Sunday, October 31, 2010


The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear. The fear of being nobody, the fear of nonexistence, the fear of death. All its activities are ultimately designed to eliminate this fear, but the most the ego can ever do is to cover it up temporarily with an intimate relationship, a new possession, or winning at this or that. Illusion will never satisfy you. Only the truth of who you are, if realized, will set you free.

Why fear? Because the ego arises by identification with form, and deep down it knows that no forms are permanent, that they are all fleeting. So there is always a sense of insecurity around the ego even if on the outside it appears confident.

Once, as I was walking with a friend through a beautiful nature reserve near Malibu in California, we came upon the ruins of what had been once a country house, destroyed by a fire several decades ago. As we approached the property, long overgrown with trees and all kinds of magnificent plants, there was a sign by the side of the trail put there by the park authorities. It read: DANGER. ALL STRUCTURES ARE UNSTABLE. I said to my friend, “That’s a profound sutra [sacred scripture].” And we stood there in awe. Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself that which is beyond death. Jesus called it “eternal life.”

- Eckhart Tolle

How is the formless in you beyond death?

the power of the present moment

All that is required to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. This is why we may also call it Presence. The ultimate purpose of human existence, which is to say, your purpose, is to bring that power into this world. And this is also why becoming free of the ego cannot be made into a goal to be attained at some point in the future. Only Presence can free you of the ego, and you can only be present now not yesterday or tomorrow. Only Presence can undo the past in you and thus transform your state of consciousness.

What is spiritual realization? The belief that you are spirit? No, that’s a thought. A little closer to the truth than the thought that believes you are who your birth certificate says you are, but still a thought. Spiritual realization is to see clearly that what perceive, experience, think, or feel is ultimately not who I am, that I cannot find myself in all those things that continuously pass away. The Buddha was probably the first human being to see this clearly, and so anata (no self) became one of the central points of his teaching. And when Jesus said, “Deny thyself,” what he meant was: Negate (and thus undo) the illusion of self. If the self is truly who I am, it would be absurd to “deny” it.

What remains is the light of consciousness in which perceptions, experiences, thoughts, and feelings come and go. That is Being, that is the deeper, true I. When I know myself as that, whatever happens in my life is no longer of absolute but only of relative importance. I honor it, but it loses its absolute seriousness, its heaviness. The only thing that ultimately matters is this: Can I sense my essential Beingness, the I Am, in the background of my life at all times? To be more accurate, can I sense the I Am that I Am at this moment? Can I sense my essential identity as consciousness itself? Or am I losing myself in what happens, losing myself in the mind, in the world?

the truth is formless

The Catholic and other churches are actually correct when they identify relativism, the behef that there is no absolute truth to guide human behavior, as one of the evils of our times; but you won’t find absolute truth if you look for it where it cannot be found: in doctrines, ideologies, sets of rules, or stories. What do all of these have in common? They are made up of thought. Thought can at best point to the truth, but it never is the truth. That’s why Buddhists say, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.” All religions are equally false and equally true, depending on how you use them. You can use them in the service of the ego, or you can use them in the the service of the Truth. If you believe only your religion is the Truth, you are using it in the service of the ego. Used in such a way, religion becomes ideology and creates an illusory sense of superiority as well as division and conflict between people. In the service of the Truth, religious teachings represent signposts or maps left behind by awakened humans to assist you in spiritual awakening, that is to say, in becoming free of identification with form.

- Eckhart Tolle

truth needs no defense

Facts undoubtedly exist. If you say: “Light travels faster than sound” and someone else says the opposite is the case, you are obviously right, and he is wrong. The simple observation that lightning precedes thunder could confirm this. So not only are you right, but you know you are right. Is there any ego involved in this? Possibly, but not necessarily. If you are simply stating what you know to be true, the ego is not involved at all, because there is no identification. Identification with what? With mind and a mental position. Such identification, however, can easily creep in. If you find yourself saying, “Believe me, I know” or “Why do you never believe me?” then the ego has already crept in. It is hiding in the little word “me”. A simple statement: “Light is faster than sound,” although true, is now in the service of illusion, of ego. It has become contaminated with a false sense of “I”; it has become personalized, turned into a mental position. The “I” feels diminished or offended because somebody doesn’t believe what “I” said.

Ego takes everything personally. Emotion arises, defensiveness, perhaps even aggression. Are you defending the truth? No, the truth, in any case, needs no defense. The light or sound does not care about what you or anybody else thinks. You are defending yourself: or rather the illusion of yourself: the mind substitute. It would be even more accurate to say that the illusion is defending itself. If even the simple and straightforward realm of facts can lend itself to egoic distortion and illusion, how much more so the less tangible realm of opinions, viewpoints and judgments, all of them thought forms that can easily become infused with a sense of “I”.

Every ego confuses opinions and viewpoints with facts. Furthermore, it cannot tell the difference between an event and its reaction to that event. Every ego is a master of selective perception and distorted interpretation. Only through awareness—not through thinking—can you differentiate between fact and opinion. Only through awareness are you able to see: There is the situation and here is the anger I feel about it, and then realize there are other ways of approaching the situation, other ways of seeing it and dealing with it. Only through awareness can you see the totality of the situation or person instead of adopting one limited perspective.

- Eckhart Tolle


the 'I' must decrease, so that the present moment can increase.

ego says he doesn't want to be here

The ego loves to complain and feel resentful about other people and also about situations. What you can do to a person and a situation is to make it into an enemy. The implication is always: This should not be happening; I don't want to be here; I don't want to be doing this; I'm being treated unfairly. And the ego's greatest enemy of all is, of course, the present moment, which is to say, life itself.

how to make friends and influence people

When you try to expand your ego at the expense of another, the other person's ego feeling that someone has encroached upon it, will do everything in its power, to make up for what has been lost--most likely, by trying to bring you down.

But when you are humble around others, and their egos have not been offended so to speak, they will not react like this. In fact, often when you decrease yourself by being modest, they will raise you up.

However, there are people out there, whose egos are avaricious by nature and encountering people who are modest, take advantage of the opportunity to dominate and to increase their egos even more. For these people, one must avoid, deceive, and if necessary, confront. If not, they will bring you down to their level and worse, create the same disharmony that exists in them, in you.

why we should forgive

To forgive is to overlook, or rather to look through. You look through the ego to the sanity that is in every human being as his or her essence. It requires honesty to see whether you still harbor grievances and failed to forgive someone. If you do, become aware of the grievance both on the level of thought as well as emotion, that is to say, be aware of the thoughts that keep it alive, and feel the emotion that is the body's response to those thoughts. Don't try to let go of the grievance. Trying to let go, to forgive, does not work. Forgiveness happens naturally when you see that it has no purpose other than to strengthen a false sense of self, to keep the ego in place. The seeing is freeing. Jesus' teaching to "Forgive your enemies" is essentially about the undoing of one of the main egoic structures in the human mind. The past has no power to stop you from being present now. Only your grievance about the past can do that. And what is a grievance? The baggage of old thought and emotion.

Recognize the ego for what it is: a collective dysfunction, the insanity of the human mind. When you recognize it for what it is, you no longer misperceive it as somebody's identity. Once you see the ego for what it is, it becomes much easier to remain nonreactive toward it. You don't take it personally anymore. There is no complaining, blaming, accusing, or making wrong. Nobody is wrong. It is the ego in someone, that's all. Compassion arises when you recognize that all are suffering from the same sickness of the mind, some more acutely than others. You do not fuel the drama anymore that is part of all egoic relationships. What is its fuel? Reactivity. The ego thrives on it.

nature of consciousness

The seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes, regarded as the founder of modern philosophy, is famous for his dictum: “I think, therefore I am.” This was the answer he found to the question: is there anything I can know with absolute certainity. He realized that the fact that he was always thinking was beyond doubt, and so he equated thinking with Being, that is to say, identity—I am—with thinking. Instead of the ultimate truth, he had found the root of the ego, but he didn’t know that.

It took almost three hundred years before another famous philosopher saw something in that statement that Descartes, as well as everybody else, had overlooked. His name was Jean Sartre. He looked at Descartes’s statement “I think, therefore I am” very deeply and suddenly realized, in his own words, “The consciousness that says ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thinks.” What did he mean by that? When you are aware that you are thinking, that awareness is not part of thinking. It is a different dimension of consciousness. And it is that awareness that says “I am.” If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he is dreaming. You would be as identified with every thought as the dreamer is with every image in the dream. Many people still live like that, like sleepwalkers, trapped in old dysfunctional mind that continuously re-creates the same nightmarish reality. When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream. Another dimension of consciousness has come in.

The implication of Sartre’s insight is profound, but he himself was still too identified with thinking to realize the full significance of what he had discovered: an emerging new dimension of consciousness.

- Eckhart Tolle

what we need: the present moment

The ego identifies with having, but its satisfaction in having is a relatively shallow and short-lived one. Concealed within it remains a deep sense of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness, of "not enough." "I don't have enough yet", by which the ego really means, "I am not enough yet".

As we have seen, having a concept of ownership is a fiction created by the ego to give itself solidity and permanency and make itself stand out, make itself special. Since you cannot find yourself through having, however, there is another more powerful drive underneath it that pertains to the structure of the ego: the need for more, which we could also call "wanting." No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting. This is the psychological need for more, that is to say, more things to identify with. It is an addictive need, not an authentic one.

In some cases, the psychological need for more or the feeling of not enough that is so characteristic of the ego becomes transferred to the physical level and so turns into insatiable hunger. The sufferers of bulinna will often make themselves vomit so they can continue eating. Their mind is hungry not their body.

Most egos want conflicting wants. They want different things at different times or may not even know what they want except that they don't want what is: the present moment. Unease, restlessness, boredom, anxiety, dissatisfaction, are the result of unfulfilled wanting. Wanting is structural, so no amount of content can provide lasting fulfillment as long as that mental structure remains in place.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

grad school

Go to graduate school and learn how to write like this:

The linguistic construction of post-capitalist hegemony may be parsed as the invention of print culture.

The eroticization of normative value(s) functions as the conceptual frame for the historicization of the gendered body.

The epistemology of praxis recapitulates the fantasy of linguistic transparency.

...OR save $200,000 and just use this sentence generator.

hey english literature major

If someone can spend a weekend with a box of Cliff’s Notes and have only a slightly less conversational knowledge of what you spent 4 years studying, you probably don’t have the most employer friendly degree.

ugliness as beauty

How can ugliness be portrayed as beautiful in art? A monster, a serpent?

Since from evil comes good, it is therefore well said that evil contributes to good and hence it is said to be beautiful within the order of things. Thus it is not called beautiful in an absolute sense, but beautiful within the order; in fact, it would be preferable to say: "the order itself is beautiful."

- Alexander of Hales

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights, Earthly Paradise (1506)

It is the task of many medieval mystics, theologians, and philosophers to show how, in the great symphony concert of cosmic harmony, monsters contribute, albeit purely by way of contrast (like shading and chiaroscuro in a picture) to the Beauty of the whole. Rabanus Maurus held that monsters were not against nature because they spring from the divine will. Hence, they are not against nature, but against the nature to which we are accustomed.

- Umberto Eco

The non-beautiful [Jesus' persecutors, serpents] were represented as a necessary phase that allowed for the resurrection of Christ that was ultimately beautiful--this was not the case with classical concepts of Beauty.

beauty evolves

Diego Velasquez - The Toliet of Venus (1651)

The Venus of Velasquez is seen from behind, and we see her face only as a reflection in the mirror. This artificiality of space and the elusive nature of womanly Beauty came together, in later centuries, in the women of Fragonard, where the dreamlike character of Beauty is already a harbinger of the extreme freedom of modern painting:

Jean-Honore Fragonard - The Removed Shirt (1760)

If there are no objective constraints for the representation of Beauty, then why not depict a bourgeois picnic on the grass complete with a beautiful nude?

Edouard Manet - Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863)


suffering and contentment go hand in hand

Buddhist Way:

We know that life is suffering, that the harder we try to enjoy it, the more enslaved we are by it, and so we should discard the goods of life and practice abstinence.

Nietzsche's Way:

Fulfillment is to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.

If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that you harbor in your the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable...people for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.

To regard states of distress in general as an objection, as something that must be abolished, is the [supreme idiocy], in a general sense a real disaster in its consequences...almost as stupid as the will to abolish bad weather.

How does the New Testament console us for our difficulties? By suggesting that many of these are not difficulties at all but rather virtues:

If one is worried about timidity, the New Testament points out:
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5.5)

If one is worried about having no friends, the New Testament suggests:
Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil…your reward is great in heaven. (Luke 6.22-3)

If one is worried about an exploitative job, the New Testament advises:
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh…Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3.22)

If one is worried at having no money, the New Testament tells us:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10.25)

There may be differences between such words and a drink but Nietzsche insisted on an essential equivalence. Both Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfillment:

The two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity.

Christianity had, in Nietzsche’s account, emerged from the minds of timid slaves in the Roman Empire who had lacked the stomach to climb to the tops of mountains, and so had built themselves a philosophy claiming that their bases were delightful. Christians had wished to enjoy the real ingredients of fulfilment (a position in the world, sex, intellectual mastery, creativity) but did not have the courage to endure the difficulties these goods demanded. They had therefore fashioned a hypocritical creed denouncing what they wanted but were too weak to fight for while praising what they did not want but happened to have. Powerlessness became “goodness”, baseness “humility”, submission to people one hated “obedience” and, in Nietzsche”s phrase, “not-being-able-to-take-revenge” turned into “forgiveness”. Every feeling of weakness was overlaid with a sanctifying name, and made to seem “a voluntary achievement, something wanted, chosen, a deed, an accomplishment”. Addicted to “the religion of comfortableness”, Christians, in their value system, had given precedence to what was easy, not what was desirable, and so had drained life of its potential.

Having a “Christian” perspective on difficulty is not limited to members of the Christian church; it is for Nietzsche a permanent psychological possibility. We all become Christians when we profess indifference to what we secretly long for but do not have; when we blithely say that we do not need love or a position in the world, money or success, creativity or health while the corners of our mouths twitch with bitterness; and we wage silent wars against what we have publicly renounced, firing shots over the parapet, sniping from the trees.

How would Nietzsche have preferred us to approach our setbacks? To continue to believe in what we wish for, even when we do not have it, and may never. Put another way, to resist the temptation to denigrate and declare evil certain goods because they have proved hard to secure a pattern of behaviour of which Nietzsche’s own, infinitely tragic life offers us perhaps the best model.

Friday, October 29, 2010

greed --> scientific revolution

Global expansion was forcing Europeans to address the type of questions one would ask when one needed precise measurements of standardized space, money and time. By the time two-handed clocks had become the norm in the West, Europeans would have to have been positively obtuse not to wonder whether nature itself was a mechanism. In other words, the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment had to initially be a consequence, rather than the cause of the Wests rising development and geographic expansion.

- Ian Morris

west to east

Why is that the West discovered the New World before the East?

Europeans’ most obvious geographical advantage was physical: the prevailing winds, the placing of islands, and the sheer size of the Pacific ocean versus the Atlantic ocean made things easier for them. Given time, East Asian explorers would surely have crossed the Pacific eventually, but other things being equal, it was always going to be easier for Viking or Portuguese sailors to reach the New World than for Chinese or Japanese.

In reality, of course, other things are rarely equal, and in the fifteenth century economic and political geography conspired to multiply the advantages that physical geography gave western Europe. Eastern social development was much higher than Western, and thanks to men like. Marco Polo, Westerners knew it. This gave Westerners economic incentives to get to the East and tap into the richest markets on earth. Easterners, by contrast, had few incentives to go west. They could rely on everyone else to come to them.

The Arabs were conveniently placed to dominate the western stretches of the Silk Road and Indian Ocean trade routes, and for many centuries Europeans, at the farthest end of both East arteries, mostly stayed home and made do with the crumbs that Venetians collected from Arab tables. The Crusades and Mongol conquests began changing the political map, though, easing European access to the East. Greed began trumping sloth and fear, pulling traders (particularly Venetians) down the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean or, like the Polos, across the steppes.

When western European states began moving toward the high end and intensifying their wars after the Black Death, political geography added a push to the economic pull. Rulers along the Atlantic fringe were desperate to buy more cannons and were exhausting the usual ways to get rich (ramping up the bureaucracy to tax their subjects, rob and killing Jews, plundering neighbors, and so on). They were ready to talk to anyone who could offer them new revenue sources, even the shady, greedy characters who hung around harbors.

Again, but in different words:

…Rising development set off a Second Old World Exchange and freed the five horsemen again (disease, migration, climate change, famine and state collapse). Social development fell in both cores, but fell longest and furthest in the East. In the West, the more developed Muslim heartland east of the Mediterranean suffered most, and by 1400 a new core was forming and having its own renaissance in western Europe.

These fragmented, previously peripheral European lands now discovered advantages in their own backwardness. Shipbuilding and gunnery, technologies western Europeans had learned from the East during the Second Old World Exchange, allowed them to turn the Atlantic Ocean into a highway, once again transforming the meanings of geography. Eager to tap into the wealth of the East, Western sailors fanned out and their surprise into the Americas.

Easterners could have discovered America in the fifteenth century (some people believe they did) but geography always made it more likely that Westerners would get there first. Easterners had far more to gain by sailing toward the riches of the Indian Ocean than into the empty Pacific and by pushing inland into the steppes, which had been the greatest threat to their security for nearly two thousand years.

In the seventeenth century the expansion of the cores changed the meanings of geography more dramatically than ever before. Centralized empires with muskets and cannons closed the Inner Asian steppe highway that linked East and West, ending nomadic migration and effectively killing one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. On the Atlantic, by contrast, the oceanic highway that western European merchants had opened fueled the rise of new kinds of markets and raised entirely new questions about how the natural world worked. By 1700 social development was again pressing the hard ceiling, but this time, with the full complement of horsemen of the apocalypse unable to ride, disaster was held at bay long enough for western European entrepreneurs to respond to the incentives of the oceanic highway by unleashing the awesome powers of coal and steam.

Given enough time, Easterners would probably have made the same discoveries and had their own industrial revolution, but geography made it much easier for Westerners meant that because people (in large groups) are all much the same, Westerners had their industrial revolution first.

- Ian Morris

high-end / low-end state-building

There are basically two ways to run a state, what we might call high-end and low strategies. The high end, as its name suggests, is expensive. It involves leaders who centralize power, hiring and firing underlings who serve them in return for salaries in a bureaucracy or army. Paying salaries requires a big income, but the bureaucrats’ main job is to generate that income through taxes, and the army’s job is to enforce its collection. The goal is a balance: a lot of revenue goes out but even more incomes in, and the rulers and their employees live off the difference.

The low-end model is cheap. Leaders do not need huge tax revenues because they do not spend much. They get other people to do the work. Instead of paying an army, rulers rely on local elites—who may well be their kinsmen—to raise troops from their own estates. The rulers reward these lords by sharing plunder with them. Rulers who keep winning wars establish a low-end balance: not much revenue comes in but even less goes out, and the leaders and their kin live off the difference.

- Ian Morris

advantages of the periphery

Qin and Rome had a lot in common. Each was a spectacular example of the advantages of backwardness, combining organizational methods pioneered in an older core with military methods honed on a violent frontier.

Secure behind mountainous borders that made it hard to attack, and free to use its position at the edge of the core to bolster its manpower by drawing in people from the stateless societies even farther west, its armies constantly pressed into the core.

the axial age:

The Birth of Axial Thought:

For thousands of years godlike kings had anchored the moral order in chains of ritual, linking the humblest villager to rulers who touched heaven by sacrificing on ziggurats or slaughtering captives in cemeteries. But as godlike kings reinvented themselves as chief executives, the enchantment was going out of the world. “Would that I had died before or been born later,” complained the seventh-century Greek poet Hesiod, “for now is truly an age of iron…Righteousness and Indignation, their loveliness wrapped in robes of white, depart the wide-avenued earth. They abandon mankind to join the deathless gods on Olympus; bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men; and there will be no more aid against evil.”

But that was only one way of seeing things. From the shores of the Aegean to the Yellow River basin, other thinkers began developing radical new views of how the world worked. They spoke from the margins because most stood on the lower rungs of the elite; and geographically, because most came from small states on the fringes of power. Despair not, they said (more or less); we do not need godlike kings to transcend this sullied world. Salvation is within us, not in the hands of corrupt, violent rulers.

Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher struggling at the end of World War II to make sense of the moral crisis of his own day, called the centuries around 500 BCE, the “Axial Age,” meaning they formed an axis around which history turned. In the Axial Age, Jaspers portentously declared, “Man, as we know him today, came into being.” Axial Age writings and Daoist texts in the East, Buddhist and Jain documents in South Asia, and Greek philosophy and the Hebrew Bible (with its descendants the New Testament and the Koran) in the West became the classics, timeless masterpieces that have defined the meaning of life for countless millions ever since.

The classics all agree that their ultimate subject, a transcendent realm beyond our own sordid world, is indefinable. Nirvana “blowing out,” a state of mind in which the passions of this world are snuffed out like a candle be described, said the Buddha; even trying is inappropriate. For Confucius, sen translated “humaneness” was similarly beyond language. “The more I look up to it, the higher it is; the more I penetrate it, the harder it becomes; I see it ahead of me and suddenly it is behind…in speaking about it, can one avoid being hesitant?” Likewise, when pressed to define to kalon, “the good,” Socrates threw up his hands: “it’s beyond me, and I try I’ll only make a fool of myself.” All he could do was tell parables: the good is like a fire that casts shadows that we mistake for reality. Jesus was equally allusive about the Kingdom of Heaven, and equally fond of parables. Most indefinable of all was dao, the “Way” that Daoists follow:

The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way;

The name that can be named is not the true name…

Both may be called mysterious.

Mysterious and still more mysterious,

The gateway of all subtleties!

The second thing the classics agreed on was how to attain transcendence. There is more to Confticianisrn, Buddhism, Christianity, and so on than bumper-sticker slogans, but one I saw on a car outside my favorite coffee shop while 1 was writing this chapter summed things up nicely: “Compassion is revolution.” Live ethically, renounce desire, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and you will change the world. All the classics urge us to turn the other cheek and offer techniques to train the self in this discipline. The Buddha used meditation; Socrates favored conversation. Jewish rahbis urged study; Confucius agreed, and added punctilious observation of ritual and music. And within each tradition, some followers leaned toward mysticism while others took a down-to-earth folksy line.

The process was always one of self-fashioning, an internal, personal reorientation toward transcendence that did not depend on godlike kings even, for that matter, gods. Supernatural powers, in fact, often seem beside the point in Axial thought. Confucius and the Buddha refused to talk about divinities; Socrates, though professing piety, was condemned partly for failing to believe in Athens gods; and rabbis warned Jews that God was so ineffable that they should not mention his name or praise him too much.

Did Axial thought promote social development?

Unlikely. Geography is against it. The most important Axial thinkers came from small, marginal communities such as Greece, Israel, the Buddha’s home state of Sakya, or Confucius’ of Lu; it is hard to see how transcendent breakthroughs in political backwaters affected social development in the great powers.

Also, logic is against it. Axial thought was a reaction against the high state, at best indifferent to great kings and their bureaucrats and often downright hostile to their power. Axial thought’s real contribution to raising social development came later in the first millennium BCE, when all the great states learned to tame it, making it work for them. In the East, the Han dynasty emasculated Confucianism to the point it became an official ideology, guiding a loyal class of bureaucrats. In India, the great king Ashoka, apparently genuinely horrified by his own violent conquests converted to Buddhism around 17 BCE, yet somehow managed not to renounce war. And in the West, Romans first neutralized Greek philosophy then turned Christian into a prop for their empire.

The more rational strands within Axial thought encouraged law, science, history, logic, and rhetoric, which all increased people’s intellectual mastery of their world, but the real motor behind development was the same as it had been since the end of the Ice Age. Lazy, greedy and frightened people found easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things, in the process building stronger states, trading further afield, and settling in greater cities. In a pattern repeated many times in history, as social development rises, the new age develops the culture it needs. Axial thought was just one of the things that happened when people created high-end states and disenchanted the world.

If further proof is needed that Axial thought was more a consequence than a cause of state restructuring, we need only look at Qin, the ferocious state at the western edge of the Eastern core. “Qin has the same customs as the barbarians,” said the anonymous author of The Stratagems of the Warring States, a kind of how-to book on diplomatic chicanery. “It has the heart of a tiger or a wolf; greedy, loving profit, and untrustworthy, knowing nothing of ritual, duty, or virtuous conduct.” Yet despite being the antithesis of everything Confucian gentlemen held dear, Qin exploded from the edge of the Eastern core to conquer the whole of it in the third century BCE.

- Ian Morris

commodification of happiness

When we buy a luxury automobile, is it the appearance of recognition and status we're looking for rather than comfort?

When we take an exotic vacation, is it the appearance of freedom we're trying to acquire rather than true autonomy--freedom from superiors and patronization.

When we drink and party, is it the appearance of genuine friendship we're after?

When we purchase fine bathing accouterments, is it because we're trying to acquire the appearance of calm and serenity?

One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing. Real value is generated not by theatres and baths and perfumes and ointments...but by friends, thought, and autonomy, in particular--the freedom to avoid superiors, patronization, infighting, and competition.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

eternity is now

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration, but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present--the now.

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

- William Blake

Monday, October 25, 2010

power of stories and metaphor

Metaphor: understanding one thing in terms of another.

A large part of self-understanding is the search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives.

Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.

Finding facts wasn’t always so easy. Until recently, much of the world’s data and information was piled on the dusty shelves of physical libraries. And the rest of was housed in proprietary databases that only deep pocketed institutions could afford and well-trained experts could access. But today facts are ubiquitous, nearly free, and available at the speed of light. If you want to find any factoid, you can type a few words into Google, hit RETURN, and look at what appears on the screen a few seconds later. What’s unsurprising today would have seemed preposterous just fifteen years ago: an English-speaking thirteen-year-old in Zaire who’s connected to the Internet can find the current temperature in Brussels or the closing price of IBM stock or the name of Winston Churchill’s second finance minister as quickly and easily as the head librarian at Cambridge University. That’s glorious. But it has enormous consequences for how we work and live, When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable, “What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.

And that is the essence of the aptitude of Story—context enriched by emotion.

Story exists where high concept and high touch intersect. Story is high concept because it sharpens our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else. Story is high touch because stories almost always pack an emotional punch.

In his book Things That Make Us Smart, Don Norman crisply summarizes Story’s high-concept and high-touch essence:

Stories have the felicitous capacity of capturing exactly those elements that formal decision methods leave out. Logic tries to generalize, to strip the decision making from the specific context, to remove it from subjective emotions. Stories capture the context, capture the emotions…Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion.

As more people lead lives of abundance, we’ll have a greater opportunity to pursue lives of meaning. And stories—the ones we tell about ourselves, the ones we tell to ourselves—are often the vehicles we use in that pursuit.

- Daniel Pink

Saturday, October 23, 2010

different aspects of love

Romantic love is typically blind; we feel it for those we don’t really know. And it tends to be very me-oriented. I love her because of the way I feel when I’m with her; because I have fun when I’m with her; because I find her beautiful, sexy, smart, funny, and so on. A more mature love comes when we care more about that person’s happiness than we do our own selfless love that parents show toward children, a willingness to do without so that the child or our mate can do with. Romantic love drives us to be with the other person at all costs; mature love drives us to want to see the other person happy, even if that means not being with us. “If you love somebody, set them free,” as Sting famously sang.

“Love is wanting to possess the good forever.” This “possession” of the good is not the satisfaction of selfish desire in a superficial eros, which values the beloved for what he or she provides to the one who loves, but is instead a relationship to the beloved that draws the one who loves toward the beloved as a free-standing good. Someone who loves seeks “giving birth in beauty,” either to children or to ideas and virtue. Love opens itself to the eternal by extending the love of parents to their children or by building virtue and love of what is transcendent in the one who loves.
Reflecting on the refinement of romantic love in the context of the Christian tradition, Pope Benedict XVI comments that “love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy,” not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving.”

music --> religion --> trust --> civilization

The cognitive capacity and drive toward holding religious / spiritual beliefs (though not necessarily the beliefs themselves) underlie the foundation of society. Human organization could not have come into existence in the absence of religious beliefs. Societies, by necessity, are built upon orderliness, organization, and cooperation. In many cooperative undertakings, such as building granaries, fending off invaders, plowing fields, providing irrigation, and establishing a social hierarchy, members of society must accept certain propositions as true, even if they are not directly verifiable. Preparing food in a certain way allows us to escape toxins in the food. A leader asserts that a neighboring tribe is planning to attack and we need to either prepare a defense or launch a preemptive strike. A wait-and-see approach is potentially calamitous—we need to act on faith.

Religions trained us and taught us to accept society-building, interpersonally bonding propositions. Ceremonies with music reaffirm the propositions, and the music sticks in our heads, reminding us of what we believe and what we have agreed to. Music during ritual is designed, in most cases, to evoke a “religious experience,” a peak experience, intensely emotional, the effects of which can last the rest of a person’s life. Trance states can occur during these experiences, resulting in feelings of ecstasy and connectedness. Because the sacred belief is associated with the ecstatic state (and belief becomes truth), it becomes reconfirmed in the experiencer’s mind, with the music acting as an agent for reconfirmation every time it is played, ad infinitum. The emotion marks the belief. Three emotions in particular are associated with religious ecstasy: dependence, surrender, and love. These same three emotions are believed innately present in animals and human infants and were no doubt present in humans before religion gave them a system for expression and indeed for uplifting thoughts in self-conscious adults.

It is especially true that a cornerstone of contemporary society is trust and the ability to believe in things that are not readily apparent, such as abstract notions of justice, cooperation, and the sharing of resources implied by civilization. Indeed, modern technological civilization requires that we trust millions of things we cannot see. We have to trust that airline mechanics did their jobs in tightening all the bolts, that drivers on the road will keep a safe distance and stay within the lines, that food-processing plants observe health and hygiene codes. We simply cannot verify all these propositions directly more than the religious can verify the existence of God. The fundamental human ability to form societies based on trust, and to feel good about doing so is intimately linked to our religious past and spiritual present.

If love is viewed only narrowly as romantic love, then it is probably not a cornerstone in the creation of human nature. But love in its larger sense sweeping, selfless commitment to another person, group, or idea the most important cornerstone of a civilized society. It may not have been important for the survival of our species as hunter-gatherers and nomads, but it was essential for the establishment of what we think of today as human society, what we regard as our fundamental nature. Love of others and of ideals allowed for the creation of systems of courts, justice that is meted out to all members of society equally (without regard to financial status or race), welfare for the poor, education. These fixtures of contemporary society are expensive in terms of time and resources; they work because we believe in them, and are willing to give up personal gain to support them.

why we listen to sad music

When we are sad, many of us turn to sad music. Why would that be? On the surface of things, you might expect that sad people would be uplifted by happy music. But this is not what research shows. Prolactin, a tranquilizing hormone, is released when we’re sad. Sorrow does have a physiological purpose and it may be an adaptive response, which is to help us conserve energy and reorient our priorities for the future after a traumatic event. Prolactin is released after orgasm, after birth, and during lactation in females. A chemical analysis of tears reveals that prolactin is not always present in tears—it is not released in tears of lubrication of the eye, or when the eye is irritated, or in tears of joy; it is only released in tears of sorrow. Sad music allows us to “trick” our brain into releasing prolactin in response to the safe or imaginary sorrow induced by the music, and the prolactin then turns around our mood.

And aside from the neurochemical story, there is a more psychological or behavioral explanation for why we find sad music consoling. When people feel sad or suffer from clinical depression, they often feel alone, cut off from other people. They feel as though no one understands them. Happy music can be especially irritating because it makes them feel even more alone, less understood. When we are sad and hear a sad song, we typically find it comforting. “Basically, there are now two of you at the edge of the cliff,”says Ian Cross. “This person understands me. This person knows what I feel like.” That connection—even to a stranger—helps the process of recovery, for so much of getting better seems to rely on feeling understood. A sad song brings us through stages of feeling understood, feeling less alone in the world, hopeful that if someone else recovered so will we.

love is what we have decided that we value in life

Love is all its various forms is ultimately about caring--caring so deeply about another person, group, idea, or place that we would be willing to sacrifice our own health, comfort, and even life for it. One hallmark of great art is the amount of care that we sense has gone into it. When people scoff at modern painting, their typical objection is that it looks as though the painter simply threw paint on the canvas with no care. We find ourselves drawn to art that looks as though the artist struggled with it, put a great deal of thought into it--cared about it.

Love is about feeling that there is something bigger than just ourselves and our own worries and existence. Whether it is love of another person, of country, of God, of an idea, love is fundamentally an intense devotion to this notion that something is bigger than us. Love is ultimately larger than friendship, comfort, ceremony, knowledge, or joy.