Saturday, May 28, 2011


I have been re-reading some works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry [pictured below], who has been one of my all-time favourite writers since I first studied his works in French in high school. Many of his books have, at least in part, a sort of existentialist flavour about them.

Saint-Exupéry, who was a Humanist, was a man of action. An aviator, he was one of the pioneers in exploring flight over the desert, the Andes, and at night. He was the prose poet of the skies, and his books are great examples of the genre of writing which I refer to as ‘literary mindfulness’.

His books remind us that we are alone – sometimes terribly alone – and that the only way we can give meaning to our lives is to join others who, like us, seriously accept a certain ‘discipline’ in a quest for a value greater than ourselves. In giving selflessly of ourselves to some great cause we are all born anew.

Saint-Exupéry says, in effect, ‘Why speculate about life, about whether it is useful or useless ... or simply absurd. Give a meaning to life. Do something useful – act – and then you will begin to exist.’ If we do that, we are then freed from the sensation of void which is otherwise all around us. Saint-Exupéry calls this le principe de l’action.

We have to be ‘born’ by means of some acte de naissance, which turns out to be an acte de déliverance, which is the beginning of true freedom. This occurs when, with effort, we focus on a goal outside of ourselves. However, in order to mould the future, we must focus attentively on our present ‘duty’. In Citadelle (The Wisdom of the Sands) Saint-Exupéry writes:

Construire l’avenir, c’est construire le présent. C’est créer un désir qui est pour aujourd’hui, qui est aujourd’hui vers demain.

In English, ‘To build the future is to build the present. It is to create a desire which is for today, which is today about tomorrow.’

Applying all of this to our mindfulness practice, we must always focus on the here and now – the only reality – without dwelling on the future. Yes, we should have goals Saint-Exupéry has much to say about them – but, in his words, ‘to build the future is, primarily and exclusively, to think the present. Even as the creating of the ship is exclusively the inculcating of a trend towards the sea.’
We often link the English word 'present' with that other English word 'moment'. However, the Shakyamuni Buddha is reported to have seen the present as being much wider than a mere moment in time. In the Buddhist concept of time, mindfulness may begin with this moment but it is cultivated through continuity through or over time.

Here is some more wisdom from Saint-Exupéry's Citadelle ... 'there is no progress without acceptance of that which is, the Here and Now  – that from which you are ever setting forth.' Also, 'my forest extends over several domains without, perhaps, covering the whole of any one of them; and, conversely, my domain includes several forests though, perhaps, none of them is wholly contained in it.' After all, is not the 'whole' just a word used to describe the sum total of the 'parts'? Is there really such a thing as the 'whole'?

‘The only course of action which has a meaning,’ writes Saint-Exupéry in Citadelle, ‘is a course of action leading you from God [in whom Saint-Exupéry had, at best, a weak belief], the fountainhead, to those objects of the visible world which have been given by Him a meaning, a colour and an inner life.’

In other words, we must focus our attention, not on the ‘world’ of supposedly transcendental ideas and values, but on the ordinary ‘things’ and objects of existence, the daily occurrences in space and time which comprise our earthly existence. It is there that we will find our true identity.

Yes, it is by means of those little things of our everyday existence that we are able to rise up to greater things, for they contain, in potentiality, those greater things. In the words of Saint-Exupéry, 'A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral,' and 'A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.'

Saint-Exupéry would agree with the view of Professor John Anderson that any talk of the so-called transcendental must be stated in terms of the common reality we all know. Indeed, it cannot be stated in any other way, there being only one way of being, and one order or level of reality. True pluralism necessitates a complete denial of any conception of a universe or totality or total collection. Totality is simply a relation between container and contained – between whole and part.

Saint-Exupéry disappeared on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean in July 1944. He was never seen again after he took off. His plane simply disappeared. He left behind the unfinished manuscript of Citadelle and some notebooks, which were published posthumously.

In 1998 a fisherman found, east of Riou Island, south of Marseille, Saint-Exupéry’s silver identity bracelet. In 2000 the remains of Saint-Exupéry’s plane were discovered in the seabed off the coast of Marseille, near where the bracelet was found. In 2003 the remains of the plane were recovered. [See photos above.]

‘True love begins,’ he wrote, ‘when nothing is looked for in return.’

[For those who are interested, here is a copy of an address which I gave some years ago on Saint Exupéry's Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), my all-time favourite book. I intend in due course to do a blog on The Little Prince and its relevance to our practice of mindfulness. Stay tuned.]

1 comment:

  1. Lovely article, Ian. It has been a long time since I read The Little Prince in French class, and this was a great reminder of a book that I once loved very much. I am going to have to revisit it, and read more of Saint Exupery's work.