11/21/16: “Bad People”

In the wake of the US Presidential election, our country has been in a state of turmoil (to put it mildly). This turmoil has come with a strong dose of hatred; hatred for Republicans, for Democrats, for people of all classes and races from all over the country. This is perhaps the most divided that the United States has been since the outbreak of the Civil War.

Most of the mainstream political jargon circulating in American public life revolves around the “bad guy.” Whether the “bad guy” is a white supremacist from middle America or a college student silencing their peers for the sake of political correctness, everyone has at least one demon in their back pocket to criticize for the current state of US affairs.

For a long list of reasons, I don’t want to discuss the politics behind our election and country here. The root problem today- which I believe is true of the entire globe- is the sense of good vs. evil within the human race. We no longer operate on a national belief that all people are both sinful and the children of God, as Christianity once inculcated in mainstream America. I am not advocating bringing Christianity back into national focus (religion and politics mix terribly today), but that seedling of an idea- sinful children of God- has a truth to it that needs to be brought back into our cultural consciousness.

I do not believe in good people and bad people. I simply don’t. (I would prefer not to get into the psychology of psychopaths or Hitler, so for now, I am putting stark outliers aside). Every person comes into this world blank, devoid of evil. We all know this; you need only look into the face of a baby to realize that evil is not an inborn character trait.

So where does evil come from? How does the “bad person” turn “bad”? How does someone become racist, sexist, homophobic, or cruel to animals? Why don’t they realize that they’ve become “bad”?

Every child is born into a family, with some sort of parent or guardian that instructs them in the basic matters of life. Because children identify so closely with their parents, they will naturally absorb some, if not all, of the belief structures that their parents have, even if only in a subliminal manner. If a child grows up in a racist household, that child will retain some of that racism like a mental film coating their racial worldview. Is that child really bad? No; he is merely the product of his environment, and he was raised to believe, for reasons I cannot purport to know, that the various races are not equal.

This is difficult to stomach, morally, so here is a more subtle example: I was raised to believe that a human life is more valuable than an animal life, because of our relative capacities for consciousness. If I had to choose between taking the life of a dog or a human being, I would pick the human being every time (once again, I am speaking in generalities- Hitler and psychopathic murderers are excluded). I think most of us were raised this way, and it seems like such basic human knowledge. No matter how much you love your pet dog, you will pick your child’s life over your dog’s life. End of the question.

This view, while sensical, is still subjective. There is no preordained law from the Universe stating that a human life is more valuable than an animal life. Why should we prize our own souls over those of our living counterparts? For that matter, why do we experience so little guilt when we kill a tree compared to a cow? Trees are alive, they can communicate with each other, and they have the capacity to feel pain. Why don’t we value trees as much as people? Because we were not raised to think that way.

We are born to inherit our parents’ and community’s belief structures, and our parents were born to inherit their parents’ belief structures, and so on. It is not the mother’s fault any more than it is her own mother’s fault, and all the way back to the beginning of human morality. People are not bad, they are mistaken. They see in a certain way, and it is very hard to see the world through a different lens once your own lens has been cemented by the passage of time.

Of course, it is possible to break through their inherited perspectives. When people separate from their families, to go to work or to college, they interact with new perspectives on the world. Whether or not a person adapts their worldview to reflect a greater respect and love for all humanity and life on Earth depends primarily on the following question:

Does the person of a different perspective show them hate or love? Hostility or empathy?

People do not bend to hate and to hostility. You cannot destroy someone’s “badness” with hatred. If you treat someone as if they are categorically, inherently “bad,” how can you expect them to adapt and change to be good?

If we want to come together in a kinder, more tolerant union- and I believe that we all do- we must consider the means by which we achieve our ends. Too many of us love to hate, to condemn the “bad” people of the world, blindly sacrificing the opportunity to come together. Instead, we turn out opposition on the defensive, and enter into the moral gridlock and disgust that so characterizes our current era.

So please, when you are angry and want to lament the “bad people” in the world, remember: everyone is given a secondhand perspective when they come into this world, and the only way to change a person’s perspective is to offer them empathy and love and instruction. Teaching a child with a whip only inspires fear, and teaching an adult with hate only inspires paranoia and anger.

We all have something to learn from one another. Let’s not waste that opportunity by shutting down before we have a chance to converse and share.

11/1/16: The Leadership Obsession

As I have said before, I am currently in the process of applying to college. On several of my applications, there is a required essay question that looks like this:

“Tell us about a leadership experience you’ve held, and what you learned from leading others.”

In fact, most of the schools I’m applying to talk about leadership somewhere in their mission statement. Universities today are obsessed with “educating global leaders” and “preparing our youth to lead.” A necessary qualification for our admittance, then, is previous leadership experience from high school to build on as we progress through the undergraduate years.

Of course, I have nothing against leadership itself- the world can always benefit from having more benevolent, understanding, and intelligent leaders to guide us through modern problems like climate change and international tension. (And, the United States today could benefit from having a viable, honest candidate for national leadership in general.) Leaders are a critical component of society, but in our obsession with leadership, we have forgotten to value the most important piece of the equation: followers.

Leaders cannot exist without followers, of course; to lead is to imply that someone is being led. Followers actualize the mission and goals of the leader. They fuel workplaces, resist oppression, and benefit themselves and the world by virtue of their voluntary service to the leader. What if Steve Jobs, the original CEO and creator of Apply, had been the only person to work for the company? What if Martin Luther King Jr. were the only person to follow his own demand to boycott the bus system? Followers make change possible. Without them, leadership has no value and simply cannot exist.

My fear is that my generation is being groomed to believe that we must either become leaders of current organizations, or go off on our own to create something new to lead. Some members of our generation need to fill these roles, but the vast majority of us will inevitably become followers- we will have bosses and mentors and superintendents for most, if not all, of our lives. We will surely be followers when we enter the job market, right after we leave the university that promised to turn us into a leader, and made us think that our value was based on our leadership potential. This contradiction, galvanized by secondary schools and universities across the world, is perhaps one of the most dangerous to the mental health of my generation. We enter the workplace as followers and become instantly depressed: “Why am I on the bottom? I thought I was a leader. Following is pointless- it has no value.”

We need to deescalate the importance and fixation on leadership in higher education. We should still give our youth access to leadership positions, and train our youth to properly manage and direct other people, but we can no longer hold up leadership as the essential pillar of a worthwhile career and life. We need to reinvest in the value of our followers, and teach leaders to pay attention to the desires and ideas of the people they lead. We need to give power and purpose back to the followers in the world, who truly are the ones we have to thank for the lives we live today. I would have no material possessions, no education, and nowhere to live without factory workers, construction workers, and teachers who operate under Division Heads and principals. I owe the comforts and opportunities in my life to followers as well as leaders, and this is too often forgotten.

I hope that you remember that following is just as vital a function as leading. There is no shame, no “failure,” in completing the orders set about by someone else. If you believe in the goals and mission of your leader, then your work is meaningful. You are building towards a vision that you care for, and turning your potential into good for yourself and mankind. Even the best and wisest leaders need followers to turn their ideas into reality; by following the best and brightest, we can join in their ideas and make progress in the world.

The human race is an ecosystem, and it takes all parts to keep it thriving and progressing. We must not take our followers for granted. Should they go extinct, believing their jobs unimportant, our world would fall apart.

10/13/16: The Narrative Error

I recently sat in on a lecture for a leadership class for young people. The premise of the lecture went something like this: “In order to bring change to your community, it’s important to know your own story. You should reflect on your life in order to create a narrative that you can bring to the table when you go out into the world.” We were asked to fill out a large number of questions about our pasts, our families, our aspirations, and how all of those things fit together to form our personal story. In a certain sense, we were constructing psychological profiles for ourselves, not unlike a Freudian psychoanalysis.

The class, of course, had the best of intentions, but I left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t know if this is a characteristically Western way of approaching life, but there seems to be an obsession in this country with personal and cultural narratives. Life should, apparently, follow the same format as a novel. Every detail has meaning and effects subsequent events, with a few themes running across the years to tie our lives together. We reach a series of climaxes that resolve our psychological, emotional, and spiritual journeys. We are supposed to strive for continuity, so that if we were to sit down with a pen and the instructions to write a memoir, the narrative would come easily.

I don’t personally believe in the narrative structure of a life. The reason why novels have such a definite, thematic narrative is because the author is in charge. There is no serendipity or random chance in a novel; events are planned and edited according to a predestined narrative arc. Our fiction follows a neat, congruous storyline because that novels are written to produce a sense of closure and resolution at the end. They give us morals, themes, and characters with beginnings and ends. I love novels, but they are not accurate depictions of the real progression of human life.

The problem is, we don’t live towards resolutions. Every event in my past isn’t culminating in this very moment, leading me towards a climax and closure. My life isn’t a collection of a few themes that pop up over and over again, evolving over time. My very memory isn’t really continuous, and my psyche doesn’t evolve linearly like a character in a book. Cause and effect are so messy in real life, and much of our identity and memory is made up, misremembered, or imagined after the fact. Memories change, identities evolve in strange ways, and we all abide by a certain degree of randomness and chance.

I believe that trying to turn life into a narrative is dangerous. It makes us crave resolution and a definitive causal structure for our entire lives. We feel the need to box up our experiences and explain them based on grander themes and ideas, when some events just happen for no narrative reason. Our decisions are supposed to follow a progression, and our memories are supposed to accurately portray our pasts and inform our futures.

There is so much pressure and disappointment to be felt when trying to turn life into a novel. We have to be finding meaning and arc in every action, every experience, every thought and feeling. We have to be constantly justifying our choices, our aspirations, our desires and fears, our very selves on some decades-old story that started at birth. When things end without total resolution, we feel that we’ve failed to finish the story, and we get trapped in an endless need to find closure. We limit ourselves to a few identifying themes and become paralyzed, because abandoning our labels and themes is abandoning our story.

In order to grow and fully appreciate the serendipitous quality of life, we must be willing to let go of the narrative that holds our story together. We are not stories; we are a present consciousness. We are the atoms that make us up in this very moment, which are forever changing and reacting to an infinitely complicated universe. We can never ascribe a narrative to our lives because the world and the brain are too utterly complex to box up in a story. Being human and free means being able to shift in any direction, to take the reins and reinvent ourselves, to let go of old memories and identities and move into new domains as we evolve. Abandoning old narratives and self-stories is accepting the transitory, momentary quality of human life. It is denying the ego its power of storytelling and justifying, accusing and blaming the past for our present suffering. Stories restrict us, and blank pages are our freedom.

I have told myself so many stories about myself, which become habitual loops of thinking about my own identity. I now realize how pernicious this cycle is. I don’t want to be limited by my old identifiers and memories. I am grateful to be a human because being human is being free. I would hate to shackle myself to a sensical novel that I have to strive to write every day.

What stories do you tell yourself about your past, present, and future? Do stories comfort or restrict you? How have you given up narratives in favor of present Being?

9/28/16: Me or Us?

This morning, I listened to a recording of an NPR interview of the author of I Contain Multitudes, a book that came out recently and that I will be putting at the top of my Christmas List. The book, as I understand it, is part science and part philosophical inquiry, focusing on the smallest of the world’s creatures: microbes.

Every person on earth has trillions of bacteria living on them and within them. Your nose and belly button each have their own unique bacterial colonies, while pale in comparison to the veritable universe inhabiting your gut. We each carry pounds of bacteria around in our bodies, who outnumber our own body cells by several magnitudes of ten. As a life form, I am no more a single “me” than Earth is a single “me.” As the book title says, we each contain multitudes. These bacteria are critical for digestion, immune health, and may even regulate our moods and fluctuations in weight. Little do we know, trillions of creatures inside of us are making our own lives possible.

This interview struck me, not only for its biological wonder, but also as yet another example of the mysterious interdependence of the universe and the planet. It made me balk in wonder at the sheer complexity of each living organism, and how much each of us is influenced by other forms of life. We learn about symbiosis in biology class, but why don’t we learn that we ourselves are symbiotic creatures, providing a home to trillions of bacteria who in turn keep us healthy and safe?

It also made me realize a completely new dimension of the sacredness of the human body. It is so easy to get caught up in the flaws of our physical beings, in a culture that views the body as an object of physical prowess and beauty. We are taught to see our bodies mere proof of our self-control, habits, and dedication to improvement, in the form of diet and exercise. We are taught that our bodies belong to us alone, and will be used as tools to judge our character and dedication to the self. Our culture dictates that our body is an extension of our ego, a physical sense of self and value.

But, knowing that we each contain multitudes, we can look at the body in a sacred and selfless way. No matter what our bodies look like or how they perform in strength and endurance, they are home to trillions of organisms. We are, each of us, a world for trillions of living things. The human body is a universe, not only of microbes, but also of each individual cell that spends its whole life working to keep us healthy and alive. The idea of “me” as a singular entity, from a biological perspective, does not truly describe the human body. I am countless, infinite life forms, all working together to produce the being that my eyes perceive as singular.

This perspective on the human body has made me feel a new sense of love and responsibility to my physical form. If I wouldn’t want to harm others, how could I harm myself? How could I discount the body that holds so much life, so many beautiful creatures conspiring every day to keep me alive? How could I look at my own skin with anything but wonder, knowing what I see is really a vast fabric of cells and bacteria pulsing with life?

I hope that when you look at your own body, when you feed it and wash it and move it, you too can see a bit of the wonder of your own inner multitudes.

Brainstorms Announcement!

Some of you might remember from previous posts that I have been creating my own podcast series, called Brainstorms. The first episode is now live on brainstorms.org, and the second will be following tomorrow. The podcast is all about the teenage brain and behavior. Whether you are a teenager, the parent of a teenager, a teacher, or someone who spends time around adolescents, I believe there is something for you to learn! This project has taken me many hours and has become my passion, and I would so appreciate any visits to the site. And, if you’re feeling especially kind, I would be so grateful if you could click the “Podcast on iTunes” link on the right side of the site and give me a nice rating there. Thank you so much!!


9/8/16: The Ego Threshold

As a high school senior, I am in the process of creating my college applications. I am curating my life- school, sports, employment, even writing- in a list of activities, to be sent to college admissions offices across the country. Once my application is distributed, I will wait, and wait, and wait in agony for an acceptance or rejection letter to arrive in my inbox.

All the world’s a stage, it seems. My activities, aside from writing, are so intrinsically tied up in the need to impress colleges that sometimes I forget whether or not I enjoy things for the inherent value, or for the potential future payoff of acceptance at an elite institution. I do not like to live this way, in the college-centered scramble for greatness. Luckily, the college process will be over in a few months, but this does bring up the bigger question: when does resume building and achievement end? Certainly not once you arrive in college, because then it moves on to the job hunt; then the promotion hunt; then the hunt for scope, influence, fame, or intellectual acclaim. There is always something more for the ego to aspire to, to grasp for in the ever-looming future.

I am a huge supporter of the ideas of Buddhism and individuals like Eckhart Tolle, who describe the notion of Beingness as opposed to being possessed by the ego. The ego is all of the things that we identify with, all of our accomplishments and insecurities and dreams and traits bound up in one contiguous identity. The ego never stops wanting and craving more, for the ego is perpetually insecure: it is impermanent, due to our mortality, and is constantly searching for some way to stamp its mark on the world. It wants permanence. This is the human struggle.

I believe this truth on so many levels, and intellectually I want to live my life in pursuit of Beingness, shed from the burden of the ego. Yet lately, I’ve been finding myself repeating quite a different mantra to myself: Once I do ____, then I will just be.

I am in the grip of what I would like to call an “ego threshold.” I am motivated by a constant belief that if I can only achieve a certain level of greatness in my life, whether it be publishing a book or making a novel scientific discovery, then I will be able to relinquish my ego. I want my ego to be satisfied before I escape from its control. I want a baseline level of security in my identity and influence on the world before I reject the need for an illusion of permanence. I look at the great authors and thinkers of the ages, and say to myself: “Once I do something great, like them, then I will never want for more. Then I will Be.”

