How Do You Like Your Coffee?

How do you like your coffee? The question implies that there a way we like our coffee, and the possessive your emphasizes the particularity of each person’s brew. What do you take in your coffee? says that we are fixed in our additives. Very rarely does anyone respond, “Oh, I’m not fussy, just make it the way you like it.”

   My coffee-loving friends are nearly all rigid purists with regard to their coffee; indeed, they cannot really be called coffee-lovers because each of them only ever tolerates coffee served in one way. I am no different. For years, every morning, I enjoy a large mug of black coffee, poured meticulously through a number 4 filter, which I lie in bed sipping for thirty minutes while I read. The coffee has to be a rich dark roast of the Sumatran/Indonesian kind; I do not like European-style coffee, or beans from Africa or South America, and what is called “coffee” in most hotels and restaurants is either, at best, hot brown tasteless water or, at worst, thinly disguised panther piss. With coffee I do not mince my words, because the perfect mug of it is the necessary prelude to a bearable day. 

   The filter has to be Melitta, because with all other filters the coffee tends to taste too bitter, or it pours too slowly. I grind the beans myself, to exactly the desired fineness; and I spend a few moments rejoicing in the aroma of the freshly ground grains. The mug has to be porcelain and twice the size of a normal mug, because the pleasure of holding a mug of that size is part of the ritual. A paper cup will not do. The coffee has to be either Sumatran or something like the Tres Estrellas blend from Ohori’s in Santa Fe; the latter blend is of African, American, and Indonesian beans, and has a complex, fruity taste that brings out the dark bliss of the Indonesian bean. Long ago I used to drink this straight, and it struck me then as more than sufficiently sweet; then I added two teaspoons of brown or cane sugar (because white sugar tastes harsh to me); and then I replaced the sugar with two teaspoons of raw honey (because processed honey has a thin, shallow sweetness). This mug of coffee has to be perfect, partly because it is usually the only coffee I will drink during the day. And it has to be strong — with a strength equal to about three extra shots of espresso in your latté. This black, potent density is purely for the jolt of taste and has almost no physiological effect on me (unlike strong tea, which does keep me awake at night). When everything is right, including the rhythm of the pouring and the imbibing, I can inwardly declare my day to have started off on the right footing; if anything is wrong, I go through the day feeling slightly off-kilter. 

   It did not seem possible for my one daily mug of coffee to be improved upon, but a month ago I discovered coconut oil: one teaspoon of this celestial balm brings a soft, caressing quality to the morning brew, deepening the taste, making the honey more honied and the coffee more coffeed. This addition has perfected the morning brew, and coffee is now unimaginable without it. But why did it take me so long to discover it? — when for decades I have read about cultures in which coffee and tea are both taken with coconut or butter, both of which carry health benefits and, so they claimed, make everything taste better. In South India, I had a cup of sharp local coffee brewed with honey, ginger, and pepper; and “milk coffee” flavored with cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. I enjoyed both, but left to myself, I still brew the same old mug. Why would a normally inquisitive person, who likes experimenting, stick so stubbornly with his one hyper-fastidious way of concocting coffee?

   I am not narrow-minded about other drinks. I will drink any fruit juice, and my partiality for fresh-squeezed orange juice means that I embrace the taste-du-jour; oranges of every kind are good and interesting. I consider myself to have good taste in beer, and while I loathe and despise the anemic commercial dribble that has no taste but only an aftertaste, the kinds of beer that people drink as thirst-quenchers, the beers that I have liked number in the hundreds and include about a dozen different types. With wine, I am a curious novice who enjoys tasting almost anything…The list goes on: with food generally, I am open-minded and find delight in the different ways people prepare my favorite dishes. All of this makes it even more perplexing why I have been so inflexible regarding coffee.

   To say that I “have developed a habit” of drinking my coffee only one way is not an answer but just another rephrasing of the question. Where do habits like this come from? Certainly, the same action undertaken at the same time and place every day for years must make some kind of “groove” in the neural system such that change becomes difficult — but why does a specific habit form in the first place, when an individual’s tastes in other things are not so inflexible? We know that it is possible for an ingrained habit to change overnight as a result of a thought — for example, when an eater of pork learns about how pigs are treated and can no longer stomach eating them, or when a heavy drinker witnesses the disgusting excesses of an abusive alcoholic relative and from that time on never feels any desire for liquor, or when after a divorce a person drops all the daily rituals he engaged in during the marriage. A habit like my coffee-habit is thus likely to have its roots in a mental action, but what does that mean?

   We all have detailed rituals for beginning a day and ending it. Our ritual before going to bed — in which brushing teeth, changing, reading, and positioning the pillows have to take place in a definite order — actually determines whether we are able to sleep or not. The wake-up ritual has the power to affect our mood for the rest of the day — which includes not just mental alertness and physical buoyancy, but also the moral emotions of generosity, kindness, and friendliness. The wake-up ritual affects who we are for that day and is thus a crucial part of our daily self-composition.

   We are constantly self-composing; in fact, what I think of as myself, a noun, is really a continuous activity of self-making, which mostly consists of the assertion of preferences through which we differentiate ourselves from everyone else and create a unique identity that stands out against the confused intermingling of phenomena. The self-making activity is carried out below the threshold of consciousness; in Sanskrit and Pali there is a term for it, ahamkara (“I-making”), because the early Indian philosophers became aware, through introspection, of the self as a formation in process. We can watch small children developing their identities through “liking” this or “not liking” that; many children are so picky in their preferences that they will agree to eat not just Mac and Cheese but only one specific version of it. Inevitably, industrial food-manufacturers make millions from individual consumers’ identification with brand-name foods: there are “Coke people” and “Pepsi people,” for instance. Clever marketers will strive to associate their products with attractive character traits, because they know that what they are selling is a personality or self-image. Coca-Cola people are happy and sociable, and they seem to like dancing and team-sports. Much marketing is therefore directed at children or teens, who have the most intense self-making urges. 

   People can be vehement about their tastes. Thus, as a proud connoisseur of the genuine article, I will not be “caught dead” drinking instant coffee — although if I find myself in an instant-coffee-drinking country, such as England or India, I will happily drink the coffee that is offered to me. Vehemence about taste is not based on reason or physiology but in the felt need for self-differentiation. We can see this writ large in cultural attitudes towards other cultures’ foods, which is most commonly “distaste.” Yet we all know that if we had been brought up in Iceland, we would not turn our noses up at Singed and Boiled Sheep Head, or Ram’s Testicles; and if we were born in Japan we wouldn’t find natto (fermented soy beans) repulsively smelly. The point is that the root of taste is not in our sense organs or in the food itself, but in our complex self-making activity.

    This activity never stops.  Since a self is not a thing that exists independently of its circumstances, our sense of self has to be maintained continually. Our external world is always changing, and our bodies are always surprising us; our internal world undergoes more thoroughgoing changes, composed as it is of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that never cease to move. I might love black Sumatran coffee with raw honey and coconut oil now, but a year ago I did not lament the absence of coconut oil, ten years ago the brew tasted great without any sweetener, twenty years ago a normal mug of fresh-brewed coffee was a treat, and thirty years ago I knew only Maxwell House instant coffee. There will be some point in the future when I cease to drink my coffee with coconut oil.

    In each variation of my morning brew, the money I pay for my taste goes out to sustain an entire system that grows and gathers my coffee beans, roasts it, transports it, stores it, advertises it, and sells it. Because I like this coffee and must have it, I make sure that there is a world that produces it and delivers it to my mug. The same applies to my honey, coconut oil, mug, kettle, grinder, filters, plastic filter cone, electricity, and water — all of which, like the coffee beans, are the results of human activity and the economic, political resources that enable the activity. Thus I have made a world in my own image, to reflect and support my tastes. Self-making is also world-making. What I am tasting in my morning brew is the whole world as it manifests in a mug of coffee made for me, and I am sure that unconsciously this is an essential part of the pleasure of insisting on and getting my mug of coffee.

   All of this is equally of true of my other tastes — in clothing, health and cosmetic products, the furnishings of my house, my car and prefered gas stations, the venues of my social life, my devices, my books and entertainment media, and so on. Each preference does its part in creating a world that reflects me. What about my chosen activities, relationships, and work? With a little reflection, even those things are essentially like my morning mug of Sumatra brewed with honey and coconut oil. Only the families we are born into and the ones we give birth to are free of our self-making, because they are the only people we do not choose according to our preferences, and because in them we are forced to be with people we would otherwise not choose — who annoy us, exasperate us, and make us weep with their intransigence. We should be grateful for our difficult families, because without them we would be trapped in a human world made of our preferences. Our family gives us the friction necessary for sanity, and we give them the same painful benefit.

   Meanwhile, I nurse my mug of Sumatran as I wake up to the world, my world, on my own civilized terms. Since I now know that my tastes are malleable and my personality not fixed, I feel free of the need to have coffee prepared this way, and might well start drinking it next week with ginger, honey, and pepper. Or would this be identifying with a new image of myself as coffee connoisseur, roaming the town in search of new tastes? Could I even just return to a simple cup of unadulterated black coffee? Or water? But if water, which would be my prefered brand? Would tap water ever be sufficient? 


Athelas: A Cure for Spiritual Sickness

What is the nature of the disease that only the herb athelas can cure, and what is the nature of the cure? The disease is clearly more than an adverse phytomolecular reaction, and Aragorn’s healing of it much more than a feat of aromatherapy.

But now their art and knowledge were baffled; for there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl. And those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died.  (136)
The malady appears to be a paralysis or atrophy of the will to live, and evidently feels like a “black shadow” because it consists of a gradual withdrawal and fading into nothing — a dwindling away, from the all too pressing world of light and color. We have all faced something of this kind — for example, in an experience of something so negative, stifling, and disheartening that we temporarily lose all faith and hope in life, become indifferent to joy and suffering, and can willingly lie down and die. With the sting of the Nazgul, the affliction is not temporary, and it takes something more than natural to heal it.

   Just as the ailment amounts to total possession by a Spirit of Negation, the cure has to be an evocation of goodness strong enough to dispel the darkness:

Then taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them, and then he crushed them, and straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy. And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory. But Aragorn stood up as one refreshed, and his eyes smiled as he held a bowl before Faramir’s dreaming face. (141-42)

It is a fragrance like “a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory” — a memory of a memory, an evocation of an evocation, scent of something long gone and perhaps never existent in this world. In fact, it is not even a scent, but a more ethereal kind of influence:

Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam. (146)

  In the first passage we are reminded of some eternal spring, with its promise of new growth and a fresh start: the beauty of our own earthly spring is itself a shadow of this more real but inaccessible spring, a secret spring that lies deep in our hearts and that we know about but cannot directly experience. The second passage attempts to express it with a different version of newness — this time, not a season, but a boundary to human experience, some threshold beyond which the world has remained pure and untainted by human touch. The shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam are reminiscent of the “magic casements, opening on the foam /Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” to which Keats’ nightingale leads us. Whereas in Keats’ poem we are abandoned on this remote, transcendent shore, in Tolkien’s narrative we stay here, and it is the breeze from the phantom shore that reawakens us to this life and makes it livable again. 

   Tolkien’s description of the effect of athelas is very much like Wordsworth’s account of the effects of early experiences of nature on later life. When as adults we find ourselves in hardship and depression, our childhood immersion in nature can be 

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
(From “Tintern Abbey”)
Such memories can protect our sanity and our faith in life. Wordsworth, in the Prelude, refers to them as “spots of time,” which can come in unexpected forms and irradiate seemingly ordinary experiences with a light that is not of the senses:

         There are in our existence spots of time,
          That with distinct pre-eminence retain
          A renovating virtue, whence–depressed 210
          By false opinion and contentious thought,
          Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
          In trivial occupations, and the round
          Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
          Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
          A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
          That penetrates, enables us to mount,
          When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
          This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
          Among those passages of life that give 
          Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
          The mind is lord and master–outward sense
          The obedient servant of her will. Such moments
          Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
          From our first childhood. I remember well,
          That once, while yet my inexperienced hand
          Could scarcely hold a bridle, with proud hopes
          I mounted, and we journeyed towards the hills:
          An ancient servant of my father’s house
          Was with me, my encourager and guide: 
          We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
          Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
          Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
          I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
          Came to a bottom, where in former times
          A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
          The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
          And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
          Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
          Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name. 
          The monumental letters were inscribed
          In times long past; but still, from year to year
          By superstition of the neighbourhood,
          The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
          The characters are fresh and visible:
          A casual glance had shown them, and I fled,
          Faltering and faint, and ignorant of the road:
          Then, reascending the bare common, saw
          A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,
          The beacon on the summit, and, more near, 
          A girl, who bore a pitcher on her head,
          And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
          Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth,
          An ordinary sight; but I should need
          Colours and words that are unknown to man,
          To paint the visionary dreariness
          Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,
          Invested moorland waste and naked pool,
          The beacon crowning the lone eminence,
          The female and her garments vexed and tossed 
          By the strong wind. When, in the blessed hours
          Of early love, the loved one at my side,
          I roamed, in daily presence of this scene,
          Upon the naked pool and dreary crags,
          And on the melancholy beacon, fell
          A spirit of pleasure and youth’s golden gleam;
          And think ye not with radiance more sublime
          For these remembrances, and for the power
          They had left behind? So feeling comes in aid
          Of feeling, and diversity of strength 
          Attends us, if but once we have been strong.
          Oh! mystery of man, from what a depth
          Proceed thy honours. I am lost, but see
          In simple childhood something of the base
          On which thy greatness stands; but this I feel,
          That from thyself it comes, that thou must give,
          Else never canst receive. The days gone by
          Return upon me almost from the dawn
          Of life: the hiding-places of man’s power
          Open; I would approach them, but they close. 
          I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
          May scarcely see at all; and I would give,
          While yet we may, as far as words can give,
          Substance and life to what I feel, enshrining,
          Such is my hope, the spirit of the Past
          For future restoration. (The Prelude, Book 12, 208-286)

In Wordsworth, the “spots of time” are always particular and subjective: yours may look very different from mine, and there is absolutely nothing stereotypical about them. That is to say, “spots of time” bear no characteristic “mark,” and are always unwilled and unpredicted. One such “spot of time,” in a poem by Coleridge, finds a focus not only in an individual blue clay-stone, but the dripping edge of it. 

The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep, 
And only speckled by the mid-day sun; 
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock 
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash, 
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves 
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still, 
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends 
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds, 
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!) 
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge 
Of the blue clay-stone. 

(“This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” 10-20)

   In both Wordsworth and Coleridge the healing images are nearly always an individual’s memory of particular experiences in a specifiable place and specifiable time — for the universal manifests itself in the local, and this one moment in time is the intersection of our little lives with eternity. It restores us, because it lifts us out of our temporal unhappiness and opens us up again to the vastness beyond us. 

   Tolkien’s athelas does much the same thing, yet the images he uses to describe it are more generic, less particularized — more Keats than Wordsworth. First he tries to get at it by suggesting the essence of spring, which is new life and resurrection — but spring also suggests a seasonal cycle, and the inevitability of succumbing once again to winter. Perhaps the spiritual cosmos of Middle-earth is in fact more pagan than Christian, and victory and defeat are destined to repeat themselves forever. Not wanting this desolate connotation but wishing instead to draw out more the sense of an eternal spring not available to the physical senses, he resorts to the imagery of mountain peaks and distant shores to convey the limits of our sensory experience and the Great Beyond from which athelas draws its virtue. Aragorn could have awoken Faramir and Eowyn with particular memories of their childhoods in blossoming palace orchards or moonlit rides over mountain meadows, but I think Tolkien wants the athelas to stir up a generic spiritual memory that is recognizable to everyone in the room. For Wordsworth the eternal irrupts through historical particularity, but for Tolkien it comes through fairy tale imagery that expresses universal yearning for renewal, purity, and innocence.

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:

Knowing Our Own Minds: Mindfulness (7)

For a philosophy that systematically raises doubts about the reality of the individual soul, it is surprising that so much Buddhist literature consists of accounts of meetings between a teacher and a student. The Pali Nikayas are filled with thousands of pages of conversations between the Buddha and various disciples, kings, or Brahmin visitors; and the classical Zen koan is an encounter of two people, in which one of them suddenly “sees” or doesn’t see. We, the readers of these, are encountering the encounter, meeting the meeting of minds.

When two minds “meet,” the first thing that happens before anything is said is that one has to get the measure of the other: who am I dealing with, what kind of person, what kind of intelligence? This also applies to competitive tournaments — chess, fencing, wrestling, pingpong — where you find yourself facing someone you have never met before: you don’t have much time to figure out who you are dealing with and how you are going to beat him. The gauging of the other mind has to happen very quickly, and it demands powers of accurate intuition. Even if you are acquainted with the other person, you still don’t know how they are today; something big might have happened since yesterday. This is of course true with every interaction.  In conversations, if neither interlocutor is good at guessing the state of the other person’s mind, the two of them are likely to talk at cross-purposes and fail to “meet” in any fruitful way. This is most true of teaching situations. A good teacher has to have a developed intuition for “where” her student is, and this “where” is not determined only by tests that give numerical scores for knowledge and skills. The more important conditions for learning have to do with disposition, attitude, and character: how distracted or agitated is the student today, is there anything else weighing on his mind, can he concentrate fully or think clearly, did he get enough sleep, is he hungry, is he angry, is he having girlfriend problems or serious issues in his home life, has he developed sufficient strength of character to pull himself together for today’s lesson, and so on? Such issues are significant conditions for learning or not learning, and if the teacher ignores them or has no capacity to notice them, very little learning will occur. Unfortunately, many educational systems today reduce success or failure to quantifiable results, and are completely ignorant of the more mportant, unquantifiable dimensions of the teacher’s art.

A skillful teacher therefore has to be minutely aware of the students’ “state of mind,” for want of a better phrase. In the Pali Discourses of the Buddha, my phrase “state of mind” translates citta, which is also rendered in different translations as “mind” or “consciousness.” Just as teaching requires mindfulness of citta, so does self-cultivation — which is the primary form of learning for adults, who should be mature enough to steer themselves. But we can only steer ourselves if we know “where” we are. Thus, an adult who decides to develop the characteristics of warrior nobility cannot simply decide to have integrity, courage, justice, wisdom, and invincible fighting skills. Each one of these is developed through baby steps, and before we embark on a program of training we first have to know where to begin and exactly how far away we are from our goals. For the same reasons, once we have begun, we need to be able to evaluate where we are at every step.

This is why the third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta is contemplating consciousness [citta] in consciousness. 

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?

In martial arts training, lapses in attention and malfunctions in thinking are manifested physically, making it easy for the opponent or the sensei to administer a sharp corrective. In meditation, we are mostly on our own, and when we are attempting to find our way through the confusion of our own thoughts and emotions — many of which are only dimly glimpsed — we need to be able to take our own measure. The Buddha, in the formulaic style favored by his Pali editors, gives us a checklist of things to examine, which I take to be not prescriptive but suggestive, leaving us free to modify it appropriately for our own needs:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the state of consciousness become great, as the state become great; the state of consciousness not become great, as the state not become great; the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher; the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher; the quieted state of consciousness, as the quieted state; the state of consciousness not quieted, as the state not quieted; the freed state of consciousness as freed; and the unfreed state of consciousness, as unfreed.”

These are the kinds of consideration undertaken by any good teacher regarding her students — because there is no point giving them assignments that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared to do. What is particularly moving in texts like the Satipatthana is that we are expected to be able to do this ourselves. Indeed, no one else can do it for us.  At almost every stage of the training, the student is asked to self-reflect and to review. If there is the will to progress, the capacity to evaluate and investigate can always be refined. Because our “state of mind” determines what we are capable of doing at any given time, we need to be aware, as we practice, of our current state of mind and how it might be changing. As with bodily phenomena and feelings, we notice that different states arise and then subside; they never stay the same, and they can be affected through training. It is a little bit like sailing a boat on a vast, dark ocean: we cannot necessarily change the ocean at any given time, but we can become minutely aware of winds and waters, and learn to navigate with skill to our destination.

