Posts Tagged ‘mark-twain’

The Philosophy of Success - Mark Twain As Antithesis

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Last week I had my first introduction to the layered world views of Buddhism. Apparently there are six of them, each one introducing a little more more enlightenment than the one before.  Those aspiring to inner peace can ease themselves along the way by meditating on each worldview in turn and practicing its lessons in everyday life.

I got to hear the first two during a yoga class Dharma talk. I apologize to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike if I’m paraphrasing poorly:

Worldview one: Everything changes, or nothing stays the same.

Worldview two: The present moment is what it is and we can do nothing to change it. (Although how we respond to the present moment affects the next moment and the next.)

If something can immediately start to be dwelled upon I immediately began to dwell upon the practice of these worldviews. They seemed to have something to say about every frustration or concern traveling through my mind at the time and about every tricky situation I encountered from that point forward.

I was anxious, for instance, about the ongoing process of approvals at the New York City Department of Buildings (for our renovation) — the Buddhist worldviews helped me realize that I could not change the delays and hurdles, but that they would change with time. My daughter failed her chemistry regents and had to sign up for summer school — I was able to reassure her that this was not the end of the world, as it might seem, but just a modification to her plans for the summer, and a chance to get to learn a bit more about chemistry. And the England soccer team were knocked out of the World Cup after playing several lackluster games of soccer — a mediocre performance for my home country’s national squad; something of a tradition of late.

But while watching a PBS documentary about Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was born) I realized that not only frustrations and hurdles but successes and satisfactions are fleeting and illusory.

Mark Twain’s life story provides a template through which to understand the weaknesses of the capitalist, consumerist worldview that we generally find ourselves stuck in: The perceived rightness of our aspiration for wealth, power, leisure, fame.

Twain denounced and reviled at these aspirations through his words but sought them endlessly in his deeds. He was not a hypocrite, I think, but a man conflicted, unable to reconcile his pleasure in material success and its trappings with his philosophical wisdom about the ultimate futility of striving mercilessly to fix anything that would inevitably change.

He made a fortune, built a beautiful home, surrounded himself with his loving and beloved family, and in the process set the seeds for losing it all (by financial overreaching).

The first two Buddhist worldviews teach us that not only must we practice acceptance and humility in failure and frustration, but also in success and satisfaction. Once I have succeeded in surmounting the feudal bureaucracy of the NYC DOB I will become a landlord and a homeowner with all of the challenges and hurdles that will bring. Once my daughter has passed her chemistry regents she’ll be focused on getting into college. Once England has a successful soccer team again… OK, if England ever has a successful soccer team again its successes won’t last forever (that privilege is reserved for Brazil).

Mississippi Steamboats

Mississippi Steamboats

Near the beginning of the PBS Mark Twain documentary we learn that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) started his adult life working on steamboats up and down the Mississippi river. He loved it. He was diligent. He worked his way up to the position of pilot. He earned more than the president. Each day on the river opened up new worlds for him and he never tired of the 1200 mile weeks-long trip ferrying passengers and cargo. It was all he wanted to do. Life on the river was like living a dream.

After 12 years on the river the civil war intervened and Twain was forced to move on for a while. He never went back. The rest of his life was full of ultimately frustrated striving.

Twain’s life can be viewed as the mirror image of Siddhartha’s life. Twain started from humble origins, achieved great satisfaction and happiness as a young man traveling up and down the river, but left that behind for a later life of fruitless searching for happiness in wealth, fame and comfort. Siddhartha began with wealth and comfort and moved on to strive for happiness and satisfaction, finding it as a ferry pilot on the river.

If only we could reach back in time and introduce Twain to the first two worldviews of Buddhism.

Time’s Revisions: Gym Assault, Dark Energy, And Futures

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

While we live in the moment we must accept the uncertainty of the future… and the past.

“Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks,”
Mark Twain (who may lose his house twice over…)

Philosophy blog: assault during spin class at ny gym carter sugarman timeBack in the dark ages of last November I wrote about a stockbroker who, in anger, jostled the stationary bike of a fellow spin-class member. Frustrated by the man’s grunting and shouting, he grabbed the handlebars of the offender’s bike, lifted it off the ground (while he was still on it) and dropped it. My blog post on the subject sports a photograph of the purportedly injured party, Stuart Sugarman, a partner at an investment firm, wearing a neck brace. Here we are in sunny June and I read that a jury has acquitted the stockbroker of assault, having found Mr. Sugarman to be an unreliable witness, and deciding that the incident didn’t, beyond reasonable doubt, result in Sugarman’s injuries.

When I wrote my original post I was convinced that the stockbroker, Christopher Carter, was guilty of something — perhaps not a crime, but certainly of unreasonably losing his cool. The current news story casts a somewhat heroic glow on Carter’s vigilante act, blaming Sugarman for being a boar in the class, and a liar to boot.

Where does the truth lie?

philosophy blog: dark energy scientists doubtSome scientists have apparently decided that wherever the truth about dark energy lies they are not going to find it. Current calculations indicate that the universe is 4% regular matter (stars, planets, pencils), 22% dark matter, and 74% dark energy (not related to dark matter as far as we know). Despite a lot of attention and investigation, dark energy isn’t yielding its mysteries, and some scientists are worried that it won’t.

Such pessimism seems unwarranted at this point in time. After all, the future could last a long time. Why give up now?

Philosophy blog: Ray Kurzweil Dukakis first reading machine 1977I’m reasonably sure that Ray Kurzweil, noted futurist, would concur. Kurzweil has been making predictions about the future for over thirty years, with impressive results. In the ’80s he predicted that a computer would defeat the world chess champion by 1998 (it happened in 1997). Some of Kurzweil’s current predictions:

  • Within 10 years, a drug that lets you eat whatever you want without gaining weight.
  • Within 20 years, all energy will come from clean sources.
  • In 15 years… your life expectancy will rise faster than you age.
  • And then, by 2050, the Singularity, when humans and/or machines begin to evolve into immortal beings with ever-improving software.

Still doubtful? “Two decades ago he predicted that “early in the 21st century” blind people would be able to read anything anywhere using a handheld device. In 2002 he narrowed the arrival date to 2008. On Thursday night at the festival, he pulled out a new gadget the size of a cellphone, and when he pointed it at the brochure for the science festival, it had no trouble reading the text aloud.”

Philosophy blog: time revision first thing yesterday gym assaultFrom a philosophical perspective, an interesting aspect of all of this is that time, as we perceive it, is all in our minds. The past and the future, as we commonly conceive of them, don’t exist. All of existence rests on the current moment. Reality is transitional. Causality creates our perception of time. The predictable changing of things, the nudge of being from one moment to the next. Without this, time would be meaningless.

(This, as a digression, is the clue to understanding our existence. Once we have accepted that the rules of causality shape the universe we live in, we can begin to understand why we live, think and feel the way we do.)

This morning when I woke up I was the proud owner of an idea for a sure-fire business opportunity. By 9:30am, that sunny feeling of certainty had been toppled as I found out that someone already held the copyright to my idea. All was lost. By 3pm, after a brief nap, I’d regained my optimism after dreaming up a revision to my idea… Time, you faithless lover, revise me again.