Hunger and spiritual exercise

Hunger can come over one with such force that one feels gripped by the claim that one must eat now. This is urgent, serious business, and one must do something about it forthwith. Not always or not often is hunger signaled so discernibly by a growling, turning, or twangy-sounding tummy. Mostly, it is indicated by a loss of control or of sense-making.

For instance, hunger may show up in sudden impatience with a lover, in a floppy tongue which unlooses silly thoughts or complaints, in a sense of basic disorientation to one’s surroundings, in motor confusion, and, not the least, in a greater sensitivity to being startled. It is not lethargy that undoes one so much as the vices that come forth in subtle or harmful perturbations.

Hunger is a kind of forgetting of what matters most. Upon reflection, one may conclude that hitherto hunger has been accompanied by (or has been identified with) a must. I am hungry, and I must stop what I’m doing, I must stop paying attention to everything and everyone else, and I must eat soon. The world thereby is transformed into Impediments and Pursuits, and the person into a Forceful Agent: long food preparation being but one impediment, a quick delivery of, or access to, substance being the most urgent, vital pursuit. (In this respect, one may liken hunger to the consumption of caffeine.)

Hunger needn’t be an implicit must or ought; it needn’t be motivating in this way. Over time, one can observe all the ways that hunger has affected one, has transfixed one, and through spiritual exercises (ascesis) one can relish becoming the kind of reasonable person who can be motivated by higher sources. One stands back, holds back, has a light sense of humor about things and oneself. Being patient, focusing one’s attention concertedly, being humbled by the competency required in order to make food for oneself and others, delighting in the prospect of speaking less when one is hungry, returning to the basic movements of living: this knife, this vegetable, this cut, this moment living softly and then sliding away. Coming by attention to savor everyday hunger.

Basho’s poetic spirit: A mode of radiance

For Basho (1644-1694), in whose hands the haiku form achieves its essence, the poet must

submerge himself within a natural object, to perceive its delicate life and feel its feelings, out of which a poem forms itself. A poem may skillfully delineate an object; but, unless it embodies feelings which have been naturally emerged out of the object, the poem will fall short of the true poetic sentiment, since it presents the object and the poet as two separate things. (quoted in Makoto Ueda, ‘Basho and the Poetics of “Haiku,”‘ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 21.4 (Summer 1963), 424)

Haiku is a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in the way of communing with ordinary things. It is not that one wishes to spend one’s days writing haiku. On the contrary, it is that one seeks to adopt the true poetic spirit, to come to a mode of spontaneous living, and it is out of such spontaneity that a poem may pour itself forth. By endeavoring to make one’s mind clear as the cloud passing over the redwoods, by bending one’s ear, first thing in the morning, to hear the copper face of the wind chime, one may be limbered up for ‘inspiration, in Basho’s sense.

Composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter feeling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous foe. It is also like cutting a ripe watermelon with a sharp knife, or taking a large bite of a pear. (Ibid, 427)

The haiku, a mode of radiance’s appearance, invokes goodness and beauty but makes no clean distinction between the two. Humble, simple, delicate, light: remember these. Be these.

Summer morning: Redwood haiku

A haiku marries sincerity with accuracy, reintroduces simplicity to lightness. There is no time for parody, satire, or irony. One’s poetic concentration is on the thing, on its relations to what is felt or unseen, and on the world’s radiating significance. R.H. Blyth states that a haiku ‘expresses some realm of the human spirit in an unforgettable way,’ seeking to lead us to lightness, or karumi. An offering:

Above the limpid rim

The folding yellow crêpe

Of welking lilies.

Alice in Wonderland in northern California

When Alice opened the front door, she was amazed to see a giant sequoia looking impassively back at her. The tree engulfed her view, so dwarfed her egress that she had to tiptoe and shimmy sideways to get out the door.


Outside, she stepped back and back to take more of it in. And as her eyes climbed up the thick trunk like ants scurrying along a rough-hewn table, she was taken and taken up by the sky. It was as though she were looking into a concave-shaped cosmos: a deep bowl of passing clouds held in place by tree limbs all around the sides. (But what, she thought, held the bottom in place? Would not the passing clouds leak out?) Watching the clouds sweep from side to side, Alice soon forgot her tiny feet as well as her craning neck. Soon she forgot her thoughts and soon after that herself.

Cultivating discipline: A forthcoming manual

I’m beginning to think about the contents of a short guide, Cultivating Discipline, which I’ll likely be using in some upcoming educational workshops. One chapter, I believe, will be on spiritual exercises, which I plan to arrange according to categories. Pierre Hadot suggests that a spiritual exercise is a meditation aimed less at informing the pupil about a state of affairs than at transforming the philosopher’s perception of the world. The ‘habits’ Hadot speaks of are more like a way of being.

I include a preliminary list below.

Change in Perspective

The aim of these exercises is to move from the first-personal to the impersonal, a transition I describe in ‘Preface. The One who Philosophizes.’ In this piece, I urge that the ‘oneself’ is the perspective from which one can philosophize.

1. View from Above

2. Learning to Die

3. Philosophical Conversation

4. Transience (or: Impermanence)

Being Present

Presentness is at once a temporal and a phenomenological notion. Temporally speaking, the one who is present has learned not to focus his thinking on the past or the future or on his relations to the past (regret, e.g.) or to those of the future (e.g., anxieties, anticipations, hopes). Phenomenologically speaking, he is directing his focus pointedly and lucidly on the words, deeds, and features of the world around and before him.

1. Attention

2. Vigilance

3. Lightheartedness (or: Humor)

Continue reading “Cultivating discipline: A forthcoming manual”