Is this the moment?

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.  For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men.  Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.

— Thomas Merton

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Blaise Pascal

[Dieu a] tempéré sa connaissance en sorte qu’il a donné des marques de soi visibles à ceux qui le cherchent et non à ceux qui ne le cherchent pas.  Il y a assez de lumière pour ceux qui ne désirent que de voir et assez d’obscurité pour ceux qui ont une disposition contraire.  — Blaise Pascal, né cette journée en 1623

[God has] arranged his visibility for those who seek him, but not for those who don’t.  There is enough light for those who want to see, and enough shadow to deter those who have the opposite disposition.
— Blaise Pascal was born this day in 1623, and never lived to see his 40th birthday.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.
J’ai dit souvent que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose,
qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre. (Pensées)

 

More Masefield

In the last week, I have become intimate with a slim, early volume of John Masefield’s poetry.  Some of them are directly related to the next poem in line, but mostly they just follow themes of death, beauty, and mystery, asking the largest questions about why we are here, what is our future after death, and what are the limits to what we can know.

I’ve recorded the entire volume of 47 poems here, about 40 minutes’ listening. Full text is here.

                                 XIV
What is this atom that contains the whole,
This miracle that needs adjuncts so strange,
This, which imagined God and is the whole,
The steady star persisting amid change?
What waste that smallness of such power should need
Such clumsy tools so easy to destroy,
Such wasteful servants difficult to feed,
Such indirect dark avenues to joy.
Why, if its business is not mainly earth,
Should it demand such heavy chains to sense?
A heavenly thing demands a swifter birth,
A quicker hand to act intelligence;
An earthly thing were better like the rose,
At peace with clay from which its beauty grows.

‘The greatest good for the greatest number’

More than anyone in the history of Western philosophy, John Stuart Mill is associated with the ideas that humans are individual, rational beings, that our happiness is a matter of individual satisfaction of our needs and desires, and that the sum total of individual human happiness is the highest good.

Mill came to these ideas as a youth of outsized intellectual brilliance.

When J S Mill applied to Cambridge at the age of 15, he’d so mastered law, history, philosophy, economics, science and mathematics that they turned him away because their professors didn’t have anything more to teach him.

The young Mill soldiered on with efforts for social reform, but his heart wasn’t in it. He’d become a utilitarian machine with a suicidal ghost inside. With his well-tuned calculative abilities, the despairing philosopher put his finger right on the problem:

[I]t occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.

by John & Charles Watkins, or by John Watkins, albumen print, partially over-painted in ink wash, 1865

 

It’s no surprise to modern psychology that getting what we desire is almost completely unrelated to what makes us happy.  (Exceptions are people in extreme need or physical discomfort.)  And happiness itself is only part of what fulfills and satisfies us in the long term.  I would rather be right than happy.  Maybe you would rather be connected than happy.  Maybe someone else would rather be productive than happy.

 

Even when things materially improve because of our commitment to utilitarian principles, our increased happiness often doesn’t register as meaningful. Mill’s irrepressible ‘No!’ can be distinctly heard in those I call ‘exiteers’, the growing number of people who, despite their ideological differences, share a desire to exit the system, sometimes with a bang. The irrepressible ‘No!’ haunts even comfy lives in the form of nagging anxieties muted by a steady stream of drugs and distractions. When we see each other in terms of usefulness, as Jean-Paul Sartre observed long before Facebook and Twitter: ‘Hell is other people.’

So how to live?  It’s something we might discover, but not something we can figure out rationally.  Happiness is a collective function of families, communities and whole cultures at least as much as it is an individual function.  Most of us in America who have figured this out are trying to escape a culture of economic production and consumption, to create alternative communities outside the corporation and the housing development.  Knowing yourself through introspection and the practice of focused awareness are helpful.  It’s actually good to know what you want and to go after it with gusto, but your happiness doesn’t depend on the success of that endeavor.  Give up on security.  Learn to be happy when uncomfortable. “Live frugally, on surprise”…now I’m listing things that work for me, but it’s up to you to learn what works for you.

Read more from Scott Samuelson on Aeon.co.

 

Hydraulic engineering of the Ancients

1500 years before Mohamed, long before there was a Persian empire, Iran was home to an advanced civilization, both socially and technically.  With only about 2/3 as much annual precipitation as Los Angeles, they engineered and constructed a vast system of underground aqueducts, called Qanats.  They were underground in order to avoid evaporation losses, and they were networked from the mountains down to the cities with a constant, gentle downward slope because electric pumps were not an option, and camels had better things to do.

Kish-Qanat

Multiple wells were linked by the network.  Without the qanats, agriculture would have been out of the question, and the region would have been home only to nomads.  There are 37,500 qanats remaining in present-day Iran, from a former peak of more than 100,000.

The ancients were also accomplished at storing ice from the winter to be used all summer.  This structure is called a Yakhchal.

3QuarksDaily article by Carl Pierer

What is Contemplation?

Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder, It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life of being. It is gratitude for awareness, for life, and for being. It is vivid awareness that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendant, and infinitely abundant Source.

In contemplation, we know beyond all knowing and un-knowing.

— Thomas Merton