Saturday, December 18, 2010

What is optimal functioning? - Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics

Too much of our current health system (physical and mental) is focused simply on the elimination of disease, not on health, and especially not on optimal health. This article looks at some of the ways people can attain optimal health - and just what exactly optimal health entails.

This article point indirectly at an integral approach to optimal health - "environmental opportunities and on an individual’s capacity to significantly master his or her own experiences" - and this also includes genetic factors. Interiors and exteriors, individuals and communities/cultures - all must be aligned for optimal health.

Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Journal of

What is optimal functioning?

01 December 2010 Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics

This study demonstrates that emotional and social self-efficacy beliefs may contribute on strengthening major expressions of positive orientation. The more people draw, from experience, their beliefs to be able to properly handle their emotions and their relations with others, the more they can preserve and enhance a positive evaluation of self, life and the future.

Self-esteem, life satisfaction and dispositional optimism have often been associated with well-being and success across various domains of functioning, such as health, academic achievement and job performance. Genetic studies converge with longitudinal and cross-sectional findings in pointing to positive orientation as a basic predisposition that accounts for an individual’s adjustment and achievement. The realization of a potential, in terms of self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism, depends both on environmental opportunities and on an individual’s capacity to significantly master his or her own experiences. Thus, interventions designed to nurture and strengthen a positive view of oneself, one’s life and the future represent a major challenge for researchers, clinicians and health psychologists. Earlier studies have demonstrated the contribution of emotional and social self-efficacy to positive orientation. However, the contribution of positive orientation to self-efficacy beliefs was not directly assessed. Also, the role of self-efficacy beliefs in fostering change in self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism was not assessed after the stability of positive orientation was controlled. This study used data from ongoing longitudinal research to examine a nonstandard structural equation model. In this nonstandard model, the ‘specific effects’ reflect the contribution of self-efficacy beliefs to what is unique about self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism. In the application of this model, positive orientation at the age of 17 years contributes to self-efficacy beliefs in the domain of affect regulation and interpersonal relations at 19 years of age. In turn, self-efficacy beliefs at the age of 19 years contribute to self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism at 21 years. Positive orientation at 17 years was posited as a basic predisposition affecting emotional and interpersonal self-efficacy beliefs from 17 to 19 years. Emotional and interpersonal self-efficacy beliefs were posited as mediators affecting self-esteem, life satisfaction, and optimism. Stability of positive orientation, the common core component of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and optimism, was controlled for 195 adolescents (47% males) who constituted the final sample. Participants attended the 10th grade at time 1 (age 17 years; 2000), 12th grade at time 2 (age 19 years; 2002), and most attended college at time 3 (age 21 years; 2004). Positive orientation was moderately stable from 17 to 21 years of age. Moreover, positive orientation at 17 years was closely associated with emotional and interpersonal self-efficacy beliefs at 19 years. Self-efficacy beliefs in managing negative affect at 19 years contributed to the specific variance in self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism at age 21 years, which was not explained by the latent factor of positive orientation. Self-efficacy beliefs in expressing positive emotions instead contributed to self-esteem and optimism, whereas social self-efficacy contributed only to life satisfaction. All the mediated effects of positive orientation through self-efficacy beliefs in managing negative emotions were statistically significant with associated coefficients. Likewise, both the mediated effects of positive orientation on self-esteem and optimism through self-efficacy in expressing positive emotions were significant as well as the mediated effect of positive orientation on life satisfaction through social self-efficacy.

These findings corroborate previous results pointing to the contribution that emotional and social self-efficacy beliefs may exert on strengthening major expressions of positive orientation. Yet the more people draw, from experience, their beliefs to be able to properly handle their emotions and their relations with others, the more they can preserve and enhance a positive evaluation of self, life and the future. These findings suggest that even basic predispositions that are largely inherited can be modified, at least in part. To this aim, social cognitive theory provides unique directions to identify strategies suitable to enable people to make choices and to engage in pursuits that serve mostly to promote their sense of mastery and fulfillment.

TEDxSydney - Rachel Botsman: The case for collaborative consumption

Rachel Botsman is the co-author of What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption - a newish book that outlines many ideas familiar to those who have been following the rise of P2P/Commons thinking. I didn't realize she was a former director at the William J. Clinton Foundation - that's cool - I hope she brought some of these ideas to that organization.

About this talk

At TEDxSydney, Rachel Botsman says we're "wired to share" -- and shows how websites like Zipcar and Swaptree are changing the rules of human behavior.

About Rachel Botsman

Rachel Botsman writes and speaks on the power of collaboration and sharing through network technologies, and on how it will transform business, consumerism and the way we live. She is the co-author of the book What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. She is a social innovator who writes, consults, and speaks on the power of collaboration and sharing through network technologies, and on how it will transform business, consumerism and the way we live.

She is the founder of CCLab, an innovation incubator that works with startups, big businesses and local governments to deliver innovative solutions based on the ideas of Collaborative Consumption. She has consulted to Fortune 500 companies and leading nonprofit organizations around the world on brand and innovation strategy, and was a former director at the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Alva Noe - Beyond Brain Reading: Making Sense Of Brain Behavior

Here is more from Alva Noe at his NPR blog at 13.7: Culture and Cosmos. Now concludes that the popular neuroscientific notion that mind is in our neurons alone is "religious in its scope and reach" - yep, and glad to see him state it so clearly.

13.7: Cosmos And Culture

Sometimes we have to work very hard just to realize that we don’t know what we think we know. This is one of philosophy’s first lessons. And it is a bitter one.

The point is relevant to our considerations of the brain basis of consciousness and cognition. We think we know that mental events happen in the brain, and so we seem to find confirmation for this everywhere we look.

We’ve known for centuries that injury to the brain produces psychological effects and in the last century, first using single-cell recording techniques on animals, and later using brand new “imaging” technologies — actually, it’s somewhat misleading to call them this, but that’s a topic for another day — we’ve been able to establish significant and apparently robust correlations between neural phenomena (both neurally localized and global) and psychological ones.

Given the existence of these kinds of robust correspondences between the neural and the mental, it is not surprising or controversial that we can tell what the brain is doing if we know what the mind is doing. For example, if you are seeing, there is activity in your visual cortex. And likewise, in principle at least, if we had methods for gathering neural data in real time — the sorts of methods that John Dylan Haynes and his colleagues have begun to develop with great success — then we ought to be able to tell, on that basis, what a person is thinking, or feeling, or deciding.

Yes. But be careful. At the moment we are very far away from being able to do anything like this. Moreover, there are reasons of principle why this sort of “brain reading” must remain limited. Let me explain these points in turn.

1. Take the lie-detector as an object of comparison. Standard lie detectors measure a change in galvanic skin response (GSR) that is believed to correlate with lying. In order to gain valuable results, the tester needs first to establish baseline GSR. So he or she begins by asking you simple questions — what is your name? etc — for which there is a presumption that you will answer truthfully. Once the tester has figured out what your GSR profile looks when you’re telling the truth, he or she can see whether the hard questions — questions where your veracity is in doubt — bring about any deviation from the baseline.

“Brain reading,” of the sort that we are envisioning thanks to the advances of Haynes and others, is much more complicated, but the basic structure of the task — first establishing baselines, and then making sense of deviations — is the same. But now we are dealing with a problem that is astronomically more complicated. After all, there is in an infinite number of possible objects of thought, and at least a very large number of ways in which one might think about things (are you thinking, worrying, wondering, hoping, expecting, intending, fearing, worshiping, doubting, wanting…?). But thought is itself just one of our very many mental conditions — sensation (feeling), emotion (affect), mood, these are some of the others.

So this means that before we can learn to read off, for example, your mind-states from your brain-states, we need to understand the basic, baseline patterns of regularities characteristic of you. For the reasons just stated, this seems like an enormous, maybe infinite task. What is called for is a model of how you respond to everything. But this is like trying to make a map which shows everything, and so ends up merely reduplicating the reality we were trying to get a grip on in the first place.

Perhaps we will be able to develop rough and ready ways to train up computers to make sense of individual cases, although, for reasons given, I am skeptical. But let us now confront the fact each of us changes over time, so it isn’t even clear that the imagined ability to “decode” your neural states today would allow us reliably to do so tomorrow. And even more daunting: every brain is different. It isn’t at all clear that a Brain Reader trained up on you will work on me. And would a Brain Reader trained up to work on me, also on work on a Siberian shepherd, or a cook in New Delhi, or a young child in Helsinki?

We are a very long way off from knowing how to answer these questions.

2. We see that the practical questions trail off into questions of principle. But the matters of principle ramify. Consider this: When we speak of establishing baselines and “training up the detector,” what we are acknowledging is that neural states and processes only have meaning or significance in context. This is very important. It shows not that absent information about context, we can’t make sense of what the brain is telling us. It shows that in the absence of context, the brain isn’t telling us anything at all. I will explain.

I mentioned “visual cortex” before. But what is this? Visual cortex does not refer to an anatomical structure (a bit of body like the heart or the feet). It refers to a functional (that is, a neurophysiological) structure. Now primary visual function is in fact anatomically realized, in normal humans, in a particular anatomical structure (at the back of the brain, the occipital lobe). But it needn’t be. In development the brain is plastic, as mentioned in earlier discussions on this blog, and it is possible for visual function to migrate to other cortical systems. Crucially, it is a nontrivial matter — in my view, an impossibility — to specify what the functions of vision are without considering the wider behavioral, environmental, social context of the perceiver. Seeing is something people and other animals do. It isn’t something the brain does.

Now granted, if we already know what seeing is, and already have a theory of the way genetic and environmental factors sculpt the brain, then yes, practical limitations aside, we can tell, by looking at what is going on in the brain, whether there is seeing going on. But we could not do this if we really confined ourselves to neural information alone.

But the in-principle limitations on brain-reading run deeper. We make sense of what the brain is doing by looking at its behavior in relation to our lives, and the meanings, facts, situations and interests that define our lives. Remember, the brain is a piece of meat. And its doesn’t come packaged and labelled. We give brain structures and processes labels, and we do so by thinking about ways in which we can link, correlate, and associate what interests us — in the current case, in our thinking, feeling, lives — with the meat. In the absence of this brain-mind two-step, there is no visual cortex, as we’ve seen. There’s just stuff.

The point is a general one. What is a brain state, anyway? The brain doesn’t tell us. Meaning in the brain does not get revealed. Remember, no two brains are alike, just as no two faces or fingerprints are alike. And no one brain stays the same over time. We can talk about brain states and we can make meaningful judgments about whether two brains are alike in respect of this or that feature. But we can do this only when we’ve carefully framed what interests us. The brain itself doesn’t give us the frame! And what interests us is the brain in relation to our lives. It is our lives — our thoughts, feelings, desires, interests, etc — that lends us the vocabulary we need to describe what the the brain is doing (as Daniel Dennett argued twenty-five years ago).

The idea that we could think that the brain is not only part of the story, but the whole story, is, well, it is unfounded. It is religious in its scope and reach. Mental phenomena are not neural phenomena. We have no better reason to think that mental lives happen in our brains than we do that speech happens in our mouths.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Joshua Buckholtz - The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment

This is a very interesting neuroscience study. One of the interesting findings, for me, was that a part of the brain involved in theory of mind (perspective taking) us activated before the analytical networks in assessing responsibility.

This brief quote is also of interest - it comes from the discussion section of the paper.
The present findings suggest that the two fundamental components of third-party legal decision-making—determining responsibility and assigning an appropriate punishment magnitude—are not supported by a single neural system. In particular, the results reveal a key role for the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in third-party punishment. This brain region appears to be involved in deciding whether or not to punish based on an assessment of criminal responsibility.
We appear to distinguish between responsibility or its absence in deciding punishments.

We can never reduce (in my opinion) the complexities of human morality to neurons in the brain, but we can begin to get a sense of the role the brain plays in the process of legal and moral decision making.

On the downside, lawyers will simply use this information, somehow, to better manipulate juries.

Full Reference:
Buckholtz, J., Asplund, C.L., Dux, P.E., Zald, D.H., Gore, J.C., Jones, O.D. & Marois, R. (2008. December). The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment. Neuron, Vol. 60, pp. 940-950. Available at SSRN:

Joshua Buckholtz
Vanderbilt University, Neuroscience Program

Christopher L. Asplund
Vanderbilt University

Paul E. Dux
Vanderbilt University

David H. Zald
Vanderbilt University

John C. Gore
Vanderbilt University

Owen D. Jones
Vanderbilt University - Law School & Department of Biological Sciences

Rene Marois
Vanderbilt University - Department of Psychology

Neuron, Vol. 60, pp. 940-950, December 2008

Abstract: This article reports the discovery, from the first full-scale law and neuroscience experiment, of the brain activity underlying punishment decisions.

We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity of subjects as they read hypothetical scenarios about harm-causing protagonists and then decided whether to punish and, if so, how much.

The key variables were: a) presence or absence of excusing, justifying, or otherwise mitigating factors (such as acting under duress); and b) harm severity (which ranged from a stolen CD to a rape/murder/torture combination).

Findings include:

(1) Analytic and emotional brain circuitries are jointly involved, yet quite separately deployed, during punishment decisions. Specifically:
(a) Analytic circuitry of the brain - centered on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - tracks how responsible a protagonist is for harmful behavior (but does not determine punishment levels across varying harms);

(b) Conversely, activity in brain circuitry important for experiencing emotion - the amygdala, for example - predicts punishment levels across the range of crime severity (but is uncorrelated with responsibility levels).
(2) Increased activity in a component of the so-called Theory of Mind (perspective-taking) network (the temporo-parietal junction) preceded increased activity in the analytic region, during responsibility assessments.

(3) The analytic region deployed in distinguishing between high and low responsibility for harmful behavior in third-party contexts is the same region that is most involved in punishing unfair economic behavior in two-party interactions.
Open access PDF download.

TEDxCopenhagen - Mette Böll - The biology of authenticity

How are moods and feelings transmitted in social interactions? Mette Miriam Böll investigates this from a biological perspective. [NOW with the correct video!]

Lama Surya Das - The Heart-Essence of Buddhist Meditation

This is a nice dharma teaching from Lama Surya Das published in Tricycle a while back (like 2007 or so). There are many ways to meditate that do not require sitting cross-legged on the floor. One's posture is less important than the dedication and intention of one's practice.

The Heart-Essence of Buddhist Meditation

The common roots of various Buddhist meditative practices. Artwork by Mia Muratori

Lama Surya Das

Clinging to one’s school and condemning others

Is the certain way to waste one’s learning.
Since all dharma teachings are good,
Those who cling to sectarianism
Degrade Buddhism and sever
Themselves from liberation.

—Milarepa, The One Hundred Thousand Songs

During my initial private meeting with the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, my first root guru, I asked him about the main points of meditation. He asked what kind of meditation I was doing, and I told him mindfulness of breathing. “What will you concentrate on when you stop breathing?” he asked.

That was a real eye-opener. Suddenly I realized that I might have to broaden the scope of my understanding of Buddhist practice. In time, I came to discover that it included a great deal more than any one meditation technique and also that the many forms of Buddhist meditation shared fundamental elements.

Lama Surya DasThe philosopher Simone Weil characterized prayer as pure undivided attention. Here is where all contemplative practices have a common root, a vital heart that can be developed in an almost infinite variety of skillful directions, depending on purpose and perspective. Different techniques of meditation can be classified according to their focus. Some focus on the field of perception itself, and we call those methods mindfulness; others focus on a specific object, and we call those concentrative practices. There are also techniques that shift back and forth between the field and the object.

Meditation, simply defined, is a way of being aware. It is the happy marriage of doing and being. It lifts the fog of our ordinary lives to reveal what is hidden; it loosens the knot of self-centeredness and opens the heart; it moves us beyond mere concepts to allow for a direct experience of reality. Meditation embodies the way of awakening: both the path and its fruition. From one point of view, it is the means to awakening; from another, it is awakening itself.

Meditation masters teach us how to be precisely present and focused on this one breath, the only breath; this moment, the only moment. In the Dzogchen tradition we refer to a “fourth time,” the transcendent moment of nowness. In Tibetan this is called shicha, a transcendent yet immanent dimension of timeless being that vertically intersects each moment of horizontal linear time—past, present, and future. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are quite naturally present to this moment—where else could we be? Meditation is simply a way of knowing this.

Different Buddhist schools recommend a variety of meditative postures. Some emphasize a still, formal posture, while others are less strict and more focused on internal movements of consciousness. Tibetan traditions, for instance, advise an upright spine, erect but relaxed; hands at rest in the lap, with the belly soft; shoulders relaxed, chin slightly tucked, and the gaze lowered with eyelids half shut; the jaw is slack with the tongue behind the upper teeth; the legs are crossed. A Soto Zen Buddhist saying instructs us to sit with formal body and informal mind. The common essential point is to remain balanced and alert, so as to pierce the veil of samsaric illusion.

Although most Westerners tend to conceive of Eastern forms of meditation as something done cross-legged with eyes closed, in a quiet, unlit place, the Buddha points with equal emphasis to four postures in which to meditate: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. The Satipatthana Sutra says: “When you sit, know that you are sitting; when standing, know you are standing. . . .” This pretty much covers all our activities, allowing us to integrate meditative practice into daily life. Learn to sit like a Buddha, stand like a Buddha, walk like a Buddha. Be a Buddha; this is the main point of Buddhist practice.

While many people today practice meditation for physical and mental health, a deeper approach to practice energizes our inner life and opens the door to realization. In Tibetan, the word for meditation is gom, which literally means “familiarization” or “getting used to,” and in this sense meditation is a means by which we familiarize ourselves with our mind. The common Pali term for meditation is bhavana, meaning “to cultivate, to develop, to bring into being.” So we might then think of meditation as the active cultivation of mind leading to clear awareness, tranquility, and wisdom. This requires conscious effort.

But from another—and at first glance contradictory—perspective, there is nothing to do in meditation but enjoy the view: the magical, mysterious, and lawful unfolding of all that is, all of which is perfect as it is. In other words, we’re perfect as we are, and yet there’s work to be done. In this we find the union of being and doing: we swoop down with the bigger picture in mind—the view of absolute reality—and at the same time we climb the spiritual mountain in keeping with our specific aspirations and inclinations, living out relative truth. “While my view is as high as the sky, my actions regarding cause and effect [karma] are as meticulous as finely ground barley flour,” sang the Lotus Master Padmasambhava, who first brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. By alternating between active cultivation and effortless awareness, we engage in a delicate dance that balances disciplined intention with simply being. By being both directive and allowing, we gradually learn to fearlessly explore the frontiers and depths of doing and being, and come to realize that whatever is taking place, whatever we may feel and experience, is intimately connected with and inseparable from intrinsic awareness.

Read the rest of the article.

Bonnitta Roy - An Integral Manifesto, Part II

A week or so ago, I posted Part I of Bonnitta Roy's Integral Manifesto. Here is Part II, in several sections. I will post the other two parts in the coming week(s). In my opinion, this collection of posts should be must reading for anyone interested in the future of integral theory.

I have been inspired by these articles to go to the source and read Hannah Arendt for myself - I admit that I knew nothing of her work before Bonnitta's posts, so I have some learnin' to do.

