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By “use little tricks”, Sarah Bakewell means mental exercises. She’s describing Montaigne’s philosophical practices in this chapter, and most of them come from Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics. All three of these traditions from Hellenistic philosophers concerned with how human beings could live a good life. A good life involved finding eudomania, which is often translated as happiness or joy, although I prefer the term “human flourishing”.

The Epicureans and Stoics often recommended very similar ways to achieve this. They both promoted a combination of controlling the emotions and living, with awareness, in the present moment. Each school had its own recommendations on how to achieve this, and Montaigne did what many people today do – he mixed and matched, choosing practical “exercises” or “tricks”, such as the ones about visualising your own death in order to prepare for it which I mentioned in the post on death.

I’ve come across several of these exercises since coming to live in France, for example, in Pierre Hadot’s “Spiritual Exercises”. Like Montaigne I’m not a fan of the visualising my own death, but I have often used others you might be familiar with.

One of my favourites is “The view from on High”, where you imagine climbing a hill and looking back down on yourself so you can see your life in a larger context. In fact I had a spontaneous experience of that shortly after starting university. I grew up in Stirling and left home at 18 to study Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After leaving my childhood home to return to Edinburgh on the first weekend visit back to see my parents I had a sensation of leaving my body as I walked along the road to the railway station. It was as if I was flying high above myself and I could see the physical me below. I looked tiny! Really tiny! And had an emotional surge of recognition that I was one small person heading out into a much larger world.

There’s a variation of “The view from on High”, called “The view from Sirius” where you imagine you come from another planet and you’re visiting Earth for the first time. In fact I remember that exercise, although not by that name, being recommended by Stephen Spender in his “Life of a Poet”. He was, of course, encouraging poets to see everything as if for the first time.

That leads me to two of my other favourite exercises – one to approach today in the knowledge that every experience will be for the first time. You’ll never have had the exact same conversation with the exact same person before today (although with some people it can feel that you keep having the same conversation again and again!). Couple this with approaching today in the knowledge that this will be last time you experience whatever you encounter today.

Taken together, “First and Last” get you to pay attention and live with greater awareness, and in so doing increase your opportunities to “savour the day”.

“anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life”

I’m never bored. Never. “Heroes not zombies!”

There’s really a lot to explore in these old teachings. I’ll finish this post with another of Montaigne’s favourites….

Nature has its own rhythms. Distraction works well precisely because it accords with how humans are made: Our thoughts are always elsewhere. It is only natural for us to lose focus, to slip away from both from pains and pleasures, ‘barely brushing the crust’ of them. All we need to do is let ourselves be as we are.

That reminds me of the teaching I received when learning TM meditation – when you realise your mind has drifted away from the mantra, just gently return to the mantra. A lesson with wider application than just meditation practice.

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The third of Montaigne’s preferred ancient philosophies was Scepticism. There have been a number of flavours of scepticism through the ages but all are based on doubt – knowing you can never know everything so you can never be certain.

Actually there’s a modern version of scepticism which seems to consist of being absolutely sure that what someone else believes is nonsense. I’ve had a few run ins with that brand of scepticism over the years, as they seem utterly convinced it’s impossible that my patients could ever improve when treated with homeopathy. Such conviction has always seemed to me to be the opposite of scepticism.

I’m a sceptic in the way Montaigne was a sceptic. I like to question things because I know none of us can ever have complete and final knowledge of anything.

“he [Montaigne] filled his pages with words such as ‘perhaps’, ‘to some extent’, ‘I think’, ‘It seems to me’, and so on”

I completely resonate with this!

Sarah Bakewell writes….Montaigne had a deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorised, what is mysterious.

Again….this is me! I loved my Monday mornings at work because I knew I’d be meeting some new patients, each one of whom would tell me a story I’d never heard before. People never cease to astonish me and I’d be repeatedly amazed by how individuals had coped, and how they found ways to heal and/or to flourish. I hated the way some doctors would reduce patients to their diseases, seeing them as mere examples of this diagnosis or another. I loved how human diversity constantly eluded categorisation.

Combined with this is my deep understanding that we can never escape our own subjectivity. I will always experience and interpret my life through my personal lenses. And you will, yours. Yet, in the core of that we find much in common with each other and are able to establish strong bonds. Montaigne put it this way…

There is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.

Another aspect of Montaigne’s take on scepticism with which I agree, was his understanding that the only constant in the universe is change so no knowledge is ever fixed or complete.

We, and our judgement, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly. Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion.

Becoming not being, folks!

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Oops!

I seem to have got a little out of sequence somehow publishing todays post along with yesterdays, yesterday!

So, just to be clear, yesterday was How to Live: 4, and todays is supposed to be How to Live: 5.

Look forward to part 6 in this sequence tomorrow! See you again then, if I’ve got the WordPress publishing sequence back on track!

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Montaigne had a library of over 1000 books. His preferred reading included history, biographies and ancient Hellenistic philosophers. He always claimed a relaxed an easy approach to reading. His father taught him that “everything should be approached in gentleness and freedom, without rigour and constraint”. He would browse books casually, only reading what really interested him or brought him pleasure.

He claimed “Forget much of what you learn” and “Be slow witted” were his core principles, which, at first glance, seems somewhat odd. However, what he actually did with these principles was to apply what Buddhists would call “Beginners Mind”, an approach which is humble, open minded and doesn’t cling to whatever we encounter.

Combine this with his paying attention to the present moment and you can see why people who adhere to the modern “Slow Movement” find a soul mate in Montaigne.

This approach to reading is very right hemisphere. Our left hemisphere grasps and clings to whatever it encounters. It is, what Iain McGilchrist terms as “sticky”. It doesn’t want to let go. The right, on the other hand, is open to what’s new, what’s particular and what’s personal.

I don’t think Montaigne really forgot as much as he claimed he did. After all he was brilliant at weaving the teachings of the ancients into his essays, and he managed to recall details of past experiences with great clarity. Still, it’s an important principle. You could say it’s another Buddhist principle – non-attachment. Honestly, I can’t tell you just how many notebooks I have filled with passages I’ve read. I’m also a bit of a highlighter or underliner of certain texts, which is another way of finding the phrases I really liked.

I’m not slow witted but I do like to take my time to reflect and I have always realised how limited my knowledge is. There is always, but always, more to learn about everything.

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With his reading and writing Montaigne often adopted the habit of dialogue, not least with his best friend of all time, La Boetie, the author of “On Voluntary Servitude”, who died in his 30s.

La Boetie and Montaigne were the best of friends. John O’Donohue would call them “anam cara”, soul mates. They intensely identified with each other and in sixteenth century France it was common for young men to form such intense bonds with each other, maybe echoing their heroes, the ancient Greeks. They wrote passionate love letters to each other and had no hesitation describing their relationship as one based on love.

I’m not sure we use the word “love” enough these days, although I could also argue we’ve devalued it by using it too much! My own belief is that there isn’t enough love in this world, and the strongest relationships I’ve formed throughout my life are all based on love.

It’s therefore no surprise that when La Boetie got sick, deteriorated over a few days, then died with Montaigne at his bedside, that both the impact of his love for La Boetie and the depth of his grief at his death, remained with him for the rest of his life.

Seneca said we should identify “some admirable man” and “visualise him as an ever present audience”. Montaigne applied this teaching to his own life, and La Boetie was his chosen admirable man.

I read this chapter the same day I listened to an episode of the Emergence magazine podcast, “Navigating the Mysteries”, with Martin Shaw, where he recommends using our imagination to dialogue with individuals we admire and respect, whether they are alive today, or long since gone, or even fictional characters.

I think that’s a fascinating idea….to pick a favourite character, fictional or real, and dialogue with them. I think I might give it a go. Who would you choose for such an exercise?

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Possible answer number 3 in Sarah Blackwell’s book about Montaigne, “How to Live”, is entitled “be born”.

At first, I thought this was a joke, like the one that goes “Q. What’s the first thing you have to do before getting off a train? A. Get on it”

However it turns out to be a very thoughtful piece on the circumstances of our births. By circumstances I mean the parents we are born to, as well as the social and cultural situation into which we are born.

How much of your mum or dad do you recognise in yourself? Whether it’s due to genetics or family socialisation, there will be aspects of your personality and behaviour which you may recognise in your ancestors (from parents, through grandparents and so on). That’s a common thread in the BBC’s excellent “Who do you think you are?” series. Time and again the person tracing their family tree discovers ancestors who had strikingly similar occupations or traits to their own.

Of course, it’s not all about having similar characteristics to our parents, or grandparents. Sometimes the next generation goes the opposite way….perhaps in reaction to their experience of how they were parented.

One of my grandfathers was an avid reader and read me stories frequently (including Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather). Did he pass on that love of reading, storytelling and history, to me (traits not shared with his daughter, my mum)? It seems he did. I even learned he used to give talks with a “magic lantern”, something I used to recall as I’d head for a venue with my laptop and projector in hand.

It’s an important point. How we live is enormously influenced by the contexts of our existence. By our roots. That isn’t to say they are set in stone and I don’t accept it in a fatalistic way, but I reckon if I want to understand myself, or someone else, then I need to take into account the circumstances of early life, the “family history”, the social and cultural influences.

In that sense, how we live, is better understood by learning about our origins, and our early years.

This also makes me think of what I’ve learned about attachment theory and neural development…..how a healthy attachment style with the primary carer in the first few months of life can influence the development of the brain, including the number of interconnections formed between the neurones. Those early months and years can also set up inflammatory patterns if there is poverty, poor nutrition and a lack of safety at that time. (Something known as the “allostatic load”). So the patterns of chronic illness which can appear in adult life can often be traced back to those early years.

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The second possible answer to How to Live is “pay attention”. Here’s an answer close to my heart. You could argue that “heroes not zombies” is about paying attention, because what we pay attention to creates what we experience on a day to day basis. Whatever we focus on is magnified by the attention we give.

Isn’t it interesting that we even talk of the “attention economy” nowadays? Whether on social media, tv, or other mainstream media, everyone is competing for our attention and is awarded for success by the advertising industry.

I’d argue that most modern politics is “attention politics” with its emphasis on focus groups, three word slogans and communications which stoke fear and anger and division.

If we’re not aware of where our attention is spending its time, we are in zombie mode, driven this way and that by those who seek to manipulate us.

Montaigne learned the importance of paying attention from the ancients.

Those traditions emphasise the benefits of paying attention to Nature and to everyday experiences. That makes a lot of sense to me. As you’ll find in many of my posts “l’émerveillement du quotidien” is a core principle for me – the wonder in the every day. I’m constantly fascinated by my daily encounters with birds, plants, trees, people, what I read in books, art, drama, music, poetry…..you name it.

Which brings me to another aspect of attention. Iain McGilchrist has shown that our two cerebral hemispheres pay attention in two very different ways. We need both and we experience life at its best when we integrate both halves. The left hemisphere has a narrow focus, honing in on particular details, abstracting them from the overall context and analysing them. It’s great for “grasping” things. The right, however, enables a broad, whole, engaged form of attention. It helps us to see the big picture, to discover and to create connections.

By using both we discover both the unique and the common. We see the context and in so doing better understand the parts.

I like the phrase “engaged attention”. It implies an investment in whatever it is we are paying attention to. It suggests a depth of experience greater than that which is achieved by flicking quickly through channels, “doom scrolling” social media, and purely reactive, unconscious ways of living.

This is one thing I feel quite certain of – it’s a good thing to pay attention !

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The first of Montaigne’s twenty answers to the question of how to live (according to Sarah Bakewell) explores the issue of death. That might seem an odd place to start, because surely death is at the end of the story. However, it was an accident which gave Montaigne a near death experience and changed his whole way of thinking about life. It was this event which prompted him to begin exploring his own sensations, thoughts and emotions, and writing about them. In other words it was a near death experience which inspired Montaigne to create a whole new way of writing.

Prior to the accident he wrestled with the classical teaching of the Stoics who taught we should imagine our death, vividly, and in great detail, in order to prepare ourselves for dying when the time came. The trouble was he didn’t find thinking about and imagining his own death did anything other than increase his anxiety about it. He didn’t feel it was preparing him for it at all.

When I read that, I thought of the many Woody Allen films where his character constantly worries about death!

Montaigne processed his near death experience and concluded that the most striking thing was how dying felt a bit like falling asleep. It seemed like slipping from life into death was almost like floating effortlessly from the one to the other. Not a frightening process at all. Yet even as he was experiencing it, it seemed his unconscious body was writhing around, he’d been told. The inner experience didn’t seem to match the outward one.

As a doctor, you can imagine, I’ve witnessed many deaths over the years, and I’ve often wondered about those very final moments where, it seems, “the lights go out”. It’s always been a dramatic and emotional experience and I still don’t really understand exactly what happens at the final point of transition. In fact, “point” is the wrong word. It’s typically something that happens over a period of time greater than just a moment. But I’m not sure I ever imagined it was the way Montaigne described his near death experience.

Until one night on the island of Capri a couple of decades ago. As a young adult I ate oysters on two occasions and I was violently sick afterwards both times. As I grew up in central Scotland my family never ate seafood so I didn’t have any experience of mussels, clams, scallops and so on. One evening on Capri I was at a party and had spaghetti vongole. That was the night I discovered I had a shellfish allergy.

In the middle of the night I woke violently sick and rapidly got much worse. My wife went for help and I remember as a lay on the toilet floor realising I couldn’t move my legs any more and when I tried to speak no words came out. I knew in that moment I was really seriously ill and I still remember the floating feeling I had and the clear and distinct thought – “well, this is it. I’ve had a good life but I’ll be off now”.

Of course, I recovered. I wouldn’t be writing this today if I hadn’t. But that was my own personal near death experience. That all came back to me when I read Montaigne’s description. It did indeed feel from the inside a floating, slipping, easy transition. Not something to be afraid of.

Once Montaigne understood this he decided that, for him, at least, the old teachings about preparing for your death weren’t helpful. That, rather, death would come unexpectedly and naturally. He decided that instead of preparing to die, he’d put his efforts into living.

He shifted his focus from death to life. He decided to put his efforts, instead, into living a full, rich and fulfilling life. A good life. In the rest of his book he describes how he went about that. Each chapter is about his attempts to do that – “Essais”, translated as “Essays”, is the title of his book, but that French word actually means attempts, trials or tries. He describes what it was like to be Montaigne and as he does so uncovers many of the general issues we all share. So it’s common, even for contemporary readers, to wonder – “how did he know that’s what I experience?”

Well, that’s certainly my experience about this subject. For me, too, I’ve long since chosen to focus on living my life to the full.

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Is this a green leaf or a red one? If the colours represent two parties or choices in most modern democracies you’d have to say the greens won and the reds lost.

That kind of thinking does my head in! It produces everything from a tyranny of the biggest minority over all the other minorities to deepening divisions and resentment.

I understand that in a game, football, or tennis, for example, one team or player will score the most, be declared the winner and all the other contestants have to come to terms with their loser status. But that’s no way to run a society or a country.

Every population contains a diversity of individuals with different, probably evolving, or changing views and beliefs about everything. Democracy, if I understand the idea correctly, is a system designed to build consensus and promote social cohesion. But the current varieties of it don’t seem to work that way.

From first past the post voting, to us or them political groupings, to for or against votes where “winner takes all”, all of these practices deny the reality of complexity and diversity.

Does “we won” so “you” have to “shut up”, “suck it up”, or “move on” ever build understanding, improve relationships or build communities of people who want to work together? I don’t think so.

We need a better way to live together if we want to get off this divisive one track road to hatred, anger and resentment.

In politics, as in life, nothing is ever “finished”, “done” or “settled”. We need to be able to adapt, to make different choices as the world changes rather than digging deeper trenches and building bigger tribal walls.

I love this image of the green and red leaf, and I love it in this moment of its transition which speaks to me of Life, of dynamic cycles and seasons of change and difference. More than anything, in response to the question of its colour, I resort to “and not or”. It’s green AND red.

Would it be so hard to create a democratic system based on that reality? One that works for all of us, not just a minority?

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Ways

I moved house six months ago. Since moving I’ve been very busy, every day. The house and garden haven’t been lived in for a few years so they’re needing to be brought back to life. They’re needing some care and attention. Some of that busyness is very satisfying. Some of it can be pretty frustrating. Much of it can be really exhausting. It’s certainly squeezed out other activities, blown away old habits.

My every day now feels quite different to my every day a few years ago. But then that’s pretty normal isn’t it?

Sometimes I think of my life as a book, so here I am in the next chapter. The title of my blog, heroes not zombies, reminds me that each of us is both the author and hero (main character) of our personal life story. So I’m busy writing this new chapter, and embracing fully every paragraph!

But this photo reminds me of another metaphor which I’ve always liked – the path, with it junctions, intersections and, occasionally, signposts.

My garden has a neglected overgrown area of trees in it and one of my main activities just now is opening it up and reclaiming it. I’m doing that, not by following any signposts, but by creating brand new paths.

It’s delightful, even when it’s tricky and hard work, to make your own new paths into the unknown, the unexplored, and to make new discoveries every day.

Sometimes there are helpful direction indicators in life, but they are always only suggestions, and the path we choose will always be unique, will always be our own.

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