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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Brain Pickings

Neil Gaiman on why we read, Bruce Lee's never-before-revealed philosophical writings on willpower, emotion, reason, imagination, and confidence, Virginia Woolf on clothing and identity, Diane Ackerman on the psychology, evolutionary purpose, and existential rewards of deep play, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science, Bertrand Russell on intuition, the intellect, and the nature of time, E.E. Cummings and the difficult art of creative courage, and more. – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

The question of why we read and what books actually do for us is as old as the written word itself, and as attractive. Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were â€œthe axe for the frozen sea within us”; Carl Sagan held them as â€œproof that humans are capable of working magic”; James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny; for Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, they stood as our ultimate frontier of freedom.
But one of the finest, most dimensional inquiries into the significance of books and the role of reading in human life comes from Neil Gaiman in a beautiful piece titled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” 
Originally delivered as a lecture for The Reading Agency, an English charity devoted to giving kids from all backgrounds an equal chance at the good life by fostering an early love of reading, the speech was later included in The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (public library) — the terrific compendium that gave us Gaiman on the power of cautionary questions.
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
Gaiman considers how the act of reading changes us, “what it’s good for”:
Once in New York, I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons—a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth — how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, fifteen years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten- and eleven-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves
Echoing Madeleine L’Engle’s spirited 1983 lecture on creativity, censorship, and the duty of children’s books, Gaiman considers how otherwise well-intentioned adults might thwart the seed of that life-enlarging and sometimes even life-saving passion for reading. In a passage of particular urgency for parents and educators, he writes:
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L. Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to someone encountering it for the first time. You don’t discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer them to read. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the twenty- first-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.
Gaiman then turns to the second key function of literature — its unparalleled ability to foster empathy. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s inspired assertion that â€œa book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” he writes:
When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves
In a sentiment reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s electrifying case for how imaginative storytelling expands our scope of the possible, Gaiman points to a third essential function of fiction in human life — its ability to introduce us to different versions of the world by envisioning alternate possibilities for the way things are:
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.
But perhaps the surest way to foil a budding love of reading is to cut off access to books altogether, and there is no greater hedge against that hazard than the library — that sacred place Thoreau once extolled as a glorious â€œwilderness of books.” (“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,” Bill Moyers wrote in his foreword to a recent photographic love letter to libraries“democracy is open, too.”) Gaiman recounts the formative role of the library in his own life:
I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in my summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s library I began on the adult books.
Gaiman was fortunate that the librarians tasked with nurturing his love of reading were the kind who inspire poems and not the kind who tried to bar pioneering astronaut Ronald McNair from his childhood library. With an affectionate eye to the librarians of his youth, Gaiman reflects:
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on interlibrary loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and they would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader — nothing less, nothing more — which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz
Writing nearly a century after Hermann Hesse’s magnificent manifesto for why the book will never lose its magic no matter how technology evolves, Gaiman borrows a prefect metaphor to substantiate his belief that books will endure in and perhaps past the age of screens:
As Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the Kindle showed up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.
But Gaiman takes care not to confuse the medium with the message — it is reading that counts, and its rewards are medium-agnostic. He writes:
We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.
I do not care — I do not believe it matters — whether these books are paper or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.
But a book is also the content, and that’s important.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
These tales have survived on the shoulders of people who have done their part to transmit them forward — something Gaiman examined in his excellent lecture on how stories last. He considers what it would take to uphold our own responsibilities to the future — as readers, as writers, as citizens, and as members of the storytelling species:
I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.
We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. We have an obligation to use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.
We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.
We writers — and especially writers for children, but all writers — have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were — to understand that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armor and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children to read that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we’ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.
Writing more than two centuries after William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination, Gaiman points to the same supreme human faculty as our greatest obligation:
We all — adults and children, writers and readers — have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
[…]
Just look around this room… Everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it might be easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, in this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things. They daydreamed, they pondered, they made things that didn’t quite work, they described things that didn’t yet exist to people who laughed at them.
And then, in time, they succeeded. Political movements, personal movements, all begin with people imagining another way of existing.
Gaiman’s final obligation is of especially resonant relevance today:
We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The View from the Cheap Seats with Hermann Hesse on the three types of readers, Ursula K. Le Guin on the sacredness of public libraries, and Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, then revisit Gaiman on creative courage, his eight rules of writing, and his philosophical dream, animated.

Bruce Lee’s Never-Before-Seen Writings on Willpower, Emotion, Reason, Memory, Imagination, and Confidence

Although Bruce Lee(November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) is best known for his legendary legacy in martial arts and film, he was also one of the most underappreciated philosophers of the twentieth century, instrumental in introducing Eastern traditions to Western audiences. A philosophy major in collge, he fused ancient ideas with his own singular ethos informed by the intersection of physical and psychological discipline, the most famous manifestation of which is his water metaphor for resilience.
Early in his career, Lee was systematically sidelined by Hollywood’s studio system, which operated with extreme racial bias and still used white actors in yellowface to portray Asian characters based on flat stereotypes. Over and over, Lee was told in no uncertain terms that white audiences simply wouldn’t accept an Asian man as a lead character in a movie. 
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Even when he finally broke through and was cast as a lead, the studios continued to treat him as a brainless robot, there to entertain with his kung-fu skills. When they tried to cut all the philosophy out of Enter the Dragon because they wanted a vacantly entertaining action movie, Lee refused to go on set for two weeks, insisting that the kung-fu and the philosophy were inextricably entwined, each the vehicle for the other. Hollywood eventually had to relent and it was precisely the philosophical dimension that rendered the movie — just before the release of which Lee met his untimely death — a cultural icon and a beacon of racial empowerment associated with the Black Power movement, later acquired by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” artifact.
Lee saw philosophy as inseparable from everyday life, just as he saw the mind as inseparable from the body, each end of the battery constantly charging the other. He recorded his rigorous workout routine alongside his philosophical meditations, which he fleshed out in the course of living. Like Oliver Sacks, who carried a notebook everywhere, Lee always had a tiny 2×3″ pocketbook with him, which he filled with everything from training regimens to the phone numbers of his pupils (who included trainees like Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen) to poems, affirmations, and philosophical reflections. Even his handwriting, meticulously neat and measured to fit the tiny page, radiates Lee’s formidable discipline and orderliness. 
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
But perhaps the most notable portion of his pocketbooks — or day timers, as they were called — were his affirmations, reminiscent of the rules of conduct Nobel laureate André Gide penned in his youthful journal and of artist Eugène Delacroix’s diaristic self-counsel. In these notes to himself, Lee articulated his personal philosophies aimed concretely at his own growth but resonating with universally applicable insight into our common psychology, behavior, and human nature. 
With special permission from the Bruce Lee estate, here is an exclusive look at several pages from his 1968 pocketbook, penned shortly before Lee’s twenty-eighth birthday, each transcribed below:
Archival material with exclusive permission from the Bruce Lee Foundation archive
WILL POWER: —
Recognizing that the power of will is the supreme court over all over departments of my mind, I will exercise it daily, when I need the urge to action for any purpose; and I will form HABIT designed to bring the power of my will into action at least once daily.
EMOTION: —
Realizing that my emotions are both POSITIVE and negative I will form daily HABITS which will encourage the development of the POSITIVE EMOTIONS, and aid me in converting the negative emotions into some form of useful action.
REASON: —
Recognizing that both my positive & negative emotions may be dangerous if they are not controlled and guided to desirable ends, I will submit all my desires, aims and purposes to my faculties of reason, and I will be guided by it in giving expression to these.
IMAGINATION: —
Recognizing the need for sound PLANS and IDEAS for the attainment of my desires, I will develop my imagination by calling upon it daily for help in the formation of my plans.
MEMORY: —
Recognizing the value of an alert memory, I will encourage mine to become alert by taking care to impress it clearly with all thoughts I wish to recall, and by associating those thoughts with related subjects which I may call to mind frequently.
SUBCONSCIOUS MIND: —
Recognizing the influence of my subconscious mind over my power of will, I shall take care to submit to it a clear and definite picture of my CLEAR PURPOSE in life and all minor purposes leading to my major purpose, and I shall keep this picture CONSTANTLY BEFORE my subconscious mind by REPEATING IT DAILY.
CONSCIENCE: —
Recognizing that my emotions often err in their over-enthusiasm, and my faculty of reason often is without the warmth of feeling that is necessary to enable me to combine justice with mercy in my judgments, I will encourage my conscience to guide me as to what is right & what is wrong, but I will never set aside the verdicts it renders, no matter what may be the cost of carrying them out.
When Lee felt that he had arrived at a particularly significant idea, he wrote it on the unlined back of a plain 3×5″ lined yellow notecard, which he signed, almost like a will or perhaps a contract with himself. He would often refine or copy reflections first recorded in his pocketbook onto the notecards reserved for only his firmest convictions and deepest dedications. 
What makes the affirmations especially notable is that they fuse ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions (particularly Zen Buddhism’s ideas about character, the self, and the ego), questionable New Agey magical thinking, and habits of mind which contemporary psychology has since proven fruitful — a reminder that our personhood is a mashup of our era and our culture, with all their inherent knowledges and ignorances, and it is the way we combine the elements at our disposal that makes us who we are. 
Archival material with exclusive permission from the Bruce Lee Foundation archive
You will never get any more out of life than you expect
Keep your mind on the things you want and off those you don’t
Things live by moving and gain strength as they go
Be a calm beholder of what is happening around you
There is a difference a) the world b) our reaction to it
Be aware of our conditioning! Drop and dissolve inner blockage
Inner to outer ~~~ we start by dissolving our attitude not by altering outer condition 
See that there is no one to fight, only an illusion to see through
No one can hurt you unless you allow him to
Inwardly, psychologically, be a nobody
Archival material with exclusive permission from the Bruce Lee Foundation archive
I know that I have the ability to ACHIEVE the object of my DEFINITE PURPOSE in life; therefore I DEMAND of myself persistent, continuous action toward its attainment, and I here and now promise to render such action. 
I realize the DOMINATING THOUGHTS of my mind will eventually reproduce themselves in outward, physical action, and gradually transform themselves into physical reality; therefore I will CONCENTRATE my thoughts for 30 min. daily upon the task of thinking of the person I intend to become, thereby creating in my mind a clear MENTAL PICTURE.
I know through the principle of autosuggestion, any desire that I PERSISTENTLY hold will eventually seek expression through some practical means of attaining the object back of it; therefore, I will devote 10 min. daily to DEMANDING of myself the development of SELF-CONFIDENCE.
I have clearly written down a description of my DEFINITE CHIEF AIM in life, and I will never stop trying until I shall have developed sufficient self-confidence for its attainment.
Complement with Lee on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem, then tune into the excellent new Bruce Lee podcast, in which Lee’s daughter, Shannon, and creative director Sharon Lee unpack his philosophies and discuss how the abiding ideas behind each of his tenets apply to various aspects of our modern lives. You can help keep his legacy alive with a donation to the Bruce Lee Foundation.

Diane Ackerman on the Evolutionary and Existential Purpose of Deep Play

One July morning during a research trip to the small New England island of Nantucket, home to pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, I had a most unusual experience. Midway through my daily swim in the ocean, my peripheral vision was drawn to what at first appeared to be a snorkel. But as I looked directly at the curious protrusion, I realized it was the long glistening neck of a stately bird, gliding over the nearly waveless surface a few away. By some irresistible instinct, I began swimming gently toward the bird, assuming it would fly away whenever my proximity became too uncomfortable.
But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed my approach — for it was deliberate permission that this majestic bird gave me, first assessing me with a calm but cautious eye, then choosing not to lift off or even change course as this large ungraceful mammal drew near. I came so close that I could see my own reflection in the bird’s eye, now regarding me with what I took to be — or, perhaps, projected to be — a silent benevolence. 
We began swimming side by side, no more than a wingspan away from one another, and I found myself awash in awe amid the gentle waves, entranced in what could best be described as a transcendent experience — the kind that calls to mind, and called to mind in that very moment in the water, Alan Lightman’s moving encounter with the ospreys. In this small act ablaze with absolute presence, I felt I had been granted access to something enormous and eternal. 
The experience was so intensely invigorating in part because it was wholly new to me, but it is far from uncommon. It belongs to the spectrum of experience which Diane Ackerman, one of the greatest science storytellers of our time, describes in Deep Play (public library) — a bewitchingly inquiry into those moods colored by “a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder,” which render us in a state of “waking trance.”
Ackerman — who has previously written beautifully about the secret life of the sensesour poetic communion with the cosmos, and the darkest depths of the human experience â€” reclaims and subverts the phrase “deep play” from Jeremy Bentham, founding father of utilitarianism, who used it pejoratively in the 18th century to connote any high-stakes activity engaging in which he deemed irrational because “the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose.” But Ackerman argues that the risk involved in activities of that sort only amplifies their romance.
She considers what deep play is and why it appeals to us so profoundly:
We long for its heights, which some people often visit and others must learn to find, but everyone experiences as replenishing. Opportunities for deep play abound. In its thrall we become ideal versions of ourselves… [Its] many moods and varieties help to define who we are and all we wish to be.
Art by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a 9th-century ode to the diversity of transcendent experiences
Before diving into the psychological and spiritual dimensions of deep play, Ackerman examines play itself and its evolutionary function as an indelible part of sentience and a measure of the evolution of consciousness perhaps more accurate than what we refer to as intelligence. She writes:
Why play at all? Every element of the human saga requires play. We evolved through play. Our culture thrives on play. Courtship includes high theater, rituals, and ceremonies of play. Ideas are playful reverberations of the mind. Language is a playing with words until they can impersonate physical objects and abstract ideas.
[…]
It’s so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play… What we call intelligence â€¦ may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.
Art by Christian Robinson from Leo: A Ghost Story
It is hardly happenstance that the word “play” was central to how Einstein thought of the secret to his genius — he used the term â€œcombinatory play” to describe how his mind works. Ackerman considers what it is that makes play so psychologically fruitful and alluring to us, plunging into its ancient cultural history: 
The world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. [In it,] selves can be revised.
[…]
Above all, play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play’s rules may be enforced, but play is not like life’s other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom.
Art by Katrin Stangl from Strong as a Bear
Ackerman maps the etymological ecosystem of play:
Most forms of play involve competition, against oneself or others, and test one’s skills, cunning, or courage. One might even argue that all play is a contest of one sort or another. The adversary may be a mountain, a chess-playing computer, or an incarnation of evil. To play is to risk: to risk is to play. The word fight derives from the word play. Medieval tournaments were ritualized battles that followed strict rules. So are wrestling, boxing, and fencing matches. Ceremonial violence — at a sacred place, in which special clothes are worn, time limits must be obeyed, rules are followed, rituals are performed, the action is alarmingly tense, and the outcome is unknown — is elemental to play. Festive dancing may seem peaceful by comparison, and indeed in Anglo-Saxon, play was plega, which meant singing or dancing gestures, clapping, quick movements.
But when we peer even farther back into its origins, we discover that play’s original meaning was quite different, something altogether more urgent and abstract. In Indo-European, plegan meant to risk, chance, expose oneself to hazard. A pledge was integral to the act of play, as was danger (cognate words are peril and plight). Play’s original purpose was to make a pledge to someone or something by risking one’s life. Who or what might that someone or something be? Possibilities abound, including a relative, a tribal leader, a god, or a moral trait such as honor or courage. At its heart, pleganreverberated with ethical or religious values. It also contained the idea of being tightly fastened or engaged. Soon plegan became associated with performing a sacred act or administering justice, and it often appeared in ceremonies.
But while simple play may have its timeless appeal, Ackerman focuses on a deeper and more transcendent kind of play — something more rapturous and closer to ecstasy, something that helps us contact our hidden wholeness and is perhaps even required for us to feel whole. She explores the essential point of difference: 
Deep play is the ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they’re taken to intense and transcendent heights. Thus, deep play should really be classified by mood, not activity. It testifies to howsomething happens, not what happens. Games don’t guarantee deep play, but some activities are prone to it: art, religion, risk-taking, and some sports — especially those that take place in relatively remote, silent, and floaty environments, such as scuba diving, parachuting, hang gliding, mountain climbing. 
Deep play always involves the sacred and holy, sometimes hidden in the most unlikely or humble places — amid towering shelves of rock in Nepal; crouched over print in a dimly lit room; slipping on AstroTurf; wearing a coconut-shell mask. We spend our lives in pursuit of moments that will allow these altered states to happen.
Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window, his forgotten, philosophical first children’s book
Ackerman narrows in on the seemingly subtle yet monumental difference between the two states most closely associated with deep play, rapture and ecstasy:
Rapture and ecstasy are not themselves deep play, but they’re central components of it. 
Rapture means, literally, being “seized by force,” as if one were a prey animal who is carried away. Caught in the talons of a transcendent rapture, one is gripped, elevated, and trapped at a fearsome height. To the ancient Greeks, this feeling often foretold malevolence and danger — other words that drink from the same rapturous source are rapacious, rabid, ravenous, ravage, rape, usurp, surreptitious. Birds of prey that plunge from the skies to gore their victims are known as raptors. Seized by a jagged and violent force, the enraptured are carried aloft to their ultimate doom. 
Ecstasy also means to be gripped by passion, but from a slightly different perspective: rapture is vertical, ecstasy horizontal. Rapture is high-flying, ecstasy occurs on the ground. For some reason, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with the symbol of standing, and relied on that one image for countless ideas, feelings, and objects. As a result, a great many of our words today simply reflect where or how things stand: stanchion, status, stare, staunch, steadfast, statute, and constant. But there are also hundreds of unexpected ones, such as stank(standing water), stallion (standing in a stall), star(standing in the sky), restaurant (standing place for the wanderer), prostate (standing in front of the bladder), and so on. To the Greeks, ecstasy meant to stand outside oneself. How is that possible? Through existential engineering. “Give me a place to stand,” Archimedes proclaimed in the third century B.C., “and I will move the earth.” Levered by ecstasy, one springs out of one’s mind. Thrown free of one’s normal self, a person stands in another place, on the limits of body, society, and reason, watching the known world dwindle in the distance (a spot standing far away). The euphoria of flying in dreams, or the longing to fly through the ocean with dolphins, fills us with rapture.
It is hardly any surprise that elements of deep play can be found in most of our major efforts to make sense of the human experience, from Ancient Greek philosophy to Freud’s notion of “oceanic feeling” to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of â€œflow.” Turning once again to the lens of language — for, lest we forget, language is our mightiest vehicle for the self â€” Ackerman contemplates deep play’s singular quality of being:
Deep play is a fascinating hallmark of being human; it reveals our need to seek a special brand of transcendence, with a passion that makes thrill-seeking explicable, creativity possible, and religion inevitable. Perhaps religion seems an unlikely example of playing, but if you look at religious rites and festivals, you’ll see all the play elements, and also how deep that play can become. Religious rituals usually include dance, worship, music, and decoration. They swallow time. They are ecstatic, absorbing, rejuvenating. The word “prayer” derives from the Latin precarius, and contains the idea of uncertainty and risk. Will the entreaty be answered? Life or death may depend on the outcome.
Reading over a journal entry from her own youth, in which her long-ago self describes the transcendence of travel in a way that calls to mind Albert Camus’s longer-ago meditation on why we voyage, Ackerman extrapolates a common root of deep play across its many guises:
One enters into an alternate reality with its own rules, values, and expectations. One sheds much of one’s culture, with its countless technical and moral demands, as one draws on a wholly new and sense-ravishing way of life… One chooses to divest oneself of preconceptions, hand-me-down ideas, and shopworn opinions, chooses to wipe the mental slate clean, chooses to be naive and wholly open to the world, as one once was as a child. If cynicism is inevitable as one ages, so is the yearning for innocence. To children heaven is being an adult, and to adults heaven is being children again.
[…]
As the world reduces to a small brilliant space, where every thought and move is vital to one’s salvation, one’s scattered energy suddenly has a center. Only then do all of our senses spring alert, and every sensation matters. At the same time, the rest of the world recedes. One is temporarily unshackled from life’s chains — the family ones, the work ones, the ones we wear as self-imposed weights.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland
But perhaps the single most perceptible characteristic of deep play is the way in which it alters our already warped experience of time by summoning us to that place where impulsivity and control intersect to grant us absolute access to presence. In a passage that calls to mind Kafka’s assertion that â€œreality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life,” Ackerman considers the reality-concentrating power of deep play through the prism of time:
In deep play, one’s sense of time no longer originates within oneself.
[…]
We want to muscle into life and feel its real power and sweep. We want to drink from the source. In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles… When it happens we experience a sense of revelation and gratitude. Nothing need be thought or said. There is a way of beholding that is a form of prayer.
[…]
When one enters the realm of deep play, the sacred playground where only the present moment matters, one’s history and future vanish. One doesn’t remember one’s past, needs, expectations, worries, real or imaginary sins. The deep-play world is fresh, wholly absorbing, and full of its own unique wisdom and demands. Being able to temporarily step outside of normal life—while keeping one’s senses alert — is indeed like being reborn. To erase all memories and yearnings — to be vigorously alive without self-awareness — can provide a brief return to innocence.
In the remainder of the wholly enchanting Deep Play, Ackerman goes on to explore the types of experiences that grant us entry into this sacred world and the moods, mental states, and orientations of spirit that make us better able to conjure up the temperament of receptivity needed to experience deep play. Complement with Ackerman on the science of smellwhat Earth’s nocturnal portrait from space reveals about who we are, and her beautiful poems for the planets.

Virginia Woolf on Clothing as a Vehicle of Identity, the Fluidity of Gender, and the Trans Dimension of Human Nature

Almost a century before Emily Spivack came to explore how clothes “help us assert our identity or aspirations” in her wonderful inquiry into the emotional dimension of clothing, which inspired a recent episodeof NPR’s excellent InvisibiliaVirginia Woolfwove the subject into Orlando: A Biography (public library) — a novel that, despite being a work of fiction (or, rather, a masterwork of fiction), brims with exquisitely articulated psychological truth about such perplexities as the elasticity of time and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. (Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s lover and muse, who inspired Orlando â€” captured the wellspring of this wisdom perfectly in recounting her very first encounter with Virginia“She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.”)
Woolf writes:
Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.
Curiously, Woolf herself was of questionable sartorial sensibility — so much so that even Vita noticed it from the midst of her infatuation, remarking on Virginia’s aesthetically atrocious choice of â€œwoollen orange stockings [and] pumps.” But perhaps Woolf was simply more interested in the symbolic dimension of clothes than in the stylistic; more keen to explore that symbolism in her writing than in her wardrobe. 
Tilda Swinton as Orlando
With an eye to her protagonist’s fluid transition between the male and female genders — one that happened in the novel by magic rather than by medicine, for Woolf was writing two years before the first successful gender reassignment surgery was completed, decades before the term “transgender” was coined, and nearly half a century before Jan Morris’s trailblazing account of what it’s actually like to change bodily genders â€” Woolf considers the role of clothing as a vehicle of the transition and a signifier of the fluidity of identity: 
Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. And perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual — openness indeed was the soul of her nature — something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.
Fleshing out the ideas that would ripen a year later into her elegant case for why the most creatively fertile mind is the androgynous mind, Woolf adds:
Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.
Complement this particular passage of the wholly magnificent Orlando with Quentin Bell — Woolf’s beloved nephew, collaborator in quirk, and official biographer — on the morality of clothing, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativityhow to live more fully in the present, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.
BP

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