Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#27) — On Seneca, maxims and Pico Iyer

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Japan in Bloom — “Untitled,” by Rinko Kawauchi, from the series “Approaching Whiteness” (2011); C-print, 101.6 x 101.6 cm. Photograph courtesy of RoseGallery, Santa Monica, California.

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

In one of his moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca warns his friend for throwing around quotations. “Wherever you look your eye will light on things that might stand out if everything around them were not of equal standard,” he writes in Letter 33, On the Futility of Learning Maxims (Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell).

I don’t take Seneca lightly, far from it, but I will throw his caution to the wind because I want to share a few words from Pico Iyer, the British-born, Japan-based essayist, novelist, and author of, amongst others, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Words he expressed in one of The House of Beautiful Business’ wonderful Living Room Sessions. Iyer not only talked about stillness but also about his friendship with the late Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen.

On stillness, loneliness and solitude

“Stillness is the only way you can make sense of movement.”

“Loneliness is the only place in which we can come to terms with life.”

“Solitude is the loneliness in which you can hear something wiser than yourself.”

On places, travel and home

“Places are only as rich as the eyes you bring to them.”

“The act of travel is not about finding answers but deepening questions.”

“Home is not where we live; it’s what’s inside us, what sustains us.”

Recommended listening

Pico Iyer: The Urgency of Slowing Down, an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett (2015)

You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen (his final album, released by Columbia on 21 October 2016, 19 days before Cohen’s death)

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“Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions. ‘Nothing touches it,’ Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.” — Pico Iyer on Leonard Cohen (from Pico Iyer on What Leonard Cohen Teaches Us about Presence and the Art of Stillness, Brain Pickings)

“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do ya?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah.’”

— Leonard Cohen (1934–2016), from Hallelujah

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