A few weeks back, a very wise friend I bumped into serendipitously mentioned this:

In the end, only three things matter:

1) How much you loved,

2) how gently you lived, and

3) how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Whose words of wisdom are they? Transpires it was the Buddha.

Numbers 1) and 2) aren’t that earth shattering. And ‘living gently’ is maybe not that exciting.

I get the point; let go of hatred and anger. But like with Roman Stoicism, I’m a bit watchful that Buddhist ‘patience’ and ‘tolerance’ – good though they are – don’t turn into accepting stuff which is unacceptable or giving up on things which are important.

But number 3) is a gem. This week I ‘let go gracefully’ of something that ‘wasn’t meant for me’ and feel infinitely better for it.

Power, money and status are inviting and intoxicating, but there are are phases to life and choices to make. So this week I put my family ahead of my career and let go of seeking advancement. Not forever, but not for now.

The Buddha is bang on – by letting go of what was ‘not meant for me’, and doing it ‘gracefully’ on my own terms I have protected what matters, lost nothing and gained a great deal: a self-imposed burden removed, a lightness of spirit returned and a much readier smile on my face. Balance restored.

Poetry in Motion

I’ve just finished Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’. There are things to criticise. Some points – the time we waste in front of TV notably – are right but he makes them repetitively. His style occasionally grates. But, in my humble opinion, it is an outstanding book. My Bayesian brain infers he is likely a pretty outstanding man.

There are many themes to pull out, ideas to take forward, good advice and thought provoking evidence. My simple summary is – just read it. I’ve given ‘Flow’ its own link in the sidebar to the right.

Two personal things I’ll draw out. First Csikszentmihilyi’s advice to read a piece of poetry every day. I’ve never much cared for poetry. But, as he says, I’ve discovered a poem is a simple and rewarding pleasure. It doesn’t take much. Just five minutes and two or three poems at bedtime and mood and life are subtlety and magically enhanced. I told my partner. She’s taken with it too. And now we both have books of poetry on the go. My advice – just do it.

The second personal thing was my curious desire to get the book over with. Mainly, I think, so I could get on with all the things I now want to read as a result of reading the book. But also because I ever-so-slightly feared Csikszentmihalyi might barrel off the rails and disappoint me at the end.

Many potentially great books have been marred by a lame ending. I worried about this one. Tantalisingly the penultimate chapter was pretty good – synthesis, some emergent structure and integration of themes. So, as I said to to a particular friend, I was anxious that the last chapter would be a major disappointment. He said ‘Don’t read it, write your own final chapter’. Good advice, but a somewhat daunting challenge, so I read it instead, and I’m glad I did.

No easy answers therein, but a validation of my own thesis, that the good life requires both thought and action – Aristotle and Achilles. Csikszentmihilyi also recommends the thinkers and writers of history and antiquity as invaluable guides. I increasingly agree. But his final challenge is a tough one: to learn to master oneself and then get beyond the self to find an overarching meaning for our lives and tune into and live vividly in the full ‘flow’ of the real world. Easy then.

Discussing this on Monday with another friend, we concluded life takes the balance of a Nureyev: to balance internal with external, self with others, the world within with the world without, skill with challenge, what we achieve in life with what we would want to be remembered for.

Stoic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Existentialist, pick your school of philosophy, they are all scratching the same basic itch: how much to stick your neck out and risk your mental and physical health in the hurly burly of the real world.

Finding ‘meaning’ for Csikszentmihalyi or a ‘telos’ for Aristotle is the tough one. For Aristotle’s harp player it’s playing the harp well. For me the meaning of life is getting clearer, but it’s reassuring to know there are philosophers and poets to help me on my way.