Reading classic literature always calms me down. This is especially true when I read the diaries of famous writers of the nineteenth century. It seems like you have conversed with an intelligent person, who doesnít need to make himself look better than he really is. Such reading is very comforting to me, because the pace of life in the nineteenth century was much slower than it is today. Interests and passions were less competitive then, and the slower passage of time allowed for individuals to expand their thoughts into questions, a practice we seldom have time for anymore. Diaries and other accounts from this period take me far away from the reality of everyday life today, and the only thing I regret is that you cannot find new works by novelists such as Swift, Defoe, and Dickens, or new poetry from such poets as Byron.
I like this sort of detailed work, and you would probably be surprised at the content of the books I pursue, because I tend to read completely useless books on topics such as agricultural reports of ancient Rome, written by contemporary writers of that time.
Reading for me is not just about acquiring information. It is first of all a thought-provoking activity which helps the flow of my own thoughts and channels them into unique and different directions, allowing my mind to figure out better ways of perceiving my surroundings and the world in which I live.
Reading for me is a routine action, and routine actions are very common in nature. Most processes in nature begin with elemental, progressive steps, building towards a desired end. Unfortunately I suffer from a need to be engaged in routine action, anything but reading.
We can achieve only the illusion of peace of mind. This illusion is somehow connected to places, times, people, and images. Alas, if you look at the details you see that situations that you perceive as safe and comfortable in reality are not that safe. This is true not only with regard to personal experiences, but also can be seen in the biographies of successful writers, philosophers, and scientists. The perception of their success deteriorates the more you read, and you may find many disturbing details in their biographies that could have easily jeopardized their success and forfeited their claims to the pages of history.
There are many examples of images imprinted in our minds as ultimate success stories that in detailed investigation prove to be only another illusion offered to us by the media, books, and movies. In many cases we do the opposite, making negative conclusions about some events that actually are not as bad or at least donít have any serious negative effect on ourselves or our lives. For example, we tend to over-estimate the danger of getting killed in terrorist attacks or becoming a victim of airplane crashes when in fact we have a much greater chance of dying behind the wheel of a car. Lucius Annaeus Seneca gave all of us very valuable advice when he said that we shouldnít worry about troubles in the future because they will most likely never happen, and even if they do happen then we can worry about them then. But if we worry about future troubles now and they never happen, then we just poison our lives and lose all hope for happiness.
The state of peace of mind and stable feelings of happiness and self-enjoyment are not all based on the facts of your life. What is more important is which system of beliefs you have in place to cope with different situations. The only way to achieve a stable state of happiness and peace of mind is to learn more about yourself in order to find the true source of your unhappiness. Only through introspection can we purge the negative images that may currently occupy our thoughts.
Seneca can be a good guide for such self learning. His letters to Lucilus include volumes of practical advice which still hold true today, even though much of it has been long forgotten. In modern Western culture we perceive action as a better choice than absence of action, though in many cases absence of action allows one to find more successful ways of balancing oneís state of mind.
Avoiding action is perceived in puritanical cultures as the sin of laziness, and doing whatever you have to do without a lot of thinking about the reasons or the results appears better than the state of inactivity. "No strain, no gain" is a slogan that can illustrate the modern approach. This creates a lot of stress and exhaustion, making people engage in the frenzy of the modern lifestyle: "Do first, think later. Or even better, donít think at all."
If you were to ask the majority of people walking down the street what they are doing, most will struggle with this question and then tell you where they were going. Then if you were to ask why they were doing what they said they were doing, most would struggle once more but would be unable to give you an answer, because they in fact do not know why they do what they are doing. For example, if you ask a high school student on his way to school, "Where are you going?" He will answer, "to school". If you then ask, "But why are you going there?" the answer will most likely be, "Because thatís what Iíve got to do." You wonít find a very deep explanation of peopleís actions in more mature individuals as well. Thinking is very rare and a highly prized commodity in todayís society. "Thought is a strenuous artófew practice it, and then only at rare times," as the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, once mentioned, and this is very true. We donít teach our children to think; we teach them just to act, no matter how illogical it may seem.
Peopleís inability to analyze their motives and actions creates a lot of stress and causes frustration. Thinking is not that difficult, if you are used to doing it; it is just needs to become part of your lifestyle. People generally donít like to think, not because thinking requires more energy (which it probably does), but as a result of the erroneous assumption that thinking is not a useful way to spend their precious time. Therefore, as a result of this assumption, thinking is not highly valued by the majority of the members of todayís society.
We have certain amounts of time which are allocated for certain purposes every day. We may spend about 10 minutes showering, 30 minutes or more eating, 2-3 hours watching TV, but we neglect allocating time for simple contemplation. There is no such thing as a special time for thinking; you are supposed to do it if you really need to, while youíre in the shower or eating or watching TV, which is not very comfortable because sinking into a deep thought in the shower can make you forget whether you have already washed your hair and therefore you may have to do it again, considerably increasing the amount of water and shampoo you use. Thinking during meals increases the probability of choking and therefore dying prematurely, and thinking while watching TV is almost completely impossible because the specific intent of many TV producers is to distract us from thinking about our lives and replace it with something else that has nothing to do with our daily reality.
The absence of thinking time in our culture is a bad thing. In order to stay self-consistent, humans need some time to review their actions and to adjust their thoughts and beliefs accordingly. The modern world doesnít quite support us in this endeavor or allow us to adjust accordingly, because our culture perpetuates the problem. When you have allocated some time for thinking, sometimes you may come to the very surprising conclusion that most of the actions you have been undertaking in the past were actually not leading you to any particular aim.
Western culture idolizes perfection. This imposes a lifestyle on most people that expects them to be perfect in their personal life, their career, and any endeavor they undertake. The individual then evaluates all aspects of his life in terms of success or failure. We can see this approach even in psychological terminology where modern psychology describes a family experiencing crises in relationships between its members as a Ďdysfunctional familyí. This demonstrates the core values presented by modern psychology; where the family is supposed to function like a machine or a computer system. Therefore the psychology of society today doesnít allow any room for failure, subsequently increasing the pressure on any particular individual.
We are living in an era of perfectionism. You donít meet many successful individuals who value the calmness of quiet thought while observing the sunset, or individuals who find real pleasure in non-material values. I am a perfectionist myself, but I suffer from a most frustrating form of perfectionism which is complicated by an intolerance for routine work. I get easily excited by new ideas, but I find a lot of difficulty in conducting the repetitive actions that usually are necessary to succeed in any endeavor.
Perfectionism causes a lot of suffering, because there is no place for happiness in such an approach. You cannot be happy until you get your work done, but neither can you be happy when you get the results, because the perfectionist is never satisfied with any results. Modern culture is a huge factory that manufactures unhappy souls. I am trying to put an end to this by training myself to not be as perfectionist as I used to be, but even in this simple endeavor I am trying to be perfect and therefore my effort defeats my purpose.
I have always despised non-perfectionists, whom I call in my personal vocabulary "episodists". By "episodist" I mean a person who is not result-oriented, but rather process-oriented. I always thought that this kind of person was either stupid or just some kind of hippy, but now I realize that I was probably wrong. Look at nature. We donít have much evidence that time itself is real and not just an illusion of our minds. So, without time, there is no meaning to any result. Without time, the only meaningful action is to put effort into the process itself. Letís look at nature again. What is the ultimate result of a nice meal? Obviously it is the energy that we get out of eating food, but since energy is not something material, the material result of a nice meal is nothing more than what our digestive system produces, which could be considered neither aesthetically pleasing nor a desirable outcome.
The ultimate result of any blossom is rotting. The ultimate result of any life is death. That is why paying too much attention to results is not very desirable; without anticipation of results you donít have anxiety about failure. Nature is taking care of our ultimate results because we are left in charge of only the process, not the results.
How does one learn how to stop looking at results, to value the simple aspects of life? Take me, for example, sitting in this room writing this book. Rather than focusing my attention on the publishing of the book or the final product of my efforts, I focus only on the fact that I am enjoying writing and sharing my thoughts. It is a pleasant atmosphere, and I am in good company with a sleeping cat, a lazy dog, and the pleasant chimes of the clock. I am not anxious or nervous about how I come across or about any deadline that I must meet. Does this make me a bad person trying to enjoy my life independently of the results? I donít think so.
But still, in the back of my mind I am anxious as to how the book is going to turn out. I canít wait for the time when I submit this to the editor. I canít wait until I get the first copy and see the cover. I am not happy that I cannot see all of this right now, right here. This is a good illustration of my dilemma, whether to abandon the ultimate preoccupation with the results and start to enjoy each and every moment of my existence, or to be like everybody elseóa crazy perfectionist who cannot think of anything but successful results.
Natural selection has made us strive for perfection, however unnatural that may sound. Even now we need to eat some animalís flesh in order to survive, and episodists are not very good hunters. If love is an ultimate aim of the development of the universe, why shouldnít I make an effort to escape my anxieties, even for a moment, and devote myself to pure reflection on the outside world, my inner soul?
The way to achieve piece of mind is to come to the realization that we need to understand ourselves, our primal responses. We need to get acquainted with our standard reactions, the way we often overestimate or underestimate ourselves and anticipate our possible behavior in different situations, all of which eventually adds up and makes us much more anxious about the days yet to come. Our fear of the future is not only based on a fear of unfortunate events, but also on a fear of our inability to provide the proper response.
Our previous experience usually provides us with sufficient information about our ability to cope with different stressful events in our lives, but for some reason this doesnít provide us with enough confidence to be able to cope with future events with the same or even greater success. Analysis of our previous performance, however, allows us to achieve peace of mind about future challenges.
One of the problems in estimating our own abilities is the obstacle that can come from the opinion of others that our own evaluation is subjective and therefore cannot be right. Thus we have a deep need for the approval of a third party to provide us with a second, external opinion about ourselves and our abilities. The most amazing thing is that sometimes the source of this opinion could be the very person that we donít perceive as a reliable source of opinions on many other issues. This is a paraphrase of a statement by Arthur Schopenhauer that aims to persuade the reader not to care too much about othersí opinions. He was curious as to how many people there are in our lives whom we actually value and whose opinions we respect. Very often the answer would be zero, so why should we worry about someone elseís opinion of us? Being objective about ourselves is important not only so that we donít overestimate our abilities, but also so that we donít underestimate them.
We need to learn to build our self-confidence not from frequently-heard phrases like "I hate doing this," "I never knew how to do this," "I will never get over this," or any other sort of discouraging and counterproductive statements. We should rather make positive conclusions about our ability to adjust to new situations, to be flexible and creative, and therefore provide ourselves with the self-confidence to perform in the future at least as well as we did in the past.
Inflexibility is the main cause of failure and therefore anxiety, depression, and absence of peace of mind. Nature supports us to be as flexible as possible because Ďadjustmentí in life, especially among creatures living in the wild, is synonymous with Ďsurvivalí. If you can adjust to a harsh winter, you will survive. If not, then you die. Pretty straightforward, isnít it? Flexibility in human society is also a valuable commodity. I had to adjust during my life to at least five different language environments, and even though I have never perfected them I was pretty successful in all of them. You donít need to be perfect in order to survive. Moreover, trying to be perfect may exhaust your energy resources and eventually lead to your downfall.
Common sense is another key to reaching a state of peace. But in my vocabulary common sense is not the opinion of the majority; rather it is a sober insight into the problem which is free of pre-judgments and the misleading conclusions of others. I have learned to question anything I see and I am not new to this approach.
I completely agree with Rene Descartes in his "Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences" where he states, in Chapter Two:
"Öbut as for the opinions which up to that time I had embraced, I thought that I could not do better than resolve at once to sweep them wholly away, that I might afterwards be in a position to admit either others more correct, or even perhaps the same when they had undergone the scrutiny of reason. I firmly believed that in this way I should much better succeed in the conduct of my life, than if I built only upon old foundations, and leaned upon principles which, in my youth, I had taken upon trust."
Following this advice of Descartes, I re-examine any concept or belief that I once took for granted, comparing it to my current experience and that of the modern world, especially where thatís significantly different from what I experienced as a child and adolescent. I must admit that this old approach benefits me in many ways, because regrettably it is still very rare and therefore it gives me an advantage over others that donít employ this simple approach.
We frequently hear the opinion that most of the things in life depend on chance and opportunity. Many people argue that if or when opportunity comes they will not miss it. But the truth is that such people are not quite sure of what they are saying, as a result of decades of waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. They usually lose hope and just repeat comforting words and phrases in the "maybe somedayÖ" style. How can you be sure that you wonít miss the right opportunity when it arises simply because youíve never had one like it before? How can you train yourself to catch an opportunity when it comes along if opportunity is such a rare commodity? As a matter of fact, such people lose their opportunities because they fail to recognize them when they present themselves. I found a way to train myself to seize these opportunities when they arose. It is by taking the initiative to create my own opportunities. That is how I know I will not miss one when it arises, because usually they come at the right time and the right place, as everything which is carefully planned in advance does.
I always consider myself my ultimate source of opportunities. This can be a substantial component to my peace of mind, because if you donít wait for opportunity to come you wonít be anxious. You will just know that when you need it, you will find a way to create it. Of course it costs a lot of money, but opportunities have a very special way of bringing even more money than it cost to create them. Usually I end up with something at the end of the day that I can then spend on the next opportunities that I create, and of course on my creation-friendly environment with the sleeping cat, the lazy dog, and the chiming clock.
Marco Polo went all the way to the Far East trying to mix the different pages of history, because medieval Europe doesnít go well with medieval China as they were greatly separated. As I have learned, they werenít only separated by distance; they were also separated in peopleís minds at that time. Europeans, and their overall spiritual leader, the Catholic Pope, made numerous attempts to create relationships with Tatar-Mongols.
All of these proposals of co-operation in the Crusades were met with resistance. It was like different civilizations were unwilling to relinquish their isolation and culture. Tatar-Mongols would be reluctant in the same way to co-operate with aliens, if these green men should have the audacity to ask for their assistance.
It is not just that individual people were not co-operative; entire civilizations were inflexible as well. What would the world look like today if the Tatar-Mongols had interfered in the Crusades? Here we come to a question of the risk of accepting or declining a certain opportunity. This makes the moments of our lives unequal, because some crossroads are more important than those routine days where nothing eventful occurs. Thoughts like "what ifÖ" add a lot of anxiety and distortion to our peace of mind: "What if I went to law school?" and "What if IÖ." Creating opportunities for yourself precludes the need to entertain such possibilities.
As a matter of fact, I donít believe in opportunities. Most of the time when I create opportunities for others I can divert them for a limited time. Sometimes it is only days, sometimes it takes years, but sooner or later such people come back to their original state and move on with their path as if there was no opportunity in the first place. Probably I could create an opportunity to divert someone from his chosen path for a period of time which coincidentally would be longer than his lifespan. This doesnít mean that this individual wouldnít have an internal need to come back to his original state of mind.
Now I have to make a confession. I am exactly this type of individual; I always follow my own path. If troubles or opportunities divert me from this path, this doesnít mean that I cease to have an internal sub-conscious impulse to come back and go on with the path. A very important consideration in changing our paths is to analyze what is in fact our chosen destiny, because most people arenít quite aware of their destinyís true nature and direction.
The last thing I would mention that is important for maintaining oneís peace of mind is the management of multiple images of the same things that we usually have in our memories and imagination. For example, I have three images of Paris in my head: the first is the one that I had before I visited the city, the second is my actual memory of the city itself, the third is the image that I am constantly recreating from reading French periodicals and recent novels and listening to French news. These are three absolutely different cities. Realization of the multi-imaging nature of our consciousness is a very important step towards establishing a well-balanced mental state. Admitting the existence of these multiple impressions allows me to avoid their inner conflicts and helps me function in a more stress-free manner.
Paris had a magical aura for me as a young man. Whenever I was in Europe I tried to visit it, for the sake of the marvel and wonder it held for my mind. But when I actually visited there it was not as pleasant and exciting, and not nearly as magical, as I had thought. I have to admit that some details of this visit were indeed magical on a personal level, because when I stood in the square in front of the Notre Dame cathedral I was thinking about my beloved grandmother as she stood in this very place over half a century ago, and this had a vivid emotional and spiritual effect on me. And although certain aspects of the visit were disappointing, overall it was still very nice to have a refreshing point of view on the city I thought I knew. So in the end the visit wasnít disappointing at all. Now that I am a grown man and am immersing myself in French culture, I find that I am discovering a whole new Paris through the media and through the people I talk to and hear from. In the final analysis, though I have three very different ideas of what Paris is to me these three images do not conflict with each other in my mind but rather build and grow off each other.
I notice the same effect with the multiple impressions created in my mind by philosophers, writers, and other great minds. For example, I possess two copies of the poems of George Gordon Lord Byron, such as the one that whispers in my ears:
It is the hour when from the boughs
The nightingale's high note is heard;
It is the hour -- when loversí vows
Seem sweet in every whisper'd word;
And gentle winds and waters near,
Make music to the lonely ear.
And there is another Lord Byron, who fought on behalf of the Greek rebellion and died far away from his home. They are two different Byrons for me, and I need some way to settle them in my head. Some objects or events, some people or places may have multiple connotations for us, and we need to learn to deal with this without allowing them to cause internal conflicts and disturb our peace of mind.
Peace of mind is the most valuable experience that can and should be achieved in our earthly lives. I hope that some thoughts mentioned herein may be of some assistance to you as well as cathartic to myself.
 Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known simply as Seneca or Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BCĖAD 65) was a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and (in one work) humorist of the Silver Age of Latin literature.
Despite being a poet, Byron had come to feel that action was more important than poetry. He boarded a brig, the Hercules, and sailed to Greece to aid the Greeks, who had risen against Ottoman oppression. Byron died far away from his home, in Missolonghi, on 19 April, 1824.