Rilke on How Our Sorrows Can Be Used as Triumphs

Rainer Maria Rilke

“The impediment to action advances action,” said the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

And yet, this way of living proves to enormously difficult. We tend to frame our problems into tightly constrained boxes, magnifying the problem and thus limiting our range of options. We trap ourselves before giving ourselves a chance.

What we have failed to teach in traditional education and to recognize as a culture at large is that our sorrows and personal obstacles are great catalysts for transformation—they are, indeed, the very fabric of art, beauty, success, and stories worth telling. We rarely ask ourselves, What would a life be without heartbreaks, roadblocks, or failure? 

Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, beautifully addresses how the sorrows in our lives are the stepping stones for personal triumph and transformation, whether conscious or not:

“I believe that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.”

As the essayist Montaigne once wrote, “It is not enough to recount experiences; they must be weighed and sorted; they must be digested and distilled, so that they may yield the reasonings and conclusions they contain.” We recount experiences, weigh and sort them, by being in solitude—that painful moment in our lives where we see ourselves, even just for a moment, for who we are.
Solitude requires quieting the external environment and turning up the volume internally in our minds. It is where clarity grows, where self-awareness is exercised, where humility arises, and ultimately where transformation begins.
Rilke continues:

“The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary — and toward this our development will move gradually — that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us.”

Whenever you feel heartbreak, sorrow, pain, failure, stop your mind from inflicting blame on yourself or those around you. Instead, say nothing. Focus inward on unraveling this obstacle. Look at the event for what it is and what it did to you, and then figure out how this pain or sorrow can be used to your advantage.

What can you learn? If this were to happen again (it will), how can you be poised and calm? How will this make you better?

Letters to a Young Poet is a fascinating read in its entirety. It’s filled with wisdom on art, what it means to be an artist, on love, criticism, and more. Rilke’s prose is concise yet beautiful; it speaks to the human spirit, acknowledging the realities of our existence, while also applying a balm that stings at first but cools thereafter.

The Science of Symmetry and Why We’re Drawn To It

Why are highway signs large squares or rectangles? Why do we set up cubicles the way we do? Why are buildings symmetrical pillars that arise from the ground? Why is beauty tied to symmetry?

Alan Lightman, American physicist, writer, and author of The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, explores in one of the chapters why we as humans are drawn to symmetry, and more importantly, how we can start understanding this pattern in our lives by studying nature first.

Lightman begins by saying:

“The deep question is: Why does nature embody so much symmetry? We do not know the full answer to this question. However, we have some partial answers. Symmetry leads to economy, and nature, like human beings, seem to prefer economy. If we think of nature as a vast ongoing experiment, constantly trying out different possibilities of design, then those designs that cost the least energy or that require the fewest different parts to come together at the right time will take precedence, just as the principle of natural selection says that organisms with the best ability to survive will dominate over time. On the other hand, as far as we know, the symmetries in the electroweak theory and relativity and chromodynamics did not evolve from ongoing experiments with different designs. Rather, they were apparently built in at the origin of the universe, by whatever processes and principles determined the fundamental laws of physics. … One physical principle that governs nature over and over is the “energy principle”: nature evolves to minimize energy. If you place some marbles on a flat table, after some time has passed you will find most of the marbles on the floor. That’s because a marble on the floor is closer to the center of the Earth and has lower gravitational energy than on the table. Snowflakes have six-sided symmetry because of the angles that the two hydrogen atoms make with the oxygen atom in each water molecule. Those angles minimize the total electrical energy of the water molecule. Any other angles would produce greater energy. Large bodies, like the planet Saturn, are round because a spherical shape minimizes the total gravitational energy.”

This is also why our brain creates habits—to expend less energy in our daily life. It’s why our minds are hardwired for biases, stereotypes, and self-delusions—quick decisions based on our memories allows for easier decisions versus sitting there and contemplating the pros and cons.

Alan Lightman. Image from:

Alan Lightman provides an elegant example for the thought above by studying bees and the honeycomb [emphasis mine]:

“A beautiful illustration of some of the ideas above is the beehive. Each cell of a honeycomb is a nearly perfect hexagon, a space with six identical and equally spaced walls. Isn’t that surprising? Wouldn’t it be more plausible to find cells of all kinds of shapes and sizes, fitted together in a haphazard manner? It is a mathematical truth that there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps: equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons. Any gaps between cells would be wasted space. Gaps would defeat the principle of economy.
But why hexagons? Here unfolds another fascinating story. More than two thousand years ago, in 36 BC, the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro conjectured that the hexagonal grid is the unique geometrical shape that divides a surface into equal cells with the smallest total perimeter. And the small total perimeter, or smallest total length of sides, means the smallest amount of wax needed by the bees to construct their honeycomb. For every ounce of wax, a bee must consume about eight ounces of honey. That’s a lot of work, requiring visits to thousands of flowers and much flapping of wings. The hexagon minimizes the effort and expanse of energy. But Varro made only a conjecture. Astoundingly, Varro’s conjecture, known by mathematicians as the Honeycomb Conjecture, was proven only recently, in 1999, by the American mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it was true all along.
But why are we attracted to symmetry? Why do we human beings delight in seeing perfectly round planets through the lens of a telescope and six-sided snowflakes on a cold winter day? The answer must be partly psychological. I would claim that symmetry represents order, and we crave order in this strange universe we find ourselves in. The search for symmetry, and the emotional pleasure we derive when we find it, must help us make sense of the world around us, just as we find satisfaction in the repetition of the seasons and the reliability of friendships. Symmetry is also economy. Symmetry is simplicity. Symmetry is elegance.

This makes sense when considering the fact that our nervous system and ultimately our nature is hardwired to organize chaos into order. Whether something happens to us for good or ill, there’s always a story—it’s a way for us to make sense of our lives, because it’s difficult for the mind to accept something as meaningless.

Perhaps our love for symmetry, as Lightman suggests, stems from not just the idea of nature but the fact that we come from nature [emphasis mine]:

“Perhaps in asking why the pervasive symmetries in nature are found appealing to the human mind and imitated in our human-made constructions, we are making an erroneous distinction between our minds and the remainder of nature. Perhaps we are all the same stuff. After all, our minds are made of the same atoms and molecules as everything else in nature. The neurons in our brains obey the same physical laws as planets and snowflakes. Most important, our brains developed out of nature, out of hundreds of millions of years of sensory response to sunlight and sound and tactile connection to the world around our bodies. And the architecture of our brains was born from the same trial and error, the same energy principles, the same pure mathematics that happens in flowers and jellyfish and Higgs particles. Viewed in this way, our human aesthetics is necessarily the aesthetic of nature. Viewed in this way, it is nonsensical to ask why we find nature beautiful. Beauty and symmetry and minimum principles are not qualities we ascribe to the cosmos and then marvel at in their perfection. They are simply what is, just like the particular arrangement of atoms that make up our minds. We are not observers on the outside looking in. We are on the inside too.”

The Accident Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is a deeply enriching read on “the emotional and philosophical questions raised by recent discoveries in science.” Lightman shares the various theories of how our universe came to be, and how this molded the human species. He does it with grace and humility, arriving at a point that is existentially difficult to accept: what we understand of the world is perhaps a mere fraction of what is seemingly an unfathomable yet beautiful accident.


Edward O. Wilson On Human Nature and The Meaning Of Our Existence

“Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and most unaccountable of all the phenomena which we are obliged to live,” said the American poet and physician Lewis Thomas. Indeed, we can live our whole lives without fully grasping and understanding human nature. By studying the sciences and humanities, we can study how we became human and what it means to be human—only then, if internalized deeply to the point where it changes the way we lead our lives, we can learn to be more compassionate, curious, and accepting.

This is what the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and biologist Edward. O Wilson explores in The Meaning of Human Existenceone of the most fascinating books that I’ve read on the biology and evolution of our species, the human condition, and most importantly, where we are going and why.

“Does humanity have a special place in the Universe? What is the meaning of our personal lives? I believe that we’ve learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form,” said Wilson in the introduction.

He starts off by giving two definitions of meaning, one viewed through religion, and the other viewed through science:

“In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. There is no advanced design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the world of science.

Whether in the cosmos or in the human condition, the second, more inclusive meaning exists in the evolution of present-day reality amid countless other possible realities. As more complex biological entities and processes arose in past ages, organisms drew closer in their behavior to include the use of intentional meaning: at first there were the sensory and nervous systems of the earlier multicellular organisms, then an organizing brain, and finally behavior that fulfills intention. A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.”


To best answer, “What are we?” E.O. Wilson focuses and educates the reader on the evolution of the human brain so we can envision how the growth of our brain inspired new mechanics favorable for survival, connection, and tribal behaviors:

“The key to the great riddle lies in the circumstance and process that created our species. The human condition is a product of history—not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, must be explored in seamless unity for a complete answer to the mystery. When viewed across its entire traverse, the history of humanity also becomes the key to learning how and why our species arose and survived.
The time has come to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer than before to the great riddle of our existence.
To begin, biologists found that the biological origin of advanced social behavior in humans was similar to that occurring elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Using comparative studies of thousands of animal species, from insects to mammals, we’ve concluded that the most complex societies have arisen through eusociality—meaning, roughly, the “true” social condition.
Eusociality stands out as an oddity in a couple of ways. One is its extreme rarity. Out of hundreds of thousands of evolving lines of animals on the land during the past four hundred million years, the condition, so far as we can determine, has arise only nineteen times, scattered across insects, marine crustaceans, and subterranean rodents. The number is twenty, if we include human beings.”
Eusociality bolstered the evolution of the species by encouraging behaviors that championed survival. Division of labor, child rearing, building nests, were all commonplace for insects and animals. Wilson continues [emphasis mine]:

“Once attained, advanced social behavior at the eusocial grade found a major ecological success. Of the nineteen known independent lines among animals, just two within the insects—ants and termites—globally dominated invertebrates on the land. Although they are represented by fewer than twenty thousand of the million known living insect species, ants and termites compose more than half of the world’s insect body weight.

The history of eusociality raises a question: Given the enormous advantage it confers, why has this advanced form of social behavior been so rare and long in coming? The answer appears to be the special sequence of preliminary evolutionary changes that must occur before the final step to eusociality can be taken. In all of the eusocial species analyzed to date, the final step before eusociality is the construction of a protected nest, from which foraging trips are launched and within which the young are raised to maturity. The original nest builders can be a lone female, a mated pair, or a small and weakly organized group. When this final preliminary step is attained, all that is needed to create a eusocial colony is for parents and offspring to stay at the nest and cooperate in raising additional generations of young. Such primitive assemblages then divide easily into risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses.”

Once our species began sitting around campsites, assigning roles to members of the tribe, we began developing a bond and appreciation for others. This tribal behavior, which was inspired by campsites and hunter-gatherer dynamics, was the inception of our nature and played a profound role in the development of how we’re hardwired.
Wilson explains:
“The roles of both individual and group selection are clear in the details of the human social behavior: People are intensely interested in the minutiae of behavior of those around them. Gossip is a prevailing subject of conversation, everywhere from hunter-gatherer campsites to royal courts. The mind is a kaleidoscopically shifting map of others inside the group and a few outside, each of whom is evaluated emotionally in shades of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy, and sociability. We are compulsively driven to belong to groups or to create them as needed, which are variously nested, or overlapping, or separate, and in addition ranging from very large to very small. Almost all groups compete with those of similar kind in some manner or other. However gently expressed and generous in the tone of our discourse, we tend to think of our own group as superior, and we define our personal identities as members within them. The existence of competition, including military conflict, has been a hallmark of societies as far back in prehistory as archaeological evidence can be brought to bear.”
With this history of our human condition in mind, it begs the question: Are we hardwired to be good or bad, evil or honorable?  It turns out we’re both.
Wilson adds:
“We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites—not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.
Within biology itself, the key to the mystery is the force that lifted prehuman social behavior to the human level. The leading candidate is multilevel selection, by which hereditary social behavior improves the competitive ability not just of individuals within groups but among groups as a whole.
I am convinced after years of research on the subject that multilevel selection, with a powerful role of group-to-group competition, has been a major force in the forging of advanced social behavior—including that of humans. In fact, it seems clear that so deeply ingrained are the evolutionary products of group-selected behaviors, so completely a part of the contemporary human condition are they, that we are prone to regard them as fixtures of nature, like air and water. They are instead idiosyncratic traits of our species.”
With the biological origins of human nature in mind, Wilson says with great eloquence:
“The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. The conflict might be the only way in the entire Universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as the primary source of our creativity.”
Human creativity, he says, “is generated by the inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection.” To explain and understand this, we need to bridge the chasm between the humanities and sciences, which was caused by the Enlightenment period. Wilson says that “studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike.” My question is not a matter of if, but when?
To end with a bang, Wilson says at the end of this journey:
“To speak of the human existence is to bring into better focus the difference between the humanities and the science. The humanities address in fine detail all the ways human beings relate to one another and to the environment, the latter including plants and animals of aesthetic and practical importance. Science addresses everything else. The self-contained worldview of the humanities describe the human condition—but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence—the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place.”
And knowing why is worthy endeavor. Knowing how we became to be, how we’re hardwired, and how this knowledge helps us evolve in our own journeys is something that shouldn’t be left in our later years or entirely ignored. The understanding and compassion that can ensue by truly embracing this compiled knowledge of our world and ourselves is deeply enriching and humbling.
E.O. Wilson also explores how we’re hardwired for religion, storytelling, good versus evil, and so much more. The Meaning of Human Existence, a daring title nonetheless, does a masterful job of not only explaining the meaning of existence but ultimately how our existence can be meaningful.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Why Loving the Process Is Important to Creativity and Flow

While the act of creating is rarely linear or comfortable, it can indeed be enjoyable and meaningful. What greater feeling is there than a finished draft, an idea for a song, or a sketch twinkling with potential? Recently my craft has provided me a living, but for many years I wrote because I had to. Every morning, around the same time, I wrote for hours. I fell in love with writing because it gave me purpose; inadvertently it also gave me a cistern for self-discovery and self-education. From time to time I wake up laughing at the fact that I get paid to do what I immensely love—a blessing that never dulls or escapes my reflections. I always return to the fact that I would do it even if I wasn’t getting paid.

That love we have for our art is perhaps one of the most important qualities of creativity. The love, not for outcomes, but for the process that lets us find out what’s inside of us, to remind us why we’re alive, to create value for others, is as precious as time and close friends.

The renown psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wanted to study where, in every day life, were people really happy? He studied artists and scientists, trying to understand what about their work or their use of time that made it worthwhile. Was it money, fame, fortune, purpose?

In his timeless and fantastically researched book, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he explains why enjoyment is so critical for creativity:

“Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at the university, physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.”

This enjoyment, which fosters what he called “flow,” was when we enter a state of near-unconscious ecstasy: we lose track of time, our environment, and ultimately ourselves. We are enraptured in the work, where our focus is as intense as a child looking through the window of an ice cream store on a summer day. This state of flow is a surefire sign that the work we’re doing is meaningful and fulfilling—that something within it ignites our curiosity, where rewards are secondary, but most importantly we do it because it would kill us not to.

Csikszentmihalyi describes the 9 feelings of enjoyable work:

“The flow experience was described in almost identical terms regardless of the activity that produced it. Athletes, artists, religious mystics, scientists, and ordinary working people described their most rewarding experiences with very similar words. And the description did not vary much by culture, gender, or age; old and young, rich and poor, men and women, Americans and Japanese seem to experience enjoyment in the same way, even though they may be doing very different things to attain it. Nine main elements were mentioned over and over again to describe how it feels when an experience is enjoyable:
1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
4. Action and awareness are merged.
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
6. There is no worry of failure.
7. Self-consciousness disappears.
8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
9. The activity becomes autotelic.
If a state of flow is crucial for honing our skills and the fruition of our ideas, how, then, do we enter a state of flow on a regular basis? The Poet Mark Strand reflects on this:

“Well, you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is so great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so . . . so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.”

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention are one of those books that fundamentally changes the way you view creative careers, the creative process, and everything in between. There are so many things that are masterfully addressed—parenting, personality, environment, luck, failure, how culture views the “creative types” and more—that play a role in our careers and creative expression.