Monday, August 15, 2005

Epictetus on the Art of Living

This spring, I took a class titled Organizational Dynamics and Leading Change in Organizations, taught by Vance Caesar. I thought it wonderful that Pepperdine University would take the contents of his executive coaching sessions and turn them into a graduate course.

One of the key concepts taught in the class was that we had to be able to change ourselves before we could ever ask those around us to change, and much of our learning experiences had to do with facing our own selves - an eye-opening and sometimes painful process.

EpictetusVance's parting gift for each of us at the end of the class was a book on Epictetus' teachings in a wonderful translation by Sharon Lebell, titled the art of living - Epictetus. Although I have been an adherent of Stoic philosophy for many years before this, I had primarily viewed the philosophy's teachings to result in "stoically" enduring whatever life threw at me, a stark discipline to be practiced without joy. One of the wonderful realizations after immersing myself in Stoic Philosophy was its many parallels with Eastern philosophies, while, at the same time, focusing on "tactical" issues: If I persist in a way of "being", how would that manifest itself in my "doing"?

Here is an excerpt:

Create Your Own Merit

Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. It is not to be found in your personal associations, nor can it be found in the regard of other people. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms. Grow up! Who cares what other people think about you!

Create your own merit.

Personal merit cannot be achieved through our associations with people of excellence. You have been given your own work to do. Get to it right now, do your best at it, and don't be concerned with who is watching you.

Do your own useful work without regard to the honor or admiration your efforts might win from others. There is no such thing as vicarious merit.

Other people's triumphs and excellences belong to them. Likewise, your possessions may have excellence, but you yourself don't derive excellence from them.

Think about it: What is really your own? The use you make of your ideas, resources, and opportunities that come your way. Do you have books? Read them. Learn from them. Apply their wisdom. Do you have specialized knowledge? Put it to its full and good use. Do you have tools? Get them out and build or repair things with them. Do you have a good idea? Follow up and follow through on it. Make the most of what you've got and what is actually yours.

You can be justifiably happy with yourself and at ease when you've harmonized your actions with nature by recognizing what truly is your own.

Epictetus resources:
Epictetus works:

Sharon Lebell - the art of living - Epictetus -
Vance Caesar -

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Escaping writing

I had been writing a paper on Interviewing & Counseling practices, a ten hour-a-day process for the last two days and felt the urgent need to write...something different than that. I wonder what other writers do to take a break from writing.

Last week, while helping a friend who owns a landscaping company in the San Fernando Valley, I found myself spending an afternoon trimming rose bushes. The sun was an intense presence, under which the rose bushes and I shared our common frailty as living things. Pruning shears in hand, I recalled the myth of the Three Fates, one measuring, one holding, and one cutting the thread of life. As dead rose petals littered the ground, I silently wondered about this experience of measuring and cutting life. Who is measuring mine right now?


Pruning the rosebush
the ache of the summer heat
on my shoulders,
the feel of the living stalk
between fingers,
petals - one, another,
then another
seek ground, life
not strong enough to hold on.

Whether it's blood
or petals, the gift
of time is a thread
I stand on,
feet covered
in the soft
broken soil,
shears meet

the slight resistance
of a living thing.

© Jonathan Bohrn (2005)

Some time before, while visiting the beach, I found a seagull lying in the sand. Coming upon it, it seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but it never moved. Looking at it closely, I concluded that it must have died recently, and since this was the closest I was ever going to get to a seagull, I touched it. It was still warm, and its feathers felt very soft. I ended up carrying it to a sand dune in order to bury it, feeling the weight of its body in my hands. It was surprisingly heavy, and, I thought, beautifully made. As its eyes were still clear, I just couldn't get myself to throw sand on them, instead, finding a palm leaf to cover its head with first. It seemed somehow inappropriate to just walk off afterwards, so I stood by the makeshift grave and said a prayer...not a religious incantation, but an acknowledgment of life and our shared impermanence - offered by one creature to another.

Limitations #3
Alexandra Ekkelenkamp

before whose time
am I alive

will I be a haunting spirit
over brilliant shoulders

will I copy poetry
in chimney dust
dating it _______73 yrs after me

© Alexandra Ekkelenkamp

Alexandra's web site, identity, can be found at

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Putting off inspiration

A few weeks ago, I woke up with the image of two rivers in my mind, their flow to the ocean along parallel courses, yet never joining.

Fellow travellers, they could share many experiences...the wild rush of water through canyons, the mysterious beauty of subdued light in their depths, the tediousness of sharp rocks that must patiently be worn down to feel comfortable, the feel of small feet splashing along their shores on hot summer days days, and that inexorable pull, silent passion, during their separate journeys to their ocean. In my thoughts as an observer, my own sadness, realizing that each of them has no knowledge of the other's currents coursing a just a short distance from the other. In my mind, I recited the first stanza of what I wanted to seemed indelible then, and I was so sure that I would remember it no matter what would happen during the day, so I didn't take the time to write it down since I had to study for a class.

Of course, a few hours later, the words had vanished. I consoled myself that the original thought was still there somewhere, and that I would find new words to express it again at some future time. Lesson learned, and I'm sharing this with ALL write this stuff down WHEN I think of it, as I won't remember it later, no matter how much I think that I will. :-)


I have taken refuge
in the resolution of conflict,
the camel’s wet nose slipping
between soft tent folds

Forcefully, he slams
the door in what he
intends to be
her face
caught just in time
by the heel of her
sandaled foot, she
laughs, the sound of
red petals breaking
their back on the floor

The writer, tired
decides now
to sleep
before writing down
her next thoughts

As if she could re-
inspiration later!

© Jonathan Bohrn (2005)

Haiku in English: Lost in translation, but still nice

I've found tremendous differences in how classic Haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) read in English, depending on who translates them. What emerges from the translation is essentially a three-line poem, as the pictoral aspects of kanji can't be adequately translated anyway.

My favorite versions are by California Poet Laureate Robert Hass, whose book, The Essential Haiku, has spoiled me to the point where I've ended up returning translations by other writers, because they felt stilted by comparison.

Still, I had never realized how much of the original meaning any English translation, no matter how good, is bound to lose until I quoted some of my favorites to my friend Michiko. She did not recognize them. I told her they were translations of Basho. "Oh, The Ancient One!", she said, smiling. "We studied him in school in Japan!" She did find the translations pleasant, even if they were no longer Haiku by Japanese standards.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Another year gone--
hat in hand,
sandals on my feet.

A cold rain starting
and no hat--

Singing, flying, singing
the cuckoo
keeps busy.

When the winter crysanthemums go
there's nothing to write about
but radishes.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

Moon, plum blossoms,
this, that,
and the day goes.

O owl!
make some other face.
This is spring rain.

The Essential Haiku at -

Thoughts while running up and down the stairs to the beach:

There was a man who sat by the ocean watching a beautiful sunset. "I cannot stay" he thought to himself, "I have to return home and finish the list of things I have to do so I can have time to watch the sunset." And with that, he left.

Oceanside II (Colors)

Standing alone by the ocean
at twilight I watched
as the colors of waves
and the evening sky became one
in a dusky lilac and blue --
The only thing that was different then
between sand and the waves and the sky
was then no longer colors
but a difference of textures;
and it occurred to me then
that everything we, beloved and I
disagree and fight on at times
is really the same, so why don't we just see
our lives as a difference of textures.
and I realized then, my brother and I,
I can no longer fight you, it's not worth this hatred
we're just really not that much different at all.
But I did not have for this new idea
a pencil or paper to write on;
so I scratched it in sand,
and then after the tide
had come and had washed it away,
inspiration had left, I'd forgotten my thoughts
and my world is now still as it was…

© Jon Bohrn (1998)

Important for birds: Whether you have flipper feet or claw feet, it's important, either way, to tuck them in neatly while flying.


yourself to the sky,
your perspective
blue-and-white spaces
your time
a next meal
bitterly fought for
and I wonder
who in your flock
watches out for you.

© Jon Bohrn (2003)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Of writers and writing

A friend recently lent me a book titled One Continuous Mistake - Four Noble Truths for Writers, written by Gail Sher. The Four Noble Truths she refers to are:

1. Writers write.
2. Writing is a process.
3. You don't know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

Reading through the first section, she reminds me of something that used to be a great source of joy for me when I was a "young" writer, but which I need to revisit: The habit of sitting down to the act of writing regularly (mindfully is another word that applies), regardless of whether or not something productive actually comes from it during any one session.

I chose poetry as my medium for creativity in 1995. I thought then that it would be easy to just throw a salad of words onto that blank platter, and voila, a more days spent in the darkroom developing photographs or making video documentaries.

Needless to say, I learned very quickly that it wasn't as easy as all that, and most of my early work was simply terrible. But I kept writing and writing. I wrote nights, I wrote weekends. I think I wrote over three hundred poems in that first year. I knew I had found my passion because no matter how disappointed I was in some of what I wrote, I could find some tiny spark in it that encouraged me to go on and write more. I was hooked...I just couldn't stop. To this day, I still write a large number of stillborn poems (I call them my beautiful, crippled children), but some of what I learn through them (and some of their subject matter) I revisit months or years later when I have a different perspective, and more skill to give to them. Some poets tweak their old poems...I usually just start a new one.

What also inspired me was the work of one of my favorite Haiku poet Kobayashi Issa ( favorite translations are by Poet Laureate Robert Hass.) It has been said that Issa wrote over 20,000 Haiku, many of which were reputed to be simply terrible. But since he wrote incessantly, the remainder of his work was what characterized him as one of the most notable poets of this genre.

Better than a guest book...

I wanted to find a better way of making the Contemplating August site interactive than the previous method of a "news" page and a guest book. So now comes the question of how to use a blog to best augment the site. So many possibilities, never enough time...

the writer, a cynic

A blank page
frightens me:
so many thoughts
so many ideas
I could put there --
Is it legal to put
such a weapon as this
in my hand?
Deep fears
dark dreams
confused radical thoughts
without shame:
I can write it,
there's room on this page
and my pencil, I think,
should last long enough
to offend.

© Jon Bohrn (1998)