Sam’s Deep Breath: The Exquisite Ending to the LOTR

Sometimes a man gets up from his dinner
And walks outside and walks and walks and walks —
Towards a Church, that stands in the East.

And his children bless him as if he were dead.

And sometimes a man, dying in his house,
Remains inside, remains in dish and glass,
So his children are drawn out into the world
Towards the Church that he forgot.
(Rilke, Book of Hours, 2.19)

Frodo and Sam have been ones who walked and walked to the end of the quest. Since any adventure ends either in death or in a return to less adventurous reality, the chapters that ensue after the completion of the quest inevitably feel like an anticlimax in comparison to all the heroic action. Frodo is saved from the anticlimax of living by being given a special destiny in the ethereal West, but Sam has to come back down to the hobbit house of dish and glass, chair and baby. Many have felt the ending to The Lord of the Rings to be not only anticlimactic, a disappointing descent for Sam’s high aspirations — but also terrible, because in consigning him to his new domestic role Frodo has in fact abandoned Sam to a half-life in which all his rich yearning will have to be suppressed in the face of incomprehension. He apparently ends up as the third kind of person, who is not in Rilke’s poem: the one who went out, came back, and is now imprisoned for life in dish and glass. Everything depends on how we read the very last line of the novel — which, as I hope to show in this essay, is the fitting and true climax to the story, carrying the full force of the preceding thousand pages.

And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
   He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

Rose is the mother-figure who swallows him back into comfort and domesticity. If the book had ended with this action — and put little Elanor upon his lap — we would have been left hanging in the air: we need Sam to say something, to show us where he is, to prove his commitment, otherwise the lacuna will be filled only with the reverberating grief of Frodo’s departure. What is in that “deep breath,” and what is meant when someone says “well, I’m back”?

   The final chapter takes place firmly in Sam’s point of view: The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. (301) For the most part it continues so, with Sam trying to make sense of what is happening:  It was a fair golden morning, and Sam did not ask where they were going: he thought he could guess. (307)  The only exception is when Frodo has a fit while Sam is away doing forestry work, but presumably the narrative gives this to us because Sam is later told about it by Farmer Cotton, who was the one who found Frodo in his fit. Three times in this short chapter the phrase “torn in two” comes up between Sam and Frodo. The first time, Sam is bringing up his dilemma of wanting to live with Rosie and Frodo at the same time:  ‘I feel torn in two, as you might say.’ (304) This is a problem with an easy practical solution, but it masks a deeper dilemma, which is not about how to live with two people, but about how to live in two worlds:

‘I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam. ‘And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.’
   ‘Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,’ said Frodo. ‘But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.’ (306)
We saw in The Fellowship of the Ring that the special thing about Sam is that he is a fusion of two opposite perfections. On the one hand he is supremely practical in taking care of people, animals, and plants; he is well suited to being the gardener of the Shire, an earthy and affectionate statesman. On the other, he is also the most lyrically rapturous of the hobbits, with his mind and heart constantly in the realm of song and legend — as when, in Lothlorien, he feels himself to be inside the song. He has two worlds, and the blessing of the quest is that for a thousand pages at least, and by the side of Frodo, he is able to inhabit them simultaneously. But how will he do that back in the Shire? Frodo understands  Sam’s torn heart, and it is striking that he interprets it as a wound: “you will be healed.” What does he mean by this? He cannot mean that both worlds will become integrated in Sam’s life in the Shire — because if that were possible, Frodo himself would not have to leave. And he cannot mean that time will take its course and sooner or later Sam’s ties to the story and to Frodo will be superseded by familial absorption; he knows all too well that Sam is governed by unshakeable loyalty, that his yearning is profound, and that if that absorption were to happen it would mean that the Sam we knew has died inside. Could Frodo’s words be mere empty consolation, based on nothing more than faith and hope? The consolation is repeated and amplified a few pages later:

‘And I can’t come.’
   ‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
   ‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
   ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. (309)
From the perspective of legend, it would be right for all the Ringbearers to leave together, and Sam must have accompanied Frodo with this possibility in mind. This moment echoes the moment when Éowyn turns up in armor and ready for battle, only to be told to stay behind; and her acceptance of Faramir instead of Aragorn, and a healer’s life, raises the same questions as Sam’s return: is she forced into domesticity, does she surrender, or does she assent? Frodo’s consolation to Sam is that he will be needed and also surrounded by love, and that there is greater growth for him along that path — whereas the sojourn in the West is a kind of final stasis and happy embalming, with no prospect of movement or growth. Frodo knows that while he himself has been completed, finished, by the quest, Sam is not and has more work to do, which he can be happy in. 

    When Frodo leaves, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness. (309) What kind of sadness is this? There is sadness at anything good coming to an end or being lost, but most endings and losses are confused, entangled, unresolved. This one is a clean finish, with nothing left undone, and with the chance to bid a real farewell. And yet the sadness is profound.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
   At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire. but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. (311)
To understand what Sam is feeling, we have to search into our own experience and remember a time when we actually stood for hours in silence lost in emotion. I recall once, as I lay on the top bunk of a Chinese train compartment, noticing how the old man in the opposite bunk lay there gazing for six hours at a small photograph held between thumb and index finger of his right hand, his face without expression, his body absolutely still. Such is the remembrance of a person who is saying goodbye not to a person or a thing but to a whole essential history; it is almost a farewell to life. The grand story that he has been part of, the great love that he has felt, now has to reside far inside him: hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. The three hobbits know that they have concluded this part of their lives, and that it is definitively gone; this is why they never again look back. 

   Thus Sam returns with full heart, and Rosie — if she loves him — must know it, and also understand why he isn’t beaming to be home. She has to settle him back into his role physically. He drew a deep breath: he doesn’t only take a deep breath; rather, the drawing is effortful, deliberate, a slowing down of emotions and heart, a self-settling and reorienting.  This is not easy for him. Part of him had not expected to return, after all. Well, I’m back — not just I’m back. The well is like a sigh, a gasp, expressing surprise and discovery. It is acknowledgement that he might also not have come back, and also that miraculously he has found a reason to be back. If you have ever experienced the temptation to walk away from everything and then, to your own puzzlement, nonetheless refused the temptation and returned, you yourself will have drawn that deep breath and said Well, I’m back, if only to yourself. But Tolkien is not done: the last words are he said. Sam has to utter the thought before he can truly be back, for the words are a commitment. Tolkien’s phrasing could be taken to mean “Well, I’m back” was what he said, suggesting that there are things that Sam isn’t saying and perhaps will never say, at least to these people. 

   Sam’s torn nature is his peculiar completion. Whereas Frodo’s completion renders him unable to live in the Shire, Sam can live because he has two worlds and is well established in each of them. He will never be fully here, but perhaps the other world in the background can be sublimated in his earthly work — growing plants with magical elf-dirt, for example,  and being keeper of the legends for his community, and raising his children with stories from “the church in the East.” The novel’s last line gives perfect expression — in soothing iambic pentameter — to the mystery of Sam, who — like Tolkien’s readers — have no choice but to find a way to occupy two worlds, the one we imagine and the one we have to live in. 


Tolkien’s Art of the “Meanwhile”

Historians develop two intellectual qualities that are also essential to novelists: the ability to understand and remember long, complex causal chains, and the ability to hold in mind events and situations going on simultaneously in different places — that is, to see multiple causal chains developing parallel and invisible to one another. It seems obvious that a historian of World War II has to understand the changing internal events and preoccupations of a dozen different countries before he can understand how a particular battle or treaty negotiation plays out. Similarly, a “domestic” novelist such as Jane Austen has to have a clear comprehension not only of the goings on in several households, but also what is happening in various rooms of the same house: while A and B are conversing and C and D are playing music together, E is in her room reading a shattering letter. When these people all sooner or later converge, their convergence is colored and permeated by their previously independent activities. A crime novelist has to be unrelenting and pedantic in keeping track of exactly what everyone is doing, where, and when: absolutely nothing can be fuzzy in a forensic investigation. Fantasy novelists might seem to have more latitude because surely fantasy is allowed to be vague and misty, but in truth the fantasy novelist has to create a probable world and therefore is even more tightly bound to laws of causation if the events of his books are to seem credible. 

   Thus the first half of The Two Towers deals with Aragorn, his crew, and the Rohirrim at war, while the second half describes the journey of Sam and Frodo to Mordor. Both halves occur simultaneously, and even though Tolkien doesn’t make a huge deal of the simultaneity it is clear that the experience of re-reading the novel gains in richness if, as we read the adventures of one party, we know precisely what the other party is doing. Tolkien is gentle in his narration, suggesting but not asserting the synchronicity : the two parties might be able to see, from their different places, the gleaming of the Anduin in the setting sun, or hear the same noise of battle. At any given point, then, the story has several layers, which can function as thematic counterpoint: for instance, the exploits of the Rohirrim and the humble tenacity of Sam and Frodo are two different views of heroism. We usually know where everyone is at any time, except Gandalf. 

   Tolkien’s maps in themselves are suggestive of a whole world with many different kingdoms and corners in which distinctive things are unfolding. We get to see some of these things, but we also get the sense that there is an abundance of stories playing out throughout Middle Earth and potentially convergent with the ones we know of. It is instructive to watch how Tolkien so deftly creates the impression of a layered world.

   Early in The Return of the King we are introduced to the great city of Minas Tirith through the admiring eyes of Pippin:

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.

At last they came out of shadow to the seventh gate, and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars, and the great arch with keystone carven in the likeness of a crowned and kingly head. (Ch.1, 24-25)

Through a subordinate clause inside a subordinate clause — as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien — the attentive reader is brought with a shock of recollection back to an episode in The Two Towers, just before Sam makes rabbit stew, when the two hobbits find themselves in the faintly Mediterranean, very Virgilian woodland that used to be the garden of Gondor:

The road had been made in a long lost time: and for perhaps thirty miles below the Morannon it had been newly repaired, but as it went south the wild encroached upon it. The handiwork of Men of old could still be seen in its straight sure flight and level course: now and again it cut its way through hillside slopes, or leaped over a stream upon a wide shapely arch of enduring masonry; but at last all signs of stonework faded, save for a broken pillar here and there, peering out of bushes at the side, or old paving-stones still lurking amid weeds and moss. Heather and trees and bracken scrambled down and overhung the banks, or sprawled out over the surface. It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used; but it did not wind: it held on its own sure course and guided them by the swiftest way.

So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams…

Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress. and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. (Part 4, ch.4, 257-58)
Frodo and Sam cannot know that this place of vegetative luxuriance will be their last occasion for pleasure and refreshment for many months. Ithilien is like Kew Gardens gone wild, a magical liminal realm where plants from every season and every zone all grow in profusion together after devastation and abandonment. The lush, disordered growth stirs hope in natural resilience, but also evokes sadness at the destruction of one of the last great civilized places:

South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it. and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end. (258-59)

A little way back above the lake they found a deep brown bed of last year’s fern. Beyond it was a thicket of dark-leaved bay-trees climbing up a steep bank that was crowned with old cedars. Here they decided to rest and pass the day, which already promised to be bright and warm. A good day for strolling on their way along the groves and glades of Ithilien...(259)

All this is evoked in the reader by what is essentially a “meanwhile” — embedded in a subordinate clause that suggests sunshine that is enjoyed by both parties: and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars. Tolkien does not belabor the point; he trusts his reader’s imagination and memory, and knows that one clause will be enough to get us to think about Frodo and Sam while we are with Pippin. His conciseness is daring and astonishing. The thematic counterpoint here is a meditation on the dying civilization of Gondor. Pippin is encountering a culture made of stone, manly stone:

The door opened, but no one could be seen to open it. Pippin looked into a great hall. It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long solemn hall; but between the pillars there stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone.

Suddenly Pippin was reminded of the hewn rocks of Argonath, and awe fell on him, as he looked down that avenue of kings long dead. At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap. In his hand was a white rod with a golden knob. (26)

It is one of those very masculine warrior cultures in which all men aspire to be statues, hard and imperishable rock-versions of their mortal selves — where women stay in the shadows, and animals are rare because they are too chaotic and dirty. There is something dead about it, something sterile and impotent. Ithilien is the counterpoint in its undiciplined profuseness: it can be wild and beautiful because the repressive, inhibited men of Gondor have gone. 

   Pippin is not aware of what Frodo and Sam are experiencing, and Frodo and Sam cannot guess the smooth marble character of Gondor from the broken, overgrown resort they see in Ithilien — but with a succinct “meanwhile,” Tolkien lets the reader into experiencing the two perspectives simultaneously. As Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien gives density and richness to the account of Pippin marveling at the glow of sun on stone. 

   Shortly after, there is another “meanwhile” moment as Beregond, explaining recent history to Pippin, brings up Faramir, who at this moment is within shouting distance of Frodo and Sam:

“And the Lord Denethor is unlike other men: he sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. And so it is that he is old, worn before his time. But however that may be, my lord Faramir is abroad, beyond the River on some perilous errand, and he may have sent tidings.” (37-38)
It is no coincidence that during this episode in Ithilien Frodo and Sam meet Denethor’s son Faramir — at about the same time as Pippin meets Faramir’s father Denethor. The “meanwhile” thus also conveys a sense of fatedness, of two events being intimately bound — not through any causal connection, since from a logical point of view one can argue that the simultaneity of the two meetings is due to chance, but from a synchronicity either poetic or prophetic, according to which Gondor and the hobbits are meant to be bound up with one another: self-consciously archetypal warrior-men and little creatures who never thought of themselves as heroes.


The Difference Between Real Limericks and Lame Imposters

We all have two or three friends who tend to speak in the style of someone funny without being actually funny. For example, my friends of this sort like to speak in a clever, aphoristic style reminiscent of somebody’s idea of a British wit. This derivative form of humor is closely related to what happens at the opposite end of the scale of propriety — namely, the oaf who thinks he is funny when he is being merely coarse and boorish in emulation of someone who is genuinely good at being coarse and boorish. In each case, the speaker parasitizes the truly funny by evoking it through a stylistic formula, and the disturbing thing about this is that while the derivative style of speech might have been inspired by sincere admiration for something truly funny, over time and innumerable repetitions of the formula the speaker loses the ability to tell the difference between the authentic funny and the simulated funny. The dedicated practice of stylistic mediocrity always ends up dimming the lamp of insight.

   We see this with my favorite genre of humorous poetry, the limerick. There are many magnificently funny ones, but then a horde of facile, inventive minds — still chortling at the funny ones — must set their hands to generating hundreds of new limericks on stereotypically racy situations or bouncing off proper nouns in the first line that are difficult to rhyme. An example of the first:

There was a young lady who lay
With her legs wide apart in the hay,
   Then, calling the ploughman,
   She said, “Do it now, man!
Don’t wait till your hair has turned gray!”

Richard Erdoes, The Richard Erdoes Illustrated Treasury of Classic Unlaundered Limericks (ed., Isaac Asimov, 1975) 

And of the second: 

A Shakespearean actor named Yorick
Was able in moments euphoric
   To bring to perfection
   Three kinds of erection:
Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric.

(Ray Allen Billington, Limericks Hysterical and Historical, 1981)

Both of these are good specimens of the glib, formulaic limerick, or simulacrum of limerick. You will find hundreds of these in that monstrous artifact, the book of limericks, which can contain hundreds, even thousands, of such likenesses. The formula for manufacturing a limerick requires first observance of the mostly rigidly anapestic meter (the first foot can be either iambic or anapestic):


Merely reciting this meter can be enough to bring a smile to an English-speaking face (it’s worth trying it out on Chinese or Indian friends to see their reaction). The last words of first, second and last lines rhyme, and most good limericks begin with the provocation of a seemingly impossible word to rhyme at the end of the first line, usually a place name; the short rhyming middle lines are there primarily to delay the last line for the maximum surprise punch of the final rhyme. The classic example is Swinburne’s

There was a young girl from Aberystwyth
Who took sacks to the mill to fetch grist with
   But the miller’s son Jack
   Laid her flat on her back
And united the things that they pissed with.

Nothing is supposed to rhyme with “Aberystwyth,” but the poet succeeds in finding two rhymes that make narrative sense in a single sentence. Then there is the content: most good limericks culminate with an image of nether body parts or secretions. Clean limericks are always somehow disappointing, and it is impossible to imagine a limerick that conveys an edifying moral teaching. The form is designed for transgression: a narrative that would be scandalous or criminally perverse if true, a rhyme that should never occur, and the ruthless speed of an experienced burglar who breaks, enters, and escapes. Limericks are the perfect poetic subversion for northern Puritannical societies riddled with prurience and hypocrisy, and speaking languages in which rhymes are hard (not Italian or Spanish!): that is, societies in which the conjoinings of sex and rhyme are both a struggle.

   There is one book of limericks that I would call a gem — a vile, wicked gem. Norman Douglas (1868-1952) is better known for the comic masterpiece South Wind (1917), a novel from the uptight-Brit-finds -the-secret-to-happiness-in-the-Mediterranean genre, of which Where Angels Fear to Tread, Room With a View, and Enchanted April are more famous representatives. Accused of various forms of sexual debauchery and sex crimes for much of his life, Douglas belongs to the shady, unwholesome underworld of English writers lke Defoe and Wilde — and he too had an incisive, cosmopolitan mind with zero tolerance for intellectual pretention and self-righteousness. Some Limericks (1928) — one of the most banned and therefore pirated books in history — frames a few dozen choice limericks with an introduction, commentary, and “geographical index” of marvelous, poker-faced, pseudo-scholarly erudition. 

   For example: 

There was a young man of Peru
Who was hard up for something to do.
     So he took out his carrot
     And buggared his parrot,
And sent the results to the Zoo.

Douglas’ curator comments:

Golden Period. It is always when people are idle or ‘tired of doing nothing,’ as they call it, that these things occur. Which of us has not been told that:

‘There was a young monk of Siberia,
Who of frigging grew weary and wearier.
     At last, with a yell,
     He burst from his cell,
And buggared the Father Superior.’

Half the cases of rape recorded in the newspapers, the epidemics of onanism among schoolboys – to say nothing of a great many murders – would never be heard of, if the perpetrators were not hard up for something to do. The larger apes in captivity, notably mandrills, are liable to masturbate themselves into a consumption from sheer boredom, and it is not difficult to guess what would happen in such circumstances, if there were a bird handy. So true are the words of Dr.Watts:

Satan finds some mischief still 
For idle hands to do.

According to C.E. Hilliar (Avifauna of the Peruvian Highlands, London, 1888, p. 163) Peruvian parrots are of an ‘unusually confiding disposition.’ This may supply a key.

He sent the results to the Zoo – where, it is to be feared, so delicate a hybrid cannot have survived for long. I conjecture the specimen is now in the Museum of the College of Surgeons.

To me, what makes the poem even funnier is the persona of the curator: a refined connoisseur of poetic quality (“Golden Period”), a moralist, a speculator on human behavior, an ornithologist (“This may supply a key”), and a man driven by unbridled lubricious curiosity to fantasize on every detail surrounding peculiar sexual acts (“it is to be feared…I conjecture”), no matter how improbable they may be. His mind is relentlessly literal and without a feeling for boundaries — a startling fusion of scholarly instincts and absolute insanity.

There was a young lady at sea
Who complained that it hurt her to pee.
     Said the brawny old mate:
     That accounts for the fate
Of the cook, and the captain, and me.

It is to be hoped that the vessel carried a duly qualified surgeon, else one or the other of the sufferers might have been in hospital later on. A neglected clap is not all beer and skittles – beer, indeed, is strictly to be avoided, and jerky games may send the gonococks lower down with sad consequences, unless you are wearing a suspender. And even then….

Readers will note the genial conciseness of these lines. How much truer poetry they are than a great deal of what is printed under that name!

Here the insanity comes in the form of altruistic concern, from apparently personal experience, for the suffering of the personages in the limerick. With a single “indeed” the narrator moves instantly from the idiom “not all beer and skittles” to literal reflections on the physical pain that might be caused by beer and skittles. And what is he thinking with “And even then…”? The climax of the commentary is the general reflection on poetry, in which the speaker seems to praise the insight into passions, medical causation, and fateful suffering evoked in a mere five lines — far superior to the vapid sentimentality of most lyrical verse. 

   Throughout the book the limerick is set up as a competitor with so-called “high verse,” a kind of anti-poetry. Douglas is at his most impishly anti-poetic when he attributes the following “exquisite lyric” to Tennyson, of all people:

There was an old fellow of Brest,
Who sucked off his wife with a zest.
Despite her great yowls
He sucked out her bowels,
And spat them all over her chest.
Douglas’ curator claims to have been “assured”

that he wrote numbers of such, and that nearly all were destroyed after his death. In point of finish and good taste it is quite worthy of him, and that he should have indulged his genius with this class of poetry does not strike me as very unlikely. Whoever perpetrates solemn rubbish like the Idyls must feel the need of unburdening himself from time to time, especially when gifted with his powers of versification. Indeed, I should say that whoever lives Tennyson’s life must write an occasional limerick, or burst; and it would not surprise me to learn, when the real truth about him is published, that he died “with a limerick on his lips.”

The limerick now turns out to be medicinal, an antidote to the toxic and gassy excesses of conventional poetry; and it owes its effectiveness as a medicine to all the excellences that generated the disease in the first place. In point of finish and good taste it is quite worthy of him… High-minded Protestant poetifications need the low-minded precision of the limerick; without it, high-mindedness would burst from a surfeit of itself. Purity and pornography were secretly married a long time ago.

   Douglas quotes another jewel, later attributed to Swinburne:

There was a young man of Cape Horn
Who wished he had never been born.
     And he wouldn’t have been
     If his father had seen
That the end of the rubber was torn.
I should apologise for inserting this well-known lyric but for the fact that so perfect a specimen of the Golden Period cannot be excluded from a collection like this. The smoothness of the versification: the glamour that hangs about mysterious regions like Tierra del Fuego: the wistfulness of the opening lines and the anticlimax of the last one – they all testify to the genius of the Unknown Poet.

“Glamour” and “wistfulness” are deadly accurate characterizations — not of the poem, which bubbles with rambunctious schadenfreude, but of the kind of reader who would read it as if it were a serious 19th century poem about romantic wandering, remorse, and disappointment. Other limerick collections fail because their editors seek to be funny and are explicitly purveying tomes full of mirth; Douglas’ collection succeeds because his curator seems to have no awareness that these poems are funny. In this vein he launches forth into a stream of pedantic sexual antiquarianism culminating in a sublime moralistic non-sequitur:

It is not surprising that the young man in question should have suffered from melancholia. Travellers concur in stating that this is one of the gloomiest landscapes on earth; a desolation of fog, drizzle, and snow. Charles Darwin, in his Voyage of the Beagle, tells us that “Death, instead of Life, seems the predominant spirit” of those parts, and a more recent writer, Metcalfe, reports that the natives are letting themselves die out, apparently, from “sheer weariness of living.”

   I cannot say how that rubber came to reach Cape Horn; maybe it was bartered by the mate of a passing whaler for a dozen sea-otter skins. These appliances are supposed to be of French origin, but they must have been already known at the Byzantine Court, if what Gibbon calls “the most detestable precautions” of Theodora were of this kind. And some curious material has now come to light (Prof. O. Schwanzerl, Kondonsgebrauch im frühesten Mittelalter, Budapesht, 1903) showing that they were in use under the Merovingians. They were made of deerskin – gegerbtes Hirschleder – and smeared with tallow – Unschlick – to facilitate penetration. (For an analogous use of leather see Mime VI and VII of Herodas). The invention was attributed to the Queen who, while fond of lovers, insisted, and rightly, on the legitimacy of her offspring.

   The world would be a better place, if modern women had the same respect for their husbands.

Our narrator is an old debauchee with old-fashioned notions of propriety and an obsessive interest in the minutiae of sexual apparatus; he also has a wide-ranging and undisciplined mind that has to demonstrate its learning at every opportunity. Moreover, he is a reductive  materialist, insensitive to poetic ends and effects, and capable of seeing life only in terms of scientific or historical “facts.” In this respect Douglas’ curator of limericks differs little from the reductivist scholars of the Bible who sought to explain everything through historical circumstances and usages. 

   Even so, he sometimes hits a wall, when a limerick reveals to him the limits of his imagination:

That naughty old Sappho of Greece
Said: “What I prefer to a piece
     Is to have my pudenda
     Rubbed hard by the enda
The little pink nose of my niece.”
These lines being unintelligible to me, I sent them to my lady-specialist for comment and elucidation. Her reply, I confess, leaves me where I was – in complete ignorance of what the poem is about. She writes: ‘I learnt no Greek at school, but have of course heard of Sappho’s poems. They must be fifth-rate stuff, if she knew no more about poetry than she did about other things. The nose: what next? Be sure, dear Sir, there is some mistake here. The suggestion is too absurd. No woman is ever so much of a fool, not even under the influence of drink.’

    I will leave it there, and wait for enlightenment from some other quarter, merely noting that Sappho was not born in Greece (though a good many other people were) and that tradition fails to record whether she had a niece or not.

Douglas leaves it to us to imagine the curator striving but failing to imagine, while his “lady-specialist” (in what? — not in Greek, as she confesses) is able to imagine (“what next?”) but refuses to spell out: …not even under the influence of drink. What is funnier here than even the limerick itself is the curator’s blank incomprehension, which doubles the laughter — like the one person in the company who doesn’t get the joke. In fact, Douglas’ curator performs this role with every single limerick, and this is why the book is so funny: he gets everything but the joke and thereby becomes the joke.

   Unlike other collectors of limericks, Douglas knows when to stop: Some Limericks is delightfully short, and can be savored like a cup of rare tea. 


Norman Douglas’ Some Limericks can be read in its entirety here:

Frodo’s Laughter

In life, it is almost impossible to predict what a rescue or victory will look like before it happens: often, an apparent victory is Pyrrhic, and an apparent rescue may be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” In fiction, victories and rescues can take obvious, stereotypical forms, such as the valiant destruction of the enemy in battle, or the seizing of the doomed hero from the maw of death; without doubt, we find these more predictable climaxes in The Lord of the Rings. But what distinguishes Tolkien’s power as a writer is his insight into the small and seemingly insignificant moments that most people do not notice — which is one reason he chooses to centre his epic on hobbits, beings whom no one could have expected to play the pivotal role in a cosmic conflict. He knows that the greatest turns in a story may come through a look, a gesture, a word — for such “little” things can change minds and hearts, and since all actions issue from minds and hearts, it is the “little” events in the soul that create the story. They are only considered “little” because they are not obvious to us, and they are not obvious to us not because they are little but because we are not good at noticing such things.
   In the second half of The Two Towers, nestled in dark crannies far away from the great battles, we witness a great transformation in Frodo’s spirit, effected by nothing less than the words of Sam. In chapter 3 of Part 4, Frodo finds himself paralyzed by a sense of hopeless inadequacy:

He sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him. But for this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say. Into the stronghold of the Enemy in the North, into Dol Guldur, he had once ventured. But into Mordor, to the Mountain of Fire and to Barad-dûr, since the Dark Lord rose in power again, had he ever journeyed there? Frodo did not think so. And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting-room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice? (Ch.3, p252)

This is the despair of one who has just realized that he has undertaken a task impossible for him, and that the only outcome of the undertaking is “terror and death.” It is the sense that some of us wake up to in mid-life that we are unrescuably embarked on a course from which no success or happiness can be reasonably expected, and in which there is no guidance from anyone: we are on our own, without even the light of old hope. And Frodo is also exhausted.

   What starts to lift him out of his despondency is Sam’s unexpected reaction to Gollum’s report of a sighting of men:

`Were there any oliphaunts?’ asked Sam, forgetting his fear in his eagerness for news of strange places.
   `No, no oliphaunts. What are oliphaunts? ‘ said Gollum.
   Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house.
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. 

‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, `that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. In the old days hobbits used to go on their travels now and again. Not that many ever came back, and not that all they said was believed: news from Bree, and not sure as Shiretalk, as the sayings go. But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold,” I said “were there any oliphaunts? ” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such a beast.’ He sighed.

Nowhere previously in the narrative has there been any mention of “oliphaunts,” a word from Old French that evokes wild imaginings of the great animal in medieval courtly romances. The possibility of an oliphaunt appearing pops suddenly out of Sam’s mouth, and it is one of those indications that Sam has an inner life that we are not privy too: his mind bursts with legend and lore, and throughout the journey, in his long stretches of silence, he must be thinking about things like oliphaunts. Moreover, even though they are in one of the darkest episodes of the journey, his excited curiosity temporarily banishes fear. This is a lesson for us: curiosity can kill fear, not just the cat. 

   When he “sighs” at the thought that he might never see an oliphaunt, his sad resignation is both insane and exhilarating: Now, at this terrible moment when you are staring failure and death in the face, you are worried that you might never see one of those mythical beasts from the poems of your childhood?! What exhilarates is the evidence that Sam doesn’t fully live here, in his immediate physical surroundings. This is why for him curiosity can conquer fear: his inner world, mostly hidden from us but occasionally manifest in his encounters with Elves, is much larger and more beautiful than his physical world, and it may be more real and vivid. What moves him most deeply, as we saw in Lothlorien, is the discovery that his inner world of image and story can spill over into the material universe in which he has to eat, act, and die. Unlike Frodo, who is driven by a heroic quest, Sam is on this journey because he wants to find out if the legends that have shaped his life are true or not — that is, whether in his own experience it may be possible for a legend and an actual life to tread the same ground. His concern for oliphaunts is far from trivial. 

   Gollum of course isn’t interested, and we don’t yet know that he has already hatched his plan to kill them both. What is interesting is that he maligns his old self: Smeagol, obsessed with finding the secrets of the world, would have been very interested in oliphaunts, but Gollum seeks to emphasize that he only thing that interests him now is safety. Frodo, however, is something of a mean between Gollum, who has long since given up the dream of happiness for himself, and Sam, who is invincible because most of his being is alive in a dream of happiness. This is why be can understand both: Gollum and Sam are two poles of Frodo.

`No, no oliphaunts,’ said Gollum again. ‘Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be. Sméagol wants to go away from here and hide somewhere safer. Sméagol wants master to go. Nice master, won’t he come with Sméagol?’

Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation. `I wish we had a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,’ he said. `Then we’d break a way into this evil land, perhaps. But we’ve not; just our own tired legs, that’s all. Well, Sméagol, the third turn may turn the best. I will come with you.’ (255)

He had laughed: Only now are we told that the background accompaniment to Sam’s recitation was Frodo’s laughter. I can imagine that the laughter began when Sam adopts his recitation posture of standing straight with arms behind his back, a posture in which the poetry can shine proudly forth through face and chest. It is also the posture of a confident 10-year-old boy declaiming on stage — Sam’s unbreakable inner child, ready to stand and recite in even the darkest times. This magnificent vision is the first that loosens Frodo from his despair.

    Later, when they catch sight of the troop of men,

To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope.

Again, “lasting delight” balances out “astonishment and terror” — and it is “lasting” because it can be savored in words and memories forever. The apparition of a real oliphaunt brings about a contact with immortality that completes a life and thereby renders death harmless:

Sam drew a deep breath. ‘An Oliphaunt it was!’ he said. `So there are Oliphaunts, and I have seen one. What a life! But no one at home will ever believe me. Well, if that’s over, I’ll have a bit of sleep.’ (270)

What a life! The greatest satisfaction would be to find ourselves living the life that we only dreamed about in our childhoods; only then could we go to sleep happy and fulfilled, even in the midst of battle.

   Frodo’s reinvigoration continues when, a few chapters later, the same conversation is resumed — once again, when he expresses grim hopelessness:

‘I don’t like anything here at all.’ said Frodo, `step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. `And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘

   `I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.‘ (320-21)

And you don’t want them to: in other words, to be a participant in a story, you cannot be omniscient, because what it means to be someone in a story is that you don’t know how things are going to go or what the next moment will be, and you cannot really choose how things will turn out. Without the ignorance and terrifying uncertainty, there would be no stories and no heroes, only a chain of actions and events no more significant than any other. 

   As before, Sam is always fascinated by where tales end and “life” begins: do the two worlds councide or leak into each other, is the world of legend infinite like time and the universe? In these passages we witness Sam thinking aloud; perhaps these are good examples of what goes on in his head during the long trudge to Mordor. He may be the only character in the Lord of the Rings permitted to unveil his interior monologue, the swirl of his private preoccupations apart from the demands of the immediate action. Because Sam lives in two worlds, he is always wondering about his place in them and about how they might go together.

   What happens next in the conversation is surprising and powerful, because it holds the key to how Frodo finds the strength to go on:

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. `But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
   ‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam. He laughed grimly. ‘And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring! ” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”‘
   `It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad? ” ‘

In the course of the conversation there arises in Frodo a new way to view his struggle: he learns, through Sam, to see himself as a character in a great story. No longer is he merely Frodo the hobbit, but now he is Frodo and the Ring, accompanied by Samwise the Stouthearted. From now on they will be the inspiration of books and movies, and of radiant faces enthralled by their story. The sudden realization is what makes Frodo laugh his long clear laugh. All the other characters are some how locked into dull, rigid programs: the warriors have to be warriors and they know at every step the grim duty they must follow, and the villains pursue their own narrow ends without humor. Warriors and elves have genealogies and histories, and it is for these that they live — to fix their names, and ensure their legacies. But genealogies and histories are not tales: tales exist for the sake of “lasting delight,” and they contain such beings as hobbits and oliphaunts — improbable creatures. Tolkien’s warriors are never astonished by their own improbability. It takes the comic sensibility of a hobbit to be amazed by self-recognition, and to laugh in it. The comic mind can step outside itself and see itself from new angles, precisely because it does not have a deadly investment in taking itself seriously. It’s okay, even wonderful, to be a character in a tale.

   In this tale, Sam will act Sam to the hilt, Frodo will be Frodo, and Gollum will be Gollum: each will play their roles perfectly, and thereby fulfill their tale. This is a tremendous lesson for those of us who feel ourselves mired, even doomed, in hopeless situations: we really don’t know how it will turn out, and at the present moment it may free us to imagine ourselves as characters in a great tale — not the noblest characters, far from perfect, and often unintelligent. What more can we do than play ourselves wholeheartedly and leave the world another story to enjoy? — for even when we fail miserably and die, we can still make an extraordinary and satisfying tale.

   This is why, when Gollum returns from his dubious excursion, he finds Sam and Frodo happily asleep: Peace was in both their faces. (323)



The Buddha’s Core Curriculum for Graduating Life: Mindfulness (8)

[Head of a monk: 4-5th century CE, Gandhara]

If the Satipatthana Sutta were to conclude after describing the first three foundations of mindfulness, what would we lose? Mindfulness of breathing, bodily movements and positions, feelings, and states of mind will be more than enough for most people to work on over several decades and still feel they haven’t exhausted the practice. We would gain closeness to our own experience: a refined awareness of all that is going on in our bodies, an understanding of how feelings work and how craving arises, a developed intuition for states of mind in ourselves and in others, a diminishing of compulsions and attachments, and all round — just by becoming more aware and self-aware — greater effectiveness in all human activities. Becoming more open to experience and more calmly intelligent about what really goes on, we will naturally suffer less because our expectation and demands will be more realistic; we might even find ourselves happier, because we are struggling less with people and situations, and because in paying attention we will start to find our own lives more interesting, more abundant. It could well be that knowledge of what we have to do and how we have to live will emerge naturally from understanding ourselves better — just as children who read and who thus spend many hours a day getting nto the minds of literary characters will expand their powers of empathy without having to be taught. 

   The Buddha himself made his great spiritual discoveries wholly empirically, through observing and comprehending what is present in body, feelings, and mind; no one told him where the practice was going to lead him. It takes tremendous trust in the process to be able to give oneself up to the lessons of experience, without being guided by a framework reassuringly provided by a wise teacher. Similarly, it takes an unusually trusting teacher to let the student loose in the laboratory of life to figure out for himself what works and what doesn’t. What if the student accidentally blows himself up? On the other hand, a real teacher — knowing that he is not omniscient — is always delighted when a student surprises him with a question or discovery that he hasn’t yet thought of. Throughout the Discourses the Buddha has emphasized “knowing for yourselves”; we only know the things that we find with our own senses and intelligence, and this is why the Buddha’s teaching style — terse, dry, understated — tends to give us space to question and investigate. It is also why the Satipatthana starts with meditations in which we develop confidence in our own powers of insight. In the words of the refrain in this Sutta, the practitioner “lives independent and clings to naught in the world” — not even the words of his teacher. In the cultivation if mindfulness, the Buddha is scrupulous not to introduce the conceptual frame too early, for premature reliance on someone else’s interpretation of phenomena always undermines our own ability to experience honestly.

   Only as the fourth foundation of mindfulness do we get contemplating the dhammas — often confusingly translated “mental objects,” because it deals with ideas and enotions, and consists of a series of formulaic encapsulations of the Buddha’s system that need to be thought through and understood. To oversimplify, the first three foundations of mindfulness cultivate accurate but passive awareness, a kind of wise receptivity to what is; by themselves, they have little power of active transformation, little capacity to take us further along the path that leads to the final destruction of suffering. In the first three mindfulness practices, we ward nothing away, repress nothing, and entertain with open arms both positive and negative equally; in the fourth mindfulness practice, we must now work to nudge away the negative and develop the positive, since we now understand vividly what negative and positive are.

   The martial sport of fencing offers a useful analogy. A budding fencer might be fond of swords, and while using the finest sports blades he might be thinking all the time of his collection of replica rapiers at home: mindfulness of the blade, an intimate knowledge of everything about swords, motivates and excites his practice. Another fencer might be on fire from the historical romance of fencing, and in each practice session he remembers real duels and the accounts of ancient combats. A third fencer, perhaps coming from a background in dance or gymnastics, might enjoy the technical drills more, and appreciate the science of movement: here we see a certain kind of mindfulness of body. None of these interests is wrong, and each of them brings into the foreground one aspect of the sport. The aspect that is foregrounded may be in itself endlessly fascinating and rewarding, but the fencer who is “lost” in this aspect will not become a good fencer. What is required in he making of a real fencer is the harnessing of a host of subordinate aspects into the ability to win bouts agains skilled antagonists, and this involves learning progressions directed towards a specific end. The training is vigorous and prescriptive — do this, don’t do that — as the student is actively transformed into a real fencer who might survive in an actual swordfight.

   The contemplation of dhammas (“mental objects”) takes place in accordance with five numerical frames that are given more detailed treatment in other Suttas: the five hindrances, the five aggregrates of clinging, the six internal and external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths.  Each of these is a concise, standard schema of ethical, intellectual, and psychological soul-work; they are compressions of the Buddha’s experience that need to be carefully considered and unpacked for ourselves — like seeds of wisdom, which grow only if watered, by our own hands, with our blood. The first three foundations of mindfulness were necessary propaedeutics to this, for without developed attentiveness to our own experience the contemplation of dhammas would be entirely out of our reach. The Four Noble Truths make only superficial, hypothetical sense to one who does not know how to be mindful of body and feelings. Indeed, many people who are suffering believe that they are fine, and many who think they are suffering badly are in fact better off than most — how would we know how to recognize and gauge our own state, if our powers of awareness are nothing more than rudimentary and blunt, like sticks that small boys use for pretend-weapons?

   I am not going to explore the contemplations of dhammas here, because they require longer and more detailed exploration, and because I am unqualified. Whereas the first three foundations make a lot of sense to me, the fourth requires trust and commitment to the Buddha’s system — trust and commitment that is backed up by seeing, in the practice of the first three foundations, that the Buddha always has a reason for saying what he says in the way he says it. The contemplation of dhammas is for students who have already committed to the path, but here too the articulations make sense to an ordinary thoughtful human being who seeks to be wiser. 

   For example, one of the contemplations of dhammas takes on the “five hindrances” (nivarana), those complexes of thoughts and emotions that interrupt and obstruct our efforts at mental clarity and tranquillity in whatever work we may be doing. They are difficult to deal with, because by the time we become aware of the presence of one of them, our work has already been disturbed. Because our foundations in mindfulness are now strong, we can nonetheless pull back and look at the disturbance. 

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.

“How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?

“Here, O bhikkhus, when sensuality is present, a bhikkhu knows with understanding: ‘I have sensuality,’ or when sensuality is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sensuality.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen sensuality comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sensuality comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sensuality comes to be. When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. When sloth and torpor are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have sloth and torpor,’ or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sloth and torpor.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be. When agitation and worry are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have agitation and worry,’ or when agitation and worry are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no agitation and worry.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and worry comes to be. When doubt is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have doubt,’ or when doubt is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no doubt.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen doubt comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Each of these hindrances hides a world of complex causation. “Sensuality” is not just sexual desire, but all those desires that come from an underlying belief that material pleasures can make us happy; “anger” expresses disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a sense of betrayal, stemming from some belief that people and the world “should” be other than they are, and from a concealed assumption that we are competent to judge their inadequacy; “sloth and torpor” encompass our various ways of resisting what we know we must do, ranging from not being to get up or to stay awake, to seeking distraction in trivial entertainments, to depressive paralysis; “agitation and worry,” which can creep in insidiously at any moment, can come from regret for things done, not done, or done poorly, as well as the anxiety that is generated by the knowledge of unfinished business, and general anxiety for loved ones and the world; and “doubt,” which is not just lack of faith in the Buddha’s path, includes philosophical disbelief as well as crippling lack of confidence in one’s own abilities and in the project as a whole. The Buddha has seen clearly — in himself and in his students — that whenever we find ourselves unsettled and derailed, it is usually because of one or more of these five hindrances. We also know from experience that the hindrances are addictive by nature: each time we indulge them, we make them stronger and more frequent in the future. Consequently, learning how to handle the hindrances is crucial to progress along the path, and mindfulness of the hindrances comes under the category of contemplating the dhammas in the dhammas.  While good, encouraging advice from a teacher and close friends is usually our best help in dealing with the hindrances once they have arisen and once we find ourselves wriggling in their clutches, we still have to learn to manage them ourselves by experiencing them directly and seeing what they are.

   Let’s look at just one of them: When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ The first step is to be able to recognize when it is there or not there. Often we can go for days in a bad mood without consciously realizing that we are angry; or we can find in the midst of our meditations that we are being swept along on a flash flood of grumbling, not having noticed when it started. This part of the contemplation requires skill in bare mindfulness. But what do we do, once we have noticed? He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. We have to study where the anger comes from, and be able to recognize it at its origination as it arises — and not only when it has already become full-fledged passion. Once we understand how it arises, we need to understand how it is abandoned. As in the other contemplations, we do not repress or force the hindrance out — because that will only give it more power. Sometimes seeing, hearing, and understanding are sufficient to calm an emotion, but most often we have to learn how to reroute or sublimate a thought that might grow into a hindrance. For example, when we are angry with a person, we might go straight to them and talk; or we might try putting ourselves in their shoes. When we have grasped this, we will be in a better position to understand how to live in such a way that anger never just arises. This work involves dedicated self-reflection, awaeness of our emotions, and creative intelligence with regard to our toughest, trickiest mental tendencies.

   Notice, too, how impersonal the Buddha’s phrasing is: when anger is present, not when he is angry. No one “owns” the anger or “is” the anger; rather, anger is carried by an inertia that we surely contributed to but that we are not agents of. For this reason, the hindrance can be calmly worked on, as a sculptor works on granite, and there is no extraneous emotion of blame or resistance that comes from disliking “being like this.” The first three foundations of mindfulness have trained us to find this work interesting and productive, and we can now approach the work like skilled craftsmen. One other benefit of this serene engagement is that we will find that other people no longer irk us much, and because we understand the hindrances in ourselves, we are likely to be more understanding and compassionate towards the hindrances as they appear in others. 

   The Satipatthana Sutta, in about 20 pages, gives us a complete curriculum for what can truly be called self-study, with the aim of understanding the origin of suffering and how to end it. Each of the four foundations of mindfulness requires dedicated, concentrated practice, and if we consider how difficult it is to be mindful of only breathing for a single hour, we will have a clear picture of how accomplished we would have to be to sustain mindfulness in all four dimensions for a whole week. But should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for a week, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning. In purely secular terms, it is possible to see how even a little time devoted every day to these meditative exercises will result in a happier, more effective human being, capable of helping himself and others, and more directly attuned to his own experience. The curriculum laid out in the Satipatthana may well be, as the Buddha claims, the only path to self-knowledge and happiness.  


For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Death like the Sun: Mindfulness (5)

“I would like to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather — and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” The old joke is funny because it is true: most people would prefer not to experience their death and would rather sleep through it, while those who have no choice but to meet it with open eyes go to it screaming with desperate resistance. Yet of the few things that we can have certainty about — besides the facts that you and I are breathing right now, and have bodies — nothing is more certain than that we will die and that we don’t know how we will die. If we want to make any sense of our lives, we must surely look first to the things we can be certain about, and see what meaning we can draw from them. Strangely, even though after birth, death may be the most important event of our lives, we try our utmost to avoid it and also to avoid thinking about it. Most people do not experience their deaths, and even if they are conscious or in clear enough mind at the time, they are dragged terrified into it and are in no state to be intelligently receptive. Few people get to know death, says La Rochefoucauld. We seldom suffer it from resolution, but from stupidity and habit; and most men die because they cannot help dying. (Maxims, 23). If we do not die quietly in in our sleep, a heart attack or violent accident might also prevent us from the unpleasant witnessing of our own death; or else we die secure in the comfort of a myth of an afterlife in which we do not really die. La Rochefoucauld describes this kind of comfort as being like the blindfold that prisoners wear before execution. In expiring with our eyes closed or turned away, we miss an essential, even climactic moment — like turning our faces away from a race when the runners are in the last stretch because we can’t bear to see it end. 

