Saturday, January 23, 2010

The "Chocolate Cure" For Emotional Stress

I've been eating a couple of pieces of 73% dark organic chocolate most days for quite a while. This new research suggests that I am getting more than the antioxidant (and tastiness) benefits. I may also being reducing the levels of stress hormones in my body, and that can go a long way toward better health in general, not to mention feeling better emotionally.

The "Chocolate Cure" For Emotional Stress

Main Category: Anxiety / Stress

There may well be another important reason for giving your sweetheart sweets for Valentine's Day besides the traditional romantic one: The "chocolate cure" for emotional stress is now getting new support from a clinical trial published online in ACS' Journal of Proteome Research. It found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed. Everyone's favorite treat also partially corrected other stress-related biochemical imbalances.

Sunil Kochhar and colleagues note growing scientific evidence that antioxidants and other beneficial substances in dark chocolate may reduce risk factors for heart disease and other physical conditions. Studies also suggest that chocolate may ease emotional stress. Until now, however, there was little evidence from research in humans on exactly how chocolate might have those stress-busting effects.

In the study, scientists identified reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate dark chocolate for two weeks. "The study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human volunteers," the scientists say.

Source: American Chemical Society (ACS)

Losing Old Gods, Finding Nature by Bron Taylor

This book looks interesting - from Religion Dispatches. Is this the emergence of a more wide-spread worldcentric religious perspective?

Losing Old Gods, Finding Nature

By Bron Taylor
January 21, 2010

Ten questions for Bron Taylor, whose latest book Dark Green Religion holds that traditional religions are gradually being replaced by more sensory forms of spirituality which promote more sensible, ecologically adaptive behaviors.

10 Questions for Bron Taylor on Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (UC Press, 2009)

What inspired you to write Dark Green Religion? What sparked your interest?

I have long been interested in grassroots social and environmental movements, and whether and to what extent religious perceptions and moral values motivates their participants. When working on an earlier book, Ecological Resistance Movements, I began to see that ideas that found fertile ground within grassroots environmental movements around the world were becoming increasingly influential. As I traveled around the world in the subsequent years, I encountered a fascinating and diverse set of examples that convinced me that something new and critically important was emerging that could decisively reshape the political, environmental, and religious landscape. I called this phenomena Dark Green Religion, and by this I mean religious (or religion-resembling) beliefs and practices that consider nature to be sacred and worthy of reverent care, and non-human organisms to be kin and as having intrinsic value.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Religion and environmental ethics were transformed forever when on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It shattered traditional religious explanations for the fecundity and diversity of the biosphere. Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.

The biggest obstacle to the emergence of these new forms is the failure of the majority of humanity to recognize their absolute dependence on the earth’s living systems and that these ecosystems are declining rapidly almost everywhere. Without such recognition, ecosystems will continue to be rapidly degraded and the most likely outcome will be the collapse of the social systems that depend on these ecosystems. This collapse will involve increasing numbers of environmental refuges, and widespread social strife, as competition increases for scarce land, water, and calories. Under these circumstances, the struggle for survival will become paramount for most human beings, and they will prioritize their own survival and that of their closest relations. Under these conditions, it will be far less likely that there will be further, rapid, biocultural evolution toward kinship ethics, wherein people empathize with one another and the wider community of life, and act accordingly.

It often takes a crisis to dislodge deeply entrenched beliefs and practices (which are precipitating ecological and social collapse) and thereby, to create the soil for new modes of thinking and being. The coming crisis may finally convince people that they are not exceptional in the sense that they are exempt from natural laws, such as, that organisms that exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat experience decreasing fertility, increasing death rates, or both, until they no longer exceed their habitat’s carrying capacity. This realization may reinforce the emerging evolutionary-ecological worldview and the humility that tends to accompany it, and play a role in fostering dark green spiritualities and ethics, and concomitantly, a widespread sustainability revolution.

Anything you had to leave out?

Lots! I originally produced a 190,000-word manuscript because I simply needed to assimilate a host of experiences and data. I knew I would have to dramatically reduce the size before publication. After trimming lots of interesting material, I promised readers that I would supply additional examples and detailed explanatory notes at my Web site, and further illustrate the themes of the book with slide shows, music, video, internet links. I’m also working on a blog to facilitate discussion and debate.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That ‘religion’ necessarily involves beliefs in non-material divine beings. Those who think such beliefs are the essence of religion would think it makes no sense to consider those with evolutionary-ecological worldviews as ‘religious.’ In contrast, I do not think it is particularly important to figure out exactly where the boundaries of what we call ‘religion’ might lie. I do think there is explanatory power in analyzing the religion-resembling aspects of diverse social phenomena, such as many characteristics of contemporary environmentalism, without getting too hung up on which labels for it are most apt.

In a nutshell, and thinking long-term, maybe very long-term, I think that in the future, what we know scientifically, through our senses, will provide the parameters within which most people will find their spiritual understandings (what they consider the ultimate nature of reality to be). These understandings will be the ground for feelings of reverence for the earth, and concomitant action to protect and restore her fecundity and resilience. In my view, without such biocultural evolution, there is no bright future for Homo sapiens on this planet because the planet itself will be biologically impoverished, far from the paradise our species knows we once enjoyed, as related in so many mythic, edenic, narratives.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I work hard on writing accessibly for anyone interested in a topic, and insist on the same from authors in the editorial work I do, including in my Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. So, I am gratified when journalists compliment my writing by saying I do not write like an academic and academics say Dark Green Religion is a great read. This said, I have two main audiences in mind (1) scholars interested in emerging trends in environmental movements and politics who are trying to think critically about the future of religion and the ecosystems upon which we depend, and (2) people who have affinity with the forms of nature spirituality found in the book, who I think will appreciate knowing that they are apart of a powerful, global movement that is much more widespread than they likely have recognized.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I am, first and foremost, trying to illuminate phenomena and trends that few have noticed and fewer still understand in their religious, ethical, and affective complexity. Secondarily, I seek to let people who have affinity with dark green religion know they are like surfers who catch a wave early and far outside; they are cultural creatives who are making a far-reaching difference beyond their own immediate experience. Thirdly, by spotlighting what are, for the most part, salutary cultural developments, I hope to accelerate them. Although it is not my intent to annoy those with conventional religious understandings, few such religionists will welcome the evidence assembled in Dark Green Religion, or my supposition based on this evidence, that eventually their religions are likely to be supplanted by naturalistic forms of nature spirituality.

What alternate title would you give the book?

I love wordplay and double meanings, and thus the title. The ‘dark green’ captures both the sense of rich and deep, an environmental ethics in which all organisms have intrinsic value, as well acknowledges the perilous nature of any holistic ethics (whether religious or not): the needs and rights of individuals might be overridden in the interests of promoting some understanding of the common good. I take a hard look in the book at both the promise and peril of the phenomena under scrutiny.

How do you feel about the cover?

I am delighted with the cover because it integrated a photograph from Frans Lanting, a Dutch photographer and conservationist, whom I discuss in the book. This is but one example from the book wherein I discuss the important role that artists have played in expressing and promoting Dark Green Religion.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Not really, because my own work draws, often in subtle ways, on my favorite books. If had written those, I would not have had time to write my own! I especially value books, like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which ask us to consider not only the way cultures lead to behaviors that transform environments but how environments shape human cultures, religions, and behaviors. Unfortunately, scholars too often remain in their disciplinary silos, and either consider culture or biotic evolution to be the decisive variables shaping our world. I highly value work that recognizes that nature and culture are in reciprocal production and we should attend to these reciprocal influences.

What’s your next book?

I am writing an ethnography focusing on radical environmentalism and thinking about a book on surfing (oceanic not internet), expanding on the chapter on aquatic nature religion in Dark Green Religion.

Video - I, Psychopath

Very interesting film from Documentary Heaven. It's worth noting that psychopath is not an actual diagnosis in the United States, at least not as far as the DSM is concerned:
psychopathy has no precise equivalent[30] in either the DSM-IV-TR, where it is most strongly correlated with the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, or the ICD-10, which has a partly similar condition called dissocial personality disorder.
Here is a brief definition, from Wikipedia:

Psychopathy (pronounced /saɪˈkɒpəθi/[1][2]) is a personality disorder whose hallmark is a lack of empathy. Researcher Robert Hare, whose Hare Psychopathy Checklist is widely used, describes psychopaths as "intraspecies predators[3][4] who use charisma, manipulation, intimidation, sexual intercourse and violence[5][6][7] to control others and to satisfy their own needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse".[8] "What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony."[9]

Psychopaths are glib and superficially charming, and many psychopaths are excellent mimics of normal human emotion;[10] some psychopaths can blend in, undetected, in a variety of surroundings, including corporate environments.[11] There is neither a cure nor any effective treatment for psychopathy; there are no medications or other techniques which can instill empathy, and psychopaths who undergo traditional talk therapy only become more adept at manipulating others.[12] The consensus among researchers is that psychopathy stems from a specific neurological disorder which is biological in origin and present from birth.[10] It is estimated that one percent of the general population are psychopaths.[13][14]
By DSM criteria, anyone who would admit to being a psychopath is likely not. According to our best understanding of personality disorders, the people who suffer from them do not see anything wrong with who they are and how they act - we refer to this as being ego-syntonic (their actions and behaviors feel like who they see themselves to be, not dysfunctional). If they felt that something was wrong with them, it would be considered ego-dystonic (not meshing with their sense of who they are). To get a sense of how they see themselves and the world, think of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

Anyway, here is the film.

I, Psychopath

Posted On: October 13, 2009

Psychopaths… we usually only know them from Hollywood movies. We never expect them to enter our real life. But, the psychopath is closer than you think. Experts believe their number to be as high as one in a hundred. Most of them function incognito in high-powered professions…all the way to the very top.

But… it takes one to truly know one. In this intriguing documentary, Sam Vaknin, a self-proclaimed psychopath, goes in search of a diagnosis. In a scientific first, he allows himself to undergo testing to find out if he was born without a conscience. He knows he’s narcissistic and cannot empathize with others. By his own admission, he’s pompous, grandiose, repulsive and contradictory, ruthless and devoid of scruples, capricious and unfathomable… but he believes, he’s not a bad person. What he is is indifferent…he couldn’t care less. Unless, of course, the topic is himself.

Vaknin and his long-suffering but ever-loyal wife, Lidija, embark on a diagnostic road trip. But, it’s uncharted territory… deep into the mind and life of a psychopath. The 47-year-old convicted corporate criminal has agreed to take part in the pursuit of his own diagnosis… meeting the world’s experts in psychopathy in the hope that science will provide some answers for why he is like he is. These experts put Vaknin (and his wife) through a battery of rigorous psychological tests and neuro-scientific experiments.

Vaknin is shocked at the results. Sam, his wife, the scientists, the film-makers – will they ever be quite the same again?

The Dalai Lama - Making Suffering a Spiritual Practice

The Power of Patience
from a Buddhist Perspective
by the Dalai Lama,
translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Patiently accepting small hardships gives one the opportunity to apply other practices. One could make aspirational prayers and the dedication, "By my experience of this suffering, may I be able to purify my negativities committed in the past." One can also use the opportunity for the practice of tong-len, which is the Mahayana practice of "giving and taking."

...This advice is especially useful when dealing with illnesses. Of course it is important, first of all, to take all the preventative measures so one does not suffer from illnesses, such as adopting the right diet, or whatever it may be. Then when one becomes ill, it is important not to overlook the necessity for taking the appropriate medications and other measures necessary for healing. However, there would be an important difference in how one responded to illness if instead of moaning about the situation, instead of feeling sorry for oneself, instead of being overwhelmed by anxiety and worry, one saved oneself from these unnecessary additional mental pains and suffering by adopting the right attitude. Although it may not succeed in alleviating the real physical pain and suffering, one can think, "May I, by experiencing this pain and suffering, be able to help other people and save others who may have to go through the same experience." One can in this way use that opportunity for a spiritual practice, in other words, practicing tong-len meditation, or "giving and taking." This type of practice, although it might not necessarily lead to a real cure in physical terms, can definitely protect one from unnecessary additional mental suffering and pain. And on top of that, it is also possible that instead of being saddened by the experience one can see it as a kind of privilege. One can see it as an opportunity and in fact be joyful because of this particular experience which has made one's life richer.

--from Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective by the Dalai Lama, translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, published by Snow Lion Publications

Friday, January 22, 2010

NPR Science Friday - Scientists Grow Working Neurons From Stem Cells

I heard this segment on my way home from the gym today - very cool. The potential benefits of this for degenerative brain diseases is huge, if it works the same way in adult humans.

Rewiring the Brain With Stem Cells

January 22, 2010

A single stem cell-derived neuron that has migrated away from the transplantation site in the cortex and grown into a mature neuron. Courtesy, with permission: Weimann et al. The Journal of Neuroscience 2010.

New research finds that in mice, transplanted neurons grown from embryonic stem cells can form proper connections with other brain parts. Writing in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers described an experiment in which they successfully grew neurons from stem cells in Petri dishes, then transplanted those neurons into the brains of young mice. James Weimann, one of the authors of the study, said that the work was a hopeful sign for stem cell based treatments on the horizon. "These stem cell-derived neurons can grow nerve fibers between the brain’s cerebral cortex and the spinal cord, so this study confirms the use of stem cells for therapeutic goals," he said. However, the researchers cautioned that this work was so far only performed in young mice, and it remained to be seen whether the approach would work in older mice or in other animals. We'll talk with Weimann about the project.


James Weimann
Senior Research Scientist
Department of Neurology
Stanford Medical School
Stanford, California

Pema Chödrön - Cutting Ties: The Fruits of Solitude (Shantideva)
This a great article from Pema Chödrön, posted at Tricycle a few days ago (and from an old issue of the magazine). This is an excerpt from her fantastic book, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva.

Cutting Ties: The Fruits of Solitude

Pema Chödrön walks us through Shantideva's prescription for solitude, verse by verse.

By Pema Chödrön

View the print version of this article in PDF format

© Robert BeerThe Great sage Shantideva composed The Way of the Bodhisattva in India over twelve centuries ago, yet it remains remarkably relevant for our times. This classic text gives surprisingly up-to-date instructions for people like you and me to live sanely and openheartedly, even in a very troubled world. It is the essential guidebook for fledging bodhisattvas, those spiritual warriors who long to alleviate suffering, their own and that of others.

Shantideva was born a prince in eighth-century India and, as the eldest son, was destined to inherit the throne. In one account of the story, the night before his coronation, Shantideva had a dream in which Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom) appeared to him and told him to renounce worldly life and seek ultimate truth. Thus Shantideva left home immediately, giving up the throne for the spiritual path, just as the historical Buddha had done.

The prince disappeared into India and began living the life of a renunciate. Eventually he arrived at Nalanda University, which was the largest, most powerful monastery in India at the time, a place of great learning that attracted students from all over the Buddhist world. At Nalanda he was ordained a monk and given the name Shantideva, which translates as “God of Peace.”

Contrary to what his later reputation suggests, Shantideva was not well liked at Nalanda. Apparently he was one of those people who didn't show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three “realizations” were eating, sleeping, and shitting. Finally, in order to teach him a lesson, they invited him to give a talk to the entire university. Only the best students were accorded such an honor. You had to sit on a throne and, of course, have something to say. Since Shantideva was presumed to know nothing, the monks thought he would be shamed and humiliated into leaving the university.

Shantideva got onto the throne and confidently asked the assembled monks if they wanted traditional teachings or something they had never heard before. When they replied that they wanted to hear something new, he proceeded to deliver the entire Bodhicharyavatara, or The Way of the Bodhisattva.

Not only were these teachings very personal, full of useful advice, and relevant to their lives, they were also poetic and fresh. The content itself was not radical. In the very first verses, Shantideva says that everything he's about to teach derives from the lineage of the Buddha. It wasn't his subject matter that was original; it was the direct and very contemporary way he expressed the teachings, and the beauty and power of his words.

Toward the end of his presentation, Shantideva began to teach on emptiness, the unconditioned, inexpressible, dreamlike nature of all experience. As he spoke, the teachings became more and more groundless. There was less and less to hold onto, and the monks' minds opened further and further. At that point, it is said that Shantideva began to float. He levitated upward until the monks could no longer see him and could only hear his voice. Perhaps this just expresses how enraptured his audience felt. What we do know is that after Shantideva's discourse on emptiness, he disappeared. By then his disappearance probably disappointed the monks, but he never returned to Nalanda and remained a wandering yogi for the rest of his life.

The Way of the Bodhisattva is divided into ten chapters, each describing a stage on the path to enlightened living. It is in chapter eight that Shantideva directs the monks to practice meditation, and begins a discussion on the need for solitude:

In solitude, the mind and body
Are not troubled by distraction.
Therefore, leave this worldly life
And totally abandon mental wandering.

In contemplating this section, it is helpful to remember three topics: dunzi, or wasting our lives with useless distractions; shenpa, the experience of being hooked; and heartbreak or nausea with samsara. When Shantideva tells us to leave this worldly life, he's addressing how hooked we become by the things of this world, and how we need to find time to be free of distractions. After a while, nausea with getting hooked becomes like an ache in the heart that never goes away.

Shantideva is not making an ultimate statement about how to live one's life. He's just saying that in order for the mind to become steady, we'll need to remove ourselves from dunzi, at least for short periods of time. Outer solitude is a support for inner solitude. This is his point.

We can't kid ourselves: if we never take a break from our busy lives, it's going to be extremely difficult to tame our minds. This is why it's recommended to take time every day to meditate. Even short periods of sitting silently with ourselves allow the mind to settle down. Longer periods are even better.

Because of loved ones and desire for gain,
Disgust with worldly life does not arise.
These, then, are the first things to renounce.
Such are the reflections of a prudent man.

This verse addresses a common addiction: seeking happiness in outer things, as though a partner, food, or some possession could provide the joy lacking in our lives. Our tendency to be overtaken by these drives is what concerns Shantideva here. It isn't the loved ones and gain, per se, that need to be renounced; it's the unrealistic hopes we place in these things.

Wishful thinking can easily become more compelling than the longing of the bodhi heart.

Penetrative insight joined with calm abiding
Utterly eradicates afflicted states.
Knowing this, first search for calm abiding,
Found by those who joyfully renounce the world.

Calm abiding refers to the mental stablility of shamatha meditation. The penetrative insight of a calm and steady mind is the basis for working with the kleshas [mental afflictions]. To cultivate this stability and wakefulness, we'll need to find time for solitude.

Beings, brief, ephemeral,
Who fiercely cling to what is also passing,
Will catch no glimpse of happiness
For many thousands of their future lives.
And thus their minds will have no joy
And therefore will not rest in equanimity.
But even if they taste it, they are not content—
And as before, the pain of longing stays.

When we beings, brief, ephemeral cling to things that are equally impermanent, it's a setup for dissatisfaction. This isn't a particularly religious statement; we can see that everything is constantly changing, including ourselves.

Since impermanence defies our attempts to hold onto anything, outer pleasures can never bring lasting joy. Even when we manage to get short-term gratification, it doesn't heal our longing for happiness; it only enhances our shenpa. As my teacher Dzigar Kongtrul once said, “Trying to find lasting happiness from relationships or possessions is like drinking salt water to quench your thirst.”

If I long and crave for other
A veil is cast upon the perfect truth.
Wholesome disillusion melts away,
And finally there comes the sting of pain.

My thoughts are all for them...
And by degrees my life is frittered by.
My family and friends all fade and pass, for whom
The Doctrine is destroyed that leads to indestructibility.

Driving the point home again and again is one of Shantideva's teaching methods. These verses say once again that when we long and crave for other beings, a veil is cast upon the perfect truth. In other words, this craving blinds us to the unbiased nature of mind and thus our wholesome disillusion with samsara melts away.

Nausea with doing the same thing over and over is called wholesome disillusion because it motivates us to break our habits. By contrast, ordinary disillusionment is ego-based disgust—I don't like this, I don't want that—that keeps our habits well entrenched. Shantideva says that when seeking security in outer things clouds our perception of the fleeting, uncertain nature of reality, our longing to wake up may well evaporate. Then sooner or later it's too late to wake up, because there comes the sting of pain. In other words, we die.

Even hundreds of years later, we can easily understand when Shantideva says my thoughts are all for them. We're always thinking about others: loved ones, family, and the people we like and dislike. We fritter away whole lifetimes preoccupied with these objects of our craving and disdain. Meanwhile family and friends all fade and pass, leaving us, sadly, with a well-entrenched craving “habit.” Sadder still, we may have lost our passion for liberation in the process.

For if I act like those who are like children,
Sure it is that I shall fall to lower states.
So why keep company with infants
And go with them in ways so far from virtue?

One moment friends,
The next, they're bitter enemies.
Even pleasant things arouse their discontent:
Worldly people—hard it is to please them!

A beneficial world and they resent it,
While all they do is turn me from the good.
And if to what they say I close my ears,
Their anger burns, the cause of lower states.

image credit: Robert Beer

The Buddha often likened sentient beings like us to children or childish beings. We're childish in the way we constantly run after the objects of our desire. Shantideva isn't implying he's gone beyond this childishness. He's saying this is the way we all are, and if we keep going like this, there's no way to weaken our craving.

The time we spend getting hooked into our personal dramas only creates more confusion. One day we childish beings are friends, the next day we're bitter enemies. Even the nice things we do for one another can create trouble. Have you ever tried to comfort someone or give them a word of encouragement, and get hostility in return? If you close your ears, people get angrier still. At a party, for example, if there's some really good gossip circulating but you don't go along with it, people find it very irritating. That's just the way it is, and it never seems to change.

Reading these verses, you might decide that Shantideva's a real curmudgeon. But if you take time to contemplate your experiences in the last twelve months, you'll probably find he's just stating the obvious.

Jealous of superiors, they vie with equals,
Proud to those below, they strut with praise.
Say something untoward, they seethe with rage:
What good was ever had from childish folk?

Keep company with them and what will follow?
Self-aggrandizement and scorn for others,
Talk about the “good things” of samsara—
Every kind of vice is sure to come.

These verses describe how we so often get it wrong. We are jealous of those who are wealthier, more popular, better looking, or have better jobs. We are competitive with our equals. To those “beneath” us, we're scornful and proud.

It would be so simple to turn these biases into the practice of dharma. With our superiors, we could practice sympathetic joy; thus, by awakening our bodhi heart, their station would bring us benefit. Instead of being competitive with equals, we could practice kindness and respect. With those below, we could practice compassion. We only get it wrong out of habit, and by doing so we miss valuable opportunities.

What often happens when we get emotionally entangled with childish folk is that we egg each other on. Building ourselves up, putting others down, regaling in the “good things” of samsara—our wonderful vacation, an excellent bottle of wine—we get further enmeshed in transitory pleasures. At this stage of the path it is very easy to get hooked into each other's dramas, and it is very dangerous.

The support we need to dissolve these old patterns, Shantideva says again, will come from finding time for solitude.

Only ruin can result
From links like these, between yourself and others.
For they will bring no benefit to you,
And you in turn can bring them nothing good.

Therefore flee the company of childish people.
Greet them, when you meet, with smiles
That keep on terms of pleasant courtesy,
While not inviting close familiarity.

Like bees that get their honey from the flowers,
Take only what is consonant with Dharma.
Treat them like first-time acquaintances,
Without encouraging a close relationship.

The way we get hooked by relationships always pulls us down. No one benefits and no good comes of it. Like a bee that gets stuck extracting nectar from flowers, when we overindulge in gossiping, boasting, and slander, it's lethal. We could stay on good terms with each other without getting hooked. Like wise bees, we can get what sustains our good heart without getting hopelessly trapped.

These teachings can be very challenging, and somewhat insulting or disturbing. But truthfully, do we use our current relationships to awaken bodhicitta [the mind of enlightenment]? Most of us have no desire to be malicious or cause harm. We see our practice as a way of involving ourselves with sentient beings, not avoiding them. But as long as we are so easily triggered and seduced, we need solitude to deepen our stability and awareness.

It's like becoming a brain surgeon: if this were truly our aspiration, we'd go to medical school for intensive training, and not try it out at home. Shantideva isn't saying not to have friends or keep company with others. He is giving us advice for becoming less reactive and more wise.

The stability of mind is like a candle flame that at this point is very vulnerable. Solitude is like a glass chimney that keeps it from blowing out in the wind. When the flame is stable we can take the cover off. The wind is no longer a threat; now, in fact, it will make the flame like a bonfire.

The older I get, the more drawn I am to longer periods of retreat, yet I know that spending months in solitude isn't realistic for many people. You could, however, meditate each day and do daylong or weekend retreats whenever possible. If you can take more time, I certainly encourage you to do so. The main point is to make solitude a part of your life. In order to work with difficult outer circumstances, we need to gather our inner strength. If even ten or twenty minutes of meditation each day helps us to do this, let's go for it! Making good use of our limited time—the limited time from birth until death, as well as our limited time each day—is the key to developing inner steadiness and calm.

One of the most inspiring stories I've heard in this regard concerns Dzigar Kongtrul's grandmother. Her life was extremely demanding. But even though she worked hard from early morning until late at night, she became a highly realized person by practicing in the gaps. Whenever she wasn't talking to somebody, she would relax her mind and be present. Whether she was milking cows, washing dishes, or walking from here to there, she used any opportunity to settle her mind. With every pause, she found outer solitude and thus discovered an inner solitude that was unshakable and profound.

“Oh, I am rich, surrounded by attention,
I have so much, and life is wonderful!”
Nourish such complacency and later
After death, your fears will start!

Indeed, O foolish and afflicted mind,
You want, you crave for everything,
This “everything” will grow and turn
To suffering increased a thousandfold.

Verses 17 to 21 address the way we get distracted by good fortune. The great meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [1910—1991] taught that sometimes good circumstances are more difficult to work with than bad ones, because they're so much fun. He called them “positive obstacles.” When someone is angry with us, it might remind us to meditate on patience. When we get sick, our suffering can put us in touch with the pain of others. When things go well, however, our mind easily accepts this. Like oil absorbing into our skin, attachment to favorable circumstances blends smoothly and invisibly into our thoughts and feelings. Without realizing what's happening, we can become infatuated with our achievements, fame, and wealth. It's difficult to extricate ourselves from positive obstacles. If we could have everything we wish for—wealth, a comfortable house, nice clothing—he advises us to view this good fortune as illusory, like a beautiful dream, and not let it seduce us into complacency.

As Shantideva says, O foolish and afflicted mind, you want, you crave for everything, but everything is never enough. As those in advertising well know, the more we get, the more we feel we need.

Since this is so, the wise man does not crave,
For from such craving fear and anguish come.
And fix this firmly in your understanding:
All that may be wished for by nature fades to nothing.
For people may have gained a wealth of riches,
Enjoying reputation, sweet renown.
But who can say where they have gone to now,
With all the baggage of their gold and fame?

All those people throughout history who've gained riches, fame, and good reputations, where are they now? They're gone forever. And in the end, what was all the baggage of their gold and fame? It didn't help them at death and it won't help us.

Worldly delights could, of course, support our awakening. When we are comfortable and at ease, we can devote more time to meditation and benefiting others. Usually, however, they lure us into further busyness and shenpa.

Why should I be pleased when people praise me?
Others there will be who scorn and criticize.
And why despondent when I'm blamed,
Since there'll be others who think well of me?

Shantideva refers here to the “eight worldly concerns”: praise and blame, pleasure and pain, fame and obscurity, gain and loss. He asks why be happy when people praise me, or unhappy when they condemn me, since there'll always be those with other opinions. Nevertheless, these worldly concerns are the very things we constantly strive to get or get away from. The shenpa tug of want and don't want keeps us spinning in samsara.

Just the thought of someone saying something nice about us makes us feel good. If someone treats us in a neutral way, maybe has a deadpan response to our story, just remembering this makes us a little depressed. It's insane to be enslaved by such hopes and fears, but we can all count on it happening.

This is not just personal neurosis; it's another example of our universal dilemma.

So many are the wants and tendencies of beings,
Even Buddha could not please them all—
Of such an evil man as me no need to speak!
Better to give up such worldly thoughts.

People scorn the poor who have no wealth,
They also criticize the rich who have it.
What pleasure can derive from keeping such company
With people such as these, so difficult to please?

Unless they have their way in everything,
These children are bereft of happiness.
And so, shun friendship with the childish,
Thus the Tathagata [the Buddha] has declared.

Here Shantideva wraps up the section on getting hooked by people and good fortune. There is no wisdom in trying to satisfy worldly cravings—our own or anyone else's. The fact that even Buddha could not please them all is sobering. Shantideva advises us once again to not get sucked into the drama.

In woodlands, haunt of stag and bird,
Among the trees where no dissension jars,
It's there I would keep pleasant company!
When might I be off to make my dwelling there?

When shall I depart to make my home
In cave or empty shrine or under spreading tree,
With, in my breast, a free, unfettered heart,
Which never turns to cast a backward glance?

When might I abide in such a place,
A place unclaimed, by nature ownerless,
That's wide and unconfined, a place where I might stay
At liberty without attachment?

When might I be free of fear,
Without the need to hide from anyone,
With just a begging bowl and few belongings,
Dressed in garments coveted by none?

When Shantideva praises solitude, he is not suggesting we run away and hide from all unpleasantness. Even if this were possible, he wouldn't recommend it. One could spend years alone in a cave without really letting go of anything. The question is how best to attain the inner solitude that will bring lasting happiness.

Pema Chödrön, an American nun in the Shambhala tradition, is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan monastery in Nova Scotia. She is the author of several books, including When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You.

From No Time to Lose by Pema Chödrön, 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Shantideva image © Robert Beer

Second Annual Online Consciousness Conference

Some of the contributors have been announced, papers to be posted February 5th.

Program -2010

The Second Annual Online Consciousness Conference is scheduled for February 19th-March 5th 2010. I will make the papers available two weeks before the conference (February 5th) so that people may read them ahead of time.

Special Session on Higher Order Consciousness

  • Sensory Awareness and Perceptual Certainty
  • Commentators:
  • Ned Block, New York University
  • David Rosenthal, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  • David Chalmers, Australian National University/New York university

Invited Colloquium on the State of the Art in Brain Decoding

  • TBA
  • TBA

Contributed Sessions

  • Qualia: The Real Thing?
  • Commentators:
  • Richard Brown, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
  • Amy Kind, Claremont McKenna College
  • Neural Correlates of Temporality: Default Mode Variability and State-Dependent Temporal Awareness
  • Commentators:
  • Geoffrey Lee, University of California, Berkeley
  • Color Consciousness Conceptualism
  • Commentators:
  • Philippe Chuard, Southern Methodist University
  • Jacob Berger & David Pereplyotchik, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  • Charlie Pelling, Birkbeck College, University of London
  • Joseph Neisser, Grinnell College
  • Inner Psychophysics: Correlates, Causes, and the Neurobiology of Consciousness
  • Commentators:
  • Jakob Hohwy, Monash University, Australia
  • The Concept Possession Hypothesis of Self-Consciousness
  • Commentators:
  • James Dow, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  • Kristina Musholt, Berlin School of Mind and Brain
  • Inductive Skepticism and the Methodological Argument
  • Commentators:
  • Jennifer Corns, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  • John Campbell, University of California, Berkeley

Absolutely: Power Corrupts, But it Corrupts Only Those Who Think They Deserve It

Good article from The Economist, but of course it's only a partial truth. How people handle power depends entirely on the various altitudes of their developmental lines (morality, cognition, spirituality, etc.). But then they have qualified it by "those who think they deserve it," which seems pretty obvious.


Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it

Jan 21st 2010
From The Economist print edition


REPORTS of politicians who have extramarital affairs while complaining about the death of family values, or who use public funding for private gain despite condemning government waste, have become so common in recent years that they hardly seem surprising anymore. Anecdotally, at least, the connection between power and hypocrisy looks obvious.

Anecdote is not science, though. And, more subtly, even if anecdote is correct, it does not answer the question of whether power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton’s dictum has it, or whether it merely attracts the corruptible. To investigate this question Joris Lammers at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University, in Illinois, have conducted a series of experiments which attempted to elicit states of powerfulness and powerlessness in the minds of volunteers. Having done so, as they report in Psychological Science, they tested those volunteers’ moral pliability. Lord Acton, they found, was right.

In their first study, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky asked 61 university students to write about a moment in their past when they were in a position of high or low power. Previous research has established that this is an effective way to “prime” people into feeling as if they are currently in such a position. Each group (high power and low power) was then split into two further groups. Half were asked to rate, on a nine-point morality scale (with one being highly immoral and nine being highly moral), how objectionable it would be for other people to over-report travel expenses at work. The other half were asked to participate in a game of dice.

The dice players were told to roll two ten-sided dice (one for “tens” and one for “units”) in the privacy of an isolated cubicle, and report the results to a lab assistant. The number they rolled, which would be a value between one and 100 (two zeros), would determine the number of tickets that they would be given in a small lottery that was run at the end of the study.

In the case of the travel expenses—when the question hung on the behaviour of others—participants in the high-power group reckoned, on average, that over-reporting rated as a 5.8 on the nine-point scale. Low-power participants rated it 7.2. The powerful, in other words, claimed to favour the moral course. In the dice game, however, high-power participants reported, on average, that they had rolled 70 while low-power individuals reported an average 59. Though the low-power people were probably cheating a bit (the expected average score would be 50), the high-power volunteers were undoubtedly cheating—perhaps taking the term “high roller” rather too literally.

Taken together, these results do indeed suggest that power tends to corrupt and to promote a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself. To test the point further, though, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky explicitly contrasted attitudes to self and other people when the morally questionable activity was the same in each case. Having once again primed two groups of participants to be either high-power or low-power, they then asked some members of each group how acceptable it would be for someone else to break the speed limit when late for an appointment and how acceptable it would be for the participant himself to do so. Others were asked similar questions about tax declarations.

Only the little people pay taxes…

In both cases participants used the same one-to-nine scale employed in the first experiment. The results showed that the powerful do, indeed, behave hypocritically. They felt that others speeding because they were late warranted a 6.3 on the scale whereas speeding themselves warranted a 7.6. Low-power individuals, by contrast, saw everyone as equal. They scored themselves as 7.2 and others at 7.3—a statistically insignificant difference. In the case of tax dodging, the results were even more striking. High-power individuals felt that when others broke tax laws this rated as a 6.6 on the morality scale, but that if they did so themselves this rated as a 7.6. In this case low-power individuals were actually easier on others and harsher on themselves, with values of 7.7 and 6.8 respectively.

These results, then, suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it. To investigate this point, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky devised a third set of experiments. These were designed to disentangle the concept of power from that of entitlement. To do this, the researchers changed the way they primed people.

A culture of entitlement

Half of 105 participants were asked to write about a past experience in which they had legitimately been given a role of high or low power. The others were asked to write about an experience of high or low power where they did not feel their power (or lack of it) was legitimate. All of the volunteers were then asked to rate how immoral it would be for someone to take an abandoned bicycle rather than report the bicycle to the police. They were also asked, if they were in real need of a bicycle, how likely they would be to take it themselves and not report it.

The “powerful” who had been primed to believe they were entitled to their power readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy. They assigned a value of 5.1 to others engaging in the theft of the bicycle while rating the action at 6.9 if they were to do it themselves. Among participants in all of the low-power states, morally hypocritical behaviour inverted itself, as it had in the case of tax fraud. “Legitimate” low-power individuals assigned others a score of 5.1 if they stole a bicycle and gave themselves a 4.3. Those primed to feel that their lack of power was illegitimate behaved similarly, assigning values of 4.7 and 4.4 respectively.

However, an intriguing characteristic emerged among participants in high-power states who felt they did not deserve their elevated positions. These people showed a similar tendency to that found in low-power individuals—to be harsh on themselves and less harsh on others—but the effect was considerably more dramatic. They felt that others warranted a lenient 6.0 on the morality scale when stealing a bike but assigned a highly immoral 3.9 if they took it themselves. Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky call this reversal “hypercrisy”.

They argue, therefore, that people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why people misbehave in high office. In its absence, abuses will be less likely. The word “privilege” translates as “private law”. If Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky are right, the sense which some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to them is not just a convenient smoke screen. They genuinely believe it.

What explains hypercrisy is less obvious. It is known, though, from experiments on other species that if those at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy show signs of getting uppity, those at the top react both quickly and aggressively. Hypercrisy might thus be a signal of submissiveness—one that is exaggerated in creatures that feel themselves to be in the wrong place in the hierarchy. By applying reverse privileges to themselves, they hope to escape punishment from the real dominants. Perhaps the lesson, then, is that corruption and hypocrisy are the price that societies pay for being led by alpha males (and, in some cases, alpha females). The alternative, though cleaner, is leadership by wimps.

The Splintered Mind - Supersizing Introspection

Good article from Eric Schwitzgebel, the person behind The Splintered Mind. I am a fan of Andy Clark's writing, and if you aren't familiar with him, you can check out a huge number of his papers, compared to other authors, at his publications page.

In thinking about introspection, Eric went back to Clark's Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, a book I own (after having read some of his essays online) but have not yet read. Apparently, he hadn't read it yet, either, so I don't feel so slow.

Here is some of the beginning of the post:
Clark is one the the leading advocates of the view that cognitive processes extend beyond the boundaries of the brain to include aspects of the body and environment. The boundary of skull and skin is no privileged border, such that human cognition can only take place within it. If mental images of Scrabble letters are part of your cognitive process when thinking about your next play, then so also are the actual physical tiles when you manipulate and use them in an analogous way. When you work to create an environment that helps you remember, your knowledge is partly distributed into that environment. The mind is not just in the skull; it is "supersized".

I've been struggling lately to develop a general account of what introspection is. I characterize my view as "pluralist" -- I think a variety of mechanisms drive what are rightly thought of as introspective judgments. It now suddenly dawns on me that what I'm really doing is "supersizing" introspection. Introspective processes -- what are sometimes thought of as the most "inward" things there are -- often include the body and world, and broader aspects of the mind than is generally supposed.

How do I know what emotion I'm in? Do I turn on the inner emotion-scanner mechanism, which then produces the judgment that I'm (say) envious? How do I know my preferences? My imagery? My sensory experience? Philosophical opinion basically divides into two camps: First (probably the mainstream) are those who advocate "detection-after" accounts, according to which I have the experience (or other mental process in question) and once that completes (and maybe also while it continues) a separate scanning process of some sort detects the presence or absence of that state.
Eric concludes with a statement that I agree with completely, especially after my recent immersion into constructivism and cultural psychology, both of which advocate a kind of extended mind similar to that about which Clark writes:
I think that introspection, like much of cognition according to Clark, is multi-faceted, partly in short connections in the head, partly in broad interactions in the head, and partly spread out into the body and environment.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Method To Objectively Identify PTSD Discovered By Researchers

This is a HUGE breakthrough in the diagnosis and future of post-traumatic stress disorder as a DSM category. There has been a concerted effort by some people (mostly the VA under orders from the Bush Administration) to not diagnose PTSD in soldiers, or to delay treatment and compensation. Concurrently, there has been a lot noise about limiting or eliminating the DSM diagnosis from various members of the revision committees.

This study may go a long way toward refining and making permanent this important diagnostic area.

Method To Objectively Identify PTSD Discovered By Researchers

Article Date: 21 Jan 2010 - 5:00 PST

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis VA Medical Center have identified a biological marker in the brains of those exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A group of 74 United States veterans were involved in the study, which for the first time objectively diagnoses PTSD using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a non-invasive measurement of magnetic fields in the brain. It's something conventional brain scans such as an X-ray, CT, or MRI have failed to do.

The ability to objectively diagnose PTSD is the first step towards helping those afflicted with this severe anxiety disorder. PTSD often stems from war, but also can be a result of exposure to any psychologically traumatic event. The disorder can manifest itself in flashbacks, recurring nightmares, anger, or hypervigilance.

With more than 90 percent accuracy, researchers were able to differentiate PTSD patients from healthy control subjects (250 people with clean mental health) using the MEG. All behavior and cognition in the brain involves networks of nerves continuously interacting - these interactions occur on a millisecond by millisecond basis. The MEG has 248 sensors that record the interactions in the brain on a millisecond by millisecond basis, much faster than current methods of evaluation such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which takes seconds to record.

The measurements recorded by the MEG represent the workings of tens of thousands of brain cells. This recording method allowed researchers to locate unique biomarkers in the brains of patients exhibiting PTSD.

The findings are published January 20 in the Journal of Neural Engineering and led by Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., and Brian Engdahl., Ph.D. - both members of the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and University of Minnesota.

"These findings document robust differences in brain function between the PTSD and control groups that can be used for differential diagnosis and which possess the potential for assessing and monitoring disease progression and effects of therapy," Georgopoulos said.

Besides diagnosing those with PTSD, the researchers also are able to judge the severity of how much they are suffering, which means the MEG may be able to be used to gauge the how badly patients are impacted by other brain disorders.

It is likely that the study will be replicated and administered to a larger group to assure the accuracy of its results.

This work, specifically on detecting post-traumatic stress disorder, follows success in detecting other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis, using MEG, as reported in September 2007.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Source: Nick Hanson
University of Minnesota

Buddhist Geeks - Episode 155: The Dharma of Second Life

Hmmm . . . I have never done the "Second Life" thing, and have never even been tempted to start. For those of you who do, what motivates you? How did you get involved? I'm thinking about a research study that will look at the relationship between "meat" folk and their cyber "alters," so I'm curious why people play these games.

Buddhist Geeks - Episode 155: The Dharma of Second Life

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This week we’re joined by Zen teacher Jiun Foster, who is actively involved in teaching dharma in the virtual world of Second Life. We speak with him about what it’s like being a participant in Second Life, and what the limitations and strengths of Second Life are, compared to other social media technologies.

Finally, we patch in Adam Tebbe, the wizard behind the curtain, to share some details of the organization he helped start, that is responsible for getting so many good dharma teachers onto Second Life.

Related Links:

The Bomb in the Brain - The Effects of Child Abuse

This is an important post from Lost Liberty Cafe on the neurological impact of child abuse. This is still a growing problem in this country, and one that is under-estimated. This comes from Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities: Statistics and Interventions, Child Welfare Information Gateway, Year Published: 2008:

The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) reported an estimated 1,760 child fatalities in 2007. This translates to a rate of 2.35 children per 100,000 children in the general population. NCANDS defines "child fatality" as the death of a child caused by an injury resulting from abuse or neglect, or where abuse or neglect was a contributing factor.

* * *

Many researchers and practitioners believe child fatalities due to abuse and neglect are still underreported. Studies in Nevada and Colorado have estimated that as many as 50 percent to 60 percent of child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect are not recorded as such (Child Fatality Analysis (Clark County), 2005; Crume, DiGuiseppi, Byers, Sirotnak, & Garrett, 2002).
That is only the fatalities. Child Maltreatment 2007 provides state and local numbers on non-fatal abuse and neglect. For example:

During 2007, an estimated 794,000 children were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect. Among the children confirmed as victims by CPS agencies in 2007:

  • Children in the age group of birth to 1 year had the highest rate of victimization at 21.9 per 1,000 children of the same age group in the national population;
  • More than one-half of the child victims were girls (51.5%) and 48.2 percent were boys; and
  • Approximately one-half of all victims were White (46.1%), 21.7 percent were African-American, and 20.8 percent were Hispanic.
These numbers are horrible. And these videos reveal just how horrible it is for the kids who are abused.
The Bomb in the Brain

on Jan.20, 2010, under Videos

by Stefan Molyneux

The effects of child abuse run like an outgrowth of tentacles into nearly every aspect of the personality and health of a human being. Though the empirical data and evidence is quite revealing as to the extent of its lasting effects, the effect it has on ourselves is not truly realized until one is humbled by years of battle in the tireless, toil and labor of intervening work required to heal and change for the better.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Stefan Molyneux is the author of several books including Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, he is also host of the most popular philosophy show on the web, Freedomain Radio, nominated in both the 2007 and 2008 podcast awards.