With every breath, we can return to life as it unfolds. We can be aware of our emotions and thoughts and bodies and minds. We can gently smile to where we are. When we wake up, when we sip our tea, when we drive to work, when we shower, when we eat, we can be fully here. We offer our presence to each moment. Time is a precious gift that we shouldn’t waste with regrets about the past and anxieties for the future. Sometimes we’re so used to our habits of compulsive thinking that we are unaware of anything else. But if we practice our mindfulness daily, we can free ourselves. Rather than watching TV while scarfing down our breakfast, we can savor every bite and smell. Rather than worrying about our lost romances while washing the dishes, we can feel the warm soapy water against our skin. When we walk mindfully, we can feel the soft soil under our every step. We can breathe into the stillness our minds. We can feel alive where we are and don’t need to rush off to anywhere else. Mindful breathing harmonizes us. We are brought back to the home inside ourselves. As we breathe in and out, we are as spacious as an open sky, as solid as a mountain, and as fluid as an ocean. We can breathe with loving-awareness. There is no need to blame and praise. Our breath is our foundation for dealing with all areas of living. When we are mindful of our breath, we can develop our concentration. When we develop our concentration, we gain insight. We may feel a lot of anger, fear, confusion, and other negative emotions during our practice. Sometimes these emotions rise within us like storms. They may only be temporary, but they feel so intense and permanent. Rather than ruminating too heavily on what we are feeling, we can pay attention to the energy behind our feelings. We can notice when our face flushes, when our shoulders tighten, when our heart beats rapidly. We must offer the gift of compassion to our suffering. We can look deeply into ourselves and care for our feelings and thoughts and sensations. From looking deeply at ourselves, we can let go of our suffering, watching as it comes and goes, comes and goes. Then we can care for other living beings with the same loving-kindness that we have shown to ourselves. We can see ourselves at different stages of our lives: when we are born, when we are babies, when we are young, when we are adults, when we are elderly, when we are dying, when we are dead. We can view other people in the same way, not perceiving them only as they appear in the moment, but looking at who they were and are and will be. All humans were once vulnerable and innocent. Everyone needed to be cared for and loved. Not everyone was. Just as we are the continuation of our ancestors, those around us are the continuation of their ancestors too. Sometimes they carry their family’s violence from childhood all the way into adulthood. Sometimes they’re devastated by their traumas. Sometimes despair passes through many generations. We must meet people with the intention to lessen their suffering, to help, to embody peace and justice. When we engage others only for what we can get out of them, whether in the form of power, status, or money, we cause those around us to suffer. We become unhappy as well. It is easy to conform to what is around us. If what we consume daily, such as in the form of meals, newspapers, television, radio stations, websites, and so on, comes from negativity, then we’ll be greatly influenced by that negativity. We should mindfully pursue what is nourishing and wholesome. To avoid consuming negative sources is hard, especially when we’re forced to live in environments where there is a lot of despair, hatred, ignorance, and greed. Nevertheless, we can always water the seeds of generosity, compassion, and kindness in ourselves and in other living creatures. We can care for people, animals, plants, trees, oceans. We can love who we are so we can love the world. The two are not separate. Our lives are here or never. Often we look for our happiness in ideas of the future, and dwell on memories, not wanting to look deeply at our suffering. Even when we do get what we want, we aren’t satisfied for long, and we fear losing what we have. Our expectations are never our realities. When we chase after our desires, we only want more, noticing what we lack more than what we have. All that we have is temporary. We are subject to illness, old age, and death. Everyone we care about will deal with these same issues of existence. While we are capable of being happy, we often ignore where we are, who we are, and what is around us. There is nothing for us to gain. We are able to be peace now, happiness now, joy now. We already are where we we want to go. We already are who we want to become.
— An absent husband and father, who occasionally burst with warmth and tenderness toward those closest to him, even though he was often wryly detached in his life.
After cheating on his first wife, Mileva Marić, he eventually convinced her to divorce him in exchange for half of his Nobel Prize winnings. He desired to marry his cousin Elsa, who he became romantically involved with during his first marriage. In his second marriage, he still had relationships with other women. Despite Einstein’s infidelity, Albert and Elsa shared a deep bond together, raising two stepchildren as their own. Elsa supported his scientific work, nursed him back to health, guarded him against intrusions, shared the glamor of his celebrity, and moved with him to the United States.
— A brilliantly intuitive theoretical physicist who developed the theories of general and special relativity, which led to radically new understandings of matter, energy, space and time.
— A visual thinker known for his famous thought-experiments.
— A revolutionary scientist early in his career, but a conservative later in his career.
He defended epistemological realism and often attacked the findings of quantum mechanics. He believed in an underlying reality, one that followed elegantly predictable laws, but was unknown to theoretical understanding. He failed to find a Grand Unified Theory.
— A loner, rebel, and non-conformist.
— A playful man with a childlike curiosity.
— A gifted violinist.
— A slacker in his youth.
— A patent clerk.
— An absentminded intellectual who focused so intently on the ideas that stimulated his imagination that every other concern was blocked out.
— An aloof man who delved into scientific ideas to escape from the emotional turmoil of his life.
— A German-Jewish secular humanist.
While Einstein was proud of his Jewish heritage, especially during periods of rampant antisemitism, he wrote that he was free from attachments to nationality, class, state, religion, and so on. Einstein considered himself to be a human being first. He stated that even though he was dimly aware of the laws of physics, he was too limited in his knowledge to believe or not believe in a God. He honored the mystery of the universe above all.
— A disorganized teacher who often improvised his lectures.
— A democratic socialist who denounced the atomic bomb, war, class inequality, racism, militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.
— An international celebrity who loved to complain about his status, but secretly enjoyed the attention.
— A German-Swiss-American citizen who criticized fascistic ideas, whether in the form of Nazism or McCarthyism.
He was considered to be a national security threat, and a Communist sympathizer, by some officials in the American government.
Some of Einstein’s Contributions to Science:
— Light is made up of small packets of energy called photons. Photons can behave both like particles and like waves, depending on what experiments are used to measure them.
— E = mc², which expresses that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light in a vacuum squared. From this formula, particles are shown to have rest, kinetic, and potential energy. Mass and energy are not separate entities, but can change into each other. Additionally, any change in an object’s energy changes its mass and any change in an object’s mass changes its energy. Knowledge of the inseparable relationship between mass and energy led scientists to develop nuclear energy, and to eventually build the atomic bomb.
— Motion in time is relative to the position and velocity of the observer, while light is constant and the laws of the universe are the same. Time itself is not absolute, but dependent on how fast an object travels, what direction that object travels in, and where it is relative to the mass and the position of other objects around it.
— Space and time are not separate entities, but rather, are interwoven in four dimensions (three dimensions for space and one dimension for time). Mass causes spacetime to curve, and the more massive an object is, the more curvature there is. Gravity is no longer a mere force in the Newtonian sense, but causes a warping of spacetime. Spacetime is not flat, but curved. Light (or photons) travels along a curved path.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, less than a decade after WWII. During this period, there were book burnings and banned books and a Great Purge. There were blacklists and mass propaganda mediums and censorship and imprisonments and executions. There were fears of an impending nuclear war. The annihilation of all humanity in a mushroom cloud.
Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 after expanding themes from two of his short stories and one novella. He finished his first draft in only nine days. Since his novel’s original publication, a number of schools have censored, redacted, and banned his work.
In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman who exists in a dystopian future. Rather than putting out fires, he burns books. People in his society are consumed with vapid entertainment, distracted from critical thinking and wonder, alienated and lost and alone, unable to express themselves, unable to speak to each other meaningfully.
They don’t sense the miracle of life in a blooming flower, in a breath, in each other.
They lumber around with seashell radios embedded in their earwax. They consume life from inside a prism (or prison) of screens. Then when they are tired (they are tired all day), they swallow a sleep of pills, drifting into dreamlessness. They are force-fed the regurgitated information of the State. There isn’t any time to think, to sit in silence, to contemplate the flowers and trees and clouds. To be alive, meditating on the world in quiet, is not a consideration. They gaze at an amnesia of images, barren within.
Montag is at first like the Others, lifeless, married to a wife who doesn’t love him, brash in his opinions, stinking of kerosene and ignorance. Then he meets a curious teenager. Her name is Clarisse McClellan and she is unique and alive and radiating out through her youth. She sparks an awakening in Montag.
She shows him that there is more to reality than in his mechanized worldview. There is a mystery that he cannot grasp. In his realization that life is more, more than consumption, more than subservience, more than a routine until death, he desires to awaken others.
Knowledge is a fire that “illuminates away the darkness of ignorance.” It catches in the hearts of those who dare to learn. Montag is a fireman who burns books to snuff out the fires within others. Books are dangerous. They are dangerous to those who wish to control, who wish to suppress certain ideas from coming to light. When people are capable of critical thinking, they will question and consider new ideas. They will rebel against what is unjust. Their fires will expand from inside them, reaching others. They will seek their own unique meanings. They will take action.
Those who control a population, who manipulate to secure their power, money, and status, always want more for themselves, while feeling insecure about losing what they have stolen. They fear uprisings that burn for the truth. To maintain their power and control, they will distract, censor, and divide. They will use violence when they can, but if the people internalize the values of the system, then the oppressors will not need physical violence all the time.
As George Orwell said, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed, they must rely exclusively on force.”
People in Montag’s society are taught to be obedient. They desire what they are conditioned to desire. They are given the slimmest choices for personal freedom and believe that they are free. Life feels like it is free to the enslaved when they do not know any other way to be. For those who know of more but do nothing, who remain silent at times of injustice, suffer in cowardice. They could have helped, but didn’t.
Montag is reborn like the salamander of his firetrucks. In folklore, salamanders make their homes in the flames without being consumed. Montag once lived from inner darkness. Now he lives through his own glow, aware for the first time.
Many members of his society confuse their darkness for light. Their souls have withered away so much that they are only flesh on skeletons. They do not want to be freed because they desire the comfort of their ignorance. They live automatically, unable to think, to choose how they will authentically be. They do not want to challenge themselves to learn because they fear what is unknown. They fear their own inferiority in comparison to those who are educated. Beyond all their petty dramas, an entire universe stretches infinitely over them. Knowledge is their insignificance.
They huddle together in hate because they are numb to the suffering within themselves. These people plug themselves into the dominator system, addicted to the violence of the media. They’re conditioned to passively accept themselves as separate creatures with egotistical wants. They don’t realize that they live in a community, except through their shared consumption of technological entertainment, a hidden form of mass indoctrination. There’s no unity, compassion, or caring between them anymore, because any humane organization is a threat to the system. There is only a city of lost people.
In Fahrenheit 451, love is a commercial product, happiness is sold as a pill. People are not only watched, but want to be watched, under constant surveillance. Clouds choke over the black butterflies of dreams. Dissidents are silenced until their language is felt dimly but not spoken. Never spoken. Once the flames are all put out, there is absence.
Haruki Murakami doesn’t run because he’s competitive. He runs only to run, improving himself every day, at longer distances.
He recognizes his own age when he runs, slowing down years after his prime. As he pushes on, he passes scenic landscapes in different countries, seeing the steam of his breath in an Autumn park, feeling the flutter of his heartbeat, listening to the slow beat of jazz.
Running helps him to be alone, which is natural for him. Being alone is necessary for his mental and physical well-being.
As he runs, he accepts the clouds of his thoughts. Ideas float by in an endless sky, drifting in and out of awareness. Mostly, he runs in a void, unconscious of any inner chatter.
Murakami deeply absorbs the people and places in his life. Physical exertion allows him, just like in his writing, to process his joy and sorrow.
He never suspected that he would become a famous novelist. At first, he made more money from owning a jazz bar than from writing, but then he chose to sell his business to write fully. After concentrating only on writing, he worked for several hours every day, sacrificing his health.
After he ran for a while, he quit smoking cigarettes and eating junk food. He didn’t like long-distance running at first, but enjoyed the process once he could control how he ran. Running every day helped him to become better at time management, healthy eating, and losing weight. He shed bad habits while gaining more of an appreciation for self-discipline.
Murakami has run for over twenty years, starting at the age of thirty three, and considers the beginning of his running practice to be when he became a real novelist.
Running marathons has humbled him over his career. Whenever he would train too little, or think too highly of his skills, he would suffer his consequences alone.
Running can be scary and nerve wracking. It can be tough in the rain and snow and cold and heat. It can be tiring and long and painful. But then there are mornings of sun and moments of flow and high adrenaline.
Running, as well as writing, depends not only on the people who engage in those activities, but on the dynamic conditions that influence each person.
For Murakami, a novelist needs three main qualities to be successful at their craft: talent, focus, and endurance. He believes that writers are born with a certain amount of talent, which will eventually leave them, as they age and lose their energy. But a writer can compensate for a lot of their weaknesses with supreme focus.
As a writer writes, they become more skilled at concentrating on their task. To write daily is to build up one’s writing muscles, just as a runner develops their muscular endurance through running.
A novelist needs to have enough energy to write, not just for weeks, but for years. For them to be able to write for that long, they need to write often.
People are born with different levels of innate abilities as well. These abilities can be stretched overtime, but some people naturally have more ability than others. Murakami believes that people need to accept their strengths, as well as their limitations, and progress from there.
Through his maturation as a running novelist, he has learned that everyone moves at their own pace and time. He doesn’t write or run (or do anything) to prove himself to others, but rather, participates for the sake of the activity.
Through his artistic work, he inadvertently benefits his running. Through his running, he inadvertently benefits his writing.
He compares writing a novel to climbing a mountain. Eventually, his lungs will shrink, his legs will give out, but he still pushes himself farther up the steepest slopes, until hopefully, reaching the top. Every novel is a mountain.
After running mile after mile, he still steps forward. While he may not be the fastest runner, he will continue his journey, over and over, on and on, silently and alone, until he cannot go anymore.
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.”
We’re not separate from this universe. We’re interwoven in the cosmos, apart of the energetic patterns of spacetime. We’re like waves in an ocean. Always changing, transforming, connected to more than merely ourselves.
The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
We strain ourselves in our search for ourselves, in our pursuit of an ultimate meaning, believing that we need to be more famous, more successful, more talented, stronger, smarter, better-looking, in love with the perfect spouse, owning a bigger house, and so on.
We cannot enjoy the present moment because we’re consumed with our stories, regrets, future ambitions, dramas. If we do finally achieve all our dreams, we’re left unfulfilled.
Rather than discovering the miracle of life every day, we have ignored life, attaching ourselves to abstract ideas of meaning and success and purpose.
We often sacrifice what is here for what isn’t.
Rather than being truly alive, aware of our joys and sorrows, we lose ourselves in thought. We’re worried about our futures, ambitious for recognition, avoiding what is unpleasant, clinging to more desires.
If we’re always chasing after meaning, we will waste our lives until our lives are over. The point of life is to live life. What matters is the journey itself.
But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.
True wisdom is in knowing what we don’t know. Rather than judging, forming opinions, claiming that only we understand, we need to deeply listen and open ourselves to what is mysterious, uncertain, beyond our current paradigms.
Instead of clinging to notions of Absolute Truth, we can live our questions.
Our models of reality are not reality themselves. Our symbol-systems are only representations of limited knowledge. There is so much in this universe that we don’t know.
Sometimes what we learn is too painful to hear. Sometimes we are too emotionally immature, ignorant, and uneducated to understand fully. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.
We’re only human beings — organizing experience into comprehensible models with our nervous systems, filtering what is “essential” to us from what’s “not essential” (socially, biologically, physiologically), taking in a limited number of signals unconsciously, while not being aware of other signals, while we exist on a tiny planet, in an ever-expanding universe.
We don’t need to form definite conclusions. When we humble ourselves, opening to what is unfamiliar, uncertain, and mysterious, we can grow.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
Alan Watts telling the parable
What is good arises with the bad. What is bad arises with the good. There is no in without an out or an up without a down.
Each depends upon the other, follows the other, is within the other, changing from extreme to extreme, and from nuance to nuance, in an intricate web.
Life is a changing process with no definite end. Things happen to people and then people judge those events as right or wrong, good or bad. They make divisions in the world of symbols and act as if those divisions are true. Separating the whole into an innumerable number of parts and clinging to specific parts, while denying the rest of life.
It is easy to make judgements about life. When something unpleasant happens, a person claims that it is terrible, clinging to an idea of terribleness. When something appears to be good, then someone will claim it as good and cling to an idea of good, but will suffer when it goes away.
Those who are wise are not attached to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, ugliness and beauty. They patiently watch without judgement, aware of change, and open to what may come. They are not as fixed on conclusions about the answer in life, but rather, live in the mystery. They listen in stillness, not overflowing with opinions about how something appears, or should be, or what they believe about it. Mindfully, they accept what is arising and passing. They do not hide from their fear or anxiety or uncertainty. They flow with what comes, not stuck to their thoughts, open to unfolding nuances.
The human brain is a three pound galaxy of complex, evolutionarily developed, neural connections, which when working together or apart, underlies the many processes, forming all of consciousness.
A typical neuron has around 10,000 connections to other neurons. These neurons fire in patterned sequences in many parts of the brain, all before a person is even conscious of thinking about acting.
What is a thought if it cannot be touched or felt or smelled or tasted? This strange organ inside each of our skulls controls our thoughts, but most of our brain’s activity is unconscious. Any change to the brain changes our thoughts, from the food we eat to the drugs we take to the amount of sleep we have to who we’re sexually attracted to from the time of puberty.
Our brains don’t see any absolute reality. We receive neural inputs from our organs, which are limited and biased. Our brains interpret these signals, while rejecting or ignoring what’s considered inessential. Most of what’s out there in reality is not registered. What is registered is highly interpretive.
What is perceived is an unconsciously put together illusion of a reality. Subjectively, however, reality feels more stable than it really is. People often don’t know what they don’t know.
From treating patients with brain injuries to testing cognitive biases with sensory illusion tests, it is often shown that the brain constructs a type of reality, mostly unconsciously, from a narrow selection of neural patterns, which subjectively, are given conscious meaning only afterward. Based on these neural patterns, the brain makes predictive assumptions when encountering perceptual blind spots.
Our brains are hardwired with a sense of Newtonian physics. We often learn a new physical ability consciously and then it becomes an unconscious process. If we encounter a variable that isn’t predicted, we become conscious again to process that variable and its relationship to our sensory-motor system, until it becomes automatic as well.
Our perception of time lags behind time. We need to process the moment we’re in before becoming aware that we are in that moment. At the same time, our feeling of time passing slowly or quickly alters and can be manipulated by external events.
We often have gut feelings based on prior experiences where we unconsciously formed associations between two or more things. Our associations between things influences our decision making and can easily be manipulated, making us act in irrational ways based on our hunches, even if we consciously know otherwise.
The brain is made of systems and sub-systems, responsible for different tasks, such as memory, speech, movement, and so on. Some of these systems overlap, like with the right and left hemispheres. Other systems compete with each other. Many of these areas are deeply embedded in the brain, unconsciously working, while conscious attention acts as a general.
Brains work to conserve as much energy as possible, using the most resources at the start of learning a new skill, and then eventually reducing that energy level after finding ways to be more efficient. When a person damages part of their brain, other areas often compensate for that deficiency. If the damage becomes too great, then conflicting messages will occur. Brains compensate for a lack of function in one area because they are highly adaptive and can rewire. Furthermore, brains are always active, working to create patterns of meaning, even when there are none externally.
When the conditions of a person’s brain changes, they fundamentally change as people. Someone’s inclination to commit a crime, to feel depressed, to gamble without restraint, to be smart, to have sexual desire for a certain sex, and so on, is determined by the type of brain they have, whether that brain is healthy or unhealthy, how that brain functions with chemicals, environments, hormones, etc.
Genetics hardwires brains while environments slant the hardwiring. People are born with complex neural systems in changing environments. Each brain has genetic predispositions and a high adaptability to variables overtime. People’s brains are mostly unconscious while people feel freedom in their thoughts and actions.
The brain is made up of many smaller “brains,” each with its own purposes for the benefit of the collective brain, sometimes competing, sometimes in harmony, rebuilding connections while ignoring what seems irrelevant, weaving together meanings through a processing of old patterns, ignorant of their biases when perceiving, all while maintaining an illusion of stability.
“THIS BOOK DOES NOT CLAIM TO BE an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
The life of an average concentration camp prisoner, of one who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was one of daily struggle for existence.
Tattooed on flesh, stolen of possession and identification, reduced to number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.
“Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.”
Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job inside camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines before eventually tending to the sick, injured, and dying.
For the Capos with their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent starvation. Then there were cigarettes for those who had lost themselves in despair.
“The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.”
When a prisoner first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.
“In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.”
Prisoners who first arrived to camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk to each person and inspect them, deciding on whether they would work or be sent to die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
“‘Was he sent to the left side?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.”
Prisoners were removed of all their items, including wedding rings, writings, jewels, photographs, anything resembling their former lives. They were stripped into a trembling nudity, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.”
In Auschwitz, a prisoner adapted to the worst conditions imaginable. Cold and unclean, sleeping huddled for a couple hours after hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in mud.
Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most popularly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
As time went on under harsh conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, in the instinct to survive. From day to day, physical punishment didn’t matter as much as the agony of injustice, of the helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that spread through camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
Prisoners, who had once identified as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of being human.
After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just a little longer. They often dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had simple desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while living a terrible reality.
“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.”
Once woken from their longing in dreams, prisoners huddled together to work from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before a day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed from repeated daily trauma.
“There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’”
As prisoners endured the nightly struggle of a concentration camp, sometimes only salvation could come through thought, in the rituals of religion, prayer and debate, in the rumination of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching with sore feet, touching her with memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.
“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.”
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the small miracles of existence.
“Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoner. One lived with mental turmoil, pain which constantly threatened one’s values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” This brutal world ground the prisoner’s human dignity down to nothing, where the end of all struggle was death. People were used up until they their bodies failed, until their will to go on faded, like the flickering light of a candle, falling to enfolding darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented with making decisions and taking an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or future.
As Frankl wrote on his last days at camp before being rescued, when he thought about escaping, “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.”
Trusting in fate, at times of certain death, was acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was a defense mechanism against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find ways to endure.
Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, forsaken to the hells of their psychological conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Amidst great suffering and death, they had to choose and not choose.
Surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect upon what had meaning for them, holding onto their purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in an ongoing struggle for their existence.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
While many prisoners slumped into despair or conformity under a brutal injustice, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to, accepting their fate while selflessly helping others, up until their extermination. They died with no names, no families and friends, but still had the integrity to not lose their humanity.
To maintain dignity while trampled on by the jackboot, to give a last piece of bread away to a sickly child, to offer a kind word before walking before the gas chamber, despite not being known or praised for their sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”
Inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Outside of the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. Prisoners had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and not lose themselves in the past, in apathy, in giving up to future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.
“Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
A prisoner who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, from genuine purpose in a world against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to marginal powers, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked the question, in every circumstance, what type of person would they be?
“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”
When the prisoner was finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal. A prisoner drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to become human. It was so difficult for prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endlessness of a camp, where starvation and death were companions. Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
There was a pressure that had built inside every inmate, a repression of their yearly suffering into the unconscious, which had to eventually erupt though talk, through a discussion of what had been taboo to speak about in camp, through screams and nightmares and long cries to those murdered, a readjustment back to the unfamiliar world of the living.
“One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
Some of those freed returned and found no homes, no families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, where their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their past. Yet those who survived still held onto hope for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired. They endured in utter depravity, for years and years, only to seek that which could transcend them.
Bruce Lee, a legendary action star and martial artist, wrote a classic book on Chinese martial arts, called “The Tao of Gung Fu.”
More than an instructional on proper technique, Lee explored combat like a philosopher. He believed that fighting wasn’t Chinese or American or Korean, but rather, a deeply human, creative expression. Dogmatically following a particular style of martial arts was a limitation on the human potential for growth and fluidity.
Imagine the Yin Yang symbol. Yin can represent negativeness, passiveness, gentleness, internal, moon, darkness, femininity, and so on, while Yang can represent positiveness, activeness, firmness, external, sun, and so on. Together, Yin Yang is one, whole, changing from one to the other.
There is no true duality between Yin and Yang. They are complementary, not in conflict. There is no black without white, no force without gentleness, no before without an after. There is a Yin in every Yang and vice versa.
In martial arts, one should be adaptable, fluid in movement. One doesn’t strike. The fist strikes without any thought of striking. When trained properly, there is action without action, strategy without any thought of strategy.
There is no strength without gentleness or gentleness without strength. To strain too much is to tire just as to be too submissive is to be overwhelmed.
The bamboo, yielding and then bending along with a strong wind, doesn’t crack like the stiffest of trees.
What the mind focuses on, it emphasizes while neglecting the rest. To neglect the rest is to be blind to all but one thing. To ignore all is to be blind to all. When the mind perceives what happens without attaching to one thing or two things or more, then it intuitively understands, adapting to change as it happens.
“When I look at a tree, I perceive one of the leaves is red, and my mind stops with this leaf. When this happens, I see only one leaf and fail to take notice of the innumerable other leaves of the tree. If, instead of restricting my attention to one, I look at the tree without any preconceived ideas, I shall see all the leaves. One leaf effectively stops my mind from seeing all the rest. But when the mind moves on without stopping, it takes up hundreds of thousands of leaves without fail.”
Where the mind focuses, it is captive. The mind should flow freely through the body. When it is nowhere, it is everywhere. By not calculating, it acts as it should. By planning, it is inhibited. Become one with whatever activity is taking place, not trapped in how or why it takes place. Water flows where it does without an obstruction, spontaneous and alive.
When there is no intellectualization in fighting, no thought of superiority or inferiority, winning or losing, the fight happens naturally. There is no true separation between the internal and external, between one opponent and another, until one makes distinctions between the two.
Yin and Yang are not in conflict, but the mind makes them appear to be so. To be intuitively aware is to act without acting, to let the mind alone, adapting to what happens as it happens, like the calm mirror of a pond and the rushing of a waterfall.
A martial artist should strive for perfection in simplicity, avoiding flashiness. Rather than study a thousand techniques or overcomplicate oneself with too many steps, develop what is essential, reject what is unnecessary.
One should not block thoughts or try to think too much. Instead the mind is not grasping, not getting stuck in ideas or emotions. A martial artist uses no-mind, being everywhere and nowhere at once.
Martial artists should not concern themselves with status, with being superior or better than others. Pride is illusory, based on a fixed idea of self, given and eventually taken externally.
When one is prideful, one is always terrified of being dethroned. A wise martial artist cares about discipline, knowing themselves truthfully through self-cultivation. To be self-sufficient is what matters, not the appearance of success, based on the opinions of others.
When a martial artist begins, he or she is ignorant. Then after training, the martial artist knows some about defense and offense and thinks a lot about both. After the martial artist masters their training, they no longer think about it. They are wise like an expert and ignorant like a beginner.
“If you try to remember you will lose. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip — or crash! Be water, my friend.”
A martial artist must never be rigid in thought or in movement. Like water, combat is uncertain, changing from moment to moment. To be stuck in dogmatism is to be severely limited, resisting the nature of what is.
“To me, styles that cling to one partial aspect of combat are actually in bondage. You see, a choice method, however exacting, fixes its practitioners in an enclosed pattern. I always say that actual combat is never fixed, has no boundaries or limits, and is constantly changing from moment to moment. Because one does not want to be made uncertain and be engaged in broken rhythm, so he establishes a fixed pattern of combat, a cooperative pattern of rhythmic relationship with his partner. As his margin of freedom is getting narrower and narrower, he becomes a slave to the pattern and accepts the pattern to be the real thing. Such exclusive drilling on a set pattern of one’s choice will only lead its practitioners to clogginess, because basically it is a practice of resistance. In reality, the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, and one will soon find out that his choice routines lack pliability and are incapable of adapting to the ever-changing swift movement of combat. All of a sudden his opponent is alive and no longer a cooperative robot. In other words, once conditioned in a partialized style, its practitioner faces his opponent through a screen of resistance. In reality, he is merely performing his stylized blocks and listening to his own screams.”
An effective martial artist is not bound, but rather, free of self-imposed prisons. Spontaneous, broken in rhythm, open in mind to all possibilities, sparring to keep sharp in combat, unconcerned with belt and status. There is no rigidity in forms, overthinking of techniques. There seems to be an action of no action, an intuitive mind focused on nothing and yet on all that occurs, not concerned with mere externals but with momentary change.
“A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5–7–5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5–7–5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but ‘diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.’ The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut.’ To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.”
~ Cor van den Heuvel
hammer echoes shingles at dawn, silent red clouds
light stills dust into the steel guitar strings
rain slipping through porch
baby curled in, eyelids
bay waves glittering beyond piers on shoreline
cherry drops in pond, rippling
pregnant belly of sunlight, bouncing over an open book