   Broodings on death thread through every literate tradition. Most philosophers and poets acknowledge that we cannot develop into full human beings if we are constantly running away from death. When Socrates in the Phaedo said that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” what he meant was that in the practice of philosophy we learn to separate our intelligent soul from the unknowable, changing body — but this too strikes me as one of those blindfolds, hiding the mortality of our most cherished part. In an essay actually called “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” Montaigne rails against our attempts to ignore death:

The goal of our career is death. It is the necessary object of our aim. If it frightens us, how is it possible to go a step forward without feverishness? The remedy of the common herd is not to think about it. But from what brutish stupidity can come so gross a blindness! (The Complete Works, tr. Frame, 2003, p.69)

…there is no man so decrepit that as long as he sees Methuselah ahead of him, he does not think he has another twenty years left in his body. Furthermore, poor fool that you are, who has assured you the term of your life? You are building on the tales of doctors. Look rather at facts and experience. By the ordinary run of things, you have been living a long time now by extraordinary favor. You have passed the accustomed limits of life…(71)

Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects…It is uncertain here death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint. There is nothing evil in life for the man who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not an evil. (72)

We cannot be free if we are afraid of death — practically, because we lock ourselves into strenuous efforts to obtain and guarantee our safety; and philosophically, because terror of death will cause us to espouse views that give us comfort. Montaigne describes his own daily practice to “rob it of its strangeness,” which involves remembering all the endlessly surprising ways in which death has arrived and imagining how it might come to him at any moment:

How many ways has death to surprise us!…Who would ever have thought that a duke of Britanny would be stifled to death by a crowd, as that duke was at the entrance of Pope Clement, my neighbor, into Lyons? Haven’t you seen one of our kings killed at play? And did not one of his ancestors die from the charge of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, takes every precaution –in vain: he gets himself killed by a sort of roof, the shell of a tortoise dropped by a flying eagle. Another dies from a grape seed; an emperor from the scratch of a comb, while combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus through stumbling against his threshold, and Aufidius through bumping against the door of the council chamber on his way in; and between women’s thighs, Cornelius Gallus the praetor, Tigillanus, captain of the watch at Rome, Ludovico, son of Guido de Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua — and still worse, the Platonic philosopher Speusippus, and one of our Popes. Poor Bebius, a judge, in the act of granting a week’s postponement to a litigant, has a seizure, his own term of living having expired; and Caius Julius, a doctor, is anointing the eyes of a patient, when along comes death and closes his. And, if I must bring myself into this, a brother of mine, Captain Saint-Martin, twenty-three years old, who had already given pretty good proof of his valor, while playing tennis was struck by a ball a little above the right ear, with no sign of contusion or wound. He did not sit down or rest, but five or six hours later he died of an apoplexy that this blow gave him. With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat? (71)

Through such musings we can become “intimate” with death, and such intimacy makes us more open to embracing the great philosophical consolations in which our deaths present themselves as good and attractive:

Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world…Death is the condition of your creation, it is a part of you; you are fleeing from your own selves. This being of yours that you enjoy is equally divided between death and life. The first day of your birth leads you toward death as toward life..(78)

   Montaigne’s contemplations of death can be read as a kind of Mindfulness practice, in which we engage in focused meditation on our extinction and remember what we are. Yet what he is really doing is riffing on the idea of dying, through a multitude of examples and speculations. I begin this essay with Montaigne because his form of meditation is so strikingly different from the Buddha’s approach in the Satipatthana Sutta. There, in the section on contemplating the body in the body, we are given nine exercises for contemplating a dead body, representing nine phases in decomposition. Montaigne would regard these exercises as a cogent and powerful method to “rid death of its strangeness,” but what we notice on first reading of the Satipatthana is that the dead person is considered solely as body, with attention given only to the physical process of decay. In contrast, Montaigne’s consideration of death included all aspects of the person at once, without differentiation. I will quote all nine exercises together:

1. “And further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body dead, one, two, or three days: swollen, blue and festering, thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
2. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees, whilst it is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, a body that had been thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
3. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body, thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
4.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
5. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mind, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’

6. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions — a bone of the hand, a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull, each in a different place — he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
7.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones, white in color like a conch, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body;’
8. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
9. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.'”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

We are asked to look, to see, to pay attention to decay, disintegration, and dispersal as phases in an inevitable process. This is all the more necessary in a society such as ours, where we are systematically shielded from dying and death, and where natural decay is concealed from us by the funeral industry. In a culture that fetishizes youth and depends for its continuation on the feeding of infinite collective appetite, we do not get to see decay; we barely even get to see people bent over in advanced age. The closest most of us get to decay is roadkill, but we never stop to look because by definition we are on the road speeding by the kill. Perhaps we should stop to look, since it will be one of our few opportunities to witness decay for ourselves. With modern scientific instruments, we can also see that putrefaction is a wonderfully complex and ordered process, with laws and patterns. Even with our naked eyes it is possible to watch the corpse becoming billions of beings, many of which came from it anyway and lived as part of it. We witness how the body is not one thing, and its multifarious motion in death reflects also its manifoldness in life — and how determined by conditions each phase is! There are not really even phases, only a continuous process until the body has returned to its elements, which in turn partake in other processes that might result in new bodies. Daily observation of these transformations eventually wears away our squeamishness in the face of decay, making us capable of living with death and disintegration as they go on all around us.

   That is one part of the meditation. The other part is the refrain, ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’ My body is the same as this corpse and has not managed to transcend the conditions of dying and decay. Notice that the Buddha does not say “I am of the same nature as this body”: he is not reducing the whole human being to its physical processes, and is focusing here only on the body. The refrain has to be more than a mere verbal acknowledgment; when we say it and mean it, what we are expressing is a growing acquaintance with the natural processes as we are experiencing them right now in this body that grows old and will die. In my 50s, I can know in every aspect of the body that the processes of dying and decay are happening in me, albeit less dramatically than in the corpse, and it is all an integral aspect of being alive in flux. Without this same flux I would never have been born and would never have grown to maturity: nothing would have happened. Even though these thoughts are going beyond contemplating the body in the body, they flow naturally from recognizing myself in the corpse before me and are a consequence of remembering what I am. At the end of each of these exercises the Buddha repeats the encouragement to reflect in a rounded way on what we have discovered through observation:

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

The regular undertaking of this exercise changes us, making us more open and attuned to the vibrant, perilous buzz of the organic world around us and in us — and no longer afraid of it all. Our mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists’:  this is what it is for body to be body, there is no other way for body to be and consequently no way for any of us to escape from this condition. However, the simple recognition that this is how things are can easily be elevated into a grand, dark theory of life. Therefore we are mindful to the extent necessary for knowledge and remembrance, and should catch ourselves sliding into morbidity, transcendentalism, or any view that would replace and cover up the raw experience. This is why the Buddha calls for contemplating a corpse — not contemplating death or dying. A corpse is an observable fact, and our identification with it is grounded in experience — whereas “death” and “dying” are conceptions from the point of view of a consciousness that is clinging to the supposed opposite of these conceptions. Without an attachment to “life,” death is not an opposite that has to be neutralized; instead, there is only a process of transformation, moment by moment. 

    La Rochefoucauld remarks cryptically, Neither the sun nor death can be looked at fixedly (Maxims, 26). Just as we cannot stare directly at the sun without squinting or getting blinded, so we cannot take a direct look at death. In the corpse contemplations the bhikkhu doesn’t even try to look at “death” or “dying,” focusing instead only on the body and eliminating from the picture the rest of the being that is conceived as dying. The effect is not any theory about death, but the removal of an obstruction to experiencing the entire process that is meant by the word “death.” 
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

The Exercise of Gratitude: Thanksgiving with Marcus Aurelius

Before we begin any significant and difficult project, we “clear the decks” of lingering messes from the past. In the kitchen, we empty out sinks and dishwasher, vacate and wipe down the countertops and chopping boards, clean all the pots and cooking utensils in readiness, and arrange the raw foodstuffs so that they may be easily reached at the appropriate time. Before meditation or any session dedicated to serious reflection, we should also “clear the decks,” but — in our haste to get to more interesting suff — we often forget to. At moments of leisure, when our minds are not chained to a specific task, which of us does not find that all too quickly and all too often the mental space is filled with a stream of internal grumbling, about people and situations that have turned out unsatisfactory, or about our disappointments with ourselves? Each of us has characteristic cycles of internal grumbling that keep playing out over the years, and when I watch how even small children complain incessantly I can’t help wondering if the bedrock of our personalities might consist solely of grumbling.

This is why it is good to precede meditation sessions with a ritual of gratitude and well-wishing. By doing so, we preempt or undermine the intrusive grumbling tendency by tuning our minds to a more benevolent note, making it less likely that our meditation will be invaded by old discontent that insists on being heard. The same applies to writing or to any creative activity, in which we might not want the inertia of past resentments to trespass on present work; or to martial arts practice, in which the bow at the beginning of class establishes a boundary between ordinary life and present training, and defuses latent anger that might taint and destabilize the training in dangerous techniques. The same thing is valuable also at the dining table, where often unresolved family conflicts can ruin a potentially wonderful meal; here, a simple and sincere giving of thanks at the start of the meal can “reset” the heart and prevent old hostilities from erupting. The daily habit of marking this boundary has the additional ethical benefit of training a certain freedom and mastery over our emotions, such that we are not contiually being pushed by emotional inertia.

