Friday, December 31, 2010



                            Ring out the old, ring in the new,
                            Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
                            The year is going, let him go;
                            Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Once again, we come to the threshold of a new year, the time-honored transitional point where we are expected to pause, consider our shortcomings, and institute new resolutions designed to insure that we reach the end of the year with the perfection of Greek gods. Studies have shown, however, that the vast majority of New Year's resolutions are soon abandoned.  Oscar Wilde once opined that "good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account."  In a similar vein,  Mark Twain quipped:
Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath.  Today, we are a pious and exemplary community.  Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings shorter than ever.
Perhaps it is a failure of character on my part, but I have seldom made New Year's resolutions.  The reason is quite simple:  If I need a cultural tradition or a calendar date to set me on the right path, it's highly unlikely that I will remain committed to that path.  I am not inclined, however, to be a complete cynic on this New Year's Day, so, in the spirit of joining the festival of resolution makers, I have decided to take a little resolution advice from the essayist John Burroughs and my old reliable friend, Mr. Tennyson.  Burroughs once stated that the only resolution he ever made and intended to keep was simply "to rise  above the little things," and Tennyson suggested that the best we can do is to simply "ring out the false" and "ring in the true."

Can you imagine what a wonderful world it would be if everyone could just rise above the little things in the coming year, eliminate everything that is false, and ring the bells of truth with every word and every action?  That is what I am going to try to accomplish in the coming year in my little corner of the world.  I would like to rise increasingly above the petty things that contribute nothing to either my well-being or the happiness of the world.  I would also like to intensify the life-long task of eradicating any parts of my life that seem false or inauthentic.  With luck, I will be able to ring out everything that is not truly believed in the little "rag and bone shop" of my heart.  With hope, I will be able to ring in only that which is true.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


With all of my children and grandchildren coming home for the holidays, I will not have much time for blogging until after New Year's Day.  Before signing off, however, I want to wish everyone a very, Merry Christmas.

I also want to send a special note of gratitude to my good friends in the blogging community.  Your postings throughout the year have always been inspirational, informative, and thought-provoking, and your comments on my site have been unfailingly generous and insightful.  I am truly blessed to have such friends.

May your holidays be full of peace and joy; may you eat well, laugh well, and love well; and may you enter the new year with unbounded hope and an open heart.

of renewal
I give thanks
to this ineffable
and divine mystery
that is the ground of all
being, all love, and all hope;
that has overseen my uncertain
walk through some sixty-eight years;
that has lifted me up when I could not walk, 
pushed me forward when the direction was unclear,
sustained my confidence in the darkest hours of doubt.

The Gratitude Tree


Happy, happy Christmas,
that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; 
that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth;
that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away,
back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!

Charles Dickens


My very best to everyone!


and Derry, the Zen Master

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Many years ago, a friend made me a begging bowl like the ones used by the Buddhist monks.  I keep it on my desk, where it can be seen daily, because it reminds me of several principles that I want to guide my life.  First, it reminds me of Lao Tzu's paradoxical advice that we must be empty if we wish to be full.  Second, it reminds me that my needs, versus my desires, are no greater than what can be placed in a small bowl each day — a little food and a little water.  Finally, and most importantly, it reminds me of the need to anchor my life in simplicity — simplicity of purpose, simplicity of thought, simplicity of action.

In a world where one must "make a living", pay bills, discharge household chores, and take care of loved ones, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the simple life that is the lodestar for many of us.  Still, I find there are things that can be done to move my life closer to the ideal.  To use the words of the late artist, Hans Hoffman, I can "eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary may speak."  And that is what I truly want.  I want to hear the music of nature; I want to hear the music of other lives and other cultures; I want to listen to the beat and music of my own heart — music that is often smothered by the din and demand of modern life.

How, then, can we eliminate the unnecessary things in our lives, so that the life-affirming, necessary things can not only speak, but be heard?  I'm no expert on these matters, of course — simply a student.  There are a few simplicity practices, however, which I have incorporated into my daily life, and which have been paying considerable dividends in terms of the quality of life. Among the practices that I try to follow are these:
Do not make anything larger, more complex, or more serious than it needs to be.
Let nature and solitude be enough for my daily pleasure.
Always remain conscious and present with the task at hand.
Remember that some things are best left undone.
Minimize exposure to "news" and commercial advertising.
Follow Goethe's advice to "hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day . . ." 
Keep nothing that is not either useful or beautiful.
Remember that every act of consumption has environmental and social consequences.
Don't waste time attempting to rebut the arguments of foolish people.
To quote Alice Longworth Roosevelt, "fill what's empty, empty what's full,   and scratch where it itches." 

While I have yet to master these practices, I have found that each provides an effective way of simplifying my life, if only in some small measure.  How about you? What practices do you follow to keep yourself anchored in this world of mind-boggling complexity?

Set forth below are some interesting quotes on the need for more simplicity in our lives.  Many of these writers have inspired my own practices.  May you, too, find inspiration that will bring more simplicity and peace to your own lives.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.

E.F.  Schumacher

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter . . . to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a birds nest or wildflower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.

John Burroughs

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone.  The wisdom of life consists in elimination of non-essentials.

Lin Yutang

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

William Morris

Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.

Lao Tzu

Live simply, so that others may simply live.


As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.


Who is rich?  He who rejoices in his portion.

The Talmud

If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

Annie Dillard

Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.

John Kabat-Zinn

You can't force simplicity; but you can invite it in by finding as much richness as possible in the few things at hand.  Simplicity doesn't mean meagerness but rather a certain kind of richness, the fullness that appears when we stop stuffing the world with things.

Thomas Moore

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never; in a word to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.

William Henry Channing

Yesterday, my friend Robert, whose blog is The Solitary Walker, posted a moving article on his view of The Simple Life.  I close by quoting from Robert because what he says is as fine as anything said above:

The simple life is the good life, is the best life.  Joy, happiness and fulfillment come from the innocent, simple, often freely bestowed pleasures of existence: a bracing cliff top walk on a blustery autumn day; the sound of bagpipes in a remote Scottish glen; crossing the Spanish meseta under a hot sun, then spending the night in a cheap albergue with other pilgrims; growing, preparing and cooking one's own food; the scent of fir tree sap; the cold grittiness of rock beneath the fingers; the tang of citrus; the cry of owls; the running of deer; eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, sleeping when tired; lovemaking.

Go forth and keep it simple, 
my friends, 
especially during the holidays!

Friday, December 3, 2010


Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York

Roman emperors are seldom remembered for their qualities of humility and introspection.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, and the most prominent is Marcus Aurelius Antoninus — known in modern times simply as Marcus Aurelius — who was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was a practitioner and proponent of  Stoic philosophy, and he is widely remembered as one of the "Five Good Emperors."

For most of the last thirteen years of his life, Marcus Aurelius remained encamped with his army in its long campaign against invading German tribes on the northern border of the empire, near what is now modern Hungary.  It was during this period that Marcus wrote a series of personal notes on the philosophical components of a virtuous life.  Among other things, he addressed the relationship of man and nature, the importance of living in the present moment, the dynamics that should govern our relationships with other people, and the way that people should encounter and deal with change, especially adversity.

Although the personal notes were never intended for public dissemination, they were preserved and ultimately published in 1559 as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  Since their publication, The Meditations have had great influence on statesmen and philosophers throughout the world.  The former American President Bill Clinton was greatly inspired by Marcus Aurelius; poet Matthew Arnold once declared that Marcus was "the most beautiful figure in history;" and British historian Michael Grant claimed that The Meditations are "one of the most acute and sophisticated pieces of ancient writing that exists."  Grant also said that The Meditations is "the best book ever written by a major ruler." 

