona Lisa and Fusoku Furi, but I want to explore it more deeply here.
Music exhibits the Buddhist mean. David Bohm in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order describes what takes place when we listen to music.
"At a given moment a certain note is being played but a number of previous notes are still "reverberating" in consciousness.
Close attention will show that it is the simultaneous presence and activity of all these reverberations that is responsible for the direct and immediately felt sense of movement, flow and continuity.
To hear a set of notes so far apart in time that there is no such reverberation will destroy altogether the sense of a whole unbroken, living moment that gives meaning and force to what is heard."
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order
Music is not the sum of the individual notes (i.e. the parts). We know that because the music is destroyed if the notes are spaced too far apart.
Nor is music separate from the individual notes, because if there were no notes, there would be no music.
Rather, music is revealed through the reverberations of the notes. How they enfold in our consciousness.
Music is neither attached to nor undetached from the notes. Music is fusoku furi.
But there is a mystery to music that cannot be put into words.
That mystery is revealed when we listen to music live or on a vinyl record versus listening to a digital reproduction of the music on a CD or an iPod. There is a difference between the two experiences.
Vinyl records are an exact physical replication of the live session whereas a digital recording is a series of bits.
The gathering and interpretation of those bits require an intermediary. A mathematical translation. A simplification.
When something intervenes with the original reverberations of the notes then a part of the music is lost. We can't explain what it is, but it feels different.
How is the Buddhist mean manifest in our own lives?
The "musical notes" are our thoughts, feelings, hopes, activities and experiences.
When those things are in harmony, then they reverberate, providing a feeling of flow and effortlessness. It is music. It is fusoku furi.
How do we reach that point?
First, by getting rid of the excess ‒ the distractions, the clutter, the non-essential. This is called framing.
Framing frees up physical, mental and emotional space to experiment and practice to find our version of the Good Life, to achieve the golden mean, the sweet spot in our own life.
We find the Good Life, as I described here, by choosing to act, for it own sake, with the knowledge we have, and to the best of our ability given the circumstances.
When we do that, there will be periods when all is in harmony, when life feels effortless, when there is flow.
That is fusoku furi, the Buddhist mean.
It is not something we find, but it finds us.
It comes indirectly. We cannot intervene in the mystery, otherwise something is lost in the same way live music is diminished when it is digitized.
-J.D. Stein | February 2014
This past weekend we visited Salt Lake City. I had some free time so I stopped by a store I've seen from I-15 the past few times I've driven that route. Now there are a lot of stores along I-15 so why did this one stand out?
Two reasons. Its massive scale and its name.
This store appeared to be the size of a coliseum with two huge glass facades. It's called Scheel's, and I had never heard of it.
I used to work as a credit analyst with a focus on retail so I tend to keep an eye on what is going on in that space. So when a retailer with a funny sounding name I've never heard of plops a 200,000 square foot store along a major highway, it piques my curiosity.
I walked into the store, past the cash registers and was greeted not by a barrage of merchandise but by a 65-foot Ferris wheel. Children and their parents waited in line for their turn to ride. In the alcoves on the first floor, there was sportswear for sale but the star attraction was the Ferris wheel.
I took the escalator upstairs, walked past the golf clubs, a row of exercise machines, a bowling alley and found a taxidermy mountain. The fake hill was littered with stuffed wildlife ‒ bears, antelope, grouse, turkeys, mountain lions, mountain goats, deer, bald eagles and a moose. A speaker blasted out animal sounds.
On one side of the taxidermy mountain was the Ferris wheel and on the other there was a full-size seaplane hanging from the ceiling. Below the seaplane there were kayaks and paddleboards for sale. Next to that was the gun and ammo section.
I continued walking to get a better view of the Ferris wheel and was greeted by a life-size talking Abe Lincoln sharing a message of freedom. His closest neighbor was a stuffed (and silent ) grizzly bear, next to which was the fish and tackle section.
At that point, I passed a fake monster truck that is used for photo ops, went down the escalator and fled.
Retail is an incredibly competitive business so I admire anyone that has the capital and gumption to risk millions of dollars to create a circus-like atmosphere housed in a beautiful brick and glass building. This is not Scheel's first store modeled in this fashion so the formula must be working.
What is disheartening is that the formula does work. The bigger the retail spectacle, the bigger the crowds.
We visited some distance relatives in the Netherlands last year and one of the things that fascinated them about their family trip to America a decade ago was the size of the grocery carts.
What would they say if they saw the size and kitschiness of U.S. sporting goods stores?
In 2007, Jame Gilmore and Joseph Pine suggested in their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want is in fact that: authenticity, genuineness, realness. But the hodge-podge of displays at Scheel's is anything but real.
Ironically, though, they are selling equipment and goods used to experience the authenticity of nature. Or at least to conquer it, stuff it and hang it on the wall.
Nature is the original Supreme Good, something inherently good for its own sake. Does hunting and fishing relegate it to a second order good? Nature exploited to achieve a different aim?
Not necessarily. Those that hunt and fish are some of the staunchest conservationists I know. Their efforts to form conservation groups, lobby politicians and exemplify good stewardship have helped preserve and protect acre upon acre of wilderness from encroachment.
For many, the act of hunting and fishing is secondary to the simple joy of experiencing nature as a Supreme Good.
The question is whether valuing nature as a Supreme Good is compatible with buying outdoor supplies at a store with a talking Abe Lincoln standing in front of a Ferris wheel.
According to Wikipedia, Scheel's started in 1902 as a small hardware and general merchandise store in Sabin, Minnesota. It added sporting goods in 1954. It opened its first all sports superstore in 1989. It is now constructing a new 222,000 flagship store in Overland Park, Kansas complete with a 16,000-gallon aquarium, coral reef and scuba divers to feed the fish daily, a 65-foot, 16-car Ferris wheel and a walk of U.S. presidents.
This would appear to be the retail version of jumping the shark. Expanding to the point of absurdity. Yet, the format appears to works. Not for me, but for many as evidenced by the packed parking lot.
I wonder how many shoppers were return visitors? Once the novelty wears off, why wouldn't they buy outdoor supplies online so they could have more time to experience the authenticity of nature?
Or if they want an authentic shopping experience, why not visit a small fly shop or outfitter where they could have a genuine conversation with the owner about the local habitat?
-J.D. Stein | February 2014
In 1932, Scott and Helen Nearing left New York City to settle on a rundown farm in Vermont. Their aim was to live more simply and deliberately in the same spirit as Henry David Thoreau when he moved to Walden Pond.
But unlike Thoreau, who finished his experiment and moved back to the city, the Nearings stayed in the country. First in Vermont and then in Maine.
The Nearings divided their waking hours in to three 4-hour blocks of time.
The first four hours were devoted to "bread labor" —those activities that provided food and shelter.
Four hours were dedicated to service activities that benefited the community.
The final four hours were focused on leisure. Those activities included recreation, study, writing, and music. In other words, activities that were inherently good for their own sake ‒Supreme Goods.
For over fifty years, the Nearings focused on perfecting their way of living, which they called The Good Life.
The term The Good Life originated with Aristotle.
He never explicitly defined it.
I like it that way. The meaning of The Good Life is ambiguous, open-ended.
Like the Nearings, we must discover for ourselves our own Good Life.
Aristotle provided some hints, though. First, by defining what The Good Life is not.
Some people suppose that it is the function of household management to increase property, and they are continually under the idea that it is their duty to be either safeguarding their substance in money or increasing it to an unlimited amount. The cause of this state of mind is that their interests are set upon life but not upon the good life;
And even those who fix their aim on the good life seek the good life as measured by bodily enjoyments, so that inasmuch as this also seems to be found in the possession of property, all their energies are occupied in the business of getting wealth."
Despite what the commercial world would have us believe, The Good Life does not consist of wealth.
There is a phrase in sports called the sweet spot. It is the location on a racket, bat or club that maximizes the distance, power and accuracy of the ball when it makes contact.
That is the technical definition. But to truly understand what hitting the sweet spot means you have to experience it. It is perfect bliss.
If Aristotle had played baseball, he might have said, "Living The Good Life is like hitting the sweet spot."
Instead, his term for sweet spot is virtue.
Virtue for Aristotle meant to take actions and have feelings that were not excessive or deficient but hit the mean ‒ the right amount at the right time in the right manner for the right reason.
This mean that Aristotle speaks of is often called the Golden Mean
Aristotle gives three requirements for living a life in conformity with virtue. A life of hitting the golden mean or sweet spot. In short, The Good Life.
The Good Life requires knowledge, skill, and practice. That's why the Nearings experimented for 50 years trying to perfect their good life. It takes more than 10,000 hours as I described in this essay I sent to subscribers of my weekly newsletter.
Once we have knowledge, we have to overcome our fear and choose to act. We can't hit the sweet spot unless we swing at the ball. And we have to be taking swings for the right reason. Not for fame, glory or wealth, but for the sheer joy of playing the game and striving to hit the mean.
Aristotle writes "a good general makes the most effective use of the forces at his disposal and a good shoemaker makes the finest shoe possible out of the leather supplied him."
We work with what we have. We start where we are now. We don't wait for our circumstances to improve.
A Good Life is not a life without misfortune or trial. We can hit the sweet spot amidst adversity.
"The happy man therefore will possess the element of stability in question, and will remain happy all his life; since he will be always or at least most often employed in doing and contemplating the things that are in conformity with virtue.
Yet, nevertheless even in adversity nobility shines through, when a man endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience, not owing to insensibility, but from generosity and greatness of soul. And if, as we said, a man's life is determined by his activities, no supremely happy man can ever become miserable."
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
A happy life, a good life, a life of hitting the sweet spot, adhering to the mean is not a function of what we have.
It is determined by our activities and choices.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014
There is a dirty little secret that Caribbean beach front resorts along the Yucatan coast, also known as the Maya Riviera, keep from their guests.
I mean dirty in a literal sense. As in trash. Garbage.
The pristine sandy white beaches set against the turquoise sea are an illusion.
Without the daily efforts by resort workers to clear the plastic debris that continually washes ashore, the beaches of Cancun, Playa de Carman and Tulum would look just like the picture above.
I took that photo in the Sian Ka'an biosphere south of Tulum.
It is a magical place where jaguars still roam the jungle and you can walk for miles along the beach without seeing anyone.
The world's second largest barrier reef stretches for 1,000 kilometers just off the shore. It is home to 65 species of coral and 500 species of fish.
The setting would be perfect except for the ribbon of plastic that mars the coastline.
I walked a short stretch and found water bottles, motor oil containers, paint cans, shoes, toys, Coke bottles, cups, and bowls from Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Venezuela, Columbia and the Dominican Republic.
This conveyor belt of trash floats along prevailing ocean currents until it washes up on the Mexican coast.
The Pan-American Centre for Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences estimates 424,000 tons of waste are generated daily in Latin America and the Caribbean with less then 35 percent processed in regulated sanitary landfills.
Two-thirds of the trash ends up in open-air dumps or local rivers and streams where storms and floods send much of the garbage into the ocean and eventually to the Mexican coast.
Plastic is not bad. It has many useful qualities, the most prominent of which is its permanence. Plastic, although made primarily of organic materials, does not easily breakdown or decompose. It lasts.
The problem with plastic is its misuse.
We take items that have a short useful life and construct them from or store them in a material whose defining quality is its permanence.
Something that is used once or twice should not be sold in a container or manufactured out of a material that last for decades unless there is a mechanism to reuse the container or recycle the product that is explicitly part its commercial lifecycle.
For example, twenty five years ago in Mexico all soda was sold in glass bottles. Because the bottles were reused, there was an economic incentive on the part of consumers, manufacturers and distributers to make sure the bottles were returned so they indeed could be reused. There was an elegant lifecycle to the product as trucks that delivered the soda to stores would also pick up cases of empty soda bottles.
To increase profit, soda manufacturers and distributors broke the chain. By switching to plastic bottles, they stopped taking responsibility for the complete lifecycle of their products.
While some of the plastic bottles are recycled, most are not, particularly in the developing world, and the impetus to recycle lies with the consumer whereas the end-life of a product and its packaging should be the responsibility of the manufacturer.
What can we do as consumers to encourage change in corporate behavior?
Strive to purchase from businesses who take ownership for the complete life cycles of their products.
For example, I wear Alden brand shoes ‒ all of which I have bought used off eBay. When the shoes get worn, I send them back to Alden and they restore them for me.
Unfortunately, most business don't take ownership for the complete lifecycle of their products.
Consequently, we should not purchase items from the most egregious offenders.
My son Bret at age 16 stopped drinking bottled water and Coke and Pepsi products when he learned of the environmental damage inflicted. It's been over two years, and I have yet to see him break his resolve on this issue.
The collective action of individuals, each of whom makes purchase decisions based on their personal ethics, can have a profound impact on the behavior of companies.
When there is no choice but to purchase from a company that has abdicated its responsibility for the complete lifecycle of its product, then we have to complete the chain ourselves by reusing, restoring and recycling.
Finally, we should strive for the golden mean when purchasing items as I discuss in this essay on Supreme Objects. This means purchasing less, purchasing more conscientiously and when possible purchasing items that are used.
While staying in the Sian Ka'an, I met a restaurant owner from Chicago. He was visibly upset by the garbage along the beach and said it was ruining his vacation.
To cope, he didn't leave the resort where the beach was kept clean and tried to pretend the garbage just to the north and south of the resort wasn't there.
"I look straight ahead as if I'm wearing blinders," he said.
More importantly, when he gets back to Chicago he will take the blinders off and take action by making sure none of the supplies he uses in his restaurant are packaged in plastic.
Like this restaurant owner, we need to remove the blinders and be more conscientious consumers.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014
The little boy nudged me with his book as I sat at the breakfast table on the veranda of the hacienda where I stayed earlier this week in the Yucatan.
His name was Faris and he looked to be about three. He opened the book to a colorful two page spread filled with rabbits, cows and other animals camped out in a bedroom setting.
"Que es esto?" Faris asked pointing to a rabbit.
"Conejo. Rabbit," I said.
Faris repeated the words and asked for others. He sometimes pronounced the names in English, other times in Spanish.
The previous night I visited with Faris' grandfather, Artenio, who told me of the struggle he had had finding work when he was younger since he had never gone to school and learned to read.
Now 71, Artenio has worked as a gardner at the hacienda for 18 years. His daughter also works there cooking and cleaning. Her son Faris accompanies her to work, where Iona, the Canadian owner of the hacienda, teaches him English words and phrases.
Faris pointed at more objects on the page, each time repeating, "Que es esto?"
It was clear he already knew the answers as evidenced by the book's well-worn pages. He just wanted to revisit the thrill and freedom of knowing what something was named.
Helen Keller echoed that same thrill when she first learned the power of words:
"We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word "water," first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers.
Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten - a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.
That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free... I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.
As we returned to the house, each object that I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with a strange new light that had come to me."
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
Henri Bortoft writes in The Wholness of Nature that the dawning of a language is the dawning of the world. That is what I saw in the eyes and heard in the voice of Fari as he repeated words from his book in Spanish and English.
His world was opening. As did mine in Mexico many years ago as I slowly began to comprehend the Spanish spoken around me.
I've also felt the frustration of being partially closed off from a world when I traveled to other countries and couldn't speak their language.
I sensed that same frustration in Artenio when he told me how he had been fired from the oil fields of Tabasco after the job requirements changed and he could no longer do the work because he couldn't read.
A part of his world had closed.
As I write this, there is a call outside my door in the house we are renting in Valladolid.
I open and there stands a boy who mumbles something in Spanish I don't understand. I crouch down and ask him to repeat it and notice the beads of sweat on the end of his nose as I try to read his lips when he speaks. I still don't get what he is saying.
Finally, when he repeats the phrase for the third time I recognize it. He is asking for a little bit of caridad - charity.
Thirty years ago I had the same experience at my doorstep in this very same town. On that occasion, I gave the boy money, only to find him an hour later with his father, who was consuming a newly purchased bottle of beer with my caridad.
I ask the boy at my door how old he is and where he lives. He is ten and lives nearby. I look behind him and don't see anyone. He appears to be alone.
I give him some pesos. How hard it must be to summon the courage to knock on a stranger's door and ask for caridad.
The boy takes the money and asks if we have food we could share. We don't have much but I give him a roll, a banana and a soda.
"Gracias," he says as he walks off.
I wonder what kind of life the boy whose father made him beg for beer money is living? He would be almost 40 now and might have children the same age as the boy who just left my doorstep. Could this even be his son?
I think of Fari, who still basks in the strange new light described by Helen Keller. Objects he names quiver with life.
How soon if ever will that light dim?
Note: I shared more about Artenio, the Yucatan and the power of naming things with my newsletter subscribers. You can read that essay here.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014
Why is it that the Mona Lisa remains such a popular and intriguing painting after 500 years?
Because she exhibits the Buddhist concept of fusoku furi. The Japanese phrase fusoku furi means "unattached and undetached".
Is Mona Lisa smiling or is she not? Is her mouth open or or is it closed?
100 years before da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa the Japanese monk Ryohen gave the following analogy using the waves of the sea to illustrate fusoku furi:
"Although there seem to be a multiple of waves, it is not a real multitude, for the waves are casually produced, phantom-like dharmas that defy the comprehension of the unenlightened mind.
If the waves were unchanging, real objects, they would be completely different from water. But since the waves are non substantial, they are in harmony with the water and are neither identical to, nor completely different from it (fusoku furi)."
Ryohen, quoted in Jokei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan by James L. Ford
Both Mona Lisa's smile and the waves of the sea achieve the Buddhist mean. The Bhuddist mean is not the average of two things, nor does it represent the middle ground.
Instead, it is fusoku furi. Mona Lisa's mouth is open yet not open and closed yet not closed. The waves of the ocean are part of the water yet not part of the water.
How did Leonardo da Vinci accomplish this in his painting?
He invented a technique called sfumato, which means to evaporate like smoke.
Matthew May in his book In Pursuit of Elegance relates how Leonardo advised inspiring painters to "paint so that a fumoso (smoky) edge can be seen, rather than hard and harsh outlines and silhouettes..that is, more confused - that is to say less clear."
Art historian E. H. Gombrich writes in The Story of Art that sfumato leads the observer "to understand what one does not see."
The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece because the painting is deliberately open-ended and ambiguous, allowing the viewer to complete the artwork using their own perspective. It makes "an artist of the viewer".
This is what I strive for but don't always achieve in my writing on the Supreme Goods and the good life. Concepts such as discovering the whole through the parts, finding motion in stability, stability in motion, and even the site name Silence Like Thunder are open to interpretation. Your interpretation.
Unless my words suggest to your intuitive mind something of your infinite potentiality than they are just words.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014
Think for a moment of objects you use on a daily basis. Which do you value most and why? It could be an article of clothing, a particular pen, a comb or a bowl.
Our favorite objects are Supreme Goods. We highly value them for their own sake. They are functional. They get better with age. We often need or want only one of them.
These are objects that could easily be overlooked by others, but when we hold them in our hands, or wear them on our backs or use them as tools they imbue us with a creative energy that feels almost magical.
They "quiver with life" according to Helen Keller.
Such objects are not overly embellished, but are not so simplified as to be sterile. They achieve the golden mean spoken of by Aristotle when you can "not take from it nor add to it."
Leonard Koren in his book Wabi Sabi describes these objects as having been paired down to their essence without removing the poetry. Conspicuous details are kept to a minimum, "but it doesn't mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn't mean in any way diminishing something's "interestingness", the quality that compels us to look at something over, and over, and over again."
Margaret Howell, one of my favorite designers, describes her relationship to these Supreme Goods as follows:
There is a certain pleasure in recognising something that has been well made. Good design is about using materials that are fit for purpose. The product has to be aesthetically pleasing, has to be functional – and if it has extra character to it, too, well, then that's something else.
Hand in hand with good manufacture is having an edited approach to dressing. I like to have only a few clothes in the wardrobe that I wear and wear. I'm not somebody who has lots of different things (apart from notebooks – I'm a sucker for stationery). In design, I prefer to get something right rather than the more commercial attitude of doing it in lots of different colours. I really don't like that thing of going and buying very cheap clothes and throwing them away.
Persuading people to this viewpoint isn't hard when you can actually get them to experience good design. Experiencing something that has worn well in a good quality material that gets better with age, that makes you feel fond of it. It's like getting to know a person you really like – you don't just dispense with them." Margaret Howell, Why Good Quality Clothes Matter - The Guardian
When we focus on the Supreme Goods we own fewer things. But the objects we do own we highly value for their own sake because they are inherently good, beautiful and functional.
When we purchase items to impress others with our refined taste or to show off our economic means than such objects are relegated to second order goods - we have an ulterior motive for owning them.
There is a delicate balance here. Objects that are well made are more expensive. Quality materials and production costs more. Good design costs more because it takes time to get it right.
But there is a line that can be crossed when we are no longer paying up for quality, but we are instead paying for a company's marketing budget. Supreme Goods are rarely if ever advertised.
Although well-made beautifully designed objects are more expensive at first, over their lifetimes they are more economical because they last.
And they can be and in most cases ought to be bought used.
Buying well-made used objects adds a serendipitous aspect to commerce. There is an exquisite pleasure in finding a beautifully designed garment in a vintage store or a wooden spoon at an antique store that reminds us of our grandmother.
Such objects seem to find us rather than us finding them. They come into our lives with their own history, but readily allow us to make stories together.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014
What would your year be like if you didn't try so hard? If you were less intense, less goal oriented?
What if your days were less structured, filled with activities that you pursued for their own sake, for the sheer joy of it, rather than as a means to getting something else?
What would you learn about your emerging self if you followed your intuition rather than your calendar?
What would you find if you spent less time searching?
I know what you would find.
You would discover your Supreme Goods. Those activities and things that are good in and of themselves.
You would find the key to happiness.
Because happiness comes indirectly, as an outgrowth of activities that involve our whole being - not just the hard charging rational self.
We need a degree of freedom to discover what those activities might be, to allow the wholeness of who we are to become emerge from our adjacent possible.
-J.D. Stein | December 2013
One of the miracles of life is when something surprising and new emerges from the inventory of parts that already exist. Perhaps the inventory was combined in a novel way to create something new. Or perhaps the inventory was adapted and applied to a new use. Sometimes the inventory when combined is transformed into a completely new substance like in a chemical reaction.
The point is new creations and insights usually arise from the existing inventory of parts. They are not created out of nothing. Both our minds and nature need inventory to work with in order to create.
The sum total of all new creations, ideas and insights that could potentially emerge from the inventory is called the adjacent possible. The phrase adjacent possible was first used (as far as I am aware) by Stuart Kauffman in describing the biosphere. It was later adopted by Steven Johnson in the idea space.
I love the infinite potentiality the words adjacent possible invoke.
One reason the world is unpredictable as well as endlessly creative is there is unlimited inventory. It is impossible to prestate all the variables, conditions and inventory that comprise the world's adjacent possible.
Because we can't innumerate all of the parts, we don't know what new innovations, wonders or catastrophes the world will experience in the near future.
That is both a fascinating and scary thought.
What about the adjacent possible in our own lives?
Here we have the advantage of being better able to innumerate many of the variables, conditions and inventory of our own adjacent possible. This includes our current roles, resources and strengths.
Contemplating our personal inventory is a type of framing. Instead of hoping for someone "out there" to tell us what we should be doing and help us discover our own Supreme Goods, by focusing inward we can perceive the emerging self that is arising from our own adjacent possible.
How do we do this?
I once attended a week-long writing workshop with Ron Carlson, a brilliant fiction writer and teacher, about his process for writing a story. When he doesn't know what is going to happen next in a story he is working on, he focuses on the inventory.
What are the physical things that have already emerged in the story that he can latch onto?
How are the characters interacting with that inventory with their physical selves?
One of the phrases he shared over and over again in the class is "the truth is in the body."
Truth is revealed by the actions the characters take with their bodies.
Likewise, when when we focus on our own inventory (our roles, resources and strengths) and how we physically interact with those things, then we can discover insights that are emerging from our adjacent possible.
Emerging insight, meaning and purpose is found not by piecemeal focus on each aspect of our lives in isolation.
Otherwise we become like the three blind men in the Jain parable who touch a different part of the elephant and come to opposite conclusions as to what an elephant is like.
Instead we should focus on all of the parts collectively and explore the interrelationships. Then we are in the position to intuitively perceive creative recombinations that lead to something new.
We will discover the following truth:
The wholeness of who we are to become is found within the existing parts of who we already are.
-J.D. Stein | December 2013
Framing is about setting limits.
When an artist chooses a scene to paint or a photographer a subject to photograph, they are framing. They limit their view to perhaps 10 degrees of their 120 degree peripheral vision.
When we limit our material possessions, we are framing.
When we prune the number of activities we pursue, we are framing.
The acceptance of limits produces ease of mind.Soestsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
Framing frees up the intuitive mind to perceive the whole through the parts by restricting the unbridled flow of sensory input (See Holographs, Writing and the Emergent Whole).
One gradually sees that any frameable portion of nature contains wholeness and exhibits patterns of relationship between the parts and the whole that echo any other portion of nature that might be framed.
All is a study of light, shadow and color.
This leads to an experiential understanding of the following principle from tradition: Nothing exists except in relationship to everything else. Everything exists only in relationship to everything else.Daan Hoekstra, The Artist's Study of Nature and Its Relationship to Goethean Science
By setting self-imposed limits, we are better able to experience the individual parts that remain and their relationship to each other. By doing so, new insight and meaning emerge. This is the wholeness that is revealed through the parts.
-J.D. Stein | December 2013
The probability that we exist and have the capacity to marvel at our existence is infinitesimally small.
For the universe to support life, there are about 23 mathematical constants within the equations that comprise standard particle physics and general relatively that need to be fined-tuned to specific values.
If these constants were not the values they are, then the universe would not exist in its present form.
Physicist Lee Smolin in his book The Life of the Cosmos estimates these mathematical constants must be within the range of 0.0000000000000000000000000001% for a life-friendly universe to exist.
Once the universe overcame those odds, there were then a series of highly improbable but critical natural selection steps that needed to be accomplished in order for humans to be here. If one of those steps didn't occur within the appropriate time frame then we wouldn't exist as Andrew Watson discusses in this paper.
Yet, we are here.
Which means either "someone" fine-tuned the mathematical constants and ensured the critical evolutionary steps took place or we got very, very lucky.
One scientific theory on why we exist is there are millions and millions of universes that formed, each with different values for the mathematical constants, and we happen to live in one where the numbers were just right.
Atheists obviously favor this multiverse view of the cosmos. Given enough time and enough universes, one of them would be perfectly suited for life to exist.
Theists believe a higher being influenced the outcome in some way.
Atheists are right to ask if there was a designer then where did the designer originate?
Richard Dawkins on the origin of the universe writes:
"It may even be a superhuman designer - but if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed."Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
He then suggests the designer himself would have had to have gone through some type of evolutionary process, perhaps in another universe.
The point is when Atheists and Theists look to the overwhelming evidence in support of natural selection and then try to explain our infinitesimally small odds of being here, they must resort to "outlandish" theories.
The existence or non-existence of God cannot be proven by weighing the evidence.
Consequently, what we choose to believe is less about our ability to explain the past and more about our mental and emotional capacity to accept the natural outcomes our beliefs dictate for our future.
Many atheists are perfectly comfortable with the notion that we are very alone in the universe and we will ultimately die out, certainly individually if not collectively.
I am not.
While the ceaseless creativity and unpredictability of an evolving universe and biosphere thrills me. I prefer to believe I'll be around after I die in some form to witness the ongoing saga.
-J.D. Stein | December 2013
Several years ago, my daughter and I viewed a holographic self-portrait by Chuck Close while visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We were amazed how lifelike it was.
Holographic images are produced with a laser that creates an optical reconstruction of the original object rather than a flat image as in a regular photograph.
When the holographic plate is illuminated with a laser, the effect is that of viewing the original three dimensional object.
If, however, the holographic plate is shattered into pieces, each piece still contains the entire holographic image, just with less clarity.
In other words, the whole of the holograph is not made up of the parts, but the whole is actually represented in each part.
This holograph analogy is one of several Henri Bortoft shared about finding the whole through the parts in his book, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature.
The act of writing is another example.
When we write, we put marks for words together on a page to try to say something. What is said is not the resultant sum of the marks. Nor is it the meaning of each individual word. Rather, meaning is perceived as words come together.
Yet, the meaning is not in the totality of the words, as we could still discover the meaning if some of the words were dropped from the sentence.
Just as as a holograph gains greater clarity as we put more pieces together, the meaning of a sentence becomes more clear with each additional word.
But the whole still resides in its entirety in each individual part.
"We cannot separate part and whole into disjointed positions, for they are not two as in common arithmetic. The arithmetic of the whole is not numerical."Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature
We discover the whole or the meaning of things when we experience the parts with our complete self, not just with our logical brain.
That is what Soetsu Yanagi meant in the quote I shared in my essay Searching For Pattern.
"There are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition, for it takes in the whole, whereas the intellect only takes in a part."Soestsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
We need our intuition because the whole is something we perceive as it emerges through the parts.
How do we do this?
Here are some hints from Soetsu Yanagi:
"First, put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking.
Second, do not treat the object as an object of the intellect.
Third, just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself.
If you can void your mind of all intellectualization, like a clear mirror that simply reflects, all the better. This nonconceptualization - the Zen state of mushin ("no mind") - may seem to represent a negative attitude, but from it springs the true ability to contact things directly and positively."Soestsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman
If we follow this pattern as we experience each part individually and collectively, we will find the whole unfolds itself to us like a flower on a summer morning.
-J.D. Stein | December 2013