Archive for May 8, 2011

waking early

pd quotes

  • We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
  • It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. 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.
  • Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.

review –

This is not a book of formal philosophy; more of introspection. Of course Russel introspected with the same brilliant and critical mind that he used to contribute to mathematics and philosophy. But this is not rigorous, apologetic or systematic. Actually, it’s more like gentle advice. And quite reasonable.

I’d like to quote a few passages that I found thought-provoking, to give a reader a sense of what to expect if you purchase and read this book:

p. 27, “[T]o be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”

p. 29, “The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts.”

p. 43, “I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life…. Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness. What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.”

p. 74, “The essentials of human happiness are simple, so simple that sophisticated people cannot bring themselves to what it is that they really lack.”

p. 94, “[R]emember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself… don’t overestimate your own merits… don’t expect others to take as much interest in you as you do in yourself.”

p. 99, “No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid, and however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once and for all, to get used to it, and to proceed to build your life in accordance with it.”

p. 107, “One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.”

p. 109, “Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions.”

p. 123, “The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

p. 142, “In the best kind of affection a man hopes for a new happiness rather than for an escape from an old unhappiness.”

p. 175, “To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theater and and not listening to the play.”

Well, that’s a reasonable sample. It’s not a philosophical masterpiece, but it is mature, wise and edifying. I think most people who read books would do well to read this one too, so I give it a hearty endorsement.

The Causes of Unhappiness

1. What Makes People Unhappy?

“My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable. I believe this unhappiness to be largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to the destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or of animals, ultimately depends.” [page 17]

2. Byronic Unhappiness

“It is common in our day, as it has been in so many other periods of the world’s history, to suppose that those among us who are wise enough have seen through all the enthusiasms of earlier times and have become aware that there is nothing left to live for. … I do not myself believe that there is any superior rationality in being unhappy. The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead. … I wish to persuade the reader that, whatever the arguments may be, reason lays no embargo upon happiness.” [page 24]

3. Competition

Russell paints a bleak picture of the businessman so obsessed by competing with other businessmen for success that the rest of life passes him by. “Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.” [page 43]

4. Boredom and Excitement

We have come to associate boredom with unhappiness and excitement with happiness, but Russell argues that boredom and excitement form a separate axis entirely, having little relationship with happiness. “Running away from enemies who are trying to take one’s life is, I imagine, unpleasant, but certainly not boring. … The opposite of boredom, in a word, is not pleasure, but excitement.” [pages 48-49] The confusion of excitement and happiness, and the flight from boredom that it entails, is a chief cause of unhappiness. The cure is to teach oneself to endure boredom without running from it.

5. Fatigue

This chapter is actually about worry. Russell believes that such physical fatigue as people feel in the industrialized world is mostly healthy, and that only “nervous fatigue”, caused largely by worry, is really destructive to happiness. Russell believes most worry could be avoided by learning good thinking habits, by refusing to over-estimate the significance of possible failures, by taking a larger perspective, and by facing fears squarely.

6. Envy

“If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I dare say, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot therefore get away from envy by means of success alone. … You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.” [pages 71-72]

7. The Sense of Sin

Traditional religion, in Russell’s view, has saddled us with an ascetic moral code that will make us unhappy if we keep it (by denying us joy in life) and also if we break it (by causing us guilt). The only solution is to root this moral code out of our unconscious, and replace it with a code less inimical to human happiness.

8. Persecution Mania

This is probably the most amusing chapter of the book, as Russell uses his droll wit to puncture human self-importance. “My purpose in this chapter is to suggest some general reflections by means of which each individual can detect in himself the elements of persecution mania (from which almost everybody suffers in a greater or less degree), and having detected them, can eliminate them. This is an important part of the conquest of happiness, since it is quite impossible to be happy if we feel that everybody ill-treats us.” [page 90]

9. Fear of Public Opinion

“Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially by those with whom they live.” [page 100] Fortunately the modern world gives us some choice about where we live and who our friends will be.

