Learn and Live

The Scene  |  The University   |   James Roberts  |   April 20, 2013, 4:49 pm

… perhaps during those impending college years that I was so looking forward to, I would decide “what to be when I grow up.”

When I was a kid, I naturally had different—and significantly simpler—assumptions about how the world operates than I do today. Based on my upbringing and education, I had the impression that at some point in my life, perhaps during those impending college years that I was so looking forward to, I would decide “what to be when I grow up.” Logically this decision would take into account things like enjoyment, aptitude, and economic factors. There were a few options that I was considering, mostly involving technology—maybe engineering or aerospace—but whatever my choice, I was confident that my grown-up life would be a great success.

In hindsight, perhaps I was just a bit overconfident. But I was certainly determined, and over the years I’ve found that determination counts for a lot. When my grandfather—a man of few words—dropped me off at college, he told me, “work hard.” So I did. I chose my path, and years later found myself with a Bachelor’s degree in Music (see enjoyment, above) and Physics (aptitude), working in an administrative position at Apple Computer (economic factors). And as my grandmother used to tell me, “you’ve made your bed, and now you have to lie in it.” So I did that too. Live and learn.

… often we see that there are a few key decisions that led us here: “I’ll work hard,” “I’ll study this,” “I’ll take this job,” “I’ll marry this person.”

All of us choose a path in life. And if we retrace that path to see how we arrived at our current situation, often we see that there are a few key decisions that led us here: “I’ll work hard,” “I’ll study this,” “I’ll take this job,” “I’ll marry this person.” What’s most difficult is actually seeing into the causes and conditions of each of those decisions—seeing where they will lead—and making the right decision, doing the right thing, at that critical point. This ability to deeply and systematically understand cause and effect is what is meant by “wisdom” in Buddhist thought.

There is a growing segment in education that is beginning to take to this more broad-minded approach, to consider content and pedagogy that place considerations like enjoyment, aptitude, and economic decision-making factors into the context of a more systematic understanding. This movement is embraced by DRBU, but it is by no means limited to our institution. A recent article posted on the Harvard Crimson reports that “Ethical Reasoning 18: Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory is Harvard’s third most popular class.” Why so popular? These Chinese classics “offer startlingly relevant insights into how to think about making choices, including career choices, from a broad perspective.” They help students “think about things holistically” and are “liberating for students contemplating career choices.”

… philosophy as a discipline … of “how to live a good life—meaning a correct and honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.”

Just weeks before the Harvard article went live, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a story on Sarah Bakewell’s latest bestseller How to Live. A reflection on Michel Montaigne’s life and writings, the book attempts to recharacterize our understanding of philosophy as a discipline; framing it as a system of self-examination, self-discipline, and virtue; of “how to live a good life—meaning a correct and honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.” The Review also reflects on the interpretive tradition of Pierre Hadot, renowned classics scholar and author of Philosophy as a Way of Life. Bakewell’s new book honors Hadot’s contribution to the study of the Western classics as a set of methods, rather than doctrines, for living the examined life—the life worth living, as Socrates would say.

… that there is value to be found in classic texts that goes beyond theory and doctrine, that touches something lived and breathed, that speaks profoundly to the human condition, and that provides insight into a deeper, more connected purpose.

Hadot’s concerns reflect the sentiments of the classics revival in education—that there is value to be found in classic texts that goes beyond theory and doctrine, that touches something lived and breathed, that speaks profoundly to the human condition, and that provides insight into a deeper, more connected purpose. I even suspect, in part because of my own experience, that the students at Harvard aren’t just concerned for their careers. Rather, in the midst of our materialistic, hyper-stimulated information society, perhaps many of them notice a lacking that Hadot addresses when we writes that “we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to us. This, too, is a spiritual exercise, and one of the most difficult.”

This was exactly my concern when, having fulfilled my childhood dreams and landed myself a “great job,” I decided to drop everything to go live at a Buddhist temple and study at a startup university. I knew that there was something unfulfilled, something that I needed to reconnect to that was more profound than pleasure or money. And I had a sense, through my growing interest in Buddhist practice, that my answers were somewhere in the Sutras—so that’s where I went to look.

Thanks for this post, James! Hadot’s reframing of Philosophy really resonated me. I remember entering college with those questions too….

Jason Tseng 04.20.13, 07:30 PM

“Hadot addresses when we writes that ‘we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to us. This, too, is a spiritual exercise, and one of the most difficult.’”

This post is definitely a good read for finals week. Finding the balance between writing, reading, testing.

Christine Chang 05.11.13, 01:01 PM

Thanks Christine. I really appreciated that passage from Hadot also.

James Roberts 05.14.13, 12:39 PM

Using the phrase “in order” is almost never needed. This is an in orderless example of Hadot’s quote.

To meditate calmly: ruminate, and let the texts speak. We have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality.

Nigel 05.16.13, 05:19 AM

After experiencing a near death situation through attempted murder I went through all the emotions that came about when my abductor was aquitted on a legal technocality. (please excuse poor spelling, I’m use to spell check) I developed Dissacotiated amnesia and it took me eighteen years to recall all of the events of that three hours of hell. I was angry at the justice system, angry at myself for not remembering and it went on. Then I came through the other side and began a journey of self discovery which led me to the wonderful experience and ability to forgive. I have been travelling ever since. I can relate to Hadot’s quote. I meditate regularly and have found this inner peace which I can not describe as it is a very personal experience. As human beings we overlook the important things, the little things which can change the course of our direction. People change their directions based on increase of pay, better circumstances eg. When I take on a new direction it is because I know it will challenge me spirtually. I am currently writing a novel on the experience I went through that awful day. I do not have any friends other than one person who has influenced my life over the past twenty years, but we do not live in each others back pocket. I find peace alone. Through my travels I have learnt when to argue with someone and when to let it be, I usually let it be. I never raise my voice, I just improve my argument, if I have one. The most important relationship in anyone’s life is the one they have with themselves, it is only then do we know when to pause, liberate and take the right path. Mine has led me to writing, a passion I have had since a child. As I grow so does my writing. I have also learnt that the only problems we, as people have are the ones we chose to take on, may it be a disagreement or something someone close to you has said which you know is not true. We only feel burdened by these things if we chose to take them on board. I have learnt not to. Simple! Always keep it simple
I am content but would love to grow deeper than I am presently. The mind is a powerful tool and I would like to take full advantage of it. Jan.

Jan-Maree Warne 01.08.14, 05:39 PM

Hello, My name is Sharon Evans. I am a natural earth person and have tried all religions. In my search, Buddhism seems to be where I belong. I have always seemed to be a miss fit but either Buddhism fits me or I fit Buddhism. My only studies have been through two friends and computer learning. I am in Louisville and seek more involvement with the Buddhist community. I live in Louisville Kentucky.

Sharon Evans 03.19.14, 07:17 AM

Hi Sharon,

There are a few online classes through our parent organization, mostly hosted at the Berkeley Monastery (berkeleymonastery.org). I started going to classes there a few years ago when I was looking for a Buddhist community to connect to. I started out just by searching on google maps and stopping by different temples or centers at whatever public events were being held. It took me quite a while to find an organization that I felt really resonated with me — and there are quite a few types of Buddhism out there. I wish I could recommend a good place near you, but I really don’t know Louisville.

James Roberts 03.20.14, 06:41 PM

Previous post:

Next post: