There’s a big problem that the advocates of mindfulness rarely talk about


I’ve been a fan of mindfulness for years, and have done a good deal of sitting in Buddhist meditation classes and also tried some of the new secular mindfulness courses too. As with many people, mindfulness has helped me when I’m stressed, been a source of spiritual solace, and acted as a ballast in my life. It’s offered me the gift of present moment awareness, rescuing me from the modern curse of digital distraction.

But when I began looking into it more deeply when researching my new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, I started having creeping doubts about it. One of the most confronting moments was when I asked renowned Buddhist thinker Matthieu Ricard (best known, to his playful annoyance, as the happiest man in the world) what he thought about the modern secular versions of mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. His response surprised me. This is what he said:

There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness, but the risk is that it’s taken too literally – to just ‘be mindful’. Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgemental – just kill people and no judgement. That could happen!

Ricard was only half-joking, because he knows that secular mindfulness courses have become popular in military training and amongst Wall Street bankers, who hope it will keep them calm and give them the edge when the financial stakes are high. He then told me about a study at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig showing that taking a mindfulness course can help you deal with stress but has no discernible impact on pro-social behaviour.

It was shocking to hear, especially from a guy who has spent four decades doing mindfulness meditation in the foothills of the Himalayas. For Ricard, the Buddhist approach to mindfulness – unlike its secular counterpart – doesn’t have this problem of being ‘mindfulness without morals’, as it emphasises concepts such as compassion, caring, empathy and altruism.

So if you happen to be someone who has benefited from mindfulness, and made it part of your life, I think it’s worth challenging yourself and exploring some of its somewhat darker sides.

I do so in detail in my new book, dedicating a whole chapter to mindfulness as a form of ‘seizing the day’ and living in the moment – and subjecting it to scrutiny. To give you a taster, have a look at this free, shareable, ‘click essay’ extract from the book, which you can read in just 3 minutes: Beware the Mindful Sniper.

Got 3 minutes to think about death?

One of the great tragedies of modern culture is death denial. The advertising industry tells us that we are forever young. Death is a topic as taboo as sex was in the Victorian era.

Yet engaging with death is one of the best ways we know to seize the day: it helps us recognise that life is short and the clock is ticking. If you’ve got 3 minutes up your sleeve, have a read of my new ‘click essay’ Dancing With Death, where I explore the issue.

The click essay, based on my new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, is a new digital format for exploring philosophical ideas. Try it out!

And if you’re in London, I’d love to invite you to a book talk I’m doing on Tuesday 2nd May in Brick Lane for the London Talks @ Night series.

 

Seize the book!

Dear Friends

Well, after nearly four years of intellectual toil I have some big news: my new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day has just been published by the wonderful crowdfunding publisher Unbound (in the photo I’m signing copies at their London office, hot off the press).

The book is a ‘biography’ of the ancient philosophical ideal of carpe diem – seize the day – looking at what it really means, how it has been hijacked by forces such as consumerism and our culture of digital distraction, and how we can seize it back for the art of living and political change.

If you’re up for seizing the day, here’s how you can find out more and help spread the word:

  • Buy yourself a copy at your local bookshop or on Amazon (and write a review on Amazon if you can – it makes a big difference)
  • Come to one of the events I’m doing and say hello! First up is a secular Sunday Sermon at The School of Life in London on April 9, which promises to be great fun. There are more events here.
  • Visit and share the new website for the book, www.carpediem.click, which contains unique ‘click essay’ extracts from the book. Here’s a sample tweet/post to share on social media:

Carpe diem has been hijacked. It’s time to seize it back. New book by philosopher @romankrznaric CARPE DIEM REGAINED www.carpediem.click

Thanks so much for your support. I hope you enjoy the book and that it offers unexpected inspiration.

Best wishes, and carpamus diem – let’s seize the day together!
Roman

‘A profound, playful book for wannabe grown-ups who love life.’ Sir Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project

‘Inspiring, bracing, and elegant: a timely corrective to contemporary follies, from mindfulness to workaholism.’ Sarah Bakewell, author of At the Existentialist Cafe

Can you seize the day in 20 seconds?

It’s short. It’s snappy. It’s the new trailer for my forthcoming book Carpe Diem Regained. Please take 20 seconds of your day to check it out (and if you can share it on social media I’d be hugely grateful).

If you have another 20 seconds up your sleeve and would like a more contemplative route to seizing the day, treat yourself to this pithy poem I recently came across by Emily Dickinson (whose naughty brother Austin makes a guest appearance in my book):

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become —
Who had they lived, had died but when
They died, Vitality begun.

This poem is usually interpreted as a spiritual statement about the richness of life after death. But I wonder if it isn’t just as much a carpe diem poem, saying that we cannot truly live until we face the reality of our mortality and have the taste of death upon our lips.

What do you think? What meanings does it evoke for you?

 

‘Tis the Season to Carpe the Diem

cdr13

At long last my forthcoming book, Carpe Diem Regained, has itself a cover. I love it. The dancer on the bull seems to me to embody so much of what carpe diem is all about: a vibrant seizing of the moment that is at the same time both defiant and beautiful. She is a modern embodiment of the medieval carnival tradition that calls on us to let loose and take the opportunities that life offers.

As you may know, the book has been crowdfunded through the award-winning crowdfunding publisher Unbound (their latest bestseller is the fantastic The Good Immigrant). There is still time to join the current 450 subscribers to the book before publication early next year. So if you are looking for an unusual Christmas present for family or friends (or even for yourself), check out some of the different pledge levels on offer here.

Amongst them you will find:

  • Carpe Diem Workshop: an exclusive two-hour workshop on how to unleash carpe diem in your life, to be held in London in March (plus a copy of the book, of course).
  • Launch Party Invitation: two tickets to the launch, plus the book. The author will personally fill up your glasses with bubbly.
  • Carpe Diem Body Tattoo: yes, get your lover or favourite aunt a specially designed (temporary) tattoo for those bold moments in life.
  • Now Get The T-Shirt: limited edition t-shirt printed with the five secrets for carpe diem living.
  • A Lovely Collectable Book: just like subscribers to books in the 18th century, get a copy of the book with your (or someone else’s) name printed in the back.

I hope some of these sound enticing. Seasons Greetings to you all.

Roman

What is the Greatest Carpe Diem Poem of Them All? Try The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

rubaiyat-by-dulac

Hello to you all. I hope you managed to seize plenty of days over the summer. For my part, I’ve been seizing a new title for my forthcoming book. After much debate and soul-searching, it will now be called Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, rather than the original title used for the crowdfunding campaign, Carpe Diem Reclaimed: The Story of a Cultural Hijack. Fingers crossed that you like the new title. I certainly do – more poetic in my view, and closer to the real message of the book.

Speaking of poetry, I’ve decided to add a sneaky little appendix that contains not only top films and songs on the theme of carpe diem, but a selection of the greatest poetry too. Just to give you a sneak preview, one of them is that almost-forgotten classic, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam.

For those who don’t know it, the Rubáiyát is a long poem by the eccentric English scholar Edward FitzGerald, based on his loose translation of verses by the eleventh-century Persian poet and mathematician ʽUmar Khayyām.

The initial publication of the Rubáiyát in 1859 – the same year as Darwin’s On The Origin of Species – went completely unnoticed: it didn’t sell a single copy in its first two years. But by chance a remaindered copy of FitzGerald’s twenty-page booklet was picked up for a penny by the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who subsequently fell in love with it and sang its praises to his Pre-Raphaelite circle. In 1863 John Ruskin declared, ‘I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious’, and from there began a cult of Omar Khayyam that lasted at least until World War One, by which time there were 447 editions of Fitzgerald’s translation in circulation.

The poem was memorised, quoted and worshipped by a whole generation. Omár Khayyam dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and playing cards. During the war, dead soldiers were found in the trenches with battered copies in their pockets.

What was the attraction of the Rubáiyát? The answer lies in some of its most famous verses:

 

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, – and sans End!

 

Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn

I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:

And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – “While you live

Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.”

 

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!

One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;

One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;

The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

 

The carpe diem calling of the Rubáiyát was unmistakable. It’s no wonder that the writer G. K. Chesterton declared the poem to be the bible of the ‘carpe diem religion’.

The Rubáiyát may or may not do it for you. So I’m intrigued to know of your own favourite poem or poems that evoke the spirit of seizing the day. Please tell me about them in the comments section below – I’d love to hear from you.

I would also appreciate another favour. Many people think that once a book from the crowd-funding publisher Unbound reaches 100% (as mine has) then you can no longer pledge support to it. Wrong! It is still possible to make a pledge and get your name printed in the back. So please do sign up if you’d like a copy, and it would be great if you could share the link with a few family and friends, and encourage them to join the merry band of 450 supporters: https://unbound.com/books/carpe-diem-reclaimed

Thanks and best wishes

Roman

From the Cutting Room Floor: Zorba the Greek

After three years of blood, sweat and tears, the manuscript of my crowdfunded book Carpe Diem Reclaimed is now under the fine scalpel of my editors at Unbound. I remain sitting in my study, surrounded by the detritus that accompanies a near-finished book project: piles of notes, books read and unread, newspaper clippings, obscure scholarly articles, and multiple chapter drafts covered with corrections.

Amidst all the debris is the text that never made it into the final manuscript – aborted chapter openings, irrelevant paragraphs written in flights of fancy, and whole sections that couldn’t stand up to the critics. I like to keep everything from the cutting room floor as mementos of my peripatetic authorial wanderings. In case you are curious about what can be found there, here is one of the rejected paragraphs, about one of my great literary heroes, Zorba the Greek.

If there is one figure who represents the essence of an experiential approach to living, it is Alexis Zorba, the boisterous, larger-than-life character from Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1946 novel Zorba the Greek. Zorba is the ultimate carpe diem junkie. He exudes exuberance. He throws himself into life. He’s impulsive. He laughs and cries, he dances and plays the santuri (a kind of dulcimer) with passion and longing deep into the night. His sexual appetite is unquenchable, he revels in friendship, and immerses himself in hard work and helping others. On his deathbed he exclaims, ‘I have no regrets…I’ve done heaps and heaps of things in my life, but I still did not do enough. Men like me ought to live a thousand years. Good night!’ By contrast, the other main character in the novel, a young intellectual (who is the unnamed narrator), lives a kind of shadow existence. Timid and bookish, he seems almost afraid of living. Zorba attempts to inspire him – to teach him – to grasp life, to seize the day. ‘I’m free,’ he insists at the end of the novel. ‘No, you’re not free,’ replies Zorba. ‘The string you’re tied to is perhaps longer than other people’s. That’s all…You come and go and think you’re free, but you never cut the string in two….You have to risk everything! But you’ve got such a strong head, it’ll always get the better of you.’ The young man protests but, in the end, has to admit to himself that Zorba is right.

Those of you who know the fabulous 1964 film version with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates, will remember that in the final moments, the repressed book-lover manages to let go of his inhibitions and says to Zorba, ‘teach me to dance’, and they dance the sirtaki together on the beach. Here’s the clip, for your delectation.

It’s still possible to pledge support to Carpe Diem Reclaimed – you can sign up here for a lovely hardback edition with your name printed in the back, or other goodies such as attending an exclusive two-hour workshop, or even get yourself some (temporary) carpe diem body tattoos (you’d be joining actress Judi Dench, who just got ‘carpe diem’ tattooed on her wrist for her 81st birthday).

Have a great summer – and don’t forget to have yourself a dance on the beach.

Roman

Empathy an an Age of Extremism

These feel like turbulent times. From mass shootings in the US to the rise of far-right parties and terrorist attacks in Europe, we seem to be entering a new age of extremism.

If there is any solution to this, I think empathy has to be part of it.

In this new five-minute video for Aeon Magazine, I argue that tackling extremism, and creating a more moral world, requires shifting our focus from empathy as an individual emotional response to empathy on the collective level.

1001 Books is now open! And come and borrow a stranger too…

1001 Books 5

The Empathy Museum’s new pop-up library, A Thousand and One Books, is now up and running (and looking rather beautiful). It’s outside the NOW gallery, next to the O2 Arena in London. Come and visit! The show will be open until July 2.

As part of the festivities, we’re holding a Human Library event on June 25, where instead of borrowing a book you can borrow a stranger for conversation. Our ‘living books’ include an Iraqi refugee, a Holocaust survivor and a community organiser. Reserve a ticket here. There will also be storytelling and an empathy-based film on the day.

The show naturally includes our famous giant shoebox, A Mile In My Shoes, where you put on the shoes of a stranger and literally walk in them while listening to an audio narrative of them talking about their life. There are over 50 stories, including an Imam who is the UK’s first Muslim chaplin, a sex worker, and a Sikh taxi driver.

We’re still looking for books for the library, so if you would like to make a contribution of your favourite book to share with a stranger, you can do so here. Our collection already includes books donated by a huge range of people, from prisoners to Sir Ian McKellan. (Also, check out our newly-launched website for the project.)

With Britain about to vote on its place in Europe, and the enormous fear of immigrants that has been generated as part of the political debate, this is an important time to spread the message of the Empathy Museum – that if we want to build a democratic culture of peace and tolerance, we need to learn to see the world through the eyes of people who are different from us and hear their individual stories.

Best wishes

Roman

Founder, Empathy Museum

1001 Books: Take part in the Empathy Museum’s new project!

1001 Books

Is there a book – one you absolutely love – that you would like to share with someone you’ve never met?

The internationally acclaimed Empathy Museum is asking 1001 people to donate a book to a unique pop-up library called A THOUSAND AND ONE BOOKS, which will appear at the London International Festival of Theatre in June, then tour in the UK and internationally.

To take part, you simply need to visit this website. You’ll be asked to give the name of your book, why you love it, and donate £10, which will be used to buy it from an independent bookshop.

Your book will then appear in the library with your dedication on the cover, where it can be read, borrowed, passed on or left on a park bench for a stranger. You’ll be able to track your book’s journey online as it travels the world, and find out who read it and what they thought of it.

I’ve just donated a book – Theodore Zeldin’s beautiful, witty and humane masterpiece, An Intimate History of Humanity.

I’d be so grateful if you would be a part of this project – we’d love to have your book in the library!

Roman Krznaric

Founder, The Empathy Museum