Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vedanta and Buddhism: A Comparative Study - Edited by Helmuth von Glasenapp

Very cool read.
selected essays edited by
Helmuth von Glasenapp


The present treatise by Prof. Dr. H.V. Glasenapp has been selected for reprint particularly in view of the excellent elucidation of the Anatta Doctrine which it contains. The treatise, in its German original, appeared in 1950 in the Proceeding of the "Akademie der Wissenschaften and Literatur" (Academy of Sciences and Literature). The present selection from that original is based on the abridged translations published in "The Buddhist," Vol.XXI, No. 12 (Colombo 1951). Partial use has also been made of a different selection and translation which appeared in "The Middle Way," Vol. XXXI, No. 4 (London 1957).

The author of this treatise is an eminent Indologist of Western Germany, formerly of the University of Koenigsberg, now occupying the indological chair of the University of Tuebingen. Among his many scholarly publications are books on Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and on comparative religion.

— Buddhist Publication Society

Vedanta and Buddhism

Vedanta and Buddhism are the highlights of Indian philosophical thought. Since both have grown in the same spiritual soil, they share many basic ideas: both of them assert that the universe shows a periodical succession of arising, existing and vanishing, and that this process is without beginning and end. They believe in the causality which binds the result of an action to its cause (karma), and in rebirth conditioned by that nexus. Both are convinced of the transitory, and therefore sorrowful character, of individual existence in the world; they hope to attain gradually to a redeeming knowledge through renunciation and meditation and they assume the possibility of a blissful and serene state, in which all worldly imperfections have vanished for ever. The original form of these two doctrines shows however strong contrast. The early Vedanta, formulated in most of the older and middle Upanishads, in some passages of the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and still alive today (though greatly changed) as the basis of several Hinduistic systems, teaches an ens realissimum (an entity of highest reality) as the primordial cause of all existence, from which everything has arisen and with which it again merges, either temporarily or for ever.

With the monistic metaphysics of the Vedanta contrasts the pluralistic Philosophy of Flux of the early Buddhism of the Pali texts which up to the present time flourishes in Ceylon, Burma and Siam. It teaches that in the whole empirical reality there is nowhere anything that persists; neither material nor mental substances exist independently by themselves; there is no original entity or primordial Being in whatsoever form it may be imagined, from which these substances might have developed. On the contrary, the manifold world of mental and material elements arises solely through the causal co-operation of the transitory factors of existence (dharma) which depend functionally upon each other, that is, the material and mental universe arises through the concurrence of forces that, according to the Buddhists, are not reducible to something else. It is therefore obvious that deliverance from the Samsara, i.e., the sorrow-laden round of existence, cannot consist in the re-absorption into an eternal Absolute which is at the root of all manifoldness, but can only be achieved by a complete extinguishing of all factors which condition the processes constituting life and world. The Buddhist Nirvana is, therefore, not the primordial ground, the eternal essence, which is at the basis of everything and form which the whole world has arisen (the Brahman of the Upanishads) but the reverse of all that we know, something altogether different which must be characterized as a nothing in relation to the world, but which is experienced as highest bliss by those who have attained to it (Anguttara Nikaya, Navaka-nipata 34). Vedantists and Buddhists have been fully aware of the gulf between their doctrines, a gulf that cannot be bridged over. According to Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 22, a doctrine that proclaims "The same is the world and the self. This I shall be after death; imperishable, permanent, eternal!" (see Brh. UP. 4, 4, 13), was styled by the Buddha a perfectly foolish doctrine. On the other side, the Katha-Upanishad (2, 1, 14) does not see a way to deliverance in the Buddhist theory of dharmas (impersonal processes): He who supposes a profusion of particulars gets lost like rain water on a mountain slope; the truly wise man, however, must realize that his Atman is at one with the Universal Atman, and that the former, if purified from dross, is being absorbed by the latter, "just as clear water poured into clear water becomes one with it, indistinguishably."

Vedanta and Buddhism have lived side by side for such a long time that obviously they must have influenced each other. The strong predilection of the Indian mind for a doctrine of universal unity (monism) has led the representatives of Mahayana to conceive Samsara and Nirvana as two aspects of the same and single true reality; for Nagarjuna the empirical world is a mere appearance, as all dharmas, manifest in it, are perishable and conditioned by other dharmas, without having any independent existence of their own. Only the indefinable "Voidness" (sunyata) to be grasped in meditation, and realized in Nirvana, has true reality.

This so-called Middle Doctrine of Nagarjuna remains true to the Buddhist principle that there can be nowhere a substance, in so far as Nagarjuna sees the last unity as a kind of abyss, characterized only negatively, which has no genetic relation to the world. Asanga and Vasubandhu, however, in their doctrine of Consciousness Only, have abandoned the Buddhist principle of denying a positive reality which is at the root all phenomena, and in doing so, they have made a further approach to Vedanta. To that mahayanistic school of Yogacaras, the highest reality is a pure and undifferentiated spiritual element that represents the non- relative substratum of all phenomena. To be sure, they thereby do not assert, as the (older) Vedanta does, that the ens realissimum (the highest essence) is identical with the universe, the relation between the two is rather being defined as "being neither different nor not different." It is only in the later Buddhist systems of the Far East that the undivided, absolute consciousness is taken to be the basis of the manifold world of phenomena. But in contrast to the older Vedanta, it is never maintained that the world is an unfoldment from the unchangeable, eternal, blissful Absolute; suffering and passions, manifest in the world of plurality, are rather traced back to worldly delusion.

On the other hand, the doctrines of later Buddhist philosophy had a far-reaching influence on Vedanta. It is well known that Gaudapada, and other representatives of later Vedanta, taught an illusionistic acosmism, for which true Reality is only "the eternally pure, eternally awakened, eternally redeemed" universal spirit whilst all manifoldness is only delusion; the Brahma has therefore not developed into the world, as asserted by the older Vedanta, but it forms only the world's unchangeable background, comparable to the white screen on which appear the changing images of an unreal shadow play.

In my opinion, there was in later times, especially since the Christian era, much mutual influence of Vedanta and Buddhism, but originally the systems are diametrically opposed to each other. The Atman doctrine of the Vedanta and the Dharma theory of Buddhism exclude each other. The Vedanta tries to establish an Atman as the basis of everything, whilst Buddhism maintains that everything in the empirical world is only a stream of passing Dharmas (impersonal and evanescent processes) which therefore has to be characterized as Anatta, i.e., being without a persisting self, without independent existence.

Again and again scholars have tried to prove a closer connection between the early Buddhism of the Pali texts, and the Vedanta of the Upanishads; they have even tried to interpret Buddhism as a further development of the Atman doctrine. There are, e.g., two books which show that tendency: The Vedantic Buddhism of the Buddha, by J.G. Jennings (Oxford University Press, 1947), and in German language, The Soul Problem of Early Buddhism, by Herbert Guenther (Konstanz 1949).

The essential difference between the conception of deliverance in Vedanta and in Pali Buddhism lies in the following ideas: Vedanta sees deliverance as the manifestation of a state which, though obscured, has been existing from time immemorial; for the Buddhist, however, Nirvana is a reality which differs entirely from all dharmas as manifested in Samsara, and which only becomes effective, if they are abolished. To sum up: the Vedantin wishes to penetrate to the last reality which dwells within him as an immortal essence, or seed, out of which everything has arisen. The follower of Pali Buddhism, however, hopes by complete abandoning of all corporeality, all sensations, all perceptions, all volitions, and acts of consciousness, to realize a state of bliss which is entirely different from all that exists in the Samsara.

After these introductory remarks we shall now discuss systematically the relation of original Buddhism and Vedanta.

(1) First of all we have to clarify to what extent a knowledge of Upanishadic texts may be assumed for the canonical Pali scriptures. The five old prose Upanishads are, on reasons of contents and language, generally held to be pre-Buddhistic. The younger Upanishads, in any case those beginning from Maitrayana, were certainly written at a time when Buddhism already existed.

The number of passages in the Pali canon dealing with Upanishadic doctrines, is very small. It is true that early Buddhism shares many doctrines with the Upanishads (Karma, rebirth, liberation through insight), but these tenets were so widely held in philosophical circles of those times that we can no longer regard the Upanishads are the direct source from which the Buddha has drawn. The special metaphysical concern of the Upanishads, the identity of the individual and the universal Atman, has been mentioned and rejected only in a few passages in the early Buddhist texts, for instance in the saying of the Buddha quoted earlier. Nothing shows better the great distance that separates the Vedanta and the teachings of the Buddha, than the fact that the two principal concepts of Upanishadic wisdom, Atman and Brahman, do not appear anywhere in the Buddhist texts, with the clear and distinct meaning of a "primordial ground of the world, core of existence, ens realissimum (true substance)," or similarly. As this holds likewise true for the early Jaina literature, one must assume that early Vedanta was of no great importance in Magadha, at the time of the Buddha and the Mahavira; otherwise the opposition against if would have left more distinct traces in the texts of these two doctrines.

(2) It is of decisive importance for examining the relation between Vedanta and Buddhism, clearly to establish the meaning of the words atta and anatta in Buddhist literature.

The meaning of the word attan (nominative: atta, Sanskrit: atman, nominative: atma) divides into two groups: (1) in daily usage, attan ("self") serves for denoting one's own person, and has the function of a reflexive pronoun. This usage is, for instance, illustrated in the 12th Chapter of the Dhammapada. As a philosophical term attan denotes the individual soul as assumed by the Jainas and other schools, but rejected by the Buddhists. This individual soul was held to be an eternal unchangeable spiritual monad, perfect and blissful by nature, although its qualities may be temporarily obscured through its connection with matter. Starting from this view held by the heretics, the Buddhists further understand by the term "self" (atman) any eternal, unchangeable individual entity, in other words, that which Western metaphysics calls a "substance": "something existing through and in itself, and not through something else; nor existing attached to, or inherent in, something else." In the philosophical usage of the Buddhists, attan is, therefore, any entity of which the heretics wrongly assume that it exists independently of everything else, and that it has existence on its own strength.

The word anattan (nominative: anatta) is a noun (Sanskrit: anatma) and means "not-self" in the sense of an entity that is not independent. The word anatman is found in its meaning of "what is not the Soul (or Spirit)," also in brahmanical Sanskrit sources (Bhagavadgita, 6,6; Shankara to Brahma Sutra I, 1, 1, Bibl, Indica, p 16; Vedantasara Section 158). Its frequent use in Buddhism is accounted for by the Buddhist' characteristic preference for negative nouns. Phrases like rupam anatta are therefore to be translated "corporeality is a not-self," or "corporeality is not an independent entity."

As an adjective, the word anattan (as occasionally attan too; see Dhammapada 379; Geiger, Pali Lit., Section 92) changes from the consonantal to the a-declension; anatta (see Sanskrit anatmaka, anatmya), e.g., Samyutta 22, 55, 7 PTS III p. 56), anattam rupam... anatte sankare... na pajanati ("he does not know that corporeality is without self,... that the mental formations are without self"). The word anatta is therefore, to be translated here by "not having the nature of a self, non-independent, without a (persisting) self, without an (eternal) substance," etc. The passage anattam rupam anatta rupan ti yathabhutam na pajanati has to be rendered: "With regard to corporeality having not the nature of a self, he does not know according to truth, 'Corporeality is a not-self (not an independent entity).'" The noun attan and the adjective anatta can both be rendered by "without a self, without an independent essence, without a persisting core," since the Buddhists themselves do not make any difference in the use of these two grammatical forms. This becomes particularly evident in the case of the word anatta, which may be either a singular or a plural noun. In the well-known phrase sabbe sankhara anicca... sabbe dhamma anatta (Dhp. 279), "all conditioned factors of existence are transitory... all factors existent whatever (Nirvana included) are without a self," it is undoubtedly a plural noun, for the Sanskrit version has sarve dharma anatmanah.

The fact that the Anatta doctrine only purports to state that a dharma is "void of a self," is evident from the passage in the Samyutta Nikaya (35, 85; PTS IV, p.54) where it is said rupa sunna attena va attaniyenava, "forms are void of a self (an independent essence) and of anything pertaining to a self (or 'self-like')."

Where Guenther has translated anattan or anatta as "not the self," one should use "a self" instead of "the self," because in the Pali canon the word atman does not occur in the sense of "universal soul."

(3) It is not necessary to assume that the existence of indestructible monads is a necessary condition for a belief in life after death. The view that an eternal, immortal, persisting soul substance is the conditio sine qua non of rebirth can be refuted by the mere fact that not only in the older Upanishads, but also in Pythagoras and Empedocles, rebirth is taught without the assumption of an imperishable soul substance.

(4) Guenther can substantiate his view only through arbitrary translations which contradict the whole of Buddhist tradition. This is particularly evident in those passages where Guenther asserts that "the Buddha meant the same by Nirvana and atman" and that "Nirvana is the true nature of man." For in Udana 8,2, Nirvana is expressly described as anattam, which is rightly rendered by Dhammapala's commentary (p. 21) as atta-virahita (without a self), and in Vinaya V, p. 86, Nirvana is said to be, just as the conditioned factors of existence (sankhata), "without a self" (p. 151). Neither can the equation atman=nirvana be proved by the well-known phrase attadipa viharatha, dhammadipa, for, whether dipa here means "lamp" or "island of deliverance," this passage can, after all, only refer to the monks taking refuge in themselves and in the doctrine (dhamma),and attan and dhamma cannot possibly be interpreted as Nirvana. In the same way, too, it is quite preposterous to translate Dhammapada 160, atta hi attano natho as "Nirvana is for a man the leader" (p. 155); for the chapter is concerned only with the idea that we should strive hard and purify ourselves. Otherwise Guenther would have to translate in the following verse 161, attana va katam papam attajam attasambhavam: "By Nirvana evil is done, it arises out of Nirvana, it has its origin in Nirvana." It is obvious that this kind of interpretation must lead to manifestly absurd consequences.

(5) As far as I can see there is not a single passage in the Pali canon where the word atta is used in the sense of the Upanishadic Atman.1 This is not surprising, since the word atman, current in all Indian philosophical systems, has the meaning of "universal soul, ens realissimum, the Absolute," exclusively in the pan-en-theistic and theopantistic Vedanta, but, in that sense, it is alien to all other brahmanical and non-Buddhist doctrines. Why, then, should it have a Vedantic meaning in Buddhism? As far as I know, no one has ever conceived the idea of giving to the term atman a Vedantic interpretation, in the case of Nyaya, Vaisesika, classical Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, or Jainism.

(6) The fact that in the Pali canon all worldly phenomena are said to be anatta has induced some scholars of the West to look for an Atman in Buddhism. For instance, the following "great syllogism" was formulated by George Grimm: "What I perceive to arise and to cease, and to cause suffering to me, on account of that impermanence, cannot be my ego. Now I perceive that everything cognizable in me and around me, arises and ceases, and causes me suffering on account of its impermanence. Therefore nothing cognizable is my ego." From that Grimm concludes that there must be an eternal ego-substance that is free from all suffering, and above all cognizability. This is a rash conclusion. By teaching that there is nowhere in the world a persisting Atman, the Buddha has not asserted that there must be a transcendental Atman (i.e., a self beyond the world). This kind of logic resembles that of a certain Christian sect which worships its masters as "Christs on earth," and tries to prove the simultaneous existence of several Christs from Mark 13,22, where it is said: "False Christs and false prophets shall arise"; for, if there are false Christs, there must also be genuine Christs!

The denial of an imperishable Atman is common ground for all systems of Hinayana as well as Mahayana, and there is, therefore, no reason for the assumption that Buddhist tradition, unanimous on that point, has deviated from the original doctrine of the Buddha. If the Buddha, contrary to the Buddhist tradition, had actually proclaimed a transcendental Atman, a reminiscence of it would have been preserved somehow by one of the older sects. It is remarkable that even the Pudgalavadins, who assume a kind of individual soul, never appeal to texts in which an Atman in this sense is proclaimed. He who advocates such a revolutionary conception of the Buddha's teachings, has also the duty to show evidence how such a complete transformation started and grew, suddenly or gradually. But non of those who advocate the Atta-theory has taken to comply with that demand which is indispensable to a historian.

(7) In addition to the aforementioned reasons, there are other grounds too, which speak against the supposition that the Buddha has identified Atman and Nirvana. It remains quite incomprehensible why the Buddha should have used this expression which is quite unsuitable for Nirvana and would have aroused only wrong associations in his listeners. Though it is true that Nirvana shares with the Vedantic conception of Atman the qualification of eternal peace into which the liberated ones enter forever, on the other hand, the Atman is in brahmanical opinion, something mental and conscious, a description which does not hold true for Nirvana. Furthermore, Nirvana is not, like the Atman, the primordial ground or the divine principle of the world (Aitareya Up. 1,1), nor is it that which preserves order in the world (Brhadar. Up. 3,8,9); it is also not the substance from which everything evolves, nor the core of all material elements.

(8) Since the scholarly researches made by Otto Rosenberg (published in Russian 1918, in German trs. 1924), Th. Stcherbatsky (1932), and the great work of translation done by Louis de la Vallee Poussin Abhidharmakosa (1923-31) there cannot be any doubt about the basic principle of Buddhist philosophy. In the light of these researches, all attempts to give to the Atman a place in the Buddhist doctrine, appear to be quite antiquated. We know now that all Hinayana and Mahayana schools are based on the anatma-dharma theory. This theory explains the world through the causal co-operation of a multitude of transitory factors (dharma), arising in mutual functional dependence. This theory maintains that the entire process of liberation consists in the tranquilization of these incessantly arising and disappearing factors. For that process of liberation however, is required, apart from moral restraint (sila) and meditative concentration (samadhi), the insight (prajna) that all conditioned factors of existence (samskara) are transitory, without a permanent independent existence, and therefore subject to grief and suffering. The Nirvana which the saint experiences already in this life, and which he enters for ever after death, is certainly a reality (dharma), but as it neither arises nor vanishes, it is not subject to suffering, and is thereby distinguished from all conditioned realities. Nirvana being a dharma, is likewise anatta, just as the transitory, conditioned dharmas of the Samsara which, as caused by volitions (that is, karma-producing energies (samskara)), are themselves also called samskara. Like them, Nirvana is no individual entity which could act independently. For it is the basic idea of the entire system that all dharmas are devoid of Atman, and without cogent reasons we cannot assume that the Buddha himself has thought something different from that which since more than two thousand years, his followers have considered to be the quintessence of their doctrine.


Except in a few passages rejecting it, as the one quoted by the author: "The same is the world and the self"; see also Sutta-nipata, v 477; and one of the six Ego- beliefs rejected in Majjh. 2: "'Even by the self I perceive the self': this view occurs to him as being true and correct" (attana va attanam sanjanamit'titi). Of Bhagavadgita VI 19 Yatra caiv' atmana atmanam pasyann-atmani tusyati. — The BPS Editor

©1978 Buddhist Publication Society.
The Wheel Publication No. 2 (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1978). Transcribed from from the print edition in 1995 by Gaston Losier under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society.
This Access to Insight edition is ©1995–2009 John T. Bullitt.

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

Great article - looking forward to eventually reading her book.

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

Essay by A. C. Grayling

In the days when Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud dominated thinking about child development, small children were thought to be irrational, incoherent, and solipsistic in their thinking and both easily distractible and unfocused in their awareness of the world. Recent work in developmental psychology offers a sharply contrasted picture. "Children are unconsciously the most rational beings on earth," says Alison Gopnik, "brilliantly drawing accurate conclusions from data, performing complex statistical analyses, and doing clever experiments." And not only does empirical work reveal this about babies and small children, but what is thus revealed throws light on some of philosophy's more intriguing questions about knowledge, the self, other minds, and the basis of morality.

Such are the claims made by philosopher and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik in this fascinating account of the growth of child minds. Gopnik's affectionate and sympathetic enjoyment of the way children think in their first five years is manifest throughout her book, but so too is her sensitivity to the deeper philosophical implications of what their way of thinking can teach us. The result is absorbing and educative. This is despite the fact that, at times, it seems as if developmental psychology provides arduous scientific confirmation for what parents and preschool teachers have always long known; but Gopnik is skilled at producing the rabbit of insight from an apparently old hat. And there is also much that is new and surprising in the field, all of it promising to change our understanding of mind in general.

Gopnik describes how imagination contributes to the vast amount of knowledge that children acquire in their first few years. Accumulated knowledge allows children to think of alternative ways that the world could be, which in turn helps them to construct mental maps of the causal relationships that govern and explain how things work. Imagination also aids them in forming ideas about how other people think and why they act as they do. Many children have "imaginary friends"; their ability to understand others and to change themselves is aided by the possibilities for exploring alternatives that such play affords.

This learning proceeds, says Gopnik, in ways that a scientist would recognize as familiar: by experimentation and recognition of statistical patterns. In the child the application of these methods is unconscious and instinctive, and it is aided by the presence of caregivers who provide active instruction. But the basis of child learning is no different from the more conscious and deliberate methodology of adult enquirers.

Studies of child development also suggest insights into consciousness, one of philosophy's most recalcitrant mysteries. Children appear to have a far more vivid awareness of the world around them than adults do, Gopnik, reports, because an adult's "spotlight awareness" that enables concentration on specific features of an environment involves losing the "lantern awareness" that brings the whole environment to the forefront of attention. This childhood form of awareness is likened by Gopnik to how adults feel when they visit a foreign country; they focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar. But whereas children have a more intense lantern awareness, they also have less inner consciousness of the kind that helps manufacture a distinctive sense of self, that autobiographical centre of memory and planning which is the "me" in all experience. That explains why they have less command of their behavior, and less sense of the future.

One of the most interesting parts of the book concerns the basis of morality in early childhood development. Gopnik describes empirical investigation into the capacity shown by babies and toddlers for empathy and altruism, and into early childhood understanding of harm and the nature of rules. It is often observed that children have an acute sense of fairness; experiments clearly show that they know how others feel, and act on that knowledge.

These insights into notions of selfhood and morality add weight to Gopnik's conclusion that the relationship between children and parents is one of the chief producers of value in our experience. This extends, says Gopnik, even to saying that because in a quite literal sense "children are our future," they give us the closest thing we will ever get to immortality.

Indeed, Gopnik does not shy away from saying that talk of knowledge, the counterfactual construction of causal mental maps, and the role of caregiving in the development of children's minds, is in effect talk (albeit "more poetically" put) of truth, imagination and love. These philosophical dimensions of what developmental psychology tells us is what licenses the implied claim in the book's subtitle, that understanding how children's minds grow is to see into the meaning of life.

There is much in Gopnik's survey of child mental growth that is indeed philosophically suggestive. To pick one of the most interesting out of many: the idea that conceptions of selfhood come relatively late in development, and have to be achieved because they are not given as part of the child's innate endowment. In part the point turns on the way memory works and how children access and use it, and in part on the absence of the inner consciousness, the feeling of an observer within that is distinctive of selfhood in older children and adults.

This inner consciousness is related to the possession of "executive control," the ability to locate oneself and therefore one's interests in a past-and-future continuum, making it easier to defer gratifications and follow a chosen path. Relative absence of a sense of self is associated with the "lantern" form of awareness mentioned before; a young child's inner consciousness, says Gopnik, "may be more like wandering than voyaging, a journey of exploration rather than of conquest."

Some of what Gopnik asserts will undoubtedly prompt questions, as when she says, "All the processes of change, imagination and learning, ultimately depend on love." Someone might argue that many unloved children have turned into highly imaginative individuals. Even more to the point, many children in history were, and in developing societies still are, not cared for by loving parents but by older siblings, grandparents, wet-nurses, nannies -- "alloparents" -- where love (not guaranteed) is not romantically conceived mother love, and where childhoods were, and in those contemporary societies still are, not prolonged or free. Even in developed countries it is only in very recent historical times that childhood has ceased to be short and circumscribed. In many developing countries today children are set to work at exceedingly young ages, fetching and carrying or tending goats -- or babies.

This does not affect Gopnik's thesis about the capacities for imagination, learning and plasticity that characterize the developing mind, but it shows that these processes occur in many different social environments for young children, and not just the close and extended nurturing environment of most homes in the contemporary affluent West.

In fact it might be that the capacity of people to survive deprived or mentally undernourished childhoods is as interesting as the role played by loving upbringings in promoting self-confidence and security. It is sometimes observed that creative people and high achievers are as they are because they are compensating for the lack of what ought to typify an ideal childhood.

A general worry about developmental psychology is that it is always at risk of "reading-in", that is, imputing to very small children some of the intentional interpretations which make sense of the adult observer's own world. The temptation to do this is itself a hard-wired instinct. Consider: humans anthropomorphize not only other animals but even inanimate things, attributing agency, intention and volition to them. It feels all the more natural to do so with human babies, who are after all destined to be exactly the appropriate subjects for our agency-attributing interpretations. Think of the excitement over baby's first smile, which is in fact most likely to be the facial rictus of flatulence. Is that what baby-lab observers are doing when they deduce an interpretation of an infant's cognitive abilities from, for example, how long it attends to a given stimulus: are they seeing smiles where there are only grimaces?

The experiments reported by Gopnik, some of them her own work, reduce the anxiety about reading-in; they are careful, well-designed, and sensitive to the danger of misinterpretation and misattribution. Still, one is reminded of this danger when one reads "even nine-month olds understand some important statistical ideas" and (said in denying that mimicking actions is a mere mirror-neuron response) "babies don't just imitate actions, they recognize and reproduce the results of those actions." This seems to go too far; a nine-month old baby might be hard-wired to respond to patterns, but it would be exceedingly difficult to establish that she "understands important statistical ideas." Likewise to say that babies "recognize" as well as reproduce actions is a challenging claim, for "recognize" seems to imply something that an individual can consciously represent to herself as doing.

A matter that Gopnik does not address is that there is a downside to the readiness with which young minds imagine and believe. Credulity of course is of great evolutionary advantage; if older people in authority say that fire hurts you, tigers eat you, and the gods are recording your every sin, the child will believe, and occasional rebellion will (at least in such cases as a finger in the candle flame) confirm, what they have been told. Astute educators have always recognized that if they can espalier the young mind it will more likely than not keep that given shape thereafter. The Jesuits' mot was "give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man."

Again, this does not controvert the research findings that Gopnik reports. Her aim is to describe how infant mentality develops, and what we can learn from this; and she does it with great sympathy and clarity, in an account rich in insights and brimming with suggestions about how the swift and hungry growth of child minds can illuminate the human mind in general.

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

Bitterness, Compulsive Shopping, and Internet Addiction - The diagnostic madness of DSM-V.

WOW, the DSM-V is becoming the biggest embarrassment for the APA since they were silent on using psychologists for torture at Guantanamo Bay until 2007 (author Mary Pipher refused an APA award in protest), but a distant 2nd to that fiasco.

Too much influence from Big Pharma and the Pentagon - not to mention the secrecy - make the whole process suspect.

Bitterness, Compulsive Shopping, and Internet AddictionThe diagnostic madness of DSM-V

DSM's fourth edition

There's an awful lot of money to be made from compulsive shopping, judging by the career of Madeleine Wickham. Her Shopaholic series, written under the pen name Sophie Kinsella, is required reading for chick-lit enthusiasts, and the romantic comedy Confessions of a Shopaholic, the first of several planned big-screen adaptations, grossed more than $100 million worldwide. While the film, starring Isla Fisher, isn't terribly funny, it does make the valid point that to enjoy shopping for elegant clothes isn't a pathology. It's a style.

The American Psychiatric Association risks losing sight of that distinction by grimly—and rather inexpertly—debating whether avid shopping should be considered a sign of mental illness. The fifth edition of the association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is expected in 2012. The APA isn't just deciding the fate of shopaholics; it's also debating whether overuse of the Internet, "excessive" sexual activity, apathy, and even prolonged bitterness should be viewed, quite seriously, as brain "disorders." If you spend hours online, have sex more frequently than aging psychiatrists, and moan incessantly that the federal government can't account for all its TARP funds, take heed: You may soon be classed among the 48 million Americans the APA already considers mentally ill.

Quite how the association will decide when normal kvetching becomes a sickness—or reasonable amounts of sex become excessive—is still anyone's guess. Behind the APA's doors in Arlington, Va., the fine points of the debate are creating quite a few headaches. And they're also causing a rather public dust-up.

To linger anxiously, even bitterly, over job loss is all too human. To sigh with despair over precipitous declines in one's retirement account is also perfectly understandable. But if the APA includes post-traumatic embitterment disorder in the next edition of its diagnostic bible, it will be because a small group of mental-health professionals believes the public shouldn't dwell on such matters for too long.

That's a sobering thought—enough, perhaps, to make you doubt the wisdom of those updating the new manual. The association has no clear definition of the cutoff between normal and pathological responses to life's letdowns. To those of us following the debates as closely as the association will allow, it's apparent that the DSM revisions have become a train wreck. The problem is, everyone involved has signed a contract promising not to share publicly what's going on.

Back in 1952, when the APA's diagnostic manual first appeared, it was a thin, spiral-bound edition that offered sketches of such '50s-sounding traits as passive-aggressive personality disorder, emotionally unstable personality disorder, and inadequate personality disorder. It was seen more as a guide to psychiatry than as a chapter-and-verse authority on everything pertaining to mental health. Somehow it acquired those pretensions in 1980, with publication of the third edition, which included more than 100 new mental disorders, quite a few of them still being contested.

Inadequate personality wasn't quite dropped from DSM-III; it was allowed to merge with "atypical, mixed, or other personality disorder," which is, if anything, even more nebulous. Among the more hair-raising mental illnesses also added to the manual were avoidant personality disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and social phobia. The latter's symptoms to this day include fear of eating alone in public and concern that "one will act in a way … that will be humiliating and embarrassing." The DSM also included such gems as caffeine intoxication disorder, mathematics disorder, sibling relational problem, and frotteurism, the "intentional rubbing up against or touching of another, usually unsuspecting, person for the purpose of sexual arousal."

The DSM now contains three times as many disorders as it did in 1952 and is more than seven times longer than that first edition. The jury is still out on whether the dozens of new additions hold up to scientific scrutiny. Robert Spitzer, editor of two previous editions, including the one that formally approved post-traumatic stress disorder, recently conceded that his colleagues must now "save PTSD from itself."

To its members and to the public, the APA boasts that the manual is rigorous and evidence-based, drawing meticulously on data and field trials. But the very fact that the APA has produced a task force to decide whether bitterness, apathy, extreme shopping, and overuse of the Internet belong in the manual indicates, as Allen Frances, who chaired the DSM-IV task force, told Psychiatric News last month, that DSM-V is "headed in a very wrong direction." "I don't think they realize the problems they are about to create," he declared, "nor are they flexible enough to change course."

Serious questions have also surfaced about the competence, procedure, and secrecy of the DSM-V task force. And the two most vocal skeptics are Frances and Spitzer, former editors of the manual. In one open letter, they chide the APA's leaders for creating a "rigid fortress mentality," insisting that "continuing problems … have forced us to intervene in so public a way."

High on their list of concerns is the absence of transparency. Last July, Spitzer warned readers of Psychiatric News that the amount of secrecy cloaking the revisions was unprecedented and alarming. He quoted the contract that participants are required to sign, which reads, in part:

I will not, during the term of this appointment or after, divulge, furnish, or make accessible to anyone or use in any way ... any Confidential Information. I understand that "Confidential Information" includes all Work Product, unpublished manuscripts and drafts and other pre-publication materials, group discussions, internal correspondence, information about the development process and any other written or unwritten information, in any form, that emanates from or relates to my work with the APA task force or work group.

The APA alleges that the paragraph was not meant to block input from interested colleagues or output to the media (for which we are still waiting, by the way!). The president of the APA and the vice chair of the DSM-V task force bluntly dismissed other complaints about secrecy, insisting, against all contrary evidence, that its procedure is "a model of transparency and inclusion." The agreement was allegedly crafted to protect intellectual property. (The DSM is already copyrighted.) But the agreement also remains binding even after DSM-V is published; to avoid breaking it, participants must keep their drafts, memos, and working papers to themselves. Apparently we're never to know exactly how or why bitterness, anger, and Internet addiction become mental disorders. Indeed, the contract appears to have been designed to make that omission a foregone conclusion—otherwise, why did the APA enforce it so rigidly at the start? When Spitzer requested the minutes of earlier discussions, he was told that if the APA made them available to him, it would need to share them with others.

After Frances made his objections public last month, he and Spitzer followed up by sending the APA an open letter: "Unless you quickly improve the internal APA DSM-V review process, there will inevitably be increasing criticism from the outside. Such public controversy will raise questions regarding the legitimacy of the APA's continued role in producing subsequent DSMs—a result we would all like to avoid."

Spitzer and Frances also strongly disagree with a proposal to include "subthreshold" and "premorbid" diagnoses in the new manual. Both terms give cover to the so-called "kindling" theory of mental illness in children and infants—some psychiatrists believe that it's possible to stamp out ailments before they burgeon into full-blown disorders. In practice, as the St. Petersburg Times reported in March, psychiatrists in Florida alone gave antipsychotic drugs off-label (without formal FDA approval) in 2007 to 23 infants who were less than 1 year old at the time. They extended the practice to 39 toddlers aged 1; 103 aged 2; 315 aged 3; 886 aged 4; and 1,801 aged 5. One shudders to think what is going on in other states.

The kindling theory of infant mental disorders reminds us—as Darrel Regier (then the APA's deputy medical director) told the FDA's Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee in October 2005—that the APA already considers 48 million Americans mentally ill. "Subthreshold" and "premorbid" diagnoses, warn Spitzer and Frances, "could add tens of millions of newly diagnosed 'patients' "—their quotation marks—to that roster, "the majority of whom would likely be false positives subjected to the needless side effects and expense of treatment." Conceivably, we might by 2012 reach a point where the APA is defining more than half the country as mentally ill.

"In its effort to increase diagnostic sensitivity," Spitzer and Frances conclude, the DSM-V task force "has been insensitive to the great risks of false positives, of medicalizing normality, and of trivializing the whole concept of psychiatric diagnosis." These are remarkable accusations from two men who, between them, oversaw the formal approval of more than 150 mental disorders in two-dozen years.

In three years' time, will bitterness be seen as one of these disorders? Count me among the afflicted, if you must; some days that does seem possible, even likely. Given its track record and the grave doubts of two former editors of the DSM, should the APA really be given sole rights to decide something so consequential?

Alice in Wonderland Trailer/Teaser

Cool. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp - always interesting.

Shambhala Sun Space - “Is Sacha Baron Cohen a 21st century Bodhisattva?”

  • Wow, rather unfortunate article. The mental leap required to look at Cohen in this way is huge. My comment (left at the blog) is below the article.

“Is Sacha Baron Cohen a 21st century Bodhisattva?”


Since seeing Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie “Bruno” this past weekend, I have been pondering the question, “Is Sacha Baron Cohen a 21st century Bodhisattva?” While his humor in the movie is crass and sophomoric at best, his actions (antics?) seem to offer the opportunity for the people who are on the receiving end to be challenged, poked, and chased into waking up from their habitual thought patterns.

There are two scenes in particular (no spoilers here) in which I was struck that Cohen seems to be offering the opportunity for the person to break through their habitual thoughts and beliefs and proceed toward another way of thinking. While we are not privy to this actually happening within the movie, we can hope that, perhaps having felt the sharp edge of Cohen’s satiric sword, the person will, in a quiet moment reflect on their experience and wake up. While I haven’t yet teased out evidence of all six paramitas in Cohen’s work, there is certainly a strong case to be made that he has a handle on these actions of a Bodhisattva.

Have you seen Bruno (or Borat)? Is there something noble behind Sacha Baron Cohen’s mission of taking his disruptive comedy to so many places and to so many different kinds of people? Or is this just wishful thinking?

My comment:

Sasha Cohen is at best a trickster figure, in the classic sense of coyote in Southwestern American myth - he may provoke new insights/awareness, but he does so lacking integrity and compassion - certainly not the qualities of a Bodhisattva.

Friday, July 24, 2009

NeuroLogica - Artificial Brain in 10 Years?

I'm pretty critical of AI and Singularity talk - it seems to me that most people pushing these ideas are materialists who see the brain/mind as the same thing - they neglect Arthur Koestler's Ghost in the Machine. The human brain is not a rational machine.

This article from the NeuroLogica Blog looks at the technological problems with AI theory.

Artificial Brain in 10 Years?

Published by Steven Novella under Neuroscience

I have written previously about the various attempts to reverse engineer the brain and to develop artificial intelligence (AI). This is an exciting area of research. On the one hand researchers are trying to model the working of a mammalian brain, eventually a human brain, down to the tiniest detail. On the other, researchers are also trying to build an AI – either in hardware or virtually in software.

In the middle are attempts at interfacing brains and computer chips. Remember the monkeys who can move robot arms with their minds?

All these efforts are synergistic – modeling the mammalian brain will help AI researchers build their AI, and building AI computers and applications can teach us about brain function. The more we learn about both, the easier it will be to interface them.

However, it is very difficult to say how far away specific milestones and applications are on all these fronts. Progress is steady and promising, but predicting the future is hard.

That has not stopped Henry Markram from predicting at the current TED Global Conference that we can have a virtual model of the human brain in 10 years.

“It is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years,” he said.

“And if we do succeed, we will send a hologram to TED to talk.”

I hope he’s right – that would be a huge milestone. Markram works on the Blue Brain project, and right now they have managed to build a virtual model of a rat cortical column. This simulates about 10,000 neurons. Markram says that each neuron requires the processing power of a laptop to model, so they use an IBM Bluegene machine which has 10,000 processors. This is definitely not a desktop application.

And that’s just one cortical column. Modelling the entire brain would require 100 billion neurons – that gives you an idea of the processing power of the human brain. That’s 10 million supercomputers.

It seems to me that hardware is going to be the biggest limiting factor on Markram’s prediction. If we assume Moore’s Law of doubling processor power every 18 months, then it will take 36 years for supercomputers to exceed the power of 100 billion neurons.

Of course, simulating virtual neurons requires much more processing power than building artifical neurons directly – building a massively parallel processor to duplicate a brain in hardware, rather than creating a virtual brain. But that is also hard to predict because it requires the development of new hardware – not just software and information.

While I share Markram’s enthusiasm for this technology, and his optimism that all the components will eventually come into place (modeling the human brain and developing fast enough computers) – 10 years seems to be pushing it. I hope to be proven wrong.

David Shenk - How Genes Really Work

Author David Shenk is penning a new blog for The Atlantic - looks good so far.

How Genes Really Work


In my first post, I listed three separate chunks of science that, when seen together, suggest a radical new understanding of talent and intelligence. Today, I will focus on the first piece, genetics. I'll begin by asking for a crazy indulgence:

Forget everything you think you know about genes and heredity.

You've heard about Gregor Mendel and his pea plant experiments; about dominant and recessive traits (brown eyes/blue eyes); about genes being "blueprints"; about the breast cancer gene and the depression gene; about twin studies. You've been told over and over again that the genes we inherit from our parents contain detailed instructions on whether we will be tall or short, fast or slow, skinny or fat, smart or dim-witted, musical or tin-eared.

But it's not true.

Ok, many bits of it are true. But the big picture -- the notion that our genes contain information on what each of us will be like -- is very badly distorted. Scientists know this already; they just haven't successfully communicated it to the rest of us. We've entered this very strange zone: as geneticists hurtle themselves into extraordinary 21st century discoveries and opportunities, the general public is stuck in a 19th century understanding of genetics. I suggest that this is a very dangerous disconnect, and is something teachers and journalists must do something about.

Genes matter, a lot. Let me make that clear as I can. Genes powerfully influence absolutely everything we are and everything we do. We're all genetically distinct from one another, and those differences guarantee that we will each have a unique look and unique abilities.

But what those differences specifically turn out to be is not pre-ordained. We've been led to believe that many of our features are innate. But the very notion of innate is flawed, because from the first moment of your conception to your very last breath your genes are in a dynamic improvisation with the world around you.

To show you that I'm not making this stuff up, here is how geneticists Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb put it:

"The popular conception of the gene as a simple causal agent is not valid. The gene cannot be seen as an autonomous unit -- as a particular stretch of DNA which always produces the same effect. Whether or not a length of DNA produces anything, what it produces, and where and when it produces it may depend on other DNA sequences and on the environment."

Rather than being detailed blueprints, instructions, genes are more like knobs and switches that constantly get turned on and off by other genes and by environmental signals. (The turning on and off is called "genetic expression.")

That's why you hear so much these days about genes being "probabilistic." What that clunky word means is that it's fairly rare for certain genes to be 100% associated with certain outcomes. More commonly, certain genes interact with other common environmental and lifestyle variables produces

The breast cancer gene mutation doesn't cause breast cancer. Rather, a particular genetic variant interacts with many external influences to produce cancer more often than in people with different genetic variants.

This same dynamic also means that your DNA cannot make you inherently smart or talented. It guarantees your uniqueness, for sure, but what that uniqueness will actually turn out to be is up to an infinitely complex set of gene-environment interactions influenced by nutrition, environment, culture, human whim, and many unknowns.

Another way to put it is this: we've spent a century trying to figure out how to separate nature from nurture, when in fact, they are biologically inseparable.

There's much more to say, but that's a big-picture overview.


Further Reading:

Michael Anestis - Acceptance and commitment therapy versus traditional cognitive therapy in the treatment of anxiety and depression

Great post from the Psychotherapy Brown Bag blog - an excellent psych blog if you've never seen it. A nice collection of posts.

Acceptance and commitment therapy versus traditional cognitive therapy in the treatment of anxiety and depression

New M.Anestis Photo Compressed

by Michael D. Anestis, M.S.

Recently, I wrote an article describing a study that examined the utility of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) for weight loss. That particular study, unfortunately, was fairly flawed in a variety of ways detailed in my article; however, as I pointed out then, the flaws of that study do not reflect a lack of empirical support for ACT in general. All that being said, today I would like to call your attention to a more positive outcome for ACT.

In a study published in Behavior Modification, Evan Forman of Drexel University and several colleagues described a randomized controlled effectiveness trial for ACT and traditional cognitive therapy (CT) for individuals presenting with anxiety or depression. The authors had two primary goals. First, they wanted to compare the two different treatment approaches with respect to their impact on client and therapist rated levels of symptoms as well as overall well-being. In other words, they wanted to see if one treatment was better than the other at reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety and improving the lives of individuals struggling with these conditions. Second, they wanted to examine whether each treatment led to changes in symptoms through different mechanisms. In other words, do they lead to improvement for different reasons? Before describing this study in some detail, I would like to provide a basic description of ACT and the manner in which it differs from traditional CT. Bear in mind as you read this description, however, that it is too brief to be considered comprehensive and that further reading is required in order to fully understand the theory and methods of ACT. At the end of this article, I will describe some more comprehensive resources for both ACT and CT.

ACT is a "third generation" behavior therapy. Unlike traditional CT (including cognitive-behavioral therapy, as outlined in several PBB articles), which focuses primarily on identifying distorted thoughts and changing them so as to better reflect reality, ACT aims to change the context within which thoughts are experienced rather than changing the thoughts themselves. Mindfulness, which we describe in detail in earlier articles on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, thus plays a pivotal role, as clients are taught to view their thoughts as simply thoughts, rather than part of their identity and as stimuli to which they must respond accordingly. ACT theorists believe that attempting to control unwanted subjective experiences is often counterproductive, resulting in higher levels of distress. In other words, trying not to feel anxious can lead to more anxiety. As a result, in ACT clients are taught to accept distressing thoughts and emotions without trying to actively change them, but to simultaneously move toward goals consistent with their values. In this sense, clients are taught to step back, observe that they are upset, accept this feeling, and choose a behavior that will help them attain a valued goal. ACT is thought to work by decreasing experiential avoidance - the tendency to disconnect from, avoid, or attempt to alter aversive experiences - thereby helping clients to maintain a focus on their values and goals in the midst of discomfort. A complete summary of the empirical support for ACT would be beyond the scope of this article; however, it is important to note that ACT theorists, like CT theorists, place a heavy emphasis on testing the efficacy and effectiveness of their chosen therapy rather than simply telling us that it works. We recommend that you consult a recent meta-analysis conducted by Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masuda, and Lillis (2006) for more information (see our references page for a detailed citation or email us for instructions on how to find this article).


Returning to the current study, Forman and colleagues (2007) randomly assigned clients presenting at a counseling center to either ACT or CT. Therapists were trained in both approaches and treated clients in both conditions. Therapists were supervised and therapy sessions were evaluated for fidelity to the therapeutic approach. In total, 101 individuals were enrolled in the study. Of these participants, 57 completed a post-treatment questionnaire and were included in the analyses. Obviously, this represents a substantial amount of attrition (dropping out of treatment); however, this result is not abnormal for treatment trials or everyday practice and should not be seen as a flaw beyond the fact that it reduced the sample size, thus diminishing the power of the analyses to detect differences (e.g., it makes it difficult for the researchers to determine if one condition out-performed the other). On average, participants in the CT condition received 15.27 weekly sessions and participants in the ACT condition received 15.60 weekly sessions.

As the authors expected, both treatment groups demonstrated significant improvements post-treatment. Additionally, the two groups were equivalent, meaning participants in the ACT group improved as much as participants in the CT group. These findings are important for two reasons. First, it indicates that both treatments led to significant improvements. Second, it indicates that neither treatment stood out relative to the other in terms of the degree to which participants improved.

Cognitive therapy books

A second set of analyses offered some more interesting information. Forman and colleagues (2007) were interested in mediators of treatment. A mediator, remember, is a variable that explains a relationship. For example, sex mediates the relationship between height and baldness. The taller you are, the more likely you are to be bald; however, this is only because men are more likely to be tall and more likely to be bald. Tall women are no more likely to be bald than are short women. So, when you control for the effects of sex, the relationship between height and baldness disappears. In this study, the authors wanted to do a similar analysis. They knew that both ACT and CT were related to improvement, but they thought each treatment would be related to improvement for a different reason. This, in fact, was shown to be true. The degree to which participants improved their ability to recognize and describe their thoughts and emotions explained the improvement in the CT condition whereas the degree to which participants increased their willingness to accept rather than avoid negative emotional and cognitive experiences explained improvement in the ACT condition.

There are several aspects of this study that I think are extremely important. First, the authors respectfully examined two related but differing perspectives and took care to ensure that both were fairly represented in a trial comparing them to one another. In other words, the priority was on examining the evidence rather than supporting a favored philosophy. This places the emphasis on the client rather than the therapist, which I favor heavily. Secondly, the results offer hope to individuals with depression and anxiety, as they provide preliminary evidence for another empirically supported treatment for these conditions. Currently, APA division 12 lists ACT has having modest empirical support as a treatment for depression. Another strength of this study is that it demonstrates how science can improve upon treatments for mental illness. Two strong treatments based on distinct theories were tested against one another and the researchers were careful to assess why they worked. Doing this allows other researchers to make adjustments to these treatments and then test the newer improved versions against one another. As such, treatment systematically improves as we compare different approaches to one another and learn what works and how it causes changes in clients. As an individual trained in CBT and highly supportive of its theory, I am nonetheless ecstatic to see a strong study that demonstrates equivalent efficacy for a different approach, as this represents progress and an opportunity for treatments to improve.

If you would like to learn more about ACT, CT, or mindfulness, we recommend the following resources, all of which are available through our online store:

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Depression: Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy to Move Through Depression & Create a Life Worth Living

The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Learning Act: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists

Mindfulness for Two: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Mindfulness in Psychotherap

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive Therapy of Depression

Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders

Cognitive Therapy in Clinical Practice


Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse

Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician's Guide to Evidence Base and Applications

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Mindfulness for Beginners

The Miracle of Mindfulness

~ Mike Anestis is a doctoral candidate in the clinical psychology department at Florida State University

Kurt Barstow - Mindfulness, compassion, and language

It's been a little way since Kurt has posted an article - glad to see this one.

Mindfulness, compassion, and language

July 7, 9:50 AM

Compassion in arms

The English word compassion comes from the Latin com (with) plus pati (to suffer). Its short definition is something like, “the deep feeling of suffering with another that manifests in the desire to give aid or support.” This definition, however, makes it sound like just another emotion or capacity, hardly doing justice to its centrality within the Wisdom Traditions or its implications about our radical sameness and interdependence. In The Wise Heart (Bantam, 2008), Jack Kornfield makes it the second principle of Buddhist psychology: “Compassion is our deepest nature. It arises from our interconnection with all things.” He further says, “Buddhist texts describe compassion as the quivering of the heart in the face of pain, as the capacity to see our struggles with ‘kindly eyes.’ We need compassion, not anger, to help us be tender with our difficulties and not close them off in fear. This is how healing takes place.” In its broadest sense, as the quality of shared sympathetic connection among people that facilitates healing, it may become--by necessity-- the defining feature of the age we are entering, the center of a new way of life. This point was recently made in my little local newspaper, the Los Feliz Ledger, by Tom Hyams, the chair of the transportation committee of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council, which is currently experiencing a great deal of strife among its members. He says, “I believe we are witnessing the birth of a revolution, but this war will not be fought with weapons. This is a battle of consciousness. The time for selfishness has passed. The time for compassion is upon us. Ultimately, service is a subset of compassion. To truly have compassion requires selflessness. Selflessness can lead to service. Service can change the world.” He says this in the context of discussing the board members’ desire to serve the community and the need to overcome hostility in a particularly entrenched disagreement that they are having.

Nonviolent Communication Mandala

This points out something rather extraordinary about compassion, which I have been struggling with lately. No matter how intensely and unconditionally we think we might feel this for our fellow human beings, no matter how much our ideals about how human beings should treat one another are shaped by this feeling, to really live compassion, to have it inform our actions and our speech is incredibly difficult work that involves both learning how to become present to other people and unlearning some of our worst culturally formed habits that dehumanize them. (This means that practice is necessary and that mistakes and backsliding will inevitably occur). Some of the most insidious of these habits have become entrenched in our very language in a way that is really quite shocking when you first see it uncovered and even more shocking when you see how persistent the “anti-compassionate” patterns are. It is one thing to feel something common to all human beings. It is altogether another thing to change our basic attitudes, thought, and speech to reflect the values implicit in that feeling of connection.

The Buddhist concept of mindfulness might be described as a way of being present in the moment, without judgment or agenda, to what is (things, people, events, emotions, sensations), of accepting the present moment. As a human capacity, then, mindfulness is about being more present and cultivating greater awareness. It might be thought of as the prerequisite for informed and directed compassion. (You cannot connect to that which you don’t regard, are distracted from, or is hidden from you). Practicing mindfulness in eating, for example, might include taking a meal alone, without conversation or distraction from television or radio, and slowing down the process of eating, concentrating on the texture and taste of the food, thinking about where it has come from and everything involved in its production and delivery until the point at which it reaches you. Recently, I have been reading Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (Puddle Dancer Press, 2003), which offers a way of practicing mindfulness of relationship through language that fosters compassionate connection. The components of nonviolent communication are relatively simple and straightforward. There is a four-part process that consists of 1) making an observation, 2) identifying any feelings, 3) expressing needs, and 4) making a life-affirming request. The other point of nonviolent communication is to express honestly and receive empathetically, creating a space in which direct, true, open-hearted, non-judgmental, non-confrontational communication can take place. If one has never really used this process before, reading the book is revelatory. And its importance is underlined when one puts the book down and enters into a real life dialogue where one tries to first employ its method, reverting unexpectedly to the very patterns of aggressive, defensive, judgmental, life-denying speech that it works so hard to improve on. Its ultimate objective is to create meaningful, honest, productive exchange between human beings who are (or are becoming) authentically open to one another. The core of it all is compassion.

The basic NVC process begins with observing without evaluating. This is because with evaluation people often hear criticism, which immediately puts them on the defensive. For example, we might say, “This month Tree spent $350 on clothes, $150 on groceries, and $400 on rent,” rather than, “Tree spends too much money on clothes.” The second component is to express how we are feeling in relation to what we are observing, which means both taking responsibility for our feelings (not blaming others) and expressing feelings not thought. This would be to say, “I feel worried that Tree spent $350 on clothes because I am fearful there isn’t enough to cover the bills,” rather than, “I feel that Tree is irresponsibly spending too much money on nonessential items.” The third component is identifying the needs behind the feelings. This is an important step because, as Rosenberg says, “judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our own needs.” “You hate me,” for example, which can’t possibly even be something known by the speaker, might better be expressed as, “I need to feel a more loving connection from you.” This is a direct and honest expression of a need rather than an indirect expression, which will likely be taken as a criticism. Rosenberg points out, “Over and over again, it has been my experience that, from the moment people began talking about what they need rather than what’s wrong with one another, the possibility of finding ways to meet everybody’s needs is greatly increased.” He then goes on to list some of our basic human needs in various categories, which is worth repeating here (in a much abbreviated fashion).

Autonomy (to choose one’s dreams, goals, and values)
Celebration (to celebrate dreams, the creation of life, loved ones)
Integrity (authenticity, creativity, meaning, self-worth)
Interdependence (acceptance, appreciation, community, love, support, understanding)
Play (fun, laughter)
Spiritual Communion (beauty, harmony, order, peace)
Physical Nurturance (air, food, shelter, protection from disease, touch, rest, sexual expression)

In the above case of Tree, for example, the need underlying the feeling of worry might be, “I am needing to bring more order to the monthly budget so we don’t get behind on utilities payments.” The fourth component of NVC is to make a request (not a demand) that would enrich life. The most important thing to remember here is that it must be a genuine request, not something designed to obtain a specific change in behavior. Rosenberg says, “If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they do so willingly and compassionately.” So, rather than saying to Tree, “You should stop spending so irresponsibly when we have these bills to pay,” we might say, “Would you be willing to make some cuts in your clothing budget so long as we are having difficulty making the utilities payments?” In one scenario, Tree is someone who is irresponsible and doing the wrong thing; she is a one-dimensional, selfish, fashion-crazy shop-a-holic. In the other scenario, there is no right or wrong to begin with, no moral judgment about her spending, just observations, feelings, needs, and a request. One can only imagine to which scenario she will respond more positively!

Rosenberg came up with this process by “studying the question of what alienates us from our natural state of compassion.” What he came up with were specific forms of communication that contributed to our becoming violent toward one another, “life-alienating communication.” This includes “moralistic judgments that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who do not act in harmony with our values...blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, and diagnoses,” (which are all also forms of judgment), denial of responsibility (implying we have no choice), and communicating desires as demands. This can only increase defensiveness among the people we are addressing. Furthermore, if they agree with our interpretation of them as bad or wrong, their change in behavior will be based in nothing but fear, guilt, or shame. Rosenberg believes, “We all pay dearly when people respond to our values and needs, not out of a desire to give from the heart, but out of fear, guilt, or shame. Sooner or later, we will experience the consequences of diminished goodwill on the part of those who comply with our values out of a sense of either external or internal coercion. They, too, pay emotionally, for they are likely to feel resentment and decreased self-esteem when they respond out of fear, guilt, or shame.” There is a political dimension to these life-alienating patterns entrenched in our language. Rosenberg points out that this sort of communication “both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies. Where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals for their own benefit, it would be in the interest of kings, czars, nobles, etc. that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slave-like in mentality. The language of wrongness, ‘should’ and ‘have to’ is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in moralistic judgments that imply wrongness or badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves--to outside authorities--for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.”

Negative Self-Talk

Like so many things involving others, the kind of dialogue that NVC is committed to begins with the self. In order to make such compassionate connections, we must first be compassionate with ourselves. Just as the Buddhist Metta (Lovingkindness) meditation begins by recalling our own experiences of unconditional love and wishing for happiness, health, and ease of life for ourselves before extending desire for the same to various other individuals we are familiar with and, eventually, to all sentient beings, the kind of compassion that the NVC conversation is based in is probably most effectively given when we have spent some time becoming aware of our relationship to ourself, examining our habitual self-talk. One of the most important things to watch out for is any kind of self-aversion (a widespread problem in Western culture) behind our thought: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m wrong,” “That was a stupid thing to do.” Shame lurks behind all these sorts of comments and, as Rosenberg says, “Shame is a form of self-hatred, and actions taken in reaction to shame are not free and joyful acts. Even if our intention is to behave with more kindness and sensitivity, if people sense shame or guilt behind our actions, they are less likely to appreciate what we do than if we are motivated purely by the human desire to contribute to life.” In this respect, “should” is one of the worst words we can use in relation to ourselves: “I should have known better,” “I should have done it a different way,” “I should stop smoking,” “I shouldn’t eat so much.” Rosenberg points out, “We were not meant to succumb to the dictates of ‘should’ and ‘have to,’ whether they come from outside or inside of ourselves. And if we do yield and submit to these demands, our actions arise from energy that is devoid of life-giving joy.” Inner judgment, blame, and demand come from such evaluations and may be transformed by focusing on our needs, evaluating ourselves in a way that inspires change: “1) in the direction of where we would like to go, and b) out of respect and compassion for ourselves, rather than out of self-hatred, guilt, or shame.” So, rather than saying to ourselves, “Oh my god, I screwed up again!” we can instead look for the unmet need expressed in the moralistic judgment. Connecting to the need we may come into contact with an emotion--sadness, disappointment, fear--that helps us mobilize our actions in the direction of that need. In the case of regret, rather than perpetually punishing ourselves, we can ask ourselves what need we were trying to meet when we behaved in a certain way. “An important aspect of self-compassion,” Rosenberg says, “is to be able to empathically hold both parts of ourselves--the self that regrets a past action and the self that took the action in the first place.” Finally, it is important to cultivate an awareness of the energy behind all of our actions and to make choices that are motivated out of joy and the desire to contribute to life, being wary of choices made for money, for approval, to escape punishment, to avoid shame, to avoid guilt, or out of duty.

Non-judgment, self-love, and self-respect may be the most difficult things to come by in our culture. They may, however, be the most important qualities to develop, for they determine our relationship to others. In that sense, the quality of our interconnectedness begins with the quality of our regard for our self and our ability to provide ourself with unconditional love. In turn, it is the unconditional love and compassion we freely give to others that is so important in forming their own relationship to their selves. We really are all in it together, inseparable, reflections of one another.

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Author: Kurt Barstow
Kurt Barstow is an Examiner from Los Angeles. You can see Kurt's articles on Kurt's Home Page.