“7 habits” Note 1: personality and character ethic

This is my first reflective note on reading the book “7 habits of highly effective people”. Stephen Covey starts his book with discussing the differences between the personality ethic and the character ethic. While personality ethic is a paradigm that centres around building an image of yourself in the community and quick fixes, character ethic is about fundamental human qualities such as integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, etc.

Both types of ethics are our paradigms, the ways we see the world, our angle on the world. Covey argues that paradigms are about perceiving, understanding and interpreting the world around us. So, personality paradigm is about prioritizing external reality while character ethic is about prioritizing our internal qualities and consciousness. Paradigms are about our values and attitudes. The start of the book made me reflect on my own paradigms and my own behaviour. Why do I always feel the victim of circumstances? Why do I notice a lot of negativity around me?

I definitely need to work on my paradigm and on the way I see the world around me. Covey suggests focusing on inside out thinking: to change yourself first before focusing and judging the world around yourself. This means that instead of focusing on weaknesses of other people, I have to fix and address my own emotional problems and insecurities.

Another powerful tip from Covey is to maintain P (production) and PC (production capability) balance. Covey explains this as the balance between the golden egg (production) and the health and welfare of the goose (production capability). This means that we need to invest in ourselves, in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, in our professional development, in our growth. The idea is simple, but we tend to forget about it as we are lost in daily routines, pressing deadlines and work pressures. This requires us to save time to reflect and think about planning our future, thinking strategically and then leaving some time each day in our calendar for production capability activities: going to the gym, doing breathing exercises, doing professional development courses, learning a foreign language, etc.

Take care!

Next time we’ll discuss habit 1: be proactive.

Book review: “7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R. Covey

I believe in signs and when I’ve heard from a couple of people about the fascinating book “7 habits of highly effective people”, I thought I would give this book a second chance. I initially read this book around 12 years ago and do not remember much about its contents. I am also not a big fan of non-fiction self help books that claim to teach you how to write a book in 12 weeks or become a leader in 3 months. I just don’t believe in these superficially imposed claims and slack language. Anyways, “7 habits of highly effective people” is a different type of self-help book that is actually useful and deeply provocative. It is also written as a manual with some exercises to complete after each chapter. This time, I am planning to do the exercises and spend my time on reflection of my daily routines and activities.

A businessman, educator, researcher and writer, Stephen Covey shared with us a deep personal reflection on human effectiveness. Instead of focusing on the quick fix approaches, he uncovers the seven habits that transform our lives and change our perception of the world. I think the power of the book is in our personal reflection on each habit and our unique perspective on these habits. I also believe that the strength of the book is in addressing all aspects of our lives all together rather than superficially separating work, family life, friendship, community service and religious service. Covey argues that all aspects of our lives are interconnected as we pursue our unique mission and goals in life. Similar to a psychologist, Covey asks us to reflect on our past, present and future. What are our values and beliefs? Where are we heading?

So, the seven habits are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win-win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

Revealing, honest and intimate examples from Stephen Covey personal life are very helpful in clarifying the habits and solutions. Stephen is honest that it took him a long time to become aware and embrace his personal problems with his family. The solutions took some effort and determination. The results were heart warming and promising. I believe that everyone should read and re-read this book as a personal development exercise. I recommend this book to my university students. Over the upcoming weeks, I will share some reflections on the exercises relating to each habit.

Stay tuned!

Book review: “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity” by David Lynch

Do you like movies by David Lynch? I do. They are ground-breaking, strange, surrealist and somewhat similar to the books of Haruki Murakami. David Lynch is one of my favorite movie directors because he dares to be different and breaks the boundaries and conventions of contemporary cinema. It takes courage and confidence to be different and present your own view of the world. So, in this short book David Lynch discusses his creative process and how it is influenced by his meditation practices.  

David has been practicing Transcendental Meditation for several decades and he is very devoted to it. Lynch uses the metaphor of catching a big fish talking about ideas and creativity. He claims that you can only catch a big fish by getting deeper into your consciousness. David talks about the creative process as an ability to see magic in everyday life. David never comments on the contents and meanings of his works. His movies are about atmosphere, music, time, space, worlds within worlds.

I can’t believe that I have so much in common with Lynch. I love to meditate, I lived in Montana state in the US, I love art house movies and I also seem to have a unique perspective on the world around me. Some of the feelings he describes in the book are very familiar to me: the unified field of ideas, deep concentration, search for purpose, appeal to intuition and feelings of absurdity of everyday life.

For me, cinema could be either boring and dull or artistic and creative. Movies of David Lynch are certainly artistic and creative. Artistic movies create new feelings, new ideas, new worlds. I so much crave for the complexity and meanings that you cannot grasp easily. It is strange, but after watching movies by Lynch, you go out and see the world somewhat differently. Isn’t it the ultimate purpose of art?

You can visit David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace at http://www.DavidLynchFoundation.org

Book review: “Blind willow, sleeping woman” by Haruki Murakami

To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. Haruki Murakami

Murakami readers are typically divided into 2 camps: those who love Murakami and those who do not understand Murakami. I belong to the first camp and I’ve been reading his novels for more than a decade. In the COVID-19 times, it is a good idea to come back to the amazing work of Murakami. Since I’ve already read most of his work, it was a challenge to find a book I haven’t read yet. So, this time it is “Blind willow, sleeping woman” – a collection of 26 short stories. I was reading one story before going to bed and every day I had a great sleep. Most of you already know that Murakami is not a mainstream writer, his books are mysterious, haunting, melancholic and thought provoking.

What is the connection between the stories in the book? For me, it is a lot about feeling, the strange enlightenment that the world is different from what it seems. While reading Murakami, it is important to relax and switch off your logical mind. Otherwise, your mind will be constantly telling you that the book doesn’t make sense. Your mind constantly demands logical arguments, clear story endings and solid plots. When you switch off your common sense, reading Murakami becomes a journey to the new realities. I certainly enjoy this feeling when my common sense world is being turned upside down (How about a talking monkey or the Ice Man?).

I must admit, that I love Murakami novels more than his short stories. Yet, this beautiful book has done its job. I feel that the world is way more interesting and colourful than it seems (it is so hard to stay at home all the time due to COVID lockdown). Murakami’s stories are great at leaving space for imagination and creativity. I especially like the surrealist details. What was so unique about the bus in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”? “What was the present in the “Birthday girl” story? What has happened to the man in “Where I’m likely to find it?” What is the business of “Dabchik?” Why did Miss Matsunaka kill herself in “The Shinagawa Monkey?”

Once again Murakami helps me to come back home. Murakami reading is a form of meditation. It is so weird, I am not Japanese but these stories seem so familiar to me. Maybe because we both like Dostoyevsky and Kafka?

How do I choose books to read?

I like to read books, but my time is limited. Depending on the size of the book, I usually read around 3 books a month. Over time I figured out that it is very important to read books of different genres and styles to diversify my reading patterns and not to bore myself too much. So, here are the categories of books I prefer to read and the reasons for choosing these books:

Social science literature: I am a researcher and I am doing interdisciplinary research using sociology and linguistics studies. Thus, I read a lot of social science books. I love reading Weber, Bourdieu, Barthes, Foucault, Chomsky, Lakoff and many others.

Classics: While I am mostly familiar with the Russian classics, English-language classics is still an unchartered territory for me. I am even thinking of following the book lists used by Australian schools. It is never too late to catch up.

Contemporary fiction and magical realism books: It is a broad category for the books I really enjoy to read at the state of despair and sadness. Somehow, I find that magical realism style of fiction allows me to fully immerse in the story and thus relax and let go of my personal troubles. I will write a separate post about reading fiction in the next weeks!

Art books: I’ve recently got interested in art history and lives of artists. Some time ago I was following a lecture on expressionist art and Wassily Kandinsky. To my surprise, I discovered that Kandinsky wrote a few books about art. I should definitely read his books!

Non-fiction and personal development books: This is not my personal favourite category. Bookstores offer a wide range of non-fiction self-help books that are very shallow to my taste. Yet, occasionally there are interesting reads and I am happy.

Spiritual books: These books are important to me to understand myself and find my place in the world. I do not follow any particular religion or spiritual practice, instead I am interested in variety of perspectives and worldviews.

Australian literature and Aboriginal literature: I must admit, I haven’t read a lot of books by Australian authors and that’s a shame. My goal is to understand my new home, Australia, and its diverse culture and worldviews. I am enchanted by Aboriginal art and Aboriginal history and will read more books on these topics (please send me your recommendations).

Biographies: I just love reading biographies. They are so reflexive and thought provoking. I noticed that many people are quite frank and open in their biographies, take for example Michelle Obama. It seems, people open up much more in writing than they would otherwise in an interview setting.

What books do you read? How do you choose them?

What is true love?

This question is very important for all of us as the meaning of love is being depreciated and narrowed down by media, corporations and popular culture. I have just finished reading a short book by Thich Nhat Hanh called “True love: a practice of awakening the heart”. Written by a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, this book is a true masterpiece. It is also a book to keep by your bedside and read at times when you need some emotional support. The author discusses the four aspects of love according to Buddhism: maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha. Maitri refers to loving-kindness or benevolence, karuna refers to compassion, mudita is joy and upeksha refers to freedom. All the four concepts are about the focus on the loved one, not on yourself: the focus on understanding as the essence of love.

These are very important ideas especially for people who meditate regularly. Many meditations require us to focus on love, yet not many of us truly understand this concept.  Thich Nhat Hanh uncovers the essence of true love and provides some useful examples of mindfulness practices we can do every day. When we meditate, we bring our body and mind to the present moment and thus we can look into the essence of things. Human-made concepts and categories create fear and anxiety while meditation helps us to touch reality within ourselves. Love is about recognizing the presence of the other, being there when your loved one is suffering, deep listening, overcoming pride and practicing loving speech. Meditation is one of the ways how we can experience true love and freedom.

Do you practice mediation? Please share your meditation experience in the comments.

My 3 favorite short story writers and why I love them

Julio Cortázar, – Julio Cortázar is an Argentine novelist representing magical realism and surrealism styles of fiction. I read my first Cortázar’s short story for my class of the Spanish language literature almost a decade ago and I still remember how fascinated I was then with this author. We had a discussion in class about our interpretation of the story and almost all the students understood the short story differently. This is why I love Cortazar: his stories are open to the reader’s imagination and interpretation. Reality is not solid in Cortázar’s writing, it is always controversial, multifaceted and surreal. Cortázar’s writing shows the absurdity and nonsense of our lives and bizarre personalities. Cortázar’s stories do not deliver concrete conclusions instead they make you think about existential issues. What is the meaning of life? What is love?

Anton Chekhov – Anton Chekhov is a 19th-century Russian writer famous for short stories and plays. Chekhov’s writing is eloquent and ironic. Chekhov’s characters are inconsistent, controversial and lively. Chekhov’s stories make you laugh, cry, worry and contemplate. Chekhov’s stories will never lose relevance because they touch upon deep layers of human consciousness. His style and language are so Russian and authentic. When I miss Russia, I tend to read a short story of Chekhov as a way to remind myself of the culture, language and traditions. Chekhov’s use of idioms, colloquial terms, and metaphors is simply stunning.

Haruki Murakami – Haruki Murakami is a contemporary Japanese writer representing magical realism and the surrealism style of fiction. His short stories are always about the inner lives of characters. It is almost as if the whole story is about consciousness and self-reflexivity of the main hero. Haruki Murakami always manages to present somewhat whimsy introverted main heroes. I love Murakami’s stories because they make me feel that I am not alone in my self-reflexivity and non-mainstream conception of the world. Surprisingly, I frequently relate to some of the characters in Murakami’s stories and these stories make me question my beliefs and habits. Murakami novels show that he is a great listener and observer of the world around him. His stories always leave a piece of tasty cake to the reader to contemplate and figure out. What is the birthday wish of a woman in the “Birthday girl” story? Is it to become happy or to find meaning in life? What do you think?

“Role of literature at the time of social crisis” – Melbourne Writers Festival 2020

Last week I have attended several insightful online sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival. One of the sessions focused on the role of literature at the time of social crisis, climate change and the roles of literature in the education system in Australia. From this session I have learned that the literature serves an important role in society, it helps us to negotiate and understand societal problems and understand stories of “the other”. For kids, literature serves as a way to understand their identity and their country.

Australian literary landscape includes colonial writings, yet other less prominent streams focus on indigenous writings and writings of recent immigrants. In secondary schools, for example, Australian literature remains a fragile and fragmented area. It is only recently (since 2007) that the Australian literature was mandated within curriculum in schools. Australian schools place way more focus on the world literature as opposed to the Australian literature. This tendency could be explained by the dominant legacies of colonialism and historical traditions.

Literary education within Australian schools is also influenced by the political matters. The neo-liberal government places strong focus on the exams and students scores. It is the content of these exams that drives the curriculum choices and sharpens students’ focus. While teachers get increasingly high workloads and administrative burdens, they should be the cheerleaders of the Australian literature. Australian teachers should balance the need for global education and local knowledge.

After all, our training and education determine how we read and understand books. “You don’t read a text, but a text reads you”. Indeed, I notice myself that my international background shapes my interpretations of Australian books. It is very surprising that Australian schools don’t include much of Australian literature (I haven’t studied myself in Australia). I have to still familiarize myself with Australian literary landscape. My next blog posts will outline this interesting journey.

Alyona

“7 habits” Note 1: personality and character ethic

This is my first reflective note on reading the book “7 habits of highly effective people”. Stephen Covey starts his book with discussing the differences between the personality ethic and the character ethic. While personality ethic is a paradigm that centres around building an image of yourself in the community and quick fixes, character ethic … Continue reading ““7 habits” Note 1: personality and character ethic”

Book review: “7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R. Covey

I believe in signs and when I’ve heard from a couple of people about the fascinating book “7 habits of highly effective people”, I thought I would give this book a second chance. I initially read this book around 12 years ago and do not remember much about its contents. I am also not a … Continue reading “Book review: “7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R. Covey”

Book review: “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity” by David Lynch

Do you like movies by David Lynch? I do. They are ground-breaking, strange, surrealist and somewhat similar to the books of Haruki Murakami. David Lynch is one of my favorite movie directors because he dares to be different and breaks the boundaries and conventions of contemporary cinema. It takes courage and confidence to be different … Continue reading “Book review: “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity” by David Lynch”

13 facts we don’t know about “Master and Margarita” and Bulgakov

I have just listened to a series of podcasts about “Master and Margarita” on the Russian online resource “Arzamas”. The podcasts are conducted by Marietta Chudakova, Soviet literary critic and historian. I will leave the link to the podcasts below (unfortunately, podcasts are only available in Russian). I have learned so much in these podcasts about the historical context of the novel, publication challenges and Bulgakov’s background.

  1. The novel was initially published in 1966 and was considered very extravagant for the times
  2. The novel was motivated by Goethe’s “Faust”
  3. The author wrote 6 different versions of the novel and the first version’s title was “Consultant’s hoof” (“Копыто консультанта”)
  4. The first versions of the manuscript didn’t have characters of Master and Margarita
  5. Bulgakov was one of the few writers (who did not emigrate) not supportive of the Soviet power and the Russian revolution. He wanted to write about the “Big terror” and Stalinism but could not openly criticise Soviet power and Stalin.
  6. Master is an alter ego of Bulgakov
  7. Bulgakov burnt one of the versions of the novel
  8. Woland is an alter ego of Stalin
  9. Bulgakov was born and raised in a religious family and thus the theme of religion and spirituality are prominent in his novel
  10. Bulgakov wrote a letter to the Soviet government asking for permission to leave the country
  11. Margarita’s character was possibly inspired by the wife of Bulgakov, Elena
  12. Bulgakov didn’t want to have kids because he was sick
  13. Bulgakov didn’t believe that his novel will ever be published (due to strict Soviet censorship)

Arzamas podcasts: https://arzamas.academy/courses/39/1

Master and Margarita analysis

Representing the magical realism style of fiction, Master and Margarita is one of my favourite novels written by a Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov. The novel was written during the Stalinist regime and thus attracted a lot of attention from censors. Master and Margarita had a tragic story and was only published after the death of the author. When I was a high school student in Russia, the book was included in our curriculum for the literature subject. Thus, I first read the book as a student and just now finished reading it for the second time as an adult. To my surprise, not many western literature aficionados are familiar with this book and thus I would like to share my insights into this amazing piece of art.

The beauty of this book is that it is a novel within a novel. The two plots evolve side by side and thus create a feeling of suspense and mystery. One novel takes place in Moscow in the 1930s, another novel happens in Yershalaim (Jerusalem) capturing the execution of Yeshua (Jesus). From the outset, these two novels are seemingly unrelated. Yet, as you delve deeper into their plots, you realize that they complement each other touching upon major controversies of human nature such as cowardice and courage, sincerity and dishonesty, egoism and altruism, greed and generosity, love and hate.

Instead of revealing the plot of the novels, I would instead like to discuss what this novel can deliver for a non-Russian speaking reader. Interestingly enough, a lot of western readers talk about Master and Margarita in the context of Russian political environment and dissidence. Some people argue that it could only be truly understood by the people who lived in the Soviet Union. I would not completely agree with this point. I believe that the novel can offer important insights to all readers irrespective of their backgrounds. So why should you read Master and Margarita?

  • The book provides a great critical insight into life in the Soviet Union. Small details, conversations of the heroes capture the life of Soviet citizens well. Starting from poor customer service to the lack of housing (“housing question”), the novel talks about the poignant areas of Soviet life.
  • The book provides a great discussion of the existential issues of all times. For instance, take an example of a dialogue between Woland, Berlioz and Bezdomny at the start of the book raising a question about the existence of God. The dialogue ironically depicts Soviet atheist rationalism and closed-mindedness. But more importantly it raises the question: do we have control over our lives?
  • The novel questions taken for granted assumptions and beliefs. I love magical realism as a genre for its ability to break the boundary of common sense. How about a talking cat paying for a ride on a trolley bus? How about a magic cream that turns Margarita into a witch? How about magically recovering a manuscript that was burnt in a fireplace? By appealing to the supernatural, Bulgakov was able to expose the drawbacks of the Soviet system.
  • I love the non-linear conception of time in the novel. The past, present and future are all mixed together as vegetables in a salad bowl. Is our future predetermined as the tragic death of Berlioz was predetermined and related to Annushka’s spilled oil?
  • One of my favourite takeaways from this novel is the question of redefining the meaning of good and evil. What do we mean by good and evil, anyway? In the novel, the Satan, Woland is at times kind and generous (remember his generous gift to Margarita) while Moscow citizens are represented as greedy and materialistic (remember the episode with the Black Magic show by Woland). Maybe our definitions of the good and evil are outdated or maybe these concepts are not so contradictory after all?

Overall, the novel offers a lot of insights that are relevant to readers across the world. In particular, contemporary readers may reflect on the dogmatism and closed-mindedness in relation to our values and beliefs. I hope that contemporary writers will be able to create beautiful novels exposing dogmatism and closed-mindedness of our capitalist societies.