And the Oklahoma man — eighth-grade teacher by day, militant blogger by night — who may personify it more than any of the conservatives who, when the town halls pass, may be pointing the way to a holy war that goes way beyond health care.
By John H. Richardson
Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear to me that what we are witnessing is nothing less than the birth of a new religion. Cobbled together from old parts (fundamentalism, gun rights, excessive reverence for capitalism and The Founders, paranoid talking points from the good old liberal-hating John Birch Society), this new decidedly American religion has finally achieved critical mass under the pressure of a president whom its most extreme adherents call — by no accident — the Antichrist.
Though I have spent plenty of time by now tracking dangerous threats and outrageous actions first-hand, I'm not here just to bash this strange new thing. Because like most Americans, I have sympathy for some of these ideas and the people who believe them. That's what makes the new religion confusing: so many of these parts act in contradiction, held together by faith and faith alone — in order to keep calling themselves Christian, most of these folks had to throw out the entire Sermon on the Mount. I've got no problem with guns, but Jesus didn't carry a gun. And he didn't
hate homosexuals, either. He believed in love and forgiveness and turning the other cheek.
At least he used to.
I've toyed with various names for this strange new thing: NRA Fundamentalism, NRA Market Fundamentalism, Mean Christianity, Tough Christianity. But perhaps it's better to provide an example...
Mike Austin: McVeigh-Caliber Nut, Oklahoma's Best Teacher, or Both?
Behold the New American Radical. His name is Mike Austin. He's 52, with a shaved head and glasses and a private, restrained quality that feels slightly monkish. He teaches at the Independence Charter Middle School in Oklahoma City. He drives a late-model, metallic-green Jeep. He has called President Obama "evil" and "malignant," and he believes, along with much of the hard-line wing of the Republican party, that America is rapidly becoming a socialist dictatorship.
In his eighth-grade classroom, Austin is a whirlwind. "Desks cleared off! Get organized, ladies and gentlemen — we've got work to do!"
"Are you going to be nicer because someone is watching?"
It's a completely integrated class, all the kids in blue-and-white uniforms, noisy and playful and completely engaged. "Those Americans who were in favor of the Constitution — what were they called?"
"What were those who were against the Constitution called?"
Austin mentions his hunger, which is due to Lent. They've talked about that before, he reminds his students, the idea of mortifying the flesh — that's morte-ify, from the Latin for death. By killing the flesh a little bit, you can dominate it — the flesh no longer is your master, you are. "Alright, show-offs! Who were the three authors of the Federalist Papers?"
"And the Anti-Federalists, they were worried about which of the branches having too much power?"
"They thought the executive branch would turn into a what?"
Austin doesn't put up with crude behavior — polish yourself, he tells them, moderate your vocabulary. The kids challenge him just for the pleasure of seeing him establish the boundaries. "Mr. Austin, I've been on a roll. Can I have ten points?"
"If I rewarded you for doing things that you should do, that would be making morality a function of commerce, and I wouldn't do that to you."
"But I've been doing extra good."
"I expect you to do extra good all the time. Now, three items we have to review about our Constitution..."
There's no doubt, watching this, that Austin is a great teacher. Walking the halls with him later, as students come up to him giggling and eager, making jokes and saying hello, it's even more difficult to imagine the man who rises each night at ninety minutes after midnight to write passages like these on a blog called The Return of Scipio:We are going to learn whether it is true that "all power flows from the barrel of a gun." We are going to learn how many Americans will refuse to live in a single party state. We are going to learn who possesses the real power in this country...
The liberal must find a way to separate the conservative from his gun. The liberal must also find a way to weaken the military. The liberal must remove any possible threat to the very existence of his tribe. If he can do this, his victory will be complete...
Obama desires to turn the nation into a socialist dependency wholly controlled by the Democrat party. He plans to allow sodomites in the military. He has laid out plans to enlist the entire nation in his Marxist crusade...
That same day, the school principal welcomes me to a homey office with green vines outside the window. She's cheerful and firm, a middle-school principal from Central Casting, Vana Baker by name. She says that Austin is so popular with the kids that his colleagues get jealous. He works very hard to teach the young men chivalry, how to open doors and treat a girl. He's really very sweet. He even made this loaf of bread on the end of her desk. (Austin looks a little sheepish. "I have a bread machine.")
But she has gotten some complaints, which do concern her. Recently, someone wrote an angry letter saying that Austin is a Timothy McVeigh-caliber nut who could end up bearing arms against Obama and that the school should fire him if it didn't want any trouble. That was the basic gist, anyway, and it was intimidating. And she got another one on Monday, quoting things Austin had written, like that he was teaching the kids to be a little militia, which would never happen because Baker would never permit it: "Number one, I can handle him. Number two, what he writes, it's from that conservative Christian philosophy, and I agree with a lot of it."
"But he does question the legitimacy of the Obama government."
She looks surprised for a moment. "Absolutely, he does."
"Is that a concern?"
"Not as long as he doesn't stand up in front of the students and put their parents down for the way they voted."
Anyway, Baker says, the parents in this area are very conservative. None of them have complained about the blog.
The Birth of the Modern Conservative: Celibate by Way of Guatemala
Courtesy of Mike Austin
Off campus, Austin couldn't be more welcoming. His apartment is a one-bedroom unit on the ground floor of a rambling development — a lot of books like Patton, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Atlas Shrugged on cheap Ikea shelves, posters of John Wayne and Gladiator, a couple of giant speakers, two crucifixes, one statue of the Virgin Mary, and one incense burner "because Martin Luther said incense drives away the devil." His record collection is mostly classical, with a few old Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers discs. His DVDs include Braveheart, The Godfather, and The Untouchables. By his desk, Austin's got The 5000 Year Leap, a book Glenn Beck has been pushing on his show that says American freedoms are all based on Christian morality and the Constitution doesn't really call for the separation of church and state.
And here is his gun, light and gray. "It's my concealed-carry gun," he says, loading bullets into the chamber. "I never, ever want to use this."
He first started carrying two years ago, and it felt odd. "I thought, What am I doing? This is crazy. This is freakin' nuts."
But he came to consider it his duty. As he puts it on the blog:An armed citizen is a free citizen. He is more than his brother's keeper, he is the keeper of American liberty.
In his bedroom, Austin pulls out another gun. "This is the one I take backpacking. It's a very serious tool — 44 magnum. Boom, boom."
His expression is grave, his voice soft. "I don't want to use that either. I don't want to kill any animals. I'm not a hunter type."
Austin's story seems designed to confound glib assumptions. He is, in fact, the son of an illegal Mexican immigrant and a white working-class mother from Portland. His father committed suicide before he was born, and he was put up for adoption at a Catholic orphanage, where a nun recognized the family name and called his grandmother, who made his mother take him back. He grew up poor, sometimes going without shoes or electricity, started working at nine, dropped out, joined the service, went to college, and discovered Tacitus, moved into a commune, smoked pot, grew his hair long, played blues guitar, hit the road — first Mexico, then Guatemala and beyond, picking up a Mayan girlfriend and traveling the jungles with a machete. Guerillas took him hostage. He married and divorced three wives.
To this day, he has some passionate liberal viewpoints. He has no sympathy for the many fans of the Confederacy who live in the area, for example. "They talk about taxes, about the war of northern aggression — that's all crap. It was about keeping black men in chains, and that was an affront against God."
His turning point came about ten years ago, when Austin came across a book called Mere Christianity and realized — as he was reading it, getting angry at the book for the things it was making him feel — that he was living a lie. He was nothing but a "charming animal" chasing pleasure. So he decided to do it right, strictly orthodox, no-fish-on-Fridays, absolute fidelity to the magisterium and the catechism and whatever the pope says when he's speaking ex cathedra. To him, pro-choice liberals like Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry aren't even Catholics. They're renegades and betrayers who should be denied communion and driven from public life. You can't pick and choose, he says.
"Celibacy doesn't bother me at all. I've been celibate for seven years."
"Getting clean. I want to be chaste and clean."
"No, I'm done. These women are creatures of God, these beautiful creations. To fornicate with them, to touch them, is to defile them. I'm not going to do that."
Since When Did Oklahoma City Become Nazi Germany?
Courtesy the University of Notre Dame
Mike Austin's transformation exactly parallels the changes in the Catholic Church, which has 65 million followers in America. In 2004, conservative rage over abortion persuaded a handful of bishops to say they would deny communion to John Kerry. By 2009, the anger had risen to the point that 28 percent of those 65 million (or 18 million people) wanted Notre Dame to withdraw its commencement-address invitation to Obama, and the bishop leading the protests sounded like Austin's twin: "We are engaged in a constant warfare with Satan, with the glamour of evil, and the lure of false truths and empty promises," he said. "Four thousand abortions each day in the United States — this is the tally of the enemy."
But the disconnect between Austin's militant ideas and his gentle personality is baffling. He turns out to be a good companion, skilled in the humane arts of introspection and doubt. At dinner, he even admits to worrying about his detachment from ordinary life and wonders if he's just a "fake man" who runs from responsibilities and obligations. If he had a wife, she'd want real estate and roots and he just can't do that. He doesn't know why, but he knows he would end up letting her down.
He's also comfortable poking fun at himself. "I'm becoming what I'll be five years from now. I'll be living in some northern Idaho hut, buncha Dobermans in one room..."
"Carving little wooden bombs..."
"Shotgun on my lap, whiskey..."
"This property protected..."
"By Mike Austin."
Then he's on to a happier subject, Alexander the Great, the finest military man who ever lived — eighteen when he commanded his father's cavalry in the last battle against Macedon, twenty when he took the kingdom, twenty-five when he conquered the world. What a joy to see man's unleashed potential stride across the stage of history!
Listening to all this, bonding over beer and nachos, the anger on The Return of Scipio seems so distant and unreal. It seems to exist on a separate plane from actual human life. This begins to seem like a significant contradiction, a key of some kind. Is it all just theater? A passion play for modern times?
As we drive back to my hotel through the clean wide streets of Oklahoma City, I take a chance on some gentle teasing: "Everything's so well-groomed, you got no garbage, no graffiti — I do not see the collapse of American civilization here."
His answer comes out cold as a can from a Coke machine: "If you were to look at the streets of Nazi Germany in 1936, they would appear a lot like this. Probably cleaner."
I've heard this exact argument before, from the Glenn Beck follower types, but I can't believe they really mean to compare their fellow Americans to the most cold-blooded killers in human history. It must be rhetoric. They can't be that alienated from the society that has given them, beyond any civilization in history, lives of such extraordinary privilege and comfort. My voice rises with my exasperation. "You could say that about any town anywhere!"
His answer comes back steady and patient, like he's explaining history to one of his eighth graders. "The government in Washington, D.C. has encroached so much on states' rights, it seems like we don't have a federal system any more, rather an imperial one. And when the states lose their rights guaranteed in the Constitution, then what you have is tyranny."
Obama is a fascist, he continues. Setting the limits of investment-bank incomes and claiming the right to seize General Motors are just two examples. Where in the Constitution does it grant him those powers? Are we a nation of laws, or is this a lawless regime that sends out its goons like Mussolini?
(And there it is, the voice of the blog: What has always stood against lawless men? Force. That is the only idiom understood by such men. To answer lawless men with force is to speak their language.)
President Obama is a wicked and evil man, Austin says. His abortion policy is the most murderous of "any man anywhere in American public life."
(Again: A Godless man is a rebel who apes the first rebel, Lucifer. Obama is a Godless man.)
And he won't apologize for repeating that famous Thomas Jefferson quote about using blood to nourish the tree of liberty, either. If Jefferson's words offend, so be it.
(One more time: They have removed all other options, all other appeals, all other possibilities. They have connived to make our Republic into a single party state that controls all information, every school, both houses of Congress, all entertainment, every university, the entire government bureaucracy and the executive branch.)
"There are things worse than violence, John," Austin tells me. "Slavery is worse than violence. The most peaceful place in the world is the cemetery."
The next day — my last in town — Austin is enjoying the last of this rare man-to-man conversation so much that he misses the exit for the airport. And the next exit after that.
"Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia."
Like I said, there's a lot to like about Mike Austin. In many ways, he's a very good man. But he scares the crap out of me. Consider the deadly dynamic that Norman Mailer — long-winded and barking-at-the-moon crazy, but a major American genius nonetheless — described in The Armies of the Night:Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul. For the center of Christianity was a mystery, the son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ. The average America, striving to do his duty, drove further and further each day into working for Christ, and drove further and further each day in the opposite direction — into working for the absolute computer of the Corporation. Yes and no, 1 and 0. Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia; the average American believed in two opposites more profoundly apart than any previous schism in the Christian soul. Christians had been able to keep some kind of sanity for centuries while embracing love against honor, desire versus duty, even charity opposed in the same heart to the lust for power — that was difficult to balance but not impossible. The love of the Mystery of Christ, however, and the love of no Mystery whatsoever, had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition — since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic. So the average good Christian American secretly loved the war in Vietnam. It opened his emotions. He felt compassion for the hardships and the sufferings of the American boys in Vietnam, even the Vietnamese orphans. And his view of the war could shift a little daily as he read his paper, the war connected him to his newspaper again: connection to the outside world, and the small shift of opinions from day to day are the two nostrums of that apothecary where schizophrenia is treated. America needed the war. It would need a war so long as technology expanded on very road of communication, and the cities and corporations spread like cancer; the good Christian Americans needed the war or they would lose their Christ.
That's what scares me: that the birthers and the tea parties aren't really about health care or a birth certificate or even Nobama the Socialist Antichrist, but the first skirmishes of a new holy war.
Next week: some good-bad news from a major American economist, and an exchange with a former Soviet citizen who sees both sides of the health-care conflict from a completely fresh angle. Stay tuned.
For the RecordIt is a black irony when someone attacks you for getting facts wrong by getting her own facts wrong, but that is what Sarah Kliff has done in her criticism of my story in Esquire, The Last Abortion Doctor. The headline she objects to says that Dr. Hern is now the last doctor to "specialize in late-term abortions." Kliff asks why I didn't include Dr. Carhart, but her own story (which she helpfully links to above) shows that Carhart used to perform late-term abortions just one day every three weeks at Dr. Tiller's clinic, which was closed following Dr. Tiller's killing. Although he has begun to offer the service at his clinic in Nebraska — where only 29 late-term abortions were performed in 2008 — he refuses to do "elective abortions past 24 weeks" and "will operate only when another physician has declared the fetus unable to live more than momentarily outside the womb." Again, these are Kliff's own words. I don't see how anyone could describe this as "specializing" in late-term abortions, which is probably why the quote Kliff cites ("the notion that Dr. Warren Hern is the last remaining late-abortion provider is not accurate") does not use the word "specialize." The same goes for the handful of other doctors who sometimes perform late-term abortions but do not "specialize" in them, instead performing them very quietly on a spot basis — again, even Kliff says that Carhart refused to provide any names of the six doctors he knew who were willing to perform this service. They certainly don't advertise and put themselves out in the public eye as Dr. Hern so courageously does, which is why distressed women come to him from all over the world for treatment. Because of all this, I am saddened that Kliff would take such a cheap shot at a piece which she apparently not even read, given the wording of her first paragraph, and I would appreciate it if she would go to all the Websites that have linked to it and correct her mistake.
EVERYBODY HATES OBAMA: A THREE-PART SERIES
Saturday, August 22, 2009
In an illustration more typical of Pinker's cultural taste, he quotes the opening scene of Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, when the young Alvy Singer tells a psychiatrist that he won't do his homework because the universe is expanding. If the universe is going to fall apart, he says, what is the point of human existence? "What has the universe got to do with it?" his mother wails at him. "You' re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"
That kind of reductionism is confusing two levels of analysis," Pinker says. "We have meaning and purpose here inside our heads, being the organisms that we are. We have brains that make it impossible for us to live our lives except in terms of meaning and purpose. The fact that you can look at meaning and purpose in one way, as a neuro-psychological phenomenon, doesn' t mean you can' t look at it in another way, in terms of how we live our lives."
The collection of genes known as Steven Pinker made the point most forcibly in How The Mind Works, where he explained his own decision not to have children - which apparently runs counter to the demands of evolution - and says that if his genes don't like it, "they can take a running jump."
Speakers: Roshi Joan Halifax, Natalie Goldberg, Daniel Siegel, MD
Cellist Nelson Denman begins the session by playing for the pleasure of our right brains. Roshi Joan emphasizes the importance of practicing for others and seeing the web of relationships in all forms of life. She urges us to drop the prison of information we create in our minds. Dan illustrates how concepts can imprison us but shows how we can use the conceptual mind to help others. Later he begins showing how the nine middle pre-frontal functions integrate.[Play]
Neurobiology of We part 5 of 9 [152:36m]: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download [Play]
Taking a Standby Lorne Ladner
Boundaries play an interesting and sometimes complicated role in developing compassion. They are like the stake and wires that are used to help keep young trees rooted and growing straight. Early on in our practice or when we’re faced with difficult, new challenges, a lack of healthy boundaries can lead to our compassion being blown away before it’s had a chance to take root. As we develop, though, boundaries held too tightly can stifle our compassion and keep it from reaching maturity. In the process of developing compassion, we need to become skillful at knowing when to apply boundaries and when to relax or release them.
While Buddhist literature doesn’t use the word boundaries, it addresses this issue. For example, Buddhism praises the value of generosity but warns that you shouldn’t give something away if you’re likely to be upset later and regret giving it away. Similarly, although it’s good to help others, we shouldn’t agree to do something for another person if it will likely lead us to feel exhausted, resentful, and angry at the other person. Each of us has to judge our own capacities and set our boundaries accordingly.
Healthy boundaries can be important for maintaining our sense of self-respect. Sometimes out of insecurity, fear, or a wish to avoid getting angry, we don’t stand up for ourselves when others treat us badly or put us down. Setting a boundary can be a way of standing up for yourself without having to get angry. A story of Martin Luther King, Sr., the father of the famous civil rights leader, who was also a pastor, shows clearly how to use boundaries in this way. Driving down a street in segregated Atlanta with his young son beside him in the front seat, the elder Reverend King accidentally drove past a stop sign. A white police officer pulled up to him and said, “All right, boy, pull over and let me see your license.”
Without any hesitation, Reverend King replied, “Let me make it clear to you that you aren’t talking to a boy. If you persist in referring to me as a boy, I will be forced to act as if I don’t hear a word you are saying.” Setting boundaries often requires some bravery. Given the place and time, Reverend King ran the risk of a violent reaction. Brief moments in which we act with bravery and selfrespect can have surprising effects on our own character and on those around us. The officer was so surprised that he silently wrote a ticket and drove away as quickly as he could.
This is precisely the way to go about setting healthy boundaries. You begin by correcting the person, telling the other how you wish to be treated, or stating what you are or are not willing to do. It can be difficult in the short run to set a clear boundary with someone you care about, but not doing so often leads to many more difficulties over a much longer period of time.
From The Lost Art of Compassion, © 2004 by Lorne Ladner. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
Image: © Michael S. Wertz
Friday, August 21, 2009
Join Nobel Laureate Francis Crick as he explains new ideas and experiments in the fascinating field of human consciousness. Series: "Frontiers of Knowledge" [5/1999] UCTV.
Speakers: Roshi Joan Halifax, Daniel Siegel, MD
Roshi and Dan take a question from a participant about the attunement relationship between humans and the natural world, specifically with wind or climate. There is lively debate and then clarification of the issue. Dan leads brief meditations on mindfulness of the breath and on lovingkindness, both of which the participants discuss afterwards.[Play]
Neurobiology of We part 4 of 9 [68:17m]: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download [Play]
Nice little article from Utne Reader. The view presented here is not new to anyone who has done any therapy or spiritual work - we need to experience and learn to sit with our most difficult feelings if we are ever to become whole and mature human beings. Difficult emotions are teachers - we simply need to learn to listen.
by Miriam Karmel Feldman
Why negative emotions are good for your health
Emotion phobia. That's what psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan says we have. We're afraid of our feelings, at least our darker ones, she writes in Common Boundary (May/June 1998). In a denunciation of what she sees as a growing cultural trend toward trashing the so-called negative emotions, Greenspan laments the widely held belief that good emotions can cure, while bad ones make people sick. Putting a negative label on dark emotions "is like blaming Pandora for opening the box," she writes. "What's in the box needs to be known."
Psychotherapist Roger Dafter traces the origins of this good-bad emotional dichotomy to a 1956 study which found that stress in animals increased the incidence of various illnesses. Based on that study and others in the nascent field of psychoneuroimmunology, which explores the connection between our emotional and physical states, many researchers and pop psychologists have jumped to the conclusion that negative emotions—anger, fear, sorrow—not only cause illness, but also inhibit recovery.
In a recent interview at UCLA, where he is associate director of the Mind-Body Medicine Group, Dafter argues that it's time to rethink the old research because it has been oversimplified to the point where patients often blame themselves for their illnesses.
Both Dafter and Greenspan argue that emotions are neither good nor bad; they're neutral. And both make a case for the role of negative emotions in the healing process. Dafter says we should embrace the "full spectrum" of our emotions, which are like an innate pharmacy, each one playing a role in the mind-body healing process. Greenspan suggests thinking of emotions as teachers. Sorrow teaches us about interconnectedness. Fear is a survival instinct. And anger indicates that something’s wrong that must be made right.
In fact, it can dangerous to think of certain emotions as positive, according to Rachel Naomi Remen, a counselor of critically ill patients and author of the popular Kitchen Table Wisdom (Riverhead, 1996). In an article in Advances (Spring 1996), Remen writes that positive thinking of this kind wrongly implies "a certain set of attitudes that may guarantee survival." It's how we deal with emotions that is or is not life affirming, she argues. In other words, the only "bad" emotion is a stuck emotion.
So how do we get unstuck? How do we draw on this innate pharmacopeia of feelings? By cultivating the art of mindful body awareness, or emotional intelligence, advises Greenspan, who lists five capacities that are essential: sensitivity (the ability to feel the emotion), literacy (the ability to distinguish between different emotions), mindfulness (the awareness of the emotion), flow (the ability to surrender to the experience), and intention (the ability to focus the mind). Combined, they allow us to ride a wave of emotion and use it for personal transformation.
Take the case of Leah, a compliant, unassertive woman with cancer who believed that her negative thinking had caused her illness. In therapy Leah eventually learned to connect with all of her emotions, which, according to an article by Dafter in Advances, "likely resulted in corresponding changes in biochemistry that positively affected her immune system." Leah has now been cancer-free for more than 10 years.
That's not to say that you can ensure recovery by getting in touch with your feelings. "Plenty of people don't get better," says Dafter, but they do get healed.
Cured. Healed. What's the difference? "Healing," he explains, "relates to the release of suffering." It involves the capacity to deal with catastrophic circumstances. "The person can be dying, yet the spirit can be healing. No matter what happens physically, there can always be psychospiritual healing."
It's an important distinction, he says. The question of how, or even if, emotions cause disease is different from the issue of whether emotions can abet recovery. The jury is still out on the first question, says Dafter, though there is research to suggest that some conditions (bronchia, for example) are related to certain emotional states. "Different diseases have different relationships to emotion," he says. As for recovery, he says that facing negative emotions can be helpful because it motivates people to action and gives them an opportunity for real healing.
We are beginning to move beyond the simplistic, good-bad emotional dichotomy, Dafter says, noting pockets of interest in mind-body healing at Harvard, UCLA, and other medical schools. "We have the mind-body technologies to improve health," he says. "If we applied this stuff systematically to a major medical center, we could eliminate suffering."
Release Year: 2006
Duration: 6 min
Availability: WorldwideNational Geographic photographer Chris Rainier and filmmaker Ethan Boehme team up to bring Rainier’s photographs and Boehme’s cinematography of the sacred temples and Buddhist monks of Angkor Wat poetically to film. With music by Anoushka Shankar.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The Paradox of Happiness
By John Tarrant
Real happiness is what we all want, but none of our strategies for finding it seem to work. Maybe it's the search for happiness that makes us unhappy. John Tarrant has some thoughts on why the Buddha smiles.
Everyone knows happiness is A Good Thing, more desirable than say, vacuum cleaners or eye shadow, and right up there with fame, fortune and the love of beautiful women (or men). The founding fathers of the United States offered happiness as part of the mission statement for a people coming together as a nation, encouraging them to pursue—and perhaps to go so far as to chase, harry, hunt down, subdue and corral—happiness. Even the Dalai Lama has said that happiness is the point of Buddhism.
At the same time, happiness is, as quarry, elusive. Happiness is a unicorn. Everyone wants to find it, yet, just when you are hoping for its company, it has a way of disappearing into the leafy shade of its forest. Then the family barbecue or job interview or visit to the hospital just has to stumble along with ordinary human skills and no special blessing.
While a lot of time is spent pursuing happiness, the evidence is compelling that if you plunge toward this unicorn directly, you will miss it by miles, and therefore won't receive its famous kindnesses. Doesn't everyone know this already? Yes. Does that stop anybody from chasing happiness? No.
Mostly, if a method for achieving happiness is not successful, people think something like, She should have loved me more. Or, I wasn't trying hard enough. Or, I wasn't holding my mouth right. Or, If only I had bought a different car. Whether the needle on the blame meter points to yourself or to others, that particular machine will always seem to be malfunctioning, since it never gives a diagnosis that is useful for fixing the problem. You try to do the method better, rather than looking at whether the method works. So let's look at the method.
The Approach Direct
The direct approach to happiness is splendid in its simplicity. It comes down to a bold slogan: Get the Loot. This is the basic happiness-is-a-warm-gun or diamonds-are-a-girl's-best-friend tactic. There is an endless quest to store happiness in objects from which it will seep out like golden light in the winter of any sadness that may come upon you. Variant and popular forms of Get the Loot are: Get the Girl and Get the Prince. More subtle variations are Get the Spiritual Transformation and Get the Psychological Adjustment to a Difficult Childhood—"I'll take a nice enlightenment to go with my espresso please."
The obvious problem with the Get-the-Loot approach is that loot doesn't last. My really cool linen jacket from last year looks, well, so last year, and my nice, new Volvo has become my mechanic's friend. It doesn't seem that happiness can be stored in any stable way—it's even worse than electricity in this regard. You might try to make things last a little longer. You could buy an extremely reliable car. You might extract a promise that your partner will always love you, but would you believe such a promise? Aren't there some Monday mornings when you don't love even your dog? And if you did believe such a promise, would it work? Would you really get happiness?
The Approach Indirect
The ancient authorities, including the Buddha, are convinced that you cannot just waltz right up to the unicorn of happiness. The unicorn disappears if you even look straight at it. You have to take an interest in the rosebushes or the child playing with dolls, and then you might see the unicorn out of the corner of your eye. At first nearly everyone thinks you can just pretend an interest in the rosebushes or the child, but you can’t fake out the unicorn. Pretending an interest in the rosebushes happens when you say to yourself, "I'm meditating to get healthy, to grow kinder, to get enlightened, to pick stocks better and be happy." Though some of these purposes might be noble, this approach doesn't work; you can't manipulate yourself into changing any more than you can manipulate other people into changing. A unicorn is like a human being in that relations with it are fatally compromised by coercion and demands. You can't make a unicorn come to you; it has to want to.
The Approach Without Guile
A spiritual practice is different from many human endeavors in that it does not have a pre-designed goal. You have to just do the spiritual practice without guile and be a courteous host to whatever comes. That's when unicorns appear. The nakedness of this practice makes you unicorn-prone. The unicorn of happiness is not elusive because it is an illusion. It is real. It just inhabits a different dimension from getting and losing and good and evil and pleasure and loss, which are the places we usually look for it.
The legend of the unicorn says that it is attracted to virgins; indeed, virgins are its only known weakness. Before you despair, it might be interesting to take this bit about virgins as an image of what goes on in the mind. The virginal mind is innocent in the positive sense. The innocent mind is not thinking about itself and what it can get. It isn't thinking, "How do I look as unicorn bait?" "No unicorn could ever be interested in me." "I'll be famous if I catch a unicorn." "How do I construct the best unicorn-catching machine?"
Instead, the innocent mind is just hanging out, living its life. It attracts the unicorn because it is like the unicorn, who is also just hanging out, living its life. The innocent mind is the meditation mind, the mind before the world was built and populated with stories about what to think and do. It is sometimes called beginner's mind. It exists before enlightenment and before theology and theology's argument with human desire. The innocent mind is not spending all its time scheming to get others to do what it wants or policing its own impulses. It's open to something new, something that it hasn't thought of. It's the person at the party who doesn't network or try to impress you.
In the legend, the unicorn has another property: its horn stops the action of poisons. This image refers not just to the openness of the meditation mind but also to the way it actively undermines unhappiness and delusion.
The Chinese unicorn is sighted even more rarely than the European one. It is said to have appeared at the time of Confucius' birth and to have a taste for wisdom. One sage had the interesting thought that if a unicorn is so seldom seen, you might not know for certain what it looked like. It might be capable of changing shape. In fact you might meet one and not realize it. How can you be sure that a unicorn is not present on a given occasion? You might be sitting with the unicorn of happiness at this very moment and not know it. Perhaps when you are unhappy, you are just not paying attention.
Security & Insecurity
The strategy of Running Straight at the Unicorn and Getting the Loot has another serious drawback, which is that it is asking for too little. When you are unhappy, you look for a remedy that is in the range of what you already know. Yet what you already know might be precisely what is obscuring your vision of the unicorn. There is a Hindu story about a person who prayed to see Krishna. She meditated hard and it so happened that the blue god was meandering along the woodland path and noticed her. He bent over and tapped her on the shoulder. She did not open her eyes. "Please don't distract me," she said, "I am meditating with a sacred goal in mind." "Oh, O.K. then," thought Krishna, "I wouldn't want to interfere with that," and wandered on down the path.
This is a version of the map-and-territory problem. When you rely on what you know you are always relying on a map which, as soon as it is drawn, has begun to diverge from the territory it intended to describe, which is life. You make adjustments to fit the map, you stand on your head to fit the map. Yet happiness adheres to the territory. Happiness is rooted in what we do not know; otherwise everyone would already be happy. No one knows what a unicorn is before they meet one, and no one can know what their life will look like after they have met one. The unicorn won't change the stuff in your life; it will change you.
If the unicorn is pursued through the getting of things and experiences, the basic idea is that something from outside will make you happy. Then the hidden assumption is that what is inside is pretty pathetic or at least not worth considering in the happiness stakes. Yet what is inside is the only source of happiness.
The big secret is that the unicorn already lives inside you. If the unicorn is already here, the unicorn comes. If it is not here, it will never come. Zen teachers sometimes carry a carved stick as an accoutrement, an indicator that they are important in case no one otherwise notices. One old teacher said, "If you have a stick, I'll give you a stick. If you don't have a stick, I'll take it away."
The desire for loot is usually in some way a hunger for security. A dedicated collector learns quickly that another pair of shoes or another epiphany will not be the final and necessary contribution to happiness. This is why collecting has a melancholy, poignant air. The quest for security is doomed, and its failure is what makes it interesting. It's like taking certain drugs, say, or skipping classes at university or gambling in casinos—it's so bad for you that it feels cool; it gives you a sense of wealth since you are squandering life as if you were immortal. Seeking security is a rebellion against the unpredictability of reality and also against its demanding fascination.
The deep reason things coming in from the outside are not ultimately consoling is that there is a bigger question going on— security for whom, happiness for whom? You might have an idea about who you are, and the security is a support structure for that idea. Security is always for an idea that you are “a someone.” Yet it is hard to prove that you really are “a someone.” If you check your thoughts out, they come and go, they change radically overnight or according to the state of your digestion, and you may find that you often don't even believe them. If you look, you can't find who is thinking your thoughts.
Bodhidharma, who brought Zen to China from India, is meditating when a student says to him, "My mind is not at peace. Please put it to rest."
Bodhidharma says, "Bring me your mind and I will set it to rest."
"But I've searched for my mind and can't find it."
"There, I have put it to rest."
Being unable to find your mind when you look for it might be thought of as a moment of massive uncertainty, yet this is exactly what frees you. Uncertainty makes happiness possible because it stops certainty from interrupting happiness. Happiness is the natural state of things; the unicorn is already here.
Nothing Is Too Good For Little Me
When the mind and heart are at rest, they are not important or unimportant, secure or insecure, and this natural state is happiness. Security, on the other hand, is the cause of unhappiness. It is in the service of a character called "Me," as in "What about Me?" who is always worried what will happen to her. There is "Poor Little Me" and "Nothing Is Too Good For Little Me," and both are based on the longing for security.
When I was three or four I had an imaginary playmate who was the foreman on an imaginary construction site. His name was Bill and I'd ring him up on an imaginary phone next to the black wall phone in the front hall. I used to give him orders. I'd say, "Bring the bulldozer." We would also have conversations at lunchtime. "Another bloody jam sandwich," I would complain to him enthusiastically, flinging it over my shoulder. Having a self is a bit like keeping Bill with you for the rest of your life, and setting your life up to assure him that he is real.
"Little Me" is a hypothesis to explain where thoughts come from. Yet no one knows where thoughts come from. Sometimes they don't even seem to belong to anyone. The next line of the poem just arrives, the way the next moment of the world does. This is good news for you because it leaves the door open for the unicorn, who also appears out of nowhere, but bad news for Little Me, who likes you to think that she is the source of your thoughts and therefore essential.
So many of your thoughts are for the sake of preserving Little Me. When you were a child she entered your employ as a governess who promised to be a help. As you grew she became your faithful retainer, general secretary and assistant. Yet her main purpose seems to be to make herself feel secure. She exists to make sure that she continues to exist. An idea is trying to maintain itself, a phantom who asks that you serve her. Yet security for Little Me is not security for you. She is so fascinating to herself that she is uninterested in other people, including you. You have to run around and Get the Loot to assuage this phantom's anxiety. You have to build pyramids because she is frightened of dying. The Sufis have a story about a donkey who persuades his rider to carry him. Little Me is like that donkey. She did seem to be a help at first, but pretty soon she started impersonating you and writing checks.
Little Me fields all your calls. Meanwhile she gives you the sort of plausible and utterly useless advice that Polonius offered Hamlet. The advice is useless because it is not about you, it's just designed to hold your attention on her.
There is nothing truly wrong with Little Me other than that she, or he, doesn't exist. The secret to happiness is that Little Me is not necessary. When you discover this you may find it a great relief.
This is why happiness is simpler than suffering, which is always working so hard. The unicorn of happiness is allergic to advice and Little Me's complicated schemes are not interesting to her. She is a free wanderer with no fixed destination or shape; her hooves are in the Tao.
Trying Too Hard Is Always a Good Idea
When I first took up meditation I struggled a lot. I really, really, really wanted an experience of enlightenment, so I dashed straight at the unicorn of happiness. When I sat, I was consumed by physical pain, and so naturally I sat up all night. I experimented with breathing in special ways. Basically I tried to concentrate and stay alive for the next five minutes of sitting. Condemning my own states of mind—"This is not a unicorn, and neither is this"—was a lonely path and my own lack of inner kindness wore me down. Perhaps it was a way to convince myself that I was worthy of a visit from the unicorn. Yet all that effort was for the sake of an idea—wisdom will be hard for me, it will take a long time and I will have to suffer to earn it—and this idea was just a prejudice: Little Me's opinion.
When you think that you need something to navigate by, you might cling to a bad or unverifiable idea, which might take you in some other direction than the one you hoped to go in. I was willing to change everything about my life except my ideas. In this way spiritual work which can look so sincere and revolutionary can become at bottom just another quest for security. You could make an argument that shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue is more spiritually sincere. I thought that the unicorn would appear and show me something completely surprising, and at the same time it would say to me, "Yes, John, that's the way to meditate, steady as she goes, you're getting it now. And as a reward, I'll share a few additional secrets with you."
This is the poignant situation of the one who sets off to seek wisdom. I thought happiness would change my world completely and at the same time it would still be my world. In this way, I thought that happiness would confirm my map of the world. Actually, happiness does the opposite: it steals your map so that you can't use it any more. And when there is nothing to navigate by, you are in Unicorn World.
In a certain kind of Zen training, the opening in which you see through your illusions is called kensho, which means, more or less, seeing your true nature. At the zendo where I practiced in the early days, we had a little kensho factory and would encourage each other to sit unmoving through pain. The meditation hall was very noisy, leaders would be yelling, and the sound of the Zen stick whacking people would cut through the air. It was either surprisingly interesting or seemed like a medieval hell, according to your point of view. For me it was both.
When I began to teach, I did more or less the same thing as I’d been taught. The method was tuned toward the direction whence unicorns were expected to appear. I noticed, though, that unicorns did not seem to come from such places, and when, on occasion, they did appear, they seemed indifferent to our methods. People didn't seem to have spiritual openings when the system was tight and pure. The openings came when the system broke down.
Perhaps people wore out and couldn't try any harder and then just felt their lives for a while and were amazed at the spaciousness that opened inside and out. Perhaps their minds escaped their control moves and they saw something—say a tree—as if for the first time. Looking at a tree with such purity they might have noticed a kinship with the tree and have been grateful to be alive, a gratitude that seemed irreversible. The unicorn does not come from the direction you might be expecting it to.
After a while, I began to change my teaching method. Mainly this meant not chasing the unicorn directly and, instead, being interested in what showed up in people's psyches. Then unhappiness became interesting rather than evidence of failure; unhappiness itself became a gate to happiness.
Here's an example. Year after year, on the last day of a retreat, a man fell into despair believing that he had missed another opportunity for enlightenment. It was as if it was his job to sit around and be the one who failed. His mood was compounded when others seemed to be glowing and illuminated. His inner narrative went something like, "I haven't accomplished anything or made myself admirable to myself or others. I've worked so hard, yet I'm really not sincere enough."
This is the sort of thing only a sincere person would think. But he was bereft. Then one time, mysteriously, a Patsy Cline song arrived in his mind and just stayed. "I fall to pieces" repeated itself over and over like a koan or a mantra. This didn't seem orthodox to him, but there was nothing he could do about it. Gradually he began to notice that falling to pieces could be a positive thing. The mind's prison could fall to pieces. He was amused and touched, and a thoughtless compassion for life began to grow in him, a glimpse of a luminous animal moving through the trees. Things didn't go further for the moment and when the retreat ended the old blues came back.
"I feel so discouraged," he thought. "I just feel so discouraged." This phrase began repeating itself also, many times. "I feel so discouraged."His internal voice grew more and more depressed, and then a change occurred. Gradually the voice became energetic. "I feel so discouraged," grew louder. He began to have fun with it. He was shouting to himself, "I feel so discouraged!" as if in triumph, and laughing. "And what's wrong with that?" he thought, embracing his one life. Even discouragement became funny and marvelous. How good to be alive and discouraged. That was his moment of spiritual transformation.
So what is the take-away point about the unicorn?
Everyone wants to use happiness as a fix for problems, yet happiness is its own, very big thing, and it is selling happiness short to make it a fix for problems. To be happy is to experience life not as a series of struggles but as a gift, one that has no known limit. This doesn't mean ignoring your difficulties: it means not assuming that they are what you think they are. If you throw away everything you believe about your difficulties you will notice that many of them disappear and the rest become interesting.
When you get the hang of being more interested in life than in agreeing with your thoughts, then you will get the life you get. And you will be able to have as much happiness as you want with almost no effort whatsoever. When you stop believing your thoughts, you look around just for you, just because it is interesting to look around. Some people call that enlightenment. But you won't call it that. You'll be too interested in the new view. And you'll notice that wherever you look there will be nothing but those damned unicorns.
John Tarrant is the author of The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life (HarperCollins) and the director of Pacific Zen Institute, which conducts retreats devoted to koans, inquiry and the arts.
The Paradox of Happiness, John Tarrant, Shambhala Sun, January 2004.
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Clinical Neuropsychology Research Group, Universitat de les Illes Balears, Palma de Mallorca, SpainA commentary on
Response inhibition is linked to emotional devaluation: behavioral and electrophysiological evidence
by Monica Kiss, Jane E. Raymond, Nikki Westoby, Anna C. Nobre and Martin Eimer
Emotionally salient events have long been shown to engage attentional resources more than emotionally neutral events (Vuilleumier, 2005). In contrast, the reciprocal effect that attention also influences emotion has remained mostly unexplored in spite of everyday intuition. Imagine yourself sitting at your desk, your thoughts immersed in formulating some complex brain theory. Suddenly, the door opens and an unknown face sticks out asking: Dr. Petersµ – No, wrong office – you reply. Even if the smiling face quickly retreats in silence, it already captured your attention away, and briefly interrupted the smooth flow of your thoughts and actions. Some may find this distractor effect displeasing, particularly while handling a difficult problem, or if the interruption occurs at frequent intervals. In a research article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Kiss et al. (2008) have made an original contribution to the field by means of a novel methodology to examine the links between attentional selection and emotional valuation.
The authors tested the hypothesis that human faces would be emotionally devalued and judged as less trustworthy as a consequence of having been designated as distractors – hence requiring no overt motor response – in a previous selective attention procedure. Visual targets and distractors consisted of exemplars of human faces with distinct racial features, i.e., Caucasian versus Asian faces. Trial blocks involved two stages. Firstly, participants saw a short series of novel faces, to which they responded by pressing a button to faces of one race, and refrained from responding to faces of the other race (Figure 1). Secondly, about half-a-minute later, the same faces were judged for trustworthiness in a 4-point rating scale. Each face appeared only twice, once at response selection, and once at the affective evaluation stage, to control for familiarity effects. The response assignment of target (Go) and distractor (Nogo) racial features was reversed halfway through the experiment.
Importantly, the neural substrates of distractor devaluation were also examined. As an index of prefrontal inhibitory control, the authors measured a negative-going brain potential peaking between 250 and 350ms after the onset of Nogo distractors (often termed "Nogo N2"). The phasic negativity peaks at midfrontal scalp regions and has been considered as an -electrophysiological correlate of anterior cingulate function (Nieuwenhuis et al., 2003). The intensity of Nogo N2 potentials to distractor faces was larger for faces that were rated as less trustworthy than for faces judged more positively. This indicated that the efficiency of prefrontal inhibitory control triggered by distractor faces covaried with their subsequent affective devaluation.
The phenomenon of distractor devaluation was explained from a general inhibition-based account by which the same type of inhibitory tagging responsible for top-down cognitive control could be generalized to emotional as well as "perceptual, higher cognitive, or response-related stages of processing" (Kiss et al., 2008). The -proposal stands on evidence that distractor devaluation occurs in conditions requiring strong attentional inhibition i.e., when targets and distractors share some perceptual features (Figure 1; Fenske and Raymond, 2006). In spite of its parsimony, however, the account does not clarify why efficient response inhibition to distractors does not necessarily prevent the disruption of concurrent thoughts and actions. Instead, probabilistic stimulus-response contextual associations can explain behavioral distraction and related brain responses in terms of transient overloads in working memory capacity induced by the distractors (Barceló et al., 2008). If distractor faces induced interference and response conflict, there is possibility of transient dips being caused in cognitive control whose resolution demands prefrontal resources. From this perspective, distractor devaluation and the -midfrontal negativities might relate to the rather -displeasing feeling of being -temporary out-of-control. This -interpretation concurs with the -clustering of -emotional and attentional symptoms observed in some frontal lobe patients (e.g., distractibility, disinhibition and irritability).
This study paves the way to elucidate these as well as several other relevant issues on the way in which attention influences emotion: How does novelty and familiarity modulate distractor devaluationµ What are the specific neural substrates and cognitive mechanismsµ Can the attentional biases on emotional valuation be extended to everyday life situations such as ethnic empathy and prejudice, or sibling jealousyµ Such questions will surely open up rich venues for future research.Figure 1 | Integrative model of prefrontal function (modified from Miller, 2000). Kiss etal."s (2008) proposal could be framed within a general model of prefrontal inhibitory control by which distractor devaluation might result from attention–emotion interactions at various levels within a hierarchy of neural representations. The blue circles denote inhibitory tagging through Nogo pathways encompassing perceptual (s2), motor (r0), and prefrontal cortical units (i.e., anterior cingulate), as well as through lower-order intervening sensorimotor pathways involving subcortical and/or other posterior cortical structures. Here a color face designates the task-relevant pathways for perception (s1) and action selection (r1). Note that distractor and target faces share perceptual features (s3) that can induce interference among competing pathways at higher levels in the hierarchy. The probabilistic activation of Go and Nogo pathways determines the relative recruitment of prefrontal resources (Barceló and Knight, 2007), as well as the intensity of midfrontal negativities and related positive-going brain potentials (Nieuwenhuis et al., 2003). This schematic suggests that efficient response inhibition likely depends on the monitoring of response conflicts, resulting in working memory overload and transient loss of cognitive control induced by the distractors (Barceló et al., 2008).
Citation: Barceló F (2009). The emotional consequences of being distracted Front. Neurosci. (2009) 3, 10: 6–7. doi: 10.3389/neuro.01.010.2009
Received date: 26 February 2009;
Published online: 01 May 2009
Copyright: © 2009 Barceló. This is an open-access publication subject to an exclusive license agreement between the authors and the Frontiers Research Foundation, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited.
*Correspondence: Francisco Barceló, Clinical Neuropsychology Research Group, Universitat de les Illes Balears, Palma de Mallorca, Spain; email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Speaker: Daniel Siegel, MD
Dan looks at the correlations between neural functioning and subjective experience. He asks intriguing questions, such as, “does the brain creates the mind or vice versa?” And “how does awareness correlate with neural firing? He continues weaving brain anatomy with responses, including awareness and attachment, as defined in healthy psychological terms.[Play]
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