A Quiet Mind

Titan reads

We suffer today from what was termed “temporal exhaustion” by sociologist Elise Boulding who taught at Dartmouth from 1978 until her retirement in 1985. Temporal exhaustion is the idea that our lives have become so fast-paced and over-scheduled that we suffer fatigue from it all. Thanks to the new communication technologies, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with information. Professor Boulding explains the importance of allowing yourself processing time:

“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.”

This is not a new idea. It goes back at least to the Axial Age and is expressed, in one way or another, by many of the world’s religious traditions: the idea that you need to “be still” in order to apprehend enlightenment. The stillness referred to is a mental state, not physical. A quiet mind. Don’t forget to take time for yourself. Calm down. Listen. Cut off the dead vines. Don’t over function. End the toxic attitudes. De-stress.

An agitated mind is going to struggle with these ideas, especially the activity junkies among us—those people who cope with reality through constant busy-ness and who seem to fear the quiet. People have tried to refute the idea of silence by saying things like “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This sounds more like mental illness than an attack by the Evil One, and one can only ask, “Really? You feel like the Devil is at play inside your head? How often does this happen? What do you think the Devil is telling you to do? Did he make you sign a non-disclosure agreement?”

The feeling of one’s thoughts rushing like river rapids or running into each other like falling dominoes is familiar to many people. And some creative ideas do come out of these mash ups. But if you’re making noise, it’s hard to hear anyone but yourself.

And there’s the danger: that you will miss significant incoming info that could be vital. It is through the interplay of different ideas that we find flaws in our own thought process and that leads us to better analysis. Critical thinking does not occur in a vacuum. Our thought interacts with the thought of others, causing us to revise our point of view to be more accurate.

Quieting the noise takes discipline and practice, but it’s worth the effort. Start by scheduling some quiet time for yourself.

“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.” –Jackson Browne

Beginning Again


“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”


“Great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes.”

          —James Dobson

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

          —T. S. Eliot

“No matter how hard the past is, you can always begin again.”


“Take the first step in faith.. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

         —Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.”

          —Mark Twain


Let’s start the new year with an argument! Plato and Dobbs seem to be at odds with each other about whether beginnings or endings are more important, followed by Eliot’s effort to draw a circle around everything, the Buddha’s optimism, and MLK’s echo of the Chinese proverb, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” And then there’s Twain’s summation of it all (which seems appropriate for this time of year).

I lean heavily toward Plato’s view over Dobson’s. Much like the quality of the questions we ask, the beginning is going to have a huge impact on where we wind up; on the other hand, none of that matters if you can’t make a finish. The seeds of our failures are frequently to be found in our beginnings, and the Cult of Perfection can keep us from finishing at times when simply ‘good’ is good enough.

Planning and prioritizing. Two invaluable skills people try to avoid because they think those things take a lot of time and effort, but a few minutes spent exercising those skills brings a big pay-off and helps us find a direction. Ask: What’s the most important thing here, and how am I going to make it happen? This helps give you a sense of knowing where you are going even though the path may have some twists and turns..

I seem to read more and more commentary every day bewailing the general lack of Americans’ critical thinking skills. These skills are seldom taught in public schools anymore, and the private schools don’t do much better. Even college has given short shrift to this kind of competency until recently, and many colleges now believe the entering freshmen need extensive remediation, assigning required classes to teach them the skills they did not learn in high school.

The decision-making process can be crippled by confusion over real vs fake, failure to identify bogus arguments, or not recognizing the differences between good reasons and bad ones.

Often, President Trump is cited as the reason we need to teach critical thinking skills, with the concomitant idea that most Americans are not prepared to withstand the propaganda onslaught emanating from Trump’s White House. With those issues in mind, the Butcher Block is recommitting to its mission bringing critical thinking skills to a wider audience. Trump and his cronies put forward so many examples of manipulative techniques that we’ll spend a good bit of time analyzing his “arguments” but rest assured that the Block is an equal opportunity deprecator. We are diligently hunting down dangerously sloppy or manipulative thinking anywhere we can find it.

The Circus and the Charlatan

Ringmaster introducing a circus show.A number of commentators seem to have the impression that Donald Trump is a one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen phenomenon without precedent. If there is a primoprogenitor, a cautionary exemplar of the Coming of the Donald, then that forewarning must surely be the American bunco artist P. T. Barnum. If his name seems familiar, it probably is due to his partial ownership of the famed Barnum and Bailey circus.

Many tales about Barnum’s ingenuity have survived him, and a few of them may be true. The version of the story I’m about to share with you is of uncertain provenance, and so we regard the truth of it to be not in the literal details but in the larger, figurative themes. Our interest here is not in the ‘truth’ of the origin of the story but rather in the ‘truth’ of the story’s message. For example, there’s the story of Barnum’s exhibition of a ‘real’ mermaid, direct from the south seas.

It is said that Barnum bought the ‘mermaid’ from some sketchy seaman ‘down at the docks.’ Barnum then began exhibiting the thing, placing it in a coffin-like box set up in the center of a large tent: See the Mermaid, Two Bits.

The tent filled up rapidly, but that didn’t satisfy Barnum. The customers were spending lots of time standing around the display and theorizing. Barnum realized that he didn’t want a tent full of paying customers. He wanted ten tents full. He had to move people through the tent in order to maximize his profit. His problem wasn’t drawing a crowd, his problem was getting rid of it in order to bring more customers in. As he said, “Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

Barnum’s solution? A sign at one end of the tent reading, “This way to the Egress.” People would enter the tent to see the mermaid and after a few minutes someone would notice the sign and say: “Hey, everybody! Let’s go see the egress!” And eveyone would follow.

Not exactly underhanded, but at the least misleading. Egress is another word for exit. Barnum counted on below average vocabulary skills (and an unwillingness to look stupid) to carry off the scheme. All of which lends support to his observation: “No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public.”

We don’t know what the ‘mermaid’ really was. Some say it was a manatee carcass, others claim it was a dead squid with its tentacles arranged to resemble flowing tresses of hair. Whatever it was, it surely reeked to high heaven. Just like Donald Trump.

Barnum had a few other tricks up his sleeve which we’ll examine in future posts.

I have seen Fear in a Handful of Semicolons


Something is in the news that I never suspected would become an internet phenom: the besmirched and disparaged semicolon. A book has been published on the subject, and I’ve come to learn many people have been taught to never use semicolons. I don’t remember any specific instructional events involving semicolons and me, but I do think the semicolon is indispensable.

If you were told by your teacher not to use semicolons, I suspect you were told so that you would start to write short, declarative sentences. Like Hemingway’s. One thought to a sentence. Short, declarative sentences are indispensable too; they are where our thoughts come to life.

The semicolon is properly used to join together two independent clauses that relate similar thoughts or themes (except when the clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction):

Donald Trump is corrupt; he is owned by the Russian oligarchs.

This use of the semicolon in a parallel structure (like the one above) serves to give strong emphasis to the independent clause following the semicolon. Note that an independent clause must follow the semi-colon and not some modifying phrase or clause. The semicolon is also effectively used as a kind of pivot point in the sentence, setting up an opportunity for antithesis—the movement from this to that, from one to the other, from darkness to light:

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

The pivot provided by the semicolon and the parallel structure of the joined clauses lends a tolling majesty to the words, a reinforced rhetoric that comes from more than the ideas alone. The rhythm introduced by the semicolon is a big part of its persuasive power. Do not fear the semicolon.

Some Knowledge Patterns to Ponder


He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. —Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist (525 BC – 456 BC)

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.  —Buddha

One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.  —Ecclesiastes 1:4

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars. —Walt Whitman

Outside the box

The Test

Several men went to the Royal Palace and requested to become Emperor Akbar’s Royal Advisor. Akbar told them, “Only the person who passes my special test will get the job.”

He then took off his coat and put in on the floor. “Cover me from head to toe with this coat,” Akbar commanded.

All the men tried, but one by one they failed. When they covered his lower body, his upper body remained uncovered, and when they covered his lower body, his upper body remained uncovered.

Then Birbal entered the court, and Akbar asked him if he could complete the task. Birbal paused for a moment, and then politely asked Akbar, “Could you pull up your knees for a second?” Akbar did, and Birbal easily covered him from head to toe with the coat.

—This folktale from India reminds us that we shouldn’t allow our thinking to be boxed in by artificially imposed boundaries, or what has come to be known as “thinking outside the box” or “lateral thinking.” The men in the story are trapped by conventional thinking. They believe it’s the size of the blanket that is the problem. Then Birbal shows up and switches expectations by seeing the Emperor’s size and shape as the problem and not the dimensions of the blanket. In other words, instead of worrying about the size of the blanket, Birbal sees it’s the Emperor’s dimensions that need to be adjusted to fit the blanket’s dimensions. It’s a thought process that may be more familiar to you in the form of word puzzles: a Man rides into town on Friday, stays overnight, and leaves on Friday. How? Friday is the name of the horse he rode in on.