The Western intellectual tradition suggests that in order to be happy, what we need to do most of all is to go out and subdue the world; secure resources, found businesses, run governments, gain fame and conquer nations.
By contrast, the Eastern tradition has for a long while told us something very different. In both its Buddhist and Hindu strands, it has insisted that contentment requires us to learn to conquer not the world but the instrument through which we view this world, namely our minds.
It won’t matter, says the East, how lustrous and perfect our achievements end up being — how much money we accumulate, how many friends we acquire, how feted our name is — so long as our minds remain open to being troubled at any point by our emotional faculties. All the benefits of a palace with seven reflecting pools and gardens planted with almond and cherry trees will be wiped out by a depression. Chronic anxiety will spoil the ownership of the fastest jet. A fortune is of no use at all so long as one is nagged by paranoia. An unhappy relationship at once destroys any advantages of an esteemed name.
Given this vulnerability of external goods to the vagaries of the mental realm, the Eastern tradition advises us to stop spending our time trying to rearrange the material building blocks of existence only then to fall foul of psychological ills — and to focus instead on learning how to control and manage the inherently unruly and hugely complicated instrument through which the external world reaches consciousness. Rather than striving to build empires, we need to spend many years examining how we think and dream; we have to reflect on our families, the economic systems we were brought up under, the impact of our sexual urges and the biological and cosmological order of nature of which we are an infinitesimal part. We have to learn how to breathe in such a way as to allow maximal oxygen to reach our frontal context and to hold our bodies so that our organs are not crushed and our blood flow subtly impeded. We need to be able to sleep a regular number of hours and remove all distractions and excitements that might disturb our streams of thought.
This is by no means an easy set of priorities; it is indeed as much hard work as managing a law firm. But, the yogis and sages advise that it delivers us a far more secure hold on the actual ingredients of contentment than the bank account of a newly installed CEO with a yacht off Barbuda.
Some of the reason why this continues to feel unreal is that we simply can’t imagine that success, great wealth and a palace wouldn’t in the end do the trick. And that in turn is because too few people who have been blessed with such accoutrements have ever given us an honest account of what it felt like to have them. Intellectual history, with its dire incantations against a worldly life, has been written by a set of suspiciously poor and envious-sounding people.
It is therefore highly fortuitous and extremely reassuring that Buddhism should have been founded by a disgruntled former playboy, Siddhartha Gautama, who once had a palace and a trust fund, fame and servants, but gave them up to sit under a bodhi tree and could therefore tell us, with the benefit of lived experience, what material goods can really do – and not do – for us. And without false modesty, he insisted that they won’t be enough. The food may be tasty and the rooms elegant but such advantages cannot serve their purpose so long as one’s mind is haunted and unsteady, as it invariably will be without a long emotional education and regular spiritual practice.
We should take the East’s warnings seriously. However hard we strive, it is logical that we can only be as happy as our minds are at peace. And given how vulnerable we are to mental disturbances, and how short our lives are, we should on balance almost certainly spend a little more time on our psyches and a little less time on our plans for a second home and a New York office.
The West has produced too many unhappy playboys, and the East too many genuinely peaceful sages, for us not to shift our attention away from conquering the world towards taming our minds.
Even if we are not religious and have no interest at all in becoming a Hindu, Hinduism offers us at least four fascinating ideas…
1. Look Forward to Death
Hinduism is hugely radical in suggesting that there is nothing especially noble or interesting about being alive.
Once we look at matters dispassionately, a lot of what we have to go through is misery and suffering: we need — with great effort — to grow up, to assume responsibilities, to master a profession, to have a family, to take our place in societies full of backbiting and hypocrisy, to watch those we love get ill and eventually to succumb to old age ourselves. To think highly of ‘life’ is, through a Hindu lens, a fundamental intellectual error.
As Hinduism sees it, our real purpose is to be done with life forever; that is the true summit of existence. Hinduism reverses the Western equation: the sinful and blinkered are forced to live forever, the righteous and awakened are privileged enough to be able to die. If we are not careful, if we do not show sufficient mercy and imagination toward others, we may well — Hinduism suggests — be subjected to the ultimate punishment: we will have to carry on into eternity.
The symbol of this ghastly on-goingness is the eight-spoked wheel of ‘samsara’, the most commonly depicted item in the religion, which evokes the pitiless and unceasing nature of life — to which we are committed unless we take a disciplined series of averting actions which together comprise the central components of Hindu ethics.
Hinduism does not suggest that we will carry on forever in our own bodies. According to the process of ‘samsara’, we are reborn into a succession of different outward envelopes, as each example is eroded away and disintegrated by time. Because samsara is at work across the whole animal kingdom, we might find that our enduring soul (‘atman’) transmigrates at our death into the body of a woodlouse, a pelican or a house spider (though we might also be reborn as a paediatric nurse or the president). What determines the quality of the migration is the degree of ‘karma’ or virtue that we have accrued in our lives. Among the many reasons why we might have to be kind to others is an awareness that unkindness might wind us up having to suffer a cycle or two of life as a cockroach or a naked mole rat.
The suspicion that life is constantly painful and anxious is one that we largely have to bear in a very lonely way in the philosophies of the West; in those of the East, pessimism is ennobled and takes centre stage. We are permitted to feel weary and amply dissatisfied; we have, without quite knowing it, been alive since the start of creation — and it is untenably exhausting and frustrating. The trick, and the true prize, will be to be good and wise enough to learn to die once and for all.
2. Rejoin Cosmic Totality
For Hindus, the way to step off the treadmill of eternal existence is to realise that, despite many appearances to the contrary, however paradoxical or absurd the idea might sound, we and the universe are in truth one.
From the earliest age, we tend to assume the very opposite. It seems self-evident that we are one kind of thing and the tree over there, the relative over here, the clouds in the sky, the monkey on the parapet and the river wending its way to the sea belong to quite different categories. Yet Hinduism insists that our belief in difference belongs ultimately to a realm of ‘maya’ or illusion. If we look more deeply into the nature of things, through the help of teaching and spiritual exercises, we stand to discover the remarkable unity of all elements. Unlike what appearances imply, everything we can see and experience around us belong to the same life force: the leaves unfurling on the tree, the child learning to read, the earthworm digging its tunnels, the lava bubbling from the earth, all belong to a single unitary power which only egoistic prejudice has hitherto prevented us from acknowledging as one.
Most of our pain, Hinduism argues, arises from an overeager attachment to the difference between ourselves and the rest of the world. We pay inordinate attention to who has slightly more money or respect than we do, we are constantly humiliated by people and events that don’t seem to honour our sense of uniqueness.
But in a process known as ‘moksha’ or liberation, we can throw off the veil of illusion that works to separate us from the universe and can start to identify with cosmic totality. It no longer matters exactly where we end and others begin; everything belongs to the same whole that we have mistakenly and unnecessarily carved up into parts. There is a little less reason to grasp, to be puffed up, to be proud or to become embittered. We can survey the course of our lives and of our societies with calm indifference. We can cease to identify happiness with the working out of our will upon the world — and take in with compassion and serenity whatever destiny throws our way. We enjoy ‘paripurna-brahmanubhava’, the experience of oneness with ‘brahman’, the principle of all things.
Once we have let go of our own ego like this, we may have a few more years left to live, but we can be sure that — eventually — we will not need to keep returning. Constant rebirth is the fate of those who cleave too tightly to their own selves. By contrast, those who have learnt to surrender can at their demise merge with the universe and will never need to suffer the indignities of individual life again.
3. Don’t Forget Money
We might expect that a religion devoted to spiritual enlightenment would have scant concern for money and possessions. But Hinduism surprises and challenges us by suggesting that — despite everything — what it calls ‘artha’ or a concern for material prosperity has a place within a wise life.
Hinduism is not directing us towards crass materialism. It doesn’t want to exhaust us with overly rich foods or attention-seeking displays of wealth. But it is aware — with a touching practicality — that many good and elevated things require a degree of financial support in order to go well. One won’t be able to undertake spiritual exercises unless one is able to take a considerable amount of time off from practical duties every day. Meditation on nothingness can be substantially assisted by having a servant or two to take care of the laundry and the housekeeping.
Hindus traditionally direct their hopes for material comfort to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. One of the most popular of all Hindu deities, she is typically represented holding two lotus flowers that speak of spiritual liberation as well as material good fortune. She is usually accompanied by at least one elephant, a symbol of power and strength, and a swan, an animal that is at home both in the air and in the water, and thereby speaks of an ability to combine competence in the material and spiritual realms.
Lakshmi understands, and would never condemn, one’s appetite for a better house or a more high paying job. Her role isn’t to make us feel guilty about wanting more wealth, it is to remind us that the true point of money is — in the end — to enable us to forget about money.
4. Don’t Turn Against Sex
We have come to expect very little by way of encouragement or sympathy in relation to sex from religions. At best, a blind eye, at worst, a constant hounding and reminder of the evils of the flesh.
But Hinduism surprises us; it made the remarkable step of placing sexual fulfilment — ‘kama’ — among the four ‘puruṣārthas’, or aims of human life, alongside ‘dharma’ (morality), ‘artha’ (prosperity) and ‘moksha’ (spiritual liberation).
Hinduism’s respect for sex was rooted in a particular understanding of what lies behind our erotic feelings. These do not stem — as has so often been alleged — from a base animal impulse; they are a means by which we can sense the unity of the universe (‘brahman’).
Normally, we live beneath a veil of illusion which persuades us of the separateness of all things, bodies included, but our sexual desires push us to break down the barriers between ourselves and others. We might colloquially say that we are turned on, but through a Hindu lens, at the core of our excitement is the sense that we are breaking down the illusion of separateness and taking a small but important step towards oneness with what we can, without exaggeration, following the religion, term the universe.
The idea of a garden has always been central to Islam for reasons that are at once hopeful — because nature is so beautiful — and deeply melancholy — because life itself can never be made perfect.
For Islam, the world we inhabit will always be mired in khaṭīʾa or sin. No human enterprise or institution can ever be without significant degrees of dhanb or wrong-doing: jealousy, stubbornness, rage and lack of forgiveness predominate. Only in the next life can we hope to escape the irritation and the agony; only in jannah, or paradise, will we be assured of true contentment. In paradise, according to the Qur’an, there will be flowing rivers, flowers, incorruptible waters and unchangeable milk, golden goblets, ‘virgin companions of equal age’ and rows of cushions set out in the balmy shade of fruit trees.
Yet because this might all be a long way off, Islam recommends an unusual technique to prevent us from losing our poise and despairing: we should become bustani or gardeners. The enlightened should redirect their frustrations with the state of humanity towards the construction of a hadiqa, or walled garden. Within its limited circumference, with due modesty, it can be endowed with many of the qualities of the eventual garden of paradise. Our garden should have flowing water, some reflecting pools, symmetrical flower beds, fruit trees and places to sit. Everywhere that Muslim civilisation spread, gardens developed along with it, and in the drier regions, where nothing would grow, flowers and trees were represented on carpets, which functioned as miniature mobile gardens that could be carried on the back of a camel. When the Muslims reached southern Spain, the climate allowed them to create pieces of horticulture which astonish and seduce us to this day.
A telling observation about gardening is that almost everyone over the age of sixty-five is concerned with it, and almost no one in their late teens has ever evinced the slightest interest in it. The difference isn’t coincidental. A person’s enthusiasm for gardening is inversely correlated to their degree of hope for life in general. The more we believe that the whole of existence can be rendered perfect, that love and marriage can be idyllic, that our careers can reward us materially and honour us creatively, the less time we will have for beds of laurel or thyme, lavender or rosemary. Why would we let such minor interventions detain us when far greater perfection is within reach? But a few decades on, most of our dreams are liable to have taken a substantial hit, much of what we put our faith in professionally and romantically will have failed, and at that point we might be ready to look with different, and significantly more sympathetic, eyes at the consolations offered by cyprus trees and myrtle hedges, geraniums and lilies of the valley. No longer will gardening be a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, but rather a shelter from gusts and squalls of despair.
Islam is appropriately wise in its ambitions. It doesn’t tell its followers to plough themselves a farm, nor does it advise them to focus on a window box. The scale is carefully calibrated: neither too big to mire us in unmanageable expense and bureaucracy, nor too small to humiliate and sadden us. The garden becomes a perfect home for our remaining pleasures in a troubled world; it’s where we can repair to contemplate islands of beauty once we have come to know and sorrowfully navigated oceans of pain.
We know so well what love should be like; we imagine our desired partners long before we meet them in real life. They will be kind, beautiful, gentle, thoughtful, inspiring and funny. They will be infinitely careful with the precious, vulnerable sides of us, and we with theirs. They will be our refuge and our home.
We keep them in mind through all the difficulties and tragic-comic ordeals of our romantic quests: the absurdities and puzzles of dating, the broken relationships, the fractious marriages, the unsatisfactory affairs. We mock this or that failed candidate or demented or evil partner; we never dare to mock love itself, we never question what we’re trying to do, we just insist that we haven’t yet met ‘the right person’ to do it with.
But we might take advantage of our sad mood to dare to be braver. We have met plenty of people, we have had many opportunities to make things work. Our ongoing travails aren’t a sign that we need to try out yet more candidates; they are evidence that what we long for in love and what other people can plausibly deliver are fundamentally opposed.
Porcupines are herbivorous rodents covered in sharp quills who have only a thin layer of subcutaneous fat to keep them warm. On chilly nights, they must huddle together in burrows with other members of their species – but in so doing, they often badly injure themselves against the quills of their neighbours. It isn’t uncommon to see porcupines stumbling out of the ground at dawn with traces of each other’s blood across their bodies. The rodents have to buy their protection at high cost: it is a choice between hypothermia and injury.
Sigmund Freud thought a lot about porcupines and in tribute to their perplexities around intimacy, he placed a bronze model of one on his desk, first in Vienna and later in London, where it remains to this day.
As his patients detailed their struggles – with wives who felt unloved, husbands who could not be faithful, partners who did not hear each other’s complaints, seducers who could only desire when they were rejected – Freud could look over at the razor sharp bronze quills and know that what he was hearing were no isolated cases of unhappiness, but further examples of the risks we encounter whenever we seek, as we need to, an alternative to our own company.
Psychoanalysis went on to build up an unparalleled understanding of why we should be so prone to bloody ourselves in relationships. Each of us arrives in adulthood with a history that militates against our chances of present-day contentment. The early weeks of passion may go well enough, but our complicated pasts soon make themselves felt. We were once, as children, made to feel worthless and ashamed; now the love of another person will seem unreal and in need of constant challenge. Or because our childhoods left us anxious about the unreliability of others, we don’t stop asking for reassurance and demanding signs of loyalty, which eventually drives away the very person we are so keen to keep close beside us. We may look sweet, we may have our kindly moments, we are not always perturbed, but sure enough, each one of us is covered in quills that will jab and gravely injure anyone reckless enough to come close to us.
We spend far too long regretting our specific choices, and far too little time gaining melancholy comfort from knowing that the task of intimacy is rendered inherently and impossibly problematic by our jagged psyches.
The very best candidates won’t be the ones who don’t hurt us, they don’t exist, they will be those who at least have some sense of how they will do so, and can warn us of the fact in good time, with grace and a touch of humour. We should, on our early dinner dates, learn to turn to a prospective porcupine and ask with a melancholy smile: ‘So how might you jab me with your quills?’
The most unexpectedly uplifting and consoling artist of the 20th century was the abstract painter Mark Rothko, the high priest of grief and loss who spent the latter part of his career turning out a succession of sublime and sombre canvases that spoke, as he put it, of the ‘tragedy of being human’ – and who, in 1970, committed suicide at the age of 66 in his studio in New York.
Born in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko emigrated to the United States at the age of ten and immediately grew to despise the aggressive good cheer and steely optimism of his adopted land. Appalled by the sentimentality around him, he learnt to make art that was insular, unrelenting, sombre and oriented towards pain. It was, one critic said, the visual equivalent of a condemned prisoner’s last gasp. Rothko’s favourite colours were a burnt burgundy, dark grey, pitch black and blood red, occasionally, alleviated by a sliver of yellow.
In 1958, Rothko was offered a large sum to paint some murals for a soon to be opened opulent New York restaurant, the Four Seasons on Park Avenue. It was, as he put it, ‘a place where the richest bastards of New York will come to feed and show off.’ His intentions for them soon became clear: ‘I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,’ and to that end, he set to work on some large black and maroon colour fields expressing a mood of terror and archaic anguish. It was an unlikely commission for Rothko to have accepted but it became ever more so in his mind when, following a trip to Italy (where he had been much moved by Giotto’s renditions of the crucifixion), in the autumn of 1959, he took his wife Mell to the restaurant for lunch. His hatred became overwhelming. Believing it was ‘criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal’, he couldn’t get over the overpriced dishes, the fancy sauces and the ponderous waiting staff. ‘Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine,’ he vowed. But he hated the clientele even more: suntanned, cheery rich people, out to celebrate and show themselves off, to cut deals and swap gossip, the apparent winners of life, the kind who invested in tennis lessons and whitened their teeth. His hatred of them had its roots in his sense that we only accede to our humanity when we face pain and commune around it with compassion and humility. Anything else is grandstanding and pride. He had remained Russian in his soul.
Following the lunch, Rothko called up his patrons, explained his feelings – and sent back the money. He then gave his paintings to London’s Tate Gallery, where they were hung in a quiet airy contemplative, religious-seeming space, that enclosed the viewer in an atmosphere of meditative mortification. The paintings remain ideal companions for visitors who drift into the gallery at their wits’ end, who might be working through the loss of a partner or the ruin of their career – and who need more than anything else to know that they are not alone. Rothko’s art did not save his life; it will have prevented many others from taking theirs.
Rothko’s canvases – though focused on the darkness – are never themselves depressing to look at because they lend our difficulties dignity and legitimacy. To bathe in their atmosphere is to gain a distinct sense of comfort, like lying in a tender person’s arms who says little other than a modest ‘I know’ in response to our dejection and loss. With Rothko as our guide, it matters a little less that the world is mostly filled with noisy, brash, apparent winners, that no one much cares for us, that we have failed in numberless areas, that our name isn’t in lights, that we have enemies, and that we are no longer young. We are offered a refuge from the boosterish voices of contemporary society and are able to locate in an external form works that echo our own confused and inchoate sorrows.
A great part of our misery is caused by the cruel and erroneous assumption that life might fundamentally be a pleasant journey, capable of delivering satisfaction and delight to those who work hard and retain noble and purposeful hearts.
The truth could not be further from such a sentimental vision. Agony is baked into the human condition. We are suffering not by coincidence but by necessity. We may be focused on the particular errors and cruelties that have brought us to a low point: we may be narrowly concerned with what our enemies have done to us, how a few mistakes have cost us everything or how we have been abandoned by those who should have cared for us. But it isn’t to minimise these problems to insist that they are merely local manifestations of what are in reality more global and endemic troubles. They are merely the specific mechanisms by which we have come to taste the sorrow that would – however fate had twisted our path – have been our lot and that is the grisly birth right of every human. We must all ultimately drink the very same amount of poisoned liquid from the cup of sorrow, even if in different gulps and at different times. No one gets through unscathed.
Yet not only are we sad, we are isolated and lonely with our sadness, because the official narrative is remorselessly upbeat, and insists that we can find the right partner, that work can deliver satisfaction, that destinies are fair and that there is no inherent reason for us to lament our state. However, we don’t deserve – on top of everything else – to be forced to grin. We should be allowed to weep without being hectored into positivity. Our true overlooked right is not, after all, the right to happiness; it is the right to be miserable.
This may sound far from a reason to live – but the ability to look darkness in the face and accept its role in our affairs functions as its own very particular and intense reward. No longer must we be surprised by our suffering. No longer must we be taken unawares by misery. No longer do we have to feel that our reversals say something unique and shocking about us. We can start to rediscover a taste for life when we see that we’re not alone in wanting to give up on it; that it is acceptable, even necessary, sometimes to hate the smiling ‘bastards’ who so annoyed Rothko and anyone else with a heart. We can build friendships – imaginative, artistic or real – around shared honesty about tragedy. We will have banked our first reason to live when we know that we aren’t exceptionally stupid for finding matters very difficult. Unhappiness is just – as wise artists have always liked to remind us, and despite the suggestions of all the adverts, the brochures and the confident-seeming people congratulating themselves in the world’s fancy restaurants – very normal indeed.
Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful painter when he was still only in his twenties. He earned a fortune and lived a wildly extravagant life.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia, circa 1636
But by his early fifties, he was all but bankrupt: he had to sell his house and all the beautiful objects he had accumulated. In the world of respectable, prudent Dutch merchants, his economic ruin was regarded as deeply shameful – and, self-evidently, it was entirely his own fault.
Around the time financial disaster struck, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait, burdened with an honest, deeply sorrowful awareness of his own idiocy and folly: it is evident in his eyes that he knows he doesn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy.
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, aged 51, circa 1657 (National Gallery of Scotland)
Fittingly, given what he had gone through, his culminating masterpiece, painted at the very end of his life relates to another, more famous character who has behaved in a clearly appalling way.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669
The picture illustrates a parable from the New Testament known as The Prodigal Son. The kneeling man has been prodigal – in the sense of profligate; he took his father’s money, ran away and spent it all on wine, women and song. The prodigal son stands in for Rembrandt himself – the waster who has brought ruin and disgrace upon himself. The son deserves to be hounded and humiliated. But this is not the reception he gets. In the painting, the elderly father-figure greets his son with great compassion and gentleness. Instead of giving his son the stern condemnation that he deserves, the father provides the love, warmth and forgiveness the son needs.
The picture conveys Rembrandt’s moving and very intimate realisation about the true nature of love: it reaches out to the selfish idiot, to the wastrel, to the passion-driven fool. Love properly understood is destined also for the undeserving.
Perhaps Rembrandt’s most moving work is a modest looking print entitled Christ Preaching. Significantly, it isn’t set in Galilee or Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Instead the message of kindness is being preached in a back street of a Dutch town, in other words, to Rembrandt’s contemporaries.
Rembrandt, Christ Preaching, circa 1657
The message can be boiled down to three words: ‘I love you’ and it’s being beamed out to precisely the kinds of people who – in Rembrandt’s day – were viewed (with some justification) as particularly odious: they are, we can guess, thieves, layabouts, drunks, pimps and people who lent money at terrifying rates of interest; mean employers and con-artists. If Rembrandt were creating this work today, we might see – ranged around the alleyway – the representative unloveable figures of our times: a politician who incites conflict, the owner of a newspaper that puts profit above truth; someone who is proud of their vulgarity; a snobbish socialite, an arms trader, a feral youth, a sexual deviant or the kind of person who seems to take satisfaction in distressing others. It is to them that the message of love is being directed.
Rembrandt’s key insight is that everyone needs love – whether they deserve it or not. If we wait to be kind only to those who deserve kindness, we will be waiting for a very long time; in fact, we’ll have turned into monsters.
The Body Keeps the Score is the beautiful and suggestive title of a book published in 2014 by a Dutch professor of psychiatry at Boston University called Bessel van der Kolk. The book has proved immensely significant because it emphasises an idea that has for too long escaped psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Van der Kolk stresses that people who are suffering emotionally are unlikely to do so just in their minds. Crucially, their symptoms almost always additionally show up in their bodies: in the way they sit or breathe; in how they hold their shoulders, in their sleep patterns, in their digestion processes, in the way they treat their spots and in their attitudes to exercise.
Taking the body more seriously opens up new avenues for both the diagnosis and treatment of emotional unwellness. Instead of simply seeing a person as a disembodied mind which must talk its way to a cure, a therapist is advised to see the body as a kind of scoresheet of the emotional experiences that its owner has been through – a scoresheet that should be read and attended to as carefully as any mental account.
To take one example, many people who have grown up having to deal with the overwhelming rage of a parent will have learnt to suppress their own anger and their desire to hit back at those who hurt them. In their minds, they will have become meek and precisely attuned to fulfilling the wishes of others, however unreasonable these might be. But, as importantly, in their bodies, they will have learnt to be very still, almost frozen, because a part of them associates the expression of anything exuberant or powerful with the risk of bringing about retaliation from others. These people might sit in a particularly stiff way and have an ingrained resistance to running that has nothing to do with laziness: what is at stake is a fear of one’s own vitality.
In trying to treat such people, Van der Kolk goes beyond advising traditional talk therapy. He would also recommend that they try – under the supervision of a therapeutically trained teacher – kickboxing or karate, competitive running or swimming – sports these people might long have resisted because of a cowed relationship to their strength. They might also try out rhythmical chanting or drumming, thereby additionally releasing pent-up longings to assert one’s right to be.
Traumatised people tend to have bodies that are either too alert – responding to every breath and touch, flinching and bristling at contact. Or else too numb, shut down, heavy and immobile. Treatment seeks to find a more comfortable half-way house between these two extremes.
Van der Kolk’s book helps us to think anew of how to deal with people who, at the start of their lives, were not properly held, caressed and soothed, in the way that young children desperately need to be in order to feel at home in their own skin.
As part of their work, Van der Kolk and his team opened up a sensory integration clinic in Boston, a sort of indoor playground, for children and adults, where one can get back in touch with a body that was not properly, and by loving hands, touched or cuddled, gently swung from side to side or hung upside down for a giggly moment. In the sensory integration clinic, under the instruction of a therapist, one might dive onto foam filled mats, have a roll around in a ball pool, jump on a swing and balance on a beam. It sounds child-like and is meant to be, offering a serious chance to go back a step to correct a long-standing alienation.
Those who were once neglected by emotionally stunted parents have often almost literally withdrawn from their bodies. They ‘own’ them but they do not properly ‘live’ in them. They might be rendered deeply uncomfortable if anyone touches their shoulders or strokes their back. They might intuitively think their body was ‘disgusting’ , because that’s how it once seemed in the eyes of those who were meant to look after them. For such people, van der Kolk might advise a therapeutically-informed massage to help rebuild a basic trust in one’s skin and limbs. As he puts it, he wants ‘the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage or collapse that resulted from trauma.’
It is no doubt deeply unfortunate that a difficult past appears to give us physical as well as mental symptoms. But the body’s travails can – in Van der Kolk’s optimistic account – also become a source of memory and evidence, when our minds have otherwise seized up or fatally doubt the legitimacy of their own feelings. We can start to remember what might have happened to us by asking ourselves questions in therapy, and at the same time by taking a look at how we are sitting, how we breathe and how we feel when someone we love proposes to hold us. Then we can hope to be healed, not only by wise arguments and kind voices (however consoling these might be), but also by dancing, swaying from side to side on a gigantic swing, chanting in unison or – best of all – surrendering ourselves to a very long and very nourishing hug from someone we have quietly dared to trust.
One of nature’s odder creatures is the firefly, a soft bodied beetle that emits a warm yellow glow from its lower abdomen, typically at twilight, in order to attract mates or prey. Though relatively rare in Europe and North America, the firefly is a common sight in Japan, where it is known as the hotaru. Hotarus are at their most plentiful in June and July, and can be seen in groups around rivers and lakes. The glittering light of the hotaru is deemed to be so enchanting, the Japanese hold firefly festivals – or hotaru matsuri – to watch their dance.
Fireflies at Ochanomizu. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915)
Something even odder has happened to the firefly in Japan: it has become philosophical. Zen Buddhist poets and philosophers (the two terms are largely interchangeable in Japan) have over the centuries noted the affinity between the firefly and a central concept in Zen: the brevity of life. Zen does not think of our transience as tragic, rather it is by accommodating ourselves gracefully to our own evanescence that we can reach enlightenment and harmony with nature’s necessities.
For Zen, the firefly is the perfect symbol of transience positively interpreted: its season is very brief, it lights up only in high summer, and its light appears always to flicker. Fireflies are both fragile – and astonishingly beautiful when seen in large numbers in a pine forest or a meadow at night. They are a metaphor for our own poignant lives.
The move of locating important philosophical themes in the natural world is one that Zen makes again and again, for example, in relation to bamboo (evocative of resilience), water (a symbol of patient strength, capable of wearing down stone) and cherry blossom (an emblem of modest rapture). Zen repeatedly hangs its ideology onto things that could seem at first very minor, because it wants to make use of what is most ordinarily in our sight to keep us tethered to its grand bathetic truths.
The great seventeenth century poet Matsuo Basho, pushes aside our day to day vanity and egoistic ambitions in the hope that we might become, via his focus on a small short-lived creature, appropriately attentive to our own finitude.
A blade of grass, to fly off –
For Zen Buddhism, the firefly is the ideal carrier – on its slender wings – of reminders of the need for dignified resignation in the face of the mightiness and mystery of the natural order. Koyabashi Issa, an 18th century Buddhist priest as well as haiku master, wrote 230 poems on fireflies. In one of the most celebrated of these, he captures a moment where time is momentarily stilled, so that its passage can more viscerally be felt:
The fireflies are sparkling
And even the mouth of a frog
Hangs wide open
It’s a tiny moment of satori or enlightenment; the frog is as wonderstruck as the poet at the piercing light of the brave doomed fireflies – much as we should fairly be amazed, frightened, grateful and ultimately joyous to have been allocated a few brief moments in which to behold and try to make sense of our own existence in an always largely unfathomable 13.8 billion year old universe.
The modern world firmly equates the intelligent person with the well-read person. Reading books, a lot of books, is the hallmark of brilliance as well as the supreme gateway to prestige and understanding. It’s hard to imagine anyone arriving at any insights of value without having worked their way through an enormous number of titles over the years. There is apparently no limit to how much we should read. We might – logically and ideally – be reading all the time and get ever cleverer with every moment we do so. The number of books we have managed to read by the day we die will tell us pretty much all we need to know about the complexity and maturity of our minds.
This so-called maximalist philosophy of reading enjoys enormous cultural prestige. It is backed up by enormous publishing and journalistic industries that constantly parade new titles before us – and imply that we might be swiftly left behind and condemned to a narrow and provincial mindset if we did not rush to read four of this year’s major prize winning books as well as seven fascinating titles that have received ardent reviews in the Sunday supplements since March. As a result, our shelves are overburdened and our guilt at how far behind we are intense.
Yet amidst this pressure to eat our way through an ever-larger number of titles, we might pause to reflect on a fascinating aspect of the pre-modern world: it never put people under any pressure to read very much at all. Reading was held to be extremely important, but the number of new books one read was entirely by the by. This wasn’t principally an economic point. Books were very expensive of course, but this wasn’t really the issue. What mattered was to read a few books very well, not squander one’s attention promiscuously on a great number of volumes.
The premodern world directed us to read so little because it was obsessed by a question modernity likes to dodge: what is the point of reading? And it had answers. To take a supreme example, Christians and Muslims located the value of reading in a very specific and narrow goal: the attainment of holiness. To read was to try to approximate the mind of god. In each case this meant that one book, and one book only – the Bible or the Koran – was to be held up as vastly and incomparably more important than any other. To read this book, repeatedly and with great attention, probably five or so pages every day, was thought more crucial than to rush through a whole library every week; in fact reading widely would have been regarded with suspicion, because most other books would – to some extent – have to prove misleading and distracting.
Similarly, in the Ancient Greek world, one was meant to focus in on a close knowledge of just two books: Homer’s Odyssey and his Iliad, because these were deemed the perfect repository of the Greek code of honour and the best guides to action in military and civilian affairs. Much later, in 18th century England, the ideal of reading came to be focused on Virgil’s Aeneid. To know this single long poem, almost by heart, was all a gentleman required to pass as cultivated. To read much more was viewed as eccentric – and probably a little unhealthy too.
We can pick up the minimalist attitude to reading in early visual depictions of one of the heroes of Christian scholarship, St Jerome – who was by all accounts the supreme intellect of Christendom, who translated the Greek and Hebrew portions of the Bible into Latin, wrote a large number of commentaries on scripture and is now the patron saint of libraries and librarians. But despite all his scholarly efforts, when it came to showing where and how St Jerome worked, a detail stands out: there are almost no books in his famous study. Strikingly, the most intelligent and thoughtful intellectual of the early church seems to have read fewer things than an average modern eight year old. To follow the depiction by Antonello da Messina, St Jerome appears to be the proud owner of about ten books in all!
Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study, 1475
The modern world has dramatically parted ways with this minimalist pre-modern approach to reading. We have adopted an Enlightenment mantra that runs in a very different direction, stating that there should be no limit to how much we read because, in answer to the question of why we read, there is only one response that will ever be encompassing and ambitious enough: we read in order to know everything. We aren’t reading to understand God or to follow civic virtue or to calm our minds. We are reading to understand the whole of human existence, the full inventory of the planets and the entirety of cosmic history. We are collective believers in the idea of totalising knowledge; the more books we have produced and digested, the closer we will be to grasping everything.
The sheer scale of the ambition helps to explain why the depictions of libraries in the Enlightenment period showed off vast and endless palaces to learning and hinted that if money had been no object, they would have been constructed to ring the earth.
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Project for the National Library in Paris, France, 1785
We may not be aware of how indebted we are to the Enlightenment idea of reading, but its maximalist legacy is present within the publishing industry, within the way books are presented to the public at school and in shops – and within our own guilty responses to the pressure to read more.
We can also hazard an observation: this exhaustive approach to reading does not make us particularly happy. We are drowning in books, we have no time ever to re-read one and we appear fated to a permanent sense of being under-read when compared with our peers and what the media has declared respectable.
In order to ease and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading for? And this time, rather than answering ‘in order to know everything,’ we might parcel off a much more limited, focused and useful goal. We might – for example – decide that while society as a whole may be on a search for total knowledge, all that we really need and want to do is gather knowledge that is going to be useful to us as we lead our own lives. We might decide on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth: we want to read in order to learn to be content. Nothing less – and nothing more.
With this new, far more targeted ambition in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly, copiously and randomly starts to fade. We suddenly have the same option that was once open to St Jerome; we might have only a dozen books on our shelves – and yet feel in no way intellectually undernourished or deprived.
Once we know that we are reading to be content, we won’t need to chase every book published this season. We can zero in on titles that best explain what we deem to be the constituent parts of contentment. So for example, we will need a few key books that explain our psyches to us, that teach us about how families work and how they might work better, that take us through how to find a job one can love and how to develop the courage to develop our opportunities. We’ll need some books that talk about friendship and love, sexuality and health. We’ll want books about how to travel, how to appreciate, how to be grateful and to how forgive. We’ll look for books that help us to stay calm, fight despair and diminish our disappointments. Finally, we’ll look for books that gently guide us to how to minimise regret and learn to die well.
With these goals in mind, we won’t need a boundless library, we won’t have to keep up frantically with publishing schedules. The more we understand what reading is for us, the more we can enjoy intimate relationships with a few works only. Our libraries can be simple. Instead of always broaching new material, re-reading might become crucial, the reinforcement of what we already know but tend so often to forget. The truly well-read person isn’t the one who has read a gargantuan number of books, it’s someone who has let themselves be shaped – deeply shaped in their capacity to live and die well – by a very few well-chosen ones.
On Valentine’s Day in 1895, the most famous playwright in the English speaking world, Oscar Wilde, presented his new play, The Importance of Being Earnest, in London at St. James Theatre. The audience was packed with celebrities, aristocrats and famous politicians, eagerly awaiting another triumph from a man universally heralded as a genius. At the end of the performance, there was a standing ovation. Critics adored the play and so did audiences, making it Wilde’s fourth major success in only three years.
Yet, only a few short months later, Wilde was bankrupt and about to be imprisoned. His reputation was in tatters and his life ruined beyond repair. It was, as everyone then and now agreed, a tragedy, the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fateful slip.
The story of how Oscar Wilde went from celebrity playwright to prisoner, in such a short space of time, has much to teach us about disgrace and infamy. We don’t have to be acclaimed to understand that Wilde’s poignant tragedy urges us to abandon our normal moralism and have sympathy for those who stray, it calls for us to extend our love not just to those who obviously deserve it but precisely to those who seem not to. We talk a lot of what a civilised world should be like. We might put it like this: a civilised world would be one in which Oscar Wilde could have been forgiven – and in which those who make errors of judgement could be treated with high degrees of sympathy and, even, of kindness. It would be a world in which we could remember that good people can at times do bad things – and should not pay an eternal price for them.
Wilde’s tragedy began several years earlier, when he was introduced to a beguiling young man named Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas, known to family and friends as ‘Bosie’, was extremely handsome, charming and arrogant. He enjoyed gambling, spent money carelessly and was prone to outbursts of anger as well as moments of great intellectual insight.
By 1892, a year after they had met, the two men had fallen profoundly in love. Although Wilde was married with two children, he spent much of his time with Bosie: there was a sixteen year age gap, Douglas was twenty-four, Wilde forty. They travelled together, stayed in hotels and hosted large dinners for their friends.
Oscar and Bosie.
Their relationship was tempestuous, but Wilde was ineluctably drawn to the younger man. ‘It is really absurd,’ he wrote to him in one love letter, ‘I don’t exaggerate: I can’t live without you.’
By 1894, the pair were constantly seen together in public and rumours of their love affair had spread as far as Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. The Marquess was a cruel, aggressive character, known for inventing the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of amateur boxing. Having decided that Wilde was corrupting his son, he demanded that the pair stop seeing each other.
When Wilde refused, Queensbury began to hound him across London, threatening violence against restaurant and hotel managers if they allowed Wilde and Bosie onto the premises.
Queensbury booked a seat for the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. He planned to throw a bouquet of rotting vegetables at Wilde when he took to the stage.
When Wilde heard about the stunt, he had him barred from the theatre and Queensbury flew into a rage. He tried to accost Wilde after the performance at the Albemarle Club in Mayfair. When the porters refused to let him in, he left a calling card which publicly accused Wilde of having sex with other men.
Since homosexuality was illegal and deeply frowned upon in Victorian society and its mass media, it was a dangerous accusation.
Seeing no end to Queensbury’s bullying behaviour, Wilde decided to take legal action. By suing Queensbury for libel, Wilde hoped to clear his name and put an end to the harassment.
Friends begged him to drop the case, certain that he would lose, but Bosie insisted that he go ahead with it so that they might be vindicated and be able to live without censorship.
When the trial began, Wilde was confident. He took the stand and gave witty, distracting answers during his cross-examination.
Within a few days, however, the tide had turned against him.
In the opening speech for the defense, Queensbury’s barrister announced that they had several witnesses: young men whom Wilde had entertained in his room at the Savoy Hotel, and who would testify that Wilde had paid them for sex.
It became clear that Queensbury’s lawyers had hired private detectives to uncover an uncomfortable truth: that both Wilde and Bosie had hired male prostitutes. Some had even blackmailed Wilde in the past, successfully extorting money from him in return for their silence.
The trial was hopeless and Wilde withdrew his case, but events had spiralled beyond his control.
Queensbury’s lawyers forwarded their evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilde was soon arrested on charges of gross indecency.
The legal costs left him bankrupt and theatres were forced to abandon his plays.
Wilde’s criminal trial began at the Old Bailey on April 26. He faced twenty-five charges, all of which surrounded his sexual relationships with younger men.
Wilde continued to deny the allegations and the jury could not reach a verdict, but when the prosecution were allowed to try Wilde a second time he was eventually found guilty.
It was rumoured that the then Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery had also had an affair with one of Queensbury’s sons and so pushed for Wilde to be convicted in order to keep his own secret hidden.
The judge said at his sentencing, “It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this.”
Wilde was sentenced to two years’ of hard labour. Inmates in London’s Pentonville Prison, where he was sent, spent six hours a day walking on a heavy treadmill or untangling old rope using their hands and knees.
For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background, it was an impossible hardship. His bed was a hard plank which made it difficult to fall asleep. Prisoners were kept alone in their cells and barred from talking to one another. He suffered from dysentery and became physically very frail.
After six months, he was transferred to Reading Gaol. As he stood on the central platform of Clapham Junction, with handcuffs around his wrists, passers-by began to recognise the celebrity playwright. They laughed and mocked. Some even spat at him.
‘For half an hour I stood there,’ he wrote afterwards, ‘in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me, I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.’
Wilde’s prison cell in Reading Gaol.
During his last year in prison, he wrote an anguished essay, De Profundis: ‘I once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame… Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still…. The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease…I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility… I have lain in prison for nearly two years… I have passed through every possible mood of suffering… The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.’
In May 1897, Wilde was finally released. He set sail for Dieppe in France the very same day.
His wife, Constance, had changed her name and moved abroad with their two sons, Vyvyan (now 11) and Cyril (12). Wilde would never see his children again; he missed them every day.
Constance Wilde, with her son Cyril, November 1889
Constance agreed to send him money on the condition that he end his relationship with Bosie, but only a few months later, the pair reunited and the money stopped.
They moved to Naples and Wilde began using the name Sebastian Melmoth, inspired by the great Christian martyr Saint Sebastian and a character from a Gothic novel who had sold his soul to the devil.
They hoped to find privacy abroad, but the scandal seemed to follow them wherever they went. English patrons recognised them in hotels and demanded they be turned away. After Constance stopped sending money, Bosie’s mother offered to pay their debts if he returned home and the pair once again parted ways; it proved equally impossible.
Scorned by many of his former friends, Wilde moved to Paris where he lived in relative poverty. He spent most of his time and money in bars and cafes, borrowing money whenever he could and drinking heavily. His weight ballooned and his conversation dragged. He was slowly inebriating himself to death.
When a friend suggested he try to write another comic play, he replied: “I have lost the mainspring of life and art […] I have pleasures, and passions, but the joy of life is gone.”
His final piece of writing, a poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was published in 1898. The author’s name was listed as ‘C.3.3.’ – Wilde’s cell block and cell number from his time in the prison.
Towards the end of 1900, Wilde developed meningitis and became gravely ill. A Catholic priest visited his hotel and baptised him into the church. He died the following day at the age of 46.
More than a century later, in 2017, a law was passed to exonerate those who had been convicted due to their sexuality and Oscar Wilde received an official pardon from the UK government. ‘It is hugely important,’ declared a government minister, ‘that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today.’
Our society has become generous towards Wilde’s specific behaviour – but it remains intransigently moralistic in identical ways towards a huge number of other errors and transgressions; we need only read the newspaper to be reminded of the cruelty. Many of us would – across the ages – want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope, but one that would be best employed in extending love and sympathy to all those less talented or witty figures who are right now facing ruin and disgrace, who cry out for our love and sympathy and beg us not to judge them too harshly or spit on them too callously on their way to jail; that would be true civilisation and a world in which Wilde’s horrifying downfall had not been in vain.