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The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End: Robinson Jeffers’s Epic Poem About the Interwoven Mystery of Mind and Universe

“Pleasure and pain, wonder, love, adoration, hatred and terror: how do these things grow from a chemical reaction?”

The Beginning and the End: Robinson Jeffers’s Epic Poem About the Interwoven Mystery of Mind and Universe

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the anthropologist and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley wrote in his poetic meditation on life in 1960. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

The history of our species is the history of forgetting. Our deepest existential longing is the longing for remembering this cosmic belonging, and the work of creativity is the work of reminding us. We may give the tendrils of our creative longing different names — poetry or physics, music or mathematics, astronomy or art — but they all give us one thing: an antidote to forgetting, so that we may live, even for a little while, wonder-smitten by reality.

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Einstein on Free Will and the Power of the Imagination

“Human being, vegetables or cosmic dust, we all dance to an invisible tune, intoned in the distance by a mysterious player.”

We are accidents of biochemistry and chance, moving through the world waging wars and writing poems, spellbound by the seductive illusion of the self, every single one of our atoms traceable to some dead star.

In the interlude between the two World Wars, days after the stock market crash that sparked the Great Depression, the German-American poet and future Nazi sympathizer George Sylvester Viereck sat down with Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) for what became his most extensive interview about life — reflections ranging from science to spirituality to the elemental questions of existence. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post on October 29, 1929 — a quarter century after Einstein’s theory of relativity reconfigured our basic understanding of reality with its revelation that space and time are the warp and weft threads of a single fabric, along the curvature of which everything we are and everything we know is gliding.

Albert Einstein by Lotte Jacobi. (University of New Hampshire Museum of Art.)

Considering the helplessness individual human beings feel before the immense geopolitical forces that had hurled the world into its first global war and the decisions individual political leaders were making — decisions already inclining the world toward a second — Einstein aims in his sensitive intellect at the fundamental reality of existence:

“I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. The Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine philosophically. In that respect I am not a Jew… I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act is if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.”

When asked about any personal responsibility for his own staggering achievements, he points a steadfast finger at the nonexistence of free will:

“I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human being, vegetables or cosmic dust, we all dance to an invisible tune, intoned in the distance by a mysterious player.”

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

For Einstein, the most alive part of the mystery we live with — the mystery we are — is the imagination, that supreme redemption of human life from the prison of determinism. With an eye to his discovery of relativity, he reflects:

“I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, funded by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would totally tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.”


I am enough of an artist to draw freely from the imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Complement with Robinson Jeffers’s superb science-laced poem “The Beginning and the End,” Simone Weil on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on our primary misconception about free will, then revisit Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates.

Einstein on Free Will and the Power of the Imagination

Franklin’s Guidelines

Franklin’s Guidelines

“Even when he was unable to reach the ideals of personal growth, by either his own vices or by circumstance, he was constantly able to improve by means of practice. And, in the end, isn’t that what matters?”

At the ripe old age of twenty, Benjamin Franklin set out to make himself morally perfect. Having studied the ancient philosophers and their ideas of the virtues required to be an ideal man, he created his own list of thirteen virtues. Like the virtue ethicists of the ancient past and more modern times, Franklin sought to develop his entire character rather than focus on the question of how to act in a certain situation. His hope being that with the perfection of his character, he would never again have to ask how to act, as he would simply act as a virtuous person would by habit. Never again would he commit a fault at any time, he thought.

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Recognize the Truth of Others’ Pain

Recognize the Truth of Others’ Pain

Being at peace with others’ pain helps us be supportive of their pain.

Courtesy of Psychology Today/Rick Hanson


  • There is unavoidable emotional pain when those we care about are threatened or suffer.
  • Most of our stresses and upsets come from needless suffering that we cause ourselves, which is the opposite of being at peace.
  • Strengthen neural networks in the brain that support spacious mindfulness, staying in the present, and taking life less personally.











Humans are an empathic, compassionate, and loving species, so it is natural to feel sad, worried, or fiery about the troubles and pain of other people. (And about those of cats and dogs and other animals, but I’ll focus on human beings here.)

Unavoidable Physical and Emotional Pain


Long ago, the Buddha spoke of the “first dart” of unavoidable physical pain. Given our hardwired nature as social beings, when those we care about are threatened or suffer, there is another kind of first dart: unavoidable emotional pain.

For example, if you heard about people who go to bed hungry—as a billion of us do each night—of course, your heart would be moved. I’m usually a pretty calm guy, but when I visited Haiti, I was in a cold rage at the appalling conditions in which most people there lived. On a lesser scale but still real, a friend’s son has just started college and is calling home to tell his mom how lonely and miserable he feels; of course, she’s worried and upset.


Needless Suffering That We Cause Ourselves


But then—as the Buddha continued with his metaphor—there is the seconddarts we throw ourselves: rehashing past events, writing angry mental emails in the middle of the night, anxious rumination, thinking you’re responsible when you’re not, feeling flooded or overwhelmed or drained, getting sucked into conflicts between others, etc., etc. Most of our stresses and upsets come from these second darts: needless suffering that we cause ourselves—the opposite of being at peace.

Our second darts also get in the way of making things better. You’ve probably had the experience of talking with someone about something painful to you. Still, this person was so rattled by your pain that he or she couldn’t just listen and had to give you advice, say you were making a big deal out of nothing, or jump out of the conversation, or even blame you for your own pain!

In other words, when others are not at peace with our pain, they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive, and helpful with it. And the reverse is true when we are not at peace with the pain of others.

So, how do you do it? How do you find that sweet spot in which you are open, caring, and brave enough to let others land in your heart…while also staying balanced, centered, and at peace in your core?


The Practice


Keep a warm heart.
Let the pain of the other person wash through you. Don’t resist it. Opening your heart, finding compassion—the sincere wish that a being not suffer—will lift and fuel you to bear the other’s pain. We long to feel received by others; turn it around: Your openness to another person, your willingness to be moved, is one of the greatest gifts you can offer.

To sustain this openness, it helps to have a sense of your own body. Tune into breathing and steady the sense of being here with the other person’s issues and distress over there.

Have a heart for yourself as well. It’s often hard to bear the pain of others, especially if you feel helpless to do anything about it. It’s OK if your response is not perfect. When you know your heart is sincere, you don’t have to prove yourself to others. Know that you are truly a good person; you are, really, warts and all, and knowing this fact will help you stay authentically open to others.

Do what you can.
Nkosi Johnson was born in South Africa with HIV in 1989, and he died 12 years later—after becoming a national advocate for people with HIV/AIDS. I think often of something he said, paraphrased slightly here: “Do what you can, with what you’ve been given, in the place where you are, with the time that you have.”

Do what you can—and know that you have done it, which brings a feeling of peace. And then, face the facts of your limitations—another source of peace. One of the hardest things for me—and most parents—is to feel keenly the struggles and pain of my kids…and know that there is nothing I can do about it. That’s the first dart, for sure. But when I think that I have more influence than I actually do and start giving my dad-ish advice and getting all invested in the result, second darts start landing on me— and on others.

See the big picture.
Whatever the pain of another person happens to be—perhaps due to illness, family quarrel, poverty, aging, depression, stressful job, worry about a child, disappointment in love, or the devastation of war—it is made up of many parts (emotions, sensations, thoughts, etc.) that are the result of a vast web of causes.

When you recognize this truth, it is strangely calming. You still care about the other person, and you do what you can, but you see that this pain and its causes are a tiny part of a larger and mostly impersonal whole.

This recognition of the whole—the whole of one person’s life, of the past emerging into the present, of the natural world, of physical reality altogether—tends to settle down the neural networks in the top middle of the brain that ruminate and agitate. It also tends to activate and strengthen neural networks on the sides of the brain that support spacious mindfulness, staying in the present, taking life less personally—and a growing sense of peace.

About the Author

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley.