A Life of One’s Own: A Penetrating Century-Old Field Guide to Self-Possession, Mindful Perception, and the Art of Knowing What You Really Want
By Maria Popova
“One must know what one wants to be,” the eighteenth-century French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet wrote in weighing the nature of genius. “In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.” And yet that inner knowing is the work of a lifetime, for our confusions are ample and our missteps constant amid a world that is constantly telling us who we are and who we ought to be — a world which, in the sobering words of E.E. Cummings, “is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else.” Try as we might not to be blinded by society’s prescriptions for happiness, we are still social creatures porous to the values of our peers — creatures surprisingly and often maddeningly myopic about the things we believe furnish our completeness as human beings, habitually aspiring to the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
In 1926, more than a decade before a team of Harvard psychologists commenced history’s longest and most revelatory study of human happiness and half a century before the humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm penned his classic on the art of living, the British psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner (February 1, 1900–May 29, 1998) undertook a seven-year experiment in living, aimed at unpeeling the existential rind of all we chronically mistake for fulfillment — prestige, pleasure, popularity — to reveal the succulent, pulsating core of what makes for genuine happiness. Along her journey of “doubts, delays, and expeditions on false trails,” which she chronicled in a diary with a field scientist’s rigor of observation, Milner ultimately discovered that we are beings profoundly different from what we imagine ourselves to be — that the things we pursue most frantically are the least likely to give us lasting joy and contentment, but there are other, truer things that we can train ourselves to attend to in the elusive pursuit of happiness.
In 1934, under the pen name Joanna Field, Milner released the results of her inquiry in A Life of One’s Own (public library) — a small, enormously insightful book, beloved by W.H. Auden and titled in homage to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published three years after Milner began her existential experiment. Milner would go on to fill her ninety-eight years with life of uncommon contentment, informed by her learnings from this intensive seven-year self-examination.
In the preface to the original edition, Milner admonishes:
Let no one think it is an easy way because it is concerned with moments of happiness rather than with stern duty or high moral endeavour. For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values. And finally, let no one undertake such an experiment who is not prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought.
This disorienting yet illuminating task of turning the mind’s eye inward requires a practice of recalibrating our conditioned perception. Drawing on Descartes’s tenets of critical thinking, she set out to doubt her most fundamental assumptions about what made her happy, trying to learn not from reason alone but from the life of the senses. Half a century before Annie Dillard offered her beautiful lens on the two ways of seeing, Milner writes:
As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy.
She reflects on the sense of extreme alienation and the terror of missing out she felt at the outset of the experiment, at twenty-six:
Although I could not have told about it at the time, I can now remember the feeling of being cut off from other people, separate, shut away from whatever might be real in living. I was so dependent on other people’s opinion of me that I lived in a constant dread of offending, and if it occurred to me that something I had done was not approved of I was full of uneasiness until I had put it right. I always seemed to be looking for something, always a little distracted because there was something more important to be attended to just ahead of the moment.
Throughout the book, Milner illustrates the trajectory of her growth with the living record that led to her insights, punctuating her narrative with passages from her diary penned during the seven years. One, evocative of eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath’s journal, captures the disquieting restlessness she felt:
I want to feel myself part of things, of the great drift and swirl: not cut off, missing things, like being sent to bed early as a child, the blinds being drawn while the sun and cheerful voices came through the chink from the garden.
In another, she distills the interior experience of that achingly longed-for sense of belonging to with world:
I want… the patterns and colourings on the vase on my table took on a new and intense vitality — I want to be so harmonious in myself that I can think of others and share their experiences.
Looking back on the young self who penned those journal entries at the outset of the experiment, Milner reflects:
I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives. For I had taken the surface ripples for all there was, when actually happenings of vital importance to me had been going on, not somewhere away from me, but just underneath the calm surface of my own mind. Though some of these discoveries were not entirely pleasant, bringing with them echoes of terror and despair, at least they gave me a sense of being alive.
Much of that aliveness, she notes, came from the very act of chronicling the process of self-examination, for attention is what confers interest and vitality upon life. Joining the ranks of celebrated authors who championed the benefits of keeping a diary, Milner writes:
Not only did I find that trying to describe my experience enhanced the quality of it, but also this effort to describe had made me more observant of the small movements of the mind. So now I began to discover that there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind. It was as if one’s self-awareness had a central point of interest being, the very core of one’s I-ness. And this core of being could, I now discovered, be moved about at will; but to explain just how it is done to someone who has never felt it for himself is like trying to explain how to move one’s ears.
This inarticulable internal gesture, Milner found, was a matter of recalibrating her habits of perceiving, looking not directly at an object of attention but taking in a fuller picture with a diffuse awareness that is “more like a spreading of invisible sentient feelers, as a sea anemone spreads wide its feathery fingers.” One morning, she found herself in the forest, mesmerized by the play of sunlight and shadow through the glistening leaves of the trees, which left her awash in “wave after wave of delight” — an experience not cerebral but sensorial, animating every cell of her body. Wondering whether such full-body surrender to dimensional delight could provide an antidote to her feelings of anger and self-pity, she considers the trap of busyness by which we so often flee from the living reality of our being:
If just looking could be so satisfying, why was I always striving to have things or to get things done? Certainly I had never suspected that the key to my private reality might lie in so apparently simple a skill as the ability to let the senses roam unfettered by purposes. I began to wonder whether eyes and ears might not have a wisdom of their own.
That tuning into one’s most elemental being, she came to realize, was the mightiest conduit to inhabiting one’s own life with truthfulness and integrity undiluted by borrowed standards of self-actualization. Nearly half a century before the poet Robert Penn Warren contemplated the trouble with “finding yourself,” Milner writes:
I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always… So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know. I wrote: “It will mean walking in a fog for a bit, but it’s the only way which is not a presumption, forcing the self into a theory.”
Distilling the essence of this reorientation of being, she adds:
I did not know that I could only get the most out of life by giving myself up to it.
Several decades later, Jeanette Winterson would write beautifully of “the paradox of active surrender” essential to our experience of art. As in art, so in life — Milner writes:
Here then was a deadlock. I wanted to get the most out of life, but the more I tried to grasp, the more I felt that I was ever outside, missing things. At that time I could not understand at all that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.
Half a century after Nietzsche proclaimed that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Milner considers the difficulty — and the triumph — of recognizing that you are crossing life on someone else’s bridge:
I had at least begun to guess that my greatest need might be to let go and be free from the drive after achievement — if only I dared. I had also guessed that perhaps when I had let these go, then I might be free to become aware of some other purpose that was more fundamental, not self-imposed private ambitions but some thing which grew out of the essence of one’s own nature. People said: ‘Oh, be yourself at all costs’. But I had found that it was not so easy to know just what one’s self was. It was far easier to want what other people seemed to want and then imagine that the choice was one’s own.
“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her own diary in the same era. “Looked at, it vanishes.” Happiness, Milner found, was similarly elusive to direct pursuit. Rather, its attainment required a wide-open attentiveness to reality, a benevolent curiosity about all that life has to offer, and a commitment not to argue with its offerings but to accept them as they come, congruous or incongruous as they may be with our desires.
Looking back on the diary entires from the final stretch of her seven-year experiment, she reflects on the hard-earned mastery of this unarguing surrender:
It struck me as odd that it had taken me so long to reach a feeling of sureness that there was something in me that would get on with the job of living without my continual tampering. I suppose I did not really reach it until I had discovered how to sink down beneath the level of chattering thoughts and simply feel what it meant to be alive.
Having termed this nonjudgmental receptivity “continual mindfulness” in her journal from the time, Milner evokes Plato’s metaphor of the two charioteers of thought and reflects:
I came to the conclusion then that “continual mindfulness” could certainly not mean that my little conscious self should be entirely responsible for marshalling and arranging all my thoughts, for it simply did not know enough. It must mean, not a sergeant-major-like drilling of thoughts, but a continual readiness to look and readiness to accept whatever came…. Whenever I did so manage to win its services I began to suspect that thought, which I had always before looked on as a cart-horse, to be driven, whipped and plodding between shafts, might be really a Pegasus, so suddenly did it alight beside me from places I had no knowledge of.
Those interior unknowns, Milner discovered, were the recesses where insecurity lurked, in that ancient here-be-monsters way we humans have of filling unmapped territories with dread. She examines the vital relationship between inner security and happiness:
I had just begun to ponder over the fact that all the things which I had found to be sources of happiness seemed to depend upon the capacity to relax all straining, to widen my attention beyond the circle of personal interest, and to look detachedly at my own experience. I had just realized that this relaxing and detachment must depend on a fundamental sense of security, and yet that I could apparently never feel safe enough to do it, because there was an urge in me which I had dimly perceived but had never yet been able to face. It was then that the idea occurred to me that until you have, once at least, faced everything you know — the whole universe — with utter giving in, and let all that is “not you” flow over and engulf you, there can be no lasting sense of security.
Looking back on her seven-year study of what her moments of happiness depended on and how her thought wrapped itself around her lived experience to extract from it a felt sense, Milner summarizes how she came to discover her most authentic existential needs as a human being:
By continual watching and expression I must learn to observe my thought and maintain a vigilance, not against “wrong” thoughts, but against refusal to recognize any thought. Further, this introspection meant continual expression, not continual analysis; it meant that I must bring my thoughts and feelings up in their wholeness, not argue about them and try to pretend they were something different from what they were.
I had also learnt how to know what I wanted; to know that this is not a simple matter of momentary decision, but that it needs a rigorous watching and fierce discipline, if the clamouring conflict of likes is to be welded into a single desire. It had taught me that my day-to-day personal “wants” were really the expression of deep underlying needs, though often the distorted expression because of the confusions of blind thinking. I had learnt that if I kept my thoughts still enough and looked beneath them, then I might sometimes know what was the real need, feel it like a child leaping in the womb, though so remotely that I might easily miss it when over-busy with purposes. Really, then, I had found that there was an intuitive sense of how to live. For I had been forced to the conclusion that there was more in the mind than just reason and blind thinking, if only you knew how to look for it; the unconscious part of my mind seemed to be definitely something more than a storehouse for the confusions and shames I dared not face.
It was only when I was actively passive, and content to wait and watch, that I really knew what I wanted.
That knowledge, Milner found, arises from breaking the inertia of mindless thought that governs much of our perception, which in turn shapes our entire experience of reality. She considers what it means, and what it takes, to apprehend the world with unclouded and receptive eyes:
Blind thinking… could make me pretend I was being true to myself when really I was only being true to an infantile fear and confusion of situations; and the more confused it was the more it would call to its aid a sense of conviction. Yet for all its parade there was as much in common between its certainties and the fundamental sense of my own happiness as between the windy flappings of a newspaper in the gutter and the poise of a hovering kestrel. And only by experience of both, by digging down deep enough and watching sincerely enough, could I be sure of recognizing the difference.
By keeping a diary of what made me happy I had discovered that happiness came when I was most widely aware. So I had finally come to the conclusion that my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension…. Without understanding, I was at the mercy of blind habit; with understanding, I could develop my own rules for living and find out which of the conflicting exhortations of a changing civilization was appropriate to my needs. And, by finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness.
Complement the uncommonly penetrating A Life of One’s Own with Hermann Hesse on the most important habit for living with presence, E.E. Cummings on being unafraid to feel, and Maurice Sendak’s forgotten debut — a magnificent philosophical children’s book about knowing what you really want.
Published October 11, 2017