The Causes of Happiness

In general, the second half of Conquest is not as impressive as the first. Not only is this section shorter than the first, but Russell has more of a tendency to ramble. These rambles can be entertaining, but they are usually not very informative. I am left with the impression that the causes of happiness remain mysterious to Russell. Once the obstacles to happiness are removed, happiness just happens — somehow.

10. Is Happiness Still Possible?

“Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things. … The kind [of interest in persons] that makes for happiness is the kind that likes to observe people and finds pleasure in their individual traits, that wishes to afford scope for the interests and pleasures of those with whom it is brought into contact without desiring to acquire power over them or to secure their enthusiastic admiration. The person whose attitude towards others is genuinely of this kind will be a source of happiness and a recipient of reciprocal kindness. … To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.” [pages 121-122]

11. Zest

Zest is the x-factor that causes us to be interested in life. Russell has little to say about what zest is or how to obtain it. He does argue against those who would devalue zest by claiming that it is a mark of superior taste not to be interested in vulgar or lowbrow subjects. “All disenchantment is to me a malady which … is to be cured as soon as possible, not to be regarded as a higher form of wisdom. Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior? There is no abstract and impersonal proof that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good, to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which both must live.” [page 125]

12. Affection

“One of the chief causes of lack of zest is the feeling that one is unloved, whereas conversely the feeling of being loved promotes zest more than anything else does.” [page 137] Unfortunately, considering the importance of affection to happiness, this chapter is almost completely descriptive rather than prescriptive. Russell describes the types of affection and evaluates their effects, but gives little advice about how to either give or get higher quality affection.

13. The Family

“Of all the institutions that have come down to us from the past none is in the present day so disorganized and derailed as the family. Affection of parents for children and of children for parents is capable of being one of the greatest sources of happiness, but in fact at the present day the relations of parents and children are, in nine cases out of ten, a source of unhappiness to both parties, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a source of unhappiness to at least one of the two parties. This failure of the family to provide the fundamental satisfactions which in principle it is capable of yielding is one of the most deep-seated causes of the discontent which is prevalent in our age.” [page 145]

14. Work

“Whether work should be placed among the causes of happiness or the causes of unhappiness may perhaps be regarded as a doubtful question.” [page 162] Russell places it among the causes of happiness for a number of reasons:
1. It passes time.
2. It provides an opportunity for success.
3. The work itself may be interesting.

15. Impersonal Interests

Certain interests are central to a person’s conception of his/her life: career, family, and so forth. In this chapter Russell asserts the value of having interests that are not central, that have no effect on the major issues of life. Such hobbies and pastimes serve two purposes: (1) They provide an escape from larger worries, and distract the conscious mind so that the unconscious can work productively toward a solution. (2) They provide a reserve pool of interest in life, so that if disaster or a series of disasters destroy the pillars that support our central interests, we will have the possibility of growing new central interests.

This chapter contains an important tangential discussion of “greatness of soul” which I discuss under the Transcending Personal Hopes and Interests theme.

16. Effort and Resignation

What Russell calls resignation is more popularly referred to these days as acceptance. The question discussed in this chapter is basically: Should we try to change the world or accept it the way it is? Russell takes a middle position, roughly equivalent to the Serenity Prayer.

17. The Happy Man

In the final chapter Russell comes back to his main point: attention should be focused outward, not inward. “It is not the nature of most men to be happy in a prison, and the passions which shut us up in ourselves constitute one of the worst kinds of prisons. Among such passions some of the commonest are fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-admiration. In all these our desires are centered upon ourselves: there is no genuine interest in the outer world, but only a concern lest it should in some way injure us or fail to feed our ego.” [page 187]

the alchemist

Edward Said – Orientalism

The Alchemist is remarkable for being a love story that renounces the idea that romantic love must be the central thing in your life. Each person has a destiny to pursue that exists independently of other people. It is the thing you would do, or be, even if you have all the love and money you want. The treasure Santiago seeks is of course the symbol of the personal dream or destiny, but he is happy to give up on it when he finds the woman of his dreams in a desert oasis. Yet the alchemist tells him that the love of his oasis girlfriend will only be proved real if she is willing to support his treasure search.

