The Owl of Minerva

the owl of minerva

So it turns out it’s been over a month since my last post that wasn’t Internet Inspiration, which both surprises and doesn’t surprise me. I’ve had the same article staring me in the face every time I sit down to write, and it goes nowhere. And then I try to write something new, and I end up in the same situation.

A few months ago I gave a talk on eating psychology at a company, and someone asked me if I recommended vitamins, because she had a friend that would eat junk food, and then take vitamins to counterattack the bad food.

It seems like a simple question, and I was almost distracted because I wanted to ask her more about her friend, this elusive white elephant that has such an extreme habit. I thought I’d never met anyone in real life that does anything like that.

But that’s not quite true. Even if the example is extreme, the pattern is not. You might:

  • have started a new diet last Monday to undo the “damage” from the holidays.
  • exercise specifically to undo a big meal you ate.
  • precede your sentences with “sorry” or end them with, “just saying,” as though that might neutralize a nasty comment.

And it’s usually never about undoing one choice; the decisions, the mistakes, they all compound in your mind. You’re fighting with your own nature.

It is commonly thought that contemporary man has swung from Puritanism to hedonism — to the pursuit of pleasure rather than the denial of pleasure. But these are two sides of one coin. Both these are two sides of one coin. Both the hedonist and the puritan face the body in the condition of fear; the puritan fears gratification while the hedonist fears the absence of gratification. Both derive their sense of identity through conflict with the natural rhythms of the organism; both are manipulators, at war with what is.

- Jacob Needleham, A Sense of the Cosmos [via Marion Woodman, Dancing in the Flames]

Notice if any of this is true for you.


To return to the original example, I think choosing vitamins can be a really powerful practice. You are giving your body an abundance of what it needs. It can be a deliberate act of self care.

But if you’re choosing vitamins as a defense, or a punishment, or as a hail mary attempt to save you from your other habits, then it’s not about giving yourself what you need at all. It’s about shoulds, about punishments, about shame for your previous choices.

Remember: your actions are authentic. Always, no matter how unconsciously.

Maybe the person in the example really loves fast food, and it’s her version of Bitch Boss that shames her into repenting for that choice. Maybe this food is the only pleasurable part of her life, and she’d do better to up her pleasure factor. Perhaps food is the last frontier of personal choice for her, and she’s choosing something extreme to prove that it’s her choice to make. It’s possible that her friend is misunderstanding and she’s choosing both fast food and vitamins out of desire. These are all valid, understandable reasons for making this food choice.

Know that your patterns are here for a reason. Going for the immediate fix without understanding some of the deeper impulses is a distraction. Start excavating without the intent to solve your issue. Stay with yourself for a little while.


The Owl of Minerva or the Owl of Athena is a philosophical concept that I really appreciated while I was struggling (read: avoiding) my writer’s block.

I got held up because I had no plan of action regarding this pattern. All I could do was point it out, explore some variations and possible underlying explanations, but that there wasn’t anything for me to solve or fix. I worried that this would be unhelpful for you, and that halted my writing.

Minerva’s owl is constantly by her side, a symbol of wisdom and intelligence. But it only ever flies at dusk.

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Philosophy of Right

In the moment, while you’re in your pattern, the only thing to do is to take notes. You can’t fix it while you’re in it. The pattern will be around until it’s no longer needed. You’ll need the pattern until you don’t. And then all of a sudden you’ll understand why it lingered for so long.

It’s paradoxical and incredibly frustrating. But give yourself the gift of discovery. Go deeper, get to know yourself.


Internet Inspiration – December 12, 2014


*singing* It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The 2015 Unravelling Book is here!

AND Best of My Days 2015 is ALSO here!


If you’re in need of a laugh, check out this snarky Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog. It’s hilarious (and profane, if that’s an issue for you).

Copy: “Exclusive! Grow organic mushrooms every two months for three years … Glass cloche protects mushrooms as they grow.”

Drew Says: The cloche does not come with your fungus log; it’s an additional $189.95. And you have to buy it, right? You can’t just leave your shiitake log exposed to the elements like that. Your mushroom risotto will end up being 50 percent cat dander that way.

Let’s be clear on this right now: If you invite me into your home and serve me mushrooms from your home log, I’m not eating them. You are trying to drug me, and I’m not having it. Unless your home has a climate-control system similar to an Ebola quarantine room, I’m not touching those things. Don’t be a fungus person. They’re right below entomologists on the creepy scale.


If you’re looking for Christmas gifts and know someone who’s into leggings, I humbly submit to you Darling Legs, the brain child of my beautiful blog designer, Jo. December 17 is the last day to pre-order and get the leggings funded.

This was an interesting article on the decline of ideas as part of our normal culture and discourse.

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

A majestic cathedral made of trees. Anyone up for a trip?

I loved this article about how WILD is going to be a blockbuster movie ushering in a new paradigm of women who choose to be alone.

… that first shot contains everything you need to know about why Wild is so important. It’s a story of a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail for 94 days in the wake of her mother’s death, but more than that, it’s a story of a woman who is no longer anything to anybody. We’re so used to seeing women entangled with other people (with parents, with men, with children, in neurotic friendships with other women), that it’s surprising, almost shocking, to see a woman who is gloriously, intentionally, radically alone.

If you wondered about Bill Gates’s best books of 2014, it doesn’t sound like a bad list.


Internet Inspiration – November 28, 2014


Hm. It seems I blinked and three weeks went by, my baby brother got married, Thanksgiving… happened, and I should probably start 2015 planning. Note to self: hibernation is best when you plan it :)

Anyway, how are you guys? Ready for the change in weather?

Let’s do some internet exploration, shall we?

Ursula K. LeGuin is the woman.

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I loved reading this letter Kurt Vonnegut wrote to high schoolers. Coincidentally, I bought two of his books this weekend. I think I’ve only read Slaughterhouse Five, and, like most of the “great literature” books I read in high school, I wasn’t ready for it and didn’t get it. But now I’m ready to read The Sirens of Titan and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Have you read either? Any thoughts or recommendations?

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

An astronaut describes her experience in space. I want it all.

There’s no way to anticipate the emotional impact of leaving your home planet. You look down at Earth and realize: You’re not on it. It’s breathtaking. It’s surreal. It’s a “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” kind of feeling. But I’ve spent a total of 55 days in space, over the course of five missions for NASA, and I’ve learned that being out there isn’t just a series of breathtaking moments. It’s a mix of the transcendently magical and the deeply prosaic.

I don’t really like most of these imaginary Netflix suggestions, mostly because STOP JUDGING ME I’LL WATCH TV ALL DAY IF I WANT TO, but I’ll never forget my first big breakup. My roommate took me for a walk to talk it out, then he bought me sushi, and suggested a movie. I said I had a few DVDs from Netflix, and he said, “Kathryn, there is nothing you chose from Netflix that is appropriate for a breakup.” He was so right. So I bet you’ll see the suggestion I approve of :)

33 book suggestions based on your favorite movies.

If you need it, here are 40 sites to help you learn new skills.


Internet Inspiration – November 7, 2014


I posted this on facebook, but I want to read this entire book simply based on this passage:

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

Great post and resources from Ellen on moving past the fear inherent in creative escapades.

I really loved this article on marriage, from Dr. Kelly Flanagan. Even if you’re not married, I think these are themes in most relationships.

We spend most of our adolescence and early adulthood trying to pretend our shame doesn’t exist so, when the person we love triggers it in us,we blame them for creating it. And then we demand they fix it. But the truth is, they didn’t create it and they can’t fix it. Sometimes the best marital therapy is individual therapy, in which we work to heal our own shame. So we can stop transferring it to the ones we love.

It never occurred to me that I could make hanging wallpaper panels, but now I want to.

I was mesmerized by Monica Lewinsky’s recent speech. Her notes on shame, bullying, compassion, and the power of story are profound.

I have said that behind sorrow there is always sorrow. It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul.  And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing.

- Oscar Wilde

And also, all of the links Susannah has in this post.

And another she shared recently: A gentleman’s guide to rape culture

The completely reasonable and understandable fear of men is your responsibility. You didn’t create it. But you also didn’t build the freeways either. Some of the things you inherit from society are cool and some of them are rape culture.

I’m intrigued by Benjamin Franklin’s advice on how to train your trolls. Thoughts?


Your Actions Are Authentic

Your Actions Are Authentic

A few months ago my brother turned to me and said, “I think you should start a barbell program.”

I froze.

What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?

“Uh, ok. What is a barbell program?”

“It’s a program where you only lift. There’s no CrossFit.”

“What makes you suggest it?”

“Because you’re not doing the gym workouts. You haven’t for weeks.”

*PANIC PANIC PANIC* He found me out! I’m a fraud! How did he know? Has he been keeping TABS on me?? Does he not TRUST me?? Is he JUDGING ME??

“I do so! I did the workout… last week…?”

But it was true. I was found out. Caught. I didn’t like doing the CrossFit workouts. In fact, I hadn’t really been working out at all.

So that was really nice of my brother to notice that and give me another option.

And then I thought, “Wait, am I not doing the workouts because I don’t like the gym workouts? Or am I not doing the workouts because I don’t want to work out at all?” Perhaps another option isn’t what I needed; perhaps I just needed a six-week-long nap.


There’s a line from Jung that goes,

You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.

I think that line gets hijacked a lot, and used to guilt trip people.

But I don’t think Jung really played games with guilt. I think he was talking about how our actions strip away all our pretenses and show what’s really true.

The fact that I didn’t work out was an authentic expression for me. Even though I was supposed to work out, supposed to want to work out, I didn’t work out. Period.

And that action, despite all the shoulds from Bitch Boss or the external collective, was authentic for me. I should have wanted it, I should have done it, but my actions spoke differently.


Jung also says,

I’d rather be whole than good.

That’s an idea I really love, but the truth is, guilt relies on the fact that it is not okay for me to not be good. It’s intolerable for me that anyone would know how not good I am.

I’m not “allowed” to be a gym owner that doesn’t work out. And exploring that is important. Who am I not allowed to be?

Protecting that shadow saps life force energy. You can’t believe the contortions I’ll go through to make sure no one sees me not be who I’m supposed to be. I’m sure you have parts of this inside you too. You might lie about how you spend your days, what you eat, who you like, the clothes you like to wear. You might be self deprecating at all times, or reject compliments (I’m not supposed to boast or be proud), you might rationalize your behavior (“Here are all the excuses for why I didn’t do this thing” instead of, “I’m supposed to be passionate about this thing but I really don’t give a shit” or “I’m petrified and I don’t know how to get help”). You might spend your free time numbing out with internet or TV.

Don’t underestimate your need to be right. Your body and mind will mobilize to help you feel in control and to block out parts of you that “shouldn’t” be. It seems like a kindness, and in some ways, it is. But it keeps you small.

Sit with how you really feel. Sit with the truth of your actions. I didn’t work out because I couldn’t deal. I just couldn’t. I didn’t vote because I don’t give a shit. I didn’t call that guy back because I didn’t want him, even for one date. Traffic didn’t hold me up today; I hate this job and want to say “Fuck you.”

Go deeper. Be bigger. Let yourself be whole, even when it seems intolerable. Even when guilt threatens to kill you.

Assume legitimacy, set judgment aside, and gaze upon yourself and your actions.


I want to mention that I’m writing a lot about letting yourself be, and I know we have a lot of discourse in our culture about doing. Or being better, which is not really being as you are. It’s not my intention to discourage your doing new things, or growing and evolving, or asking for help to do something that’s scary. I think that’s really powerful.

But what I want to say is, your existence is more than enough. You don’t have to perform for that. You don’t have to “do” anything to be worthy. You can just be yourself, and it’s enough.

Imagine when a little kid comes into a room when you’re hanging with friends and family, and everyone stops, mid-discussion, turns to the kid, and goes nuts over the fact that the kid is there now. You know? Have you seen that? How we all fawn over little kids, and they’ve done nothing except walk into the room?

Start there. Let all your change and evolution come from that place, rather than the place of “You’re not measuring up and I’m going to beat you over the head until you comply.” Don’t worry so much about being good.

Be whole. Be magnificent.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

- Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”