About one and a half years ago, my best friends was taken to a hospital. For many days he was in a critical condition and the doctors said that his chances of surviving were minimal. So some nights when I couldn't sleep, I read the essay "That to Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die" by Michel de Montaigne in his book Essais. I bought the book about a month before it happened, because it was cheap and because I had heard a lot about it. It is a great book and I can't believe that it was written over 400 years ago. Although people seem to believe that they always have 20 more years to live (no matter how old they are), Montaigne gives examples of how many times death has surprised people and reminds us that it can happen anywhere and anytime, usually when we least expect it. So we better be prepared for it.

"To omit fevers and pleurisies, who would ever have imagined that a duke of Brittany should be pressed to death in a crowd as that duke was, at the entry of Pope Clement, my neighbor, into Lyons? Hast thou not seen one of our kings killed at a tilting, and did not one of his ancestors die by the jostle of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, was to much purpose circumspect to avoid that danger, seeing that he was knocked on the head by a tortoise falling out of an eagle's talons in the air. Another was choked with a grapestone; an emperor killed with the scratch of a comb in combing his head. Aemilius Lepidus with a stumble at his own threshold, and Aufidius with a jostle against the door as he entered the council-chamber. And between the very thighs of woman, Cornelius Gallus the praetor; Tigillinus, captain of the watch at Rome; Ludovico, son of Guido di Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua; and (of worse example) Speusippus, a Platonic philosopher, and one of our popes. The poor judge Bebius gave adjournment in a case for eight days, but he himself meanwhile, was condemned by death, and his own stay of life expired. While Caius Julius, the physician, was anointing the eyes of a patient, death closed his own... These so frequent and common examples passing every day before our eyes, how is it possible a man should disengage himself from the thought of death, or avoid fancying that it has us, every moment, by the throat? "

This made me laugh out loud and shiver, because it's both funny and frigthening! Even today we read about people in the news who die in the most extraordinary ways and yet we believe that it can't happen to us, because we still have 20 more years to live. Montaigne continues:

"Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil, as you make it. And, if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity. And, come the worst that can come, the distribution and variety of all the acts of my comedy are performed in a year. If you have observed the revolution of my four seasons, they comprehend the infancy, the youth, the virility, and the old age of the world: the year has played his part, and knows no other art but to begin again; it will always be the same thing. ..Give place to others, as others have given place to you. Equality is the soul of equity. Who can complain of being comprehended in the same destiny, wherein all are involved. Besides, live as long as you can, you shall by that nothing shorten the space you are to be dead; 'tis all to no purpose; you shall be every whit as long in the condition you so much fear, as if you had died at nurse. "

I like the sentence "live as long as you can, you shall by that nothing shorten the space you are to be dead". So true, so why are we afraid to thin about death?

"Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place toward which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way?

Montaigne died at the age of 59, in 1592. My friend survived, but even he will die someday as will I. So let's make use of our time while we can.


A beautiful poem by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), a poet from Iwate, Japan. Part of the poem was later made into a song.

not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind
not losing to the snow nor to summer's heat
with a strong body
unfettered by desire
never losing temper
always quietly smiling
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
in everything
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there's no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a lawsuit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there's drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer's cold, wandering upset
called a nobody by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become

"Mr. Lazy went to see a renounced astrologer to see what lied ahead of his life. After examining his horoscope, the astrologer told him, "Congratulations, you will become a millionaire at 40 years old and will live to a long life of 95 years old." Mr. Lazy was so pleased that he returned home dancing merrily on the way. "Hurrah, I will become a millionaire at 40 years old," he thought, 'I don't have to work hard". From then on, even though he was very poor, he just dreamed of being rich and did not bother finding work. Finally, he became so poor that he died of hunger at age 39.

After his death, he went to see King Yama (Lord of Death in Buddhism), and filed a complaint against the astrologer. King Yama looked at his Record of Karma and said, "This is very strange, according to my calculations, you do not have to die at 39 years old. In fact, I have examined your Karma and found that you really should get rich at 40 and thereafter will live to 95 years old." King Yama then ordered two of his Officers to investigate the case.

Several days later, the two Officers came back with the following report:

The Heavenly Emperor had decided to give Mr. Lazy one million dollars, so he asked the God of Wisdom to carry out the task. The God of Wisdom went down to earth and looked for Mr. Lazy in all the graduation lists of all the schools, colleges and universities, in the hope that he can arrange to pay him the money in the form of a big salary as a very senior civil servant. But, Mr. Lazy was not in any of the graduation lists, nor as a candidate for the civil service examinations. The God of Wisdom thought: "Mr. Lazy is nowhere to be seen in the civil service examiantions, may be he is in the military services. Let me asked the God of War to help him out."

The God of War took the money and started looking for Mr. Lazy in all the Military Services, including the Army and the Police. He could not locate Mr. Lazy anywhere in the rank and file either. Unable to help Mr. Lazy to get a big military victory and a big award, he ask the God of Wealth for assistance.

The God of Wealth, responsible for commercial prosperity, went down to the business world to look for Mr. Lazy. He went through all the trading places but, again, Mr. Lazy was no where to be seen. Unable to give Mr. Lazy the money in the form of a big profit, he turned it over to the God of Land for help.

Finally, the God of Land located Mr. Lazy in his home and he devised a scheme to hand the money over. He left the money in the backyard, and then tried to get Mr. Lazy to do some gardening and therefore find the money. But, Mr. Lazy was too lazy even to clean up his own backyard, and so the money was still remained there untouched.

Upon reading the report, King Yama told Mr. Lazy: "Sorry, the Heavenly Emperor really did want to give you a million dollars during your life time. But you did not make any effort to get it. Case dismissed!""

I love this story:)!

Unfortunately I don't know the origin of this story, although it's probably from the East. Nevertheless, it's a good story and makes me think about my "own cow" and what to do about it. Maybe it's time to throw it off the cliff!

“A long time ago, a Monk set out on his travels accompanied by his assistant, a Brother. Night was falling when the Monk told the Brother to go on ahead to find lodging. The Brother searched the deserted landscape until he found a humble shack, in the middle of nowhere. A poor family lived in the hovel. The mother, father and children were dressed in rags. The Brother asked if he and the Monk could spend the night in their dwelling. “You are most welcome to spend the night,” said the father of the family. They prepared a simple meal consisting of fresh milk, cheese and cream for the Brother and the Monk. The Brother felt moved by their poverty and even more by their simple generosity.

When they finished eating, the Monk asked them how they managed to survive in such a poor place, so far away from the nearest neighbors and town. The wife looked to her husband to answer. In a resigned tone of voice he told them how they managed to survive. ‘We have one cow. We sell her milk to our neighbors who do not live too far away. We hold back enough for our needs and to make some cheese and cream-that is what we eat.”

The next morning, the Brother and the Monk said their good-byes and set out to continue their journey. After the Monk and the Brother had walked a few miles, the Monk turned to the Brother and said, “Go back and push the cow off the cliff!” “Father,” the Brother replied, “they live off the cow. Without her, they will have nothing.” The Monk repeated his order “go back and kill the cow.”

With a heavy heart, the Brother returned to the hovel. He worried about the future of the family because he knew they depended on the cow to survive. His vow of obedience bound him to follow the orders of the wise Monk. He pushed the cow off the cliff.

Years later, the young Brother became a Monk. One day he found himself on the same road where he found lodging so many years ago. Driven by a sense of remorse he decided to visit the family. He rounded the curve in the road and to his surprise, he saw a splendid mansion, surrounded by landscaped gardens, in the place where the hovel used to be. The new house exuded a sense of prosperity and happiness. The Monk knocked on the door.

A well-dressed man answered. The Monk asked, “what ever became of the family who used to live here? Did they sell the property to you?” The man looked surprised and said he and his family had always lived on the property. The Monk told him how he had stayed in a hovel on the same spot, with his master the old Monk. ‘What happened to the family that lived here?” he asked.

The man invited the Monk to stay with him as his guest. While they ate, the host explained how the family’s fortune changed. “You know Father, we used to have a cow. She kept us alive. We didn't own anything else. One day she fell down the cliff and died. To survive, we had to start doing other things, develop skills we did not even know we had. We were forced to come up with new ways of doing things. It was the best thing that ever happened to us! We are now much better off than before.”
It's strange how everything can change so fast. One day I'm writing about children full of life in Japan and the next day Japan is hit by tsunamis and earthquakes with devastating effects.
Like most people, I have been shocked by the damages. Since Friday I have been stuck in front of my computer, watching NHK news and trying to get in touch with my Japanese friends. Of course in a situation like this one wants to help as much as possible. Donating money to the Red Cross and trying to cheer up my friends in Japan is the best I have felt I can do. It doesn't feel like much, but unfortunately one can only do so much.
Watching the nuclear plant explode in Fukushima today got me even more worried. It also reminded me of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's movie Dreams. The movie consists of eight short stories based on his own dreams. One of them, Mount Fuji in Red, tells about a nuclear meltdown threatening the devastation of Japan. One may only hope the situation in Japan won't become that bad. It's still a great film worth watching and like all Kurosawa's movies it will make you think.
The award-winning Children full of Life is a wonderful documentary, which I watched a few months ago and recently was reminded of once again.
It's a documentary about a different kind of teacher with a different kind of philosophy. Mr. Kanamori teaches his 4th grade students not only how to be students, but how to live. He gives them lessons on teamwork, community, the importance of openness, how to cope, and the harm caused by bullying. Below you can see the first part of the 45 minute documentary. However, I recommend you to watch the whole documentary.

My vacation is over, during which I was able to relax, travel and read a lot of books. One of my favourite hobbies is actually walking around in bookstores and although I sometimes promise myself not to buy any new books, I always come out with a new book in my hand. One of my recently purchased and read books is Confucius From The Heart by the Chinese Professor Yu Dan.
It's a book full of wisdom and great stories, but there was especially one story from the book that I wanted to share with you.

"I remember a story from my university English coursebook about a king, who spent every day pondering three ultimate questions: Who is the most important person in this world? What is the most important thing? When is the most important time to do things?

He put these three questions to his court and his ministers, but nobody could give him an answer and he was very downhearted. Afterwards, one day he went out dressed as a commoner and walked to a remote place, where he took shelter for the night in an old man's house.

In the middle of the night, he woke with a start to hear a racket outside, and he saw that a man covered in blood had rushed into the old man's home. That man said: "there are men after me, they're going to arrest me!" The old man said: "Then take shelter here with me for a while" and hid him away.

The king was too frightened to sleep, and soon he saw soldiers come running up, hot on the trail. The soldiers asked the old man if he had seen anyone come past. The old man said: I" don't know, there's nobody else here." Afterwards the soldiers went away. The man they had been chasing said a few words of gratitude and left. The old man shut the door and went back to sleep.

The next day the king said to the old man:"Why weren't you afraid to take in that man? Weren't you afraid of causing terrible trouble? It might have cost you your life! And then you just let him go like that.Why didn't you ask who he was?"

The old man said calmly:"In this world, the most important person is the person in front of you who needs your help, the most important thing is to help them, and the most important time is right now, you can't delay, not even for an instant." It all suddenly became clear to the king: those three philosophical questions he had been pondering for so long were solved in that instant"

It's a great story, with an important message. To me it says that it's important to live in the now and help the people who are by your side right now, because they are the only people you will be able to help at this very moment.

I hope you had a great January and I'm wishing you an even better February!
Through studies with identical twins, scientists have discovered that about 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics and that we have what they call a “happiness set point” and another 10% of our happiness is determined by our life circumstances, i.e. how much we earn, where we live etc. (things people usually point out as the reason why they're not happy).
The good thing is that there's still 40% that we can do something about and this is of course the things we should focus on if we want to become happy. According to Professor of Psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky :

“What makes up this 40 percent? Besides our genes and the situations that we confront, there is one critical thing left: our behavior. Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities. With this in mind, our pie chart illustrates the potential of the 40 percent that is within our ability to control, the 40 percent for room to maneuver, for opportunities to increase or decrease our happiness levels through what we do in our daily lives and how we think.”

However, like everything in life it takes effort to become happy:

"...becoming lastingly happier demands making some permanent changes that require effort and commitment every day of your life. Pursuing happiness takes work, but consider that this ‘happiness work’ may be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.”

So here are the 12 things you can do in order to make the next year a happy one.

1. Expressing Gratitude
2. Cultivating Optimism
3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
5. Nurturing Social Relationships
6. Developing Strategies for Coping
7. Learning to Forgive
8. Increasing Flow Experiences
9. Savoring Life’s Joys
10. Committing to Your Goals
11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
12. Taking Care of Your Body: Meditation & Physical Activity & Acting Like a Happy Person

 I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Every year The Edge asks some brilliant minds a question. This year the question was about how the internet has changed them and will continue to morph our brains over the next decade. I haven’t read through all 172 responses, but I think I already found my favorite. George Dyson explains the principal difference in how we deal with information properly in 2010:

“In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat / minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.”

This is so true. I remember when I was in junior high school and the internet was new to me. I have always been eager to find new information and learn new things, so I saw it as such a huge possibility.
However, today I realize that there’s simply too much information on the internet and in other media, so if I'm not able to focus on reading just a few websites or newspapers, it will take too much time and I won’t even remember what I have read in the end.
I remember hearing an American professor on the radio earlier this year (don’t remember his name) who said that all this twittering and usage of other social media sites, abundance of information and multi-tasking is actually making people more stupid. Especially our short-term memory is deteriorating and our brains are not able to focus on what’s important anymore. He also asked himself how this will effect our future world and societies. Will e.g. any new Einstens or Edisons appear in the future? “Probably not”, was his answer.
I have also realized that the more information I put in my head, the less I remember. I haven’t watched TV (at home) for the last 2-3 years and I have gotten much more done. However, I still spend too much time on the internet, so I guess that’s something I should do less. An internet-free day or two per week would probably do good:). What are your best ways to stay focused?

Since All Saints' Day is celebrated in my country today, I thought I would write about a Japanese saint, whose name I first heard about two years ago, when I was studying in Japan. This is the story of Mr. Chiune Sugihara, who became a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania in 1939. That's when the story begins:

"After the Soviet takeover of Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland as well as Lithuanian Jews tried to acquire exit visas. Without the visas, it was dangerous to travel and impossible to find countries willing to issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, trying to get a visa to Japan. At the time, the Japanese government required that visas be issued only to those who had gone through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds. Most of the refugees did not fulfill these criteria. Sugihara dutifully contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for instructions. Each time, the Ministry responded that anybody granted a visa should have a visa to a third destination to exit Japan, with no exceptions.

From July 31 to August 28, 1940, aware that applicants were in danger if they stayed behind, Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, after consulting with his family. He ignored the requirements and arranged the Jews with a ten-day visa to transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders. Given his inferior post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service bureaucracy, this was an extraordinary act of disobedience. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian railway at five times the standard ticket price.

Sugihara continued to hand-write visas, spending 16–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month's worth of visas each day, until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many whom were heads of household and thus permitted to take their families with them. On the night before their scheduled departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed awake writing out visa approvals. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out the train's window even as the train pulled out. In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature (that could be later written over into a visa) were flung out from the train.

The total number of Jews saved by Sugihara is in dispute, ranging from 6,000 to 10,000; most likely, it was somewhere in the middle; family visas—which allowed several people to travel on one visa—were also issued, which would account for the much higher figure. The Simon Wiesentahl Center has estimated that Chiune Sugihara issued transit visas for about 6,000 Jews and that around 40,000 descendants of the Jewish refugees are alive today because of his actions.

So why did Mr. Sugihara issue visas to the Jews, ignoring the instructions from the Japanese government? Sugihara explained that the refugees were human beings, and that they simply needed help:

"You want to know about my motivation, don't you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent. People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives....The spirit of humanity, philanthropy...neighborly friendship...with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation---and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage."

When asked why he risked his career to save other people, he quoted an old samurai saying: "Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge."

Sugihara died on July 31, 1986. In spite of the publicity given to him in Israel and other nations, he remained virtually unknown in his home country. Only when a large Jewish delegation from around the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan, showed up at his funeral did his neighbors find out what he had done."

The first time I heard this story I was amazed that I hadn't heard about it before. There are of course many more stories of people like Sugihara, but there are also a lot of stories about people who have followed orders, against their own beliefs and will. Sometimes I wonder what the difference is between these people. I believe that it has a lot to do with how aware people are of their core beliefs. A person can say that he believes in truth and justice, but if he doesn't know his most important beliefs in life it will be much more difficult to make "the right" decision in a situation like the one Sugihara was in. This doesn't mean that one person is better than the other. It simply means that, if you don't have any core beliefs, it's easier for the fear to take over and when the fear takes over it's easier to follow an order and renounce all responsibilities. I don't blame the people who followed orders against their own beliefs, but it makes me so happy every time I hear a story about a person who, despite an order, followed his own heart and did what he thought was right.

More about Sugihara here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiune_Sugihara

So what are your core beliefs?