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The Highest of Arts

Human art

It seems to me that person by person, humanity is just beginning to wake up to something great.  Every day I see evidence of more and more people taking a step back from the well-worn grooves of tradition, and finding a way to live that makes sense for themselves.

More people are quitting the corporate race to work for on their own.  Fewer parents are deciding what their children’s careers will be.  More people are living unconventional lifestyles, choosing jobs, diets, parenting styles, clothes, music and creative pursuits that speak to them more deeply than the traditional prescriptions.  The old-fashioned vice of conformity appears to be losing out to the human spirit.

What this means is that fewer people are being funneled into lifestyles that don’t fulfill them, religions that don’t make sense to them, and careers they dread.  This leaves many more individuals who are free to listen to a deeper voice within them, the inner advisor that tells them what’s right for them if they remain still enough to hear it.

Whether we can detect it or not, this voice is always there.  It speaks calmly and clearly, but it won’t raise its tone to compete with all the noise in your life.   The incessant chatter of our needlessly busy minds combined with the rude clamor of society’s demands on us conspire to drown it out, sometimes for stretches of years, even lifetimes.

Different people interpret it different ways, and call it different things: wisdom, intuition, spirit, God.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s not just intelligence.  Intelligence can lead us into trouble just as easily as it can lead us away from it.  Intelligence is just as likely to help people build bigger weapons or exploit more people as it is to help someone learn to be happy.  What I’m talking about is a superior form of understanding that seems to point unfailingly to better ways to live.

We have all at least tasted it, in moments of peculiar clarity when the mind shuts up and something else speaks.  Some people are certainly more in tune with it than others, and those most in tune are astonishingly effective and centered people.

As I alluded to in Raptitude’s debut article, Why Happiness is Such a Struggle, I think humans are slowly growing out of the animalistic traits of reactivity, fear and domination, and tuning in to a deeper and more potent part of our psyche.  In my own life, and in what I’ve witnessed in others, it’s traits like patience, non-reaction, non-judgment, forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love that do a much better job at creating quality of life for a person.

Worry, neediness, fear, self-importance, disdain and other reactive qualities lend very little to quality of life, in my experience.  In very threatening circumstances they may keep us alive, but as members of modern society we can get by easily enough without treating life like it’s always so dire.

To be in tune with this higher intelligence (or whatever phrase you choose — all these names are troublesome) means that you can see clearly which thoughts and actions support quality of life, and which don’t.  When we completely lose sight of it, we get lost in reactivity and have little or no perspective, and so we suffer.  Click here for an excellent example of someone who’s lost touch with it completely.

realjesusAs civilization envelops the globe, most human beings have reached a place where we can safely shift our focus away from the trappings of being wild animals, and begin to cultivate the higher qualities of being human.  When a person can learn to wield the super-powerful skills of patience, acceptance, and unconditional love — as some have very well — they can achieve anything.

Most notably, with these skills one can effect a personal experience in which nothing is lacking.  Names have been given to this too: Nirvana, enlightenment, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Some individuals have already reached tremendous levels of skill in this regard, and they are the some of the most famous and influential people in history.  Jesus.  Buddha.  Gandhi.  Confucius.  Lao-Tsu.   All of them masters of the greatest human skillset: those that allow us to live and love without creating suffering.

The Highest of Arts

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
~Henry David Thoreau

Today at work, everything exploded.  With my boss and another employee away, I’ve been saddled with three people’s workloads this week, plus a considerable backlog of my own work.

We had just finished a load of unexpected field work for a client, when they showed up and wanted to change everything.  It just didn’t look like they expected, and they wanted it all redone.  This unforeseen turn of events represents days of additional work for me, open scrutiny of my design work from the client and the contractor, and a difficult conversation with my boss, who is currently on vacation.  And I don’t have any extra time to do it.  Construction had already begun, and they didn’t want any delays.

From the very moment I saw the look in their eyes — the ‘we have a problem here’ look — I knew things were going to blow up, and I decided right then not to let it ruin my day.  Whatever was to happen, I would take it in stride, and not slip into a bad mood.  There was no easy resolution here, no obvious course of action, nobody to call for an answer, and eyes were on me.

If this had happened two or three years ago, I would have spent the rest of the long, hot workday cursing under my breath at various parties (including myself), playing out imaginary confrontations in my mind, hating where I was and what I had to do.  I would have thrown an afternoon-long tantrum, mostly internally, and the day would drag all that much more.  The sun would become my enemy.  My life itself would become my enemy.

It was a beautiful day.  Warm and clear with a slight breeze.  As we worked thanklessly into the afternoon, with the fate of the project still up in the air, I stayed calm.  I joked, I smiled.  With a list of problems as long as my arm, I stood on a road embankment in a picturesque field of canola, basking in the prairie air, quite happy to be there.


What Raptitude is Really About

As of the time of this writing, the whole situation is still up in the air.  I’ve got an overloaded plate for tomorrow, and I certainly don’t have it all figured out.  Surely there will be more complications and difficulties before this is all over.  But I’m fine.  I know that there is no use in allowing this uncertain and difficult situation to spoil large swaths of my time on earth.  If I let myself I could fret about it all night, as a less experienced David surely would have.

What makes the difference is that I have skills and insights that I didn’t always have.  I have a better understanding of how my moods work, I know how to halt dangerous trains of thought before they get going, and I know that it doesn’t really matter if I look foolish unless I decide I cannot tolerate looking foolish.  When I don’t slip into reactivity (and of course I still do sometimes), the voice inside me is still audible.  And life is so much better when it is.

It’s been about six years since I discovered that a person can actually do that: learn to affect the quality of the day.  Before that, the quality of my day was a slave to circumstances.  If the situation was good, I was good.  If things went wrong, I went wrong.  Whether I experienced happiness or misery didn’t depend on me, it depended on everything but me!

Of course, I would invest huge amounts of energy trying to force the circumstances to become ideal for me.  This approach creates an enormous amount of stress and suffering for a person, because ultimately we have very little real control over what happens around us.

This is the old way: to apply force to circumstances so that they hopefully become ideal.  When they are ideal, one can be happy.  rayoflightThe more undesirable circumstances become, the more force must be applied, and the side effects can quickly become devastating.  The force that people apply for this purpose takes many forms and occurs on every scale: anger, manipulation, obsession, war, theft, lying, eating disorders, rudeness, drug abuse, overspending, pollution, all violent acts great and small.  The majority of people operate almost exclusively this way in some form, applying force to circumstances in an effort to make the outside world make them happy.

The new way is to learn to affect the quality of one’s own day, through one’s own personal skills and insights.  I’ve gotten a lot better at this new art, and I like to think this reflects the trend in humanity as a whole.  Early outliers like Buddha and Jesus have lain outstanding groundwork in the form of brilliant teachings, if only they can escape the horrific side effects of dogma, as less conscious people abuse them in an attempt to force circumstances that make them comfortable.

What we’re really talking about here is evolution.  Humans are continuing to adapt to their world, but at this stage of the game, mere biological changes are not going to cut it.  They happen too slowly to save humanity from the looming spectres of overpopulation and pollution.  What is required now is a revolution of personal wisdom.

You can learn a lot from other people’s wisdom, as I have and try to pass along, but it doesn’t do a thing if it doesn’t resonate on the deeper level of that quiet, steady voice inside you.  I’ll relate everything I’ve discovered about the highest of arts, and open my eyes and ears to what others can share with me, and hope that it rings true for as many of us as possible.  That’s what Raptitude is really about.

What characterizes this kind of wisdom is that it cannot be applied by force.  It cannot be indoctrinated into people, it cannot be spread — as has been tried — en masse with missionaries or crusades, with improved public policy or celebrated new presidents.  The highest of arts is always going to be a personal matter.

This responsibility cannot be left to other people, or to the tides of circumstance.  Each person must come to their own personal transformation, so that they can hear that voice in themselves, and not just take someone else’s word for it.  Our future depends on it.


Photos by Wolfgang Staudt , Gisela Giardino , Gurdonark and Freeparking

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Lisis July 9, 2009 at 7:38 am

This is beautiful, David. I love the quote you chose: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

I experienced a lovely example of this last night, affecting the quality of my day AND someone else’s. I went to see Eddie Kowalczyk (lead singer of LIVE) perform at a small, cozy venue in Atlanta. After the show he hung out on the patio signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans (insanely devoted fans, btw).

I noticed the opening act, David Fountain, was sitting at a table in the back with his friends… being completely ingored by everyone who had seen him perform, since they were there for Eddie.

I didn’t stand in line for Eddie’s autograph, which would’ve meant little to me and NOTHING to him. I went over to David and shook his hand, told him he was fantastic. I said, “You know… my husband is the Live fan. To me, BOTH acts were truly wonderful.”

He looked up at me and asked, “Really?!” I said, “Absolutely,” and he positively beamed. Someone had noticed him. I’m sure that affected the quality of his day, and it definitely affected mine.

.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Our Grandmas Weren’t Whiners =-.

suzen July 9, 2009 at 8:45 am

Beautifully written as usual, David! Two things hit me as I read it.

First, I agree that people are becoming more conscious of the choices they have to change their path, career, whatever. It feels to me like a resurgence of the 60’s only on a more sophisticated and demur level than the anti-establishment hippie movement. (There could be benefits to being my age, witness to history that I am! haha!)

Then, your insight on your “problem” day. I think so much of the suffering and stress people have is directly related to the amount of control they think they should have, or WANT to have, over every darn circumstance that pops up. Were you to feel victimized or pissed off (old David as you said) that would have been your ego reacting, feeling threatened or attacked personally by something that had absolutely nothing to do with you personally. I think of the Buddha’s words “Chop wood, carry water.” – which is what you did, kudos btw!

I strive to greet everything with at least one of these key words – acceptance, enjoyment, enthusiasm, and gratitude. It keeps me pretty darn stress free and peaceful. It’s not easy but it’s simple.


p.s. Glad you enjoyed the “insane” video on my blog – what a “sport” eh? Hope you’ll comment sometime so I know you were there ;)
.-= suzen´s last blog ..Public Enemy Premiere in the Northwoods =-.

John July 9, 2009 at 9:04 am

You’re right David. I’m beginning to see this with people that I know as well.

Most people take personal choice for granted because they are afraid of what everybody else will think.

It’s not up to other people to decide how your day will be in the end. Grab hold of your destiny and command it.

@Lisis That’s a pretty heartwarming moment. It’s the little things that count, and that comment you made could’ve made his entire day.
.-= John´s last blog ..Why You Should Eliminate Your “Fast-Food Mindset” =-.

Lisis July 9, 2009 at 11:26 am

Thanks, John! I’ll never know what it did for HIM… but it did wonders for me. It felt like a much better way to spend that time, rather than standing in line for an autograph. It’s so nice when we can connect with another person, even if it is just for a moment.
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Our Grandmas Weren’t Whiners =-.

Srinivas Rao July 9, 2009 at 11:29 am

Awesome post. Lots of pearls of wisdom. I think that you make a great point about circumstances and how we can let ourselves be impacted by circumstances. My circumstances haven’t necessarily been favorable for the last few months, but I’ve also treated it as a learning opportunity and a chance to find this higher part of myself that is detached.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..The Burden of Proof =-.

Alison | Quest for Balance July 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm

I love the quote you used, and I’d be interested to hear more of the context in which it appeared. (I wonder, what more did Thoreau have to say on this topic, if anything?)

Having a short fuse usually leads to no good. “Emotional Intelligence” is so important to well-being.
.-= Alison | Quest for Balance´s last blog ..Our Grandmas Weren’t Whiners =-.

prayerthegate July 9, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I like your insights on the way we choose to react to outside influence. It truly is the only thing we have any control over. You write beautifully and have some great thoughts to share. Thanks.
.-= prayerthegate´s last blog ..Be A Blessing =-.

David July 9, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Lisis — That quote had a profound effect on me ever since I first saw it. Just about every time I remember it, I can think of an easy and obvious way to affect the quality of the day. It’s when I forget that things go awry.

Suzen — I think we are reaching some kind of cultural renaissance like the 60s, the catalyst being the internet.

I strive to greet everything with at least one of these key words – acceptance, enjoyment, enthusiasm, and gratitude. It keeps me pretty darn stress free and peaceful. It’s not easy but it’s simple.

That’s a really useful way to think of it. What else could a person need?

John — Amen! I was worried about my boss leaving on holidays because there would be a lot of things popping up that I wasn’t going to be able to control. So I decided early on I was just going to let the catastrophes happen as they will, and respond without letting my mood get contaminated. It worked… most of the time :)

Srinivas — That’s great… it’s nice to know that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in you can always use it as practice for responding intelligently and remaining unattached.

Alison — It’s from Walden, the book he wrote when he went off to live on his own in the woods. I never got through it but I was 19 last time I tried to read it. I’ll give it another shot one day. Here’s the excerpt that contains it:

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.


Prayerthegate — Thank you!

Nadia - Happy Lotus July 10, 2009 at 9:36 am

Hi David,

I have been noticing this change too. I think many people are because in conversations with others, we all are realizing the same thing.

Society is being divided into two groups. Those who are conscious and those who are not. In my day job, I am surrounded by so many unconscious people, it has become kind of funny for it looks so strange to me. I joke with my husband and friends that going to work is like going to another planet.

Of course, to the people at work, I am odd because I am so happy and hardly ever complain. Yes, there are things that get to me but I really do not try to let it effect my day. Some days are easier than others but I know it is all an illusion. :)

Life is so much more than we realize. In India, in one of the holy books, it is said that if we saw all that God saw, we would not be able to handle it for it is so much.
.-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Living Instead of Working: My Interview With Jonathan Mead =-.

Tatiana July 11, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Excellent post. I’ve only recently (in the last year) internalized the idea that we control our own emotional climate, so I fully appreciate how you feel. It’s been incredibly liberating to learn that external circumstances don’t have to dictate our moods and feelings, to learn that to be in the moment is much more peaceful than worrying about the past and the future, and that when you give up control you are being lived, you hardly have a thing to do but look around you and marvel at reality. It did take a while to reprogram the brain to do that though, rather than stress out. :)
.-= Tatiana´s last blog ..A Friday Contest =-.

David July 12, 2009 at 8:37 am

Nadia — I’m glad you’re noticing a change too, and it’s not just my incurable optimism. Hopefully it will soon become less startling to people to see a happy person.

Tatiana — It’s amazing how geared we become (as adults) to keeping our minds in the past and future. Somewhere on the line we pick up the very strong habit of only seeing the present in terms of what possible futures it will bring, and what past mistakes have caused our problems today. It’s just a load of inaccurate and needless thinking, but it’s so hard not to indulge in it.

Stephen - Rat Race Trap July 12, 2009 at 10:50 am

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
~Henry David Thoreau

David, I love the quote. The whole article was beautiful and you are so right on with all of this. I only figured this out for myself within the last year.

I do not necessarily subscribe to the idea that people are changing that much though. I know this puts me in the minority of your commentators. Sure there are a lot of people changing, but as a percentage of the population, it is microscopic.

Also keep in mind that the blogger community or the people you hang around is a self-selected group of people. The internet has made the world smaller and people who have changed will seek out those similar to them. I don’t think this means there is much movement in the world at large though. It just seems that way. I’m not trying to be a downer, I’m just letting you know my observations.
.-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Finding Your True Self =-.

David July 12, 2009 at 3:19 pm

You may be right Stephen, none of us can see any further than our immediate surroundings, even though though internet connections and televisions can make us think we can.

I wouldn’t say that only a microscopic portion of people are changing though. The beauty of evolution, and indeed the entire universe is that we cannot not change, it’s impossible. Each experience changes our dispositions, reactions and habits a little bit. Whether we’re conquering once-insurmountable problems, or totally falling on our asses, every single organism is adjusting to its own life, within its current means.

In the short term, this might not mean a given individual is going to become better off, but in the long term we can’t help but become better adapted to our circumstances. I say this way too often, but I think the Internet (an extremely new influence, on the grand scale of evolution) will help far more people discover ways to achieve quality of life than was ever possible before. You just have to zoom out the lens a bit. The internet is a baby. It’s a straw hut compared to the cathedral it will be in fifty years.

Brenda July 31, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Don’t know how I missed this lovely post. David, I still find myself feeling sad sometimes when people are noticeably mean-spirited. Maybe I’m sad for them, empathic person that I am, but my mood is affected nonetheless. Sometimes empathy, sympathy, and compassion can feel like a downer. How do you deal with those three?

Your last comment about the internet reminds me of something Isaac Asimov said — “I don’t fear computers. I fear the lack of them.” Have you read The Last Question ? (God is a giant computer!)
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..Looking Ahead =-.

David July 31, 2009 at 1:11 pm

That’s a good question. Here’s what I try to do.

I try to see all mean-spiritedness as an essential part of a vast learning process. We need to do things badly in order to discover how to do things well. One persons’ bad behavior is an essential part of their own development and the development of humankind.

When we just look at a part of it, it’s ugly and disheartening, but if we zoom out a bit we can see the entire context: a beautiful, organic process of growth and refinement.

Just like the sight of an animal carcass in the forest might be upsetting or unpleasant, but when you consider it in terms of the grand cycle of life, death, decay and regrowth, we can see it’s a much more beautiful thing we’re seeing.

I find this hard to do if I’m wrapped up in a bad mood or something, because it’s so hard to gain perspective in that state, but at other times I can relax and know that everything indeed has its place.

LeeShand January 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

Another gem, I love this one. So well said.
“This responsibility cannot be left to other people, or to the tides of circumstance. Each person must come to their own personal transformation, so that they can hear that voice in themselves, and not just take someone else’s word for it. Our future depends on it.”
I love that part.

Bernice January 18, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I read this title under your Worst of Raptitude and had to go back and comment that this was what really made me stay attached to your blog. I love and agree with your way of thinking on all of your subjects, especially this one. Thank you so much! This blog should not be anywhere on your “worst” list.

Murali January 21, 2010 at 1:36 am

I stumbled upon your blog a few months back, and just wanted to say “Thank You.” You write and capture so well much of how I want to live my life.

David January 21, 2010 at 1:43 am

Thank you Murali. What a nice compliment to come across :)

Ric Evoy May 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I will Never be the same thinker

sally September 28, 2013 at 6:07 am

I have had a week of less than ideal circumstances. Some of them caused by myself and I have been feeling really bad about my own actions. Normally I am well aware of how my thoughts affect the quality of my days and life; this week under trying circumstances it is much harder than usual. But it will come good.

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