At the beginning of many books it is customary to have a short page of “acknowledgments.” For most writers the giving of credit where credit is due can be an extremely pleasurable formality. One of the world’s greatest books of advice and consolation, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (written around 167 CE), begins with an entire chapter of very specific thanksgiving. Readers usually skim or skip this chapter in order to arrive more quickly at the “thoughts” that make the meat of the book, perhaps because we don’t know the people he mentions and are eager to get to the paragraphs that more directly concern us. But for Marcus, his opening chapter is no mere page of Acknowledgments; it is the essential gateway to the whole book, acknowledgments elevated to the status of an exercise in gratitude. When read slowly, with an attempt to imagine the person who is being thanked and the qualities that are being praised, it is impossible not to be moved by the dignity of a mind that can so calmly and methodically summarize a life in terms of thanks owed. The feel of this chapter is valedictory, the thoughts of a human being intensely aware of the proximity of death and needing to pay homage to the sources of good in his life. Indeed, it is said that Marcus wrote this in the midst of a difficult military campaign against Germanic tribes near the Danube (as commemorated in the recent Ridley Scott film Gladiator). I quote here this beautiful chapter in full, because it is a remarkable gift to be able to hear the lifelike voice of an actual human being from two thousand years ago — and one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever seen — reflecting with gratitude on his own life.

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. 
From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. 

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. 

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. 

From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander. 

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline. 

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection. 

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. 

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly venerated by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation. 

From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion. 

From Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection. 

From Alexander the Platonic, not frequently nor without necessity to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relation to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations. 

From Catulus, not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason, but to try to restore him to his usual disposition; and to be ready to speak well of teachers, as it is reported of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to love my children truly. 

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. 

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. 

In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys; and he considered himself no more than any other citizen; and he released his friends from all obligation to sup with him or to attend him of necessity when he went abroad, and those who had failed to accompany him, by reason of any urgent circumstances, always found him the same. I observed too his habit of careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation, and his persistency, and that he never stopped his investigation through being satisfied with appearances which first present themselves; and that his disposition was to keep his friends, and not to be soon tired of them, nor yet to be extravagant in his affection; and to be satisfied on all occasions, and cheerful; and to foresee things a long way off, and to provide for the smallest without display; and to check immediately popular applause and all flattery; and to be ever watchful over the things which were necessary for the administration of the empire, and to be a good manager of the expenditure, and patiently to endure the blame which he got for such conduct; and he was neither superstitious with respect to the gods, nor did he court men by gifts or by trying to please them, or by flattering the populace; but he showed sobriety in all things and firmness, and never any mean thoughts or action, nor love of novelty. And the things which conduce in any way to the commodity of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without arrogance and without excusing himself; so that when he had them, he enjoyed them without affectation, and when he had them not, he did not want them. No one could ever say of him that he was either a sophist or a home-bred flippant slave or a pedant; but every one acknowledged him to be a man ripe, perfect, above flattery, able to manage his own and other men’s affairs. Besides this, he honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them. He was also easy in conversation, and he made himself agreeable without any offensive affectation. He took a reasonable care of his body’s health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician’s art or of medicine or external applications. He was most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts; and he always acted conformably to the institutions of his country, without showing any affectation of doing so. Further, he was not fond of change nor unsteady, but he loved to stay in the same places, and to employ himself about the same things; and after his paroxysms of headache he came immediately fresh and vigorous to his usual occupations. His secrets were not but very few and very rare, and these only about public matters; and he showed prudence and economy in the exhibition of the public spectacles and the construction of public buildings, his donations to the people, and in such things, for he was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s acts. He did not take the bath at unseasonable hours; he was not fond of building houses, nor curious about what he ate, nor about the texture and colour of his clothes, nor about the beauty of his slaves. His dress came from Lorium, his villa on the coast, and from Lanuvium generally. We know how he behaved to the toll-collector at Tusculum who asked his pardon; and such was all his behaviour. There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, nor, as one may say, anything carried to the sweating point; but he examined all things severally, as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently. And that might be applied to him which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus. 

To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offence against any of them, though I had a disposition which, if opportunity had offered, might have led me to do something of this kind; but, through their favour, there never was such a concurrence of circumstances as put me to the trial. Further, I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather’s concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season, but even deferred the time; that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought, or more remiss in action, with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler. I thank the gods for giving me such a brother, who was able by his moral character to rouse me to vigilance over myself, and who, at the same time, pleased me by his respect and affection; that my children have not been stupid nor deformed in body; that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if I had seen that I was making progress in them; that I made haste to place those who brought me up in the station of honour, which they seemed to desire, without putting them off with hope of my doing it some time after, because they were then still young; that I knew Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; that I received clear and frequent impressions about living according to nature, and what kind of a life that is, so that, so far as depended on the gods, and their gifts, and help, and inspirations, nothing hindered me from forthwith living according to nature, though I still fall short of it through my own fault, and through not observing the admonitions of the gods, and, I may almost say, their direct instructions; that my body has held out so long in such a kind of life; that I never touched either Benedicta or Theodotus, and that, after having fallen into amatory passions, I was cured; and, though I was often out of humour with Rusticus, I never did anything of which I had occasion to repent; that, though it was my mother’s fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that, whenever I wished to help any man in his need, or on any other occasion, I was never told that I had not the means of doing it; and that to myself the same necessity never happened, to receive anything from another; that I have such a wife, so obedient, and so affectionate, and so simple; that I had abundance of good masters for my children; and that remedies have been shown to me by dreams, both others, and against bloodspitting and giddiness…; and that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of appearances in the heavens; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. 

It is rare to have such a vivid self-portrait from an ancient who was both thinker and leader. Doubtless in this list there arevone or two thorny people whose thorniness is only hinted at, and if we studied Marcus’ life we might discover some interesting omissions, such as the Emperor Hadrian. Thinking about particular instances in our own experience of powerful men “thanking” benefactors, we might also wonder if the expression of gratitude in this case might in fact be a way of asserting political dominance by putting strong influences gently in their places. As Nietzsche points out, gratitude can be ambivalent and is often closely relatd to vengeance:

The reason why the powerful man is grateful is this: his benefactor, through the benefit he confers, has mistaken and intruded into the sphere of the powerful man; now the latter, in return, penetrates into the sphere of the benefactor by the act of gratitude. It is a milder form of revenge. Without the satisfaction of gratitude, the powerful man would have shown himself powerless, and would have been reckoned as such ever after. Therefore every society of the good, which originally meant  the powerful, places gratitude amongst the first duties. Swift propounded the maxim that men were grateful in the same proportion as they were revengeful.

(Human All Too Human, 1878, Section 44)
However, Marcus’ expressions of gratitude do not strike me as fueled by the desire to assert power: he seems clear-sighted in the recognition of his own failings, and he appears to attribute everything he likes about himself to the work and characters of other people. No human being is self-created; we become what we become partly through our own choices, but mostly from all those personalities that have guided us, inspired us, and held us unrelentingly to high standards of behavior. Even the most powerful man in the known world is confessing in these pages that he did not do it by himself, and that the sum of his character and achievements is indebted to other people: he can name them and specify the debts. The first chapter of the Meditations is thus a remarkable exercise in Mindfulness or Remembrance, and without it the rest of the book would feel like a series of speculations, questions, and assertions, without substantial grounding in a personality that has been cultivated by many hands.

Now if we read this chapter and think that it is about the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, we will have entirely missed the point. The exercise in gratitude is for us to do, as a kind of threshold or entry-way to self-knowledge; perhaps it is the only one. If you were to sit for an hour and write the Acknowledgments to your own life, who would you thank, and for what?

The Meditations, translated by George Long, can be found here: