The Power of Language

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing….only I will remain.”

I first encountered these words reading an interview with Stephen Colbert during which he expounds on the power of fear to manipulate, defining fear as “…an attempt to impose tyranny over someone’s mind. It’s an act of oppression.” The words didn’t strike me then as I had no major fears in my life to relate them to – I couldn’t attach my own meaning to them. To experience the full impact of language requires a marriage between message and timing, where you read or hear exactly what you need to at precisely the right time. When this rare matrimony is achieved, language evolves beyond a means of communication into an innervating, protective force the likes of which few other mediums can approach.

Dune is the most famous Science Fiction book of all time. A philosophical fantasy tale, it tells the fascinating story of a Duke’s son and his succession to power on a harsh alien world. On his way to the throne, Paul Atreides faces endless trials and hardships, as if the universe were testing the strength of his soul before granting him the right to rule. His very first test attempts to determine his humanity through exposure to extreme simulated pain. An animal would instantly retreat from the sensation of pain, but a human will endure it knowing that something greater exists on the other side. He is warned that if he does not have the strength to endure it, the gom jabbar will undoubtedly kill him. Faced with the threat of losing his life and legacy and immense fear, Paul recites an ancient teaching from his mother, the Litany Against Fear quoted above. The words ignite his determination, they empower him to be brave in the face of death and survive the trial. It was when reading these words for the second time, just a few weeks ago, that they finally hit home.

I graduated from college this spring, and so along with many others I had to abandon the people I had lived with and loved for the past four years of my life. Following this departure, I moved to a new city 10 hours from my home where I don’t know a single soul; went from living off of my parents’ money in a house of seven to sustaining myself in an apartment of one; and started working on a Ph.D that I feel terrifically unqualified for. Fear has built a house in my head, infecting my thoughts with its own.

It is only with this litany, these powerful words, that I am able to remain steadfast in the face of fear and continue paddling forward in a swelling sea of uncertainty.

The power of language is in the experience of truth. All it takes is a set of words to let you know that someone, somewhere, has endured your challenges and survived. It’s easy to forget this in an existence riddled with cliché quotations and corporate marketing campaigns meant to empower you into buying their products. Look beyond the surface of syntax and attach your own meaning. Find the mantra that lifts you into a higher state, the sentence that subsumes your soul and leaves nothing left to stop you.


“Never Marry Your First Love”

Source: X@V Photos

Source: X@V Photos

I was first told this advice in the teenage climax of my first serious relationship and brushed it aside with an air of adolescent overconfidence, convinced that this could not possibly apply to me. I was in love and knew it, it was only natural that my girlfriend and I would eventually get married and be together forever. Much to my surprise, our rock-solid romantic foundation of indie music mixtapes and ironic greeting cards couldn’t support the weight of a difficult long-distance relationship. It would take multiple years and multiple girlfriends, though, before I finally understood first-hand the reasoning behind this curious advice.

Love cannot be defined abstractly or verbally, but instead can only be conveyed through experience, and it is from this fact that we receive the infuriating explanation of ‘true’ love as something you’ll just know when you have. Our understanding of love, then, is defined only by our strongest romantic relationship. In Elementary school, you understand love as deciding who to chase or run away from on the playground; in Junior High, it’s who you hold hands with; and contrary to intuition there is not an age at which this suddenly evolves into a mature concept. A 29 year-old whose last serious relationship was in college will still understand love as a word whose primary use is in mitigating the guilt of a casual hookup by forcing a connection built on an unusually good beer pong streak and a dreadful duet of Semisonic’s Closing Time.

In this way our understanding of love is like our understanding of color. If I had a set of Lowe’s paint samples and showed you one square and told you it was green, you would say you understand green and could recognize it again. If I then showed you another sample and told you it was forest green, you would then say you have a better understanding of green and could recognize it even easier. It also follows, then, that showing you red as an example of non-green would prove equally informative; just as bad relationships can illuminate the makings of good ones. If we then spent a horrendously boring and suburban afternoon viewing every shade of green and red from Spring Leaf to Cherry Tomato, you would conclude that your understanding of the color green is complete and that you would now know with absolute certainty if a novel color was green or not.

