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Restoring Vitality

Basia Skudrzyk

· wellness,health,life advice,lifestyle,nature

Why is your health and well-being important to you?  What is one work that will change and focus your life purpose for 2022? Coping with the challenges of disruption require behavioral change on a massive scale.  There are many skills that that can help us deal with transition.  Skills and knowledge that we can learn from researchers, authors, poets, leaders if we provide ourselves with the time to stop, reflect and listen.   

Even in the best of circumstances, finding meaning of life can be difficult and, to make matters worse, it seems that modern culture is conspiring to wear down this aspect of mental effectiveness. What can we learn from Charles Darwin on mental vitality through his learned capacity to direct attention? Functioning effectively despite the distractions and challenges of an electrifying and changing world fatigues this capacity.  Fortunately, restoring mental vitality requires nothing more than commonplace activities in everyday environments.  Charles Darwin, grew up in the Golden Age, and was surrounded by the best nature-poets that to this day are recognized and honored for their beautiful words.  

Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, and Milton were Marvel heroes of the day. Wordsworth’s famous saying, “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge…impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.” 

Darwin’spassion for science and nature came in sync with his love for poetic and aesthetic enchantments of the human arts.  This made Darwin attune to many things that people today do not see and feel.  Darwin had the opportunity to sit for hours reading poetry. When he was pressured to only carry a single book on his adventures, he carried “Paradise Lost.”  When traveling to Birmingham for a music meeting, he shared his thoughts with his cousin by writing, “[It] was the most glorious thing I ever experienced.” His love of music grew so intense that, as he began formulating his ideas aboutevolutionary descent, he timed his thinking-walks to hear the choir at Kings College Chapel. 

“It gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver,” he recalled when he was older. He was surprised how music could move him so deeply despite his own exceptionally bad ear for pitch.  At that time there was no physiological explanation before the birth of psychology and neuroscience to understand how music moves us not by sense-organ mechanics but by the lever offeeling. This is a supreme interpretive art of higher consciousness where genius musicians like Bach can take us. This feeling-tone of the beautiful, this delight in the native poetry and musicality of aliveness, accompanied Darwin as he dove deeper and deeper into science to emerge with nothing less than a new world order of understanding the natural world and our place in it. In the lastmonths of finalizing "On the Origin of Species", the forty-nine-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to his beloved wife, Emma, with great enthusiasm: 

“I strolled a little beyond the glad for an hour and a half… the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distantgreen from the larches, made an excessively pretty view… a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing…it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.” 

Do you remember the last time you heard birds chirping or squirrels running around in your own backyard?  As we all get older and have more life experienes, we view life through a different lens. Darwin was struggling to understand why his discovery of aliveness through the transcendent experience of beauty — be it in Spring’s symphony of songbirds or in a Bach sonata, in a Whitman poem or in the slant of sunlight on a centuries-old oak tree — grew dim, then was altogether extinguished.  Why?  Darwin found himself mentally alert and active, but blind, deaf, dead to thelife of feeling with which beauty embodies us. This gave him both his greatest regret and his greatest insight into the purpose of life. 

As Darwin began to realize that his time was limited, he decided to set aside an hour each afternoon to reflect on his life and share his discoveries on the meaning of life he had experienced in his seven decades. In a set of autobiographical sketches he wrote for his children, titled “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” he considered what makes us human, what makes us happy, and what makes life worth living. After his death, finding in these notes immense insight and universalvalue, his children edited and published them as “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.”   

Darwin writes in his book, “My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure…pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight…But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…Music generally set me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.” 

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Before we really understood a little bit about how our brains work, Darwin had a foresight based on his own humility. Darwin bends his mind to examine how his own inner workings, illuminating the mostessential nature of the human animal — a beast of feeling, wired not for brutality but for beauty: 

“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the highertastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. 

When you read “Seasons in a Pandemic” by Mary Shelley she vulnerably writes about losing her three children to a world savaged by a deadly pandemic, or Walt Whiteman’s appetite for nature’s beauty to restore vitality after experiencing a paralytic stroke, we can learn from other peoples’ experiences and extract a deeper meaning of ourselves to appreciate the beauty around us. 

Few things limit us more profoundly than our own beliefs about what we deserve, and few things liberate us more powerfully than daring to broaden our locus of possibility and self-permission for happiness. The stories we tell ourselves about what we are worthy or unworthy of — from the small luxuries of naps and wine to the grandest luxury of a passionate creative calling or a large and possible love — are the stories that shape our lives. In that tune, I share a beautiful poem on love. 


by David Whyte 

There is a faith in loving fiercely

the one who is rightfully yours,

especially if you have

waited years and especially

if part of you never believed

you could deserve this

loved and beckoning hand

held out to you this way. 

I am thinking of faith now

and the testaments of loneliness

and what we feel we are

worthy of in this world. 

Years ago in the Hebrides,

I remember an old man

who walked every morning

on the grey stones

to the shore of baying seals,

who would press his hat

to his chest in the blustering

salt wind and say his prayer

to the turbulent Jesus

hidden in the water, 

and I think of the story

of the storm and everyone

waking and seeing

the distant

yet familiar figure

far across the water

calling to them 

and how we are all

preparing for that

abrupt waking,

and that calling,

and that moment

we have to say yes,

except it will

not come so grandly

so Biblically

but more subtly

and intimately in the face

of the one you know

you have to love 

so that when

we finally step out of the boat

toward them, we find

everything holds

us, and everything confirms

our courage, and if you wanted

to drown you could,

but you don’t

because finally

after all this struggle

and all these years

you simply don’t want to

any more

you’ve simply had enough

of drowning

and you want to live and you

want to love and you will

walk across any territory

and any darkness

however fluid and however

dangerous to take the

one hand you know

belongs in yours.