Mind: the Fourth Circle

Mind, the fourth circle of practice, tries to answer these questions:

  1. What am I interested in, or curious about?  What holds my attention?
  2. What is good, or true?  How can I increase my knowledge and understanding of the world?
  3. How can I appreciate or create what is beautiful?

Once we begin to find our answers to the questions of the spiritual domain, we naturally begin to raise these questions of the mind.  We want to spend our time, and find purpose and meaning in, those things that interest us, that pique our curiosity, and that fully engage our attention.

We want to pursue those things we perceive to be good, and believe those things we know to be true.  It brings pleasure to the mind to grow in knowledge and understanding.  It also gives opportunity to apply that knowledge and understanding in the world around us, from which come reputation, compensation, and power.

Beauty arrests our attention, whether by symmetry, or rhythm, harmony, or melody; whether visually, aurally, tactilely, or fragrantly.  In some respects it is subjective; in others objective.  We know it when we experience it.  It fills us with awe, with longing, with desire.  To appreciate it is to grow, like a plant toward the sun.  To create it is to bear fruit that blesses the world, like an apple that falls ripe from the tree.

When we can answer these questions with clarity and confidence, then we have marked out an intellectual path before us as plain as the yellow brick road.  To read about and apply those ideas which fully engage us, to grow in knowledge and understanding, to appreciate and create beauty, is to walk the Elysian Fields crowned with laurel.

The Siren Song of Mathematics

Treat yourself to a book or two of Euclid.  You might discover an aesthetic you never knew existed, a beauty bare, austere, and elegant.

Forget about utility.  Forget about any fear you might have of math, or some childhood humiliation you may have experienced.  Expect a pleasant surprise.  Just enjoy the geometrical progression of your rule and compass across the page, as they make visual music out of a geometrical problem.

The book begins with definitions, common notions, and postulates.  These are the assumptions, the building blocks out of which everything else in the books of Euclid are made.

Take each proposition as a puzzle to solve, or a dilemma to resolve.  The thing I love about geometry is how the visual and rational aspects come together there before you on a sheet of paper.  Each construction seems to me to be a thing of beauty.

And I love Euclid’s proofs, his economy of expression, his rhythmic flow of thought, and his inexorable downhill run of reason.

I discovered Emily Dickenson while I was in college.  I loved the compressed language of her poems.  Math is like that.

At some point math captured me with its symbols and proofs.  The symbols were an innovation made to compress an oft repeated, complicated verbal expression into a single visual expression.  I can remember being drawn to “The World of Mathematics” by James Newman by the summation symbols that ran along its spine.  And I felt that when I’d come to the end of a proof that I’d finally understood the concept expressed in the proposition.

That power of a name Ursula Le Guin describes in her Earthsea trilogy realizes its full force in mathematics, e.g., e=mc2.  That formula precisely names the relationship that exists between energy and matter.

Math is a wonderful ocean, deep and wide, and brimming over with ideas.  Dive in.  Euclid is a great place to start.

Practice with Positive Imagery

Another spoke in the “Wheel of Excellence” is positive images.  Here is a quote from the Zone Of Excellence website:

When you are parachuting, you have an emergency procedure to go through… depending on what kind of failure you have with your parachute. You’ve only got a few seconds to go through that matrix… I spent a great deal of time visualizing the scenarios and it happened to me. And it’s incredible because you’ve got that matrix down flat, you just go through it. And by four hundred feet I had the problem solved and I didn’t die. And so you get down on the ground and you go – – I won. You touched death and you won. (Astronaut)

I have a really vivid imagination for things I dread, but not for things I want to happen, especially for the minutiae of life.  I can’t imagine reviewing that astronaut’s matrix over and over in my mind the way he did.

I’ve been practicing yoga since I was a senior in high school, i.e., for over thirty years.  And yet I don’t really feel like I’m any “better” now than when I began.  At the same time, I’ve never really “visualized” myself going through a perfect yoga routine.  What would that experience feel like?  What would it look like through my eyes as I move from posture to posture?

I especially struggle with the balancing postures, even the most basic.  But yesterday I tried to visualize in my mind’s eye what it would feel like to do the posture perfectly, and I did notice a difference.

I think in the past I have thought, “If I want the benefits of yoga, then it’s better to do the yoga rather than visualize it in my mind.”

Could I have been wrong?

Identifying with Work

The strangest thing happens when I identify with my work: I can’t do it.  As soon as I start thinking, “I am a writer,” I lose the power to write.

If that’s who I am, then nothing’s ever good enough.  “That’s not me.  I can do better than that.”  I can’t stop revising.  I can’t even get past the title.

I’m not a writer.  I just write.  The power to write comes from writing; as long as I keep the words flowing onto the page, I know it’s going to be OK.

As soon as we identify with our work we lose sight of the work, and start thinking of how we’re perceived by our audience.  Not who our audience is, but who we are in the eyes of our audience.  We may need to know who our audience is if we want them to understand our work, but we can’t think about whom we are as perceived by them.

We’ll never get naked up there on the stage with all the eyes of the world watching us.  But if that’s where our work takes us, then that’s where we need to go.

For our work to be genuine we need to be vulnerable.

That’s what the sports world means when they talk about having amnesia.  The ones that have it are focused on the next pitch, the next pass, the next catch; they are focused on the work, and not on themselves in the eyes of the arena.

Reading Books

There probably has never been a time when it has been so easy to read a book.

There are so many media by which a book may be “read,” and so many more contexts in which is possible to read, that I am truly amazed by how few people avail themselves of the opportunity.

According to wiki.answers.com:

  • less than 15% of Americans read books on any regular basis,
  • one third of American high school graduates never read another book in their lives,
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book after college,
  • 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year,
  • 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years,
  • 57% of new books are not read to completion, and over half of those are not read past page 18.


I was not a great reader when I was young.  I caught the reading bug in college.  I had a friend who was making his way through the Russian writers, and I decided to follow example.  I loved them.

Then somehow I stumbled across Mortimer Adler, and How to Read a Book.  Mortimer inspired me to read with great enthusiasm, and filled me with the belief that books would change my life.

While in many ways I have not been a good student of Mortimer, seldom has a day gone by when I have not read a book, especially once I found audio books.  Whether I’m driving my car, taking a walk, washing dishes, or folding laundry, you will also find me listening to a book.

And what has all this reading availed me?  Well I feel I can talk with almost anybody about almost anything.  I’m interested in most things, and most things have been written about.  They have helped me to understand other people, and to understand myself.  And they have enriched me with the experience of a thousand lives.

How to Read Scripture

I think the most important thing to remember about reading scripture is to read it.  You can’t read scripture if you don’t read it.

With that in mind, and knowing how busy everyone is these days, choose to read something you are interested in, or enjoy reading.  Don’t start with Leviticus or Summa Theologica (the latter is great for insomnia), especially if you struggle to find time to read in the first place.

When you find a section of text that speaks to you, highlight it, and perhaps even make a note to yourself why you underlined it.

If you read something that just rocks your world, then write it down.  Memorize it.  Write about it.  Discuss it with those you trust and can be vulnerable with.

Set a reasonable goal for yourself: not so little that its accomplishment is trivial, and not so much that it becomes a burden.  Be gentle with yourself, but at the same time remember what you’re reading and why: these are the ideas you build your life with.

Maybe you’re beyond all this and are rolling your eyes at the lack of scholarship I’m advocating.  After all, there are folks out there who do word studies, syntopical research, comparative research, etc.

All those things are great.  I think generally speaking the deeper and more engaged you are in any activity, the greater will be the rewards you reap.

Just remember why you started your research.  Don’t let all that analysis make you deaf to the voice that spoke to your heart in the first place.

If you spend all your days dissecting corpses, it can be hard to remember they were once human beings.