Over the years, I have acquired several different translations of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The most recent is a highly regarded contemporary translation, titled The Emperor's Handbook, by C. Scott Hicks and David V. Hicks.  Using that translation, I invite you to peruse through some of the thoughts of a great man who still has much to teach us.  I begin with a quote that could have well been used in my last posting, which relates to the need of mankind to always remain in harmony with the patterns and rhythms of the universe.

I am in harmony with all that is in harmony with you, O thou great Universe.  Nothing opportune for you is too early or too late for me. Anything your seasons bear, O Nature, is fruit of mine; all comes from you, abides in you, and returns to you.

First thing every morning tell yourself: I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor.  Ignorance of good and evil has made them what they are. . .  . None of them can harm me, for none can force me to do wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together . . .

Bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.

Are my guiding principles healthy and robust?  On this hangs everything.

Your days are numbered.  Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.

Purge your mind of all aimless and idle thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill.

We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment.  The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found.

Bronze Statue of Marcus Aurelius
Musei Capitolini
Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

Nowhere is there a more idyllic spot, a vacation home more private and peaceful, than in one's own mind, especially when it is furnished in such a way that the merest inward glance induces ease (and by ease I mean the effects of an orderly and well-appointed mind, neither lavish nor crude)."

Be the man happy with his fate, rejoicing in his acts or justice, and bent upon deeds of kindness.

Cherish your gifts, however humble, and take pleasure in them.

Fragment of Bronze Portrait of Marcus Aurelius
Louvre Museum

Claim your right to say or do anything that accords with nature, and pay no attention to the chatter of your critics.

Consider those you personally have known who, ignoring the good that lay at their feet, ran after some vain thing and never found happiness that was within their reach all the time.  A man's interest in an object should be no greater than its intrinsic worth.

Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.

Everything is as natural and familiar as a spring rose or a summer grape. This includes disease, death, slander, treason, and all those things that gladden and sadden the hearts of fools.

Bad luck borne nobly is good luck.

Let the virtues you do possess shine forth: your honesty, dignity, and stamina; your indifference to pleasure and loathing of self-pity; your wanting little for yourself and giving much to others; your measured words and temperate deeds.

Detail from Column of Marcus Aurelius
Piazza Colonna

Don't become disgusted with yourself, lose patience, or give up if you sometimes fail to act as your philosophy dictates, but after each setback, return to reason and be content if most of your acts are worthy of a good man.  Love the philosophy to which you return, and go back to it . . . 

Nothing should be called good that fails to enlarge our humanity.

Your mind is colored by the thoughts it feeds upon, for the mind is dyed by ideas and imaginings.  Saturate your mind, then, with a succession of ideas like these:  Wherever life is possible, it is possible to live in the right way.

Nothing ever happens to a man he is not equipped by nature to endure.

The best revenge is not to do as they do.

Column of Marcus Aurelius
Piazza Colonna

You always have the option of having no opinion.  There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control.  These things are not asking to be judged by you.  Leave them alone.

All things are woven together, and they make a sacred pattern.  One might almost say that no one thing is entirely at odds with any other thing. All the parts are arranged in relation to one another, and together they form one beautiful and orderly whole.  For there is one universe made out of all things, one God pervading it all, one being and one law, one reason common to all intelligent creatures, and one truth . . .

Seek refuge in yourself.  The knowledge of having acted justly is all your reasoning inner self needs to be fully content and at peace with itself.

To live each day as if it were your last without speeding up or slowing down or pretending to be other than what you are —  this is perfection of character.

Happy is the man who does the work of man.  And what is a man's work? To love his neighbor, to distrust the evidence of his senses, to distinguish false ideas from true, and to contemplate the works of nature.

If you're troubled by something outside yourself, it isn't the thing itself that bothers you, but your opinion of it, and this opinion you have the power to revoke immediately.

Fear not that life will someday end; fear instead that a life in harmony with nature may never begin. 

Portrait of Marcus Aurelius
Charlotte Mary Yonge

Note on Photographs:  Except for the second photo of the Bronze Statue of Marcus Aurelius, for which attribution has been given, all photos used in this posting are in the public domain and were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.