On prostheses, gold medals, dinners, and trolls

She wore not a prosthesis, but four. Quadruple amputee athlete Bebe Vio, 19, who lost her limbs to meningitis at the age of 11 and last month won a Paralympic gold medal in women’s wheelchair fencing, walked on her own two lower limb prostheses when joining Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the State Dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama two nights ago in Washington. And what did she get out of it? Glamour (she wore an evening dress donated by Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior), fun (at least judging from her selfie with Obama), some food prepared by celebrity chef Mario Batali, and a lot of vitriol poured onto her from all corners of the Web. In the last couple of days, online armchair critics have accused her of the most bizarre sins, such as flying to Washington to have fun at the expense of taxpayers, neglecting the plight of the unemployed, wearing an expensive dress by a French brand, being “politicized” in support of the embattled Renzi, and worse. Countless online trolls over the past two days have let out their own frustration against Bebe, as they have in the past against many women who have, for example, spoken out against misogyny in videogames, called for historic women leaders to be portrayed on banknotes, or written about contemporary feminism.

Bebe, who only recently won her Paralympic gold and is not a feminist campaigner by any stretch of the imagination, pays for two original sins. First, she never let herself become a victim. Life gave her a shitload of bitter lemons, and she built a factory of very sweet lemonade: the non-profit she started with her family, Art4Sport, has helped dozens of amputee children practice sports instead of languishing in their wheelchairs. Second, she is a young woman: and women who are proud of any achievement – technology, entrepreneurship, politics, sports – end up being attacked, insulted and threatened with the worst sexist and violent attacks if they so much as dare to share their pride online. The torrent of insults unleashed on Bebe is just the latest example of how the basic rules of civil discourse seem to be suspended when it comes to criticizing women. What is to be done if we are to neutralize poisonous threats against women? One might follow the example of journalist and podcaster Alanah Pearce, whose anti-troll technique became famous after this tweet: “Sometimes young boys on Facebook send me rape threats, so I’ve started telling their mothers.” If you are disgusted by the trolls who attacked Bebe, finding out who their moms are and sending them screenshots might not be a bad place to start.

An exercise in empathy

I’ve subjected you to David Foster Wallace before, but “This is Water” continues to stick inside my head years after I first read it. Today it came back to me in a flash while I was in a conversation about the merits of changing points of view. This is David Foster Wallace, shopping for last-minute groceries and held up in the supermarket checkout line:

[…] and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register. Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera. […] But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-madelady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.


Habits and practicing: to succeed, learn discipline

My educational program for this fall includes taking an online class called “The Creative Habit: Cultivating a Daily Writing Practice” – and committing to stick with it. You see, I’ve always liked writing, and I’ve both taken creative writing courses and enormously enjoyed them in the past. But how can I say with a straight face “I like writing” if I hardly ever write? The word “habit” is the hook that attracted me to the course, and the reason why I think it will work. By prompting participants to write for 30-60 minutes every day, it seeks to instil the discipline of writing: to support the birth of a habit, if you will.

51ue4ydsgylA few months ago I had the opportunity to attend a speech by Gretchen Rubin based on her latest book, Better than Before. It’s about habits, or how to “decide not to decide”. It’s easier to go out running every morning if you’ve set out a rule for yourself that says “I will run every day, first thing in the morning.” You don’t have to make a decision to run, to debate with yourself whether to run, to negotiate with yourself how many times you will run this week, to wonder if the weather is good enough for running: you’ve organized your life so that each morning you run, no questions asked. It’s a habit.

Because different people form habits and stick to habits in different ways, the book offers several strategies: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, Accountability, Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Distraction, Rewards, Treats, Pairing and so on. The author avoids being prescriptive about which strategy you should adopt – you know best – or even about what habits she recommends. It’s a good toolbox, although it won’t give you the sense of urgency you need to start a new habit tomorrow.


More recently, thanks to my friend Laura‘s recommendation, I stumbled into Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning. While the book’s tone is all optimistic bounciness (you may feel like you’re watching a TV preacher; the cover image doesn’t help), the substance of the practice the author illustrates is very much about making it a habit to do the things you want to do. And if you don’t have time, the answer is easy: get out of bed one hour earlier in the morning. He describes spending that hour practising each of six things for ten minutes: meditation (or gratitude, prayer, silence); affirmations; visualizations; exercise; reading; and writing (journaling). It doesn’t make sense, I thought at first, that doing any one thing for ten minutes would change your life. Yet, open the app store on your phone and look for “seven minute workout”: you will be surprised by the number of results. And who am I to criticise small bursts of activity, when since the beginning of the year I have spent fifteen minutes a day learning French on Duolingo? And surely, if you only have ten minutes a day when you read, that’s better than not reading at all.

81x9tdjfjrlIn yoga, too, we are familiar with the concept of the daily practice, which is called sadhana; Swami Satyananda Saraswati even wrote a book about it. A sadhana is given by the guru to each disciple for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. (But if you don’t know whom to ask, you can even request a Sadhana online from a Satyananda Yoga ashram). It has to be practiced every day until perfected, at which point the disciple should request a new sadhana.

Daily repetition is key: there is no sadhana without habit. Life in any ashram, monastery, or other place of spiritual growth is a routine, a long sequence of habits.

All of a sudden, habits seem trendy. But yogis knew about habits all along.

Leadership, light and darkness, and the inner journey

let-your-life-speakAmong the many books I read this summer, Let Your Life Speak by American writer and teacher Parker J. Palmer is the one that lingered in my mind perhaps for the longest time. Be it the author’s quiet and understated writing style (so far from so much of the self-help literature we usually find on bookstore shelves), his unusual sincerity about such facts of life as the debilitating depression he went through, or his life experience of over ten years in a tiny Quaker community, Palmer reminded me of other mystics, such as Alan Watts or Thomas Merton, but without a trace of their New Age glamour, even if thrust upon them rather than sought.

Chapter V, “Leading from Within”, is about how lights and shadows coexist in leadership, and why leaders need to have visited their inner shadows. Here goes his argument (emphasis mine):

A leader is someone with the power to project either shadows or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. […] A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good. […]

We have a long tradition of approaching leadership via “the power of positive thinking.” I want to counterbalance that approach by paying special attention to the tendency we have as leaders to project more shadow than light. Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded, so it is understandable that we need to bolster ourselves with positive thoughts. But by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!

Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we “compartmentalize” it, walling it off from our public work. […] Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world—they need the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light. […] The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking. […] If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy […].

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way. […] But why would anybody want to take a journey of that sort, with its multiple difficulties and dangers? Everything in us cries out against it—which is why we externalize everything. It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. […] If we, as leaders, are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride certain monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we “get into” our own spiritual lives.

Palmer goes on to illustrate the “bestiary” of the five monsters he claims we need to get acquainted with. “The five are not theoretical for me; I became personally acquainted with each of them during my descent into depression. They are also the monsters I work with when I lead retreats where leaders of many sorts—CEOs, clergy, parents, teachers, citizens, and seekers—take an inward journey toward common ground.” I’ll list them here without a lot of detail because you, readers, are probably familiar with them; but please do read what Palmer has to say about them if you recognize them from your own experience. They are:

  1. Insecurity about identity and worth;
  2. The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests;
  3. “Functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. (“This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”)
  4. Fear, especially the fear of the natural chaos of life;
  5. “The denial of death itself”.

And here are the corresponding gifts we receive on the inner journey:

  1. The knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others;
  2. The insight that the universe is working together for good. “The structure of reality is not the structure of a battle. Reality is not out to get anybody”;
  3. The knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. “Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally! We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able, and trust the rest to other hands.”
  4. The insight that chaos is the precondition to creativity. “As every creation myth has it, life itself emerged from the void. Even that which has been created needs to be returned to chaos from time to time so it can be regenerated in more vital form. When a leader fears chaos so deeply that he or she tries to eliminate it, the shadow of death will fall across everything that leader approaches—for the ultimate answer to all of life’s messiness is death.”
  5. The knowledge that death finally comes to everything “—and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

Can we help each other deal with the inner issues inherent in leadership? Palmer’s answer is not only that we can, but that we must. What might that help look like?

First, we could lift up the value of “inner work.” That phrase should become commonplace in families, schools, and religious institutions, at least, helping us to understand that inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer.

Second, we could spread the word that inner work, though it is a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along in community. Indeed, doing inner work together is a vital counterpoint to doing it alone. […] The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox—the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life in ways that honor its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.

Third, we can remind each other of the dominant role that fear plays in our lives […] “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thus engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.

We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust, and hope, and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.

Summer reading 2016: Obsessed with the future

There is a common thread in all the books I’ve read in the first stretch of this summer: the future. I know that the past offers rich rewards – history, biography and historical fiction produce many of the pleasures of reading. But this season I’m obsessed with the future.


My non-fiction pick for the summer is The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. Most financial planning guides to a long life focus on the narrow view of how much you need to have in your nest egg before you retire. This book does cover that in some detail (and it is indeed a grim picture for most of us), but takes a much broader perspective. Gratton and Scott prompt you not just to plan in terms of tangible assets, but to pay attention to three categories of intangible assets: 

  • Productive assets: education, knowledge, skills, professional social capital, reputation.
  • Vitality assets: health, well-being, friendships, family relationships and partnerships.
  • Transformational assets: self-knowledge, capacity to reach out into diverse networks, openness to new experiences.

In a fascinating exercise, the authors lay out the career paths of their fictional characters – Jack (born in 1945), Jimmy (1971) and Jane (1998) – and look at how their productive, vitality and transformational assets grow and are depleted through the stages of their lives. And Jane, of course, goes through many more stages than we know today: periods of exploration, reinvention, small-scale entrepreneurship (as an “independent producer”), full-time work, transitions (including going back to school, online or otherwise), and part-time and advisory roles. Jane does not, indeed, fully “retire” until 2083, when she is 85 years old. Even if you have a pretty good sense of how your life is going to play out (but who really does, these days?), this book is worth reading for the insight it can give you into what your children’s lives might well look like.

The fiction shelf – which, again, reflects my quirks and narrative passions – holds several gems this summer:

  • The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver (I trust you have already read We Need To Talk About Kevin. If not, go do it.) In The Mandibles, the world is barely recovering from the global Internet blackout of 2024, but things start getting worse again. In 2029, the dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency, replaced by another currency devised by the IMF. Congress bans American citizens from holding the new currency and imposes capital controls to prevent dollars from leaving the country. The US President obtains emergency powers, all gold in private hands is confiscated by the Treasury, and the US declares default on its debt. The story of the Mandible family unfolds through this crisis and provides the narrative glue that holds together a dystopia of increasing grimness. As we read this novel in 2016, we are in a peculiar election year, a fact that cannot have been far from the author’s mind, with the result that Shriver’s dark satire never degenerates into farce and never feels wholly implausible. (Yes, Nevada does secede). A must-read.
  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu is best known for being the English translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, a somewhat frigid cornerstone of contemporary Chinese science fiction that has lately gained attention in Silicon Valley circles. But he is a talented narrator in his own right, and this collection of short stories is delightful. The stories span science fiction, little-known folds of American and Chinese history, alternate history, fantasy, sometimes in tones halfway between Borges and Lovecraft, some other times with a distinctly steampunk sensitivity (here’s just one of the sentences I underlined: “Once the automata were finished, we connected them to the latest analytic engines shipped from Britain and fed them with tape punched with dense holes in Babbage-Lovelace code”). It takes a special imagination to write a story (“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”) about Emperor Hirohito’s initiative during the Great Depression, in collaboration with President Herbert Hoover, to dig a tunnel allowing people to travel from Shanghai via Tokyo to Seattle in little less than two days in a capsule under the ocean; this feat of politics and engineering in the 1930s makes the Great War the last global war of the twentieth century.
  • The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. I have written before about end-of-civilization stories and how they never fail to enthrall us. The peculiar charm of this one is that it puts at its center a rather unlikeable character, trying to get to Cornwall from Scotland in the hope of reaching one of the last few evacuation ships sent by a hospitable nation of the Southern hemisphere after the Northern one has been pretty much wiped out by asteroids. The story of a few of the survivors in the months after the event is told with restraint and without fear.
  • Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, by Marshall Brain. This short fiction, first published in 2003, is a technology-driven dystopia (happening, of course, in America) and utopia (in Australia) together. Its vaguely Singularitarian thesis is that we can use robots either to make our own lives hell, or to create a paradise-like world in which everybody has the means to fulfill their talents and to create the life they truly want. It is a quick read (one would want, in particular, to read more about how technology will simply eliminate the need for markets) but it will linger in your mind for a long time. (Note that Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, a non-fiction potentially underpinning to Brain’s tale, wasn’t published until 2012).

Hope these books make you think, laugh, and cry. As usual, let me know your best of the season – particularly if they’re about the future.