Santiago’s dilemma is about the conflict between love and personal dreams; too often we see the love relationship as the meaning of our life, but the obsession with romantic coupling can cut us off from a life more connected with the rest of the world. But surely the heart has needs? Live your life around the dream, Coelho says, and their will be more ‘heart’ in your life than you can now comprehend: ‘…no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity’. Romantic love is important, but is not your duty as is the pursuit of your dream. Only through devotion to the dream is the ‘Soul of the World’ revealed to us, the knowledge which destroys loneliness and gives power.

Treasure of the present

The alchemist Santiago meets in the desert is the real thing. He actually can turn base metals into gold, the goal of the medieval alchemists. Santiago asks why the other alchemists never succeeded, and gets the strange answer, ‘They were only looking for gold.’ That is, they were seeking only the treasure of their destiny rather actually trying to live the destiny. Their focus on a prize lessened the quality of the present.

This is similar to Hindu concept of not seeking the fruit of our actions, but just doing according to our dharma, or purpose. There is a subtle distinction between living out the destiny, as you have comprehended it, and scrabbling to achieve some distant goal. Destiny is not a prize but a state of being, realised only when, as the camel driver counsels Santiago, we live in the present. Alchemy is difficult to understand for today’s mind, because it was a ‘science’ that blended matter and spirit. The alchemists spent years patiently heating and purifying metals, but the end result, a product of their total immersion in the task, was a purification of themselves. The moral being can make the distinction between the prize and the journey.


But the amazing part was the absolute calm that pervaded the face of the Japanese airport officials and workers and its contrast with the terrified look on the foreign tourists’ faces. It was almost as if it was a daily routine for the Japanese. One unforgettable image from the ordeal was the person at the currency exchange counter, who in the midst of the violent quake, was calmly imploring me to pick up the money that I had forsaken in my desperate attempt to run out of the airport!  And what more could have been expected  from a people who could not have seen anything worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contrast this with our own attitudes to disasters when more people die from the panic following the disaster rather than the disaster itself.   

Quiet efficiency

The same stoic efficiency was seen in the distribution of sleeping bags to all the stranded passengers in the airport within no time, and the orderly fashion in which people were herded into queues when train services resumed from the airport the next morning. There was not a sign of chaos. One has to bear in mind that Tokyo city has a mammoth population of 1.3 crore people.

While all public transportation was suspended, what was remarkable was that it, including the express trains, was resumed in less than 24 hours. A tremendous achievement considering the scale of assessment needed to ascertain the damages to tracks and roads. Travelling by train to the city was an experience, for, the city, full of skyscrapers, did not show a single broken windowpane on any of the buildings!  Nor were there any bent electric poles.    Even the most Spartan of contemporary weddings costs not less than Rs. 5,00,000. All of this, you would imagine, should directly translate to more marital bliss than ever before. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case.

Often, the issues are not related to just the minor niggles that are part of any large event. Sometimes jewellery is stolen, lechery is in evidence, passes are made and sexual peccadilloes discovered. The end result is that many couples take this wedding-related baggage into their marriages and, since neither partner is willing to cede ground and since there is rarely any hard evidence to support any of the allegations that generally float around, issues are usually carried forward unresolved and are dredged out again when marital fights turn nasty.

One of the interesting offshoots of globalisation, Internet and television is that Indian cultural mores, far from being threatened by Western influences as many people fear, are becoming more pan-Indian. Nowhere is it more in evidence than in the Indian wedding.

In the final analysis, a wedding should be something that couples remember fondly for many years to come. What makes a wedding special is not how exotic it was or how much it cost but the joy that the couple felt on coming together. I have nothing against big, even obese, weddings. But what everyone needs to remember is that when large events are organised, there are going to be a lot of slip-ups even if you hire an ISO-certified professional to do it for you. So, there’s no sense in personalising and attributing malafide intent to lapses or making a big deal about wedding bloopers. They just need to be taken in one’s stride and laughed over. And most importantly, it should be remembered that special weddings don’t always make special marriages. Only special people do.

“I was out in the heats and one Sreelatha was the winner in the 100m and 200m. I watched her winning from a distance and told myself that I would win the next year,” says Usha. “The 1982 Asian Games champion M.D. Valsamma’s coach gave a statement in the media that if Valsamma had some 15 days training on a synthetic track, she would beat me. I was very interested in the challenge. I kept that paper cutting under my bed and used to read it often,” reveals Usha.  “A lot of top athletes let me down with their statements in the media. Some said I had betrayed the nation. They stoned my house. I used to lock myself in a room. I never used to talk to anybody; I was very, very hurt,” explains Usha. For a girl who put the country before self, who probably lost out on an Olympics medal because she had to run in too many events, it was too much to bear. “That was a period when I hated sport.”

Her parents were her only source of support during those painful days. “When the 1989 New Delhi Asian Championship came, I wanted to win, to be happy once again. I was in good form and for the first time, my sisters came to watch me in an international meet.” She was happy too with the golden haul.  Usha was always a very hard-working and meticulous athlete. She was always confident and optimistic. She rarely got depressed. But I should say that she was very sensitive especially when it came to her abilities. She performed her best always and always wanted to break her own records. 

Usually, I do not attempt to qualify the works of my peers. To me, poetry, as well as all other artistic expression be it music, painting, dance or sculpture, is best when it’s consumed and experienced with the open mind of the fool and uninhibited empathy. To disengage and to rationalise, to dissociate and intellectualise is an exercise most of us know all too well. If it swings, it swings. If it rocks, well, then it rocks. Poetry, as all, human endeavour, in my opinion, is an expression that must yield to intention. And wisdom, insight as well as entertainment and a good laugh can be had, and gained everywhere. In the high as well as in the low. However, different from your own perspective, inclination or background it might or might not be.  – excerpts –

The forest cover is fast depleting and several species have become extinct and many more are threatened. The main reason is human greed furthered by machine. The culture of wealth at any cost and by any means has invaded forest land, the home of biodiversity as well as minerals.     Tagore saw this greed phenomenon clearly and wished that we draw lessons from forests. In Tapovan, he writes about the “culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life”. In the conflict between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, nature alone would “impart peace of the eternal to human emotions”.                In a poem entitled “The Sunset of the Century” written on the last day of the 19 {+t} {+h} century, Tagore observed: ‘the last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred’. The mood on the last day of the 20 {+t} {+h} century, however, was one of hope. Many viewed the termination of the Cold War as the end of major conflicts in global politics and emergence of a harmonious world. This was short-lived. The attack on the United States of America on September 11, 2001 established that religiously motivated violence is going to pose a major threat to world peace.

Rabindranath Tagore was opposed to every kind of religious fundamentalism and cultural separatism. He writes :

‘While God waits for his temple to be built of love men bring stones’.

The building of temple of love remains mankind’s unfinished agenda.

Tagore was never lacking in judgment or resolution in siding with the forces of peace and harmony, spirituality and freedom against religious discrimination, nationalistic arrogance, terrorism, and social discrimination. He wanted Indians to learn about how other people lived, what they believed in and so on, while remaining interested and involved in their own culture and heritage.

Rabindranath Tagore believed that true democracy and freedom alone would lead to realisation of the full potentialities of human beings. It was in this context, that he emphasised freedom of the mind. A poem in Gitanjali catches this ethos admirably:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words comes out from depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit…

Tagore wanted education to be an instrument of realisation of human potentialities. He raised Visva-Bharati as an international university aimed at assisting students realise the true character of our interlinked humanity and deeper unities of our civilisation in the West and the East. Could we not build a better world by teaching love and not hatred?