Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A New Science of Happiness

Dacher Keltner from “Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts,” by David DiSalvo, Scientific American Mind (September 2009):

Dacher Keltner Recent research is suggesting that our capacities for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms, and these capacities are found in the emotions I write about.

A new science of happiness is finding that these emotions can be readily cultivated in familiar ways, bringing out the good in others and in oneself. Here are some recent empirical examples:

  • Experiences of reverence in nature or of being around those who are morally inspiring improves people’s sense of connection to one another and their sense of purpose.
  • Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.
  • Talking about what we are thankful for—in classrooms, at the dinner table or in a diary—boosts happiness, social well-being and health.
  • Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging a materialist desire, brings about lasting well-being.

This kind of science gives me many hopes for the future. At the broadest level, I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life. In more specific terms, I see this new science informing practices in almost every realm of life.


Enjoy the Process

Excerpt from “Enlightenment 2.0,” a Buddhist Geeks conversation with Ben Goertzel and host Vince Horn:

I think that the idea underlying that story (Enlightenment 2.0) really came out of something that I worry about in my personal life just thinking about my own personal future. When I think about “What would I want in the future if superhuman Artificial Intelligence (AI) became possible?”

Wall-E ...I really think that the human brain architecture is limiting. So that I think if you could change your brain into a different kind of information processing system, you could achieve just better states of mind. You could feel enlightened all the time, while doing great science, while having sensory gratification, and it could be way beyond what humans can experience.

So that leads to the question of, okay, if I had the ability to change myself into some profoundly better kind of mind, would I do it all at once? Would I just flick a switch and say “Okay, change from Ben into a super mind?” Well, I wouldn't really want to do that, because that would be just too much like killing Ben, and just replacing him with the super mind. So, I get the idea that maybe I'd like to improve myself by, say twenty percent per year. So I could enjoy the process, and feel myself becoming more and more intelligent, more and more enlightened, broader and broader, and better and better.

Cylon (Battlestar Gallactica) …You think of phase transitions in physics. You have water, and you boil the water, and then it changes from a liquid into a gas, just like that. It's not like it's half liquid and half gas, right? I mean, it's like the liquid is dead, and then there's a gas.

That was the kind of theme underlining this story. There was this super-intelligent AI that people had created. The super intelligent AI, after it solved the petty little problems of world peace, and hunger, and energy for everyone, and so forth, that super-human AI set itself thinking about “Okay, how can we get rid of suffering, fundamentally?” How can we make a mind that really has a positive experience all the time, and will spread good through the world rather than spreading suffering through the world.

Then the conclusion it comes to is it is possible to have such a mind, but human beings can never grow into that, and that it, given the way that it was constructed by the humans, could never grow into that either.

So, the conclusion this AI comes to is there probably are well-structured, benevolent super minds in the universe, and in order to be sure the universe is kept peaceful and happy for them, we should all just get rid of ourselves, because we're just fundamentally screwed up, and can't even ever continuously evolve into something that's benevolently structured.

Which I don't really believe, but I think it's an interesting idea, and I wouldn't say it's impossible.

Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright (Terminator Salvation)

[So] is the AI a lunatic or does it have some profound insight that we can't appreciate? Which is a problem we're going to have broadly when we create minds better than ourselves.

Just like when my dog wants to go do something and I stop him, right? Maybe it's just because my motivational system is different than his. Like I don't care about the same things as he does. I'm not that interested in going to romp in the field like he is, and I'm just bossing him around based on my boring motivational structure.  On the other hand, sometimes I really have an insight he doesn't have, and I'm really right. He shouldn't go play in the highway, no matter how much fun it looks like.  The dog can't know, and similarly, when we have a super-human AI, we really won't be able to know. We'll have to make a gut feel decision whether to trust it or not.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beginning with What It Can Perceive

Excerpts from Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz, featured in the The Week Magazine (October 2, 2009):

…forgetting what we think we know is the best way to begin understanding dogs…If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it, beginning with what it can perceive—what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense.

Human noses have about 6 million of these receptor sites; beagle noses have more Inside of a Dogthan 300 million. The difference in the smell experience is exponential. Next to a beagle, we are downright anosmic, smelling nothing. We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water.
What’s this like? Imagine if each detail of our visual world were matched by a corresponding smell. Each petal on a rose may be distinct, having been visited by insects leaving pollen footprints from faraway flowers. What is to us just a single stem actually holds a record of who held it, and when. A burst of chemicals marks where a leaf was torn. Imagine smelling every minute visual detail. That might be the experience of a rose to a dog.

A dog looking around a room does not think he is surrounded by human things; he sees—and smells—dog things.

What we may think an object is for, or what it makes us think of, may or may not match photo by Vegar Abelsnesthe dog’s idea of the object’s function or meaning. Objects are defined by how you can act upon them: what the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll called their “functional tone.” A dog may be indifferent to chairs, but if trained to jump on one, he learns that the chair has a sitting tone: It can be sat upon. But other things that we may identify as chair-like are not so seen by dogs: stools, tables, arms of couches. Stools and tables are in some other category of objects: obstacles, perhaps, in their path toward the eating tone of the kitchen. A ball, a pen, a teddy bear, and a shoe are in some ways equivalent: All are objects that one can get one’s mouth around.

What about a dog’s power of visual and mental perception? Look a dog in the eyes and you get the definite feeling Samanthathat he is looking back. Dogs return our gaze. They are looking at us in the same way that we look at them. Naturally we wonder, is the dog thinking about us the way we are thinking about the dog?

In fact, we are known by our dogs probably far better than we know them. They are the consummate eavesdroppers and Peeping Toms: Let into the privacy of our rooms, they quietly spy on our every move. They know about our comings and goings. They know whom we sleep with, what we eat. We share our homes with uncounted numbers of mice, millipedes, and mites—none bothers to look our way. Dogs, by contrast, watch us from across the room, from the window, and out of the corners of their eyes. Their sight is used to see what we attend to. In some ways, this is similar to us, but in other ways it surpasses human capacity.

Dogs are anthropologists among us. They are students of our behavior. And what makes them especially good anthropologists is that they never tire of attending to minute changes in our expressions, our moods, our outlooks. Unlike us, they don’t become inured to people.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nothing Left Out

My copy of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb just arrived!

The Book of Genesis

From the introduction:





* * *

R. Crumb's Awesome, Affecting Take On Genesis,” by Susan Jane Gilman, NPR (October 16, 2009)

Mindfulness Training Improves Attitudes about Patients and Their Care

Excerpt from “Mindful Meditation, Shared Dialogues Reduce Physician Burnout,”  News Room - University of Rochester Medical Center (September 22, 2009):

Training in mindfulness meditation and communication can alleviate the psychological distress and burnout experienced by many physicians and can improve their well-being, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers report in this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The training also can expand a physician’s capacity to relate to patients and enhance patient-centered care, according to the researchers, who were led by Michael S. Krasner, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Medicine.

“From the patient’s perspective, we hear all too often of dissatisfaction in the quality of presence from their physician. From the practitioner’s perspective, the opportunity for deeper connection is all too often missed in the stressful, complex, and chaotic reality of medical practice,” Krasner said. “Enhancing the already inherent capacity of the physician to experience fully the clinical encounter—not only its pleasant but also its most unpleasant aspects—without judgment but with a sense of curiosity and adventure seems to have had a profound effect on the experience of stress and burnout. It also seems to enhance the physician’s ability to connect with the patient as a unique human being and to center care around that uniqueness.

“Cultivating these qualities of mindful communication with colleagues, anectodotally, had an unexpected benefit of combating the practitioners’ sense of isolation and brought forth the very experiences that are such a rich source of meaning in the life of the clinician,” he said.


To Blur the Line a Bit

The Tools of the Mind program at a school in Red Bank, N.J., encourages “executive function” — the ability to think straight and self-regulate. (Photo: Gillian Laub for The New York Times) “We often think about play as relaxing and doing what you want to do. Maybe it’s an American thing: We work really hard, and then we go on vacation and have fun. But in fact, very few truly pleasurable moments come from complete hedonism. What Tools of the Mind does — and maybe what we all need to do — is to blur the line a bit between what is work and what is play. Just because something is effortful and difficult and involves some amount of constraint doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.”

~ Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” by Paul Tough, New York Times (September 25, 2009).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Everything is Never as it Seems

I heard this song on the way to the airport this afternoon and it reminded me of these notions from the beginning of the week.

Owl City

You would not believe your eyes
If ten million fireflies
Lit up the world as I fell asleep
'Cause they fill the open air,
And leave teardrops everywhere
You'd think me rude, but I would just stand and... stare

[chorus] I'd like to make myself believe
That planet Earth turns slowly
It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep
'Cause everything is never as it seems

'Cause I get a thousand hugs
From ten thousand lightning bugs
As they try to teach me how to dance
A foxtrot above my head,
A sock hop beneath my bed,
A disco ball is just hanging by a thread


Leave my door open just a crack
'Cause I feel like such an insomniac
Why do I tire of counting sheep?
When I'm far too tired to fall asleep

To ten million fireflies
I'm weird 'cause I hate good-byes
I got misty eyes as they said farewell
But I'll know where several are
If my dreams get real bizarre
'Cause I saved a few and I keep them in a jar


I'd like to make myself believe
That planet Earth turns slowly
It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep
Because my dreams are bursting at the seams

Human Sensory System

From “Spiritual Practices and the Sliding Scale of Identity,” from Har-Prakash Khalsa’s blog:

Shinzen Young has reworked the common western categorization of the sensory system into a simplified and elegant model. This TSSFIT chart, particularly when combined with the triple skill-set of mindfulness – concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity— is eminently practical and effective in helping us to understand how the various constellations of the human sensory system, and our relationship to that sensory system, affects identity and behaviour.

In the west we usually conceive of the sensory system as seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. External sights and sounds are usually identified as other—other people, other beings, or the world in general as something existing separate in relation to our conventional sense of self.

Now when we consider how our conventional sense of self arises, what we most identify as who we are is composed of a combination of our body’s touches (for a simple working model smell and taste will be considered special categories of touch or body space—see chart below) and emotional feelings, and thoughts that have internal visual and auditory components, or T-F-I-T for short.

Individually we often refer to this as “my” body and mind. Deeper within the self-referential body/mind system are the feelings and thought combinations arising in F-I-T, or feel, image, and talk space.

Our reactivity arises most personally as F-I-T activity – shame, embarrassment, rage, terror, grief, happiness, joy, compassion, etc., accompanied and reinforced through thought. “You’re making fun of me!” “I love you.” “That’s mine!” These sensory components of body and mind are self-referentially reflected and reinforced in the “I”, “me”, “mine” of our language.

There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but as we’ll see later, if that’s all we identify with we stay limited within our conventional fixed identity.

Now let’s look at the chart below. Notice how in the right side of the TSSFIT chart the FEEL-IMAGE-TALK, or F-I-T sensory spaces, represent the more subjective “I, me, mine” conventional sense of self. On the left side of our chart the T-S-S sensory spaces represent a more “not I, me, mine”, or a more objective “other” or “world” space.

Conventional Sense of Self and World

Subjective—Self (I, Me, Mine)

(body space, smell, taste)

(emotional/body space)

(external seeing space)

(visual thinking space)

(external listening space)

(auditory thinking space)



The Ebb and Flow of Endless Motion

Here are our thoughts—voyagers’ thoughts,

Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said;
The sky o’erarches here—we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation—ebb and flow of endless motion;
The tones of unseen mystery—the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world—the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista, and the horizon far and dim, are all here,
And this is Ocean’s poem.

~ Walt Whitman, “In Cabin’d Ships at Sea,” from Leaves of Grass

[Thanks Lisa Ann!]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

J'aime Vraiment le Pomplamoose





Life is a Giant Feedback Device

Shinzen Young "As long as you stay focused, you’re perfectly happy, but it’s when you get scattered that your life becomes unhappy. I came to realize that life is actually a giant biofeedback device. The reason you go to the monastery is so you eventually come to the place where you can see ordinary daily life as a monastery; it just took a special situation in order to develop that sensitivity.”

~ Shinzen Young, from “Shinzen Young: The Reluctant Monk,” NEXUS, July/August 2009

When I Was a Child I Understood

What I Understood
by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, "Someday you'll know what it's like!"
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
the only thing I didn't understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I'll be
thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

[More poems by Katha Pollitt.]

Just Passing Through

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
by Kevin C. Powers, from Poetry Magazine, February 2009

Kevin C. Powers I tell her I love her like not killing
or ten minutes of sleep
beneath the low rooftop wall
on which my rifle rests.

I tell her in a letter that will stink,
when she opens it,
of bolt oil and burned powder
and the things it says.

I tell her how Pvt. Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Conditions that Foster Creativity

Anna Deavere Smith, from her Chataqua Institution lecture “Looking for Grace,”, September 13, 2009:

I started to think about the conditions that foster creativity. I would say that any modest amount of creativity that I’ve experienced—at least in my adult life—required the following: a restricted environment, uncertainty, independence and responsibility, a lack of safety, the need for change, richness of inner life, need, physical beauty, contradictions, and doubt.

Now, if we were to create a school or community where we wanted to foster creativity, we would probably not seed the growth of those attributes. I think that list would look something like this: an environment where possibility seemed endless, steadiness, a firm foundation, strong mentorship, safety, richness of inner life, provisions, clarity, confidence, and physical beauty.

"My tape recorder and my ear create the necessary distance that allows me to get close to another person."

Yeah, You

For our beautiful flower on her first day of college…


'Cause you're beautiful like a flower
More valuable than a diamond
You are powerful like a fire
You can heal the world with your mind

There is nothing in the world that you cannot do
When you believe in you, who are beautiful
Yeah, you, who are brilliant
Yeah, you, who are powerful
Yeah, you, who are resilient

~ India.Arie

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

No Thing Here

In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Thus you should see that
indeed there is no thing here;

…as you see that there is no thing there,
you will see that
you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
nor in the world of that,
nor in any place
betwixt the two.
This alone is the end of suffering.

~ Buddha, from the Udana

At breakfast on Saturday, the sun slowly crept up the window until it was shining almost directly into my eyes. It occurred to me that while it feels like the sun was moving, it was really the me, the table, the room, the building, and the earth that were all rotating imperceptibly.

Aristarchus's 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of the Earth, Sun and Moon, from a 10th century AD Greek copy. It’s been nearly four hundred years since Galileo began defending heliocentrism, and yet it still does seem to us that we are at the center of the universe. The image of a sphere of water and dirt and plants and animals careening through space remains unsettling. We still go to the beach to watch the sun rise and set. It is challenging to imagine that people living in other time zones are currently sleeping while we are going about our business awake.

If the sun isn’t menacing me or entertaining me, and the ground beneath my feet isn’t stationary, where am I supposed to find a safe place to make my home? Our nervous systems crave certainty and solidity and, in their absence, have created a complex process for representing stability.

It is very useful to accept these illusions, but at some point Prague Orlojwe can’t help seeing through them. We navigate the uncertainty by trying to determine what the absence of true solidity means. Some interpret it as nihilism, others find that there being no thing simply means that every thing is in constant dynamic flux.

Mindfulness practice, seems to be one way that the need for things to be fixed gets eroded gradually. This allows us to live more comfortably inside the illusion as well as being able to experience the wonder of participating in the ongoing flow of the universe.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Theology Should Be Like Poetry

“A theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do…

…when we hear about religion, when it hits the headlines it's either something like that anti-Christ poll or else we hear the voices of hatred or extremism or we hear our church leaders condemning things, like condemning homosexuality or enforcing rigid beliefs. And this is not what religion is about. Religion - all the world faiths have developed their own version of what's been called the Golden Rule, don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you. And they've said, all of them, that that is the essence of faith.

That it is that, not our beliefs and, but that bring us into relationship with what we call God or Brahman or Tao, and it's that that gives meaning to our lives. And so I want to restore compassion to that and so that we have instead of religious antagonism, religious aggression, we have a voice that speaks continually of compassion; that endlessly tries to put us, make us put ourselves in the position of the other. Because I'm worried that if we don't manage to implement the Golden Rule, globally, so that we treat all peoples, wherever they are as though they were as important as ourselves, that we, I don't think we'll have, if we don't do that, a viable world to hand on to the next generation.”

~ Karen Armstrong, in conversation with Terry Gross

The Theater of the Mind

Charles Bonnet said he wondered how ‘the theater of the mind’ could be generated by the machinery of the brain. Now, two hundred and fifty years later, I think we’re beginning to glimpse how this is done.”

~ Oliver Sacks, from “What Hallucination Reveals about Our Minds,” TED Talks (February 2009)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

To Desire to Write Poems that Endure

Donald Hall "I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. … To desire to write poems that endure — we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it."

~ Donald Hall

Friday, September 18, 2009

So Much to Teach Me

Eight. Doing Dishes
Jeanne Lohmann

We lived in so many houses, Gloria: Indiana Avenue,
Summit and Fourth, the double on Hudson Street.
And that upstairs apartment on North High we rented
from Armbruster's. Mother thought it Elizabethan,
romantic, with its leaded glass windows and wood-beamed
ceilings. Our entrance was at the side, at the top of stairs
that creaked late at night when we came home from our dates.
You had more of these than I did, even if I was older.
It was 1943, and our brother Harry was in the Navy.
I'd had a year away at college, and you were
still in high school. On this particular night
in the kitchen, doing the supper dishes, you
drying while I washed, you told me that your friend
Monabelle had a premature baby, and you'd been there,
helped to find a shoebox to put the baby in. I tried
to imagine this, kept seeing the cardboard box
with the baby, Monabelle bleeding and crying.
You didn't want our parents to hear, so we talked
softly while we put the dishes in the drainer
on the sink and hung the towels to dry.
The pilot light on the range burned purple blue
and I saw both of us new in that light, you
with so much to teach me, my self-absorbed
studious life, so intent on saving the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Autonomy Support

“…according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Edward L. Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by ‘autonomy support’: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself. Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children — whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.”

Alfie Kohn, from “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’,” New York Times (September 14, 2009)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Big Easel in the Land of Ahs

The Big Easel

World's Largest Easel
Goodland, Kansas

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bringing Civility Back

Barack Obama, discussing health care reform with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes (September 13, 2009):

I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles, that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention. I mean, let's take these town halls. As I've said, I had four of them. And there were people in there who disagreed with me. But all of them were courteous. All of them listened to each other. I kept on looking for somebody to yell at me, so that I could sort of sort of engage in these folks that you were seeing on TV. That wasn't our experience.

And if you go to a lot of members of Congress, and you ask them, "What was going on at some of these town hall meetings?" They'd say, "Eighty percent of the folks who were there were there to listen, to try to figure out how we can solve this problem." But you never saw those folks on TV, because it was boring.

And so, one of the things I'm trying to figure out is, how can we make sure that civility is interesting. Hopefully, I will be a good model for the fact that, you know, you don't have to yell and holler to make your point, and to be passionate about your position.

It's still a work in progress. No doubt about it.

Pure Amazement

Excerpt from The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik:

Like most scientists, I doubt that there is some ultimate, transcendent, foundational purpose to our lives, or to the universe, whether we interpret this in terms of a personal God or a mystical metaphysics. But certainly we can point to sources of real meaning in our actual human lives as we live them.

The Philosophical Baby One classic kind of spiritual intuition is awe: our sense of the richness and complexity or the universe outside our own immediate concerns. It’s the experience of standing outside on a dark night and gazing up at the infinite multitude of stars. This kind of awe is the scientific emotion par excellence. Many scientists who are otherwise atheists point to it as a profound, deep, and significant reward of their work. Scientists are certainly subject to ambition, the lust for fame, the desire for power, and other dubious motivations. Still, I think all scientists, even the most domineering Harvard silverbacks, are also motivated by this kind of pure amazement at how much there is to learn about the world.

I’ve argued that babies and young children experience this kind of feeling, this lantern consciousness, all the time. They may feel this way gazing up at a Mickey Mouse mobile instead of at the Milky Way, but the experience is very much the same. And it’s more than just a feeling for both the scientist and the children. The universe at every level, from Mickey Mouse to the Milky Way and beyond, is indeed wonderfully rich and complex and, well, just awesome. And our capacity to appreciate this richness is entirely genuine. Not everybody engages in science or even cares about it—but almost everybody shares in the learning of young children.

What are We to Do About This Terribly Significant Business of Other People

American Pastoral "You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of perception.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you."

~ Philip Roth, American Pastoral

How we read each other's minds,” Rebecca Saxe, TED Talks (July 2009)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Commercialization of Childhood

Friday, September 11, 2009

each life, put out, lies down within us

New Yorker, September 16, 2002

Excerpts from When the Towers Fell
by Galway Kinnell

From our high window we saw the towers
with their bands and blocks of light
brighten against a fading sunset,
saw them at any hour glitter and live
as if the spirits inside them sat up all night
calculating profit and loss, saw them reach up
to steep their tops in the until then invisible
yellow of sunrise, grew so used to them
often we didn’t see them, and now,
not seeing them, we see them.

Some died while calling home to say they were O.K.
Some died after over an hour spent learning they would die.
Some died so abruptly they may have seen death from within it.
Some broke windows and leaned out and waited for rescue.
Some were asphyxiated.
Some burned, their very faces caught fire.
Some fell, letting gravity speed them through their long moment.
Some leapt hand in hand, the elasticity in last bits of love-time letting—I wish
   I could say—their vertical streaks down the sky happen more lightly.

In our minds the glassy blocks
succumb over and over into themselves,
slam down floor by floor into themselves.

They blow up as if in reverse, exploding
downward and outward, billowing
through the streets, engulfing the fleeing.

As each tower goes down, it concentrates
into itself, transforms itself
infinitely slowly into a black hole

infinitesimally small: mass
without space, where each light,
each life, put out, lies down within us.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Seeing Through the Clutter of Life

From “Mindfulness meditation being used in hospitals and schools,” by Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY (6.8.09):

Tim Ryan Challenges are landing fast and furious on Capitol Hill. So Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, feels he has to arrive at the top of his game every day. And Ryan says he has found a way to do that: He meditates for at least 45 minutes before leaving home.

Ryan, 35, sits on a floor cushion, closes his eyes, focuses on his breath and tries to detach from any thoughts, just observing them like clouds moving across the sky — a practice he learned at a retreat. "I find it makes me a better listener, and my concentration is sharper. I get less distracted when I'm reading," he says. "It's like you see through the clutter of life and can penetrate to what's really going on."

…As research expands, scientists expect to unlock more of the mysteries around meditation. Meanwhile, for those such as Ryan, proof of benefit is already evident. "I'm much more aware now than I used to be," he says. "I enjoy my life more because you notice, and you really appreciate."

Meditation Directly Affects the Function and Structure of the Brain

From “How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time,” by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, (1.10.06):

Everyone around the water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress. But with the aid of advanced brain scanning technology, researchers are beginning to show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory.

Visual area correlated with meditation experience. Statistical map depicting cortical thickness correlated with change in respiration rate. One recent study found evidence that the daily practice of meditation thickened the parts of the brain's cerebral cortex responsible for decision making, attention and memory. Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented preliminary results last November that showed that the gray matter of 20 men and women who meditated for just 40 minutes a day was thicker than that of people who did not. Unlike in previous studies focusing on Buddhist monks, the subjects were Boston-area workers practicing a Western-style of meditation called mindfulness or insight meditation. "We showed for the first time that you don't have to do it all day for similar results," says Lazar. What's more, her research suggests that meditation may slow the natural thinning of that section of the cortex that occurs with age.


[Thanks Kit!]

The Substance of Things Not Seen

“Consider for a moment that sound does have form and we’ve seen that it can affect matter and cause form within matter. Then take a leap and think about the universe forming and think about the immense sound of the universe forming. Perhaps cymatics had an influence on the formation of the universe itself.”

~ Evan Grant, from “Making Sound Visible Through Cymatics,” TED Talks, July 2009 

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Extending Our Reach

Excerpts from Ray Kurzweil’s “Introduction to 9”:

Our emotional intelligence is not just a sideshow to human intelligence, it’s the cutting edge. The ability to be funny, to get the joke, to express a loving sentiment represent the most complex things we do. But these are not mystical attributes. They are forms of intelligence that take also place in our brains. And the complexity of the design of our brains – including our emotional and moral intelligence – is a level of technology that we can master. There are only about 25 million bytes of compressed design information underlying the human brain (that’s the amount of data in the human genome for the brain’s design). That’s what accounts for our ability to create music, art and science, and to have relationships.

Mastering these capabilities is the future of AI. We will want our future AI’s to master emotional intelligence and the movie 9 shows us why. We want our future machines to be like the stitchpunk creations, not like the rampaging machines.

My view of the future is that we will work hand-in-hand with friendly machines, just as we do today. Indeed we will merge with them, and that process has already started, with machines like neural implants for Parkinson’s patients and cochlear implants for the deaf. But my vision of the future is not utopian. While I don’t foresee the end of conflict, future conflict will not simply be man-versus-machine. It will be among different groups of humans amplified in their abilities by their machines, just as we see today.

The stitchpunk creations succeed not despite their emotionalism and bickering with each other, but because of it. We will want our future machines to be emotionally, socially, and morally intelligent because we will become the machines. That is, we will become the rag dolls. We will extend our reach physically, mentally, and emotionally through our technology. This is the only way we can avoid the apocalyptic world that 9 wakes up to.

Let Your Failures Teach You

Wakefield High School
Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009

Complete speech: text, video

Producers of Knowledge and Doubt

Excerpts from “The University’s Crisis of Purpose,” by Drew Gilpin Faust, New York Times (September 1, 2009):

John_Harvard_statue_at_Harvard_UniversityHigher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take — and last — decades or even centuries. Neither the abiding questions of humanistic inquiry nor the winding path of scientific research that leads ultimately to innovation and discovery can be neatly fitted within a predictable budget and timetable.

Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.

As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Boredom as a Delight

Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation "Boredom has many aspects: there is the sense that nothing is happening, that something might happen, or even that what we would like to happen might replace that which is not happening. Or, one might appreciate boredom as a delight. The practice of meditation could be described as relating with cool boredom, refreshing boredom, boredom like a mountain stream. It refreshes because we do not have to do anything or expect anything. But there must be some sense of discipline if we are to get beyond the frivolity of trying to replace boredom...As we realize that nothing is happening, strangely we begin to realize that something dignified is happening. There is no room for frivolity, no room for speed. We just breathe and are there. There is something very satisfying and wholesome about it. It is as though we had eaten a good meal and were satisfied with it, in contrast to eating and trying to satisfy oneself. It is a very simple-minded approach to sanity."

~ Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Not So Possessed

“An object is not so possessed by its own name that one could not find another or better therefore.”

~ René Magritte

RenÈ MAGRITTE, La chambre d'Ècoute, 1952, huile sur toile, 45 x 55 cm, Houston, The Menil Collection. (c) PhotothËque R. Magritte - ADAGP, Paris 2005.

The Listening Room by René Magritte.

What Disappears at Enlightenment

Excerpts from “On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young,” from Har-Prakash Khalsa’s blog (September 5, 2009):

Enlightenment is not yet another thing that you have to get.  And meditation as a path to enlightenment could be described as merely setting the stage for Nature/Grace to eliminate from you what needs to be eliminated.

Sakkaya-ditthi is the perception that there is an entity, a thing inside us called a self. That goes away.The ambiguity is the word perception. The actual word is ditti in Pali, or drishti in Sanskrit, which means “view”, literally. In this context ditti or drishti refers to a fundamental paradigm, or concept about something.

So in this case perception is perhaps not the best word. It’s more like the fundamental conviction that there is a thing inside us called a self disappears—according to the traditional formulation, after enlightenment—that never comes back. However, if by perception of self we mean momentarily being caught in one’s sense of self, that happens to enlightened people over and over again, but less and less as enlightenment deepens and matures.

So if we take “self” to mean “the perception self-is-a-thing in me”, that is gone forever. But if we take “self” to mean:  A) mental image, internal talk and emotional feeling arising within, and B) one’s clarity and equanimity around them are not sufficient in that moment, then even a somewhat enlightened person may get caught in self, for awhile. Certainly that is going to happen over and over again.

I like to analyze subjective experience into three sensory elements:  feel (emotional-type body sensations), image (visual-thinking) and talk (auditory-thinking). Those sensory elements continue to arise for an enlightened person forever. Sometimes when the feel-image-talk arises the enlightened person is momentarily caught in them but even though they’re caught in that, some part of them still knows it’s not a thing called self. That knowing never goes away. The frequency, duration and intensity of identifying with feel-image-talk diminishes as the months and years go on as you go through deeper and deeper levels of enlightenment. There are exceptions, but typically it takes months, years, indeed decades learning how not to get caught in feel-image-talk when it arises.

You can have a “no-self experience” even when there is the arising of feel-image-talk as long as there is so much clarity and equanimity that you’re not caught in them. Furthermore, as the process of enlightenment deepens you find you experience longer and longer durations during which little or no subjective activity needs to arise.

So enlightened people have three kinds of no-self experiences. In the first subjective elements of self simply don’t arise. Subjective space vanishes. In the second emotion in the body and visual thinking and verbal thinking all arise, perhaps even intensely, but you don’t get caught in them because they never tangle or coagulate. In the third the subjective elements arise and you do get caught in them but some part of you still knows this experience is a wave called body-mind, not a particle called self.

So to sum it up, what disappears at enlightenment is a viewpoint or perception that there is a thing inside this body-mind process called self.

Seasoned Advice for New College Students

Excerpts from “College Advice, From People Who Have Been There Awhile,” Week in Review, New York Times (September 6, 2009):

Stanley Fish Stanley Fish (teaching since 1962): I would advise students to take a composition course even if they have tested out of it. I have taught many students whose SAT scores exempted them from the writing requirement, but a disheartening number of them couldn’t write and an equal number had never been asked to. They managed to get through high-school without learning how to write a clean English sentence, and if you can’t do that you can’t do anything.

I give this advice with some trepidation because too many writing courses today teach everything but the craft of writing and are instead the vehicles of the instructor’s social and political obsessions. In the face of what I consider a dereliction of pedagogical duty, I can say only, “Buyer beware.” If your writing instructor isn’t teaching writing, get out of that class and find someone who is.

Martha Nussbaum Martha Nussbaum (teaching since 1975): It’s easy to think that college classes are mainly about preparing you for a job. But remember: this may be the one time in your life when you have a chance to think about the whole of your life, not just your job. Courses in the humanities, in particular, often seem impractical, but they are vital, because they stretch your imagination and challenge your mind to become more responsive, more critical, bigger. You need resources to prevent your mind from becoming narrower and more routinized in later life. This is your chance to get them.

Gary Wills Garry Wills (teaching since 1962): Read, read, read. Students ask me how to become a writer, and I ask them who is their favorite author. If they have none, they have no love of words.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Comforts of the Status Quo

From “Change We'd Rather Do Without,” by Michael Kinsley, The Washington Post (August 28, 2009):

The reason Americans have turned against health-care reform, after electing President Obama in part for promising it, is simple: Despite protestations to the contrary, Americans don't like change. You wouldn't know it, of course, if you Hatfield Clanlisten to politicians in high-pander mode, or to talk radio hosts of the right or TV pundits of the left. Or, for that matter, if you listened to the president of the United States. You would think that while we might disagree about what kind of change we want, Americans are in total agreement that the current situation is intolerable in all areas and that change—big, immediate change—is essential. Americans do agree about this—in the abstract. But as soon as it seems that change might actually happen—as soon as we leave the abstract for the particular—we panic. We suddenly develop nostalgia for the comforts of the status quo. Sure, we want change—as long as everything can stay just as it is.



Friday, September 04, 2009

The Post-Modern Elixir

From “My Basic Philosophy (as it comes to writing),” by Po Bronson:

Po Bronson writes inside this isolation chamber/"closet" to concentrate. I believe that writers don't have to be forged by some radical autobiographical experience. Rather, I believe writers shouldn't be romanticized. Most writers, rather unglamorously, are really just people who find some solace in expression. Combined with some tenacity, or refusal to give up, we spend years learning the skills of writing. One day we get published and expression becomes our profession. We continue to seek an elusive mastery of our art. What makes us good writers is our constant devotion to this craft, a willingness to keep learning. More tenacity.

We want authenticity in what we read. Authenticity is the post-modern elixir. In an age of lies and corruption—an age of irony and mass-marketed pop product—we have a longing, a craving, for authentic work, for authentic people. As a lazy shortcut, we've made the mistake of looking to the author's biography on the dust jacket as the stamp of authenticity. Authenticity is only properly earned on the written page.

When we tie a work's authenticity to a writer's autobiography, we are severely limiting our creativity. We cannot restrict our curiosity or creativity to that narrow spectrum of "things we've already experienced." Creative expression should never be handcuffed.

[Thanks Dyan!]

Feeling It

"...when you pay attention to your body (not thinking about it but feeling it) more or your whole brain and nervous system becomes available to link to more parts of the rest of your body...You may have to put aside your mp3 player and video monitor so you can focus more on yourself. The more you allow time for your body sense, the more that whole body activation gets established, and the easier it becomes to access all those good feelings and health benefits in the future."

~ Alan Fogel, from “Embodied Exercise,” Psychology Today’s Body Sense Blog (August 24, 2009)


Radiolab presents 16: Moments by Will Hoffman. This film is a celebration of life that was inspired by David Eagleman's book, Sum.



Thursday, September 03, 2009

I Would Be One of Many

Samar Jarrah of Port Charlotte, Florida describes the benefits she sees in experiencing Ramadan in the United States:

I just got back from Jordan…and my family was telling me, Why can’t you just stay a bit longer and spend a week of Ramadan in Samar JarrahJordan or in Egypt? And I said, You will never understand this, but the best Ramadan I ever spend in my life is always in America. Because I feel sometimes that I am the only person fasting, it’s more strenuous, I feel like every day is a jihad for me – a struggle to maintain my faith, to maintain my fast despite the amazing food around me and the smells. If I go shopping or if I go to the mall, there is food everywhere. Everybody’s eating except myself and this brings me amazing strength. And I wake up very early in the morning. I can be lecturing. I can be driving to my class – a hundred miles each way. I can be feeding the homeless. I can be doing amazing stuff that I would not be doing if I were living in a Muslim country, because the whole country would be fasting and I would be one of many.


Listen to more voices at Revealing Ramadan from Speaking of Faith.