Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Flowers on the Road to Hell

Here's my latest Straits Times column, published today, 17 May 2016.

“Even on the road to hell, flowers can make you smile.”
I came across this lovely thought recently while reading 365 Dao: Daily Meditations by the Chinese American author and philosopher Deng Ming-Dao.
It had a special resonance for me, because it reminded me of a remarkable experience I once enjoyed.
Joy and self-forgetfulness
Some years ago – perhaps twenty - I went through a prolonged period of stress at work. I felt that I was doing my job badly and that each workday was a humiliating failure.
Back then, my daily walk to work was a heavy-hearted affair, a reluctant trudge to another day of anxious toil. But it wasn’t unremittingly grim. It was punctuated by occasional bursts of joy and self-forgetfulness.
My route took me through a local park, and sometimes a glimpse of morning sunlight filtering through red and gold autumn leaves, or of spring buds bursting forth from the bare branches of trees, would transport me.
My troubles would be forgotten, and the feeling of elation would sometimes stay with me for hours.
Even on the road to hell, flowers made me smile.
The power of beauty
It was a marvellous experience. I have often thought back to it, and wondered at the power of sunlight, leaves and flowers to affect such a swift and radical change in my state of mind.
The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a theory about this. It is an interesting theory, and - I think - a very plausible one. It runs along the following lines.
Most of the objects that attract our attention, during our day-to-day lives, do so because they are somehow connected to our will, to our desires. We focus on them because we wish to possess them, or use them, or enjoy them, or perhaps avoid them.
For example, my attention is currently focussed on my laptop because I am using it to write this column, which will enable me to earn some money and (hopefully) capture the interest of you, my reader.
Similarly, the mug of coffee in front of me attracts my attention because I want to drink and enjoy it. And so on.
It is the same for all of us. Most of the time, we view objects primarily in terms of the relationships they bear to ourselves. We view them through the lens of our needs and desires.
But sometimes, when our focus is directed to an object of great beauty, we lose ourselves in contemplation of it. We appreciate it not for what it is in relation to ourselves, but for what it is in itself.
Schopenhauer puts it like this:
“We stop considering the Where, When, Why and Wherefore of things but simply and exclusively consider the What … we devote the entire power of our mind to intuition and immerse ourselves in this entirely, letting the whole of consciousness be filled with peaceful contemplation of the natural object that is directly present, a landscape, a tree, a cliff, a building, or whatever it might be, and … we lose ourselves in this object completely.”
Fleeting beauty
That is precisely what happened to me, all those years ago, on my early-morning walks.
I lost myself in contemplation of sunlight, leaves and buds. I was conscious of them in a way that was unrelated to my will and desires. I had no use for them. I simply appreciated them.
And for as long as long as that experience lasted, I was filled with joy and peace.

In 365 Dao, Deng Ming-Dao expresses it nicely. He writes: “The tenderness of flowers arouses mercy, compassion and understanding. If that beauty is delicate, so much the better. Life itself is fleeting. We should take the time to appreciate beauty in the midst of temporality.”

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