Saturday, December 01, 2007

Film: The Golden Compass

Long before it's release, The Golden Compass has received a lot of attention. The film is based on the best-selling book by Philip Pullman, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

First, the trailer:

Plot summary

Based on author Philip Pullman's bestselling and award-winning novel, The Golden Compass tells the first story in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass is an exciting fantasy adventure, set in an alternative world where people's souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars, and Gyptians and witches co-exist. At the center of the story is Lyra (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old girl who starts out trying to rescue a friend who's been kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers - and winds up on an epic quest to save not only her world, but ours as well.

Now, some controversy, via the LA Times:

What's really astonishing, and telling, is how long it's taken America's religious fear-mongers to notice Pullman. He's never hidden his skepticism about God or his rejection of organized religion. A quick Internet search turns up a 2004 essay he wrote deploring "theocracies" for a newspaper in his native Britain, and his own Web site states that he thinks it "perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it." "His Dark Materials" features a sympathetic character, an ex-nun, who describes Christianity as "a very powerful and convincing mistake," while "The Amber Spyglass" concludes with the two child heroes participating in the dissolution of "the Authority," a senile, pretender God who has falsely passed himself off as the creator of the universe.

Only with a movie attached, however, does an outfit like Focus on the Family deem the "blasphemous and heretical" content of Pullman's fiction worthy of their attention. The Catholic League is calling for a boycott of the film and books; evangelical Protestant organizations have settled for simply urging their constituencies to approach both with extreme caution. Whether the controversy will harm the film or wrap it in the glamour of the forbidden remains to be seen. As for the books, well, you have to wonder how much actual reading goes on in the sort of household that welcomes e-mails like the ones denouncing "The Golden Compass," anyway.

Yes, it's true, as the e-mails virtually shriek, that Pullman once told an interviewer "His Dark Materials" is about "killing God," and that he wrote an op-ed piece describing C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" as "ugly and poisonous." It's also true that these statements have been taken out of context -- not just out of the context of a particular interview or newspaper editorial, but out of the context of an entire culture, a culture of conversation, debate and consideration, rather than paranoia, alarmism and extremism.

I first met Pullman in England, at an annual lecture sponsored by a trust dedicated to the furthering of religious education. I buttonholed Simon Pettitt, an Anglican priest and the trust's chairman, to marvel at this; his counterparts in the United States, I said, would never have invited a figure like Pullman to speak at a flagship public event. And yet, Pettitt is no renegade. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has enthused about "His Dark Materials" and participated in an onstage discussion with Pullman when a stage version of "His Dark Materials" was produced by the National Theatre in London.

"In America," I told Pettitt, "religious groups gain political advantage and rally their followers by presenting themselves as embattled. Actually listening to the other side is tantamount to admitting you're not really being persecuted." With a look of mild pity, he replied, "In order to come to views, you don't just listen to people you agree with. Education is a good thing, and, therefore, so is openness to different views."

Although Pullman has some vehement detractors among Britain's Christians, the liberal clergy there have more often valued his books for tackling the great questions of existence: life, death, morality and humanity's role in the universe. They regard his fiction as a springboard for discussion, the kind of discussion that does sometimes lead people to embrace God. They recognize him not as an enemy but as an ally in a society increasingly colonized by the vapid preoccupations of consumer culture.

Pullman also turned out to be no dogmatist. His practice of tossing out provocative statements struck me as a habit acquired during his years as a middle-school teacher, intended not to shut out opposing ideas but to flush them from the underbrush of adolescent inertia. He too is interested in what the other side has to say. This curiosity is in keeping with an ideal he calls "the democracy of reading," in which "to-and-fro between reader and text" leaves each "free to engage honestly with the other."

The article is a bit longer and worth the read.

The theme of animals representing human souls sounds vaguely shamanic to me, which is kind of cool. I'm actually quite looking forward to seeing this. I have no idea how I never read the books, but then I haven't read much fiction in the last 15 years (not even Harry Potter).

Today Is World AIDS Day . . .

And the news is not good.

From the World AIDS Campaign press release:

With thousands of events around the world marking World AIDS Day, December 1, the World AIDS Campaign is stressing the urgency of new and renewed leadership commitments by all stakeholders in the response to HIV and AIDS. The momentum must continue to build. “It is now time for bold leadership at all levels in order to turn the tide of HIV,” says Felicita Hikuam, Global Programmes Manager, World AIDS Campaign.

The World AIDS Day theme of leadership underscores that our knowledge of the HIV epidemic, political will and financial commitments have reached a critical point. With just three years to go until 2010 – the target governments have set to achieve universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support – leadership has to be demonstrated in concrete and immediate action. AIDS is the “biggest preventable and treatable threat to humankind in the 21st century,” states Greg Gray, International Coordinator, International Treatment Preparedness Coalition.

Improved methods in data collection have lowered estimates of people living with HIV in several countries and there are indications in some countries that the incidence of HIV has stabilised. Yet an estimated 33.2 million people around the world – one in every 200 – are living with HIV, and daily 6,800 people are infected with HIV and 5,700 people die of AIDS-related illnesses. AIDS is still considered the leading cause of death in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is not the time for complacency nor apathy,” says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. “It is the time for compassionate leadership.”

In many cases, it has been people living with HIV themselves who have led the way, emphasising the urgency of the pandemic and highlighting the need for all sectors to work together to tackle the complex issues fueling the spread of HIV.

"The leadership of HIV-positive people since the beginning of the pandemic has challenged attitudes, changed laws, and advocated advances in treatment that are now saving millions of lives," says Deloris Dockrey, Chair of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (GNP+). "We have come a long way, and now if we have similar will, energy, commitment and partnership from all sectors, we can truly stop the spread of HIV and enable all those affected to live full and productive lives."

Read the rest.

Now the bad news, first from Medical News Today:

Writing in this week's edition of The Lancet, to coincide with today, Saturday 1st December being World AIDS Day, a senior science advisor and global health specialist argues that although we are making considerable progress in the global race against the spread HIV/AIDS, the disease is still outpacing us, and there is a need to dispel some myths if we are to stand a chance of winning the race.

In developing countries, the rate of new infections hugely outnumbers the rate at which people infected with HIV start anti-retroviral therapy, wrote Dr James Shelton, senior medical scientist at the Bureau for Global Health, US Agency for International Development, Washington, DC, USA.

Although HIV incidence has dropped in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, the generalized epidemic continues to spread at a pace. According to Shelton, there are 10 misconceptions about HIV which he believes are getting in the way of successfully preventing the spread of the disease. He discussed them one by one in a Comment article in the journal.
  1. Myth: HIV Spreads Like Wildfire.
    This is not true, because typically, it does not, wrote Shelton. While it is very infectious in the first weeks, because the levels of virus are high, for the many years after this, virus levels are low. This is borne out by the statistic that only 8 per cent of people whose main heterosexual partner has the virus become infected with HIV every year. This is part of the reason the virus has not spread like wildfire all over the world, wrote Shelton who suggested the reason the epidemic is spreading more rapidly in Africa seems to be down to people having more than one sexual partner at a time.

  2. Myth: Sex Workers are the Problem.
    Sex workers are not likely to be the problem in Africa as formal sex work in uncommon in the regions affected. For instance, in Lesotho, only 2 per cent of men said they had paid for sex, whereas 29 per cent said they had had multiple partners, in the previous year. Shelton argued that targetting of sex work in HIV prevention campaigns is ineffective in areas where economic support helps people sustain multiple partners and pay for sex.

  3. Myth: Men Are the Problem.
    This may be partly true, but a heterosexual epidemic also requires that some women have multiple partners too. A 2003 national survey of couples in Kenya showed that both partners had HIV in 3.7 per cent of couples, and in 4.7 per cent only the woman was HIV positive, and in 2.8 per cent, only the man was positive.

  4. Myth: Adolescents Are the Problem.
    Shelton argued that targetting young people, to promote abstinence for example, might be important, but has limited use in stemming an epidemic, because generalized epidemics span all reproductive ages.

  5. Myth: Poverty and Discrimination Are the Problem.
    While these factors can result in risky sex argued Shelton, it is wealth that enables concurrent partnerships, thus explaining why HIV is more common among wealthier than among poorer people. He referred to Zimbabwe where HIV has dropped in the absence of significant improvements in poverty and discrimination.

  6. Myth: Condoms Are the Answer.
    While they can help to contain epidemics and protect some people, for example sex workers, condoms have limited effect in generalized epidemics, wrote Shelton. Many people don't like them, especially in stable relationships, use is not regular, and they do not offer 100 per cent protection. He argued that promoting condoms seems to encourage people to become less inhibited, and thereby engage in riskier sex, either with condoms, or with the intention of using them.

  7. Myth: HIV Testing is the Answer.
    While many people might assume that having an HIV test might cause them to change their behaviour, the evidence does not support this, especially for the large majority who find they do not have the virus. Newly infected people, who are highly infectious because the virus levels are at their highest in the early weeks, are likely to test negative. Changes in behaviour also have to last ten years to be effective, wrote Shelton.

  8. Myth: Treatment is the Answer.
    In theory, while treatment reduces infectiousness, it should also encourage people to change behaviour. But, wrote Shelton, this is not supported by the evidence; once people realize they are not going to die, and when the antiretrovirals kick in and they feel better, they resume sexual activity.

  9. Myth: New technology is the Answer.
    A lot of work is going on in developing vaccines, antiretrovirals and microbicides, but the day when these will start to have a substantial effect are years away, and they may only be targetted at high risk populations, suggested Shelton, and they could also encourage people to resume risky behaviour. Male circumcision, which has been proved to be effective, will also take years to reach a level where it has a substantial impact on a generalized epidemic.

  10. Myth: Sexual Behaviour Will Not Change.
    Shelton disagrees: faced with a deadly illness, he wrote, many people do change. He cited the example of homosexual American men in the 1980s, and in Kenya, where there has been substantial progress in encouraging people to give up multiple, concurrent sex partners.
Shelton's overriding argument is that reducing concurrent partnerships is the key to making substantial and rapid impact on generalized epidemics of HIV/AIDS. Many people do not appreciate this, he wrote, and it has only recently been appreciated from a technical standpoint.

There is a barrier among medical professionals, however, to promoting reduction in sexual partners, because as Shelton pointed out "it smacks of moralising", and "mass behavioural change is alien to most medical professionals".

State of the art techniques are available to effectively promote behaviour change, for instance using explicit messages, sensitive to local cultures, that can increase people's perception of the risks they are taking with their current behaviour:

"Even modest reductions in concurrent partnerships could substantially dampen the epidemic dynamic," wrote Shelton.

Other approaches have merit, but they are more effective when run together with partner-limitation strategies.

"Now, more than 20 years into HIV prevention, we have to get it right," wrote Shelton.

And this from a news report by Reuters:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government is raising its estimate of how many Americans are becoming infected with the AIDS virus every year by 50 percent, according to newspaper reports on Saturday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now believes the number of new HIV infections each year is between 55,000 and 60,000 -- up from the 40,000 figure used for the past decade, The Washington Post reported.

The Post cited two unidentified people in contact with the scientists preparing the new estimate.

It said the higher figures were based on data from 19 states and large cities that were extrapolated to the nation as a whole. The CDC has not made the new estimate public.

The Wall Street Journal also reported the CDC's expected upward revision, citing unidentified outside researchers and public health officials.

The Journal said Robert Janssen, director of the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, declined to comment on the new estimates, saying they could change.

The newspapers attributed the revision to new testing technology developed by the U.S. public health agency, which also revised its methodology to make estimates more precise.

"The higher estimate is the product of a new method of testing blood samples that can identify those who were infected within the previous five months. With a way to distinguish recent infections from long-standing ones, epidemiologists can then estimate how many new infections are appearing nationwide each month or year," the Post said.

It seems to me that there is still a prevailing view in this country that HIV/AIDS is a "druggie" disease or a "gay" disease or a third world disease. Which is nonsense -- the fastest growing groups with HIV in America are young adults and middle aged women. More than twice as many Americans get HIV from heterosexual sex as from IV drug use. And among young adults, the rate of infection is about 50/50 between men and women. Even in African nations, as noted above, women tend to have HIV more often in relationships than do men.

This is such a complex issue when one factors in biology, psychology, cultural issues, and social structures that make prevention or treatment difficult. For example, India and China are experiencing huge surges in HIV-positive people and in death from AIDS. While some parts of Africa are showing progress, others are not and may be getting worse.

This may be one area where we really need integral solutions for a very complex disease. I have no idea what those might be, but if Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute really want to make a difference in the world, they could organize a think tank on how to solve this problem and really save lives. And if they worked together with the Gates Foundation and/or the Clinton Foundation, they could certainly get the funding to implement some kind of action plan for education, prevention, and treatment.

This disease can be beat if we really want to do it.

The Many Faces of Bob Dylan

AlterNet has a review of the new Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan, a film I hope makes it to Tucson because although I am not a big Dylan fan, I am a Todd Haynes fan. He makes amazing films.

From the review:

Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There, "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan," shows that art reveals truth when it has the imagination to move away from the imitation of reality.

Six actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw) embody varied facets of Dylan, whose name is never mentioned. Each incarnation has a different name and narrative. These nonlinear narratives collide and overlap but remain independent of each other.

Franklin, a 13-year-old African-American, is Woody, a juvenile vagrant who hops boxcars. His beloved guitar is marked "This machine kills fascists."

Whishaw plays Arthur (the poet Rimbaud as Dylan), seated at a table throughout the film, facing the camera. He is eternally cross-examined by invisible interrogators.

Bale is Jack Rollins, the "Troubadour of Conscience" for a generation. He wears the acoustic guitar and harmonica rig of Dylan's early years but with his lean, long face more resembles Woody Guthrie.

Ledger is Robbie, a womanizing, self-centered movie star who once played Jack Rollins in a film. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Claire, Robbie's wife and mother of his children. Gainsbourg is the emotional center of the Robbie sequences, transmitting, often through silence, the suffering of being caught between her love for Robbie and constant, subtle humiliation and loneliness.

Blanchett, in an exhilarating performance that transcends gender, is Jude Quinn, the "star of electricity." Jude, in a tapered black suit, with wild hair, hooded eyes and high cheekbones behind dark glasses, is an eerie invocation of Dylan in the mid- '60s. Blanchett deftly sidesteps the trap of "playing a man." She cuts to Jude's wiry cynicism about a world ravenous for celebrity, and the flash-bulb isolation of an intelligent, sensitive artist who sees and feels more than those who throng around him.

The final Dylan figure is Billy (the Kid), played by Gere, a grizzled cowboy. Billy lives on the outskirts of the frontier town Riddle: "Here I'm invisible, even to myself." Riddle faces annihilation -- plans for a six-lane highway through the center of town -- in the name of progress.

This shape-shifting extends to Haynes' kaleidoscopic directorial vision. Grainy black-and-white sequences mingle with shots artificially saturated with color: tender yellow-green fields outside an open boxcar, the deep blue-green of an urban evening, sallow yellow hospital light. Clips of the civil unrest of the '60s, race riots, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King are mixed into the fabric of the film.

The different Dylan figures and their time lines break in upon each other, sometimes for only seconds, reminding us of their parallel existence. Billy looks out over the forested mountains in his Wild West era, sensing an unseen menace. It coalesces into napalm explosions in Vietnam, underscored by the raucous crashes of "All Along the Watchtower." The explosions draw us through a television screen into Robbie and Claire's world, revealing a wordless snapshot of their collapsing marriage before the camera abruptly returns us to Billy's mountains.

Read the rest of the review.

The film is getting a 79% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on the available reviews so far.

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week from Snow Lion Publications.

...In the Buddhist teachings, when we search for the causes of suffering, we find what is called 'the truth of the origin of suffering', namely that negative actions--karma--and the negative emotions that induce such actions are the causes of suffering.

Talking about causes, if we take a step further and investigate more deeply, we find that the cause alone is not sufficient for bringing about the results. Causes themselves have to come in contact with co-operative circumstances or conditions. For instance, say we search for a material or substantial cause for this plant, we will find that it has a continuity stretching back into beginningless time.

There are certain Buddhist texts that speak of space particles, existing before the evolution of this present universe. According to these texts, the space particles serve as the material and substantial cause for matter, such as this plant. Now if the essential and substantial cause for matter is traced to these space particles, which are all the same, how do we account for the diversity that we see in the material world? It is here that the question of conditions and circumstances comes into play. When these substantial causes come in contact with different circumstances and conditions, they give rise to different effects, that is, different kinds of matter. So we find that the cause alone is not sufficient for bringing about a result. What is required is an aggregation of many different conditions and circumstances.

Although you can find certain differences among the Buddhist philosophical schools about how the universe came into being, the basic common question addressed is how the two fundamental principles--external matter and internal mind or consciousness--although distinct, affect one another. External causes and conditions are responsible for certain of our experiences of happiness and suffering. Yet we find that it is principally our own feelings, our thoughts and our emotions, that really determine whether we are going to suffer or be happy.

~ From Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection by the Dalai Lama, translated by Thupten Jinpa and Richard Barron, Foreword by Sogyal Rinpoche, edited by Patrick Gaffney, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Fibonnaci Sequence in Tool's Lateralus

Interesting, especially as a Tool fan.


Friday, November 30, 2007

New Poem: Storm


a slate sky reaches down
to touch the earth
with watery fingers

all the dry years
washed from my eyes

roaring in the dark distance
the river seeks its home
carrying the night away

all the submerged minutes
returning to hungry soil

Buddhist Blog Survey

Mark, over at Marco Polo, is doing a research project on Buddhism on the internet for his Eastern Religions and Philosophies class. he sent out a survey to some Buddhist blogs, and mine was one.

For the fun of it, I thought I'd share my answers.

1. How did you get acquainted with the teachings of the Buddha?

I first discovered Buddhism in a comparative religions class in college. I was interested, but I was into shamanism at the time, so I didn't really follow up on my interest until I was in my late twenties, really depressed, and looking for something that could explain my suffering. The integral author Ken Wilber talks a lot about Buddhism and meditation (with a lot of examples from his own life in One Taste) as tools for changing our relationship with ourselves, so I started studying and reading.

a. If you weren’t a Buddhist your whole life, which tradition did you grow up in?
Why did you leave that tradition (if you did)?

I was raised Catholic. I stopped believing in God at age 13, when my father died suddenly (though not unexpectedly, as I look back) of a heart attack. I couldn't believe in a God who would do that to me. Later, in my teens, I started reading Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers -- at that point it was over. No more religion for me. When I came to Buddhism it felt more like a philosophy and psychology of mind, not a religion, so it worked for me.

2. What, if any, religion or philosophy do you associate yourself with currently? Could you describe your faith a bit?

I'm a progressive Buddhist, mostly in the Shambhala tradition of Chogyam Trungpa. I meditate three or more times a week, but I try to practice mindfulness and the eightfold path in my daily life. To be honest, this is mixed in with a lot of Western psychology practice -- shadow work, subpersonalities, and so on. Lama Surya Das and Thich Nhat Hanh have also influenced my thought, so I'm not tied to one school.

I don't believe in heavens or hells, demons or anything else. I'm essentially a rationalist who understands that there are increasing levels of consciousness, each one more expansive and compassionate than the previous one. Buddhist practice, combined with other forms of practice, can help us evolve through these stages of unfolding -- the unfolding of spirit in matter (Buddhanature).

3. Which of the Buddhist teachings do you find most valuable in your everyday life? Why?

My favorite sutra is the Heart Sutra, along with the interpretation by the Dalai Lama (Essence of the Heart Sutra).

Mindfulness has been incredibly useful for me, as well as the teachings about impermanence. I have also been a big fan of all of Pema Chodron's teachings -- a down to earth approach that works for an American with a busy life.

Mindfulness, both on the cushion or in daily life, has made me a much more compassionate person -- with others and with myself (I tend to have a loud inner critic, and being mindful keeps that voice from running my life).

Impermanence has helped me deal with my attachment and clinging to outcomes. I'm not a big materialist, but I am a control junky. Knowing that everything is fleeting, at best, has helped me free myself, to an extent, from some forms of clinging. I know that I can fully control outcomes, so it's easier to just do what I can do and let the rest happen as it will.

The teachings on Buddha-nature have also been crucial. When I begin to see Buddha-nature in myself and others, I lose a lot of me/you, I/other kind of thinking. I have a LONG way to go on this stuff, but I like the journey.

4. Describe your blog.

My blog is an integral blog. Nothing is off limits -- music, art, pop culture, satire, animation, politics, poetry and literature, science, psychology, integral theory (Ken Wilber, Spiral Dynamics, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo, and so on), and of course Buddhism. As much as possible, I take an integral and Buddhist approach to things, but not necessarily in every post.

What is your approach to writing?

I blog whatever interests me, which is why it is all over the place. As much as I cover all the topics above, I also write about my personal life from time, mostly growth challenges and major events. I try to post some kind of dharma teaching each day.

Who is your intended audience?

My audience was originally other integral and Buddhist bloggers. I have no idea who reads my blog now, but I average over 300 hits a day -- which isn't much. I'd like to think that non-Buddhist and non-integral thinkers also read my blog, which is know is true to some extent.

What issues does your blog tend to focus on, be they Buddhist or otherwise?

I've been focusing a lot on the new atheists of late, because I think they represent an important "leading edge" in the cultural conversation. But I also have focused on subpersonalities, integral theory, progressive Buddhism, relationships, among other things.

Anything that gets me fired up will become a topic for a while, until I move on to something else.

Daily Dharma: The Seeds of Our Actions

Today's Daily Dharma from Tricycle:

The Seeds of Our Actions

How is it that harmful results follow from harmful actions? It is by the force of an imprint placed on our mind that the potential to experience future suffering comes about. For example, a person who commits murder plants a very strong negative impression on his or her own mind and that impression, or seed, carries with it the potential to place that mind in a state of extreme misery. Unless the impression of that non-virtuous action is purified this latent seed will remain implanted in the mind, its power dormant but unimpaired. When the appropriate circumstances are eventually met, the potential power of this impression will be activated and the seed will ripen as an experience of intense suffering. . . .

The situation is analogous to that of an arid piece of ground into which seeds were placed a long time ago. As long as these seeds are not destroyed somehow, they will retain their potential to grow. Should the ground be watered sufficiently these long-forgotten seeds will suddenly sprout forth. In a similar fashion our karmic actions plant their seeds in the field of our consciousness and when we encounter the proper conditions these seeds will sprout and bear their karmic fruit.

~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Meaningful to Behold; from Everyday Mind, a Tricycle book edited by Jean Smith.

Gratitude: Happy [Choose Your Seasonal Holiday] to Me!

First an admission -- I didn't start watching 24 until last season, which by all accounts was the worst of the six seasons. Still, I quite enjoyed it and got hooked.

Today I was in Costco, and as always I was looking at the books (my worst addiction), and there it was -- the first five seasons of 24 in one set, for a great price compared to buying each season separately (which I had been planning to do). This is my solstice present to myself.

So today, I begin my journey through the first five seasons of one of the best series on TV. I'm psyched. This will be fun. I'm grateful I saw this set.

Other things I am grateful for today:

1) More rain! Woo Hoo!

2) An excellent workout today (20 rep sets of squats, even at a light -- for me -- 225 lbs, are killer).

3) It's Friday.

What are you grateful for today?

Speedlinking 11/30/07

Quote of the day:

"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed."
~ Herman Melville

Image of the day (David Winston):

~ Fit Tip: Compound Your Workout -- "I love to do compound exercises because they save time along with training my body for everyday movements. Body builders are keen on compound exercises because they stimulate the maximum amount of muscle fibers. Those of us not looking for the body-building effect mainly do it because of the whole time-saving effect."
~ How Much Can You Lift (Wimp)? -- "If you can bench 300 pounds, how much should you be able to squat? What about your deadlift, your hang clean, push press, or EZ bar skull crusher? According to Brad K., it's all related and he's figured it out."
~ Carb Cycling for Idiots -- "It's wintertime and you're faced with the yearly seasonal conundrum: do I go on a mass building cycle and say goodbye to my abs until the spring, or can I possibly keep my abs while bulking up?"
~ Partner Yoga Pose: Backpack -- "Got a tight back? Here's a fun way to open your spine and stretch your hamstrings too. I call this Backpack."
~ Oprah's Weight Loss Show -- "I am not sure if any of you saw Oprah's show this week about weight loss, but it was inspiring — to say the least. Guests on the show had lost a significant amount of weight without the help of pills or surgery. One female guest (pictured here) even lost a whooping 530 pounds." I didn't see this, but the before and after pictures are amazing.
~ Menstrual blood tapped as source of stem cells -- "While the excitement continues to swirl around the recent news of converting skin cells to stem cells, other scientists are pursuing a new type of stem cell found in menstrual blood."
~ Weight Loss Experiment Takes Heavy Toll -- "Two journalists find out firsthand the risks of getting 'superskinny.'" Damn, that was serious dedication for a story.
~ You're Eating More Salt Than You Think -- "Some foods in your kitchen that may pack a hefty load of sodium."
~ 7 foods you may think are healthy, but aren’t -- "Are you going to eat that? 7 foods you may think are healthy, but aren't."

~ Art Therapy Helpful for Some Schizophrenic Patients -- "The creative impulse resides at the heart of the human condition. Art, in its many forms, allows us to marvel at the amazing capacities of the mind and its ability to construct often stunning material from empty space. The concept of art as therapy, while often considered unscientific, has a long history of study; "art therapy" has been a valid liberal arts major for more than 40 years, and psychiatrists have been studying their patients' work far longer."
~ My Favorite Experiments: Bransford and Johnson [Mixing Memory] -- "OK, so for a really long time -- like two millennia -- memories had been conceived of as copies, or in more recent parlance, traces of the experiences they represented. You can find something like this view in Aristotle, and especially in the British Empiricists."
~ Finding Inner Peace, Without the Quiet -- "'Living Loud' on a spiritual path does not mean that we literally shout at each other. It does mean we embrace personal development, and cultivate the ability to regulate the volume in the expression of our spirit (that serves our own growth)."
~ Brain changes associated with congenital amusia -- "About four percent of the population has congenital amusia, a lifelong disability that prevents otherwise normal functioning individuals from developing basic musical skills. The condition has also been variously termed note deafness, tone deafness, or tune deafness."
~ Key Cognitive Functions, Self-Control Improved By Pre-School Program -- "An innovative curriculum for pre-schoolers may improve academic performance, reduce diagnoses of attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and close the achievement gap between children from poor families and those from wealthier homes, according to research led by a Vancouver neuroscientist who is an expert in the development of cognitive function."
~ You Are Self-Employed -- "Many years ago I listened to an audio program by Brian Tracy where he said that everyone is essentially self-employed and that even if you’re an employee, you should think of yourself as the President of your own personal services corporation. Call it Your Name, Inc."
~ Am I An Introvert? -- "This test for introversion will reveal whether you're an introvert or extrovert - or a little of both. It's a simple, effective self-assessment tool for introverts." I am super-introverted. But I already knew that.
~ Epigenetic Transmission of Biomarkers for PTSD? [The Corpus Callosum] -- "A great deal of evidence has accumulated that there is a problem with regulation of cortisol levels in persons with posttraumatic stress disorder. Several years ago, it was demonstrated that adult offspring of persons with PTSD had lower circulating cortisol than others, and it appeared that the lower cortisol was a risk factor for the development of PTSD."

~ Saul Bellow on God -- "This month, Vintage Books published “Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion,” by cultural critic Antonio Monda. In it, Monda offers a collection of dialogues between himself and a host of boldface names — including Martin Scorsese, Paul Auster, Jane Fonda, Spike Lee and Elie Wiesel. Our favorite, though, is Monda’s 2002 conversation with Saul Bellow in Brookline, Mass., excerpted, with permission, below."
~ Fascinating insights into a prolific writer -- "As one of America's most prolific writers, whose acclaimed literary contributions include novels, novellas, short stories, essays, reviews, even plays, it's no surprise Joyce Carol Oates also kept journals. It reflects what we know of this remarkable writer as obsessively reflective and creative, so disciplined she confesses a sense of "profound worthlessness" if a day or two passes without writing."
~ The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- "The movie follows the outline of Bauby’s memoir, not only recounting his former, super-glam playboy life, but also reckoning with his current condition, asserting a self without speech or gesture—save for his left eye, whose blinking is his only means of communication."
~ Hunters Help Supply Meat for Food Banks -- "When Frank Moran shot a mule deer during a hunting trip in Montana, there was no question what he would do with the venison...."
~ Poll finds more Americans believe in devil than Darwin -- "More Americans believe in a literal hell and the devil than Darwin's theory of evolution, according to a new Harris poll released on Thursday."
~ Review: Complexity in World Politics (SUNY Series in Global Politics) -- "The book can be roughly divided into three main parts: the first part highlights the differences between the complexity paradigm and status quo positivist frameworks of structuralism and rational choice. The second section utilizes these theoretical concepts and applies them to empirical puzzles regarding ethnic conflict and the origins and evolution of international regimes. Finally, the last third of the volume debates the epistemological foundations of complexity theory and the preferred methodology of agent based models."
~ Novel thoughts -- "Neuroscience is helping us to understand how art works – and it may offer us a way out of narcissism."
~ For Christ's sake, it's Christmas -- "Surely, if anyone should refer to Christmas as "Christmas", we should: atheists, or secular humanists, or rationalists, even if we can't decide what to call ourselves. Because if one thing is essential to rationalism, it's calling things by their proper names." Damn straight.
~ How America Lost the War on Drugs -- "After Thirty-Five Years and $500 Billion, Drugs Are as Cheap and Plentiful as Ever: An Anatomy of a Failure."
~ Evel Knievel Dies at 69 -- "Hard-living motorcycle daredevil whose exploits made him an international icon in the 1970s has died." I grew up watching this guy jump over all kinds of stuff that no one should be jumping over on a motorcycle. Then I went outside and tried to jump over stuff on my bike. Ah, good times, and lots of road burn.

~ Keep the Manatees Safe -- "Just because they've grown in numbers doesn't mean we ought to relax in protecting them."
~ Global Warming Is Reversible -- "Major advances and technological breakthroughs are being made in the United States and throughout the world that are giving us the tools to cut carbon emissions dramatically, break our dependency on fossil fuels and move to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. In fact, the truth rarely uttered in Washington is that with strong governmental leadership the crisis of global warming is not only solvable; it can be done while improving the standard of living of the people of this country and others around the world."
~ Citizens Can Do Something About Climate Change -- " When the world begins a new round of negotiations on climate change next month in Bali, Indonesia, each of us will have a seat at the table. We are all emitters of carbon dioxide — the main cause of man-made climate change — each time we drive or use electricity. But even more importantly, we are all citizens."
~ The Simple Life: How To Bring The Land Back To Us -- " If my grandparents hail from outer space, it is from a planet quite possibly more sustainable than the one I have always called home, and despite having gone about their business not knowing their greenhouse gases from their carbon credits, they might still have a thing or two to teach me about being green."
~ Chemistry Helps Scientists Spot Geothermal Power Sources -- "By detecting helium isotopes, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley find a way to locate geothermal hot spots -- potential clean energy sources -- without drilling."
~ Recipe For A Storm: Ingredients For More Powerful Atlantic Hurricanes -- "As the world warms, the interaction between the Atlantic Ocean and atmosphere may be the recipe for stronger, more frequent hurricanes. Scientists have found that the Atlantic organizes the ingredients for a powerful hurricane season to create a situation where either everything is conducive to hurricane activity or nothing is -- potentially making the Atlantic more vulnerable to climate change than the world's other hurricane hot spots."
~ Cleanup Method Uses Activated Carbons To Anchor Toxins To Bottom Of The Bay -- "Imagine a Brita filter big enough to clean up San Francisco Bay. One researcher has a plan to clean polluted sediment at Hunters Point in San Francisco with activated carbon--the same technology in many water filters. He proposes to sequester dangerous toxins by mixing activated carbon, a type of carbon with a large surface area, into the bay's contaminated sediment."
~ Generating Hydrogen From Biodiesel Waste -- "Researchers have a potential solution to the problem of large quantities of low value by-product generated in the synthesis of biodiesel -- by turning it into high value hydrogen."

~ Ken Wilber Interview on Shadow Work -- "I just found the transcript of this really interesting interview in which Wilber is talking about shadow-work - which as most of you know is one of the three key elements i am trying to highlight in my work - along with critical thinking and inquiry-based practice..."
~ NOTEWORTHY: The Origins of the Integral Perspective -- "Free 20-minute audio!"
~ The Future of the Body (Part 3) -- Deepak Chopra -- "Even as alternative medicine becomes more popular, it faces a huge challenge. Can it reliably replace or enhance conventional medicine? In earlier posts I sketched in the faults of conventional medicine, which are well known, in any case. I don't want to gloss over its triumphs, however."
~ Northrop Frye: Forerunner of AQAL Integral? -- "I find his work more socially aware, communitarian, and realistic than say Bloom’s. Frye was an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. I attend theological school with a number of Canadian United Church students. So that probably explains my simpatico-ness with Frye. Frye was Harold Bloom’s mentor. Bloom then in turn Paglia’s. Fascinating lineage." I've thought this same thing, but it's been years since I've read Frye -- loved Anatomy of Criticism.
~ The Buddha Diaries: Hows, Whats and Whys -- "My friend Mark over at Marko Polo invited me to participate in his survey of Buddhist blogs. As I answered his questions, I realized that he'd given me the opportunity to take a quick snapshot of The Buddha Diaries and what it's all about. Here are Mark's questions, and my answers." I'll be answering this same survey.
~ Adaptation & Bodymind Capacitiy -- "Using neural nets to simulate learning and the genetic algorithm to simulate evolution in a toy world of mushrooms and mushroom foragers, researchers placed two ways of acquiring categories into direct competition with one another: In (1) "sensorimotor toil,” new categories are acquired through real-time, feedback-corrected, trial and error experience in sorting them. In (2) "symbolic theft,” new categories are acquired by hearsay from propositions – boolean combinations of symbols describing them."
~ Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint -- "Can there be such a thing as a Buddhist action movie? Well, one could argue that Buddhism itself, despite the contemplative imagery associated with the least dogmatic of major religions, is always about action. That is, about the congruity between thought and deed. And Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint, for thousands who follow the monastic Tibetan strain, represents the place where that nexus dwells."

Religion in American Politics [UPDATED]

Are Democrats the Party of Disbelief simply because they don't blatantly pander -- as much -- to the religious fundamentalists in this country? Arthur C. Brooks of the National Review thinks so.

It will surprise nobody to learn that the American left is much less religious than the rest of the U.S. population. The General Social Survey tells us that in 2004, liberals were less than half as likely as conservatives to attend a house of worship weekly, and nearly three times as likely as conservatives never to attend. Furthermore, the American left is becoming more secular still: While 27percent of American liberals attended church weekly in 1974, only 16percent did by 2004. In contrast, the percentage of church-attending conservatives rose over the same period from 38percent to 46percent.There are still some religious liberals left in America, but today they are outnumbered by religious conservatives by about four to one.

Secular liberals, and especially those who are explicitly nonbelievers, have become a major force on the political left. Researchers have found, for example, that delegates to the Democratic National Convention — the politically-active folks who nominate the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency — are more than twice as likely to be completely secular as the population-at-large.

Further, secularists are by far the most politically active liberals at the grassroots level. In the 2005, the Maxwell Poll on Civic Engagement and Inequality revealed that those who never attend religious services are just 11 percent of the adult population in America. But they are 21 percent of self-described liberals, 27 percent of liberals who contribute money to political causes, and 33 percent of liberals who attend political rallies and events. The bottom line is that the Democratic party — at least at the national level — depends critically on nonbelievers. They have influence over American liberal politics that extends far beyond their actual numbers in the population.

In some cities in the United States, the secularist community has attained European proportions — and the politics in these places has followed suit. Take San Francisco, which the Bay Area Center for Voting Research ranks as the ninth most liberal city — out of 237 — in America, and where just 12 percent of voters are registered Republicans. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that in 2000, San Franciscans were more than three times as likely as the overall U.S. population to have “no religion.” Or consider Seattle, the sixteenth most liberal city. Seattleites are only about half as likely as the rest of the nation to attend worship services regularly.

The truth is that secularists have nothing to complain about when it comes to political power. Their representation in American liberal political activity is disproportionately high, it is increasing, and it utterly dominates the political scene in many places. What secularists might legitimately complain about is the fact that liberal political leaders rarely acknowledge their contribution. To my knowledge, for example, Senator Clinton has never thanked the atheist community for what will no doubt prove to be energetic support for her presidential candidacy. Why is this? Nonbelievers might justifiably ask Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic leaders for the credit they truly deserve.

Being a secular liberal is not the same as being a non-believer. Atheists account for only about 3% of the US population. I have no stats of this, but I'd guess that atheists are in both parties. Most secular liberals do believe in God, they just aren't fundamentalists or literalists when it comes to reading the Bible. Secularists simply believe in the First Amendment's separation clause. Nothing wrong with that.

Me thinks Brooks and the other conservatives who make this argument are just plain wrong.

UPDATE: This new Harris Poll makes me glad to be a secularist, and mostly an atheist:

The poll of 2,455 U.S. adults from Nov 7 to 13 found that 82 percent of those surveyed believed in God, a figure unchanged since the question was asked in 2005.

It further found that 79 percent believed in miracles, 75 percent in heaven, while 72 percent believed that Jesus is God or the Son of God. Belief in hell and the devil was expressed by 62 percent.

Darwin's theory of evolution met a far more skeptical audience which might surprise some outsiders as the United States is renowned for its excellence in scientific research.

Only 42 percent of those surveyed said they believed in Darwin's theory which largely informs how biology and related sciences are approached. While often referred to as evolution it is in fact the 19th century British intellectual's theory of "natural selection."

There are unsurprising differences among religious groups.

"Born-again Christians are more likely to believe in the traditional elements of Christianity than are Catholics or Protestants. For example, 95 percent believe in miracles, compared to 87 percent and 89 percent among Catholics and Protestants," according to the poll.

"On the other hand only 16 percent of born-again Christians, compared to 43 percent of Catholics and 30 percent of Protestants, believe in Darwin's theory of evolution."

What is perhaps surprising is that substantial minorities in America apparently believe in ghosts, UFOs, witches, astrology and reincarnation.

If being a "believer" means believing in a red guy with horns, ghost, witches (not Wiccans), miracles, and other such nonsense, I'm happy to be a non-believer.

Weird Animation - The Owl

I find these weirdly amusing.

The Owl - Sloth


The Owl - Windy


The Owl - Caterpillar


The Owl - Squirrel


Satire: Underfunded Schools Forced To Cut Past Tense From Language Programs

From The Onion, "education" just got a little easier.

Underfunded Schools Forced To Cut Past Tense From Language Programs

November 30, 2007 | Issue 43•48

WASHINGTON—Faced with ongoing budget crises, underfunded schools nationwide are increasingly left with no option but to cut the past tense—a grammatical construction traditionally used to relate all actions, and states that have transpired at an earlier point in time—from their standard English and language arts programs.

Enlarge Image Underfunded School

A Chicago-area teacher begins the new past tense–free curriculum.

A part of American school curricula for more than 200 years, the past tense was deemed by school administrators to be too expensive to keep in primary and secondary education.

"This was by no means an easy decision, but teaching our students how to conjugate verbs in a way that would allow them to describe events that have already occurred is a luxury that we can no longer afford," Phoenix-area high-school principal Sam Pennock said. "With our current budget, the past tense must unfortunately become a thing of the past."

In the most dramatic display of the new trend yet, the Tennessee Department of Education decided Monday to remove "-ed" endings from all of the state's English classrooms, saving struggling schools an estimated $3 million each year. Officials say they plan to slowly phase out the tense by first eliminating the past perfect; once students have adjusted to the change, the past progressive, the past continuous, the past perfect progressive, and the simple past will be cut. Hundreds of school districts across the country are expected to follow suit.

"This is the end of an era," said Alicia Reynolds, a school district director in Tuscaloosa, AL. "For some of us, reading and writing about things not immediately taking place was almost as much a part of school as history class and social studies."

"That is, until we were forced to drop history class and social studies a couple of months ago," Reynolds added.

Nevertheless, a number of educators are coming out against the cuts, claiming that the embattled verb tense, while outmoded, still plays an important role in the development of today's youth.

"Much like art and music, the past tense provides students with a unique and consistent outlet for self-expression," South Boston English teacher David Floen said. "Without it I fear many of our students will lack a number of important creative skills. Like being able to describe anything that happened earlier in the day."

Despite concerns that cutting the past-tense will prevent graduates from communicating effectively in the workplace, the home, the grocery store, church, and various other public spaces, a number of lawmakers, such as Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, have welcomed the cuts as proof that the American school system is taking a more forward-thinking approach to education and the dimension of time.

"Our tax dollars should be spent preparing our children for the future, not for what has already happened," Hatch said at a recent press conference. "It's about time we stopped wasting everyone's time with who 'did' what or 'went' where. The past tense is, by definition, outdated."

Said Hatch, "I can't even remember the last time I had to use it."

Past-tense instruction is only the latest school program to face the chopping block. School districts in California have been forced to cut addition and subtraction from their math departments, while nearly all high schools have reduced foreign language courses to only the most basic phrases, including "May I please use the bathroom?" and "No, I do not want to go to the beach with Maria and Juan." Some legislators are even calling for an end to teaching grammar itself, saying that in many inner-city school districts, where funding is most lacking, students rarely use grammar at all.

Regardless of the recent upheaval, students throughout the country are learning to accept, and even embrace, the change to their curriculum.

"At first I think the decision to drop the past tense from class is ridiculous, and I feel very upset by it," said David Keller, a seventh-grade student at Hampstead School in Fort Meyers, FL. "But now, it's almost like it never happens."

Radiohead - Talk Show Host (live)

Nice. . . .


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gratitude 11/29/07

Some things I am grateful for today:

1) RAIN! I woke up to a nice cool drizzle and it's been raining on and off all day. It's supposed to rain more -- and harder -- tomorrow. We need the rain to alleviate the drought, and I simply love the rain.

2) After bulking up a bit during August, September, and October, from 185 to about 202 (most of it was muscle and water from eating more carbs), I'm leaning out easily with a modified EDT program and reduced carbs. I'm grareful for good genetics.

3) Pumpkin. My new favorite meal is a 28 ounce can of organic pumpkin, 2 scoops of vanilla protein, 2 teaspoons of pumpkin spice and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, with 3 packets of stevia. Heat the pumpkin in the microwave for 2 or 3 minutes then add the protein and spices and mix. YUM! We're talking more beta-carotene than any person needs in a day, 35 grams of fiber, 50 grams of protein in about 500 total calories -- and it's very filling.

What are you grateful for today?

The Evolution of Sam Harris

I have been hard on Sam Harris and the other New Atheists in this blog. The reasons are many, and a search of this blog will reveal some of those posts.

But among the atheists, only Sam Harris is looking beyond religion and into contemplative practices and making a crucial distinction between religion and meditative practice. I know he looked at this issue a bit at the end of The End of Faith, but few people remember that -- all they remember is the bashing of religion and faith.

What follows is from Harris' speech at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007. [The whole speech is much longer and worth the read.]

The last problem with atheism I’d like to talk about relates to the some of the experiences that lie at the core of many religious traditions, though perhaps not all, and which are testified to, with greater or lesser clarity in the world’s “spiritual” and “mystical” literature.

Those of you who have read The End of Faith, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan, Richard, and Christopher in my treatment of these things. So I think I should take a little time to discuss this. While I always use terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, and take some pains to denude them of metaphysics, the email I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic.

First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to. Here’s what happens, in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult. He observes that even in the best of times—no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so—even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this. We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes. We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance. We become connoisseurs of art and music and film—but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us “So, what are you going to do next? Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?” Steve Jobs releases the IPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “when are you going to make this thing smaller?” Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals. Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”

Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment. If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists. Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains. Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favorite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it—and many of us are living as though the answer is “no.” No, there is nothing more profound than repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; there is nothing more profound than seeking satisfaction, both sensory and intellectual. Many of us seem think that all we can do is just keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road.

But certain people, for whatever reason, are led to suspect that there is more to human experience than this. In fact, many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of people like the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated religious figures. And such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention—often called “meditation” or “contemplation”—as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found.

Such a person might even hole himself up in a cave, or in a monastery, for months or years at a time to facilitate this process. Why would somebody do this? Well, it amounts to a very simple experiment. Here’s the logic of it: if there is a form of psychological well-being that isn’t contingent upon merely repeating one’s pleasures, then this happiness should be available even when all the obvious sources of pleasure and satisfaction have been removed. If it exists at all, this happiness should be available to a person who has renounced all her material possessions, and declined to marry her high school sweetheart, and gone off to a cave or to some other spot that would seem profoundly uncongenial to the satisfaction of ordinary desires and aspirations.

One clue as to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement—which is essentially what we are talking about—is considered a punishment even inside a prison. Even when cooped up with homicidal maniacs and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a box.

And yet, for thousands of years, contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation. It seems to me that, as rational people, whether we call ourselves “atheists” or not, we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise. Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of religious delusion, deliberate fraud, and psychopathology, or people have been having interesting and even normative experiences under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.

Now let me just assert, on the basis of my own study and experience, that there is no question in my mind that people have improved their emotional lives, and their self-understanding, and their ethical intuitions, and have even had important insights about the nature of subjectivity itself through a variety of traditional practices like meditation.

Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.

Of course, I am by no means denying the importance of thinking. There is no question that linguistic thought is indispensable for us. It is, in large part, what makes us human. It is the fabric of almost all culture and every social relationship. Needless to say, it is the basis of all science. And it is surely responsible for much rudimentary cognition—for integrating beliefs, planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other mental capacities. Even talking to oneself out loud may occasionally serve a useful function.

From the point of view of our contemplative traditions, however—to boil them all down to a cartoon version, that ignores the rather esoteric disputes among them—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.

But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.

To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.

One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.

As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness.

So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations—and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.

It's nice to see Harris making important distinctions that the other atheists generally don't or can't make -- mostly because Harris is the only one who has taken up the injunction that meditation can give us better control of our "monkey minds."

I hope that as he continues his practice he might be more open to integral thinking -- to the awareness that not all faith and spirituality is the same, that these things evolve in humans just as does rational thinking, morality, and so many other things documented by the psychologists.