Integral Manifesto Pt II(1): Intersubjective Fields

Books Discussed in this Section The IHDP working paper at Hannah Arendt (1958) The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago Introduction Consider again the proposition of this manifesto The fundamental encounter of subject-to-subject in a shared subjective … Continue reading

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Integral Manifesto Pt II(2): Subjects and Surrogates/ The I-Thou

Books Discussed in this Section Martin Buber (2008) I and Thou, Hesperides Press Hannah Arendt (1958) The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago Bonnitta Roy (2006) A Process Model of Integral Theory, from Integral Review Journal, Issue 3 at … Continue reading

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Integral Manifesto Pt II(3): Subjects & Surrogates / Intersubjectivity- A Timely Interjection

Books Discussed in this Section Sean Hargens , Intersubjective Musings: A Response to Christian de Quincey’s “The Promise of Integralism” retrieved from Pauli Pylkko (1998) The Aconceptual Mind. John Benjamins Pub. Co. Philadelphia Bonnitta Roy (2006) A Process … Continue reading

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Integral Manifesto Pt II(4): Subjects & Surrogates / Power, Tolerance and Democracy

Books Discussed in this Section Pauli Pylkko (1998) The Aconceptual Mind. John Benjamins Pub. Co. Philadelphia Such musings concerning micro-scales of intersubjectivity offer a diverse range of hypotheses on the nature of power, tolerance and democracy, and their roles with … Continue reading

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chris Hedges: Every Act of Rebellion Helps Tear Down Our Corrupt System

Yes - It may seem naive, but change starts with me, and you, and that person over there, and his mother, and her friend, and his son, and his men's group, and their wives . . . .

Our future is up to us - we either resist the system as much as we can, embracing compassion and community rather than greed and individualism, or we accept that our lives are not our own.

Hedges: Every Act of Rebellion Helps Tear Down Our Corrupt System

Hope and justice live when people, even in tiny numbers, stand up and fight for them.

I stood with hundreds of thousands of rebellious Czechoslovakians in 1989 on a cold winter night in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as the singer Marta Kubišová approached the balcony of the Melantrich building. Kubišová had been banished from the airwaves in 1968 after the Soviet invasion for her anthem of defiance, “Prayer for Marta.” Her entire catalog, including more than 200 singles, had been confiscated and destroyed by the state. She had disappeared from public view. Her voice that night suddenly flooded the square. Pressing around me were throngs of students, most of whom had not been born when she vanished. They began to sing the words of the anthem. There were tears running down their faces. It was then that I understood the power of rebellion. It was then that I knew that no act of rebellion, however futile it appears in the moment, is wasted. It was then that I knew that the Communist regime was finished.

“The people will once again decide their own fate,” the crowd sang in unison with Kubišová.

I had reported on the fall of East Germany before I arrived in Prague. I would leave Czechoslovakia to cover the bloody overthrow of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. The collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was a lesson about the long, hard road of peaceful defiance that makes profound social change possible. The rebellion in Prague, as in East Germany, was not led by the mandarins in the political class but by marginalized artists, writers, clerics, activists and intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel, whom we met with most nights during the upheavals in Prague in the Magic Lantern Theater. These activists, no matter how bleak things appeared, had kept alive the possibility of justice and freedom. Their stances and protests, which took place over 40 years of Communist rule, turned them into figures of ridicule, or saw the state seek to erase them from national consciousness. They were dismissed by the pundits who controlled the airwaves as cranks, agents of foreign powers, fascists or misguided and irrelevant dreamers.

I spent a day during the Velvet Revolution with several elderly professors who had been expelled from the Romance language department at Charles University for denouncing the Soviet invasion. Their careers, like the careers of thousands of professors, teachers, artists, social workers, government employees and journalists in our own universities during the Communist witch hunts, were destroyed. After the Soviet invasion, the professors had been shipped to a remote part of Bohemia where they were forced to work on a road construction crew. They shoveled tar and graded roadbeds. And as they worked they dedicated each day to one of the languages in which they all were fluent—Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish or German. They argued and fought over their interpretations of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Proust and Cervantes. They remained intellectually and morally alive. Kubišova, who had been the most popular recording star in the country, was by then reduced to working for a factory that assembled toys. The playwright Havel was in and out of jail.

The long, long road of sacrifice, tears and suffering that led to the collapse of these regimes stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They did not try to reform the Communist Party. They did not attempt to work within the system. They did not even know what, if anything, their protests would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives. They did so because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue; indeed they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these poets, playwrights, actors, singers and writers finally triumphed over state and military power. They drew the good to the good. They triumphed because, however cowed and broken the masses around them appeared, their message of defiance did not go unheard. It did not go unseen. The steady drumbeat of rebellion constantly exposed the dead hand of authority and the rot and corruption of the state.

The walls of Prague were covered that chilly winter with posters depicting Jan Palach. Palach, a university student, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square on Jan. 16, 1969, in the middle of the day to protest the crushing of the country’s democracy movement. He died of his burns three days later. The state swiftly attempted to erase his act from national memory. There was no mention of it on state media. A funeral march by university students was broken up by police. Palach’s gravesite, which became a shrine, saw the Communist authorities exhume his body, cremate his remains and ship them to his mother with the provision that his ashes could not be placed in a cemetery. But it did not work. His defiance remained a rallying cry. His sacrifice spurred the students in the winter of 1989 to act. Prague’s Red Army Square, shortly after I left for Bucharest, was renamed Palach Square. Ten thousand people went to the dedication.

We, like those who opposed the long night of communism, no longer have any mechanisms within the formal structures of power that will protect or advance our rights. We too have undergone a coup d’état carried out not by the stone-faced leaders of a monolithic Communist Party but by the corporate state. We too have our designated pariahs, whether Ralph Nader or Noam Chomksy, and huge black holes of state-sponsored historical amnesia to make us ignore the militant movements, rebels and radical ideas that advanced our democracy. We opened up our society to ordinary people not because we deified the wisdom of the Founding Fathers or the sanctity of the Constitution. We opened it up because of communist, socialist and anarchist leaders like Big Bill Haywood and his militant unionists in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

We may feel, in the face of the ruthless corporate destruction of our nation, our culture, and our ecosystem, powerless and weak. But we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored by a media that caters to the needs and profits of corporations, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative. It will, as the rot of the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes. But if we persist we will keep this possibility alive. If we do not, it will die.

All energy directed toward reforming political and state structures is useless. All efforts to push through a “progressive” agenda within the corridors of power are naive. Trust in the reformation of our corporate state reflects a failure to recognize that those who govern, including Barack Obama, are as deaf to public demands and suffering as those in the old Communist regimes. We cannot rely on any systems of power, including the pillars of the liberal establishment—the press, liberal religious institutions, universities, labor, culture and the Democratic Party. They have been weakened to the point of anemia or work directly for the corporations that dominate our existence. We can rely now on only ourselves, on each other.

Go to Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, at 10 a.m. Dec. 16. Join dozens of military veterans, myself, Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern, Dr. Margaret Flowers and many others who will make visible a hope the corporate state does not want you to see, hear or participate in. Don’t be discouraged if it is not a large crowd. Don’t let your friends or colleagues talk you into believing it is useless. Don’t be seduced by the sophisticated public relations campaigns disseminated by the mass media, the state or the Democratic Party. Don’t, if you decide to carry out civil disobedience, be cowed by the police. Hope and justice live when people, even in tiny numbers, stand up and fight for them.

There is in our sorrow—for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful?—finally a balm that leads to wisdom and, if not joy, then a strange, transcendent happiness. To stand in a park on a cold December morning, to defy that which we must defy, to do this with others, brings us solace, and perhaps even peace. We will not find this if we allow ourselves to be disabled. We will not find this alone. As long as a few of us rebel, it will always remain possible to defeat a system of centralized, corporate power that is as criminal and heartless as those I watched tumble into the ash bin of history in Eastern Europe.

~ Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Buddhist Geeks 199: The Buddha’s Enlightenment Solved His Problem (Sharon Salzberg)

Sharon Salzberg is not one of my favorite teachers, but this is an interesting discussion.

Buddhist Geeks, 199: The Buddha’s Enlightenment Solved His Problem

BG 199: The Buddha’s Enlightenment Solved His Problem

14. Dec, 2010 by Sharon Salzberg

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by Insight Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, to talk about her latest book, “Real Happiness” and also about meditation as an emerging part of secular culture. This interview was recorded during a conference at Emory University in which Dalai Lama spoke about secular ethics as the most relevant approach to humanity’s issues. He pointed out that much of the world isn’t interested in religious forms, and so the liberating message of Buddhism can be conveyed in more secular ways. In this discussion Sharon shares her understanding of this trend toward secularization, and also shares some specific ways that she is participating in this broader movement.

Episode Links:


NPR - Neurotheology: This Is Your Brain On Religion (Andrew Newberg)

Hmmm . . . I'm a little dubious about this field. As much as I find it interesting to see what parts of the brain light up when people meditate or pray or experience nondual awareness, in the end they are just pretty pictures. We make a huge mistake when we assume that brain, mind, consciousness, and subjective experience can be conflated into colorful images and brain maps.
The effect of meditation on the brain activity in Tibetan meditators: frontal lobes

... And This Is Your Brain On Buddha: As part of his research, Andrew Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced Tibetan Buddhists before and during meditation. Newberg found an increase of activity in the meditators' frontal lobe, responsible for focusing attention and concentration, during meditation. He found similar results in a similar study of older individuals experiencing memory problems.

For thousands of years, religion has posed some unanswerable questions: Who are we? What's the meaning of life? What does it mean to be religious?

In an effort to address those questions, Dr. Andrew Newberg has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists. He studies the relationship between the brain and religious experience, a field called neurotheology. And he's written a book, Principles of Neurotheology, that tries to lay the groundwork for a new kind of scientific and theological dialogue.

Newberg tells NPR's Neal Conan that neurotheology applies science and the scientific method to spirituality through brain imaging studies.

"[We] evaluate what's happening in people's brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer," Newberg says. He and his team then compare that with the same brains in a state of rest. "This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices."

Newberg's scans have also shown the ways in which religious practices, like meditation, can help shape a brain. Newberg describes one study in which he worked with older individuals who were experiencing memory problems. Newberg took scans of their brains, then taught them a mantra-based type of meditation and asked them to practice that meditation 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, they came back for another scan, and Newberg found some dramatic differences.

"We found some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention," he says.

According to Newberg, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things after eight weeks of meditation. Remarkably, the new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims.

Andrew Newberg
Andrew Newberg

Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.

"They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent," Newberg says. "This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years."

Newberg emphasizes that while neurotheology won't provide definitive findings about things like the existence of a higher power, it will provide a deeper understanding of what it means for a person to be religious.

"For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion," Newberg says. "But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world."

Because of that, Newberg says the success of neurotheology hinges on open-mindedness.

"One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God's really in the room, but the scan itself doesn't really show that," Newberg says. "For neurotheology to really work as a field it needs to be very respectful and open to both perspectives."

Excerpt: 'Principles Of Neurotheology'

Principles of Neurotheology
Principles of Neurotheology
By Andrew B. Newberg
Paperback, 284 pages
List price: $29.95

"Neurotheology" is a unique field of scholarship and investigation that seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology, and more broadly between the mind and religion. As a topic, neurotheology has garnered substantial attention in the academic and lay communities in recent years. Several books have been written addressing the relationship between the brain and religious experience and numerous scholarly articles have been published on the topic. The scientific and religious communities have been very interested in obtaining more information regarding neurotheology, how to approach this topic, and whether science and religion can be integrated in some manner that preserves, and perhaps enhances, both.

If neurotheology is to be considered a viable field going forward, it requires a set of clear principles that can be generally agreed upon and supported by both the theological or religious perspective and the scientific one as well. The overall purpose of this book is to set forth the necessary principles of neurotheology which can be used as a foundation for future neurotheological discourse and scholarship.

It is important to infuse throughout the principles of neurotheology the notion that neurotheology requires an openness to both the scientific as well as the spiritual perspectives. It is also important to preserve the essential elements of both perspectives. The scientific side must progress utilizing adequate definitions, measures, methodology and interpretations of data. The religious side must maintain a subjective sense of spirituality, a phenomenological assessment of the sense of ultimate reality that may or may not include a Divine presence, a notion of the meaning and purpose in life, an adherence to various doctrinal processes, and a careful analysis of religion from the theological perspective.

In short, for neurotheology to be successful, science must be kept rigorous and religion must be kept religious. This book will also have the purpose of facilitating a sharing of ideas and concepts across the boundary between science and religion. Such a dialogue can be considered a constructive approach that informs both perspectives by enriching the understanding of both science and religion.

It is at the neurotheological juncture that the science and religion interaction may be most valuable and help establish a more fundamental link between the spiritual and biological dimensions of the human being. Therefore, neurotheology, which should provide an openness to a number of different perspectives, might also be viewed as a nexus in which those from the religious as well as scientific side can come together to explore deep issues about humanity in a constructive and complementary manner. There, no doubt, will be differing view points that will be raised throughout this process, some of which may be more exclusive of one perspective or the other. However, it should be stressed that for neurotheology to grow as a field, it is imperative that one remains open, at least somewhat, to all of the different perspectives including those that are religious or spiritual, cultural, or scientific.

In addition to the complex interrelationship between science and religion over the years, neurotheological research must draw upon the current state of modern scientific methods and existing theological debates. Science has advanced significantly in the past several decades with regard to the study of the human brain. Neurotheology should be prepared to take full advantage of the advances in fields of science such as functional brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and genetics. On the other hand, neurotheological scholarship should also be prepared to engage the full range of theological issues. That theology continues to evolve and change from the more dogmatic perspectives of the past, through natural theology and systematic theology, neurotheology must acknowledge that there are many fascinating theological issues that face each religious tradition.

When considering the primary reasons for developing neurotheology as a field, we can consider four foundational goals for scholarship in this area. These are:

1. To improve our understanding of the human mind and brain.

2. To improve our understanding of religion and theology.

3. To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of health and well being.

4. To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of religion and spirituality.

These four goals are reciprocal in that they suggest that both religious and scientific pursuits might benefit from neurotheological research. The first two are meant to be both esoteric as well as pragmatic regarding scientific and theological disciplines. The second two goals refer to the importance of providing practical applications of neurotheological findings towards improving human life both individually and globally.

Given the enormity of these tasks to help understand ourselves, our relationship to God or the absolute, and the nature of reality itself, neurotheology appears poised to at least make a substantial attempt at addressing such issues. While other theological, philosophical, and scientific approaches have also tried to tackle these "big" questions, it would seem that neurotheology holds a unique perspective. It is one of the only disciplines that necessarily seeks to integrate science and theology, and if defined broadly, many other relevant fields. And this is perhaps the greatest gift of neurotheology, the ability to foster a rich multidisciplinary dialogue in which we help others get it right so that we can advance the human person and human thought as it relates to our mental, biological, and spiritual selves.

Excerpted from Principles of Neurotheology by Andrew B. Newberg. Copyright 2010 by Andrew B. Newberg. Excerpted by permission of Ashgate.

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Upaya Dharma Podcasts: Charles Eisenstein - The Ascent of Humanity

Dharma and more from Upaya Zen Center. Charles Eisenstein is the author of The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self. Book description:
The Ascent of Humanity is a radical exploration of the history and future of civilization from a unique perspective: the human sense of self. Eisenstein traces all of the converging crises of our age to a common source, which he calls Separation. It is the ideology of the discrete and separate self that has generated these crises; therefore, he argues, nothing less than a "revolution in human beingness" will be sufficient to transform our relationship to each other and the planet. And this revolution is underway already. In all realms of human endeavor, an Age of Reunion is emerging out of the birth-pangs of a planet in crisis. The range and depth of Eisenstein's thesis is breath-taking. Encompassing science, religion, spirituality, technology, economics, medicine, education, and more, he details a vast paradigm shift reflecting a more fundamental shift in the human sense of self. Even in this dark hour, he says, a more beautiful world is possible -- but not through the extension of millennia-old methods of management and control. The convergence of crises is revealing the final bankruptcy of those methods. Soon, he says, we will abandon the Babelian effort to build a tower to Heaven, as we realize that the sky is all around us already. Then, we will turn our efforts to creating a new kind of civilization, a conscious civilization designed for beauty rather than height.
Sounds intriguing. Listen him to talk about it here.

The Ascent of Humanity

Speaker: Charles Eisenstein
Recorded: Wednesday Dec 8, 2010

Charles Eisenstein states that the crises (economic, ecological, political, educational) that we face today arise from stories that he calls the “separate self,” and the “story of people.” He describes these stories and then states that they are coming to an end, that the “new story” is one of connectedness. Charles encourages people to act upon what they know; he shares that miracles are possible when people engage from the story of a “connected self.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rick Hanson - Just 12 Things

From Rick Hanson's newsletter, Just One Thing, some gift ideas - interesting to see Wilber, et al, mentioned: Integral Life Practice.

Just One Thing

This is Just Twelve Things: a dozen books or courses that I really value and think you might like to give as a holiday present - even to yourself.

I'll be sending out a regular Just One Thing column in the next few days. It's on receiving generosity - which warms the heart, keeps the circle of giving going, and flows well with this season.

Twelve times warm wishes to you,


* * *

In alphabetical order:

Awakening Joy - This on-line course from James Baraz (one of my own teachers) is super accessible, nurturing, fun, heart-warming and effective

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom - How to use modern science, informed by ancient contemplative wisdom, to change your own brain for more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more inner peace. (OK, I wrote this one, but would put it on the list even if I hadn't!)

The Comfort Cafe - Jennifer Louden, author of the best-selling The Woman's Comfort Book, offers a rich collection of resources each month to give women a sanctuary, support, tools and tips, and encouragement.

Depression Is Contagious - A senior psychologist, Michael Yapko, shows how relationship issues can cause depression, and vice versa, and what you can do.

Do One Thing Different - The book that landed Bill O'Hanlon on Oprah: down-to-earth solutions for making those little, do-able changes that produce big results over time.

Epiphany - Elise Ballard's lovely, uplifting collection of true accounts of life-changing moments from both public figures (e.g., Maya Angelou, Deepak Chopra, Barry Manilow) and folks you've never heard of, but really should.

Integral Life Practice - From Ken Wilber and Terry Patten, this is a highly readable, comprehensive, and useful summary of methods for improving your health, well-being, relationships, and spiritual life.

The Meditative Gardener - Gorgeous book full of reflections and earthy advice from Cheryl Wilfong about the joys and other rewards of mindfulness in your garden.

Mindful Motherhood - Cassi Vieten's heart-touching book full of deep insights and gentle advice for staying sane during pregnancy and your child's first year.

Raising Happiness - This on-line course - based on Christine Carter's marvelous book of the same name - teaches effective ways, based on solid science and her real-world experience, to raise happy kids while staying happy yourself.

Saltwater Buddha - Jaimal Yogis' stunning, funny, gripping, true story of running away from home as a teenager to learn to surf - and finding waves of both water and personal transformation.

Spirit Rock Meditation Center - Check out the workshops and retreats from this peaceful, welcoming, world-renowned center.