Now replace the paint samples with relationships and green with love, and you will begin to see why marrying your first love may not be the best move. You lack the exposure and experience, and thus the certainty, of knowing that your relationship represents love proper. So the title suggestion is not a blanket instruction to arbitrarily abandon a great relationship, but rather advises caution in lieu of robust experience.

So before you go and tie the knot with the first person who drops the L-word in sincerity, just be sure you know the difference between Artichoke Heart and Denver Grass.


Hero Worship is Healthy

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

I value originality and creativity as some of the most important character traits in people. The essence of these qualities is to be unique, to contribute something authentic and novel to the social landscape. It may seem that the best way to accomplish this is to actively reject conformity, to acknowledge how others act and express the opposite in yourself; but rather than producing uniqueness, non-conformity instead makes you a slave to your peers by arbitrarily binding you to the opposite of their decisions. Non-conformity doesn’t require any sort of value judgment, it simply masks blind obedience in the sensation of rebellion. So how can we develop ourselves to create something truly special? By carefully selecting and adopting the traits and habits we admire most in the individuals around us. Everyone will have a slightly different affinity for certain people and practices and so by recognizing and integrating these elements into the self, we are guaranteed to become a powerful person.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is an active television show covering the greatest discoveries in science, modeled after the 1980 original series hosted by Carl Sagan entitled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The modern sequel has reaffirmed my admiration for its host, Neil Degrasse Tyson, as a personal hero. Tyson is a champion of science and a model intellectual – he is insatiably curious, bright but humble, and a bit of a renaissance man with his taste for literature competing with a love for science. His passion is contagious, Tyson exhibits a powerful ability to make any topic fascinating and to remain a a lifelong student – qualities that I hope to emulate as a professor. By studying his example, I hope to emulate his best qualities in my own life.

Taylor Marie is another hero of mine for her astounding openness. She embraces vulnerability by sharing the highest ecstasies and the darkest moments of her life with the public. Vulnerability is the language of connection, and her example empowers me to forge deeper connections with the people in my life and improve my writing by showing that it’s not only okay, but imperative, to express yourself boundlessly.

Search for your unique combination of heroes and allow them to fill your soul with a veritable cocktail of consciousness. You already possess the qualities that define you as unique, but developing a personal team of inspirational figures – whether parents, friends, celebrities – constructs the foundation for you to become your ideal self and share your gift with the world.

Nietzsche, Ultra Music Festival, and Self-Transcendence in Art

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche creates a dichotomy in art between the Apollonian and Dionysian that he believes allows us to see the interaction between two artistic schools of thought that has persisted throughout history. The Greek god Apollo represents what Nietzsche considers the forms of art associated with dreams – painting, sculpture, form, beauty. This, he believes, has persisted as the dominant form of artistic expression for its relatively docile and uninspiring nature over the dark side of artistic expression – the Dionysian. The Greek god Dionysus, associated with music and wine, represents the forms of art associated with the feeling of intoxication, primarily music. This distinction is made both in how the works in each category are created, as well as how they are received by their audiences.

When an audience is viewing pieces of visual art like paintings or sculptures, they quietly and slowly observe the nuances of the work in a primarily intellectual interaction between the artist and the audience. In stark contrast, when an audience is experiencing an expression of the Dionysian like music, they feel the art, they dance and sing and become wild in a primarily physical interaction between the audience and the artist. This physical interaction has been repressed, Nietzsche argues, because it has the capacity to incite; it profoundly alters the behavior of those who it touches – allowing listeners to lose their inhibition, to connect with others at a deep level, to celebrate life in the universal language. These are not behaviors that a ruling establishment wishes to create in its population; these are behaviors that can upset the balance of power, that can cause violence and sex and destroy precious societal order.

Nietzsche’s categories are accurate in their distinction and highly important for the understanding and study of art. The difference becomes quite obvious when viewed in authentic contexts – compare the patrons of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art with the audience at the annual Ultra Music Festival in Miami, Florida, and one quickly understands the distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The distinction allows us to properly judge art on its merits in either category – one should not criticize a landscape sketch for not inspiring dance in the viewer nor should lyric-less electronic dance music be berated for its absence of intellectual interaction. The latter exists primarily in an emotional context where the user doesn’t see or analyze but instead feels the rhythm and melody while the first resides in the realm of the analytical and the visual and how its elements work synergistically to create a representation of beauty.

Although this distinction is useful, it is by no means absolute. In many instances art forms traditionally considered Apollonian or Dionysian can escape their categorical consideration to form a highly complex and layered assault on both the mind and the body that can elude explanation from all but the most skilled audience. This capacity is surely known by any exposed audience, but its true importance is for the artist, the creator. They must not foolishly restrain themselves to the Apollonian or the Dionysian and instead must exist in the overlapping space between that cradles many of humanity’s best artistic works, those that pass easily through the barriers of sense perception and deconstructive analysis and touch us at the deepest levels and manifest themselves through absolutely compulsive physical expression and intellectual satisfaction that satiates an oft-forgotten primal hunger for self-transcendence.

Shoshin: The Mastery Mindset


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Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could retrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Learning how to learn is an essential skill. If you’re still in school, it can help you take advantage of a broken educational system enough to make that degree worth more than a piece of paper. After school, knowing how to learn becomes even more important as it separates those destined for the dead-end of middle management from the ambitious individuals who rise to the top.

We are living in an age of revival, when the once archaic idea of the jack-of-all-trades Renaissance man has returned to a status that exceeds its former glory. It’s no longer enough to learn a specialized skill set, get hired, and retire 40 years later having worked for one company your entire life. The average employee stays at each job for only 4.4 years, which means that adaptability and a broad skill set are the most valuable assets to possess. If you’re looking to find freedom in self-employment, this point is only emphasized further because the modern entrepreneur is a master of multitasking. They’re the C.E.O, the marketer, the customer service rep, the artist, the social media expert, and the accountant. An ability to learn quickly and deeply is the only way to thrive in this dynamic environment.

Luckily, there is a wealth of tools and resources to facilitate ‘aftermarket education’. Youtube, TED talks, Wikipedia, Massively Open Online Courses, and blogs weave a robust network to fuel your growth. Without the right attitude, though, all this wonderful content becomes useless.

In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called Shoshin (初心), which translates to “Beginner’s Mind.” It suggests that the best way to learn is to take the perspective of an absolute novice, by understanding and accepting that you know nothing. This confession of ignorance stimulates an intense curiosity; by knowing nothing we feel driven to learn anything and everything. It also leaves us open to the teachings of others because our ego no longer gets in the way of communication. Even as an expert in a subject, adopting the beginner’s mind refreshes your perspective, and allows you to see the same challenges without the associations and expectations that typically define your approach.

In trying to live this practice myself, I have found massive impacts not only on my academic life but also in my social experience. Instead of spending conversations trying to share my opinion and prove my point right, I dedicate more time to listening and understanding those around me. By admitting that I know nothing, I’m eager to learn what people have to say. Shoshin is the mastery mindset, one simple change that will help you to flourish in a fluid world where information is the most valuable commodity.

Acknowledging that we know nothing is the first step to knowing everything.

Recommended Reading: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shinryu Suzuki


The Key To Being Happy is to Stop Trying

Photo by Bogdan Teodorescu

Photo by Bogdan Teodorescu

“Happiness is a choice.” This simple product of new age thought and the positive psychology movement is absolutely profound. It suggests that we humans are not simply the manufactured products of some environmental assembly line, but that we play an active role in our own well-being. It’s incredibly empowering to realize that one doesn’t have to watch helplessly while the people around us and the circumstances we face decide our fate.

The idea that we are in control of our own happiness at first feels absolutely liberating – this control seems to unlock the possibility that we can hypothetically be happy all of the time. However, this freedom brings with it the immense responsibility of securing our own well-being. The upside to the idea that you’re at least partially dependent on others for joy was that it meant that you didn’t have to worry so much, satisfaction was out of your control. So now, having been suddenly handed the reins, all we do is worry.