But how flawed this logic is! It is a trick of the ego, this pretense of satisfaction. Because, no matter what I do accomplish, there will be more to do. The ego will convince me, yet again, that I have not reached that threshold level of greatness. The threshold is, in fact, not a threshold at all: it is a bar that is constantly rising, buoyed by our previous accomplishments to higher and higher levels. We can never reach a threshold for our egos, because our egos are built on the idea that enough is never enough.

I do not claim to have a perfect fix for this enigma, for despite my rational understanding of the ego, it still manages to stress me out and force me into action. Perhaps only time, and the experience of the ephemeral joy and the quick letdown of egoic happiness, will allow me to fully grasp the need to fully let go of the ego. But for now, I am happy to have realized that my “ego threshold” is no more than flawed logic. For a long time, I have operated under the guise that Beingness comes once the ego has been properly dealt with and satisfied. If our ego was a bear, we could feed it and be free from its threat for a while. But bears get hungry again. The ego gets hungry again. If we feed the ego and indulge it, it will come back hungry for more food to fuel its mission. If we refuse to feed it, the ego’s stomach will shrink, and it will die.

The death of the ego strikes me as a sad thought, but in truth, it is liberation. Life is a journey through the process of recognizing that the ego can and must die, someday. We can choose to let it die when our bodies die, and spend our lives in struggle with it. We can also choose to let the ego die during our lifetime, or at least let its importance wane. It is possible to live without a living ego, without an identity complex fueling us with insecurity. This way of living is called enlightenment. I hope someday to attain it, even if only a sliver of it. I know it will be a constant process of recognizing the ego within, recognizing its justifications and excuses, recognizing illusory thresholds and negotiations. Luckily, letting go of the ego does not require any brute strength or intellectual training or prodigal willpower. It only takes awareness, compassion, and surrender to the truth of life: we are all temporary, but our energy- the energy of the universe- lives on and on. If we can tap into this, and recognize the importance of unlimited, infinite energy, and our true nature as a part of it, then we have recognized the crux of a life fully lived. Putting this into practice, then, is the true work of a lifetime.

What “tricks” have you recognized yourself playing, in the name of your ego? Do you also find that a threshold exists, and what happens when you achieve the threshold? Is there any lasting peace when you are motivated by accomplishment? How does work and aspiration fit into your life, into your Beingness?

8/27/16: The Best Way to Destress

This week, I started my senior year of high school through an online high school program. It’s quite interesting: the teachers speak to us on camera, much like on Skype, and we can “raise our hands” and come on camera to share our ideas, or pose questions in a group chat-box on the screen. So far, I’ve been impressed with the caliber of teachers and students, and I’m excited for an academically stimulating year!

Unfortunately, this excitement is accompanied by a considerable amount of stress. As a senior, I’m going through the college application process (again), but this time with the understanding that I must choose a college at the end of this year, as well as prepare for the possibility that I do not get into the schools I aspire to. Oh, the essays to write, the books to read, on top of the podcast episodes to produce for my project, Brainstorms (coming soon!)!

I’ve rarely felt this stressed out before, and I can tell that it’s taking a toll on my sleep and creating tension in my muscles. (The physical manifestations of my mental states will never fail to surprise me, no matter how often I read about the mind-body connection). Knowing that the circumstances of my workload will persist for the next few months, I’ve been considering some ways in which to destress.

I want to talk about what it means to destress, because I think there’s a surprising level of ambiguity surrounding it. There are so many different terms surrounding stress: stress management, dealing with stress, distressing, letting go of stress, living with stress, relaxing in the face of stress. Though we use the terms interchangeably, there’s certainly a significant difference between “stress management” and “letting go of stress.” The former implies living with a certain degree of stress, and functioning within a stressful mindset. The latter indicates an absolution of stress itself.

