Saturday, March 14, 2009

Henry Markram: Designing the Human Mind

I agree with this completely.
Is it possible to create a complete model of the human brain? Henry Markram is well on his way, but explains that it's going to take a computer 20,000 times more powerful than any that exists today with a memory capacity 500 times the size of the Internet. More on Henry Markram Seed Design Series

West treats East - Joining Western Psychology with Eastern Beliefs for Tibetan Trauma Victims

Where Jami (my girlfriend) works, at an in-patient mental health facility, they like to use mindfulness and meditation practices as part of the treatment program. But they also know that with trauma victims, meditation is not always a good option.

Many victims of abuse and severe trauma have spent their lives repressing the memories and feelings - and far from a being a bad thing, it's a very useful survival mechanism that psyche uses to maintain a semblance of health. Meditation can open the vault, so to speak, where those memories are kept and bring them flooding back into consciousness.

Among many Buddhists, Western psychology is seen as pointless - to them, Buddhism has all the needed tools to deal with any psychological issues. But for some Tibetans who have been tortured by the Chinese, meditation isn't a good option. So they are turning to Western psychology to heal the PTSD from which they suffer. Importantly, however, the psychological treatment is reframed within Eastern beliefs, providing a cross-cultural approach.

The Boston Globe reports:

West treats East

To help traumatized Tibetan monks, doctors in Boston turn to cross-cultural medicine

Dr. Michael Grodin (left) treated Tibetan monk Yeshi Togden for post-traumatic stress from his imprisonment and torture in the late 1980s. Dr. Michael Grodin (left) treated Tibetan monk Yeshi Togden for post-traumatic stress from his imprisonment and torture in the late 1980s. (MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF)
By Carey Goldberg Globe Staff / March 13, 2009

Though recently granted political asylum in America, Yeshi Togden, a Tibetan monk, knew no peace. All his training in meditation could not block the flashbacks from his months as a political prisoner, beaten and wracked by thirst, or stop the obsessive worry about the people he had to leave behind in Tibet.

When he tried to meditate - and Tibetan Buddhist monks are known as meditation superstars, their lives permeated by prayer - his mind "jumped, and could not settle."

The Western diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder. But Dr. Michael Grodin of the Boston University School of Public Health has treated Tibetans for 15 years and knew better than to limit himself to Western concepts. He added a Tibetan diagnosis: "Srog-rlung," an imbalance of the "life-wind," and added Eastern treatments to the Western antidepressants he prescribed.

"Whatever works," Grodin said.

These days, Togden can smile again, even occasionally laugh, and though his heart remains in Tibet with his people's struggle for greater freedom from China, he said the treatment has helped him to feel and meditate better.

In a paper published today in the journal Mental Health, Religion, and Culture, Grodin and his colleagues at Boston Medical Center's refugee health center describe the East-West treatment he tailored for Togden and seven other Tibetan monks in Boston. It included Taoist breathing, musical bowl-playing, and Eastern movement practices such as Tai Chi and Qigong, along with Western-style talking therapy and medications.

Today's study is the first published paper to describe attempts to integrate Western and Tibetan medicine to help traumatized monks, said Grodin, also a professor of human rights, psychiatry, and community medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Grodin's efforts fit into a growing field called cross-cultural psychiatry, which aims to offer more culturally sensitive mental health care to immigrant groups. It entails efforts to understand and work with foreign medical interpretations, such as the Tibetan belief that many ills can stem from problems with the "life-sustaining wind" that controls the body's health and harmony.

His mixed treatment is also an example of "integrative medicine," combining mainstream healthcare with alternative or complementary therapies such as traditional herbs, meditation, or yoga. Integrative medicine is increasingly being tried for post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Robert Saper, director of integrative medicine at Boston Medical Center, and is "beginning to show tremendous promise."

This week, Tibetans outside China marked the 50th anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule that failed, forcing the Dalai Lama, Tibetans' spiritual leader, into exile. The Chinese government accuses the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatism; he maintains that he is only seeking greater autonomy and more religious freedom to help preserve Tibet's culture.

Togden, a prominent figure in the political resistance to the Chinese presence in Tibet, said he was repeatedly imprisoned for months at a time in the late 1980s for participating in peaceful protests, and he fled Tibet in 1990, going first to India and then the United States.

His prison memories include thirst so extreme that he could not produce enough urine to drink and help slake it and waiting in dread with other prisoners to see who would be beaten next.

His and the other monks' cases presented some particular treatment challenges. Normally, Tibetan monks can seek healing through the enlightenment they gain from meditating. But the monks Grodin treated tended to find that the process of meditating only seemed to worsen their mental health.

Togden said through an interpreter that as he meditated, "a lot of other things would come up - I should have done this, and I should have done that," what in psychiatric terminology would be called "ruminating." Sometimes images of beatings would arise, sometimes feelings of sadness over Tibet's plight.

It seems, Grodin said, that meditation may reduce the brain's ability to inhibit unpleasant thoughts and memories and instead unleashes them. He has seen a similar process in aging Holocaust survivors, he said: As they begin to suffer from dementia, their brains become less able to inhibit bad memories, and they sometimes believe they are back in concentration camps.

So the very process that would normally help the monks instead made them worse. Grodin sought to steer them toward other relaxation techniques, such as breathing and Tibetan "singing bowls," which vibrate melodically when rubbed by a mallet, while working to heal their psychic wounds by talking and other methods.

Another challenge: The political situation that led to the monks' imprisonment and exile continues. While therapy for a traumatized war veteran might consist in part of convincing him that the war is over and that he is now safe, the monks worry that their loved ones in Tibet are not, in fact, safe. They suffer from homesickness and from guilt that they are not there, particularly when China clamped down on pro-Tibet protesters during the Olympics last summer.

"I couldn't stop listening to the news, and it brought back everything all over again," Togden said.

Grodin said that all the Tibetan monks he treats got psychologically worse during the Olympics. The United States has granted political asylum to many Tibetan monks, he said, because they so clearly face persecution at home. Once asylum is granted, an immigrant can feel safe from deportation; a green card, and later citizenship, can follow.

During an interview yesterday in Grodin's office, a cozy room bedecked with statues and photos from Tibet, Togden said that he was deeply grateful for the help he has received and that what helped him most of all was the cathartic feeling that he could tell Grodin anything.

"He knows about this kind of situation, so it was easy to open my heart to him," said Togden, who was wearing traditional, deep crimson robes.

"You are a very, very courageous man," Grodin told him, looking into his dark, shining eyes. "What happened to you should never happen to anyone. You're a very brave man and a very compassionate one, and it's been my honor to treat you and know you."

Ultimately, though,Togden said, his mind cannot be at ease until his country is free. "Until the situation in Tibet is resolved, my mental problem will not be," he said.

Carey Goldberg can be reached at

B. Alan Wallace - Mind in the Balance

In this cool video, B. Alan Wallace talks about his new book, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Robert Wright - One World, Under God

This is a very interesting article from Washington Post reporter Robert Wright, here penning an article called "One World, Under God" for The Atlantic. Wright has a new book coming out soon, The Evolution of God, from which this article has been adapted.

It's a pretty good overview of early Christianity, though I'd have to cross-check it against Karen Armstrong and Elaine Pagels to be sure it's factually accurate.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God’s will?

by Robert Wright

One World, Under God

Image credit: Holly Lindem

For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a new kind of God, a God of universal love. The Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent (espousing the slaughter of infidels), unabashedly nationalist (pro-Israel, you might say), and often harsh toward even his most favored nation. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone. As depicted in the Gospels, Jesus exhorted followers to extend charity across ethnic bounds, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, and even to love their enemies. He told them to turn the other cheek, said the meek would inherit the Earth, and warned against self-righteousness (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). Even while on the cross, he found compassion for his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But there’s a funny thing about these admirable utterances: none of them appears in the book of Mark, which was written before the other Gospels and which most New Testament scholars now consider the most reliable (or, as some would put it, the least unreliable) Gospel guide to Jesus’ life. The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

The more familiar Jesus, the one who stresses tolerance and interethnic charity, shows up in the books of Matthew and Luke, which seem to have been written a decade or two after Mark—about half a century after the Crucifixion. This late arrival of the “good” Jesus is enough to make you wonder whether the real Jesus, the “historical Jesus,” was really so good. And in fact some scholars have wondered that. But they’ve been overshadowed by scholars who bring a message less threatening to modern Christians—that the historical Jesus indeed preached boundless love and that, if anything, it is the less liberal teachings that were put into his mouth post-mortem. This is the drift of the much-publicized Jesus Seminar, through which scores of scholars have voted on the various sayings of Jesus to yield a collective estimation of their authenticity.

Why would some scholars downplay the earliest description of Jesus in favor of accounts compiled after there had been more time for myth to accumulate? In part, maybe, because some of them are Christians, or at least lapsed Christians who still resonate to their native faith. But in part, also, because it’s not obvious why a whole mythology about a “good” Jesus would have taken shape decades after the Crucifixion. What, after all, would have inspired early followers of Jesus to invent the idea of a brotherhood that knows no ethnic or national bounds?

Clues have been emerging in recent years, but not clues of the usual kind—not long-lost scrolls or other ancient artifacts. The clues come from the modern world, and they’re all around us. It’s increasingly apparent how analogous a globalizing world is to the environment in which Christianity took shape after Jesus’ death. And in this light, it makes sense that early devotees of the crucified Jesus would develop the now-familiar Christian message, which could later be attributed to Jesus himself.

The chief author of this message seems to have been Paul, whose epistles—letters to congregations of Jesus followers—are the oldest writings in the New Testament. If you view Paul not just as a preacher but as an entrepreneur, as someone who is trying to build a religious organization that spans the Roman Empire, then his writings assume a new cast. For Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.

To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, as if to rub salt in the wound: those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces.

There’s no denying that this view threatens the claim that Christians, in worshipping Jesus, recognize God’s one physical appearance on Earth and thus have special insight into divine purpose. Still, as debunkings of scripture go, this one is fairly congenial to religious belief, for it does leave open the prospect of divine purpose generically. In fact, it underscores that prospect. The story of early Christianity highlights a kind of moral direction in human history, a current that, however fitfully, has repeatedly expanded the circle of tolerance, even amity. And if history naturally produces moral insight—however mundane the machinery that mediates its articulation—then maybe some overarching purpose is built into the human endeavor after all.

In any event, whether or not history has a purpose, its moral direction is hard to deny. Since the Stone Age, the scope of social organization has expanded, from hunter-gatherer society through city-state through empire and beyond. And often this expansion has entailed the extension of mutual understanding across bounds of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Indeed, it turns out that formative periods in both Islam and Judaism evince the same dynamic as early Christianity: an imperial, multiethnic milieu winds up fostering a tolerance of other ethnicities and faiths.

Now, as we approach the global level of social organization—and see the social order threatened by strife among these Abrahamic religions—another burst of moral progress is needed. Success is hardly guaranteed, but at least the early history of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic faiths gives cause for hope. However bleak a globalizing world may look at times, the story could still have a happy ending, an ending that brings out the best in religion as religion brings out the best in people.

The “Apostle Paul” wasn’t one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Quite the opposite: after the Crucifixion he seems to have persecuted followers of Jesus. According to the book of Acts, he was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” But then, while on his way to treat Syrian followers of Jesus in this fashion, he underwent his “road to Damascus” conversion. He was blinded by the light and heard the voice of Jesus. This changed his perspective. He eventually decided that Jesus was the path to salvation. Paul devoted the rest of his life to spreading this message, and he was very good at it.

Paul, a well-educated Jew from the city of Tarsus, has long been recognized as a figure whose influence on Christianity rivals that of Jesus himself. And it’s long been clear—and hardly surprising—that he is a big champion of themes Christianity is famous for, such as love and brotherhood. The 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians includes an ode to love so powerful that it is a staple at modern weddings. (“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful…”) And it is Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, who gives us the New Testament’s familiar extension of brotherhood across bounds of ethnicity, class, even (notwithstanding the term brotherhood) gender: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.

But one problem with this scenario has always been the difficulty of pinpointing the origin of Paul’s emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds, for this emphasis doesn’t really follow from his core message. That message can be broken into four parts: Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ; the Messiah died as a kind of payment for the sins of humanity; humans who believed this—who acknowledged the redemption that Christ had realized on their behalf—could have eternal life; but they’d better evince this faith quickly, for Judgment Day was coming. This message may suggest a loving God, but it says nothing directly about the importance of people’s loving one another, much less about the importance of extending that love globally.

So why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no bounds of race or geography? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be “accursed”—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering. The scholar John Gager, in his book Reinventing Paul, described Paul as a “feisty preacher-organizer, bitterly attacked and hated by other apostles within the Jesus movement.”

No, the origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindness, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.

In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin. The situation was somewhat like that at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, when industrialization drew Americans into turbulent cities, away from their extended families. Back then, as the social scientist Robert Putnam has observed, rootless urbanites found grounding in up-and-coming social organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and the Rotary Club. You might expect comparable conditions in the early Roman Empire to spawn comparable organizations. Indeed, Roman cities saw a growth in voluntary associations. Some were vocational guilds, some more like clubs, and some were religious cults (cults in the ancient sense of “groups devoted to the worship of one or more gods,” not in the modern sense of “wacky fringe groups”). But whatever their form, they often amounted to what one scholar has called “fictive families” for people whose real families were off in some distant village or town.

The familial services offered by these groups ranged from the material, like burying the dead, to the psychological, like giving people a sense that other people cared about them. On both counts, early Christian churches met the needs of the day. As for the material, the church, wrote the classicist E.R. Dodds, provided “the essentials of social security: it cared for widows and orphans, the old, the unemployed, and the disabled; it provided a burial fund for the poor and a nursing service in time of plague.” As for the psychological, in Paul’s writing, brothers is a synonym for followers of Jesus. A church was one big family.

To some extent, then, what Paul called “brotherly love” was just a product of his times. The Christian church was offering the spirit of kinship that people needed, the spirit of kinship that other organizations offered. A term commonly applied to such an organization was thiasos, or “confraternity”; the language of brotherhood wasn’t, by itself, an innovation.

Still, early Christian writings use “kinship vocabulary to a degree wholly unparalleled among contemporary social organizations,” Joseph Hellerman wrote in his book The Ancient Church as Family. In that letter to the Corinthians that is excerpted at so many weddings, Paul uses the appellation brothers more than 20 times.


Why all the kin talk? Because Paul wasn’t satisfied to just have a congregation in Corinth; he wanted to set up franchises—congregations of Jesus followers—in cities across the Roman Empire. These imperial aspirations, it turns out, infused Paul’s preaching with an emphasis on brotherly love that it might never have acquired had Paul been content to run a single mom-and-pop store.

Anyone who wanted to set up a far-flung organization in the ancient world faced two big challenges: transportation technology and information technology. In those days information couldn’t travel faster than the person carrying it, who in turn couldn’t travel faster than the animal carrying the person. Once Paul had founded a congregation and departed to found another one in a distant city, he was in another world; he couldn’t return often to check on the operation, and he couldn’t fire off e-mails to keep church leaders in line.

Faced with what strike us today as such glaring technological deficiencies, Paul made the most of what information technology there was: epistles. He sent letters to distant congregations in an attempt to keep them consonant with his overall mission. The results are with us today in the form of the New Testament’s Pauline epistles (or at least the seven, out of 13, that most scholars consider authentic), mainly written two to three decades after the Crucifixion. These letters aren’t just inspiring spiritual reflections, but tools for solving administrative problems.

Consider that famous ode to love in 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this letter in response to a crisis. Since his departure from Corinth, the church had been split by factionalism, and he faced rivals for authority. Early in the letter, he laments the fact that some congregants say “I belong to Paul,” whereas others say “I belong to Cephas.” (Cephas is another name for Peter.)

There was another obstacle. Many in the church—“enthusiasts,” some scholars call them—believed themselves to have direct access to divine knowledge and to be near spiritual perfection. Some thought they needn’t accept the church’s guidance in moral matters. Some showed off their spiritual gifts by spontaneously speaking in tongues during worship services—something that might annoy the humbler worshippers and that, in large enough doses, could derail a service. As the German scholar Günther Bornkamm put it, “The mark of the ‘enthusiasts’ was that they disavowed responsible obligation toward the rest.”

In other words: they lacked brotherly love. Hence Paul’s harping on that theme in 1 Corinthians, and especially in chapter 13. It is in reference to members’ disrupting worship by speaking in tongues that Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And when he says, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant,” he is chastising Corinthians who deploy their spiritual gifts—whether speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or even being generous—in a competitive, showy way.

The beauty of “brotherly love” wasn’t just that it produced cohesion in Christian congregations. Invoking familial feelings also allowed Paul to assert his authority at the expense of rivals. After all, wasn’t it he, not they, who had founded the family of Corinthian Christians? He tells the Corinthians that he is writing “to admonish you as my beloved children… Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.”

Had Paul stayed among the Corinthians, he might have kept the congregation united by the mere force of his presence, with less preaching about the need for unity—the need for all brothers to be one in “the body of Christ.” But because he felt compelled to move on, and to cultivate churches across the empire, he had to implant brotherly love as a governing value and nurture it assiduously. In the case of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the result was some of Western civilization’s most beautiful literature—if, perhaps, more beautiful out of context than in.

Thus, for the ambitious preacher of early Christianity, the doctrine of brotherly love had at least two virtues. First, fraternal bonding made churches attractive places to be, providing a familial warmth that was otherwise lacking, for many people, in a time of urbanization and flux. As Elaine Pagels wrote in Beyond Belief, “From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians … was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.” (And there is no doubt that Paul wanted his churches to project an appealing image. In 1 Corinthians he asks: If “the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”) Second, the doctrine of brotherly love became a form of remote control, a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion.

By itself, this emphasis on brotherhood might not have called for doctrinal innovation. Long before Paul’s time, the Hebrew Bible had told people, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—an injunction, scholars now agree, meaning that you should love fellow Israelites (and an injunction Jesus quotes in the book of Mark). And for all we know, some of Paul’s congregations weren’t ethnically diverse—in which case cohesion within them called for nothing more than this sort of intra-ethnic bonding. So what exactly in Paul’s experience fostered the distinctive connotation of Christian brotherly love—the “universal” part, the part that crosses ethnic and national boundaries?

Part of the answer is that transcending ethnicity was built into Paul’s conception of his divinely imparted mission. He was to be the apostle to the Gentiles; as a Jew, he was to carry the saving grace of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus Christ—beyond the Jewish world, to many nations. (And he probably didn’t get this idea from Jesus, whose encouragement of international proselytizing at the very end of Mark seems to have been added to the book well after its creation.) Here, at the origin of his aspirations, Paul is crossing the bridge he famously crossed in saying there is no longer “Jew or Greek,” for all are now eligible for God’s salvation.

In putting Jew and Greek on an equal basis, Paul was, in a sense, giving pragmatism priority over scriptural principle. By Paul’s own account, the scriptural basis for his mission to the Gentiles lay in prophetic texts—notably, apocalyptic writings in the book of Isaiah, which half a millennium earlier had envisioned a coming Messiah and a long-overdue burst of worldwide reverence for Yahweh. And this part of Isaiah isn’t exactly an ode to ethnic egalitarianism. The basic idea is that Gentile nations will abjectly submit to the rule of Israel’s God and hence to Israel. God promises the Israelites that after salvation arrives, Egyptians and Ethiopians alike “shall come over to you and be yours, they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you.” Indeed, “every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Thus, “in the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.”

Christians like to look back and see Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed in the less nationalistic passages of Isaiah—such as Yahweh’s promise to bring salvation “to the end of the earth,” with Israel ultimately serving a selfless role of illumination, as a “light unto the nations.” But this passage is ambiguous in context and, anyway, isn’t the passage Paul himself emphasized. In explaining his mission to the Gentiles in a letter to the Romans, he quotes the verse about every knee bowing and every tongue swearing, without mentioning anything about a light unto the nations. He declares that his job is to help “win obedience from the Gentiles.” In line with past apocalyptic prophets, he seems to think that the point of the exercise is for the world to submit to Israel’s Messiah; Jesus, Paul says in quoting 1 Isaiah, is “the one who rises to rule the Gentiles.”

But ultimately this Judeo-centric disposition mattered little compared with the facts on the ground. Any residual scriptural overtones of Jewish superiority to Gentiles that Paul may have carried into his work were diluted by a key strategic decision he made early on.

Read the rest of the article.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ayn Rand Followers Blame Altruism for Economic Collapse

I risk some seriously angry comments for attacking Ayn Rand - her followers tend to demonstrate the myopic worldview in their defense of their idol that I often criticize - and they rise quickly and vehemently to her defense. Be that as it may, I want to point out an article in The Objective Standard that blames altruism for all that ails our nation these days (Altruism: The Moral Root of the Financial Crisis by Richard M. Salsman).

First, let's look at the definition of altruism:
Main Entry:al·tru·ism           Listen to the pronunciation of altruism

Etymology:French altruisme, from autrui other people, from Old French, oblique case form of autre other, from Latin alter
Date: 1853
1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species
Apparently, caring about our fellow citizens - maybe even above our own self-interest - is just morally wrong in the Objectivist worldview. This is exactly why I dissed them in a recent post. But to be fair, this article isn't really talking about altruism, it's just a convenient straw man to be knocked down while ignoring greed and idiot compassion as the real issue.

Here is a quote:

By surveying the government interventions that caused the latest turmoil and wealth destruction in housing and banking, this article will demonstrate that the current financial crisis was caused not by a return to free markets or pro-capitalist policies in the past decade, but by a tragic progression toward socialism. More importantly, it will demonstrate that altruism—the notion that being moral consists in sacrificing oneself for the needs of others—is the basis for this government intervention, and thus the root cause of the crisis.

Of course, in order to recognize that capitalism is innocent of the latest charges against it, we must bear in mind what capitalism is. Capitalism is the social system of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.11 Capitalism upholds the rule of law and equality before the law, forbids government favors to any person or group (including businesses), entails the complete separation of state and economics, and thus leaves each individual free to act on his own judgment for his own sake.
And this works, in theory, because human beings are NEVER greedy and insensitive to the harm they may do to others in the pursuit of their own self-interest?

What a load of shit. Capitalism is soulless.

Without some form of regulation, those with power and wealth will continually take advantage of those lacking these things. If we remove ALL regulation, it's survival of the fittest, and in our culture there isn't a level playing field, so some people are born into a position of power, while others are born into a position of weakness.

The best solution would be that all people act with compassion, thereby leveling the playing field - but that clearly isn't going to happen. It's not that human beings are incapable of doing this, but Capitalism encourages them not to do so.

Here's another quote:

It should surprise no one that the altruism-infested “credit market” has been impractical—and impractical even as regards the altruistic goal of helping the needy to own homes. Washington pushed to raise the national home ownership rate from 65 percent to 70 percent and to narrow the “gap” in ownership rates between white and nonwhite households, but in the wake of that push—as mortgage defaults and home foreclosures skyrocketed—the home ownership rate, after rising a bit, is now slipping below 65 percent, while the “gap,” having narrowed in years before 2002, has been widening since 2007. Home ownership rates among blacks and Hispanics, those who were targeted by the Bush administration, have dropped precipitously, in many cases to below the prior peaks that were deemed unsatisfactory by the social planners.

Who is to foot the gargantuan bill for this altruism-induced mess? Just as altruism would have it: the innocent—the innocent taxpayers and the 93 percent of all American home owners who pay their mortgages on time but now will be forced to pay other people’s mortgages and to bail out businesses they did not botch and do not own.

In all fairness, I agree in part with their critique, but not with their stance on altruism (which is a word used loosely and wrongly in this article). Banks (as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) made bad loans to get people into homes, but that had nothing to do with altruism, it had solely to do with greed. ALL they wanted to do was make money. So they took risks that were unethical and possibly illegal.

This isn't altruism - to blame altruism for the crisis might make sense in Rand's philosophy, but it's simply wrong.

One more quote:

From a state monopoly on money, to state guarantees of bank liabilities, to state sponsorship of mortgages, to state ownership of banks—the progression in the past century has been to move away from free markets toward socialist banking. Why? The fundamental answer is: altruism. The fitful, halting lurches toward ever greater government intervention in American finance follow logically from the altruistic premise that permeates our culture and resounds throughout the halls of power—the premise that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving those in need. The welfare state and its main financier, the Federal Reserve, are ultimately “justified” on the grounds that the government has a moral duty to provide the needy with goods and services—from education to health insurance to mortgages.

So we should never take care of the weak and needy? In the real world, the measure of a nation's soul is not how it protects the strong, but in how it takes care of the weak. But in Rand's world, soul is a dirty word - she hated religion as much as she hated communism. But the notion of a soul is not confined to religion - perhaps compassion is a better word.

In the end, what the Objectivist's are railing against is idiot compassion, not altruism or true compassion. Here is a brief definition of idiot compassion, so you know what I am talking about:

Pema Chodron: Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.
What the Bush administration did with trying to get people who could not afford mortgage payments to be approved for mortgages anyway (by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) was idiot compassion, not altruism. For the Rand people to call it altruism is only to confuse the issue in an attempt to further their own agenda, which is completely unregulated markets.

Rather than face the prerational greed that lies at the heart of their own worldview, they dress it up as altruism to mislead people into thinking that a deregulated market is a good thing. What they are really talking about is idiot compassion fused with greed - not altruism.

Katherine Turner - Integral Shamanics

Integral blogger and overall cool person Katherine Turner was profiled for her work as an Integral Shaman in a local paper in Wilmington, NC - Wilma Magazine. Very cool to see her get the attention she deserves!

You can read the whole article here. Here's a taste.
In the field of psychology, Soul Retrieval is known as “disassociation,” and shamans refer to it as “Soul Loss.”Missing or lost pieces of the soul are reintegrated, providing the client wholeness and renewed energy. Shamanic Healing tries to restore balance not just in the mind-body-spirit connection, but in the everyday world, too. “We have pharmaceuticals in our water, refined carbs overwhelming our bodies, and pesticides and toxins around us every day.” Turner recommends we address our outside ills as well as inner ills.

The second tool is Psychic and Medical Intuitive sessions. These clarity readings provide the client with answers to specific areas of confusion, or medical blocks and “dis-ease” in their lives. “Ten percent of the session is me reading the client energetically; the other 90 percent is me helping them find a map to balance and find wholeness in their lives,” she says. “Magical, emotional, and spiritual energy have a profound effect on our health.”

Integral Shamanics also offers experiential lectures, workshops, and classes, such as Shamanic Journeying, Psychic Skills and Techniques, and Spiritual Card Reading.
Read the whole article.

Jon Stewart vs Jim Carmer, Mano y Mano

WOW - Stewart nails it - we (the long term investors) are financing the adventures of venture capitalists with our hard earned money, and they (Wall Street brokers) are gambling with our money (401k or Mutual Fund investments). Stewart displays some "common man" leadership and nails Cramer on his complicity in the false images and lies perpetuated by the market leaders. He calls on Cramer to give up the shtick on his shows and be more responsible, to which Cramer surprisingly agrees (but will he do it?).

You'll have to watch it here - they are not allowing embedding of the whole epsiode, and are in fact SELLING the episode at iTunes.

But you can watch it in parts.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929–1940

At long last, Beckett's letters are being published - or at least those that bear on his work, as he requested before he died. The Times Online reviews the book.

Beckett is one of my favorite playwrights and novelists, so I am looking forward to seeing this book.

Letters from Beckett

Great as a playwright, novelist and poet, Samuel Beckett also wrote letters of enduring worth

The letters of some of the greatest artists of their day, of Wordsworth and Cézanne, Proust and Eliot, for example, though occasionally moving and of interest because of who they were, would never figure in anyone’s list of the ten or twenty greatest books of their time. The letters of Keats and van Gogh, Kafka and Wallace Stevens certainly would. And so, on the evidence of this volume, would those of Samuel Beckett.

Beckett was a prolific letter-writer. The editors have transcribed more than 15,000 letters, written in the course of sixty years from 1929, when Beckett was twenty-three, until his death in 1989. Of these they plan to give us some 2,500 complete and to quote in the notes from a further 5,000. Some we might have found significant or moving we shall probably never see, for when Beckett gave his blessing in principle to the idea of publishing his letters he specified that he only wished to have published those which would “have a bearing on [his] work”. One can surmise from their introduction that the editors have had to fight long and hard with Beckett’s executors to make their sense of what has a bearing on the work prevail. This suggests that we will never read, even if they exist, the equivalent of Kafka’s Letters to Milena and Letters to Felice.

But we still have plenty to be getting on with. And though many of these letters have been in the public domain for years (some of the letters to Tom McGreevy, for example, already quoted by Deirdre Bair in her Samuel Beckett of 1978), the effect of reading them all together is completely different from reading extracts embedded in a biography. For biography, no matter how tactfully it is written, has the effect Sartre described years ago, of imposing a false teleology on its subject, of giving a shape and meaning to the life which it did not have for the one who was living it. Letters, on the other hand, are so moving because we live each moment with their author and time takes on the dimension it has in our own lives: of being more like a well into which we are perpetually falling at a deceptively slow pace than like a well-lit road along which we travel, our destination clearly visible ahead.

In 1929 Beckett had already spent some time in Italy and in Germany, where he had relatives, and, after a dazzling career as a student of French and Italian at Trinity College Dublin, had just settled into a two-year post as exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure where McGreevy, a much older Irishman, had been his predecessor. McGreevy, still living in Paris, had introduced Beckett to many of his friends, including James Joyce and Richard Aldington. The decade that followed was, for Beckett, restless in the extreme. He returned to Dublin, took up and then renounced an academic job at Trinity; wrote a little book on Proust, a great many poems, some of which were published, some stories, including the masterpiece “Dante and the Lobster”, which appeared under the title More Pricks than Kicks, and two novels, the first of which, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, failed to find a publisher, and the second, Murphy, was published as the decade came to an end; tried to settle in London and underwent pyschoanalysis with Wilfred Bion; experienced the death of his beloved father and of a favourite dog; tried again to settle in Dublin; undertook a six-month trip to Germany to study the art in its great museums; and finally settled in Paris, where he met and started living with Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil. Almost at once, war broke out, and in June 1940, along with a large part of the population of Paris, the pair headed south in the face of the oncoming German army. If, at the start of the decade, Beckett was known in Dublin circles as a highly promising academic with an illustrious career ahead of him, by the end of it he was known to a small coterie of Irish and French intellectuals as a bohemian writer of obscure verse and almost equally obscure fiction, a shy, hard-drinking man of remarkable learning and a savage and witty turn of phrase. Had the war engulfed him as it engulfed so many of his contemporaries it is doubtful if we would now be reading his collected letters.

But that makes the letters of these years all the more precious. Beckett, by all accounts, was the most courteous of men, and it seems that even at the height of his fame he still tried to answer as courteously as he could the hundreds of letters he received. But the sixty-year-old smiling (or, more often, in the photos we have of him, scowling) public man now knew exactly where his priorities lay: after spending the mornings on his correspondence he would devote the afternoons to his own writing. In the 1930s, however, there was no public man, and we have to see the letters as merely one of many ways in which an ambitious, confused and tormented young writer attempted to discover who he was and what it was he wanted out of life and art. These early letters, in other words, are, like the early poems and stories, in the strict sense essais, the trying out of a voice, a tone, even, at times, another language.

There are, of course, quite a few letters to publishers and agents, but even these are hardly run-of-the-mill. Having been informed that an American publisher had shown interest in Murphy but wanted him to cut it, he first of all responded as authors always do, by saying that he had already cut it to the bone and that nothing further could be done. Some months later, though, he writes to his agent: “Is there no further news about Quigley, I mean Murphy? . . . The last I remember is my readiness to cut down the work to its title. I am now prepared to go further, and change the title, if it gives offence, to Quigley, Trompetenschleim, Eliot, or any other name that the publishers fancy”. In the first letter to McGreevy, in the summer of 1929, from Kassel, where Beckett was staying with his father’s sister Frances (Cissie), her Jewish husband Abraham Sinclair and their children Peggy and Morris, we catch the authentic Beckettian tone and sense that we are going to enjoy ourselves. The subject, as will so often be the case in the years to come, is the placing of a piece of writing:

My dear McGreevy, The abominable old bap Russell duly returned my MSS with an economic note in the 3rd person, the whole in a considerably understamped envelope. I feel slightly paralysed by the courtesy of this gesture. I would like to get rid of the damn thing anyhow, anywhere (with the notable exception of “transition”), but I have no acquaintance with the less squeamish literary garbage buckets. I can’t imagine Eliot touching it – certainly not the verse. Perhaps Seumas O’Sullivan’s rag would take it? If you think of an address I would be grateful to know it.

This might remind readers of two other ambitious and irreverent young men writing to each other for support and to try out their literary skills: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But what follows certainly will not. After quoting two lines of Dante in Italian to make the point that his sunburn makes sleep impossible, Beckett goes on to comment on Proust, whom he was reading with a view to fulfilling a commission to write a short book on him:

I have read the first volume of “Du Côté de chez Swann”, and find it strangely uneven. There are incomparable things – Bloch, Françoise, Tante Léonie, Legrandin, and then passages that are offensively fastidious, artificial and almost dishonest . . . . His loquacity is certainly more interesting and cleverly done than Moore’s, but no less profuse, a maudlin false-teeth gobble-gobble discharge from a colic-afflicted belly. He drank too much tilleul. And to think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!

This ability to tear into what he dislikes but not let it blind him to what is admirable in a work or artist would remain typical of Beckett. In a letter to Morris Sinclair in which he is trying out his French, he writes: “Je n’ai jamais pu me réconcilier avec la Symphonie Pastorale où j’ai l’impression que Beethoven a versé tout ce qu’il y avait de vulgaire, de facile et d’enfantin (et c'était beaucoup), pour en finir avec une fois pour toutes”. Yet immediately afterwards he is pressing his cousin to listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 130, especially to the Cavatina, and in the great letter he wrote to Axel Kaun, a friend he had made on his German trip in 1936–7, he talked with passion about the Seventh Symphony, about how its “sound surface . . . is devoured by huge black pauses” – a response to the work that he clearly felt touched on something vital, for it reappears, in almost identical form, in Dream of Fair to Middling Women.

Read the rest of the review.

The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences

A very interesting and geeky look at the neuroscience of "paranormal experience" from The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

Interestingly, at least to me, the very first sentence of the paper acknowledges its flatland view of human consciousness - it's all brain chemistry and electrical impulses. There can't possibly be anything more.

To me this is a sadly unimaginative perspective to hold. I don't know that there is anything called God or not (at least nothing the human mind can truly comprehend), but I have a strong suspicion that there is more to consciousness than electricity and chemicals.

Be that as it may, this is an interesting article.

The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences

Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Address correspondence to Dr. Persinger, Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada P3E 2C6. E-mail:

Key Words: Paranormal Experiences


From the perspective of modern neuroscience all behaviors and all experiences are created by the dynamic matrix of chemical and electromagnetic events within the human brain. Paranormal experiences might be considered a subset of these neurogenic processes. Experiences that are labeled as or attributed to paranormal phenomena 1) are frequently dominated by a sensed presence, 2) appear to involve the acquisition of information from distances beyond those normally obtained by the classical senses, and 3) imply distortions in physical time.1

Most paranormal experiences have negative affective themes with emphasis on some aspect of death to others or dissolution of the self. Experiences concerning death or crisis to others are reported to occur predominantly at night, particularly between 2:00 and 4:00 A.M. The sensed presence is also more common during this nocturnal period. We2 have suggested that the hourly incidence of temporal lobe seizures (data collected in the late nineteenth century by W. P. Spratling before medication was available) and the circadian distribution of sensed presences attributed to paranormal sources reflect a shared source of variance within the human brain.

If structure dictates function and microstructure within the brain determines or directs microfunction, then one would expect classes of experiences to be associated with specific regions of the brain or the patterns of activity generated within these areas. Both the occurrence of paranormal experiences and their rates of incidence are associated with specific types of neuronal activity within the temporal lobes. This linkage does not verify the validity of the content of the experiences but simply indicates that specific patterns of activity within the temporal lobes and related structures are associated with the experiences. The sources of the stimuli that evoke the neuroelectrical changes may range from properties intrinsic to chaotic activity, with minimal veridicality, to external information that is processed by mechanisms not known to date.

That patients who display complex partial seizures with foci within the temporal lobes, particularly the amygdala and hippocampus, report more frequent paranormal-like experiences has been known for decades. Distortions in subjective time, the sensed presence of another sentient being, out-of-body experiences, and even religious reveries have occurred during spontaneous seizures.3 Direct surgical stimulation of mesiobasal structures within the temporal lobes, particularly the right hemisphere, has been shown to evoke comparable experiences. As emphasized by Horowitz and Adams,4 the experiences during stimulation are not just memories, but enhancements or vivifications of the class of ongoing experiences (perceptions, thoughts, or memories) at the time of the stimulation.

There appears to be a continuum of temporal lobe sensitivity along which all human beings are distributed. Normal individuals who are highly sensitive, as defined by above-average numbers of responses to Persinger and Makarec's Personal Philosophy Inventory5 or above-normal scores on Roberts'6 inventory for Epileptic Spectrum Disorder, report more types of paranormal experiences as well as more frequent paranormal experiences. The correlation coefficients between the numbers of different paranormal experiences and scores for temporal lobe sensitivity, as inferred from responses to clusters of items from these inventories, range between 0.5 and 0.9. Individuals who have elevated scores for these inventories also show more prominent alpha rhythms over the temporal lobes7 and display elevated but not necessarily abnormal scores for the eccentric thinking and hypomania scales of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.8

Like patients who display complex partial seizures and limbic epilepsy, normal people with elevated numbers of temporal lobe experiences show variants of interictal behavioral patterns. The propensity to infuse sensory experience with enhanced meaning, presumably associated with more electrically labile amygdaloid functions, results in more frequent experiences of deep and even cosmic personal significance in response to infrequent or odd events.9 The convictions that the experient has been selected by some universal force, has a particular purpose in life, and must spread the message (often with unstoppable viscosity) are remarkably common themes. From this perspective the deep personal or emotional significance of a paranormal experience is a predictable property of a labile amygdala processing unusual perceptual events.

Paranormal beliefs and paranormal experiences are related. There is a moderate to strong positive correlation between the proportions of paranormal experiences that people report and their beliefs in the paranormal phenomena.10 Interestingly, paranormal beliefs appear to be substitutes for traditional religious beliefs. People who endorse the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence as the source for UFOs and the reality of reincarnation are less likely to accept traditional beliefs in the second coming of Christ or to agree to kill in God's name.
Read the whole paper.

Christine Skarda on Suffering

This talk by Christine Skarda was given at the Religion and Cognitive Science: From Conflict to Connection, GTU/UCB Conference, Berkeley, CA, January 16-18, 2008.

Christine Skarda (formerly UCB): "Perception's Illusion: The Origin of Suffering" (mp3)

This talk was given as part of a presentation on "From Trauma and Distortion to Forgiveness and Healing."

Good dharma, good psychology.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

TED Talk - Stuart Brown: Why play is vital -- no matter your age

Very cool - play is good for what ails ya. More theoretically, play allows us to take care of the vulnerable child still living within all of us, and that's a very good thing. When we lose that child, we lose spontaneity, creativity, and joy.
A pioneer in research on play, Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy are more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults -- and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age

Dr. Stuart Brown came to research play through research on murderers -- unlikely as that seems -- after he found a stunning common thread in killers' stories: lack of play in childhood. Since then, he's interviewed thousands of people to catalog their relationships with play, noting a strong correlation between success and playful activity.

With the support of the National Geographic Society and Jane Goodall, he has observed animal play in the wild, where he first conceived of play as an evolved behavior important for the well being -- and survival -- of animals, especially those of higher intelligence. Now, through his organization, the National Institute for Play, he hopes to expand the study of human play into a vital science -- and help people everywhere enjoy and participate in play throughout life.

Kurt Barstow - Spiritual Guidance, Part III

Another installment in this on-going series by Kurt on Spiritual Guidance.

Spiritual guidance, part III

March 2

To doubt is to lack conviction or certainty. It is to be in a place of not knowing and is the opposite in some senses of faith, belief, or dogma, which are held to varying degrees with certitude. When you think about it doubt is an enormously important contribution to our cultural development. The skepticism of The Enlightenment was necessary to eradicate some of the unsound beliefs, prejudices, magical thought, and mythic creed of earlier centuries and to set the stage for the scientific rationalism that helped create vaccines, modern medicine, cell phones, computers, and air and space travel, all things that have greatly benefited us as a species. Likewise, the doubt in scientific materialism as something that can completely explain our human experience has led to new thinking that has re-examined the validity of pre-modern modalities of healing, sought to bring together science and religion in quantum physics, and questioned deeply the values of progress and greed that have brought the planet to its current crisis. On the level of the microcosm rather than the macrocosm, doubt is an important part of our individual development and plays a critical role in spiritual guidance. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are two kinds of doubt: the negative, disabling doubt that is based in fear and keeps us contracted--unable to speak, move forward, or see our way through a situation--and the positive, enabling doubt that is more closely related to curiosity and is expansive, the royal road to transformation, and central to living in our most spacious nature.

Chapters 5-7 of Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin's Your Soul's Compass: What is Spiritual Guidance? (Hay House, 2007) discuss this crucial aspect of guidance. The question posed in the beginning of this discussion of doubt is how can we tell the difference between the voice of guidance, or the true self, and that of ego? The answer is that it isn't always clear to us. Reb almanSchachter-Shalomi says, "It's too facile to construct a process that will always, or even often, yield the 'right' result. It's easy to go astray, since we all have our meshugas (a Yiddish word meaning 'idiosyncratic craziness or nonsense')." He then goes on to make an important point about doubt, despite its seeming contradiction to faith, as actually being complementary: "I must always have doubt where the guidance comes from. Doubt is not the enemy of faith. Doubt is the means by which we scrape off the barnacles from the ship of faith." One might think of archetypal images of this: Job on the dungheap or Thomas touching Christ's wound after the Resurrection. The human faculty of doubt is built into our stories of faith for a reason. The authors find consensus among their interviewees on the nature of this faculty that is the key to identifying how it plays a role in discernment. They point out, "There was universal understanding among the Sages that doubt has two faces: positive and negative--the face of inquiry and the face of anxiety. Inquiry, the love of truth, brings us into connection with our true nature and with the Source of Guidance within. The face of anxiety is the ego, the false self, which creates the kind of unhealthy doubt that blocks openness to either hearing or acting upon guidance."

The positive doubt is not a superego attack (the internalized critical voices of our parents), which must be separated from conscience. More importantly, it demands that we let go of our tenacious hold onto what we think we know. Sister Rose Mary Dougherty, who is also a Zen teacher, contrasts the pressure to know and to be right with the positive form of doubt. She says, "There's a constriction and a kind of manic effort to figure things out, to get it right for me--for you--to know the answers, to make them up if I don't know them. But the other kind of doubt, the not knowing, frees us to live into something so much bigger, so much more than we could ever ask for or imagine." As we were working with aspects of mindfulness in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course, one of my meditation teachers suggested that we allow ourselves to just be in that place of not knowing, which I didn't entirely understand at the time although it seemed like a liberating place to be. I now understand that it is a movement away from our conditioned mind to our beginner's mind, which is always going to be a place from which more possibilities will arise. When one's life is stuck, in fact, it becomes the only place to go, because otherwise, recognizing the failure of the repeated patterns of one's conditioning, one may end up tearing down the entire structure. Rather than do that, from this place of not knowing, we instead open up to our true nature, our authentic, spacious self. The authors point out the paradox of faith in relation to what we have discussed so far, citing Paul's famous definition that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." The authors point out that, "without being sure that there's a guiding wisdom greater than what we see from our limited perspective, then we might be overcome with cynicism and nihilism. Those attitudes are so painful that, with the piercing irony of paradox, they give rise to rabid fundamentalist beliefs, which permit no doubt at all. In contrast to no doubt, another kind of constriction, positive doubt, or not knowing, leads to spaciousness, which "means, most basically, staying open to the moment, rather than being attached to a particular belief or agenda." I think immediately here of the encouragement of my yoga teachers not to get something right but rather to investigate a pose and to soften. These are tools to help the bodymind learn about what spaciousness is.

Fruits of the Spirit

There are, however, some tried and true guidelines to discerning whether it is ego or God that is driving the buggy. To be involved in the process of guidance in any form can only make one more sympathetic to other human beings, for it becomes obvious to anyone working with discernment that it is a life's work and can never put one in the position of being perfect, right, or infallible. Mistakes, limitations, and incorrect views will always play their part in the process. However, as the authors point out, "While the experience of making a poor choice can be a valuable part of the journey, without reflection or inquiry--the keys to the discernment process--the decision isn't spiritual. It's just an unconscious reaction that's likely to be repeated. Over time, the practice of discernment leads to choices that are more conscious and loving...that lead to less karma and drama and more clarity and peace. Because our primary identification is with ego, what Christian mystics Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, among others, call the false self, the process of learning to attend to the true Self is bound to take both time and serious commitment." We all suffer from distortions that make up this false self. "Buddhists call these sistortions poisons; Hindus call them kleshas; Jews invoke the yetzer ha-ra', or evil urge; and Christians enumerate seven deadly sins. We think of them as the basic sources of magnetic deviance that throw the Soul's Compass off True North."

One of the positive guidelines is The Golden Rule, to do to others only what you would have them do to you. Another is distinguishing between Good and Evil by the felt sense of either Consolation or Desolation. In that pairing "Consolation is a feeling of inner warmth, of being loved by and loving the Creator. A state of interior joy, consolation is characterized by a quiet mind and an open heart. One feels inspired, confident, courageous... held and supported by unseen but beneficent forces." On the other hand, "Desolation is a state of interior disturbance that Ignatius [of Loyola] called 'darkness of the soul.' Sadness, sloth, and separation from God are its hallmarks. Today's common maladies of burnout, depression, despondency, addiction, and hopelessness are all symptoms of desolation." Of course, these terms represent somewhat complicated phenomena and are not all equal. Take addiction, or specifically the highs and lows of amphetamine addiction, for example. The highs can be representative of biochemical changes that allow for feelings of consolation, of optimism, of belonging, and during those phases the world seems and reflects itself back to you in a positive way. In distinction to this, the lows foster a biochemical reaction that promote depression, lack of drive, and hopelessness; one feels separated from life source energy and the world to some extent reflects itself back to you based on this subjectivity. It is a horrible, vicious, uneven cycle in which it is entirely understandable that, just trying to cope with daily life, one would search out the part that is more representative of Consolation. And, of course, the answer lies somewhere in the fact that going up and coming down are temporary states that depend on something outside oneself, that the cycle itself is a manifestation of dis-ease, of imbalance. But one can see what an extremely difficult issue it is precisely as it is viewed within this spiritual context of Consolation and Desolation, for addiction contains both felt senses within its purview, driven perhaps by the bodymind's short-term delusions and dependency but with more than a smidgen of reality nevertheless.

Another way to orient toward true nature is through the nine Christian Fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control. Love in this sense "is a radiant aspect of true nature that's projected unconditionally toward all people and things, rather than a program run by the false self to get its needs met." Joy is the "bliss that arises from within--without dependence on anything external." Like love, it "is a state of internal freedom." Peace is also independent of external circumstances. Patience is "the capacity to wait while the mud of confusion settles, with curious interest in what's being revealed." Kindness is revealed in the various invocations to love your neighbor as yourself. Generosity is the most important aspect of a bodhisattva. It could be defined as "clear communication that's not for your own benefit, but to further the liberation of another" or "the intention to see people through the eyes of the heart," "being with another person in the spacious, open fullness of the moment, without any agenda," allowing "the space for that individual's true nature to show up." Faithfulness is described by Yogi Mukunda in terms of yoga: "Success in yoga is attained by two things: first, consistent, earnest practice over a long period of time; and second, dispassionate nonattachment from what happens in that practice." One can imagine those words applying equally well to a marriage, friendship, or any other relationship. To cultivate Gentleness is to cultivate "spaciousness--the attitude of curiosity that is more interested in loving the truth than in controlling another person's behavior." Self-Control is not denial or holding back from doing what you want but "knowing when to brake, when to shift, and when to accelerate." All the Fruits of the Spirit derive from our spacious selves, endow us with an interior sense of freedom, and allow us to relate to others as their true natures.


The last chapter on doubt and discernment offer six distinct types of wisdom that can help us in terms of guidance. They are:

First Wisdom: Common Sense
-which by its very nature requires no definition

Second Wisdom: The Head--logic, a more careful accounting and thought through response

Third Wisdom: The Heart-which asks "Is my response to this situation loving? Patient? Generous? Kind?"

Fourth Wisdom: The Body
-what is the stress level? where are the tensions, the restrictions? The unevenness in breath? What is the felt sense?

Fifth Wisdom: Self-Reflection-This involves actually developing a practice: a daily review, an examen de conscience, or Naikan (gratitude) reflection. It brings our behavior and the gifts we receive into focus.

Sixth Wisdom: Transcending the Opposites
-Since the world is composed of opposites, how can we "make choices that take both poles of a situation into account while allowing a new perspective to emerge?' Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis. Getting out of the repeated patterns of action and reaction.

With these tools, we have a great deal to work with in the process of discernment.

(To be cont'd)