Truth and Tenderness: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship and Its Two Essential Conditions

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love (though it’s not uncommon for one to turn abruptly into the other), but whatever the case, friendship is certainly one of the most rewarding fruits...

A Guide for the Perplexed: Mapping the Meaning of Life and the Four Levels of Being

How to harness the uniquely human power of “consciousness recoiling upon itself.” “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on how the art of getting lost helps us find ourselves, “and somewhere in the terra incognita...

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise...

The Poetics of Reverie: Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Dreams, Love, Solitude, and Happiness

“There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries.” “Creative writing, like a day-dream,” Freud observed, “is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.” But how, exactly, does the playful imagination weave dream and storytelling together to frame our...

Swami Vivekananda on the Secret of Work: Intelligent Consolation for the Pressures of Productivity from 1896

“Every work that we do… every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff…” In December of 1895, the renowned Indian Hindu monk and philosopher Swami Vivekananda, then in his early thirties, traveled to New York, rented a couple of rooms at 228 West 39th Street, where he spent a month holding...

Physician Allison Ballantine’s Short, Stirring Commencement Address on Living with Presence

How the hamster wheel of achievement and approval can cheat us. In culling the greatest commencement addresses of all time, I wondered whether the convocation speech genre might be the modern secular sermon of our time. But imparting life-advice that touches on the spiritual without veering off into the contrived and the aphoristic is a...

Chinua Achebe on the Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in Society

The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection. “A writer,” E.B. White asserted in a fantastic 1969 interview, “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” A quarter century later, another literary titan articulated the...

Thoreau on What Skunk-Cabbage Can Teach Us About Optimism and the Meaning of Human Life

“There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.” Even though our brains are wired for optimism, our cultural conditioning is to worry about everything. Long before modern psychology shed light on how our minds affect our bodies, one of humanity’s greatest thinkers...

Buddhist Economics: How to Stop Prioritizing Goods Over People and Consumption Over Creative Activity

“Work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.” Much has been said about the difference between money and wealth and how we, as individuals, can make more of the latter, but the divergence between the two is...

Alan Watts on the Difference Between Belief and Faith

How to master the delicate dance of unconditional openness to the truth. A century and a half before Carl Sagan explored the relationship between science and religion, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, contemplated the subject in a beautiful letter. Two centuries later, Alan Lightman crafted an enchanting definition of secular spirituality. This question...

The Art of Looking: How to Live with Presence, Break the Tyranny of Productivity, and Learn to See Our Everyday Wonderland

“When you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.” For my book club collaboration with The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s online oasis of intelligence and idealism, I had the pleasure of sitting down with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz to discuss her immeasurably wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) —...

Curiosity and Wonder Are My Religion: Henry Miller on Growing Old, the Perils of Success, and the Secret of Remaining Young at Heart

“If you can fall in love again and again… if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half licked.” “On how one orients himself to the moment,” 48-year-old Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living in 1939, “depends...

The Theology of Rest: A Modern Sermon About Living with Presence in the Age of Productivity

“Rest, instead of being something passive, is actually an act of resistance.” “Busy is a decision,” a wise woman once once reminded us. I often think about how our modern obsession with productivity is blinding us to the fact that being productive can be the surest way of lulling ourselves into a trance of passivity,...

How to Navigate the Murky Waters of Workplace Friendships: Wisdom from Adam Smith and Aristotle

“Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure?” “A condition of friendship, is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in his beautiful...

Albert Camus on Happiness and Love, Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

“If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.” In this new installment of the Brain Pickings artist series, I’ve once again teamed up with the wonderfully talented Wendy MacNaughton, on the heels of our previous collaborations on...

How We Grieve: Meghan O’Rourke on the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with Loss

“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.” John Updike wrote in his memoir, “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes...