25 Apr 2013
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
This much-quoted line from American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was written (without irony, as far as I can detect) in an autobiographical essay entitled The Crack-Up, describing the author’s depressed, addicted and dispirited condition a few years before his death. Fitzgerald was on the skids when the essay was published in 1938, and he knew it. Although he was only 39, he was done with producing serious work. He died about five years later.
Fitzgerald nevertheless managed to demonstrate, in that one memorable line, that a once-great artist is often still able to express the essence of the creative process even long after the possibility for productive work has passed.
The key notion is this: creative power implies acceptance of ambiguity, of living with apparently conflicting or competing calls on our attention, without becoming paralyzed. Fitzgerald’s contemporary Georges Braque, the French Cubist painter, expressed a very similar idea in his notebooks. “I love the rule that corrects the emotion,” he wrote, “[and] I love the emotion that corrects the rule.”
The contrary condition, the inability “to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time,” rejection of ambiguity, or avoidance of the rule that corrects the emotion (and vice versa), is what we generally call obsession. It’s the state of mind that gives rise to prejudice, ideological rigidity, sanctimonious superiority, xenophobia – and all manner of other phobias, anxieties and unhappy, unbalanced mental conditions.
Writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and other creative people have long been thought, in the popular imagination at least, to inhabit a world in which there is fine line between genius and madness, between “the ability to function” and, well, a crack-up.
As the world becomes more urbanized and technological, as we all become increasingly part of a complex knowledge economy involving the constant manipulation of symbols and abstractions, and as the pace of life steps up year after year, I think it is safe to say that we all now inhabit such a world. That same fine line that we thought was just for artists and creatives is actually there for everyone.
Our stress nowadays – the stress that we rightly fear could push us over that line – tends to come not from overly long days behind the plow or in the field, but rather from a cacophony of mental demands.
What we need is an antidote appropriate for this current state of the human condition, a modern equivalent of the Sabbaths and holidays, the festivals and jubilees, that allowed our forebears, in the age of manual labor, to replenish their energies and maintain psychic equilibrium.
Meditation could well be that antidote. It’s simple, inexpensive, and has no adverse side effects. And it addresses head-on the question of how to deal with the riot of thoughts, impressions, ideas, ambitions, and feelings that assault us. It does this by inviting us to undertake a mental exercise twice a day in which we keep two things in mind: on the one hand, an object of focus (in our tradition, a mantra) to which we give our full attention; on the other, everything else, to which we are indifferent.
Every thought is like a demanding child: it insists on being the center of attention. A thought accompanied by emotion is like a petulant child: it demands attention and is also whining. Now imagine a room full of such children. That’s your mind. (And the door is open: more adorable toddlers are entering the room…)
When we consign all thoughts, impressions, ideas, and emotions to the category of “everything else” we are not denying their existence or attempting to suppress them. We are simply cultivating a spirit of detachment with respect to them, which in turn keeps any one thought from colonizing – or hijacking – our mind.
Focus and awareness: this is the secret of meditation, the “two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” This is why it heals and relieves stress, and why it gives us, over the long haul, “the ability to keep functioning.”