The cleverest among us are preying on the epidemic fear of sadness, holding the promise of happiness in front of us like a carrot on a stick. Wear these clothes and then you’ll be happy, read this book or blog post and then you’ll be happy (sorry), work harder and make more money and then you’ll be happy. These predators have created a culture of viewing satisfaction as a goal, as something you have to work towards and earn, because it motivates you towards their goals. Working to achieve happiness disgraces the original idea of choosing happiness, it’s absolutely antithetical to its message. Choosing happiness is simply an attitude change. It’s not something we do in a span of years, or months, or days, but rather a choice we make in this very moment. Stop trying to be happy and just be happy – right here, right now.

Why You Should Never, Ever, Ever Get A Tattoo (but Having a Baby is Fine)

The Ugly Volvo

I’m not super pro-tattoo or anti-tattoo.  I’ve debated getting one in the past but never that seriously.  But my mother is vehemently anti-tattoo.  Listed below are the reasons my mother has always given me for why I shouldn’t get a tattoo.

And I understand that she’s from a different generation.  And I love my mother very much.  She’s a really wonderful person and I’m not saying none of them is a legitimate reason, but I’m saying that after having a child, I find it really hard to take any of them seriously.

And so in case you were headed out to the tattoo parlor as we speak, here are:


1.  “A Tattoo is Forever”

Yes, a tattoo is forever.  Totally forever!  Except that a tattoo can, if needed, be erased with a laser.

 *Some of you read that and immediately thought, "I am so exhausted, please I need a laser that can temporarily erase a three year-old," but sorry, that is not a thing that exists.  

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Eating Flowers

Have you ever wondered what your cell phone tastes like? Probably not, and if you have I would wager that you haven’t followed through on your curiosity. Think back a few years, however, and you may recall a time when pennies were a staple of your diet. As young children, we take full advantage of our sensory capabilities and don’t hesitate to put toys in our mouths, or trace strangers’ faces with our fingers. Sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell are all equally respected in early life, but upon developing a sense of danger (Bleach wasn’t meant to be explored by mouth) and of socialization (neither were strangers’ bodies – unless you’re in college), we tend to forget the value of these senses in exploring and understanding the world. Given reasonable bounds, all five senses can be revived in adulthood to their former glory and create a richer perceptual experience.

Your relationship with your body is like an aged love – it has become routine and automatic. It’s time to take your sense of touch on a romantic date. Remove your foot prisons, strip your feet of their socked incarceration, and head out for a walk. Attend to the sensation of bare feet on bare earth and reignite an authentic connection with your environment. Feel each step as each of the 40 muscles contract and extend to propel your body forward. Notice the texture of the sand and pebbles covering the tar, or the blades of grass brushing against your heel. This feedback from the ground demands your attention, it will not allow you to be distracted by texts and tunes. Going barefoot forcefully cultivates mindfulness of the present moment and a deeper engagement with reality.

Why do we ignore any of our avenues for accessing reality and miss out on some of the best things life has to offer? The smell of winter before the first snow; the charged feeling of skin in the calm before a summer thunderstorm; the taste of salt in the ocean air. Sight and sound only take us so far – to truly know the world we must investigate it with every tool in our arsenal. Fall back in love with the feeling self, create a spark with the old flame! Relearn the curiosity of our younger selves and their drive to understand what life tastes like!

The Cult of Leadership

“If you aren’t a leader, you’re a failure,” reads the principle doctrine of the American Leadership Cult. “There are two types of people in this world,” its leaders dictate in their rehashed platitudes, “Leaders and followers.” ‘Leader’ is distorted to include anyone successful, that by nature of being successful one must be a leader.  ‘Followers’, meanwhile, is demoted to represent blind, unquestioning workers who wallow in mediocrity and scavenge like vultures off the kills of the aforementioned master race. Followers are uneducated, unhealthy, and poor, they’re slaves to the consumption of brand names and TV news. It seems a twilight of moderation does not exist between these two poles, it is absolute binarism. Zeroes and Heroes are the constituents of the planet.

In our ferocious desire to create the revolutionaries and Nobel prize laureates of tomorrow, we have forgotten the value of contribution and of presence. We have forgotten that for every employer there are employees, and that there is immense strength in those who choose not to lead but elect to contribute.

Educational institutions and corporations provide countless opportunities to build leadership skills and to take command of a group – here at Bryant University we have Linked through Leadership, Greek Leadership, Orientation Leaders, Bulldog Leaders, C.E.O., and countless other programs all devoted to training self-identified leaders but not one program to teach you how to be part of a team. There are no summer internships designed for the student who raises his hand every class but who doesn’t wish to lead his group project. The resume from the club member who provided invaluable insight every meeting but declined a presidential nomination rarely receives a second look. Why, when we can reliably expect that only a small number of us will become positional leaders, do we devote all of our resources to the coach and none to the players?

Perhaps this mistake is predicated on the idea that the best way to accomplish a goal is to put a hierarchically homogenous group of leaders in a room. Perhaps their stereotypical extroversion will create a culture of conversation, their energy will synergize to create intellectual cold fusion. My fraternity lives by this principle – we recruit the leaders, the talkers, the comedians, and fall victim to this expectation of success. What we have instead is thirty-four alpha males constantly competing for attention at every opportunity. We have recruited so many talkers that no one will listen; there is no teamwork because collaboration means sacrificing your precious idea for another’s. Our enthusiasm may occasionally combine to form the pinnacle of modern energy science, but too often it creates a war for volume and a battle for gesticulation territory. We still manage to create and achieve incredible feats, but it is in spite of our constitution, not because of it.

One day, our society may succeed in its misguided ideals and turn every individual into a leader. Huzzah, an army of leaders to solve the problems of the world! Ten billion people will each have a dream, and not a soul will listen.

Love as Choice

Volumes upon volumes have been written on love. The melancholy of heartbreak and the fervent ecstasy of attraction have both driven countless pens to paper. In expressing our love, whether it be in song, poem, painting, or long hugs, we simultaneously attempt to understand it. Despite all of the time we humans spend contemplating the concept, though, it seems we are no closer to understanding it than we were thousands of years ago. Massive sums of time and money go into researching the neuroscience of love, the characteristics of satisfied couples, and the algorithms behind dating websites, yet we are still vulnerable in facing the challenges of romance. All the data in the world doesn’t heal the agony of loss and has yet to make a significant dent in the 50% American divorce rate. The bulk of this exploration of love falls short in recognizing one fundamental truth: Love – deep, unconditional love, is not a feeling, but a choice.

Romantic comedies and media narratives tend to create the expectation that our soulmate (spoiler: they don’t exist) will eventually fall into our laps – and that, following a predictable bit of turmoil, we’ll live happily ever after. Silly or not, this is the notion we often naively carry in our hearts. It’s easy to be shocked, then, when you and your girlfriend have your first fight or you begin to notice the first habit of theirs you don’t like because it defies the narrative of a perfect relationship. Plenty of couples learn to ignore or deal with the friction, though, perhaps believing that the strength of their attraction, the profundity of their love, will triumph over any issues in the relationship. We look at the examples of our mothers and fathers and it seems that their love for each other obscures their imperfections, that my Gamama (Grandma for the unimaginative) and Grampa have been together for 50 years because they’re a fantastically compatible match.

We like to think that we’re incredibly good at knowing who’s going to make us happy, but let’s be honest – our test is passed with something as simple as a smile, a joke, a long conversation. The idea of having a soulmate is laughable – that there are 7 billion people in the world and you’re not only going to meet them, but you’re going to meet them early enough to live your life alongside them? No, no, rather there are millions upon millions of people in the world who could make us happy, but we choose one and decide to make them a promise. We promise to recognize their imperfections and the nuances that make them unique and love them anyway. Unconditional love means making the conscious decision to not only accept but to cherish a person’s flaws and failures, to immerse yourself in their whole being and thrive in it.

Stop waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Perfect, they don’t exist and never did. Find not the person whom you love at first sight for this is mistaking lust for love. Find instead the person you can learn to love and let them teach you how to accept and cherish every last fiber of their being – the back hair, the tiny butt, the obnoxious snoring and the obsession with cereal, the ketchup phobia and the late-night affinity for Rage Against the Machine.

Choose to Love.

“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”
-Sam Keen