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Creating Heaven on Earth

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The art of living the "good life" requires skilful attunement to the lovely presences in everyday life.Lodged in a psychoanalytic sensibility, and drawing from ancient and modern religious and spiritual wisdom, this book provides the details, conceptual structures, and inner meanings of a number of easily accessible, everyday activities, including gardening, sport, drinking coffee, storytelling, and listening to music. It also suggests how to best engage these activities, to consecrate the ordinary in a way that points to experiential transcendence, or what the author calls "glimpsing immortality", a core component of the art of living the "good life".

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Chapter One - Introduction: The Quest for Earthly Immortality

ePub

“The best argument I know for an immortal life is the existence of a man who deserves one.”

William James (Esar, 1995, p. 413)

Known for his unrestrained optimism, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that if he were banished to hell, he would “make a heaven there” (Nichols, 2006, p. 29). Indeed, we all know people, enviably so, who, despite the sham, drudgery, and broken dreams of everyday life manage to find and create situations that are a fertile psychological breeding ground for joyful self-assertion and personal transcendence. It is these transformational and deeply satisfying moments that reflect what psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler described as a typical experience for the well-looked-after toddler, that “love affair with the world” (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1985, p. 74) that constitutes what I metaphorically refer to as making a choice of “heaven” on earth. Robert Jay Lifton has described this process as striving for “symbolic immortality”, an “experiential transcendence”, that intense feeling when “time and death disappear”. Such experiences of being enamoured with existence centrally involve “losing oneself” and can occur in a number of enthralling contexts: in religious and secular forms of mysticism, and “in song, dance, battle, sexual love, childbirth, athletic effort, mechanical flight, or in contemplating works of artistic or intellectual creation” (Lifton, 1976, pp. 33–34).

 

Chapter Two - “Take Time to Smell the Roses”: The Delights of Gardening

ePub

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”

Thomas Jefferson (Betts, 1999, p. 461)1

Elton John may well be a lone voice when he said in an interview, “I can't bear gardening, but I love gardens” (see “Inside ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’”). Researchers have estimated that in a typical weekend, about 78% of American households are involved in some form of gardening activity (Francis & Hester, 1990, p. 8). What motivates so many people to want to painstakingly work an unassuming plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated?2 Or to make the point a trifle more graphic, gardening as a practical action “can hardly be done without getting hands dirty and getting earth under fingernails and blisters on palms” (ibid., p. 6). Indeed, as we shall see, there is a complex set of interrelated, interdependent, and interacting motivations and practices that allow gardeners, and, in a different way, garden spectators, to experience the life-affirming, nurturing, and enchanting forces of nature that are responsibly animated by human inventiveness and shaped by human intervention. As English garden writer and designer Penelope Hobhouse noted, gardening, conceived as “the result of a collaboration between art and nature”, is essentially about “editing nature, not dictating to it…painting a picture to create” beautiful, harmonious, and delightful “visions of nature” (2008).3 Moreover, gardening is a human endeavour that involves many important psychological, sociological, and philosophical questions that have bearing on practical wisdom and human flourishing (O’Brien, 2010b, p. 1), the “good life”, as I have called it. For example, gardens help individuals distinguish themselves from others by working on and intervening in that which they control and over which they have a direct positive influence—“We must cultivate our garden” is the famous last line of Voltaire's Candide. The act of cultivating a garden is thus a form of self-cultivation or self-fashioning. The incomparable English garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, my intellectual touchstone and “master” garden-maker that I will refer to often,4 noted nearly a hundred years ago, “I think there are few things so interesting as to see in what way a person, whose perceptions you think fine and worthy of study, will give them expression in a garden” (Lawrence, 1964, p. 6).5 Like a painting that reveals the inner workings of its painter, a garden is a living Rorschach;6 it also is a way to improve one's biography.

 

Chapter Three - “Magical Myths”: The Passion for Sport

ePub

“In our sundown perambulations of late through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball…The game of ball is glorious…I see great things in baseball. It is our game, the American game.”

Walt Whitman (Sexton, with Oliphant &
Schwartz, 2013, p. 215)

“But those of us who were lucky enough to see [Pelé] play received alms of extraordinary beauty: moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe immortality exists.”

Eduardo Galeano, 2009, p. 1521

Baseball”, wrote syndicated columnist and baseball rhapsodist George F. Will, “is heaven's gift to struggling mortals” (Will, 1998, p. 64). Indeed, baseball, to some extent like other sports, is “a way of looking at life”, one that teaches a subtle form of exquisite pleasure (Giamatti, 1998a, p. 82). Exactly what constitutes baseball's pleasure-giving qualities to its players and spectators, qualities that point to the possibility of glimpsing immortality, is what this chapter is mainly about.2 Baseball, similarly to religion, has a “systematic coherence, spiritual luminosity, and transcendent character” (ibid., p. 43), which has a strong interpretive grip on millions of people, not only in the United States, but also in many other parts of the world. One Gallup poll from 2006 indicated that nearly half of Americans are baseball fans (Jones, n.d.), while it is one of the most popular sports in Japan and parts of Central and South America.3

 

Chapter Four - “Wake up and Smell the Coffee”: The Pleasures of Drinking Coffee

ePub

“A cup of coffee—real coffee—home-browned, home ground, homemade, that comes to you dark as a hazel-eye, but changes to a golden bronze as you temper it with cream that never cheated, but was real cream from its birth, thick, tenderly yellow, perfectly sweet, neither lumpy nor frothing on the Java: such a cup of coffee is a match for twenty blue devils and will exorcise them all.”

Henry Ward Beecher (Kolpass, 2005, p. 109)

Should I kill myself,” asked Albert Camus, “or have a cup of coffee?” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 42). Indeed, as the Beecher and Camus quotes strongly suggest, drinking coffee is an experience that can have profound existential significance for the average person. “Coffee is not a matter of life and death,” the unknown saying goes, “it's much more important than that” (Phillips, 2011, p. 34). The commonly heard refrain in the typical coffee-drinking household—“Please don't even talk to me until I've had my coffee” (Austin, 2011, p. 25)—further suggests that coffee drinking has become a vitally important aspect of millions of people's daily lives. Survey research has found 83% of Americans say they drink coffee on a “past year basis”, while it is estimated that 1.6 billion cups of coffee are drunk worldwide, daily. That's a whopping 584 billion cups in a year (“National Coffee Drinking Trends”, 2013)!1 While no doubt caffeine addiction and slick marketing helps explain why so many people all over the world drink coffee, there is a lot more to understanding the passionate nature of coffee drinking.2 That is, as the quip suggests—“Coffee smells like freshly ground heaven”—the experience of drinking coffee alone and/or with others can be an activity that makes us feel very happy, at least for a while, especially if we take the time to notice what we are feeling. The “perfect cup”, say the aficionados, beautifully blends four elements: aroma, body, acidity, and flavour. The last of these can be sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or savoury (Pendergrast, 2010, p. xvi). As Don Holly, the director of roasting and quality for Vermont's Green Mountain Coffee® noted after tasting eight coffees at a world-class specialty coffee competition, “When I tasted this coffee I saw the face of god in a cup” (Weissman, 2008, pp. 36, 56). In fact, it is often while drinking coffee alone, for example, in the morning while staring out of the window at the falling snowflakes or while doing a crossword puzzle, or, alternately, while engaging in lively conversation with a good friend at a favourite café, that we find ourselves having some of the most subtly pleasurable, joyful moments that help us to optimistically “press on” in an ordinary day.

 

Chapter Five - “The Shorthand of Strong Emotion”: Listening to Great Music

ePub

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

Johann Sebastian Bach (Wilbur, 2005, p. 1)

I can't listen to that much Wagner,” said Woody Allen, “I start getting the urge to conquer Poland” (Manhattan Murder Mystery, 1993). Indeed, whether one is listening to Beethoven or Jay-Z, music has the evocative power to stir up very strong feelings. As philosopher Gabriel Marcel noted, music is a “pure erotic” (Marcel, 2005, p. 121); at its best it illuminates the realm of primordial experience that is not emotional as the term is conventionally formulated, as a private, personal feeling. Rather, great music engages the totality of who one is, as it invokes the sense of wonder and delight, spontaneity and enchantment of childhood, a time when we were not weighed down by oppressive routines (ibid., p. 120; Wood, 2005, p. 27) and responsibilities, but lived much of the time in our free, flowing, and unrestrained imaginations. The “father of modern aesthetics”, as Immanuel Kant has been called, concurred that music accesses the “harmonious free play of the imagination and understanding” (Kivy, 2002, p. 57). Learning how better to listen and appreciate music, to enter into meaningful dialogue with it and let it touch, move, and transform us, is what this chapter is mainly about. As I am not a musicologist, I will not discuss in detail musical theory, composition, and the like, but rather I will focus on the art of thinking and most important, “feeling” musically, in terms of fashioning the existential comportment that is most likely to bring about the great pleasures associated with fluidly “living” (Bruscia, 2000, pp. 89–90) in great music. By music I mean not only listening to, for example, Bach or the Beatles, but also to the variety of “soundscapes”, the mélange of unmusical sounds that usually go unnoticed in everyday life, like birds tweeting, the sound of the wind, or the melody in a person's voice (Ortiz, 1997, p. xvi).1 Every sound has its unique character or personality, whether it is the howling dog in E-flat, an air conditioner chanting in F-sharp minor, or a car tyre singing at a precise speed (Jourdain, 1997, p. 113).2 As Marcel said, “A musical idea is, precisely, a being,” an incarnate “pure being” (2005, p. 101). Most important, I will be suggesting that the capacity to carefully listen to and appreciate beautiful music in the “outside” world is correlated with the capacity to listen to beautiful music in one's “inside” world. As inside and outside are artificial categories, though useful conceptual metaphors, I will use them, though I want to emphasise from the onset that inside and outside are always an integrated, dynamic whole that constitute being-in-the-world. I am thus suggesting a plausible analogy: to the extent that one can learn to better tune in to the music in our external world, we are better able to tune in to the music in our internal world, and by doing so, achieve greater harmony, balance, and pleasure in our lives (Ortiz, 1997, p. xix). As former Conservative prime minister of England Benjamin Disraeli said, “Most people die with their music still locked up inside them” (Moeller, 2001, p. 257).

 

Chapter Six - “Once upon a Time there was…”: On Storytelling

ePub

“And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.”

—William Shakespeare (As You Like It, Act II, scene ii)

We all listened spellbound”, said Anna Freud, “to the revelations made by the patients, their dreams, delusions, fantastic systems, which the analytically knowledgeable among us fitted into a scheme” (Geissmann & Geissmann, 1998, p. 85). It is Anna Freud's use of the word “spellbound”, defined as holding the complete attention of someone as though by magic, that caught my “inner eye”, for it dovetails with the main question of this chapter: what is it about certain types of conversation, which I am calling storytelling, that has the effect of making us feel as if we have been put into a lovely spell, one that magically transports us far away from our routine lives, and once we return, we feel as if our existence has been wonderfully expanded and deepened? As J. K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter noted, “There's always room for a story that can transport people to another place” (www.biographyonline.net/writers/j_k_rowling.html), an imaginative realm that transforms us in a life-affirming manner, even if the conversation is painful to experience. While Rowling's stories transport us to another place, to Harry's wizarding world, all of us have had so-called “ordinary” conversations that morph into the extraordinary, conversations that give us a sense that we have crossed a powerfully meaningful existential threshold. Such “crossing worlds”, from humdrum conversation into deeply significant conversation, has been conceptualised from diverse perspectives: those lodged in the professional oral storytelling tradition have described the power of telling a good story; it “grounds us”, that is, “It gives us a sense of purpose, identity, and continuity between the past and present” (Harvey, 2012, p. 4). Performers of theatre improvisation (“improv”) have described their storytelling as “storymaking”, the result of spontaneous individual and group processes—as the “high priestess” of improv, Viola Spolin, noted, “A story is an epitaph; the ashes of the fire” (Marcus & Marcus, 2011, pp. 93–94). Psychoanalysts, like Roy Schaefer, have described psychoanalysis as a transforming narrative process, one in which the analysand is a “reteller” of his life story, and through his conversation with the analyst he develops new psychoanalytically glossed “storylines” (analogous to plots in literature), and modes of experience, that increase agency and expand and deepen subjectivity, including helping the analysand to love and work better. Donald Spence has discussed the difference between narrative and historical truth in psychoanalysis: “[N]arrative truth”, the kind of truth that psychoanalysis deals with, “is what we have in mind when we say that such and such is a good story, that a given explanation carries conviction, that one solution to a mystery must be true” (1982, p. 31). Gabriel Marcel has described such threshold-crossing conversation in terms of being creatively receptive and responsive to the unique transforming presence of a “charming” person, especially a person who often makes us smile and laugh (Marcus, 2013b, p. 80). And finally, Martin Buber has described such face-to-face experiences as “genuine dialogue”, as “I–Thou” moments characterised by “directness and wholeness, will and grace, and the presence of mutuality” (Kramer, with Gawlick, 2003, p. 20).1 While all these “storying” experiences have their unique context-dependent, setting-specific rhythms of perception and emotion, what they have in common is the power to galvanise, to stimulate great internal activity that feels not only uplifting but also transformative. In short, as Lipman, a professional storyteller, has pointed out, both participants in the storytelling experience—whether the performer and the audience, the analysand and analyst, the charmer and the charmed, or two lovers—are positively changed internally and in terms of their relationship. While this change is hard to account for let alone put into intelligible words, one feels an enlarged and deepened consciousness, an “expanded awareness” that can be conceptualised depending on the context and the “language game” one is steeped in, “…as a leap in understanding, as a miracle, as an experience of ‘flow,’ as a sense of being ‘right with the world,’ or merely as an unnoticed window through which they have viewed some large or small piece of life.” Sometimes this transformation is not only temporarily meaningful, but is also deeply significant as it ripples through one's outlook, such as a pronounced change in a person's sensibilities, being “reminded of some aspect of who they really are” or would like to become, or “form[ing] a connection with a [perspective-altering] body of traditional lore,” like the storytelling literature. And as in all moments of glimpsing immortality, these felt changes amid the “storying” experience bring about an upsurge of “joy, gratitude and humility” (Lipman, 1999, pp. 207–208) among other positive emotions.

 

Chapter Seven - Conclusion: Reflections on Creating Earthly Immortality

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“Abide, moment—but if you cannot abide, at least return eternally!”

Frederick Nietzsche (Edwards, 1967, p. 512)

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work,” said Woody Allen, “I want to achieve it through not dying” (Swedene, 2009, p. 79). What makes Allen's quip so amusing is that obviously, not dying is not an option. It does point, however, to the idea that I have elaborated throughout this book that although the way of achieving immortality is usually construed as leaving behind good work or deeds that are recognised and appreciated by one's descendants and others, I am suggesting that it is through engaging life with the fullness of one's whole being, with a gracious receptivity in the immediacy of the here and now, that one can sense the force, freshness, and depth (Buber, 1999e, p. 102) of an Infinite Presence, of glimpsing immortality.

Thus, my take on immortality in everyday life is not geared to exploring the many religious and non-religious “immortality narratives” that have been generated by those who desire to live forever. Throughout history, many have judged their self-regard by the calculus of how they will remain symbolically alive after they die, whether it is the search for fame and glory, or through their offspring. Some more secularly minded people want to leave behind a personalised legacy in one form or another, while the religious-minded want to leave the world behind and enjoy a heavenly bliss (Swedene, 2009) or some form of earthly resurrection.

 

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