The latter option sounds so much more appealing, because it promises relaxation and the release from stress and anxiety. Nonetheless, I believe there is something to be said for stress as a catalyst for hard work and persistence. In order to accomplish our goals and contribute to society and others, we must experience a motivating force to push us into action. Ideally, all of our actions would be motivated by compassion and an intrinsic feeling of enjoyment in all activities, but realistically, there are things we must do for ourselves and others that we simply don’t want to. This requires other motivations, and I believe that stress is a necessary way to remind ourselves of the things we must do in life for their eventual rewards.

It’s a delicate balance; we want to live in the moment and present, but there are laudable goals and missions that can only be achieved with hard work and persistence over the long-term. Stress is not conducive with meditation, for example, but it is a necessary feeling when an important deadline is approaching on a humanitarian or artistic project.

For me, I think dealing with stress is all about allocating time. There are times in the day when I must let my stress express itself, to motivate my work and inform my workday. When I can finish tasks and accomplish things, my stress is absolved by my work. Stress becomes dangerous and harmful when it pervades every moment, and this is where I find my own downfall. Even when I am not working, and have no ability to work, I am stressing about the things I could be getting done, or need to do at a future time. It is in these moments that I need to learn to eliminate stress, because I cannot absolve the stress through any present action.

I am trying- and not always succeeding- to let go of stress at certain times, such as those spent reading novels or cooking. In these moments, I tell myself that the stress is not productive, and can only hurt my body. This year, I foresee myself on a grand journey of learning how to discriminate between times when stress is useful, and when it is only harmful to my mind and body. Personally, I believe that scheduling my days and work more precisely will actually liberate me from the constant feeling of stress, because productive time will be set aside. But, for you, it may be the other way around; schedules can suffocate some people with even more stress, even if they are liberating for me.

We must remember that stress is not inherently evil; it is only pernicious when it lingers beyond its proper time and use.

How do you cope with stress, and use it to your advantage without letting it harm your psyche and body? Do you think there is a healthy level of stress, and if so, how would you define it?

7/31/16: My Life Philosophy (Or Lack Thereof)

I recently received a beautiful and thoughtful email from someone who came across an article of mine on Tiny Buddha. In conclusion to his email, he asked me, in reference to my blog and life: “Is the conclusion that you came to a focus on spirituality? Giving unto others? Maximizing pleasure? Finding a purpose that is specific to the individual? Just living life? Setting goals then attaining them?”

I read this question and immediately balked. Do I have a philosophy about how to live? Do I have a cohesive spiritual identity? Can I claim to have a personal mission, a mantra that guides my days and my professional, emotional, and social lives?

I realized that I write so many reflective pieces on this blog that purport spiritual understanding that perhaps it seems like I have a defined spiritual and philosophical path in life.

Ah, this could not be further from the truth!

I have yet to celebrate my half-birthday of my seventeenth year. Since my seventeenth birthday, I believe the most philosophically relevant thing I have learned is this: I still have no idea how to live my life best. And, even when I do have inklings, learning how to implement these philosophies on a day-to-day basis is its own battle entirely.

I will say that the idea of accepting the present moment and practicing non-judgmental awareness of my thoughts and feelings is my current spiritual focus. I try to recognize my thoughts and feelings as things that enter and exit my brain instead of identifying as my thoughts. In quiet moments, I search for the underlying awareness that is my Being, as opposed to my Thinking, and let the Being watch my thoughts come and go.

This is possible when I’m sitting alone in my room, but out in the world of people, I rarely inhabit the Being inside of me. I’m a thinker, a feeler, and I know that I unconsciously react to things often. It recently dawned on me how often I say or do things without really considering my options first. I also realized how often I go on autopilot- does anyone else ever completely forget the time they spend brushing their teeth?

A lot of the time, I find myself lost in thought. Sometimes thoughts turn into thought cycles, that feed and feed. Other times, I’m reacting to whatever happens around me, not at all sure why I feel or say the things I do.

I’m beginning to realize that people are only fully conscious and deliberate about life for a tiny fraction of the day. We rely on our subconscious and our habits to carry us through so much of our day, especially events that are routine. That is not to say we are robotic, but we know how to be efficient about our thoughts and decisions. After all, if we had to live each new day without any habits or tendencies to fall back on, we would spend our entire lives learning how to scrape by.

At the same time, there are moments that I wish I had lived more deliberately, with more attention to the present situation. There are times that I have resorted to habitual thinking when I could have improved my own life and the lives of others by pushing myself to explore new options. There are times when I’ve looked at beautiful sights and failed to see the full wonder of the world because I said to myself, “it’s just another sunset.”

So, I believe that my current path in life is learning how to strike a more fruitful and conscientious balance between habit and present attention. I want to choose more moments to fully engage with, and spend more time embracing the present than worrying about the past or future. This isn’t particularly original, but I do think we often forget how important habit and routine are to identifying with the present. The more stock we put in habits, the more time we have to think and worry about the past and future. We are designed to be efficient in this way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most enlightened or purposeful way to live. I want to end this post with a little quote that’s both simple and incredible, from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our day is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So, I suppose this is my current path: spending my days how I wish to spend my life. It is an overwhelming goal, but also so worthwhile that I cannot ever really turn away from it.

What is your path in life? Does it change often, or do you follow a core spiritual pursuit for years or decades? How has it changed over time?

7/3/16: What Makes A Masterpiece?

Anyone who considers themselves an artist- whether a singer, painter, poet, writer, sculptor, photographer, designer, or otherwise- has to discover what differentiates great art from average art. As creators, we must study the masterpieces past and present to inform our own artistic journey; every artist, no matter how revolutionary, can point to other works that influenced and informed their own style. We are shaped by our predecessors, our most valuable teachers.

I am primarily interested in creative writing, but I desperately want to understand the mark of great work in many domains of art: visual, musical, poetic, and photographic. To this end, I scour the Arts, Books, Fiction, and Fashion sections of the New Yorker and the New York Times, hungry to comprehend what makes art great.

In years past, I have struggled, along with many others, to see the difference between great modern art and amateur attempts at modern art. Two years ago I visited the Modern Museum of Art in New York City, and I walked away feeling less than impressed; couldn’t I too create a wall of monochrome green canvases? Couldn’t I also paint the “@” sign on the wall and call it monumental? It occurred to me that the only thing separating great art from average art was the repute of the artist in question. I reasoned that once a person reaches a certain artistic standing, they can call anything they do to a canvas or a wall or a box of paper clips “art” and sell it for substantial sums. As if their hands were the surrogate hands of God, and whatever their hands rendered was worthy of purchase and admiration.

In recent months and weeks I have been trying to overcome this seemingly juvenile, unenlightened view of modern art in favor of a true artistic understanding. I regret to say that, after hours and hours reading and browsing art from the most selective newspapers and journals, I still can’t pick out a great work from a mediocre one. All green canvases look like green canvases to me. That’s not to say I don’t have a deep appreciation for certain pieces of modern art. I could stand captivated for minutes on end in front of Salvador Dalí’s work, for example. I simply have my preferences; certain pieces capture my attention and others don’t.

For a time, I considered myself a failure as an emerging artist for not seeing the complexity and depth of all artwork considered masterful. I assumed that the greatest writers and artists in the world had a sixth sense that I did not. How could I be a true creator myself if I did not appreciate everything considered great in the art world?

And then I realized something, reading a book on the writing life called Still Writing by Dani Shapiro: critics give mixed reviews. Critics have different tastes. Not all “great” works of writing and art are beloved by all high-profile critics, and not all reviews of “great” works are positive. That I didn’t embrace this fact sooner is rather silly, but after years of being made to think that certain books and artworks are objectively masterpieces, I thought there was a formula for the “objective masterpiece” that caused works to be universally revered by critics. Not so.

Around the same time, I read an article about a different book analyzing the origin and science of human preferences and tastes. The author examined just about every study conducted about human preferences in relation to genes, childhood, gender, race, ethnicity, hometown, etc., but could not find a reliable trend between identifiers and preferences. There is no formulaic coffee-lover, no gene to guarantee a love of dogs as opposed to cats. The science of preference is chaotic, infinitely faceted, and inexplicable.

With these two truths in mind, I have decided to approach art a different way. Instead of using the canonical opinion of what art is “great” and what art is not, I will simply listen, observe, and read each piece and see how it affects me personally. If I think it is beautiful, then for me it is so. If I think it is muddled and unintelligible, dull and boring, then for me it is so. This is how I will shape my own artistic visions, projects, and preferences. Not by absorbing the positive critiques in the New Yorker.

I hope that this approach to art, and especially writing, will leave me with a stronger personal foundation for writing my own pieces and creating my own art. I want to be inspired by the things I truly like, not the things I believe I should like. I believe this is the only way to keep the artistic fire lit.

And, in the future, I must remember: to hell with the critics. They have personal preferences, too. If I can affect others, make them experience beauty, emotion, and keep them up at night, then I have succeeded, regardless of whether or not I have created a “masterpiece”.

6/10/16: The Zen of the Mundane

For the past two weeks, I’ve been volunteering in St. Louis, Missouri, at my great uncle’s charter school. This particular school is located in a largely African-American, low income neighborhood, in a zip code with one of the highest crime rates in St. Louis (one of the most criminal cities in the U.S.). I think it suffices to say that I am in a very different world from my own here, and the experience is every day opening my eyes to the life of many Americans.

I asked my great uncle to volunteer at the school with the intention of teaching and aiding in the classroom. I did a small amount of tutoring this week, but otherwise have remained largely outside the classroom. The work I have done behind the scenes- stapling, folding, sorting, organizing, and labelling- is the topic of this blog post. Sounds fascinating, I’m sure.

Before this trip, I never would have considered myself engaged in the acts of folding paper, labelling bookshelves, and sorting books. Given my desire for intellectual stimulation, I used to regard such tasks as the bane of my existence, too mundane to bear. My worst nightmare has always been to end up working in a job that involves repetitive, mechanical tasks devoid of mental strain. It’s not that I felt above these jobs, but that my academic energy made me terribly unsuited to mundane work. I simply didn’t think I could do such jobs for hours on end without banging my head against the wall and giving myself a concussion.

I will not claim here that stapling has become my life’s new passion, or that organizing books will be the central tenet of my future career. I still want to pursue an intellectually vigorous job involving a range of tasks and problems to solve. However, over the course of my volunteer work, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the meditative quality of repetitive work, and for the first time I understand the Eastern teachings on the virtues of the mundane.

I will admit, I did not do the work in silence- I listened to podcasts and audiobooks as I progressed through the piles of paper and books, as I stacked and photocopied, which kept me great company. My brain was engaged in a form of intellectual stimulation while my body performed a task over and over again. The act of repetitive movement calmed me in a surprisingly profound way. Doing the work, I became a sort of machine, not in the emotionally cold or detached sense, but in the perfecting of my physical routine. The more I stapled, the more efficient I became at stapling; I learned where to hold the stapler and how to grab the paper to cut down on time and fumbling. This is not a particularly impressive feat, of course, but it inspired me to strive for perfection, not all at once, but over the course of time. I adapted gradually to the ebb and flow of my repetitive tasks, each time honing my technique subconsciously to make my life easier.

Doing a mundane, physical, repetitive task for an extended period of time sounds about as enlightening and enjoyable as getting a tooth pulled, but the task can become its own sort of meditation if you are willing to persevere. A special kind of relaxation comes with repetition; you find yourself coming closer and closer to a perfect ebb and flow with the outer world. Repetition makes you value time and makes you realize that time and practice cannot be bypassed on the route to great work. You learn to move with time, allowing it to whittle away at the rough edges of your work and smooth your process. You learn to mechanize yourself in a harmonious movement of the body.

I believe these virtues can be learned through repetitive pursuits such as playing musical instruments and sports, but I encourage you to shoulder the “burden” of a truly mundane physical task. Explore the process and the gradual uptick in efficiency that comes with time spent immersed in routine. Allow yourself mental stimulation like I did, if you wish, or enjoy music, the sounds of nature, or the sound of your own thoughts.

What have you learned from a repetitive routine? Do you use physical repetition to calm down, meditate, and explore your physical self? How?


Here is a picture of the library!