By Stephanie Paulsell
Stephanie Paulsell’s “The Art of Living: Practices for Flourishing in a Fractured World” was presented at Vassar College on February 22, 2018; her talk was part of Vassar’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life’s participation in a multi-year Luce Foundation grant on practices, “Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World,” directed out of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Paulsell’s talk introduced “practices” as a shared way of addressing basic human needs, and was followed by faculty workshops on some of their own shaping practices–including writing, reading, moving, contemplating, and activism.
One of the best things I’ve read recently on practices is the historian Timothy Snyder’s little book, On Tyranny. Snyder is a scholar of authoritarian regimes, and he’s written a book on the lessons he has learned from his studies and how we might integrate those lessons into our everyday lives. On Tyranny answers the question of “what can we do to resist tyranny in our own place and time?” with a list of twenty practices. They include things like: establish a private life; read books; take responsibility for the face of the world by taking down symbols of hate when they appear; put your body in unfamiliar places and make new friends; be as courageous as you can.
One of the practices Snyder commends is striking in its simplicity: make eye contact, he says, and small talk. In all the places where tyranny has emerged, he says, what people remember years later is how their neighbors treated them. Small gestures like stopping to comment on the weather or offering a handshake came to mean a very great deal to people living under threat in Nazi Germany or during the purges in eastern Europe. When vulnerable people saw their neighbors averting their eyes from them, or crossing the street to avoid meeting them, they felt more afraid. And with good reason–because someone who is isolated in society is easier for an authoritarian regime to harm than someone who is known, and seen, and held in community.
“You might not be sure, today or tomorrow,” Snyder writes, “who feels threatened in the United States.” So he recommends making eye contact with everyone: smile, offer a handshake, stop and chat for a moment when you can. If you make eye contact with everyone, he says, then you will, for sure, make some people feel better. And you will combat the isolation that increases their vulnerability.
Now, making eye contact can be a risky practice. If you follow Snyder’s advice and make eye contact with every single person you pass in the street, you may draw some unwanted attention, especially if you’re a young woman. So I’m not recommending that. But I’ve found that just trying to make eye contact with people I encounter regularly in the course of a day—people with whom I work or who check my bag when I’m leaving the library or my students—takes some intentional effort. Maybe it’s a leftover tendency from being a shy child, but I tend to look a bit over the tops of people’s heads when I’m talking to them or slide my eyes off to the side. Since reading Snyder, though, I’ve really tried to look people in the eye when I’m talking to them. And I’ve learned some things.
First of all, I’ve learned that while students are very good at making eye contact, professors, as a whole, are not. It’s amazing any of us know what each other looks like the way we slide our eyes away from each other’s faces when we talk. What a bunch of introverts we are.
Secondly, trying to make eye contact with people I encounter has slowed me down. You can’t race past someone and look them in the eye—at least I can’t. I have to stop and say hello, exchange a few words. And most importantly, I have to believe that the practice of making eye contact as just as important as getting where I am going. It’s made me realize that I have been rushing past people—especially at work—for my entire adult life. Always running late, always trying to get to the next meeting, always communicating my busyness to everyone. I wish I had learned this practice a long time ago. I think I’d be closer to being the person I want to be if I had.
Thirdly, when I make eye contact with people throughout the day, I feel more present in the world. I’m in my head a lot—and by that I don’t mean that I spend all my time thinking profound philosophical thoughts. I mean that I am often doing one thing and thinking about another. Now, this isn’t always a bad thing—sometimes we need to be doing one thing and thinking about another—and if we can do that, there is a certain kind of freedom that is always within our reach. But without practices that gather up the scattered parts of ourselves from time to time, practices that bring our inner lives and our outer lives into alignment for a moment, we can go through life slightly dissociated from everything going on around us. We’re not fully present. And, as Timothy Snyder suggests, distracted people who are not fully present in the world around them are easier to manipulate into compliance.
The practice of making eye contact and small talk might be thought of as part of a larger practice: the practice of hospitality, a practice with a long history in many religious and cultural contexts—a practice that will be explored in the workshop on activism this evening, I believe. In the first episode of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” Vanessa Zoltan introduced the idea of practice by talking about the Huguenot community of Le Chambon, in France—a Protestant Christian community that sheltered 3500 Jews and 1500 others persecuted under the Vichy regime and helped many get over the border to safety in Switzerland. This community had, a few centuries earlier, lived through its own persecution and had long experience in sheltering refugees. Indeed, the path they walked with those they helped get from their village to the Swiss border in the twentieth century had been walked by their ancestors for very similar reasons. This community kept those paths clear through their well-honed practices of hospitality, even in the years they didn’t need them so urgently. When refugees began knocking on their doors in the early 1940s, the community didn’t have to waste time wondering what to do or how do it. They simply did what they had practiced doing in their everyday lives: they offered hospitality to those who needed it. They opened their doors and their kitchens, they provided false documents and ration cards, they made up beds in their churches and their schools, and they accompanied people on the perilous journey to the border. As Elisabeth Koenig-Kaufman, a former child refugee in Le Chambon, put it: “Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.” The community of Le Chambon had been practicing hospitality for a long time in ways large and small. They were formed by its gestures—opening the door when the knock came rather than sitting still and silent until whoever was knocking moved on, keeping extra pillows and blankets and food on hand. And, I expect, making eye contact and small talk with people they encountered. The community had practiced being open and welcoming for generations. And so when it was a matter of life or death, they could open their doors without hesitation. Sometimes these kinds of heroic acts are like miracles, coming out of nowhere. But most of the time, they’re prepared for, in community, through practice.
Now, the practices I’ve described—my own halting attempts to make eye contact with the people I encounter in my life and an entire community’s practice of radical hospitality probably seem pretty far apart. One’s a small gesture, made by one person; the other is the way of life of an entire community that has been working on practicing hospitality for generations and passing knowledge of the practice from hand to hand. But this social practice of a community is made up of the countless gestures of its members. The liberating thing about approaching our lives through the idea of practices, is that it’s possible—it’s desirable—to jump in wherever we are. In order to make eye contact and small talk with people we don’t know or don’t know well, we just have to start doing it. We don’t have to master a body of knowledge or adhere to any particular doctrines. We just have to start doing it and see what we learn and where it takes us. One practice will often lead to another. But what these practices will mean in our lives and the lives of our communities can’t be predicted in advance. We learn what they mean by doing them.
Formative practices, spiritual exercises—this idea has a long history. Ancient philosophical communities—Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists—all developed practices intended to sharpen their attention to the present moment, to help them learn to live “freely and consciously,” and make them available to be transformed. These practices included meditation, the study of the natural world, the cultivation of friendship, the remembrance of things worth remembering. The Platonists cultivated a communal spiritual exercise—the dialogue. If you’ve ever read a Platonic dialogue, you’ve seen the practice in action. Socrates draws someone into conversation about some significant question or other. And we often read those dialogues in search of an answer to those questions: what is truth? What is justice? What is the good? But learning to dialogue is not primarily about getting to the answer. It’s about the practice itself, a dialectic practice that requires the consent of both participants in every moment. The point is not to articulate a doctrine, but to shape a mental attitude, an orientation towards life that opens one to conversion, to change. That’s why you can’t just skip to the end of a dialogue to find the answer any more than you can summarize a poem. The answer’s not at the end; it’s not reducible to a definition. The answer’s in the practice of dialogue itself, a practice of moving together towards truth, towards justice, towards the Good.
For Stoics, attention was the foundation of every spiritual exercise, the philosophical practice par excellence, and we’ll be having a workshop tonight on attention. What the Stoics meant by attention was both attention to the present moment and attention to the things one wants to remember. If you’ve ever read Marcus Aurelius’s meditations, you’ve seen an example of someone trying to cultivate this kind of attention. He speaks directly to himself, urging himself to remember his bedrock convictions and to be indifferent to things that don’t really matter. The great historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot, says that the practice of attention “allows us to respond immediately to events, as if they were questions asked of us all of a sudden,” a description that reminds me of the story of Le Chambon. They were asked questions all of a sudden: can you take me in? can you help me? Will you risk your life to save mine? Another of Timothy Snyder’s practices is: “if you must bear arms, be reflective.” And what he means by that is that, in the history of authoritarian regimes, there comes a time when police officers and soldiers are asked to do irregular things. Snyder urges soldiers and police officers to “be ready to say no.” To practice, to imagine it, to remember the bedrock convictions that will help you answer the question in a moment. Marcus Aurelius did this through writing down the things he wanted to make sure to remember. And we’ll have a workshop on writing as a spiritual practice tonight.
Attention is also a core religious practice. The philosopher Simone Weil, once wrote that “prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.” For Weil, academic work—the kind of work you all do here at Vassar every single day—is an opportunity to cultivate that attention. It doesn’t matter what you’re studying—mathematics, languages, theology, music, history, literature, biology. Studying something outside ourselves requires us to make ourselves present to something that is not us, without domesticating it or turning it into something like us. If we’re studying Arabic or Italian or Sanskrit, the language is not going to change to accommodate us. The grammar and the syntax and the vocabulary of these languages has to be learned, as it is. When we do that, Weil says, when we really make ourselves available to what is other than us in study, we increase our capacity to be present to God in prayer, and to our suffering neighbor. If we spend our years in school without trying to cultivate this kind of attention, she says, we miss an incredible opportunity to change. The idea that our efforts in study—whether or not we arrive at the right answer or the right translation of the passage—might bear fruit in our prayer and in our relationships with others, particularly those who are suffering is what Weil calls an “experimental certainty.” Some things we can’t know until we act like they’re true. We find out if they’re true by practicing.
Simone Weil’s understanding of prayer is obviously a long way from the much derided thoughtsandprayers that we hear so much about after every mass shooting. Thinking and praying are both really important practices to cultivate in these days because they are practices that have the potential to change us. But thoughtsandprayers are a hedge against change. When Weil talks about the practice of prayer as a practice of attention, she’s talking about remaining turned towards love no matter what, even in the midst of our neighbor’s affliction and our own, even when God seems absent.
Recently I heard the writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams give a talk on the relationship between contemplative prayer and public vocation. She spoke about trying to stay turned toward the realities of climate change without becoming numb. We might ask the same question about mass shootings—how do we remain turned toward this reality without becoming numb in self-defense. “I choose not to look away,” she said. “For me, that is contemplative prayer.”
Seen through the lens of practices, a religion looks less like a set of creedal propositions that one either assents to or not and more like a way of life through which perennial human needs and hungers are addressed. The need for a place to rest and food to eat calls forth practices of hospitality. The desire to exhale one’s breath in praise or joy or lament calls forth the practice of singing; the need for reconciliation between human beings calls forth the practice of forgiveness. Religious traditions all have wisdom about these practices. They’ve passed them down the generations; they’ve reshaped them for new contexts and new moments in history; they’ve embodied and practiced them in religious rituals. The needs these practices address, though, belong to every human being, whether we consider ourselves “religious” or not. We all need practices of hospitality, of music-making, of forgiveness because we’re human; we do these things with and for one another because we’re human.
One example of a human need that religious traditions have thought about, and developed practices around is the human need to structure time for work and rest. All religious traditions structure time in some way, with days of feasting and fasting, or with days that are particularly auspicious, or days that commemorate certain saints or events. In Judaism, the need to structure time for work and rest led to the practice of Sabbath-keeping—the idea that one day each week should be a day to rest from work. In the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, the practice of Sabbath-keeping is a commandment from God: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy,” God tells Moses on Mount Sinai. God rested on the seventh day, and so should you. In Judaism, of course, and in Christianity which also has a tradition of Sabbath observance, there are people who practice Sabbath-keeping religiously, those who keep the Sabbath by attending worship but not necessarily by refraining from work, and those who don’t keep it at all. In our plugged-in, 24-hour, 7-day-a-week economy, Sabbath-keeping is becoming more and more difficult to practice.
Everybody needs rest, though, so, in theory, there should be wisdom in the practice of Sabbath-keeping for everyone. Several years ago, a friend of mine started trying to keep the Sabbath by refraining from work one day a week. It wasn’t easy—there were always papers to grade or other kinds of work to do, and it made her anxious to set it aside for a whole 24 hours. Gradually, though, she figured out how to prepare for her day of rest and she found herself getting more organized, more purposeful, especially toward the end of the week. And that’s one of the bits of wisdom that religious traditions contain about rest: that to observe a day of rest requires us to reshape our relationship with all the other days of the week. To keep the Sabbath, you have to make a space for it by using your time well on all the other days. You have to plan for the Sabbath, get ready to welcome it each week—like a bride, as the Jewish tradition teaches.
But of course, sometimes we can’t get all our work done on the other days of the week. Sabbath-keeping teaches some wisdom about that, too: that is, to let go of the idea that the world can’t do without our work for a day. It can. Put your work in perspective.
But there’s even more wisdom than this layered into the practice of Sabbath-keeping. It’s not only a practice that offers rest for the overworked but it is also a practice that illuminates the fact that the arrangement of time—religious or otherwise—is always political. If you try to take a day off each week you will quickly notice that not everyone can—something that’s harder to notice if you’re working all the time. God’s commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath is also God’s testimony against economic injustice—and against slavery. Only free people can take a day off. How time is structured makes someone’s life easier and someone’s life harder. Sabbath-keeping is a practice that not only shapes us as individuals but challenges us to shape a society in which no one has too much work and no one has too little. This practice makes a claim on us that goes beyond the boundaries of our individual lives.
Practices are important to cultivate in our lives because we can’t just think our way to the people we hope to become. Thinking is important. It’s itself a practice that we all need to cultivate in these days. But on its own, it’s not enough. We’ve been having a national seminar on this topic for last several months, as a light had been shined on men who have thought their way to politics that are progressive, that are feminist, that are even intersectional. But leave them alone in a room with a woman, and they will grab her, or threaten her, or rape her, or tell her that if she doesn’t do what they want them to do, she’ll never work in this town again. Thinking is not enough. Believing is not enough. If we haven’t practiced respecting the boundaries of other people’s bodies, if we haven’t practiced recognizing our power and our privilege, if we haven’t practiced listening to voices that are not our own, if we haven’t practiced gestures of welcome and compassion, if we have practiced paying attention then professing our convictions will not be enough. And we won’t be ready when something difficult is asked of us.
Tonight we’re inviting you to experiment with a practice: reading, writing, moving, contemplation, activism. All of these practices are made up of the ordinary gestures of human life, and together they add up to a way of living that makes us conscious of life itself, connected to the world around us, and open to being changed. We’re inviting you to choose one workshop, one practice and learn together about how to do it from someone who has been practicing it for a while. This is the best way, I think, to learn a practice—by watching someone who practices it. There are people all around us who are making ordinary life sing through their open, attentive way of doing things we all do: moving, reading, writing, thinking, acting. Find the skilled practitioners in the geography of your life and study them.
The Stoics taught that we should begin practicing on small things that are do-able, even easy, and so gradually build up a habit. So start small. Jump in where you are, where your interest lies. Learn a practice, build it into your life and see what happens. Try to get better at over time. Find other people to practice it with. Take the one small step that makes the next step possible. Practice being the person you hope to become.
Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies and Harvard Divinity School.