This ideal is very difficult to achieve, because the citta are subtler, more pervasive objects of contemplation that either body or feelings. If you remember a time when you spent hours trying to reason with someone consumed with anger, you will also remember feeling frustrated and hopeless because your interlocutor was so submerged in anger that there was no way he could hear anything else: calm reasoning was futile. The problem with citta is that we identify with our mind-states, we believe them, we see through them. This is why some translators render citta as “consciousness”: our citta is nothing less than how we see things at any moment, and consciousness is always manifest in the form of some citta. We never find pure consciousness without citta, just as we never find it without body or without feelings. Thus, your angry interlocutor had consciousness with anger, and you had a dismayed state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, to use the Buddha’s formula. At the time of your argument, you couldn’t realize that your angry  interlocutor was equally frustrated with your inability to see the full justice of his fury. Citta is of the nature of passion, in that we are largely passive to it — and when we are deep in it, it is very hard to see it objectively. We tend to see it as ourselves. This is why when we are challenged in our citta, we tend to get angry or defensive — because it is we who are being attacked. To be mindful of our own citta, as a skilled teacher is mindful of the citta of her student, is to have attained a very high order of mindfulness. At this point the philosophical dualist would still say, Is the consciousness of citta the same kind of thing as citta, or is it not necessarily transcendent to it? The Buddha would reply, Can you point to it independently of the citta it is conscious of? The observing consciousness is still citta, still conditioned — and it will change, conditioned by its next set of determinants.

The contemplation of citta reaches very deeply into the question of who we are. Now, when we get the Buddha’s reflective refrain — which by this time we know by heart — we hear some new nsights:

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

States of mind have originations and dissolutions. Like corporeal sensations and the vedanas, nothing stays still from one moment to another; only the practice of careful, focused contemplation will teach us to be sensitive to even the minutest flickerings of change. Consciousness exists: this is how it is, there is no other way for consciousness to be, no place to go that is permanent. The Buddha’s matter-of-fact approach is especially valuable in this kind of meditation, for we are prone to take its objects personally and become upset and resistant. For example, if we find in ourselves a citta of laziness and if we happen to be the kind of person who flees laziness at all cost, our immediate reaction will tend to be disgust with ourselves and the desire to change — which of course is another citta, so we would be automatically flying from one state to another. The Buddha tells us just to contemplate, not to struggle; let it be, find it interesting, and let it pass — because it will pass. We contemplate not for the sake of fixing ourselves or to make ourselves perfect, but to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance. Knowing that the citta are as fleeting and insubstantial as bodily motions and feelings — insubstantial in the sense that there is no unchanging substance underlying them to give them fixity and soliditythe bhikkhu does not cling to them as still points in a turning world.

One practical benefit to this way of engaging with states of mind is that in accepting the various states as they our in our own beings, we become generally more relaxed and understanding when they manifest themselves in other people: the perceived stupidity and obstinacy of the other party is no more identified with them as our wisdom and righteousness are identified with us. Thus the advanced practitioner lives, contemplating citta in citta, internally and externally.

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

Learning from Feelings: Mindfulness (6)

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings…

Are you the same as your body? After a period of time cultivating focused awareness of breathing, postures, movements, and decay, it is tempting to conclude that we are not the same as our bodies — and that the witnessing consciousness stands above and outside of the ceaseless flux of embodied life. The contemplations of the body in the body are perfectly compatible with philosophies that view the essential self as bodiless — as the impersonal intellect, or as the individual soul, or as Spirit opposed to Matter, or as the universal Self or Atman that forms the eternal substratum to the changing world. For all such philosophies, the contemplation of the body in the body would be a highly effective way to wean us from identifying with the body and instead teach us to identify with the unchanging part of ourselves. But are we only twofold — an eternal something inhabiting a changing, material body? Certainly the eternal something cannot be found apart from body, but is the part of us that is not body simply an eternal soul, or are there aspects and gradations to it? In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha goes from body to feelings:

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating feeling in feelings? (Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Before going on, I should point put that the English word feelings misses the mark. The word translated is vedana, which is not “feelings” as in “emotions.” The latter tends to come in a complex package that is made up of both affect and thought. In fact, all emotions come from thought on some level and cannot be separated from it — for instance, anger is usually an emotion that issues from some perception of injustice, and love is inextricably tied to the good and the beautiful. When we hate someone, it is because we think they are bad; and when we despise or admire someone, our feelings flow from conscious evaluation. With the emotions, we cannot contemplate feelings in feelings, stripped away from other aspects of mental life.

The Buddha — in his penetrating observation of everything that goes on inside a person — noticed that there is one level in our experience that usually goes unnoticed and undiscussed. We have six sense faculties that are made to sense six kinds of things. (For Buddhists as for Hindus, the sixth sense is the mind, which is both the internal sense organ and also the sense that brings together the perceptions of the other senses, as when we realize that the orange object sensed by our eyes, the sweet but tart object, sensed by our taste, and the spherical object sensed by our touch, are in fact aspects of one thing, namely an orange.) When we sense something, there is a perception, but there is always simultaneously a feeling tone to that perception. To take an analogy: a cook makes a dish for the king, gives it a taste-test, and finds it acceptable; the king tastes it and also enjoys it. Both cook and king might have the same taste-perception of the dish, but their reactions on tasting are what the Buddha is calling vedana or “feelings.” Clearly, the vedana and the taste-perception are not separable, but they are distinct. If the cook makes the identical dish every day, after a week the king might have the same taste-perception of this dish, but the feeling may have turned to dislike. Thus, while feeling and perception come together, the specific feeling is not intrinsic to the perception. Another strange fact regarding vedana is that with any given sense perception we usually cannot help feeling what we feel, and what we feel can often surprise us.

The observation that there is such a dimension to experience as vedana is both original and profoundly important in the Buddha’s path out of suffering. Feelings lead to craving, and craving leads to attachment — and once we are attached, we are committed to suffering. To reiterate an example from a previous essay: I am handed a bowl of ice-cream of a flavor new to me, I taste it (sense perception), I like it (feeling), I want more (craving), I want a second bowl (more craving), and I need to find out where I can buy it so that it is either always in my fridge or permanently available to me (attachment). In attachment we attempt to guarantee the object for ourselves, and the money we pay for the ice-cream goes towards securing the future production of it as well as the means of delivery — in other words, we make the world that guarantees us this ice-cream. Once we get to this point we are committed, shackled, and any disturbance of this security makes us unhappy. The same sequence of feeling-craving-attachment can be experienced in all our commitments: reading, career, friendship, romance, religions, philosophies. I experienced this, I liked it, I wanted more, I tried to secure it. In the suttas on craving, the Buddha asks us to notice that the chain starts with the link from feeling to craving, but that craving is not intrinsic to feeling: it is possible to be perfectly content with one taste of ice-cream, and indeed to enjoy it more that way. But the problem is that usually tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment all seem to happen simultaneously, “naturally,” in one thought. I can’t help liking this new ice-cream, but liking it then “naturally” seems to mean that I must have it always. In mindfulness meditation, we slow down the apparently natural process and notice that tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment are each discrete. We can’t stop ourselves from perceiving, and we can’t stop the immediate feeling-reaction to the perception, but we can see that there is a chasm between feeling and craving.

This is why the contemplation of feelings in feeling is so important: if we are to work on craving and attachment, we have to be attentive to the level of vedana all the time. The actual exercise of contemplating feelings in feeling in the Satipatthana is relatively short, less than a page, but it is an extremely rich and demanding exercise. The exercises on body are much more extensive and varied, because they are training-wheels, as it were. Mindfulness of breathing and movements, while good practices in themselves, also enable us to cultivate powers of observation, sensitivity, and stamina with relatively obvious objects — whereas feelings and thoughts are more volatile and elusive. If you can’t do the exercise on breathing, the one on feelings will be way out of your reach. In what follows, the Buddha works with only three categories of vedana — pleasant, unpleasant, and not-sure — and with two levels of them, to do with gross physical sensation and mental or imaginative sensation:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu when experiencing a pleasant feeling, understands: ‘I experience a pleasant feeling’; when experiencing a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant worldly feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.’