Milan, Italy: Summer 2016 Restaurant Top Ten


I owe you, dear readers, an update on restaurants in Milano, given the number and especially the quality of new openings in recent months. Here’s the definitive Top 10 for this summer according to my trusted sources.

  1. Enrico Bartolini at the Mudec
  2. Essenza
  3. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
  4. Contraste
  5. Cracco
  6. Berton
  7. Joia
  8. Langosteria
  9. Innocenti Evasioni
  10. La Bottega del Vino

Please note that if we went 30mins outside Milan, we’d have to acknowledge D’O at the top of the list. Will we one day see Davide Oldani bring his talent into the city?

(Photo: Innocenti Evasioni.)

Connecting the dots on the self

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to read a good number of books, and sometimes to connect the dots among some of them, as much as they came from different writers, experiences, and historical periods. Here are three that, I believe, are about essentially the same central idea:

  • René Guénon, Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta (originally published in 1925);
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966);
  • Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014).

The central concept is perhaps most vividly expressed in the Alan Watts book (see a good Brainpickings summary here):

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Alan Watts, a Brit, was a lapsed Episcopal priest and lifelong student of Zen Buddhism who transplanted himself to California in the 1950s. He wrote one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism, The Way of Zen (1957), but was also influenced by Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and Chinese philosophy. He came in contact with many figures in the Human Potential movement and earned a large followership through a weekly program on a Berkeley radio station. He lived his later years between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mt. Tamalpais.

René Guénon, born in central France, became acquainted with Hinduism and Taoism in his student days in Paris; in the early 1910s he embraced Islam and was initiated into Islamic esoterism, taking the name Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. He researched and published extensively on Eastern doctrines, becoming one of the first Westerners to popularize the darshanas, or “visions”, of Hindu philosophy and devoting a seminal text to Vedanta darshana, the most metaphysical of them all. In 1930 Guénon moved to Cairo, where he joined a Sufi order and lived for the rest of his life.

Sam Harris is a living author from California, so I’ll leave it to his publisher: Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers […]. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, violence, human reasoning—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. 

The Book, by Alan Watts, is challenging and accessible at the same time, and I highly recommend it. It is a delight to read and poses a true conundrum to the reader, especially at a time – like today; I am writing barely two weeks after the terrorists attacks in Paris – when separateness spikes up, and none of us can imagine being leaves from the same tree as the perpetrators. And yet it offers me a lesson – the self is illusory – so important, and so radically different from everything else I might think about what I am, that, if I could learn it, it would provide me with all the empathy and the humility that no worldly doctrine or practice has yet been able to teach me.

Guénon’s book on Vedanta is dense, obscure and technical; I only recommend it if you’ve had at least a crash course in traditional Indian philosophies, as his attempt to decipher the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras relies on the reader mastering at least their basic vocabulary. Nevertheless, if you find an edition with good explanatory notes, it can be deeply rewarding – and it is plausible to me that at the core of Guénon’s reading of Vedanta there is the same insight that, forty years later, compelled Watts’s book.

Harris’s Waking up suffers from a few idiosyncrasies (for example, he seems to have quite enjoyed a number of brain-damaging drugs in verifying that they would indeed open the doors of perception) and spends too many pages quibbling with phenomena of marginal interest, such as near-death experiences. The author acknowledges his debt to Advaita Vedanta and to Poonja-ji, the teacher he practiced with. But the spiritual path he has found most rewarding is a different one, which is little known in the West, and seems irresistibly seductive. Dzogchen, a stream of Tibetan Buddhism, offers – in contrast to the many “paths of gradual ascent”, whereby a student adopts a practice like meditation for years or decades – a “path of sudden realization”, where a qualified teacher may precipitate an insight such that the pupil may “take the goal as the path”, experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of awareness in every moment: “the freedom from self that one might otherwise seek is the very thing that one practices.” No wonder our Western minds struggle. The author himself admits that, at his level of practice, the freedom from suffering allowed by the sudden insight of non-duality lasts only a few moments, although these moments can be repeated, and “punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference”. If you are a seeker, this may not be the solution for you or even your cup of tea (to the extent that “you” perceive yourself as a separate self). Still, Waking up is a worthwhile read if you are willing to be open-minded, to challenge your view of the world, and to glimpse what a different experience of reality might feel like.