At first these categories seem too simple to be true, as if we were labeling each vedana with a crude emoticon. But the Buddha’s project here is to simplify, to pare the vedanas down to the barest and most undeniable characteristic of like, don’t like, and not sure. More sophisticated  emotional overtones, such as “fascinating” and “sad,” are harder to nail down because they have so many shadings and jagged edges, and because they change so quickly and, indeed, wobble. The category of neither-pleasant-nor-painful is particularly interesting, because often it exists because of the other two: if you tend to like and dislike passionately, the extremes will create a neutral middle-ground that we mostly experience as “uninteresting” or “boring.” The phenomenon of a “boring life” is the artifact of an excessive attachment to what we “like” and “dislike,” an attachment that somehow sprang from the initial feelings of liking and disliking. When we pay attention to those feelings as they arise, watch them in their courses, and notice that they do actually diminish, we will be much less prone to just letting them turn to cravings.

We all know that the more we observe, the more we find there is to observe. When we started on mindfulness of breathing, it didn’t seem that there would be much to it, but as we become more perceptive, we start to find the act of breathing, in the whole body, infinitely interesting. The objects of sense perception are overwhelming in their multitude. As I sit here, if I pause my writing, I can notice all six of my senses going at one moment or another, and each distinct sense perception is accompanied by a vedana. There are hundreds in a minute. It is an athletic feat to keep up with them all, and the effect of even short bursts of contemplating feelings can be like a deafening, blinding bombardment of stimuli both from inside and outside. In one of the Buddha’s similes, we are compared to a flayed cow standing in a field, exposed to millions of stinging insects and the assaults of weather. In this exercise, we realize vividly how much there is going on in our experience all the time, and how easily we latch onto things and feverishly shun other things. In this buzzing jungle of feelings, attachments — especially as attractions and aversions — form rapidly and then take on lives of their own that grow into monsters that consume us. But here we nip the attachments in the bud by just watching the feelings and letting them be: they arise, grow, dwindle, and vanish, equal in status, none of them getting preferential treatment, and none of them outcast. We do not know where they come from, why they came, or where they go to: we are not the authors of them.

The Buddha then gives the reflective refrain:

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

Having chewed on this paragraph after each of the exercises in contemplating body, we start to hear things more clearly. The bhikkhu lives contemplating in this way: it is not merely an exercise. And with feelings, we can become acutely aware of origination and dissolution, as well as both together. Nothing stays still. It is in the nature of feeling to be this way; indeed, there is no other way for feeling to be! When we want to secure unending access to the marvelous ice-cream, what we are trying to do is to repeat the pleasure of the first taste — to repeat it forever. But this is not in the nature of feelings, for no two spoonfuls of the ice-cream will result in the same feeling: if we attempt to repeat, we will be disappointed — and in our intense expectation of a repeat, we will block ourselves from experiencing something new. Yet “feeling exists”: there is no way, if we have sense perception, that it will not exist. We acknowledge it, and remember to heed the warning not to get carried away by our experience in meditation to make more of the ephemerality of feeling than it really is — for instance, not to elevate it into an aesthetic in which we strain to develop a sentimental, nostalgic relationship to the moment, as with much classical Japanese literature. We practice mindfulness “to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance,” and certainly not for the pleasant feelings it might cause in us.

If we want to believe that the experiencing consciousness is separate from and transcends the world of the body, we can — with the Cartesians — think of sense-perception and vedanas as being essentially of the body, because they are both in and of the kingdom of flux. But vedanas are interesting and problematic, because they shade into volitions and commitments; and, since there indubitably exist feelings of pleasure and pain towards mental objects of perception — ideas, thoughts, images, dreams — the vedanas have to be considered an aspect of the very consciousness that is experiencing the objects of the six senses. Even the least worldly person has vedana towards geometry, a Bach partita, the idea of God, the mystery of death. It is much harder, after undertaking the contemplation of feelings in feeling, to take refuge in the thought that “I” am the unchanging, untouched, witnessing consciousness standing aloof from the mutable world of matter.
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: